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The Florentine Ceppo 21/12/2011

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c. 1910

At Florence, as elsewhere, [Christmas] is the season when presents are made by persons of means to their servants, tradesmen, and dependants of every kind. These ‘boxes’, as we call them, are known in Tuscanyas ceppi or ‘logs’, and the name shows that the Yule-log is a reality here, far deeper and more ancient than the show of seasonable holly and mistletoe laid out for the foreigner on the Lung’ Arno would lead one to suspect. These greens are a display unknown till recent years, but the Ceppo is an ancient local usage which deserves consideration. The name of the Ceppo is derived, almost without change, from the Latin cippus, the tree-trunk, and the log was great indeed which used to burn on every Tuscan hearth as each 24 December came round. Boccaccio, condescending for a moment from mythology to describe the habits of his own country and people, tells what was done at Christmas inFlorence: how the house-father laid the great log on the Lari, as the fire-dogs of the hearth were called in his day; how the family gathered about it, while their head called for wine, drank, and poured a libation from his cup on the glowing wood, after which the others drank in turn as the cup went round. Later authorities enable us to complete the scene, telling how the log was beaten to make the sparks fly up the chimney, and that the Florentines liked it large, so that when kindled it might burn long, even for days, without going out. Here then are all the signs which show the antiquity of a rite. The house itself, without further consecration than the presence there of the family, is the temple; the hearth the altar, and the father the priest. The Lari, or fire-dogs, are the Dii Lares of Roman household religion. The ceppo itself is a true and huge tree-trunk; it must be so if, as we shall presently see, it is to burn continuously for twelve days. One thinks of it as set on end, reaching high in the chimney and sinking gradually to the hearth day by day as it burns away from the root. Thus, behind Roman religion, we find what preceded it. The Ceppo is a yearly return to the original life of the woods, when the hunter’s fire smouldered from day to day in the root of the standing tree, and when that hearth, blown betimes to a leaping flame, gathered about it all the mystery and comfort that might belong to forest nights in winter: their encompassing fear and its sure, if narrow remedy. What we know of how this primitive religion developed in the definite worship of the Lares shows that the libation of wine at Ceppo, still used atFlorence in the fourteenth century if no later, represents an offering .to the spirits of darkness and of the underworld; perhaps to those of the dead.

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Ascencion Day and the Grilli 25/08/2011

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c. 1910

Ascencion Day is observed at Florence in a way to make it one of the most characteristic feasts in tlie Calendar of the city. At dawn, the people stream out in thousands to the Cascine, spending the day till noon in the open grass-spaces, and under the trees, of that public park. While this place was still the dairy farm of the Grand Dukes, custom prescribed that the day should begin with a drink of warm milk taken at the farm. The people then passed on, as they still do, to a rendezvous at the ancient oak-tree of the adjoining park, whence they scattered again in groups to catch the grilli, the black field-crickets, that form, even to-day, the chief object of this outing. Their prey caught and caged, the people dine; some eating on the grass the provisions they have brought; others seeking the rustic restaurants set out beneath the trees. At midday the park is empty again; the people have gone home with their grilli – caught or bought – in the little cages of buckwheat stem that serve to contain them. The cages are hung in the houses, for the Florentines think the cricket’s song brings luck to the home; especially if the grilli can be kept alive and vocal till the day of Corpus Christi. It is to be feared that few survive as long! Just this survival, however, must be insisted on; for it shows clearly what Florence has in mind when the grilli are caught. When Easter falls late – towards the 25th of April – Corpus Domini as Italy calls the further feast, tends to coincide with the summer solstice. Now the song of the field-cricket, opening feebly about the beginning of May, reaches its height only at midsummer, to die away about the 15th of July. Thus, when Ascension-day falls on April 30th there are no singing-crickets; and evidently the solstice is the date at which any observance connected with this insect should properly fall. With this reference to the solstice ancient authority fully agrees. Pliny, who mentions how the giylliis was caught in his time with a hair holding an ant as bait, quotes Nigidius for the great importance attached to the field-cricket in the doctrine of the Magi. It burrows in the earth, he says, walks backwards, and sings by night; such are the reasons he offers for the attention it attracted. Now the same backward movement was noticed in the scarabaus of the Nile and in the crab. Egypt made the scarabaus a symbol of the sun, and the world saw the crab in that sign of the Zodiac which the sun entered at midsummer. In Cancer, the sun began his annual retreat; hence a perceived relation between this solstice and all backward-moving animals. Among such then the grillo held a place of honour, and belonged, like them, to the same great moment in the year; gathering all the fancies with which the solstice was associated.

