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Alma Mater by Amy Levy 13/09/2011

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‘Alma Mater’ appeared in A London Plane-Tree And Other Verse in 1889 the year of her suicide. Her Alma Mater is Cambridge where she studied at Newnham College.

Today in Florence all the air

Is soft with spring, with sunlight fair;

In the tall street gay folks are met;

Duomo and Tower gleam overhead,

Like jewels in the city set,

Fair-hued and many-faceted.

Against the old grey stones are piled

February violets, pale and sweet,

Whose scent of earth in woodland wild

Is wafted up and down the street.

The city’s heart is glad; my own

Sits lightly on its bosom’s throne.

Why is it that I see to-day,

Imaged as clear as in a dream,

A little city far away,

A churlish sky, a sluggish stream,

Tall clustering trees and gardens fair,

Dark birds that circle in the air,

Grey towers and fanes; on either hand,

Stretches of wind-swept meadow-land?

Oh, who can sound the human breast?

And this strange truth must be confessed;

That city do I love the best

Wherein my heart was heaviest.

Reminiscence by Amy Lee 09/08/2011

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‘Reminiscence’ appeared in A London Plane-Tree And Other Verse in 1889 the year of her suicide

It is so long gone by, and yet

How clearly now I see it all!

The glimmer of your cigarette,

The little chamber, narrow and tall.

Perseus; your picture in its frame;

(How near they seem and yet how far!)

The blaze of kindled logs; the flame

Of tulips in a mighty jar.

Florence and spring-time: surely each

Glad things unto the spirit saith.

Why did you lead me in your speech

To these dark mysteries of death ?

Giostra at Riobuio 20/07/2011

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1890

For some days we have been asked by our mountain neighbours, ‘Are you going to the Giostra at Riobujo?’ and we are much puzzled what these jousts can be. The name is suggestive of the Middle Ages, but as giostre in Italy have never been known since the Medici revival of them in the fifteenth century, when both Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici won laurels at a tournament, and their respective poets laureate, Politian and Luca Pulci, sang their praises, the mystery remains obscure, and we must go to Riobujo to solve it.

This village with the grandiose name ‘dark river’, is a cluster of peasants’ houses near the top of a pass over the Tuscan Apennines; the dark river resolves itself into a mountain stream running deep in a wooded gorge near. If there are any remnants of the past lingering on in attenuated old age anywhere, we may be sure to find them up in the remote mountain regions; therefore, full of curiosity to see what semblance the Giostre at Riobujo bear to the chivalresque jousts, we start in a calesse, on the day of the festa, for a long drive up the pass.

The calesse is a vehicle on two wheels, with a rope net instead of a foot-board, and a wooden seat slung across on leather straps. The shafts which are merely the cart frame continued, without hinges are fastened up high to a kind of Spanish mule-saddle above the horse’s back. The capacity of a calesse for jolting may be imagined from this – it can never be described.

As we toil slowly up the ascent, winding round clefts and projections in the wooded hills, and skirting fresh valleys, we overtake several walking parties, whole families of peasants in festal dress: young men in groups of six or seven, and young women in gay kerchiefs and coral necklaces, fluttering their fans as they stroll. Now and then a group disappears from sight, plunging under the flickering shadows of the chestnut trees to take a short cut, and comes out far before us at a higher turn in the zigzag road.

We all meet together at length at Riobujo, where a great crowd is assembled. It begins to dawn on us that the Giostra is not a fight, but a drama, for in front of a row of two or three houses a rough platform is erected level with the first-floor windows. This primitive stage (which is very similar to one I have seen represented in an old engraving of an Anglo-Saxon play) is adorned at the two corners with evergreens and flags on the supporting pole, and draped along the whole length of the back with quilts! They must have made a general collection of the counterpanes of the village; there are white ones with fringe, brown home-woven quilts, and ancient green and yellow ones hung on a line as if to dry. More quilts are suspended from the stage to the ground, making a screen to the prompter who stands on a table below the stage, his head and shoulders appearing above it covered with a cowl, made of a clever conjunction of willow sticks with an old yellow shawl.

The gallery of this primitive al fresco theatre is naturally formed by stone steps and a sloping ground rising to the level of the road in front of the houses. A clean-swept aia or threshingfloor has been roofed with evergreens stretched on poles, and forms the reserved boxes to which we are with great ceremony shown. We make use of our waiting time to gain some information respecting giostre, and learn that one or the other of the neighbouring villages holds one nearly every year, giving three representations on three following feste.

The actors are all natives of the place except two from Cutigliano. The old peasant had no idea why they were called Giostre, unless because there was generally some fighting in them. ‘Ah!’ said a young man, ‘if you could have seen ours at Piteglio last year! We had the Emperor Constantine fighting forRomewith Maxentius, when he saw the cross in the air. There were the Turks in it, all as natural as life.’ What the Turks had to do withConstantineand Maxentius is a matter of conjecture, but it seems necessary for the Italians to connect the Turks with any ancient war, their idea of history being evidently bounded at its remotest era by the Crusades. There might be also a special connection of Turks with the Giostre on account of the Giostra al Saracino spoken of above, and that in its turn would seem a natural outgrowth from the Crusades.

