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Day of the Dead at San Miniato 14/07/2011

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c. 1890

Nov 2 From five o’clock in the morning the bells of the many churches of Florence have been ringing, as numberless masses for the dead are said to-day, it being the Festa di Tutti Morti. The religious duties within the city being performed, the city turns out en masse, to make its yearly pilgrimage to the cemetery at San Miniato. Struck with the peculiarly jovial aspect of the crowd, and the contrast of their festal dresses to the melancholy errand on which they were supposed to be bent tomourn and pray over the tombs of departed relatives we too prepare to do as Florence does, and start forthwith to see how the dead are remembered by the living, in the ‘city of flowers’.

The bridges over the Arnoare crowded by a continuous stream of people all turned towards the cypress-crowned hill on the Oltr’Arno side, where the grand old basilica of San Miniato rises white and majestic on the summit. A motley crowd streams over the bridges and through the quaint streets. There are dark-faced Italian employes, evidently enjoying an unwonted holiday; groups of brighteyed Florentine maidens, in ultra-fashionable dress, and the inevitable duenna behind them; little knots of black-robed priests with shovel hats, who walk with folded hands and severe eyes; blue-coated soldiers, or bersaglieri, with flying cocks’ feathers. Then comes a family party from the country, a brownfaced peasant with his little boy on his shoulder, and wife at his side, gay in red or yellow kerchief, and carrying in her arms a stiff little bundle, the moving head and arms of which, protruding from the top, proclaim it a baby. Behind them a cluster of contadini girls in the brightest of dresses, and with all their festal jewellery displayed some wearing seven or eight rows of pearls round their necks, and earrings of enormous size. These jewels form their dote or marriage portion, and descend from mother to daughter through many generations. Mingling with this motley company are a few black figures, widows and mothers of the dead, carrying wreaths or crosses of immortelles, or long candles to burn on their tombs.

These few dark spots on the mass of motion and colour give the key-note to the day. To them the day of the dead is a sacred feast, hallowed by love and grief, a day passed in memories of the happy time when those whom they go to mourn were walking in life and health by their side. But we cannot grieve for ever, and the new mourners are but few among the many on this bright November day. Some children are dancing merrily along with rings of everlastings in their hands inscribed ‘To my Brother’, or ‘Sister mine’, and they evidently think themselves favoured beyond their little friends who have no wreaths. One child just in front of us says to another, ‘Who is your garland for’. ‘For my aunt’. ‘Ah!’ replies the first, ‘mine is more than that, it is for my own mamma’. And she displays in evident pride a hard yellow garland, with ‘Madre mia’ written on it in black immortelles.

Here and there rolls by the carriage of a Contessa or Marchesa carrying her to the Requiem Mass; and walking slowly are some bare-footed Franciscan friars, and one or two members of different sisterhoods in white wimples, with rosaries in their clasped hands.

On winds the gathering stream through the narrow streets, out under the dark arches of the Porta San Miniato and up the steep hill, called the Via Crucis, which leads to the great cemetery. It is bordered at intervals with shrines of the seven stations, at each of which devout Catholics say a prayer. This morning every shrine is crowded by beggars, who collect from all parts for this day. There are blind beggars, lame, dumb, deaf, and dwarf beggars; beggars without legs who have a peculiarly swift and original mode of locomotion; beggars begging for themselves, and some begging for other beggars.

On the summit of the Via Crucis are two churches. The smaller, the church of the Franciscan Friars, with their convent adjoining, on whose door-step may generally be seen a group of poor people bringing their empty platters to get them filled for a meal by the monks. Higher up stands the great basilica of San Miniato, with its inlaid marble front and glittering mosaic with gold ground, which is improved from an ancient Lombard building erected by the Emperor Henry II. and his wife, Cunegonda, in 1013. To reach this we enter a dark gateway, roofed over and adorned with several large iron extinguishers. This is the ancient lych-gate where the bearers rested the bier and the extinguishers were, and are even now, used to put out the torches of the funeral processions. We pass out into the precincts of the cemetery and enter the great church by the Porta Santa, so called because the body of the martyr S. Miniato was discovered herein, and the dedication of Cunegonda’s church was changed and took his name instead of St. Peter’s.

One’s first impression was of a surging crowd swaying about in dangerous proximity to lighted candles, for the floor is strewn with tombstones, and on all these are wreaths and burning tapers. The crowd takes care of itself, and as nobody dreams of pushing, one’s fears of conflagration wear off in time and we dare to cast our eyes around. The church is magnificent in form and design. Two rows of marble columnssupport the nave and aisles; at the east end two flights of marble steps lead to the upper tribune, and a wide stairway descends to the crypt beneath, which has remains of the ancientLombardarchitecture. On the tribune is a wonderful ‘ambone’ in carved marble, with the exquisite colours of ‘purple antique’, the most rare of ancient marbles. The dome of the tribune is covered with a fine gold-grounded mosaic of Christ with St. John, St. Matthew, and San Miniato, dating from the eleventh century; and beneath this five windows of thin slabs of Oriental alabaster, through which the light of the morning sun passes with a soft opaque radiance.

The choir in the tribune is filled with priests and choristers in their carved oak stalls, and they respond in deep harmonies to the priests in gorgeous robes performing the mass for the dead at the high altar. There is a very busy little acolyte who seems to think himself, the chief performer, and on the step of the very altar kneels a poor woman, who continually crosses herself, and when the priest moves near her she takes the hem of his garment and softly kisses it. We are touched at the sight with the memory of another woman in the days when Christ was on the earth, and wonder has this poor creature come here for healing by faith too.

In the crypt or under church are many relics; the tombs of S. Miniato and other martyrs are there, and a niche in the wall contains the blood of some martyrs. In the left aisle there is a certain chapel which contains a changing crowd the whole day. Here is the tomb of Cardinal Jacopo di Portugallo, and his episcopal chair. The tomb is the work of Rossellino, and very exquisite sculpture it is; the chapel is decorated with lovely blue and white medallions by Luca della Robbia. But the general crowd does not give its attention to these masterpieces it is entirely directed to the chair of inlaid marble, which every one who comes in kneels and kisses; some seat themselves solemnly in it for a moment, with hands in the attitude of prayer. We ask a man why this should be. He rubbed his head and shrugged his shoulders, but did not exactly know, only ‘twas a holy relic. A woman was better informed, and she told us that a prayer or a kiss offered there gave the penitent so many days’ indulgence, i.e., so many days off the time allotted to purgatory after death.

The mass is over, the organ has ceased rolling its waves of sound through the arches, the crowd in the nave gently parts asunder, and the whole mass of priests, acolytes, choristers, &c., bearing lighted candles, passes in procession down the steps, through the nave, and out at the Porta Santa to walk through the cemetery. Their chanting voices ring out on the clear air from the cypress-crowned hill, and mingle with the worldly sounds and the tolling of bells which come up from the city, whose towers and domes are gleaming down below across the glittering Arno.

It is so old-world and artistic, that one might make a poem of it were it not so marred by the littleness of humanity mingling with all. The bare-headed priests chant and pray for peace to the souls of the dead, who lie so silent beneath the sod on all sides of them; and the atoms of living humanity called boys go side by side with the solemn procession, fighting each other over the wax which drops from the candles as they pass by.

One little bully frightens away a girl whose hand is held beneath a guttering taper, and then takes the very piece of falling wax for himself. Chief amongst them is the energetic little acolyte, who with a solemn face possesses himself of wax right and left, hides it all in the breast of his full white ephod, and folds his hands devoutly over. The whole wide cemetery is full of people. On the inscribed slabs which form a pavement on each side of the path are mourners kneeling and praying amid the lighted candles flickering in the wind, and the efforts to keep these alight, alternate spasmodically with the fervency of their prayers. Every grave is decorated according to the taste of the mourners, some with real flowers, exquisite but fleeting; the greater number choose a more lasting, if inartistic, form of expression, and hang up frightful bead frames or hard rings of yellow and black everlastings; some put a ghastly framed photograph; and a favourite adornment is a iron imitation flower, painted, in an iron pot. Tinted wreaths of flowers in tin are also frequent. Great variety exists also in the monuments, among which there is a good deal of sculptural art.

