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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.

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.