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‘Society’ in Eighteenth-Century Florence 31/03/2011

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c. 1800 though relating to the late eighteenth century

Society seems to be on an easy and agreeable footing in Florence. Besides the conversaziones which they have here as in other towns of Italy, a number of the nobility meet every day at a house called the Casino. This society is pretty much on the same footing witli the clubs in London. They meet at no particular hour. They play at billiards, cards, and other games, or continue conversing the whole evening. They are served with tea, coffee, lemonade, ices, or what other refreshment they choose. Women as well as men are members of this club.

The opera at Florence is a place where the people of quality pay and receive visits, and converse as freely as at the Casino above mentioned. On the evenings on which there is no opera, it is usual for the genteel company to drive to a public walk immediately without the city, where they remain till it begins to grow duskish.  

The Jews are not held in that degree of odium, or subjected to the same humiliating distinctions here in Florence, as in some other cities in Europe. Some of the richest merchants are of that religion.

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Admiring the Madonna at Palazzo Pitti 06/02/2011

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c. 1800

I happened lately to be at the Palazzo Pitti with a person who is perfectly well acquainted with all the pictures of any merit in Florence. While he explained the peculiar excellencies of Pietro’s manner, a gentleman in company (who, although he docs not pretend to the smallest skill in pictures, would rather remain ignorant for ever, than listen to the lectures of a connoisseur) walked on by himself into the other apartments, while I endeavoured to profit by my instructor’s knowledge. When the other gentleman returned, he said, ‘I know no more of painting than my pointer; but there is a picture in one of the other rooms which I would rather have than all those you seem to admire so much; it is the portrait of a healthy handsome countrywoman, with her child in her arms. I cannot help thinking the colour very natural. The young woman’s countenance is agreeable, and expressive of fondness and the joy of a mother o’er a first born. The child is a robust chubby-checked fellow, such as the son of a peasant should be.’

We followed him into the room, and the picture which pleased him so much was the famous Madonna della Seggiola of Raphael. Our instructor immediately called out, ‘Viva’ and pronounced him a man of genuine taste; because without previous knowledge or instruction, he had fixed his admiration on the finest picture in Florence. But this gentleman, as soon as he understood what the picture was, disclaimed all title to praise; ‘Because’, said he, ‘although when I considered that picture simply as the representation of a blooming country wench hugging her child, I admired the art of the painter, and thought it one of the truest copies of nature I ever saw; yet I confess my admiration is much abated, now that you inform me his intention was to represent the Virgin Mary.’ ‘Why so?’ replied the Cicerone; ‘the Virgin Mary was not of higher rank: she was but a poor woman, living in a little village in Galillee’, ‘No rank in life,’ said the other, ‘could give additional dignity to the person who had been told by an angel from Heaven, that she had found favour with God; that her son should be called the Son of the Highest, and who herself was conscious of all the miraculous circumstances surrounding his conception and birth. In the countenance of such a woman, besides comeliness, and the usual affection of a mother, I looked for the most lively expressions of admiration, gratitude, virgin modesty, and divine love. And when I am told, the picture is by the greatest painter that ever lived, I am disappointed in perceiving no traces of that kind in it.’

What justice there is in this gentleman’s remarks, I leave it to better judges than I pretend to be, to determine.

Florence: Bridges and Palazzo Pitti 05/02/2011

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c. 1800 based on late eighteenth-century visits.

Florence is unquestionably a very beautiful city. Independent of the churches and palaces, some of which are very magnificent, the architecture of the houses in general is in a good taste, the streets are remarkably clean, and paved with large broad stones, chiselled so as to prevent the horses from sliding.

This city is divided into two unequal parts by the river Arno, over which there are no less than four bridges in sight of each other. That called the Ponte Della Trinita is uncommonly elegant: it is built entirely of white marble, and ornamented with four beautiful statues, representing the four seasons. The quays, the buildings on each side, and the bridges, render that part of Florence through which the river runs, by far the finest.

The number of inhabitants in Florence is calculated by some at eighty thousand. The streets, squares, and fronts of the palaces are adorned with a great number of statues; some of whom by the best modern masters, Michael Angelo, Bandinelli, Donatello, Giovanni di Bologna, Benvenulo [sic], Cellini and others. A taste for the arts must be kept alive, independent almost of any other encouragement, in a city where so many specimens are continually before the eyes of the inhabitants.

Florence has been equally distinguished by a spirit for commerce and for the fine arts – two things which are not always united. Some of the Florentine merchants formerly were men of vast wealth, and lived in a most magnificent manner. One of them, about the middle of the fifteenth century, built that noble fabric, which, from the name of its founder, is still called the Palazzo Pitti. The man was ruined by the prodigious expence of this building, which was immediately purchased by the Medici family, and has continued ever since to be the residence of the sovereigns. The gardens belonging to this palace are on the declivity of an eminence. On the summit there is a kind of fort, called Belvedere. From this you have a complete view of Florence, and the beauteous vale of Arno, in the middle of which it stands. The prospect is bounded on every side by an ampitheatre of fertile hills, adorned with country houses and gardens.