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City and Country 21/07/2011

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c. 1905

One of the delights of the hills round Florence is their entire rusticity. The easy access from the city, the constant coming and going, the numerous foreign settlers, the eager seekers of villeggiature, have not destroyed the country life of these radiant rustic regions. For this reason it may be truly said that Florence has no suburbs. A few minutes in the tram and the traveller might be in the olive orchards of the Versilia, or taking agricultural notes from the simple courteous peasants in the heart of the fertile Casentino. The dwellers about Fiesole, at San Domenico, at Settignano, at Maiano, at Careggi, are so many country gentlemen, and are as busied about pressing oil, or making wine, or drying orris-root, as are the dwellers in the town about study, painting, banking, or the delightful Florentine pleasures of this world. These inhabitants of the alluring hills have a character so much their own, that I seem to recognise a country mouse in the Via Tornabuoni, though it has only taken him a few minutes to get there. 

English settlers abound on the hills, another proof of what I have said, that the Englishman, rather than any other foreigner, has the keenest eye for the recondite beauties, and I will now add for the solid comforts, of Italy. Life up here is entirely charming: completely rustic, as I said, but wholly free from the bumpkin element. Our town-mouse friends are frequent visitors, keep our interest fresh and keen in the city’s doings, and prevent us ever sinking into mere Boeotian country mice. It is the country, agricultural, horticultural, floricultural, but the country under ideal conditions.

One of its chief joys is the constant beauty of the outlook. Whether it be winter with the distant hills covered with snow, or summer with its green floor below and blue vault above, the scene is everlastingly beautiful. Then Florence is for ever under our eyes, the text of morning and evening meditations, daily increasing in beauty, as it seems, because of our daily increasing love and understanding of it. So great is its individuality, so far-reaching its part in universal history, so potent its possession of our better self, that we think of it as a system apart: there is that resplendent sun, Brunelleschi’s cupola, with, for moon, the lesser cupola of the Medicean Chapel; there are those seven planets in the Florentine heaven, the Torre del Leone, the Campanile, the tower of the Bargello, the cupola of Santo Spirito, the spires of the Badia, of Santa Croce, of Santa Maria Novella, with constellations too many to enumerate; and there, over towards San Donnino, is the milky way of the winding Arno.

Every glance at the city recalls the noblest memories: the Gonfalonier! and great Princes who have governed the State, the holy Archbishops who have ruled the Church, the Saints who here chose the better part, the glories of the Franciscan, the greater glories of the Dominican, the civilising mission of the Benedictine Order, the builders, the painters, the sculptors, the poets, the scholars, the soldiers, the merchants memories of all are recalled by a glance at one or other of these constellations in the Florentine firmament. Truly our morning and evening meditations never lack for a subject, and are rich in food for the mind and fraught with good for the soul.

Visibly Extinct Yet Present 14/05/2011

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c. 1825

Most of the houses, I believe, in  this quarter of the world as well as others, have  changed masters; but perhaps there is no coumtry  where the old families are more visibly extinct. This is owing to the comparative smallness of the metropolis to the decrease of the ancient commerce, and to its cheapness as a place of  residence. The stranger’s book-recollections are  kept alive at every step. The palaces of the  Medici, Rucellai, &c. look as if they were built yesterday. The six balls, the arms of the Medici, meet him at all comers; and as he walks along  streets famous in Italian history and tales, he is  now shown a Corsini on horseback, now the  house of a Michael Angelo, (a lineal descendant  of the family), now a Capponi comig along, who  is said to inherit the independent spirit of his old  patriot ancestors. The first night I slept in Florence I was kept awake by guitars. When I got  into lodgings, the first thing I saw, on. looking out  of window, was an inscription on the house opposite, purporting that it was the ‘Hospital of the  Abbey of Vallambrosa’: visiting the annual,  exhibition of pictures, I see a piece from the pencil of a young lady of the name of Vespacci [Vespucci – buried at San Miniato?],  a descendant of the Vespacci who gave his name  to America: And walking out into the country,  Fiesole and Boccaccio burst upon me from the  hills. Even the unfinished state in which many  of the public edifices remain the cathedral included, and the exquisite vestibule of the Laurentian Library, adds to the present aspect of  past times. Michael Angelo seems but to have  gone home to his dinner. Michael Angelo’s own  house is still remaining; and there is a white  stone let into the footing of the long stone bench  that runs along the wall of the Piazza del Duomo; which they say marks out the spot where  Dante used to sit of an evening. Add to all this,  the River Amo, and the Statue that enchants the world,  and ‘this is worshipful society’.