There is a terrace raised up over the colombaria, or graves in wall cells, and from here a marvellous view of the whole cemetery, with its surging crowd of priests and processions; vendors of cakes, sweets, and cigars; girls with mass books and rosaries in one hand, fruit in the other; weeping mourners, and jesting young men; bereaved mothers and wives bewailing for those who are hidden from them by the cruel marble slab; and light-hearted girls with all their thoughts warm for the hopes of the future love. Life and death, and death and life, contrasted side by side in a hundred different guises. And down below the hill of the dead, beautiful Florence, with the bridge-spanned Arno flowing amidst its towers and palaces. And that, too, speaks of death and life a nation has died, and a new nation is growing to strength and power. And farther off are the mountains, veiled in golden mist, which seem to speak of the everlasting.

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Wine Harvest at San Colombano 06/07/2011

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c. 1905

Passing through the village of San Colombano, we drove along pretty country lanes, the hedges aglow with the scarlet berries of the orange thorn, and the trees clothed in vines, towards Lastra a Signa. At one farm they had begun the vintage; men, women, and children were busily occupied, the men on ladders cut down the pendice (two vine canes twisted carefully together in the early spring, with the eyes turned outwards), while the women picked off the leaves, which serve as fodder for the cattle. The finest pendice are hung up inside the loggia which almost invariably adorns a Tuscan farmhouse, in order to dry the grapes gradually for colouring and strengthening the wine after the first fermentation. The stately white oxen were chewing the cud, and the red ox-cart with a large vat tied on, and the wooden bigoncia, all stained with the red vine juice, looked most Bacchanalian. A handsome young contadino came along at a swinging pace with a bigoncia poised on one shoulder, in which purple and yellow grapes were piled high, and emptied the contents with a thud and a splash into the vat, which, when full, went slowly home to the tinaia, where the grapes were transferred to the larger vats after being well crushed…

There is nothing remarkable in the village, save a picturesque loggia, still bearing traces of lavish decoration, which was part of the hospital for pilgrims once existing inside the walls. It has been barbarously maltreated; part is now a theatre, the rest is carpenters’ shops. The population is squalid and miserable enough, and do not bear a good name; they are mostly employed in plaiting, sewing, and ironing straw hats, and the clatter of the hopper used for sorting the straw is incessant. The so-called Leghorn hats are all plaited in the lower Val d’Arno, and before the introduction of the cheap Japanese reed hats the women earned so much that the men did not think it worth while to work, and spent their time in gambling and loitering. Straw hats have diminished so much in price that a woman barely earns twopence a day, unless she is very expert, and can do the finest plait with fifteen or more straws, or is clever enough to invent a new pattern.

A Country Fair at Impruneta 06/04/2011

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c. 1905

‘All paths lead to London’ runs the old saying. Certainly on the morning of a country fair all ways converge towards one centre – the head of each stately ox, the snout of each rebellious and unwilling pig, is turned in the same direction; and horses, donkeys, vehicles of all shapes and sizes loaded with men and merchandise, cattle, contadini, hawkers, and beggars, pour in a continual stream along every road. There is hardly a more animated scene imaginable than a Tuscan fair, for the natural gaiety of the people, their brilliant dresses, ready smiles, vivacious gestures, and unaffected enjoyment of the outing, all add to the allegria, and when the sunbeams pour down out of that blue Italian sky which haunts the dreams of travellers, it must indeed be a sad heart which does not rejoice.

It was yet early on an October morning when we set out for the fair at the Impruneta which, held annually on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in the week of St. Luke’s feast, is one of the oldest and most famous in Tuscany, and one to which an immense concourse of people has always gathered since ancient times. The Impruneta is itself an interesting little place, renowned for its Black Madonna, a miracle picture which is only allowed to gladden the eyes of the faithful once in five-and-twenty years; and for its potteries, where jars and vases in thick earthenware are made, of every size and shape. Two hours’ cross-country drive lay before us as the carriage turned out between the high mossy pillars which guard the Villa gates.

Heavy rain had fallen in the night; the olives which bordered the road gleamed ghostly from a shroud of silvery haze, and the landscape looked mysterious and unsubstantial through the ‘pale frail mist’; but the sun, rising higher and striking its arrows aslant the pearly vapours, awoke all the colours which burn in the heart of an opal, and as its power increased the fog cleared, leaving pure blue sky. The country was radiant in the freshness of the autumn morning, the sun lending glory to the gold and bronze of the vine leaves, and touching into fierier tints the scarlet and orange of the bare willow branches, and the hips-and-haws and clusters of pyracanthus berries along the road. The river Greve reflected a fairy-world of grassy slopes and shimmering foliage in the opaque green of the water; everywhere the pink autumnal roses pushed their shy, sweet faces over the grey stone walls.

At that early hour the roads were dotted with groups of children on their way to school, dressed in the sensible Italian fashion: little girls in black pinafores, brightened with coloured braid, with their uncovered hair arranged in tiny plaits; little boys in dark blue linen overalls, and every child bearing his name emblazoned in crewels upon his breast, so that the school-teacher, seeing his class in line before him, can never mistake Fiore for Gigi, nor Santina for Maria.

At last our long lane opened out upon the tram-line which runs between Florence and Greve, the chieftown of the Chianti district, and we passed by the great Certosa in Val d’ Ema, begun in 1341 by Niccolo Acciauoli, who, first commoner thus honoured, was presented perhaps for his services to ‘Holy Church’ – with the Golden Rose by Innocent IV. As the road wound up a long and gradual slope there appeared, high upon its hilltop, the village of Montebuoni, the original eyrie of that fierce brood of the Buondelmonti, whose loves and hates worked such ruin in the city below…

Emerging upon the main road, we went on in cheerful company, for the way was thronged with as motley a crowd of pilgrims as ever made their way to Canterbury, all journeying, like ourselves, towards the fair. There were brake-loads of respectable burghers with their wives and daughters; parties of tourists, armed with cameras and eager for experiences and impressions; priests with the inevitable round silk hat and long cassock, revealing solid ankles grafted abruptly into buckled shoes; small carts jogging along with an old horse, being taken up for sale, ambling at the side; knots of country folk who had trudged over miles of hilly road from distant farms among the vines and olives; dignified and unhurried oxen, gay with red ribbons on head and tail – not only for decoration, but to ward off the evil eye; pedlars and hawkers hastening along with portable stalls under their arms; old men and women toiling feebly up with a bunch of air-balloons, a tray of card- board puppets or gaily-coloured sweets, to try their fortunes at the fair. Beggars abounded, as everywhere in Italy, and many, laid by the roadside, displayed horrible sores and deformities, clamouring loudly and piteously for alms.

Every fair has a picturesqueness of its own, and it was a gay scene upon which we looked down from the top of the last hill, before plunging into the crowd. All the roads leading to the piazza were packed with brakes, wagons of blue and scarlet, carriages and carts, standing ‘at ease’ with their shafts in the air; the moving crowds and bright colours suggested patches of flowers blown to and fro in the wind, and a noise and bustle like the humming of a swarm of bees arose from the busy square.

The fair was held in a great sloping piazza in front of the church, the lower level being reserved for booths of varied merchandise, the higher for cattle, while another square behind the church was devoted to cooking stalls, where the roasting of pork and rows of fowls over hot embers was going on in the open air, and tables were prepared for the accommodation of those who wished to eat with more ceremony than the adjoining hillside could afford. We had no sooner alighted than Bianca Maria announced her desire to buy a pig – a pig who should, as she expressed it in her imperfect English, ‘fat well’ for the next Carnival, and for whom she had already conditionally selected a name. Should he be stout he was to be ‘Cosimo’ – a fat, comfortable sounding word; but if he had a ‘lean and hungry look’ he was to be dubbed ‘Piero’ (though in this latter case I think ‘Cassius’ would have been a better choice). Accordingly, accompanied by the factor, who in such matters has understanding for his kinswoman, we turned our steps towards the place where loud squealing announced to those who were far off as well as to those who were nigh, that young porkers were for sale.