We hear that Semiramide is to be represented, and are morally sure that the Turks will be inNineveh. Attention! The orchestra enters. Two youths embracing antique, stringed instruments pass through the audience, disappear beneath the quilts under the platform, reappear between those above, and, taking seats at the back of the stage, wipe their faces previous to performance. One has frizzy hair which compels his hat to stay curiously poised on the back of his head; he has very prominent eyes, and an expression which would be melancholy if it were not vacant. They begin a curious jig movement with a turn-turn accompaniment, by way of overture; the frizzy youth sawing away at his ‘viol-da-gamba’ like a butcher sawing a bone.

The violinist tucks a handkerchief under his chin, ostensibly to save a bright red necktie from friction, and, turning up his eyes, plays his instrument with as much energy as is compatible with the simultaneous consolation of a cigar. A sound or drums and trumpets in the distance! A shout of  ‘Eccoli!’, a rustle among the crowd; all the women who were nursing their babies comfortably on the steps are disturbed, and fourteen or sixteen performers march through the audience gleaming in coloured satin and tinsel. They disappear behind the screen, and the audience settles down in breathless expectation.

Of course there is a prologue, for is it not the ancient Roman custom? This is carried out quite in the classical way, as Terence says it should be. The prologue expounds the plot, and is spoken by a youth who is not an actor. A kind of herald enters solo; he is dressed in rose-coloured plush, slashed with green, a yellow sash and a turban of feathers, in the American Indian style. In one hand he holds a bouquet, and in the other a lady’s embroidered pocket-handkerchief!

He gives out the plot of the coming play, telling the audience in couplets, set to a curious pentatonic chant, what they shall see, each line ending with a long croon. It seems a tone come up from the remote past, and quite carries out Carl Engel’s theory of the ancient scale being pentatonic, i.e., five notes, leaving out our fourth and seventh, which gives a curious minor cadence. There are just these five minor notes, and no variation is made on them the whole time. This is the way in which the prologue is spoken. The herald, standing at the left end of the stage, croons out a couplet with an agonized expression of countenance; then the violins play a few strains while he walks the whole length of the stage smelling his flowers; he gives another distressed couplet at the extreme right, again retraces his steps, still smelling his flowers, and repeats the operation so long that it is a relief when the clown comes in and abuses him for disturbing his slumbers.

Now the drama begins in right earnest, for Ninus enters, preceded by his sword-bearer and followed by his soldiers, who according to our prophecy are Turks, for they wear the crescent! We might fancy the half-moons an emblem of Astarte or her Ninevite predecessor, were they not the adornment of turbans, and accompanied by Turkish jackets and trousers. As for Ninus, he has a red velvet cloak richly trimmed with silver tinsel, and a crown of towers (like that of ‘Italia’ on the national paper money) mounted on the top of a pink tarlatan turban.

There is a general darkness and veiny roughness about the hands of the performers, and a certain villainous expression in their features, which gaudy costumes have a knack of bringing out on honest working faces. The seams worn on a countenance by hard labour, take the appearance of sinister wrinkles when set in an incongruous costume. As there are no drop scenes the action is continuous; one set of actors disappears and the other appears between the curtains the whole time.

There is of course a rival king at war with Ninus, and the good arrangement is made that one comes forth always on the right, the other on the left, so that the audience is not confused as to which side they are listening. It certainly is a little surprising that having discovered Turks in the army of Ninus, we should also behold them in that of his rival but there they are! That glorious army is composed of two Turks and two nondescripts, who have the hats of jockeys, the frilled trousers of débardeuses at a Florentine ‘Veglione’, and some wonderful embroidered jackets suitable to the Giaour or the Corsair.

A great many scenes are taken up by the missions of ambassadors to the rival courts, each of which appears in its turn till war is declared, and the young general Almiro protests he is ready for death in the service of Ninus. In ancient history Almiro figures as Onnes.

Place aux Dames! Enter Semiramide with the general. Her costume is curiously modern; she wears a red silk skirt and Roman stays of black velvet, a silver chain large enough to adorn the Lord Mayor, while on her head is a common black straw hat with a bunch of blue and yellow flowers in it, and a black lace fall projecting from its wide brim. Till now the whole drama has been solemnly chanted to the same five weird notes with a croon at the end of each line. The feminine method of declaiming is different; she sings the same chant in a shriller key, with a shake, a quaver, or a turn ad lib. on each note!

We wonder whether the ancient Roman plays were sung to a pentatonic chant. It is known that those of the early Italian poets were recited in tone; the Semiramide of Metastasio was intended to be sung in this way. It might be a remnant of the old Saturnian canto which Micali… describes as a species of irregular iambic, without any other laws except a certain sonorous rhythm adapted to singing. The Canto Fescennino, or Fescennian song, was alternate, and still survives in the mountains in the alternate singing of the stornelli amongst the contadini. Whatever its origin, it is possible that in this rude chanting recitation we have the prototype of the Italian opera.

It is soon evident that we are not listening either to Metastasio’s mild poetical version of Semiramis, or to Rossini’s grand but wicked plot; nor yet exactly to the orthodox story given by mythologists, although it approaches nearer to this than any.

The contadini’s Semiramide is a different person altogether. She might be masculine, even cruel, but they maintain her conjugal virtue. She has a husband, and is faithful to him to the last! That husband is the young general Almiro, whose destiny she laments, and begs to be allowed to share, by going with him to the war. This affecting scene is regulated by the same etiquette which marked that of the herald; two couplets are spoken on the left, then the pair follow each other to the right of the stage, there to chant the next verse.

