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Making Friends in Florence 31/07/2011

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Alfred Austin c. 1910 recalling 1860-1880

One of the most valued friendships of my life, that with Thomas Adolphus Trollope, who was just twenty-five years my senior, was formed shortly after my arrival, and we were often and much together, both in his delightful home in the Piazza della Indipendenza, and in the long walks we took. Almost every Sunday evening we joined a young circle at the house of an English lady in the town, who well illustrated the saying of Shakespeare that ‘small cheer and great welcome make a merry feast’. Though the author of the well-known History of the Commonwealth of Florence was so much older than myself, we seemed to be close friends from the very moment we first grasped each other’s hands. Unlike his brother Anthony, who, though likewise a delightful companion, and brimming over with active intelligence, was in no accurate sense of the word intellectual, and as unhelpful and impatient an arguer as I ever met, Thomas Adolphus Trollope rejoiced in threshing out afresh the old metaphysical and theological problems, handling them with a rare dialectical skill; and many a diologue had we on those unendingly interesting themes. But such were far from being our only diversion. He was known to all the English residents in Florence as ‘dear old Tom Trollope’, not because of his age, for he was then but little past the meridian of life, but of the affection he inspired, and most of all in the younger and more attractive members of that community; and on many a delightful evening did we sally forth together to pass among folk of very moderate means, but fair looks, merry ways and congenial hospitality.

I had not known him long before he took me one evening to one of the most agreeable houses I ever visited, that of Franz Pulszki, the Hungarian patriot and scholar, whom the events of 1848-9 had driven into exile. His wife, the daughter of a Viennese banker, was as charming a hostess as he was a genial host; and, assisted by her young children, she entertained the most heterogeneous body of guests I ever saw gathered together, all equally at home in his spacious Italian villa on the South side of the Arno.

On the occasion of my first evening there, not very long after my arrival, he quitted for a moment his valuable collection of coins he was showing to some other guests, and, coming over to where I was, said in the stentorian tones he seemed incapable of modifying: ‘Ha! there you are. I see you have already made the acquaintance of this charming lady. But she must surrender you for a little, for I want to make you acquainted with her husband.’ Petitioning to be allowed to return, I rose, and soon found myself in the presence of the famous Nihilist, Bakounin, a huge mountain of a man who was sipping a tumbler of tea made in Russian fashion, and propounding to a circle of attentive listeners the most destructive social doctrines in the most cheerful manner. The little group around him made way for us. ‘Here, Bakounin, I want to make known to you an English Conservative who will listen to your revolutionary theories with amicable toleration, but whom you must not detain too long, for he has only just made the acquaintance of your wife, to whom I have no doubt he is longing to return.’

The easy ways of that varied and polyglot society, where musicians, painters, patriotic versifiers, political fugitives with a price placed on their heads, erudite professors, and fair gracious women, gave one abundant choice of social diversion. Of Bakounin and his wife, a Polish lady some years younger than her eloquent husband, and endowed with the proverbial attractiveness of her race, I saw much during that Florentine Winter and Spring, cultivating with them an acquaintance singularly agreeable since so fresh and original.

After Sadowa and the introduction into Austro-Hungaryof the Dak Constitution, Pulszki was free to return to Budapest. Within three months of doing so he lost his wife and eldest daughter, victims to the epidemic of Diphtheria that was then prevailing there. Many years later, when I visited him in the Hungarian capital on returning from an excursion to Greece, Constantinople, and Roumania, he narrated to me how he had lately met Bakounin in the streets of Geneva, how the famous Nihilist had said to him that, despairing of the success of all projects for the amelioration of Society and Mankind, he was starving himself to death, which he calculated would occur in about three days’ time!

Not long after my arrival inFlorence, coming out of the Cafe Doney, I met an old friend, Captain Harry Weldon, whose acquaintance I had first made when he joined the 18th Lancers, a regiment restored to the Army List at the time of the Crimean War. I found he had left the Army, and was married; and of both I saw much in the course of the next few weeks. I need not extol the voice and other gifts of Mrs. Weldon, since they are well and widely known. They were the guests of Mr. Spence, whom I should have named among the most prominent figures in Florence at that date, and for many subsequent years. He owned the famous Villa Medici at Fiesole; and I dined there on Christmas Day.

It is possible that, had I been leading a more solitary life, I might have ‘found my voice’ sooner than I did. But many acquaintances, a few congenial friends, the artistic attractions of Florence, no little music, regarded at that time as exceptionally good, though it would not be highly esteemed to-day, when musical execution has made such striking advance and critical appreciation of it has become so much more fastidious, filled up much of my time.Reading consumed the rest; and, with no definite purpose, though with deep interest, I devoted many an evening to becoming familiar with every incident in the life of Savonarola, and with much of his sermons and his writings. This naturally was associated with Lorenzo de’ Medici, his companions, and the Italian Renaissance; thus providing me with the material for the drama of Savonarola, written so many years later. But my utter unproductiveness at that time continued to reproach and trouble me, compelling me to feel distressfully that I had in no degree justified my abandonment of the Bar and the assertion of personal freedom. But it never for a moment occurred to me to retrace my steps. Freedom of existence and mind at all cost, at every sacrifice, still remained my steadfast Ideal.

The climate of Florence during the strictly Winter months is neither helpful to invalids nor pleasurable to the fastidious. I was not among the former, and perhaps a rather callous supernumerary of the latter. My rooms were often bathed in sunshine whose companion was a piercing tramontana wind; nor is it till the nightingales begin to sing, the fire-flies to flicker among the olivetrees and over the rising spears of the corn, and the yellow banksia roses and wistaria to bloom, that the Fair City unfolds its charms.