The men in charge obligingly hauled out the most promising by the hind-legs, and pulled their tails vigorously, which seems to the initiated to afford some mysterious proof of the pig’s worth, though to our inexperience the only result was a piercing wail. Salvatore was, however, somewhat chilling on the subject of this new inmate for the fattoria, and bargained with little enthusiasm; so as prices were high and we felt that without his hearty co-operation we could not hope to ‘fat’ a pig successfully, we momentarily relinquished the idea of leading home the prospective Cosimo or Piero, and turned our attention to the other beasts.

Hundreds of oxen were drawn up in line: stately white ones, more than a man’s height, with scarlet sashes around their ample waists, and among them one truly magnificent creature of a pleasant cinnamon tint, who, decked with red and gold tassels, was considered the champion of the fair. There were fascinating pairs of calves, matched to grow into noble yoke-fellows; viaremviani, with huge bodies set on short, inadequate-looking legs, which gave them the appearance of antediluvian beasts; tiny white calves with moist pink noses, nestling close to their mothers’ sides, and turning pathetic, startled eyes upon the loud-voiced men who gathered to discuss their points.

All the peasants for miles round were there, resplendent in their best clothes, cheery and garrulous, and exultant over the brightness of the weather and the excitement of the fair; arguing, chattering, handling animals, discussing prices, greeting each other noisily, parting with laughter and jokes. Among them was the sprightly Orlando, magnificent in a soft hat of a turquoise blue felt, a coloured waistcoat, pink shirt and ribbon necktie with a gay pattern of crimson roses and emerald leaves. A silver chain with some large porta-fortune was arranged gracefully across the waistcoat, and his face as he saluted us was wreathed in smiles. The Bachicche brothers, old friends of mine, were there also – that is to say, the two elder; for Paradiso, whose life is bound up in flocks and herds, was unable to leave his seventy sheep alone in the wilderness. But a shepherd’s is, according to Touchstone, ‘a good life . . . in respect that it is solitary . . . and in the fields’; so perhaps Paradiso has a ‘vocation’ for the pastoral career, and did not envy the more riotous pleasures of the fair.

The Bachicche were less elegant than Orlando – indeed they were somewhat clownish in appearance, with their shabby clothes, clumping shoes, and heavy sticks; but their shrewd faces and reverence for their betters mark them out anywhere as survivors of the good old school. Report speaks goldenly of their agricultural powers, and they are treasures to their padrone, as their podere yields more than any other on the estate. They had just, with the counsel of all their friends and acquaintance, been buying a calf to ‘fat’ for next season, having first, doubtless, cast an appraising eye upon every calf in the fair, and were gazing proudly at their new possession, while from under their arms protruded long bars of bread, the provision for their frugal meal. I wondered if, in honour of the day, they would be tempted to vary their usual dry morsel and indulge in conpanatico (something to eat with the bread), but remembering that, when the vines are loaded with grapes, they never taste even a berry, and would almost as soon cut off their hands as cut off a whole bunch, I think there was little chance that they would be tempted by sausage, pork, or cheese.

The piazza where the beasts were gathered was crowded with excited dealers and buyers, loud with the lowing of cattle and the babel of many tongues. Droves of unbroken colts, brought up from Sardinia or the Maremma, were grouped together, wild and scared, while the dealers from time to time, with a skilfully cast lasso, roped and drew one out, clearing a space to show off his paces a dangerous proceeding, as in the wild plunging of the startled beast his hoofs were apt to strike unpleasantly near the spectators’ heads. Bony old horses, with weary, dejected expressions, were tied in rows, looking, with their dull eyes and drooping knees, as if life had shown them little kindness in the past, and they had small hope that it would do so in the future. Crowds of donkeys huddled together, their heads resting upon each other’s backs – some sedate and elderly, others, sturdy little fellows, with plenty of work and spirit in them (not omitting the spirit of obstinacy!), while some were soft woolly babies, so small that the men took them up in their arms and laughingly offered them for sale.

There is an immense amount of character to be seen in the beasts at a fair, for every one supports its position with a different expression, some looking subdued and cowed, some sullenly patient, others full of vivacity, with hearts which evidently keep on the ‘windy side of care’. And there is often plenty of pathos, too, in the circumstances which bring them together, for some sad story of hard times, bad harvests, illness with its attendant expenses, death and the breaking up of the old home, may underlie the sale of the stately ox in his tinsel trappings, the poor old donkey, or the gaunt charger groomed up to look his pitiful best. There are some sad partings on the fair ground as the bony mare – old friend of the family – or the young calf, on whose growth such hopes were built, is led off by the new master, and empty stables at night, which make as great a break in the peasant circles as any ‘vacant chair’.

But, in spite of the underlying pathos, the superficial aspect of the fair was delightfully vivacious. Everywhere there was hilarious greetings, cheery laughter, good-humoured raillery, eager bargaining; and over this latter, where diverse interests were at stake and every point sharply contested, it was by no means rare that the opposing parties, beginning with the ‘Retort courteous’, ran swiftly through the intermediate stages to the ‘Lie direct’. On the whole, however, the crowd was good-humoured and cheery, for the Tuscan peasant is – at least in my opinion – one of the most agreeable men on the face of the earth; and if he waxes a little warm over his bargains, having a fine contempt for the man who cannot guard his own interests – well, it is all the more amusing for the lookers-on. There are few more diverting sights—to all not personally concerned – than the contratti, and every beast which is being bought and sold becomes a centre of interest, around which gather a group of spectators, who, though casual observers, having no vital interest in the matter, show a burning interest in the terms on which the bargain is made.

There is a definite ritual in these matters. When one man wishes to sell a calf and another desires to buy it, they together seek out an official known as a sensali, who directs the transaction and balances the price asked and offer made until he brings the contracting parties to terms. Then, taking a hand of each, he puts them together, and when they shake with one another warmly the bargain is made and the sensali gets a fee. Naturally a vast amount of arguing and withdrawing and conceding goes on before this happy consummation is arrived at, and many amusing scenes take place. The sensali who was the centre of one group was a little old man with a florid, jovial face, but a certain cunning in his twinkling eyes, which were shaded by a hat of sage green felt. This acute person had got the hands of his clients firmly together, but the sacramental shaking had not yet begun, and at the critical moment which should ratify the bargain, the seller, who had grown extremely restive, tried to withdraw, loudly protesting, in spite of the sensali‘s honied words that he would lose a hundred francs on the bargain, ‘E questo, per Bacco, non mi conviene!’ In fact, he finally broke loose altogether, whereupon the sensali, seeing hopes of his fee vanishing, flung his arms around the other’s neck and began whispering in his ear, probably counselling some concession, while the ring of onlookers, although quite unconcerned, were full of eager partisanship for the one or disparagement of the other, according to the prompting of their sympathies. Here an approving ejaculation, there a murmur of dissent, an indignant diamine! or a petulant che, die! testified to the lively interest taken; and although it meant nothing to their own pockets, they were none the less alive to the gravity of the matter and anxious that business should be done.

How the matter ended I do not know, but probably either buyer or seller – perhaps both – remained dissatisfied and complaining of sharp practice; or perhaps negotiations were broken off altogether, and the sensali, for all his astuteness, failed to pocket his fee.

I should like to have seen the Bachicche bargaining for their vitellino. Assuredly they are too shrewd to be imposed upon, and I should imagine from the complacent expression of their faces that they had managed the affair well. Leaving the sensali still folded in a brotherly embrace, we made our way through the crowd, avoiding the hoofs of the mules – most vicious of beasts – dodging under the noses of oxen; rounding baskets of outraged turkeys, gobbling in impotent fury; hurrying past the aggrieved hens, who made their presence known by petulant clucking; and the garrulous ducks, pro- claiming their wrongs from the depths of hampers, to the lower piazza, where every kind of merchandise was exposed for sale on hand-barrows and stalls.