Then ensue several more political intrigues. The general gives orders of war to two officers; a spy hears all that passes, and informs his king, who appears to make counter-schemes on the right. The dulness of these war tactics is enlivened by the clown, who comes and volunteers his services with a sieve in his hand, saying, ‘lo per cento vaglio solo’. A comic pantomime of sifting grain gives point to this joke, the word vaglio meaning both ‘sift’, and ‘to be worth’.

‘Now we shall see the Giostra’, says the audience, and truly in the next scene fighting begins. Two armies of five men in each draw up in front of each other, the muffled drums beat, the two generals challenge in chanted couplets, of which we can only hear on one side the words, ‘dolce invito’ (‘sweet invitation’), and on the other something about ‘hopes of cutting you in pieces’ which sound rather contradictory.

The insulted king advances, still chanting his defiance in the same weird tones; the other replies in perfect rhythm. It reminds one of Homer’s heroes, who always speak good poetry when they attack their enemies. Thus singing they advance, cross swords three times, retire, and thrust at the air; this goes on over and over again, the time crescendo, till Semiramide, in a cuirass and helmet, rushes in, like Minerva on Achilles, and, pulling away her husband from the ranks, takes his place, with such effect that the enemy gives way, and the rival king humbly hands over his crown and sword to her; on which her husband, who had stood calmly in the background, comes forward to upbraid her with taking his place which shows a very manly ingratitude on his part.

In the next scene Almiro brings his captives to the king Ninus, who makes the rival king his tributary, and restores him his crown and sword. Almiro recounts his own ‘coraggio ed arte’, and his wife’s good fortune; on which Ninus makes a very original proposal to take Almiro’s wife for queen, and give him his daughter instead. The daughter stands by the throne, a tall girl in yellow and blue satin, and crown of red feathers, and does not seem at all horrified at this proposition. Great excitement ensues. Almiro cries, ‘Take my life, but not my wife’; the girl begins, ‘Padre amato’, but is told by Ninus to be silent. Almiro proving obdurate, his arms are taken, and he is banished. Several scenes are occupied by embassies to Semiramide, who refuses all overtures, and goes to seek her husband. The king flings away his royal mantle and crown, and follows her. It would take too much were we to follow all the scenes of this prolix drama. Suffice it to say, Almiro dies, or seems to die, and Semiramide weeps over him by applying her handkerchief to the outside of the lace veil. After which she abuses Ninus, telling him ‘he is more cruel than Nero’, a curiously prophetic saying from a Ninevite queen. Next she marries Ninus to gain from him the promise of a day’s supreme power, which, as soon as she has adjusted the crown on the top of her hat, she uses by ordering the guards to put Ninus to death. He falls in the midst of a torrent of entreaties, on being pointed at by two long swords. The daughter swoons, and is drawn out of sight behind the curtain, and the king awaits his burial alone.

Till now the drama, though to us comic from its incongruities, has not been at all a burlesque. This scene, however, is decidedly meant to be comic, whether it be from the Italian inherent dislike of solemnity and pain I do not know, but the effort was certainly made to take away the horror of death by making it a farce. The clown, in a blue cowl, and bearing the Italian flag instead of a black one, comes in, followed by four men in white cowls. These place Ninus on the bier, where his arms stand out on each side stiff and stark. The requiem is sung in the usual chant, the words only being original: ‘Tibi, Tibi, tavi! sei morto, perche non hai piu fiato’ (‘You are dead because you have no breath in you’).

The processions consist in turning the bier round and round till they are all giddy, and the audience bursts into a chorus of laughter. It is a curious fact that in ancientRomethe buffoon (mimic) was always a personage in the funeral processions of great persons, so perhaps this is not meant for burlesque after all. After a few more minor scenes, the daughter appears, fainting in her chair, from beneath the quilts, just as she made her exit. Waking up, she begins to abuse Semiramide; after which she makes a passionless and business-like effort to kill herself with a dagger, but the ambassador, who has been too busy with the affairs of the state all the time to do more than look at her, now rushes forward, pulls the dagger out of her hand, and gives her the pleasant alternative of marrying him instead of espousing death, which she, smiling serenely, with her arms akimbo, accepts forthwith.

This scene might have been too touching had not the clown saved the sensibilities of the audience by exclaiming, ‘L’avevo fattamia’ (‘I wanted her myself’), and, tumbling down, rolls out like a ready-made mummy. The queen ultimately finds her spouse, and, in token of welcome, gives vent to her feelings in countless shakes on her five minor tones. He tells his adventures, and she relates hers; after which she arranges the crown on his head, and places him on the vacant throne, to the detriment of Ninus’s royal mantle. The crown is some trouble to him, till he goes behind the scenes to have it adjusted with twine. The old enemy crops up again: the tributary king refuses to pay tribute, and war is again declared. Almiro goes forth with his crown on the top of his helmet, and Semiramide dons her armour. The challenge is given in pentatonic numbers, the Italian flag waves in the hands of the Ninevites’ standard-bearer, and the rhythmic battle is carried on in the same methodical manner as the last, and with the same effect. The tributary king hands his crown to Semiramide, who returns it; all his men give up their swords, and receive them again, on which they all shake hands, and the drama is over.