Sixth Centenary of Dante 18/08/2011

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c. 1910 remembering the 1860s

After all but six months spent in Florence, it was time for me to turn my thoughts homeward. But it was impossible to bid it farewell before witnessing the celebration of the Sixth Centenary of the Birth of Dante that was to be held on the 16th of May. By six o’clock on the morning of that day, Trollope and I were in our places in the Piazza Santa Croce, where a statue of the Poet by Fedi was to be unveiled, and eight thousand Italian municipalities were to be represented in the Square by deputations carrying the gonfalons of their respective cities and communes. As the sculptor, whom I had met more than once, has for many years been dead, I may say that the Statue disappointed our expectations, as it has that of many a one since. But the ceremony was most impressive.

After sundown, in the company of Charles Lever’s daughters and two American young ladies, I traversed all the principal thoroughfares, nowhere being crushed or jostled, though the streets were crowded, for gentle Tuscan manners, now, I fear, deteriorated there as elsewhere, made movement easy and agreeable. Not the palaces and bridges of the city alone, but the outlying Villas on the hill-slopes for miles around, were illuminated with oil-fed lamps. The Piazza of the Uffizi was covered in and its pavement boarded over for a Peasants’ Ball; and at the Pagliano Theatre were represented the most picturesque scenes from the Divina Commedia, Ristori, Salvini, and Rossi reciting the corresponding passages in the poem.

Then many friendly and some tender farewells had to be taken; and on the following morning I started for Paris, having as travelling companions, and very agreeable ones, Ristori, her husband, and their two young children. As the domes and towers of the Fair City faded from view, I recited to myself the lines I often had cause, again and again, to repeat: Benedetta sia la Madre, Che ti fece cosi bella. Che tu sei tanto graziosa, Che tu sei tanto vezzosa; Benedetta sia Tu!

The Scoppio in Verse 08/02/2011

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William Leighton 1906

Pazzi of Florence, knight of noble line,

Brought from Jerusalem a holy stone

Broke from the sepulchre, and it was shown

To the devout how this might be a sign

Of the kind providence of the divine

Ruler of all. And so it soon was known

That when its sacred fire had safely flown

Harvests would ripen, grain and fruit and wine.

So, at the Easter-time, a snow-white dove

Bears from the altar consecrated light

Into a car that kindles into flame,

Thus bringing down good fortune from above.

Drawn through the city by four oxen white,

The people hail this car with glad acclaim.

Vasarian Corridor and Facchini 29/01/2011

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c. 1905

Many of my readers will have taken the wonderful walk along this corridor. The limits of the Uffizi galleries terminate with the beginning of the Ponte Vecchio, where, having paid another franc at the turnstile, we enter upon our long covered seemingly endless walk. The corridor is lined on both sides with pictures, in the main portraits. Some of them are bad, but all of them profoundly interesting. There are also some thrilling pictures of popular festas. This is the place to learn history and to study heraldry, flags, crowns and costumes: but I usually see people racing along here, red book in hand and with such an odd fixed look on their faces, eager to get from one surfeit of masterpieces to another.

Do not believe Baedeker when he says: ‘Those who have left their sticks or umbrellas at the entrance to the Uffizi must, of course, return for them after visiting the Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno.’ For the modest fee of 25c. you will find your stick waiting at the exit of the Pitti or the exit of the Uffizi, whichever you happen to want. The one gallery gives you a countermark to claim it from the other gallery, and the facchino carries it round through the streets. The corridor is closed on Sundays.

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 last of the Cancellieri at Pistoia 09/01/2011

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c. 1900

Pistoia and I, on that mild spring morning, seemed to be singing a duet. As I came on I overtook country folk going my way, women on donkeys, plaiting straws as they went, children running, the men walking together and apart, full of the most exuberant talk you ever heard; bullock-carts, laden mules, and such like. There was a steady stream of people setting towards Pistoia, some of whom had come far by the looks of them; mountaineers some, with swathed legs and staves in their hands; priests with vivid green umbrellas; farmers in gigs much too small for their persons. I suppose the road is the greatest leveller next to death ; the dust and sweat had coloured us all alike, and I had no more difficulty at the dazio than the natives. Not that I had less. The customs officers opened my bundle and handled one or two of my books. I let myself be floated in by the pressure of the crowd; together we all swam like a bore-of-the-tide up the long street. I found myself jostling with a sharp-faced, the last of the bristle-bearded countryman, carrying a wickered flask of wine over his shoulder, and fell into some talk with him.

‘Why are we all in such a stew to get to Pistoia?’ I asked him, after passing the time of day.

He looked at me keenly. I soon found out that it took very little to excite a Tuscan’s curiosity. ‘Where can you be from, who know not that?’ he returned at once. ‘It is San Atto we are going to visit.’