There was a large supply of the pottery, for which the Impruneta is famous, glazed and unglazed, in every size and shape, from small pipkins and scaldini to immense vases for lemon and orange trees, and oil jars which seemed incomplete without the bobbing head of one of the Forty Thieves. There were cheap materials of every kind, and of the most vivacious patterns and tints to tempt the peasant girls – brilliant handkerchiefs; fasce or swaddling bands for babies, with ‘Idolo mio’, ‘Delizia’, and other suitable inscriptions interwoven; felt hats, pocket-knives; handmade lace, the work of the country women; glittering imitation jewellery and strings of coral, suitable for rustic swains to offer to their betrothed, since ‘doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat’; zoccoli and great boots of Vacchetta, or undressed calf-skin; sweetmeats and dancingmen to take home to the bimbi; piles of brigidini (a thin aniseed biscuit stamped between two hot irons, which is a speciality of Tuscan fairs); piemen, with wares ‘as dry as the remaining biscuit after a voyage’, lying in wait for Simple Simons, and furnaces where a roaring trade was being done in bruciati, or roasted chestnuts. Merry-go-rounds with gallantly prancing steeds whirled on their giddy way, to a monotonously cheerful tune; a ‘valiant piece of dust’, who described himself as the ‘strong man’, performed feats with iron bars and balls in the midst of a gaping crowd; a fortuneteller, a stout, elderly woman with large gold earrings, sat on a raised chair, displaying under her short woollen shirt a pair of ample feet, while to the ring of spectators – chiefly young girls – gathered around her, she disclosed the secrets of the future with a pack of dirty cards. She was perhaps one of the streghe, or wise women, in whom the country folk still believe, but a certain sameness characterised the fortunes of these damsels; difficulties which would be overcome, calumnies which would be refuted, and finally, as a reward of triumphant virtue, a husband and eight or ten children – ‘Bella cosa, davvero!’

It is curious how at a fair one ardently desires things which one would never dream of coveting at other times, and feels a passionate curiosity about sights on which, as a rule, one would not bestow a passing glance. Bianca Maria’s heart was set upon a rosecoloured man of jointed cardboard, with an entirely insufficient purple costume, who danced on strings, and cost a halfpenny, and she was with difficulty led away from the stall which boasted his presence, together with a crowd of his brethren; while for two-pence I bought a massive clasp-knife with carved wooden handle, which has been one of my treasures ever since. We made many purchases, with the faithful Salvatore to bargain, since, though the stallholders greeted us with extravagant politeness, they did not scruple to ask us two or three times the just price of every article which we wished to buy. We approached a small man of mature age, busy behind a pile of brigidini, and gave an order for a kilo, to which Salvatore, who knows human nature, added the stern injunction, ‘And see that you give the Signorine fair weight!’ This venerable person, who would have been better employed in thinking of his latter end than in cheating his customers, appealed to all the saints to bear witness to his honesty, praying that he might lose his remaining eye before the feast of Ogni Santi if his dealings were not as clear as the noonday light; but I hope for his sake that his prayer was unheeded, as he cunningly contrived to tilt a good proportion of the biscuits back into his own stock as he transferred them from the scales to the clean handkerchief which Salvatore unfolded to receive them, and appeared wounded in his tenderest feelings when we called attention to the fact.

Close by this unprincipled old gentleman was a shoemaker – a little man, with one tuft of hair standing bolt upright on his bald head – brooding over his wares, fussily arranging and rearranging them, as if even to touch them were a pleasure; and as I, who can never resist boots, felt a sudden desire born in me for a pair of hobnailed ones of untanned leather such as the peasants wear, we entered into conversation with the owner on the respective merits of two equally attractive pairs. ‘They look to me the same’, I declared, with a boot in either hand. ‘The difference is indeed small, most illustrious’, rejoined the courteous disciple of St. Crispin. ‘These’ (pointing to one pair) ‘are of a calf who has drunk only milk, while these’ (with an emphatic tap upon the others) ‘have also eaten grass. Signorina, should recommend those which have eaten grass!’ So, impressed by this finely drawn distinction the bargain was made, and I go out to tramp the country roads and hunt evasive mushrooms, shod with the skin of the herb-eating calf.

Not far off was a lottery, the object set up being that dream of the contadino, a sveglia, or alarm-clock. To possess a sveglia is indeed to be blessed above other men, and this was an especially desirable one, set in a gilded horseshoe and mounted upon a stand of emerald-green plush. One simple soul, who had evidently decided to stake his best hopes on it, was spending his coppers recklessly in tickets for the coveted object, which, sad to relate, fell to another’s lot, and it was pitiful to see how his face fell as he turned away, while the fortunate winner was surrounded by an eager crowd of friends, anxious to examine the face, the stand, the works of the wonderful alarum, and if possible to hear it strike.

As one watches the gay moving throng, the booths, the beasts, the varied merchandise in the great piazza, it is interesting to remember how many times the crowd must have gathered in this same old square, under the shadow of the ancient church, surrounded by the same hills if not the same buildings, as to-day. How like it must have been year by year for centuries 1 It is true that those keen-faced old Florentines who used to haunt it are long since numbered with the great majority. They are gone, the sturdy burghers, the gay young cavaliers with their ‘swashing and martial outside’; the knights, courtiers, pages, men-at-arms; the merchants with woollen stuffs from the Calimara, and silk from Por Santa Maria; the astute dealers on the lookout for skins to carry back to the pelliceria; the artists, great ladies, stout country wenches, friars, apothecaries, jugglers, minstrels, charlatans; gone, the quaint costumes – the dignified lucco, the flowing zimarra and silver garland, the parti-coloured hose. But the changes are only superficial, the vital part of the old fair remains. There are still herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, still keen faces intent on a good investment, still courting and quarrelling, buying and selling, laughter and pranks. One may still, though the dress be modern, find rogues and rustics, beggars and burghers; for though centuries pass, men’s interests and men’s hearts change vitally little, if superficially much; and long may the heart of the Italian peasant continue unchanged if it prompt him to do his business so picturesquely, to take his pleasure so joyously, as in the gay circle of a Tuscan fair!

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.

The country at Badia a Settimo 19/01/2011

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c. 1900

Leaving Florence by the Porta S. Frediano we drove about four miles to the ancient Badia a Settimo, famous in the political as well as the religious annals of Tuscany. The peasants were as busy as bees, preparing casks and vats for the vintage, and the universal hammering was quite deafening, mingled with the beating out of the sagina – a kind of millet much grown for making brooms, which are sent by shiploads to England and America. Most beautiful are the fields of the tall sagina; the light green leaves bend gracefully to the breeze, and the loose head of seed falls like a cascade of chestnut-coloured rain from the tops of the slender stems. To English eyes the wealth of grapes appeared incredible, and the colours marvellous. From maple to maple hung long garlands of vines in fantastic shapes, Buon Amico, or ‘good friend’, with large loose bunches of purple-black grapes, Trebbiano, brilliant yellow, with the sunny side stained a deep brown, Uva Grassa, a dull yellow-green, and the lovely Occhio di Pernice, or ‘partridge’s eye’, of a light pink with ruby lines meandering about in every grape, the flavour of which was quite equal to its beauty.

The contadini were much amused at our admiration, and insisted on our tasting the various kinds of grapes. Immense golden pumpkins, melons, water-melons, and scarlet tomatoes were being picked, and on some of the farms the women and children were busily employed in making round cakes of the latter fruit, and drying them in the sun for winter consumption. Outside the windows hung branches of the Acacia horrida, of which the crown of thorns is said to have been made; each long thorn bore a crop of skinned figs, the gelatinous, sweet drops of juice oozing out and congealing in the sun’s rays. On the low walls surrounding the threshing-floors were flat baskets, boards, and plates, covered with split peaches and figs drying in the sun, for the children to eat in winter with their bread.

Luigi and Italian Servants 16/01/2011

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c. 1910

Luigi is a cheery soul, and, having been apprenticed to a cobbler in early youth, follows naturally in his master’s steps, and does his work to the accompaniment of ‘Laudi’ and Ave Marias. He possesses all the virtues of Italian men-servants, who are generally far less high-and-mighty, more ready to adapt themselves to circumstances, and to help in emergencies than English; and there is little which Luigi cannot or will not do. He excels in domestic service, and waits at table with cheerful alacrity; he is prompt and entirely trustworthy in the execution of commissions; his management of a garden or of poultry is masterly, and he can ably supply, at need, the place of cook. I fear he thinks my list of acquaintances woefully limited, and fancies my life must have been a retired one, as, though several of his relations have been in service in English families, few of these have been known to me, even by name. In response to the question whether I know the ‘Signor Clar-r-rk-e who stays at London,’ or the ‘Signora Adam who has a house in Wales’, it grieves me to reply in the negative, and, seeing Luigi’s rising eyebrows, I hasten to explain that, England being a large place, there still remain a considerable number of people whom it has not been my privilege to meet’. ‘Well, did the Signorina know the Signor Georgio Augusto Sala, a gentleman much distinguished, to whom his cousin Torquato had been butler?’ Ah, at last fate was kind ! I had heard of him, though, being still in my nursery at the time of his death, I had been denied his acquaintance. Still, even so, it united us with the pleasant sensation of a ‘mutual friend’, and Luigi often seizes the occasion for exchanging a few words on the subject of this eminent man.