The clown executes a pas seul. The herald appears with bouquet and handkerchief, and speaks the epilogue, in the same manner as the prologue, only with this difference, that now he tells them what they have seen, and then he informed them what they would see. He moralizes, shaking his agonized countenance and drawling out his verses, till the clown makes an end of it by proposing a dance, and the whole dramatis personae are soon threading the mazes of the ‘Trescone’, a national Tuscan dance, in which the clown does wonders of agility, and the king’s crown has to be dispensed with, the dance consisting in much winding of the arms above the head.

So that is what the chivalresque name of Giostra is given to in these degenerate times in sunnyItaly! Yet, through all its crudities and absurdities, there is a strong reminiscent interest. One seems taken back a few hundred years in the world; the wooden stage is not only like the scaffolding at Blackfriars, round which an open-mouthed crowd listened to the ‘Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Hamlet’ in the days of Shakspeare, but is like the wooden platform which was used inRomeandEtruriabefore the great theatres, whose ruins we know so well, were built. On such a platform the plays of the Tuscan tragedian Voltumnio, mentioned by Varro, might have been acted on these very Tuscan hills. On such a stage the more ancient Atellan plays might have been performed when first introduced by the Oscans. Micali speaks of the Atellan plays as being burlesque farces, where the manners and customs are exposed with that characteristic naturalness which pleases the people. The favourite comic characters were Macco and Bucco (Maccius and Buccius), the prototypes of the modern Pulcinello and Arlecchino. There is a scenic representation of these characters acting in company with a serious performer on the walls ofPompeii. It would be interesting to know if these classic comicalities have anything to do with the buffoon who takes the tragedy out of every scene of the Giostra of Semiramide.

Taj Mahal and Florence 04/07/2011

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c. 1890

There is a very interesting episode in the history of inlaid work in precious stones which is, I believe, not generally known. It refers to the supposed Florentine origin of the Indian decoration of temples and palaces at Agra and Delhi in this style. Sig. Zobi author of ‘Notizie Storiche sui lavori di commesso in Pietre dure’, is the discoverer of this link. Hearing a description of the Delhi mosaics and the Taj Mehal at Agra, from Mr. Charles Trevelyan, who was in Florence in 1839 on his return from India, Sig. Zobi, as well as Mr. Trevelyan, was much struck with the similitude in design and workmanship between these Indian mosaics or tarsia and the Florentine ones. It is well known that the Taj Mehal, the interior of which is encrusted with inlaid marbles in designs of flowers, scrolls, and Etruscan vases, was the first specimen of this kind of work in India. In the hall of royal audience at Delhi is a still more remarkable subject, Orpheus playing a violin and surrounded by various beasts and birds; it is in front of the throne.

Now as it is not usual for Indian art to lend itself to the representation of nature as in these flowers; as Etruscan vases are not familiar in that country, and as Mahometans are not allowed to represent animated human figures, Sig. Zobi set himself to discover if any proof of Florentine artists having gone to India existed in the archives. His research was rewarded by two or three significant facts. The Medicean archives possess a document, dated 1608, which proves that Ferdinando I demanded a passport for India from the king of Spain for four of his artists in pietre dure, to the end that they might go to seek and buy Oriental agates and gems, to continue the work of inlaying the interior of the Medici chapel.

Nothing is more natural than that the Mogul to whom they were sent desired to see a specimen of this work which was worth such labour in seeking materials; and nothing more probable than that the art was readily appreciated in a country so rich in materials for it. Whether the four Florentines remained and founded a school there, leaving their designs behind them which in the earlier works are free and natural, and in later ones more set and Oriental in design is not easy to prove. Neither is it known whether the lavish monarch Shah Jehan, when he built the Taj Mehal in 1643, availed himself of the assistance of one or more of these Florentines, or of their native scholars, to encrust the interior. The fact remains that the freedom and nature of the designs are utterly unlike any other native art, which is entirely conventional and religiously traditional.

Mr. Trevelyan spoke of some ancient inscriptions existing in the Christian cemetery at Agra, but he could give no clear account of them. With regard to the tarsia picture which Mr. Trevelyan calls Orpheus, and which is placed in front of the throne at Delhi, Sig. Zobi got the following information from Mr. Matealfe (Metcalfe?), agent of the English Governor-General at Delhi, in 1841. The Hindoos have woven a web of mystery about the picture; the figure is said to be that of Ullan Koora, the mother of the Tartar race, and daughter of the Star of Day (evidently a myth of the generating power of heat); but in that case, what significance would the music and listening animals have? Besides, the figure is not a female, but a man draped classically in a single mantle of blue (lapis lazuli) lined with red (cornelian). Is it not more possible that the Italian workman made the picture of Orpheus, a god familiar to him, as a specimen, and that the Hindoo possessor, the Mogul, adapted it to his own use by giving it a native meaning?

Doctor Bernier, author of ‘Memoires sur 1’Empire du Gran Mogol’ (Paris, 1671), says that he saw the imperial palace at Delhi at that time, and was struck by the resemblance to the Medici chapel in the cupola encrusted with coloured gems and marbles.