‘Ah! San Atto the Bishop. They expose his relics?’

‘That,’ he said, ‘is the state of the case. Every year on this day we go to visit San Atto.’

I admired the devotion, and proposed to share it.

‘Gia, gia’ says he ‘It is a very good custom.’

‘In my country,’ I said, ‘such reverence as this is done by stealth, if done at all. We do not even know certainly the whereabouts of some of our greatest saints.’

My companion’s eyes twinkled; he pondered the remark, then murmured some polite regrets. He thought it curious, he said, that so practical a nation as the English should neglect any obvious source of profit.

‘It is because my countrymen have become absorbed in material profit,’ said I, ‘that they distrust any inward promptings. They affect to despise ceremony; really, they fear it. They will doff their hats to the Queen: ‘There!’  they say, ‘there’s prosperity for you!’ But if you were to put up a figure of the Queen of heaven in a blue cloak and crown of stars they would show their independence by marching past her, chins in the air, and hats jammed down to the ears. They are congees and deference to a living bishop  – you should see them at their shop-doors when my lord drives up in his carriage; but a dead bishop, be he as holy as Grosteste of Lincoln, as puissant in war as Hugh of Durham, they consider to be no more than a spadeful of dust.’

He was greatly interested, he was amazed. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the wildest folly. How can a Queen upon earth help you so far as our Lady in heaven? This is a very shortsighted business. Your nation will never prosper on those terms.’

‘Yours is the opinion of a few of us,’ I replied. ‘We even go so far as to say that a newspaper that supports itself by tickling the baser parts of base people had better do it with the end of a rope and be through with it. But your San Atto, I fear, would come into conflict with our police. They would say, ‘This prelate is dead and has been buried, yet here he is again. Into the ground with him, or into the British Museum’. You would call this madness.’

‘Why,’ says my friend, ‘I should. As I understand it, there is a plain bargain. We run to San Atto with our difficulties, who, as having been Bishop of  Pistoia, knows all the circumstances to a tick. My own, now, is a scapegrace son, who has set up for a footpad under Vallombrosa, and be hanged to him. Very well. I take my case to San Atto. He says, Two candles at my altar before I look into it. That is fair enough. But you see the lie of the thing.’

I had indeed never seen it more clearly. I asked him if he was a Tuscan.

He shrugged his shoulder. ‘Who knows what I may be, sir?’ said he. ‘I am by birth, like my father before me, a Vajanese. We don’t reckon ourselves to be of any nation but that. The Marquess is my master, and he’s no Tuscan, but a Pistolese.’

‘He may be a Tuscan for all that,’ I said, to which he assented readily.

‘Well,’ he continued, after a pause, ‘he’s a great lord, and should have the best of everything while it lasts. One is taken and another is left. Now my own name, let me tell you, was good for something once upon a time.’

I begged him to tell it me. ‘My name of origin,’ he replied, ‘ is Cancellieri. In fact Gino Cancellieri is the whole of it; but they call me Maso’s Gino in the ordinary way, and as often as not II Bazza, because of this great chin of mine.’

It was now my turn to be interested, not in his chin, which was nothing out of the common run, but in his name. This unshaven hedger bore the arms which Pistoia had assumed in his right – the chequer-board arms, the White and the Black. In this man’s blood had been brewed that infernal drink which drove Florence mad and Corso Donati to a dog’s death. All this I told him. ‘Your forefather, my dear sir,’ I ended, ‘was tyrant of  Pistoia.’

The last of the Cancellieri took this at first with great phlegm. ‘He may have been, for all I know,’ he said; ‘but my own father was a road-mender, and broke stones betwixt Piastre and Cireglio. He was famous for it. You have been walking on his metal this morning, I doubt, and permit me to say there is no better. Tyrant of  Pistoia, was he? Well, there’s a trade for a man!’ The humour of it now tickling him, he laughed gaily. I said that I considered it a less reputable trade than road-mending; but Cancellieri would have his laugh out now that he had caught it. ‘Why, it may be so,’ he allowed. ‘I don’t care to dispute it. But what gravels me is the justice of it. My grandfather, as you may say, walked soft-foot upon the sweat of the Pistolesi, and now here are the Pistolesi doing the same by my father. Well, well, that’s as good as a comedy any day.’

‘The thought consoles you?” I asked.

He raised an eyebrow; it is thus the Tuscans usually shrug. ‘I say that it tickles me,’ he answered.

‘You may not relish justice for a full meal, but you may learn to be diverted by it as a snack. That is my case, signorino. To meet again, sir; your servant.’ He took off his woollen cap as he made this little speech, and I saw him engage a friend in lively conversation.