Savonarola Leads a Procession 31/01/2011

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The procession took place in 1496 and is reported here from Burlamacchi’s Life of Savonarola

First having heard Mass, all communicated, and with palms in their hands went to the sermon in the cathedral, at which the children assembled in such multitudes that they occupied that morning all the four parts of the galleries (round the walls). When it was over they all went to the church of the Annunziata, from there they set out and went to the door of the first cloister of St. Mark’s; entering through the cloister they came to the church, where they gave to each a red cross. Leaving St. Mark’s, they went by the Via Larga to St. John’s, where they went in, in pairs, grouped according to their quarters in the town. The procession was followed humbly and devotedly by the bearers of the tabernacle, whereon was painted the Saviour, seated on the ass and surrounded by many people, who strewed their garments on the ground, and it seemed as if they sang in a loud voice, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. Facing it there was a painting of a Virgin of marvellous beauty with the crown which was presented to her by the Father [Savonarola] when he went as ambassador [to the King of France], and the crown was borne up by angels.

After the tabernacle came many pairs of children in the guise of most beautiful angels, who seemed to have come out of Paradise. There were eight thousand of them, and it was a marvellous thing, taking into account their order, the distance they walked, their silence. Thus they marched, singing psalms with great fervour and spirit and saying the office. Many of them carried dishes in their hands in which to receive alms for the Monte de Pietà (Public Loan Offices).

After the children walked in order the monks, and then the clergy, followed by a large number of men (seculars), with the red crosses and an olive-branch in their hands. Then came the girls dressed in white with garlands on their heads, and at the end all the women. So great was the zeal that day that not only children and women, but even grave and noble men, full of wisdom and prudence, forgetting this worldly wisdom, robed themselves in white like the children, and danced and sang before the tabernacle of the Saviour as did David before the Ark. Despising the world’s pomps, they held the olive-branches and red crosses in their hands, and they shouted ceaselessly, in high voices like the children, ‘Long live Christ, our King’. And there was such joy in their hearts that it seemed as if the glory of Paradise had descended to earth; and many tears of joy and devotion were shed.

They came in this manner to the Piazza di Signoria, where they sang some verses in honour of the day by Girolamo Benevieni, one of which begins: ‘Live long in our hearts, long live Fiorenza’. And from the piazza (square), still singing and rejoicing, they went round the city, coming at last to the cathedral church of St. Mary of the Flowers. They entered and offered to God their hearts and spirits, committing to Him the city, and offering all the alms, which they had received in large quantities for the Monte di Pietà. Not only were the children’s dishes full of money, rings, jewels, and other precious things, but also many other dishes, which were placed on an altar of marvellous grandeur, which stood under the cupola of the church, where there was much valuable clothing and a large quantity of gold and silver. With this money there were established four Monte di Pietà, one for each quarter of the city. This was the means of turning out the Jews who lent money on usury in the city. When these offerings and thanksgiving to God had been made, they returned to the Piazza of St. Mark, where all the monks came out of the convent without hoods and wearing the alb and crowned with garlands. They formed a round dance through the square, singing psalms, thinking nothing of appearances, and the sweetness of their singing caused everyone to dissolve into tears of happiness. And afterwards all went home much edified. It was in truth a wonderful day, full of joy and exultation, during which everyone seemed almost driven mad by love for Christ, and Florence was by this mystery become a new Jerusalem.

Of all the fairest Cities of the earth… 25/01/2011

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Samuel Rogers (obit 1855). Rogers toured Italy in 1814, but his Italy was only properly and fully published under his name in 1830.