Two other documents in the archives attest a connection between Florence and the East. The Sopha (Shah) of Persia required an Italian architect, and the Grand Duke Cosimo II sent Costantino de’ Servi, who was at that time superintendent of the pietre dure works. This may not have had much connection with the Delhi works, especially as Costantino was again in Florence in the end of 1610 (the letters patent from Cosimo are dated Nov I, 1609). But another deed, filza 54, dated in 1697, shows that Cosimo III sent some artists to Goa, with a present of intarsia in pietre dure from the Florentine factory, as a contribution to the tomb of the Jesuit saint, S. Francesco Xaverio, in that city. So that there was without doubt a connection of Florentine mosaic makers with India in that century.

Alfred Austin from A Letter from Italy 04/04/2011

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Verse six of Alfred Austin’s A Letter from Italy, published in Lyrical Poems 1891

How looked Florence? Fair as when

Beatrice was only ten:

Nowise altered, just the same

Marble city, mountain frame,

Turbid river, cloudless sky,

As in days when you and I

Roamed its sunny streets, apart.

Ignorant of each other’s heart.

Little knowing that our feet

Slow were moving on to meet,

And that we should find, at last

Kindship in a common past.

But a shadow falls athwart

All her beauty, all her art

For alas! I vainly seek

Outstretched hand and kindling cheek.

Such as, in the bygone days.

Sweetened, sanctified her ways.

When, as evening belfries chime,

I to Bellosguardo climb.

Vaguely thinking there to find

Faces that still haunt my mind,

Though the doors stand open wide,

No one waits for me inside;

Not a voice comes forth to greet,

As of old, my nearing feet.

So I stand without, and stare.

Wishing you were here to share

Void too vast alone to bear.

To Ricorboli I wend:

But where now the dear old friend,

Heart as open as his gate.

Song, and jest, and simple state?

They who loved me all are fled;

Some are gone, and some are dead.

So, though young and lovely be

Florence still, it feels to me,

Thinking of the days that were.

Like a marble sepulchre.

Off the Beaten Track in Late Nineteenth-Century Florence 26/03/2011

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c. 1890

Pause at a corner, and the narrow, irregular streets of the old Florence branch right and left, full of a shadowy suggestiveness which the Piazza Santa Maria Novella does not possess. Crooked byways abound, built to avoid the rude sweep of the wind, or following some line of Roman amphitheatre, with palace doors revealing glimpses of enclosed gardens, heavy casements projecting over the pavement, and an occasional little piazza with a stone cross in the centre, marking a historical site. A boy and a girl stand with the red leaves of a vine-clad trellis above their heads, gazing down on the street. They laugh at the obstinacy of a gray donkey, laden with wine-casks, youth, merry, careless, and indolent, blossoming within sombre walls. The Via de’ Fossi, noisy and commonplace, leads to the Borgognissanti, where the throng surges toward the church on this day of All Souls. An old man seated at a table of the café, is eating an ice, served in a tiny wine-glass, and of the consistency and color of pomatum, with the zest of a schoolboy. The cat of the British pharmacy sits on a chair, gazing out of the door, superb, urbane, and of a silvery grayness of tint. A baby, toddling past on a holiday promenade, pauses and addresses the animal with infantile confidence. A timid little white dog peers in at the portal, with a deprecating mien; and the cat tolerates such canine intrusion with the dignified affability of large natures. Pussy’s position in life is an assured one, while that of the little white dog clearly is not. These pass by, but the cat remains gazing across the street at the house where Amerigo Vespucci was born.

Cholera in the Apennines 11/03/2011

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c. 1890

We are all feeling pretty sober here about the cholera, which we do not fear for ourselves (having been in the way of it twice before, and Mammina knows exactly what to do, and is better than a dozen doctors), but it is dreadful to hear of it creeping all about the country, and now it is within six miles of Bassano, which, may the Lord preserve. Marina had been ill herself, but when she heard that there were some cases at Bessica, where the family estate is, she immediately went there (though none of her own people were as yet attacked), and is now busy nursing and doctoring. She writes to me, ‘They have blind faith in my care’ (as well they may have!), ‘and I trust that by taking precautions in time the danger may soon be removed’. A pleasant contrast, this, to what Signor Bortolo Zanchetta writes us of the poor contadini of Bassano, who are dying because they will not take the medicines offered them, ‘for fear of being poisoned’! Only think what sort of padroni they must have had, to feel so!

My poor Marina is all alone in her charitable work, for Silvia and Peppino have been called to Cesena to assist an old uncle, very ill. I heard this morning that he had died; the last one left of Peppino’s immediate family. I fear it will be a heavy grief to him. There have been a few suspected cases in Florence, but nothing for the last three days, so I hope our city may be spared. But they have organised the society of the Croce Rossa, to be prepared for any emergency, and one of the first to join it was Angelina’s niece, Rosita, who sent in her name without telling her uncle and aunt what she was doing, for fear that they would refuse their consent. If the cholera comes, she will be spared neither labour nor danger, and it is something that goes to all our hearts to see this young, beautiful woman, only twenty-five, and the mother of two little children, thus taking her life in her hand for people who do not belong to her. When Angelina spoke to her of the danger, she said; ‘I am not afraid; it is as much my business as anyone’s, and people should not be deserted because they are sick and poor: if I die you will take care of the children; or if you do not, my father and mother will’. And she said to me, when I spoke to her apart, ‘When we have a call everything is easy!’, raising her eyes to heaven as she spoke, with a look as though she heard the ‘call’ pretty plainly. As I wrote you once before, there is just this much comfort about the terrible visitations which, for some years past, have come so often to this poor country, that they do bring out so much of the best side of human nature!