Founding of the Florence Automobile Club 24/03/2011

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c. 1900

The first thing that we saw in the city of Savonarola and Buonarotti was an automobile parade. The automobile pursues one around Europe. It is the Time Ghost of today. It appears suddenly in ancient nooks and corners, and reminds you that this is the end of the nineteenth century. And then, after scaring you, the Time Ghost rattles away, leaving behind it a smell which suggests ghosts, demons, and sulphur. But it is only the smell of benzine.

This Florentine parade followed the inauguration of the first automobile club in Tuscany. It took place in the Barbetti Rotunda near the Cascine. Around the circle twenty-one automobiles were ranged. They were examined by the Count of Turin, who represents the royal family in Florence. The Florentines must have something for their tax-money, so they get a royal prince. The count was good enough to express his princely admiration for the machines, of which there was quite a showing. The fastest was a six-horse-power Stanley, belonging to Prince Strozzi.

We were neighbors of the prince, by the way. He lived across the street from us. Carping people might say that we lived across the street from him, for there is a Strozzi Palace, a Strozzi Street, and a Strozzi Square, while our hotel is on the corner of Strozzi Square and Strozzi Street. But none the less we have a right to say that he lived across the street from us. His habitation is finer than ours, for the Strozzi Palace is one of the sights of Florence. But it is unfinished. The prince’s family have lived there for generations. Two or three hundred years ago the family decided to put an ornamental cornice on the palace, and got halfway around, when they became ‘broke’ and stopped. The cornice has remained unfinished ever since. If Prince Strozzi had a due regard for his ancestors, he would finish his uncompleted palace. But apparently he prefers to live in an unfinished house and spend his money on automobiles.

He had four machines at this opening of the Florence Automobile Club. After the exposition proper, the members ‘conducted’ their machines from the Rotunda out to Florence’s beautiful park, the Cascine. Numbers of handsomely gowned women were seated on the automobiles, and one of them was driven by a lady. I inquired her name, and was told that she was ‘the Signorina Smith’. The other ladies were all marchesas, duchessas, and contessas, but only Signorina Smith was daring enough to conduct a machine. The name sounds un-Italian. I think the Signorina Smith must be American.

The club wound up by a ‘grand five o’clock tea at four o’clock’, at the Cascine. The Italians seem to think that ‘five o’clock’ is a kind of beverage, instead of a time of day. You see signs on the Italian-English tea-roonis, ‘five o’clock tea served at all hours’. And the French even make a verb of it – fiveocloquer, ‘On fiveocloquera a quatre heures’.

The scene was an animated one. We were seated at one of the tables under the trees on the terrace of the Cascine Cafe. A fine military band was playing near at hand. Many of the automobile club were still speeding their machines around the circles and driveways, giving exhibitions of their skill in turning corners and running into trees…

After the ‘inauguration’ of the automobile club, the automobiles dashed through the streets of Florence at a high rate of speed, and there were many accidents. In fact, there were accidents every day. It is rather remarkable that on the Continent the authorities allow such freedom to automobilists. In Europe nearly everything is forbidden. It is forbidden to walk on the grass. It is forbidden to cross the railway lines. It is forbidden, almost, to cross the street. Therefore, that the automobilists should not be forbidden to drive their machines at such breakneck speed is remarkable.

Horse-vehicles are prohibited from exceeding a certain speed. Horned cattle are not allowed on the streets of most large cities, owing to solicitude for the foot-passengers. I have seen loads of live steers transported across Vienna in vans drawn by horses. But the scorching automobilists are more dangerous than horned cattle. On the day that the automobile club was inaugurated in Florence a circular space in the Piazza della Signoria was covered with mounds of flowers. At first we thought it was a flower-market, but on inquiry we found it was in memory of Savonarola, who was burned to death on this spot over four hundred years ago. A Florentine family has for centuries kept up the custom of thus honoring his memory. And around the great square of the Signoria, where he was burned, circa 1500, sweeps the automobile of 1900.

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.

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.

Piazza della Signoria c. 1900 01/01/2011

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c. 1900

The old Piazza, which, with the militant beauty of its great tower, is still, as ever, the centre of the city’s life, full of great and grim and splendid memories, offers to-day an almost unique specimen of an open-air museum, free for all who choose to come. There, ancient tapestries are yet hung on the Feast of San Giovanni; there, masterpieces of Florentine sculpture are ever before the people’s eyes. Men sleep through the hot hours in the shadow of the Perseus into which the truculent Benevenuto Cellini welded his enthusiasm, his genius, and all his household plate; and which, though it came into being amid such frenzied excitement, now stands ‘with brow and sword, supremely calm’. Street urchins clamber about the pedestal from which Judith gazes down with stern, set brows. Old crones gossip and gesticulate; wheedling pedlars entreat the unwary tourist to buy ‘Mosaic and postcard, veree cheap!’ under the great loggia where Dominicans and Franciscans gathered on that fatal day when Savonarola refused the trial by fire, and on that other day when Florence sent its prophet to his death.  A modern medallion set in the pavement of this piazza marks the place of his martyrdom, and year by year on the 24 May, where the white smoke rolled and the red fire rose, the Florentines lay flowers in memory of him who, burnt to ashes and borne by the river to the sea, has not even a grave.