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The Destruction of the Medieval Centre 19/02/2011

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c. 1910

It is undoubtedly a pity when interesting and beautiful old quarters like this have to be demolished, and no doubt the authorities are sometimes needlessly destructive. At the same time, we could not help thinking that it was hardly fair of foreigners to demand that Italians should keep their towns as museums and curiosities for visitors, which many of us apparently expect them to do. The Italians of today want healthy places to live in, and surely have the right to be masters in their own house. Moreover, as one of our own party pointed out, many quarters of these ancient cities change very much for the worse after the lapse of centuries, as we can very well see nearer home. We are, therefore, not able to study them as they were in the Middle Ages, but only as they have become through the overcrowding and neglect of comparatively modern days. Needless to say, we did not all agree on the matter.

 

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The Misericordia c. 1910 10/02/2011

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c. 1910

Most visitors to Florence have seen the brethren of the Misericordia bound on some mission of mercy, gliding silently – black ghosts carrying a black catafalque – through the city. All heads are uncovered as they pass, and the most ribald and uncouth carter draws his mules on one side to give more room. No wonder the Florentines are proud of their Confraternity, the finest charitable institution that ever was founded. Anyone can give money, but the brethren give personal fatigue, and are often exposed to infection. Neither winter snow nor burning summer sun stops the devoted band. Three times a day the bell of the Misericordia Chapel, in the Piazza del Duomo, rings to call those of the Confraternity whose turn it is to carry sick poor to the hospital. Ten brethren usually go with each litter, under the orders of a Capo di Guardia, who is distinguished by a bag tied round his waist containing brandy, cough lozenges, and the key of a drawer under the litter in which is a drinking-cup, a stole, a crucifix, the ritual, and some holy water, in case the sick person should die on the way.

The long overcoat and the cowl with two holes for the eyes are made of black cotton, and black gaiters are worn so that the brethren may not be recognised by the colour of their trousers. The cowl may only be thrown back outside the city gates and in certain specified streets, and if it rains hard or the sun is powerful, a black felt hat is worn over it. Four brethren carry the litter, which weighs about 180 lbs, and the reserve men keep one hand under the poles in case a bearer should stumble or fall. A slight tap on the pole is the signal for changing bearers, and this is so skilfully done that the sick or wounded arc never shaken. The fresh men say as they relieve the others, ‘May God reward you!’ and the answer is: ‘Go in peace!’ If they have to go some distance, sixteen brethren are told off for service, and should the case be a very bad one, a brother walks on either side of the litter to watch the invalid’s face or feel his pulse.

Should the door of the house be too small to admit the litter, the Capo di Guardia and six brethren go to the sick-room. Tenderly and carefully they carry the invalid on a thick quilted coverlid to the litter, and the arched top is opened against the so curious passers-by should not see the sick person. Before leaving the room, the Capo di Guardia leaves a small sum on the table, in obedience to a legacy left for that purpose to the Confraternity by two pious citizens in long past days, and if the invalid is the bread-winner, or the poverty of the family evident, the Capo di Guardia begs the brethren to do yet another charity, and holding his hat together like a bag he goes from one to another to collect alms. He asks the sick person to whom the money is to be given, and, without counting, pours the contents of his hat into their hands. The members of the Misericordia take it by turn to go at stated hours to the houses of sick people to change their linen, or to sit up at night with those who arc too poor to pay a nurse.

In maladies like rheumatic fever, when the slightest touch is agony, they are often called by rich folk to lift an invalid – so gentle and sure from long habit is their touch. No brother is allowed to accept anything – money or food – save a glass of water, in any house. Someone is always on guard at the Misericordia Chapel, and if an accident occurs a message is sent there to call a litter. Then the great bell of Giotto’s Tower, just opposite the chapel, is tolled in a peculiar way – twice for an accident, three times for a death – to call the brethren who are on the list for that day. Twice it has happened to me that a shopman has left his wife to serve in the shop, while he hastily threw on his cloak and ran out of the door. The first time, being new to Florence, I thought the man had gone mad. My face, I suppose, showed surprise, for one of the customers said, ‘Eh, signora, don’t you hear the bell? An accident.’

A member of one of the oldest and most noble families of Florence told me his experience with the Misericordia. One evening in the old Ghetto, a poor woman, on the eve of her confinement, was lying in the room where her husband, his brother, and two children were ill with typhoid fever, and the Misericordia had been called to take her to the hospital. She lived on the ninth story of the tower of the old Tosa Palace, up a precipitous and narrow staircase with many turnings. The question arose how to carry her down in safety, and was solved by my friend. He crept under the quilt, which was held by four bearers, and on hands and knees he went backwards down the long staircase, with the poor woman on his back. It took nearly half an hour to reach the litter in the street, and the bearer was stiff for many days afterwards. To the baby boy, who came into the world three hours after the woman reached the hospital, he stood godfather, saw to the child’s education, and made a man of him.

The Old Centre under Sentence of Death 22/01/2011

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c. 1884

Old Florence is fast disappearing. The characteristic narrow streets, where the midday sun only shines down through an irregular sky-line of picturesque eaves and gargoyles nearly meeting overhead, are, one by one, being widened into grand, new streets which take a gay Parisian aspect. Grim old palaces put on new faces, and only their general solidity and name preserves the aroma of antiquity. Now a square, ironbeamed market-place has arisen, which is to substitute that quaint, bewildering, parti-coloured, semi-mediaeval conglomeration of human life and curiosities which has for century on century been the mercantile heart of Florence. The old market, and its twin sister the Ghetto, are both doomed to destruction they are, in fact, to be offered as a sacrifice to the modern deity, Hygiene. It is right and just that this should be so, but before they disappear from our midst some slight picture of the old Florence, which will never be seen again, should be preserved.