A morning in the Old Market 24/02/2011

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c. 1880

But now to glance at the aspect of the place as a market. Could anything be more picturesque than the antique old gabled roofs, and the stalls beneath them with yellow awnings, which seem to absorb the sunlight, and yet shadow the piles of vegetables and baskets of fruit of every hue under the sun? Why, the very cabbages ring the changes on all the reds, yellows, and greens almost to blue-black! then the crimson and orange strings of capsicums festooned across the heaps of scarlet tomatoes, the rich purple of the pear-shaped petronciani, and the mingled hues of the pomegranate, make the greengrocer’s stall under the yellow shadow a feast of colour as well as a study of life.

Though we see all our old English friends of the vegetable kingdom, yet there are so many unknown herbs that we wonder what they are, and whether they are good for food. Here comes a poor tottering old woman, and putting down a bit of copper as big as a farthing asks for ‘two centesimi of radicchio’ the leaves of the garden chicory. She spends a like coin on a crust of bread at a baker’s, and there is her breakfast complete bread and salad for less than a penny.

There is a pert serving-maid, looking very pretty under her black lace veil; she spends several minutes bargaining for some lentils, and at length goes off with a parcel of those little brown seeds, of which she will make a puree to garnish the grand joint at her master’s dinner table. This esteemed dish is a zampone, a pig’s leg, bound and stuffed with meat, like a Bologna sausage, and smothered under a brown mash of lentils. But what is that keen-eyed man-cook buying? Certain pear-shaped shining vegetables of a rich purple colour. Such things were never eaten in old England. They are called petronciani, and are the fruit of the Solanum insanum or ‘mad apples’. They are first boiled till tender, then cut into slices, dipped in egg, and fried.

A sharp-faced old servant comes up, throws a quick glance round the stall, and muttering, ‘What, no gobbi, today? I shall have to go back to Menica after all’, and away she hurries. What are gobbi, do you suppose? They are a favourite vegetable in Italy, and are nothing but the stalks of the artichoke, tied up in bundles like celery. They may be eaten boiled, and served with melted butter, or cut into pieces, and fried in eggs and bread crumbs; and are excellent either way, the taste being something between celery and seakale.

Another favourite Italian vegetable consists of the knots of young leaves on the stalks of the fennel; but the flavour is too strong to suit an English taste. There are also some very small kinds of vegetable marrow, about as large as apples, which are very good.

Here comes another purchaser, who asks for ceci, and goes away with a pocket of round, yellow seeds, like over-grown peas, which were taken wet from a barrel of salt water, The plant which produces them is the Cicer Arietinum (English ram’s head, or chick pea). A very good soup maigre is made from them; but if your olfactory organs are delicate, it will be advisable not to assist at the cooking of them, for they emit a strong odour, like salt cod. The Italians live largely on leguminous plants; the numbers of different beans they use is quite remarkable; they vary in colour from the white haricot to dark red, and even dark brown species. If a working man can get a few beans, either hot or cold, with oil and vinegar, he is quite content to dine without meat ; and if a few of the greenish yellow funghi are added, he thinks it a meal fit for a king.

But what is this man calling as he conies slowly up the crowded market-street, shouting ‘Salati, salati’ (salted)? A little boy hearing the cry begins to sing ‘Son salati i miei lupini, Son salati dalla dama’. ‘My lupins are salted by my true love’ and he pulls a minute brown coin out of his pocket, and quickly exchanges it for the large flat, yellow lupin seeds, which the man has in a flat, wooden tub. There is scarcely a street corner in Florence at which you will not see the inevitable vendor of lupins, who is largely patronized by the working classes. The lupins are eaten after being kept in brine, but they are not cooked.

In the matter of salad, Italian tastes are as wide as in leguminous vegetables. They eat chicory and sorrel leaves, basil leaves, lettuce, endives, beetroot, dandelion, and cold cabbage. And a favourite salad is a grassylooking plant, which they call barba di cappuccini (or Capucino’s beard), known in England as ‘buck’s horn’, ‘goat’s beard’, or ‘star of the earth’. The Italians have classical authority for eating this, for Dioscorides said in his time that the plantago coronopus was eaten cooked; the only difference is, that the moderns do not trouble to cook it.

The fruit stall, which is often distinct from the vegetable seller’s, contains quite as many specimens which are strange to English eyes. Side by side with yellow apricots lies the cactus fruit, or prickly pear. Be sure that you don’t attempt to eat it, or even to touch it, without a knife, for the harmless little brown spots which dot its ruddy surface are each composed of a thousand invisible thorns which have a knack of entering the skin on the smallest provocation. The correct manner of eating a prickly pear is to cut off the two ends, then cut down the outer rind, and laying it open, take out the inner pulp.

Here are two baskets full of russet brown fruits; one familiar enough is the common medlar, but the other is shaped like a pear. It is the fruit of the pyrus sorbus (service tree). When fresh, they look like bright coloured pears; we were shown large bunches of them hung up in the shop, but they are only good to eat when mellowed by keeping till brown as a ripe medlar, and have a much richer flavour than that fruit.