Luigi, with all his virtues, is by no means an exception, Italian servants being for the most part a cheery, bright-mannered race, as well the women as the men. The demure English maid, in her black dress, capped and aproned, is unknown in Italy except in those houses where foreign mistresses have introduced foreign customs. The Italian maid dresses in whatever colours please her taste – and her taste is usually gay. She wears an apron, but would scorn the innovation of a cap. She chats pleasantly with her mistress, is not blameless of hearty laughter as she waits at meals if the conversation happens to amuse her, and carols cheerily at her work about the house. But it is all done in sheer good spirits and lightness of heart, and the Italian possesses an innate courtesy which never degenerates into familiarity, and, talk as much as one will to a contadino or servant, there is little fear of being taken liberties with or treated with less respect. Adelina or Domenica will, as a matter of course, comment admiringly upon your clothes, and probably ask where you got them and other details, wishing thereby to show a friendly interest; in reply to your remark that the weather is beautiful, will come, not unlikely, the charming rejoinder, ‘Anche lei, Signorina’ (You, too, Signorina) – little amenities which are assuredly productive of good-temper and oil the wheels of life, and no servant, unless in a very ceremonious family, would think of passing through a room while a meal was in progress without a ‘buon appetito’ (good appetite), to the company, or see you leave the house without wishing you ‘good diversion’ or a ‘pleasant walk!’ The lower-class Italian, especially of peasant birth, is, in fact, a fascinating person, and although in these modern days his costume as a rule is painfully prosaic, his name is usually sonorous and high-sounding, more befitting a hero of romance than a domestic servant in a work-a-day world. A burly ox-driver will, for instance, answer to the charming title of ‘Angiolino’ (the little angel); the cook, a cunning old soul, who robs his mistress on the marketing, but serves dishes fit for the gods, will probably inform you that his name is ‘Innocente’, while it is most likely ‘Paradise’ or ‘Narciso’ who waits at table and cleans your boots.

Scoppio del Carro, c. 1910 13/01/2011

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c. 1910

There is still a Pazzi fund towards the expenses, but a few years ago the city became responsible for the whole proceedings, and the ceremony as it is now given, under civic management, known as the Scoppio del Carro, is that which I saw on Holy Saturday last and am about to describe. First, however, let me state what had happened before the proceedings opened in the Piazza del Duomo. At six o’clock mass began at SS. Apostoli, lasting for more than two hours. At its close the celebrant was handed a plate on which were the sacred flints, and these he struck with a steel in view of the congregation, thus igniting a taper. The candle, in an ancient copper porta fuoco surmounted by a dove, was then lighted, and the procession of priests started off for the cathedral with their precious flame, escorted by a civic guard and various standard bearers. Their route was the Piazza del Limbo, along the Borgo SS. Apostoli to the Via Por S. Maria and through the Vacchereccia to the Piazza della Signoria, the Via Condotta, the Via del Proconsolo, to the Duomo, through whose central doors they passed, depositing the sacred burden at the high altar. I should add that anyone on the route in charge of a street shrine had the right to stop the procession in order to take a light from it; while at SS. Apostoli women congregated with tapers and lanterns in the hope of getting these kindled from the sacred flame, in order to wash their babies or cook their food in water heated with the fire. Meanwhile at seven o’clock the four oxen, which are kept in the Cascine all the year round and do no other work, had been harnessed to the car and had drawn it to  the Piazza del Duomo, which was reached about nine. The oxen were then tethered by the Pisano doors of the Baptistery until needed again.

After some haggling on the night before, I had secured a seat on a balcony facing Ghiberti’s first Baptistery doors, for eleven lire, and to this place I went at half-past ten. The piazza was then filling up, and at a quarter to eleven the trams running between the Cathedral and the Baptistery were stopped. In this space was the car. The present one, which dates from 1622, is more like a catafalque, and unless one sees it in motion, with the massive white oxen pulling it, one cannot believe in it as a vehicle at all. It is some thirty feet high, all black, with trumpery coloured paper festoons (concealing fireworks) upon it: trumpery as only the Roman Catholic Church can contrive.

It stood in front of the Duomo some four yards from the Baptistery gates in a line with the Duomo’s central doors and the high altar. The doors were open, seats being placed on each side of the aisle the whole distance, and people making a solid avenue. Down this avenue were to come the clergy, and above it was to be stretched the line on which the dove was to travel from the altar, with the Pazzi fire, to ignite the car. The space in front of the cathedral was cleared at about eleven, and cocked hats and red-striped trousers then became the most noticeable feature. The crowd was jolly and perhaps a little cynical; picture-postcard hawkers made most of the noise, and for some reason or other a forlorn peasant took this opportunity to offer for sale two equally forlorn hedgehogs. Each moment the concourse increased, for it is a fateful day and every one wants to know the issue: because, you see, if the dove runs true, lights the car, and returns, as a good dove should, to the altar ark, there will be a prosperous vintage and the pyrotechnist who controls the sacred bird’s movements will receive his wages. But if the dove runs defectively and there is any hitch, every one is dismayed, for the harvest will be bad and the pyrotechnist will receive nothing. Once he was imprisoned when things went astray and quite right too but the Florentines have grown more lenient.

At about a quarter past eleven a procession of clergy emerged from the Duomo and crossed the space to the Baptistery. First, boys and youths in surplices. Then some scarlet hoods, waddling. Then purple hoods, and other colours, a little paunchier, waddling more, and lastly the archbishop, very sumptuous. All having disappeared into the Baptistery, through Ghiberti’s second gates, which I never saw opened before, the dove’s wire was stretched and fastened, a matter needing much care; and the crowds began to surge. The cocked hats and officers had the space all to themselves, with the car, the firemen, the pyrotechnist and the few privileged and very self-conscious civilians who were allowed inside.

A curious incident, which many years ago might have been magnified into a portent, occurred while the ecclesiastics were in the Baptistery. Some one either bought and liberated several air balloons, or the string holding them was surreptitiously cut; but however it happened, the balls escaped and suddenly the crowd sent up a triumphant yell. At first I could see no reason for it, the Baptistery intervening, but then the balls swam into our ken and steadily floated over the cathedral out of sight amid tremendous satisfaction. And the portent? Well, as they moved against the blue sky they formed themselves into precisely the pattern of the palle on the Medici escutcheon. That is all. But think what that would have meant in the fifteenth century; the nods and frowns it would have occasioned; the dispersal of the Medici, the loss of power, and all the rest of it, that it would have presaged!

At about twenty to twelve the ecclesiastics returned and were swallowed up by the Duomo, and then excitement began to be acute. The pyrotechnist was not free from it; he fussed about nervously; he tested everything again and again; he crawled under the car and out of it; he talked to officials; he inspected and re-inspected. Photographers began to adjust their distances; the detached men in bowlers looked at their watches; the cocked hats drew nearer to the Duomo door. And then we heard a tearing noise. All eyes were turned to the great door, and out rushed the dove emitting a wake of sparks, entered the car and was out again on its homeward journey before one realized what had happened. And then the explosions began, and the bells silent since Thursday broke out. How many explosions there were I do not know; but they seemed to go on for ten minutes. This is a great moment not only for the spectator but for all Florence, for in myriad rooms mothers have been waiting, with their babies on their knees, for the first clang of the belfries, because if a child’s eyes are washed then it is unlikely ever to have weak sight, while if a baby takes its first steps to this accompaniment its legs will not be bowed. At the last explosion the pyrotechnist, now a calm man once more and a proud one, approached the car, the firemen poured water on smouldering parts, and the work of clearing up began. Then came the patient oxen, their horns and hooves gilt, and great masses of flowers on their heads, and red cloths with the lily of Florence on it over their backs much to be regretted since they obliterated their beautiful white skins and slowly the car lumbered off, and, the cocked hats relenting, the crowd poured after it and the Scoppio del Carro was over.

