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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.

Florence’s Unimportance to the Tourist c 1810 25/03/2011

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This text dates to c. 1810 and gives a nice summary of an English visit to Italy in the generation before Victoria. Note (i) the obsession with antiquity over the renaissance, (ii) references to Napoleon’s recent rampages and (iii) the relative unimportance of Florence. Later in the book the author gives a chapter each to Rome, Naples and Venice.

I would leave England the end of April, and devote the month of May to Paris, where I should suppose that time, if well and assiduously employed, would amply satisfy the curiosity. From Paris I would proceed through Lyons to Geneva, or rather to Secheron, where there is an excellent hotel on the banks of the lake, and where every necessary assistance could be procured to facilitate a tour through the different Cantons of Switzerland, The months of June, July, and August might be pleasantly spent in exploring the picturesque scenery of Helvetia, and the rude Alps might be traversed during the early part of the month of September. Since the late system of spoliation has taken place in Italy, the connoisseur in painting arid sculpture will find but little to detain him, I fear, in many of those cities, where weeks were scarcely sufficient to satisfy his ardent curiosity.

A few days, therefore, may be deemed sufficient, both at Turin and at Milan: but the artist, as well as the lover of picturesque scenery, should, by all means, avail himself of this fine season of the year, when every vineyard smiles, and every villa teems with hospitality, to make an excursion into the Val d’Aoste, and visit the Lago Maggiore, Lago Lugarno, and Lago di Como. By the end of September, or beginning of October, the tourist may continue his southern progress, passing through the cities of Piacenza, Parma, and Modena to Bologna. At each of these places there were objects to attract the traveller’s attention, and to cause some trifling delay in his journey , but I fear they have all suffered in some degree from the system of universal plunder. Parma, however, probably still possesses some of the fresco works of Carreggio uninjured. As to Bologna, once so rich in the productions of the Roman and Bolognese schools, I dread to hear the result of the visits made to it by the Scrutatores, or Commissioners, of the Corsican Verres. Some works, however, I hope still remain, not only to testify the existence of a Guido, a Domenichino, a Guercino, and the Caracci, but even to proclaim their excellence to future ages. Florence will still probably detain the traveller for some days, even though its Tribune is no longer graced with the Venus de Medicis, or its Gallery ennobled by the family of the unfortunate Niobe.

If the season continues propitious, I should strongly recommend the road from Florence to Rome, by way of Perugia, in preference to that by Siena, though the latter is the one most generally frequented. The former abounds with interest; and at every stage presents objects either of natural beauty, or classical antiquity, that cannot fail to diminish the tedium of a long journey. Both to the Artist and the Scholar this tract of country will prove highly attractive.

At Arezzo, he will find some trifling remains of the ancient Arretium, and will call to mind the many celebrated characters to which this city once gave birth. At Cortona, should his inclinations lead him to investigate the very ancient mode of Etruscan building, he will make a slight deviation from the great road to examine the walls of the ancient Crotona, and a most singular stone building in its neighbourhood, called La Grotta di Pittagora. In his way to Perugia he will pass by the lake of Thrasymene, celebrated for the signal defeat of the Roman army under the Consul Flaminius, by the Carthaginian general, Hannibal: and if a scholar, he will not rest satisfied until he has refreshed his memory with the detail of this battle, as related by the historians Livy and Polybius.

At Perugia he will see many works of its native painter, Pietro Perugino, and some of the early essays of his scholar, the divine Raphael. At Foligno he would have been able to have seen the wonderful progress made towards perfection, by the scholar of Pietro, in one of his finest performances. Passing by Spello, he will notice the remains of an amphitheatre, and pay a tribute to the birth place of the poet Propertius.

Alle Vene, he will see a beautiful little chapel, erected probably on the site of a more ancient temple, dedicated to the god of the river, Clitumnus; and he may perhaps, like the Romans of old, lave his weary limbs in its sacred and pellucid streams. At Spoleto, his recollection will again be pointed to the Carthaginian Hannibal, and his tribute of applause given to the citizens who repulsed the exulting victor at Thrasymene from their gates.

But on arriving near the city of Terni, how will his impatience increase, and with what anxiety will he await the approach of that day which will lead him to the precipitous brink of the foaming Velino! with what rapture and with what awe will he view this stupendous cataract, this enfer d’eau, as it has been called by some French tourist. The sea-green Nera will follow him to Narni, where the ruins of a most stately bridge will point out to him the magnificence of an Augustus, and the perfected state of the arts at the period in which he lived. Leaving Narni, and the delightful province of Umbria, and with them the most picturesque country he has perhaps yet seen in this part of Italy, he will look forward with anxiety to the conclusion of his journey, and to his safe arrival within the walls of Rome. Adjoining to Otricoli, he may trace the vestiges of the ancient Ocriculum; and at the romantic town of Civita Castellana, he may recollect the spirited resistance which the Falisci made to Camillus, and the anecdote of the Schoolmaster so well and minutely recorded by Livy. But on the first glimpse of the proud dome of the Vatican, and the streams of the Tiber meandering through the vale, how will his heart throb with impatience! how anxiously will he await that moment when the gates of the Imperial City shall be opened to receive him!

Ode to the West Wind 22/02/2011

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Published in 1820 Shelley certainly wrote this poem at the Cascine park in Florence in 1819, allegedly at the Fountain of Narcissus there.


O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave, until

Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill

Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)

With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,

Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,

Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread

On the blue surface of thine aëry surge,

Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge

Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,

The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night

Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,

Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere

Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams

The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,

Lull’d by the coil of his crystàlline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,

And saw in sleep old palaces and towers

Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers

So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou

For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below

The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear

The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,

And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;

A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free

Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even

I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,

As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed

Scarce seem’d a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d

One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Itineraries from and to Florence 20/02/2011

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c. 1800. Travel by horseback


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.