The Ghetto and Mercato Vecchio stand side by side, a mass of lurid tenements, with black walls and small windows, piled story upon story in narrow streets almost cavernous in their darkness, and propped house against house by flying buttresses high in air and gloomy archways nearer earth. Among these dismal abodes are larger and more imposing houses, with remains of ancient towers, and sculptured arms and ensigns of extinct guilds on their time-worn facades: these are the old palaces where the potentates of the Middle Ages and the rich burghers of the commonwealth lived in state, for this district which is now given over to squalid poverty was once the very city of Florence.

There is this difference between the last fate of what we have called twin sisters. The Ghetto keeps all her abject mysteries shrouded from the light of day, for no one dares to penetrate her gloomy cellars and the cavernous alleys which hide in these days, not the despised Jews, but all the wretched, hopeless population whose doings, morally and actually, shun the light of day; while the old market close by is still the chief artery of modern life, and is crowded from morn till eve with a never ceasing stream of buyers and sellers.

In the Ghetto are squalid old men and women who have never seen the sunlight, and who look on rain as a strange phenomenon, for they have passed a life in the dark cellars, from whence they dare not emerge. All the countless families draw their water from one well in the midst of a dark piazza., and this piazza, seems to have represented the outer world to most of them. It has long ceased to be the prison of the Jews, who were confined within its gates in 1571 by Cosimo I for in these days the Jews are a great power in the city. But misery, crime, and want lurk there instead.

The old market keeps better company. The archbishop’s palace is in its precincts, a church stands at each corner, and in its narrow streets are the decaying palaces of the Tornaquinci, Vecchietti, Amieri, Neri, Medici, and half the names glorious in Florentine story. A dim memory lingers of a marvellous palace built by the Tosinghi, about A.D. 1100, the tower of which was covered with rows of little Lombard galleries with white marble colonnettes like the tower of Pisa this has passed away, but less ancient beauties remain.

There is the Vecchietti palace, where John of Bologna’s black demon grins in endless hideousness, at the corner where the Devil himself galloped by, on a black horse when exorcised by St. Peter Martyr. It was in this house that John of Bologna was sheltered when he came as a foreign artist to study in Florence, and its owner was his most liberal patron. But the Vecchietti palace has older memories than these. There lived the Cavolaia, or cabbage seller, who in mediaeval times had made a fortune by selling the produce of her podere in the old market, and at her. death ordered the bells of the cathedral and All Saints’ Church to be rung for her soul from All Saints’ Day to the end of Carnival. Her bones are said to be in the tomb of Bishop Ranieri in the Baptistery, though history does not explain how they got there.

The Amieri palaces form quite a district of the Mercato; their half-demolished towers date from Ghibelline times, and the last Amieri, Bernardo di Nicolo, is known to fame as the father of Genevra, whose story is one of the quaintest legends of Florence. Refused the lover of her choice, and betrothed by force to Francesco Agolanti, she afterwards fell a victim to the plague in 1400. Believed to be dead, she was placed in the family vault in the cemetery by the cathedral. She awoke from her swoon on a bright moonlight night, and, bursting her bandages, escaped from her ghastly prison, and, clad in her shroud, went to her husband’s house. He exorcised her as a spirit, and refused to open his door. Her father did the same, and no one would afford shelter to her resuscitated person but the family of her first lover. The marriage with Agolanti was decreed by the tribunals to be annulled by her death and burial, and she was by this curious quip released to begin a happier life with Rondinelli, her first love. To this day the street she trod on that moonlit night is called Via della Morte.

Another interesting house in the old market is that of the Castiglioni, which has some fine old sculptured doorways and chimney-pieces. Dante Castiglione was a famous person at the time of the siege of Florence, 1529, not so much for his prowess in war as for a duel he and Martelli fought, against Bandini and his second in rivalry for the smiles of a belle named Marietta de’ Ricci. As the combatants belonged to the two opposite parties who were striving for supremacy in Florence, the duel (or double duel there being four combatants) assumed a political importance, and was taken by the superstitious Florentines as an omen of the fate of the war.

Other interesting buildings are the houses which were once head-quarters of the different guilds. Here is the striped shield of the Linaioli or flax merchants; there, the arms of the Calimala or wool-dressers. Now one sees the lamb and banner of the guild of wool (Arte della Lana), then the (vaio) ermine of the Pellicceria or furriers. In one of these latter, Benvenuto Cellini lived. As for works of art, has not the old market one of Luca della Robbia’s loveliest conceptions, in the relief of the Madonna and Child of the lunette of the Church of S. Piero Buonconcilio? The purest faced Madonna and most delicious baby which that master of infantile modelling ever conceived. And boasted it not once of Donatello’s statue of Abundance on its central column? And has not our good old Vasari built a Greek peristyle without a temple to shelter the vendors of unsavoury fish?…

Florence 1887. Since this was written, the reluctant Florentines have been driven by force of municipal law to use the iron-bound modern market-place in San Lorenzo; and the six hundred families crowded into that human hive of misery called the Ghetto have been turned out into more healthy abodes, in disused convents or model houses for the poor, where it is hoped that new influences and fresh air will bring new moral and physical health to them. The empty Ghetto has been the exploring ground of artists and physiologists; it has been the scene of carnival gaiety, when the artists with their magic brushes transformed it into the ‘City of Bagdad’, and illuminated its darkest mysteries and gloomiest caverns with electric light. This year it is to undergo another transformation under these artists’ hands, and to represent ‘Cinque-Cento Florence’, with Donatello at work in his studio; after which both Ghetto and Mercato are to fall under the reforming touch of improvement. Florence will lose its most characteristic remnants of mediaevalism, and gain in a sanitary and moral aspect.