Of all the fairest Cities of the Earth
None is so fair as Florence. ‘Tis a gem
Of purest ray; and what a light broke forth,
When it emerged from darkness! Search within,
Without; all is enchantment! ‘Tis the Past
Contending with the Present; and in turn
Each has the mastery.
In this chapel wrought
One of the Few, Nature’s Interpreters,
The Few whom Genius gives as Lights to shine,
Massaccio; and he slumbers underneath.
Wouldst thou behold his monument? Look round!
And know that where we stand, stood oft and long,
Oft till the day was gone, Raphael himself,
He and his haughty Rival – patiently,
Humbly, to learn of those who came before,
To steal a spark from their authentic fire,
Theirs who first broke the universal gloom,
Sons of the Morning. On that ancient seat,
The seat of stone that runs along the wall,
South of the Church, east of the belfry-tower,
(Thou canst not miss it) in the sultery time
Would Dante sit conversing, and with those
Who little thought that in his hand he held
The balance, and assigned at his good pleasure
To each his place in the invisible world,
To some an upper region, some a lower;
Many a transgressor sent to his account,
Long ere in Florence numbered with the dead;
The body still as full of life and stir
At home, abroad; still and as oft inclined
To eat, drink, sleep; still clad as others were,
And at noon-day, where men were wont to meet,
Met as continually; when the soul went,
Relinquished to a demon, and by him
(So says the Bard, and who can read and doubt?)
Dwelt in and governed. Sit thee down awhile;
Then by the gates so marvellously wrought,
That they might serve to be the gates of Heaven,
Enter the Baptistery. That place he loved,
Loved as his own; and in his visits there
Well might he take delight! For when a child,
Playing, as many are wont, with venturous feet
Near and yet nearer to the sacred font,
Slipped and fell in, he flew and rescued him,
Flew with an energy, a violence,
That broke the marble – a mishap ascribed
To evil motives; his, alas, to lead
A life of trouble, and ere long to leave
All things most dear to him, ere long to know
How salt another’s bread is, and the toil
Of going up and down another’s stairs.
Nor then forget that Chamber of the Dead,
Where the gigantic shapes of Night and Day,
Turned into stone, rest everlastingly;
Yet still are breathing, and shed round at noon
A two-fold influence – only to be felt –
A light, a darkness, mingling each with each;
Both and yet neither. There, from age to age,
Two Ghosts are sitting on their sepulchres.
That is the Duke Lorenzo. Mark him well.
He meditates, his head upon his hand.
What from beneath his helm-like bonnet scowls?
Is it a face, or but an eyeless skull?
‘Tis hid in shade; yet, like the basilisk,
It fascinates, and is intolerable.
His mien is noble, most majestical!
Then most so, when the distant choir is heard,
At morn or eve – nor fail thou to attend
On that thrice-hallowed day, when all are there;
When all, propitiating with solemn songs,
With light, and frankincense, and holy water,
Visit the Dead. Then wilt thou feel his power!
But let not Sculpture, Painting, Poesy,
Or they, the masters of these mighty spells,
Detain us. Our first homage is to Virtue.
Where, in what dungeon of the Citadel
(It must be known — the writing on the wall
Cannot be gone — ’twas cut in with his dagger,
Ere, on his knees to God, he slew himself,)
Where, in what dungeon, did Filippo Strozzi,
The last, the greatest of the men of Florence,
Breathe out his soul – lest in his agony,
When on the rack and called upon to answer,
He might accuse the guiltless.
That debt paid,
But with a sigh, a tear for human frailty,
We may return, and once more give a loose
To the delighted spirit – worshipping,
In her small temple of rich workmanship,
Venus herself, who, when she left the skies,
Came hither.

Il giro in Florence 15/01/2011

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c. 1880

We have spent two mornings in the Uffizi and Pitti galleries, one in each. The latter is now called the ‘Palatine’. When I was here in 1870 admittance was free as air, whereas now, as in every museum or ancient building, a franc each is the fee. But these galleries are always crowded and, indeed, the sum is very small as compared with prices in America, and considering the richness of the collections. There are pictures in these galleries which I can shut my eyes and see, and which are a great joy to me. This time we have given more attention than ever before to Fra Angelico and Botticelli the latter on account of an article on his works in a late Harper. But your sisters have for some time been reading up for this week, which is, as the theatre people say, their ‘benefit’, and which they richly deserve. I do wish them to get the best of Italy so that in case of their removal to America they may have stored in their memories precious pictures in abundance of this land of art and beauty.

One morning was given to Santa Croce, the Westminster Abbey of Italy, and yesterday morning to San Marco, with the wonderful frescoes of Fra Angelico in the convent there, now a government museum, and the cell from which Savonarola went forth to die. It never seemed so real to me before. An hour was given also to the church of San Lorenzo, with its double-starred new sacristy and Medici chapel. Tomorrow we must go to the Academy of the Belle Arti. Of course, we have given due attention to the Duomo and Giotto’s Tower and the Baptistery. The Duomo is now resplendent in its facade completed only last year. At the Baptistery we witnessed an infant sprinkling (what a contradiction in that place!), and at San Lorenzo witnessed a bridal procession issue as we entered. There was a wealth of lovely bouquets fastened to the doors of the carriages, but the bride seemed neither young nor beautiful. Two afternoons we have sauntered on Lung’ Arno, looking at the pretty bric-a-brac in this capital of brica-bracdom, and one bright clear afternoon we rode in a carriage on the famous and beautiful ride over the hills of San Miniato, enjoying a lovely view of the city, river and encircling hills. This paper was made at Ponte di Lima, about three miles from Cutigliano, where also the government stamp paper is made.

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.

The Duomo Completed! 23/12/2010

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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.’