Looking for Pinoli 12/01/2011

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c. 1900

Each contadino has a piece of the wood allotted to him, and when the vintage is over, and the sowing of the grain and pressing of the olives not yet begun, the pinecones are gathered and stored. This raccolta is no easy matter, as the cones do not fall of themselves, but must be forcibly detached. One of the men mounts the tall bare trunk, on which the succession of knots and lopped branches forms a rude ladder, and at last sits perched, like some fantastic bird, high among the boughs. Then a perilous process to any but an agile and skilful climber he cuts the cones with a sharp knife attached to a long pole, and they fall to the ground, to be gathered by the rest of the family into heaps. Care must be taken, however, to keep at a safe distance while the actual rain of cones continues, as they fall with all the force of heavy stones, and a blow on the head would be enough to severely injure, if not kill, a man.

The Tuscan folk are wonderfully attractive, with their dark eyes, sunny smiles, and warm-hearted, winning ways, and our arrival was greeted by the whole group with a cheery ‘Buon giorno alla Signoria!’ Dario’s wife was there, the little Madonna face looking sweeter than ever under a gay yellow handkerchief. Close by, gathering more diligently than anyone, was a deaf and dumb woman who has an immense reputation for fieldwork, and general utility, since, being denied the gift of speech, she cannot, as the men-folk say approvingly, waste the time in chattering like the rest of her sex, and must, perforce, remain ‘as still as oil’. Another of the party was Giocondo, who, however, belies his name of the ‘jocund’, being a pensive soul, ‘sad and civil’, and inclined to take a mournful view of life. Perhaps this is because he has proved the fallacy of the Psalmist’s unqualified statement that he who getteth a wife, getteth a good thing. ‘La Gioconda’ is not a treasure in domestic life, being sickly in mind and body, manifesting a feeble incapacity both for work in the fields and work in the house. Moreover, she brought as her only dowry an elderly and unamiable father, who has encamped by poor Giocondo’s fireside, and will neither lend a helping hand in work, nor withdraw the shadow of his presence from his unfortunate son-in-law’s house. Therefore, perhaps it is hardly to be wondered at if Giocondo sighs windily as he kneads the bread and performs his other duties about the Fattoria.

Half a dozen young girls, picturesque in their faded clothes, and with the lovely hair which knows the touch of sun and wind and rain alike, were busy together, chattering over their work like mill-wheels; and I saw more than one pair of eyes turned towards the fascinating Fiore, who is undoubtedly the best-looking ‘Giovanotto’ on the place, and will, it is safe to prophesy, have little trouble  in finding a ‘sposina’ when he turns his mind towards such things. At present he could hardly marry even if he wished to do so, as his eldest sister is only sixteen, and until she is of an age to be carried off to a home of her own, and leave a vacant place, there is no room in the family circle for any daughter-in-law.

The patriarchal fashion in which the contadini live, each family under its own capoccia or head, and the habit of taking the wives of sons into the house to share the work and submit to the domestic ruler, makes this arrangement of a double wedding necessary in most cases, as the sister’s departure makes room for the brother’s wife. Mafalda, arrived at the scene of action, set to work with praiseworthy energy, gathering pine-cones in her pinafore and depositing them on the heap which Dario and Giocondo and Fiore were dexterously transferring from the ground to the cart.

The small rustics, in their overalls and clumping, wooden-soled shoes, eyed her with consuming interest mingled with admiration; and as she returned from one of her journeys with an empty pinafore, the gallant Morino, Giocondo’s five-year old boy, shyly held out a branch of arbutus, bright with its scarlet and golden fruit. Mafalda received it silently, but with a smile as gracious as a princess, and came hastening to me, full of excitement over the pretty shrub, which she had never before seen. ‘Have you seen, you, that he gave it me, quel bimbo, that little boy there?’ she asked eagerly. ‘I like him: he is molto gentile; his clothes is ugly, but the little face it is very nice.’ Then, as a sudden desire for knowledge awoke in her,

‘What they do with them, these pinecones, when they get them to house?’ ‘They put them in the fire, or in hot water,’ I explained, always glad to see Mafalda’s mind opening to instruction, ‘and the heat makes these little scales unfold, do you see, my sweet one? And below every scale lies a nut, warm and snug. Then the nuts are taken out and cracked, and are good to eat, and to cook, and for, oh! ever so many things, and the empty cones are sold for fuel, to make fires when the winter comes.’

Mafalda was deeply impressed by this information. Her eyes opened to their widest extent; the mystery of the hidden nuts sleeping at the fragrant heart of the pine seemed to appeal to her, for she remained silent and nodded her head thoughtfully several times. ‘I take a cone to house, also I,’ she finally announced with determination; ‘and tonight we put her in the fire and take out her nuts, non e vero?’

Certainly we might do many things less amusing, so Mafalda selected a particularly noble and symmetrical specimen from among the piles before her, for the revels which we were to enjoy in that delightful hour which begins with the clearing away of the tea-cups, and is bounded so sadly and so soon for small people by the summons to bed.

By this time the short November afternoon was drawing to a close; the day’s work was over, the last load was ready, and the cones piled so near to the level of the high waggon-sides, that it seemed as if no place would remain for us. Mafalda was much distressed. ‘Must we go on feet?’ she asked anxiously, using a form which, when one comes to think of it, is really more reasonable than our usual idiom, since no one person, much less two, could possibly return to the house on a single foot. However, her mind was set at rest by the courteous Dario, who scooped out a nest in the middle, lining it with sacks that we might not suffer too much from the hard and knobbly cones. We scrambled up, helped by the contadini, all of them loud in their injunctions to Fiore, who was to lead the oxen, to star’ attento and not jolt the signorine; then, with much pomp and circumstance, we set off, a proud procession, on the precipitous descent.

The woods were dim and mysterious, grave with the quiet of evening, haunted by shadows and evasive presences which lurked among the trees; and it was pleasant in the misty grey of the twilight to picture the fire of blazing logs awaiting us, the welcome tea, and, beyond that agreeable horizon, the burning of the pinecones as a fitting conclusion to the day.

Mafalda could scarcely eat her bread-and-jam in her impatience to begin operations, and no sooner was tea over than she committed her pine-cone to the flames. ‘May I sit upon it, the knee?’ she asked with her accustomed courtesy, after this important business was accomplished; and so we sat bunched up together in a great chair in the chimney-corner, and possessed our souls in patience while the glowing tongues of fire did their work. It was a real story-book scene: the warm glow from the logs flickered upon the tapestry and old portraits, and up to the vaulted roof of the salotto; the dogs lay basking in the warmth; the splash of the fountain in the garden, and the wail of the rising wind as it tossed a handful of dead leaves against the window-panes, only emphasised the cosiness within. It was a magical hour, made for musing and dreams; but Mafalda was in a garrulous mood, and too deeply concerned over the well-being of her precious pine-cone to watch it quietly on its glowing bed.

‘The pine-cone, she feel very hot,’ she pleaded presently. ‘If she not cool she burn me the hand!’ And as the cone really did seem to have opened its ‘petals’, I acceded to this request and removed it with the tongs to a corner of the stone hearth. From time to time, as we waited for this cooling process, the slipping of a charred log sent a cloud of red sparks up the chimney, and Mafalda, of course, wanted a tale about these ‘sons of the burning coal’,  as the old Hebrews called them. I might have expected as much! Had she ever heard the sensational story of the army of fire fairies who lived in the heart of the wood? No? Well, the pine-log was the mother of all the fire fairies, and some of her children were good and some were naughty, and when she told them to do no harm to anyone, but to fly right away up the chimney into the sky, some said, ‘Yes, mother,’ and others said, ‘I don’t care’, and jumped out on the rug, and made holes in it, and sat down on the dogs and made them cry, and were just as disobedient as… some little girls could be!