A basket of red, velvety-looking berries, similar to strawberries, only rounder, next attracts us; they are arbutus berries, and when quite ripe are really very good to eat. The children are fond of another wild fruit, called giuggiole (jujube tree). They are glossy brown berries, with a soft, green pulp within. The oval red berries of the ‘cornel cherry’ are also greatly appreciated by children. The Romans also knew this cherry, but they grew it chiefly for the wood, from which their lances and arrows were made. But the most cooling and delicious fruit of all is the Japanese nespolo, a yellow medlar, with a delicious acid taste; they come in as soon as the warm weather begins, and are the favourite refresheners until the water-melon takes their place.

There are also different nuts eaten here. Besides walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts (which make a dozen different kinds of foods), we have the pinoli and the noce di Brasil. Pinoli are the little kernels of the cone of the stone pine. They are remarkably good in flavour, having a slight aromatic taste. They are obtained by placing the pine cone in an oven, when the heat causes the scales to open, and the nuts are easily shaken out and cracked with a hammer. The Brasil nut is a curious little pair of twin yellow berries in a brownish husk; the flavour is rich and aromatic.

A walk through the Italian market will certainly produce the thought that the English might vary and economize their food much more than they do. At those old cook-shops, in which the Florentines of three or four centuries ago were wont to dine, and where the ancient plates and dishes they used are preserved on shelves on the walls, one sees the most curious processes of cooking. Over the fire a large wheel revolves, on which are trussed rows of fowls, thrushes, and larks, the latter alternated with bits of bread, pork, and sage leaves. In the frying-pans are savoury messes of yellow polenta, made from the maizeflour, frying in oil, and of brown migliaccio, a cake of chestnut flour, and piles of nicely cooked fritto, the materials for which are endless, ranging the vegetable and animal kingdom.

As for economy, we might learn a great deal from a Florentine cook. For instance, when we truss a fowl, we make no use of the liver, except by displaying it under the wing. As for the cock’s comb, and other appendages to the head and neck of chanticleer, we consider them refuse. Not so the Italian; he calls them regalia, cuts them up and stews them with the liver in luscious gravy, and makes one of the most stylish entries for a dinner party, either by filling a vol-au-vent with them, or in a shape of stewed rice, called risotto con regalia. A fowl will, in the poulterer’s hands, serve several customers, for marketing is done on the infinitesimal system. The two bits off the breast are bought separately as a dish for an invalid or a fricassee for an entree. Then the carcass is sold for roasting or making soup, the legs and neck are purchased for a few centesimi by the poor, and the combs and livers go to the tables of the rich as regalia.

The fish market presents equally curious specimens of food. The sepia, or cuttle fish, is much liked, and you see its long arms, with their curious rows of circular disks, lying about in all directions. You will never find a mackerel; and if a salmon be visible, it has been imported for the benefit of some English Midas, at ten francs the Tuscan pound of twelve ounces. But there are large-headed, three-sided fish called naselli, which are as good as whiting, and a large kind of cod called palombo. Lobsters, as we know them, do not appear, but there are huge crawfish, larger than any lobster, and looking like magnified shrimps. It is a fashion to fry the very small shrimps in their shells, and eat them crisp and entire. Frogs’ legs also make a very delicate dish of fritto. Indeed, what will not an Italian make delicious in a fry? A dish of dainty morsels, fried in butter, of a pale brown, is placed before you, and its contents will prove a perfect riddle. Probably there will be melon flowers, bits of every vegetable imaginable, celery, morsels of calves’ brain and marrow, tiny lamb chops, sweetbreads, liver, artichoke, bits of fennel, etc etc. Nothing comes amiss to the frying-pan when fritto misto is required. But our marketing is over ; we have got back to the kitchen, so we will leave the cook to her mysteries.

Rates of Exchange 11/02/2011

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c. 1880

Funghi Hunting in the Apennines 02/02/2011

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c. 1890

The dampness of the rains coming in the warm season, has produced a most prolific crop of mushrooms. The people of the Nook and of Piteglio are making fortunes, according to the mountain idea of riches. I was told that at Piteglio the joint profits of this year have been several thousand francs. The mushroom season just comes in between the wheat harvest and the chestnut gathering, and if the season be good, it is nearly as profitable as the other crops. Whilst the men are threshing corn on the aias, or digging up the ground with the huge adze which does duty for a plough, the women, girls, and boys get up at sunrise, and wander about the chestnut woods in search of funghi.

If you wonder at the strangeness of their garments, know that it is considered lucky to wear one’s clothes inside out on a mushroom excursion. The contents of their baskets on their return would also astonish you considerably, for the Italian edible mushrooms are many, and brilliantly coloured; they, however, reject our English edible species as a toadstool, and we were threatened with dire disasters when we persisted in cooking some fine specimens. The favourite kind here is the Ceppattello, a large brown fungus, with a greenish white spongy substance beneath. The largest specimens are cut up (stalk and all) by housewives, and after being dried in the sun for some days, are put into paper bags and preserved dry for winter use; the little button-shaped ones, called sometimes ‘porcini’, are chosen as the best to preserve under oil, after having been put into boiling vinegar and then dried. They make a very good condiment to eat with the lesso (bouilli), or with cold meat.