Mafalda gazed pensively at the ceiling. Her air of detachment said plainly that though such little girls might exist perhaps on the dark side of the planet she had no dealings with or knowledge of them, and considered the allusion uncalled for and ill-timed. ‘Was there no good ones?’ she asked. ‘Yes; there was one who was as good as good could be! And he didn’t make holes in people’s pinafores, nor sit down on the rug to make it burn, nor on the dogs to make them cry, like the bad fairies; but he just flew up the chimney when his mother told him, ever so high. Yes, right in the air!’ as Mafalda’s face expressed the liveliest interest in the ascent of the virtuous spark. ‘And then, what is happened?’ ‘The angels caught him and blew on him, as Santina blows the fire, till he grew big and very bright and yellow; and then they made a little hole in the sky and planted him in, and he has been a star, a beautiful shining star, ever since, because he was good, and did what his mother the pine-log told him, and went up in the air instead of sitting down to make a blaze; and he looks in through the window every night at good children when they are in bed.’ Mafalda drew a long sigh of satisfaction. ‘Will he look at me to-night?’ she asked eagerly. ‘Of course, unless a cloud gets in his way. But the cone must be cool now, so we had better begin to take out our nuts.’

The extraction of pinoli is one of the dirtiest occupations imaginable, the cones being sticky with resin, and blackened by flame; but Mafalda and I have no objection to ‘clean dirt’ in a good cause, and, as the former sapiently observed, ‘With the soap we can wash us the hands’; so by bedtime that is to say, the bedtime of well-regulated young people of six quite a large heap had been got out and cracked. Mafalda was charmed by the whole proceedings; but her pleasure reached its height when, very carefully, I opened one of the pinoli and showed her, in the safe sheath, trebly protected by nutshell and cone, the tiny waxen hand, with its slender fingers, which the countrypeople call the ‘Manina di Gesu’. She went into ecstasies over “this little hand white’ and was not content until she had opened one for herself, a delicate operation, not easy for impatient, childish fingers to perform. At last Mafalda was led off’, reluctant, to bed; and ten minutes later I was leaning over her, and, obedient to her instruction, ‘more tuck’, straining the bedclothes to that unwrinkled smoothness which this exacting little person requires. Sitting up, she herself smooths away every crease from the tightly drawn sheet and counterpane, and then slides cautiously into a recumbent position, fearful of disturbing in the least degree the perfect neatness of her bed.

Wine-making in 1874 29/12/2010

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1874

In this pleasant and picturesque old mansion were assembled a joyous company, mixed Italian and English, for the vintage of 1874. To the advent of the forestieri was ascribed by the courteous contadini the splendid yield of grapes, better than they had seen for twenty-six years. [Note here in the text: That is to say, since the outbreak of the iodium. To give some idea of the virulence of the disease, the farms on this estate, though two less in number, used to produce at least two thousand barile of wine ; and in this, an exceptional year, the yield was only one thousand one hundred. One year, when the disease was at its height, they had five barile of stuff resembling mud! A barile holds fifty litres.]

On a fine September morning we started, Italian and English, men and women, masters and mistresses, and servants laden with innumerable baskets, big and little, each armed with a rough pair of scissors, and our padrona leading the way, with her guitar, pouring out as she went an endless flow of stornelli, rispetti, and canzoni, in which Tuscany is as rich as in any of the country products, maize or figs, pumpkins or tomatoes, oil or wine, or grain, the Italians amongst us improvising words to the well-known airs.

The vintage is always a happy time; everyone works with a will, and is contented and light-hearted. As Modesto, one of our men, said, ‘Buon vino fa buon sangue’ (Good wine makes good blood).

The old fattore (bailiff), who had retired from all active work on the estate, except the management of his especial pets, the vineyards alla francese (vines cut low in the French fashion, and not allowed to straggle from tree to tree as is the Tuscan usage), was very great on this occasion. He pointed out trees he had planted, and works he had done, fifty years ago, before the padrone was born. The dear old man was now seventy-eight, and as brisk and alert as any of us; with an eye still bright, and his keen, humorous face as full of vivacity as the youngest. He was full of old proverbs and wise sayings, like all peasants of the Casentino, his native region, about twenty miles south-west of Florence; and looked sharply after all our workmen to see that each duly did the picking of his row of vines. He was struck with great admiration at the way in which Englishmen, and women too, worked, and quite concerned for the repeated drenchings in perspiration of a strenuous old gentleman of the party, remarking gravely, ‘Questo povero Signor Antonio! ma suda troppo!’ (‘This poor Mr. Tom, he sweats too much’). He chuckled when we got hot and red under the burning sun, gracefully putting it to the ladies, ‘Il sole di Italia vi ha baciato’ (‘the sun of Italy has kissed you’).

By eleven we were thoroughly tired, and went to rest under the scanty shade of the olives and fig trees with our guitar. One of the young peasants had lost his grandfather in Russia with Napoleon I, and we called him up, and told him to sing about the great general. He sung to a favourite stornello air:

‘Guarda, Napoleon, quello che fai ;

La meglio giovcntu tutta la vuoi,

E le ragazze te le friggerai.’

‘Napoleon, fa le cose giuste,

Falla la coscrizion delle ragazze,

Piglia le belle, e lasciar star le brutte.’

‘Napoleon, te ne pentirai!

La meglio gioventu tutta la vuoi;

Della vecchiaia, che te ne farai.’

‘Napoleon, non ti stimar guerriero

A Mosca lo troveresti l’osso duro,

All’ isola dell’ Elba prigioniero.’

(‘While you go our youths collecting, All our pretty girls neglecting, Pause, Napoleon, and beware. Deal more justly with all classes, Make conscription of the lasses, Leave the plain and choose the fair. Napoleon, if with ruthless hand, Of its flower you mow the land: In old age you’ll pay it dear. Boast not, tyrant, of your glory, Moscow’s plains were grim and gory, Elba was a prison drear.’)

Twelve o’clock brought a welcome arrival – lunch from the villa. Grape-picking is a capital sharpener of the appetite. We were soon reclining – sub tegmine fagi – round a steaming dish of risotto con funghi, and a knightly sirloin of roast beef, which would have done honour to old England. A big fiasco (a large bottle bound round with reeds or straw, and holding three ordinary bottles) of last year’s red wine was soon emptied, well tempered, I should say, with water from the neighbouring well. At a little distance the labourers in the vineyard were enjoying the unwonted luxury of a big wooden bowl full of white beans crowned with polpette, little sausages of minced meat and rice.

We first gathered all the white grapes. These were transferred from our small baskets to big ones, placed at the end of each row of vines. These bigger baskets were then carried on men’s backs to the villa, where the grapes were laid out to dry in one of the towers, on stoie, great trays made of canes. Here they are exposed to sun and air for some weeks, when they are used for making the vin’ santo. After the white grapes were gathered, we fell to on the black, of the choice kinds, the San Giovese, the Aleatico, the Colorino, and the Occhio di Pernice.

These also were destined to be exposed on stoie in the same manner. They are used as governo, that is to say, when the new wine is racked for the first time these choice black grapes are put in, so as to cause another fermentation, they at once deepen the colour of the wine and make it clear.

How melancholy the vines looked stripped of their grapes! The glorious white and golden, and pink and deep red bunches had given a beauty to the landscape which one did not realise until they were gone, and the poor vines stood bare.

In our discussions about the progress of our work, the time of day often came in question. The old fattore was very anxious to know how we in England knew the hour, as he had heard that our churches did not ring the Ave Maria at midday or in the evening. He had, doubtless, a settled conviction that we were little better than heathens, but was too polite to say so. We explained that we had abundance of both big clocks and little watches; but he answered, ‘Ma che’  (with a horizontal wave of the hand), ‘I have a watch too. I set it by the Ave Maria and hardly ever use it. At midday, when the Ave Maria rings, we know we are to eat; and when we hear it at sundown, twenty-four o’clock, as we say here, we leave off work; and at one o’clock of night (an hour after sunset) it rings again so that we may remember our dead and say an Ave for them.’ All our arguments to prove that clocks and watches might be good substitutes for the Ave Maria were useless, and he remained stanch to his idea that England must be a wretched place without the Ave Maria ‘Si deve star male in Inghilterra senza Ave Maria.’