Another very savoury mushroom is the ovolo, a large handsome fungus, orange red above, prim rose yellow beneath. It is called ovolo, or eggshaped, because it comes up in an oval form covered with a thick white film, through which the yellow part rises and expands, the white film being transformed into a frill round the stalk. Then there are certain carmine red flat-topped funghi, with yellow rays beneath, called by the mountaineers famiglioli, and the claviari, which look like branches of coralline; the grifole, a mass of fan- shaped fungus, of a dark or grey colour; this is so hard that it is not eatable unless it is first boiled and then baked. But the species which most suggests poison to our English minds, are large yellow masses of soft substance, called also grifole, or more correctly poliporo, some of which are yellow of the most brilliant colour, and others which the peasants call lingua di castagno (chestnut tongues), of a bright carmine. All the last four species grow on chestnut or oak trees, springing from the bark.

The mushroom merchants are doing a brisk business this year. They come round to all the villages and hamlets every morning, and buy up all they can get, piling them on a large cart in flat baskets one on the other, to sell to the wholesale dealers. When only one merchant arrives he makes his own price, and it is a hard bargain for the villagers, who only get about four or five centesimi (less than a halfpenny) per lb. This morning an impromptu market is established on the aia of Pietro, and a most amusing scene it is. About twenty women from neighbouring hamlets stand about, each guarding her baskets of funghi, and oh! good luck! two rival merchants. There is the usual keen-eyed man from San Marcello, and a care-for-nought style of youth who has come down from Prunetta to do a little business. This fellow has black eyes and a mass of ugly black hair, which requires much shaking and thrusting back under his hat. He wears a pink shirt and blue tie, and smokes a meerschaum pipe which does not at all interfere with the freedom of his speech, for he talks incessantly.

There is fierce bidding between them, the young purchaser recklessly promising more than his rival, till he had raised the offers from four centesimi a lb to six-and-a-half. Here the elder man prudently retired from the contest, saying that he could not get that back for them in Florence. Accordingly all the women flocked eagerly to the youth from Prunetta, who began weighing their baskets very willingly on his steel-yard, which these itinerant buyers carry about with them. He would willingly cheat them in the payment, but is kept to his bargain by his rival, who, having no purchases, stands by to see fair play.

A brisk trade continues till the elder man shoulders his scale and departs, when lo! what a Babel ensues. ‘Now hark ye, donne’ cries the buyer, ‘these are not real prices, you know. I only paid high to keep him out of it,’ pointing to the departing rival, ‘but the market price is five centesimi, and not one more cent will I pay.’

Great excitement ensues. All the women lift up their voices shrilly, and the appellations they bestow on him are not remarkable for politeness; they surround him in a crowd, shaking their fists in his face, till he retreats to the wall, where he takes off his hat, and, pushing back his curls, awaits the lulling of the storm.

‘It is not fair; you cannot bargain for one price and pay another; you paid Enrichetta six-and-a-half a lb and you shall pay me the same,’ exclaimed a stout angry woman. ‘I shall go to Piteglio with mine, and you shan’t have an ounce of them. I would rather give them to an honest man than sell them to you.’

And up goes a large basket on the frizzled head of a red-haired girl, but it comes down again on her friends reminding her that she will only get four-and-a-half centesimi there, and have all the trouble of carrying them a mile. ‘Then I’ll sell them to the other man, he offered five-and-a-half.’

She rushes off, followed by two or three others calling, ‘O Giorgio, come back! Come back!’

Giorgio, who had not really gone away, strolls back in an unconcerned manner, and coolly inquires, ‘What is up?’

‘That birbone won’t give more than five centesimi now, so we will let you have them at five-and-a-half.’

‘Ah!’ says he, ‘but I am not going to give more than five either.’ Sig. Giorgio was a student of human nature, and seeing that the women were too angry with his rival to deal at any price, he knew he might make his own tariff now.

‘Oh! That’s too bad, you offered five-and-a-half just now,’ cried our nice little Matilde. ‘Just so, but you would not deal; now he has changed his mind, and so have I,’ and the mushroom merchant laughs sardonically.

In despair the women consult together. ‘Shall we go to Piteglio? perhaps the man from Pistoia is there,’ asks one.

‘No, he isn’t; there is only Luigi il Pazzo buying there to-day.’

‘Besides,’ adds a third, ‘he only pays five centesimi, and we should have all the walk besides’.

‘My basket is heavy, I shall lighten it here,’ laughs the red-haired girl, showing all her white teeth. The others follow her example, and the remaining stock is weighed and haggled over to the very last ounce of yellow ovoli, but the merchant is very much at a loss for small change to pay his many clients. So little accustomed is he to any but the very dirtiest of paper money, that when I changed a five-franc note into bright new silver half-francs, he looked quite incredulous, and asked whether they were good!

We were told by one of the women that the people of Piteglio a village in which there is neither butcher nor baker have this year gained several thousand francs by their mushrooms, the joint gathering of thevillage being nearly 3,000 lbs a day.

It is a blessed provision of Providence that in these regions, where, by reason of the mountainous nature of the land, agriculture is both difficult and unproductive, that the chief means of sustenance are drawn from nature alone, and man only has to gather. The chestnuts supply him with food for the whole winter, the woods and hedges give into his hands mushrooms, bilberries, and raspberries enough to make up the fewfrancs which are necessary for his clothing.