At last the beautiful great white oxen, with their large, soft, black eyes, tassels of red and yellow worsted dangling about the roots of their horns and over their cool moist noses, came to the edge of the vineyard drawing a large vat (tino) fixed on the cart. Into this all the remaining grapes were thrown. A handsome lad of sixteen, after tucking up his trousers and washing his feet in a bucket of water drawn from the well close by, jumped atop of the vat and lustily stamped down the contents, singing as he plied his purple-stained feet: ‘Bella bellina, chi vi ha fatto gli occhi? Che ve gli ha fatti tanto innamorati? Da letto levereste gli ammalati, Di sotto terra levereste i morti. Tanto valore e tanta valoranza! Vostri begli occhi son la mia speranza.’ (‘My lovely charmer, who hath made thine eyes, That fill our bosoms with such ecstasies? Their glance would draw the sick man from his bed, Or haply pierce the tomb and raise the dead. Oh! my sweet love, thy beauty and thy worth, Are all my hope and all my joy on earth.’)

Of such tender sentiment and musical sound are the songs of the Tuscan ‘roughs’. These songs are most of them the composition, both words and airs, of the peasants and artisans who sing them. The hills round Pistoia and the streets of Florence ring with an ever-renewed outpour of such sweet and simple song.

The padrone prides himself much on his fine breed of oxen, and told us the old Tuscan proverb, ‘Chi ha carro e buoi,fa bene i fatti suoi’ (‘Whoso has cart and oxen does good business’).

When the last load of grapes was carted off we returned to the villa, where we found all hands busy in the great courtyard of the fattoria on one side of the villa, emptying the grapes and must out of the vats with wooden bigoncie, high wooden pails without handles. These are carried on men’s shoulders, and their contents poured into immense vats (tino) ranged all round the courtyard under covered arcades. In our wine-shed (tinaia) there are about fifty of these, containing from five to fifty butts each, besides three large square reservoirs of stone each holding three hundred barrels. The bubbling and boiling of the fermenting wine fills the air, and the smell is almost strong enough to get drunk upon. The men often do get tipsy, if they remain too long treading the grapes, or drawing off the new wine.

But here it is an article of faith that the perfume of the must is the best medicine, and people bring weakly children to tread the grapes and remain in the tinaia to breathe the fume-laden air and eat of the fresh fruit; for at vintage-time no peasant or padrone refuses grapes to anyone who asks. They say that il buon Dio has given them plenty, and why should they in their turn not give to those who have nothing?

I suppose this universal readiness to give is one reason why there is so little stealing here. You see vines full of fruit close to the roads, and quite unprotected by any sort of fence, and yet no one of the country-side ever takes them. There are, it is true, certain malfamati villages, whose inhabitants have the reputation of thieves, and against these, and pilferers from the large towns, the vineyards are guarded by men armed with guns, with which they keep popping the night through. At times you see twenty or thirty poor people standing quietly looking on, until called up to receive their dole of grapes, with which they go away happy, with their graceful ‘Dio ve ne renda merito’. At home they will mix water with the must they squeeze out of their basket or apronful of such ungrudged gifts, and make mezzo vino, or acquavello (water and wine fermented together), for the winter.

The same thing is done on a large scale at many fattorie. This mixture of wine and water is distributed to the poor in winter, and is the common drink of the workmen about the villa. After the first good wine is drawn off from the vats, the vinaccia (skins, grape-stones, and stalks) is put into the press, and the second wine pressed out. This is good, but considerably rougher, from the larger amount of tannin, due to the skins and stalks, than that which is drawn off from the vats after fermentation without any agency of the press. After passing through the press, the clots of vinaccia are again put into the vats, and water is poured upon them. In eight or ten days a fresh fermentation takes place, and the vinaccia is once more pressed in the wine-press. This gives mezzo vino, or acquarello (half-wine), not at all bad, but of course of insufficient body to keep through the summer. For this there is no want of demand at the villa. Besides the rations of the workpeople, there are the poveri del buon Dio.

In Tuscany there are no almshouses or poorhouses, save in the chief towns. Most villas have one or two days in the week when alms are distributed to all who come and ask. Here the gathering of poor occurs every Monday and Thursday, at ten in the morning. A hunch of bread, a glass of half-wine, and five centimes are doled out to every applicant, and on Christmas Day anyone who brings a fiasco has it filled with mezzo-vino, and gets half a loaf of bread and a half a pound of uncooked meat. Such has been the custom, I am told, for many hundred years.

Our happy holiday vintaging lasted for five days, and then we went to help the vintaging of one of the contadini of the padrone, a family that had been on the estate for two hundred and eighty years. All their vines were trained Tuscan fashion on maples, and we had the help of ladders and steps to gather the grapes. Half the grapes, and indeed half of all the produce of the land – grain, pumpkins, flax, fruit, or wine – belongs to the padrone, who pays all the taxes and buys the cattle. The contadino pays no rent for his house, which the padrone keeps in repair. The peasant gives the labour, and the master finds the capital. This is, in rough outline, the system of mezzeria, or half-and-half tenure, still universal in Tuscany. Like all human things, it has two sides, and may be condemned as the most backward, or defended as the most patriarchal and wholesome of systems, binding landlord and tenant in the bond of an obviously common interest, and encouraging the closest and most familiar relations between the two. When the landlord is intelligent, active, and judicious, he may become a centre of enlightenment and improvement to his tenantry; but all his attempts must be made with the most cautious discretion, or he will infallibly frighten, and perhaps alienate, his tenantry, who are thorough Conservatives, and love stare super antiques vias. Thus the best commentary on the Georgics is still agriculture in action in Tuscany, a passing peep into one of whose most pleasing chapters has been attempted in this paper.

The Duomo Completed! 23/12/2010

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1887

I write to you on the great festa day. The bells have just been ringing, all over the city, in token that the Duomo is unveiled; and the work begun six hundred years ago is finished. I am writing to you alone, here in my little room. Edwige has gone off for a first sight of her beloved church; she is entirely wild, and, after the many troubles of her life, behaves as if she were not more than sixteen. I had meant to stay at home until the excitement was over, having little heart for any sort of gaiety after all that I have lost the past winter; but she, after trying every sort of argument yesterday to induce me to go and look at the decorations in the Piazza, finally said in a grieved tone, ‘If the Signorina did not go to look at the Duomo, shewould not be a true Florentine’, which terrible threat finally sent me down there, though the streets swarming with people like a hive of bees. But it was a grand sight!

It seemed as if all the towns in the neighbourhood had emptied themselves into Florence, and everybody so proud and happy, it was a pleasure to see. Even the poorest tried to dress a little better than usual, just because they were Florentines, and this was their festa (and Edwige put on her new silk handkerchief, that she never wore before, ‘for love of the Duomo’). Banners on all the houses, gay draperies from windows and balconies; the palaces hung out their rich silks and brocades, and the poor always managed to find a bright coloured table-cloth, or something to look gay. I went into the church; it was hung with thousands of candles, prepared for today’s illumination. People were passing in and out, but there was no service going on. Many were on their knees, giving thanks, I suppose. But I will not lose time in writing what you will see in all the papers. There was much that was touching, and solemn, even a little sad. Especially so to me, the revival of the old times, never dead in Florence shown by many of the shopkeepers placing over their doors the banners once belonging to their particular arts. It brought more tears than smiles, to see the grand old banner of the wool trade hanging over a pile of blankets and coarse flannel, at a shop door in Borgo S. Lorenzo because it was not done in a masquerading spirit, but one knew the dealer in woollens wanted to believe, and make others believe, in his relationship to the great people of the old time. And other things were altogether gay, among the rest to see the visitors from the country (some of them in the most extraordinary dresses; I saw two young girls in dresses, evidently home-made, of the red Turkey cotton generally used for linings to quilts) enjoying their very light meals in the open air, at the doors of cafes and restaurants, decorated with plants in full blossom.

Bonciani borrowed all the best of the plants on the terrace, to make what he called a ‘prospettiva’ at the door of the hotel. A young girl yesterday in my room made the rather singular remark, ‘How hard it must be for people to die while the festas are going on!’ To which Edwige replied, ‘It does not make any difference; people have to die just the same. But there will never be such another festa for a hundred years. I suppose then there will be a centennial because now people have centennials for everything; but we shall not be here to see it.’ She sighed at the idea that we should not see the centennial of the Duomo, then her face suddenly brightened and she said, ‘But perhaps they have centennials in the other world. And perhaps we shall see it if we have a good place there.’