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On the Tracks of Hare and Ruskin 24/07/2011

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c. 1900

Having passed through the gate and satisfied the courteous octroi (dazio consumo) officials that you have nothing to declare, you will, if you take Mr. Hare’s advice, drive straight to the Albergo dell’ Universo, and take your ease in that inn. It is good, sound, and serviceable advice. The hotel occupies the first floor of the old Palazzo Arnolfini (sixteenth century) and fronts the Teatro del Giglio, where in September there is excellent opera. Mr. Hare, who is usually reticent in such matters, launches into quite unwonted praise of the old inn. ‘It is’, he says, ‘most excellent and reasonable. It has a small garden, and its large lofty rooms are cool and airy in summer. This inn deserves special notice, because, without losing its character as an Italian albergo, it has all the comfort and cleanliness which English travellers require.’ I In turning over the leaves of the visitors’ book at the inn, I discovered unexpected and exalted testimony to its worth. Here is what I found: ‘Mr. Ruskin and Mr. Collingwood stayed here three weeks in the October of 1882; and have been entirely comfortable in the care of M. Nieri and his servants.’ The Lucchesi remember Mr. Ruskin’s several visits very well, and with much pride and pleasure. They tell many an anecdote about the ‘gran scrittore inglese’, who used to go about with a man bearing a ladder, and scale the facades and interiors of their churches, peering into all manner of nooks and crannies with strange persistency and devotion. And the landlady of the Universo will tell you, not without a touch of compassion in her voice, how the ‘povero Signor Collingwood’ was made to lie on his back, and copy the design on the ceiling of the master’s bedroom. Small wonder when one has seen the design, which is delicate and extremely beautiful.

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Tourists Amusing Themselves 26/05/2011

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c. 1880

The guests themselves at the hotels and pensions frequently devise amusement for the company. Sometimes it consists in charades, more or less elaborately conducted, according to circumstances. They are diverting, and create great excitement among the performers in anticipation, realization, and retrospect. In some hotels, there is at one end of a large room a little permanent stage expressly fitted up to enable charades or plays to be performed. At other times we have had Shakespeare readings, the different members of the party having assigned to each, one or more of the characters of the play; but the difficulty always was, by begging and borrowing, I won’t say stealing, to procure a sufficient number of copies of the play, so that each reader might have one. A handy copy of Shakespeare is one of the books which those who go abroad for the winter may with advantage take with them. On another occasion, at Florence, we had a remarkably nice series of miscellaneous readings by a gentleman of the company. But the most elaborate performance, at least at a hotel, was one at Chateau d’Ex. Here some Americans of the party arranged with showy dresses a very successful performance of the play called Popping the Question. It was capitally acted, and we felt only sorry that the spectators were so comparatively few, although, to increase the number, the performers had invited their friends living in neighbouring pensions.

Arrival on the Lung’ Arno 05/03/2011

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c. 1880

We stayed in Rome until 27 April, when we left for Florence. We had intended going round by the attractive town of Perugia, but the morning of the 26 was wet, and, delaying our departure for a day, we gave up Perugia, partly because to have gone upon a Friday would have involved spending a Sunday there. The latter part of our journey was interesting. On arriving at the outskirts of the town the railway circumnavigates it, so that we had an opportunity from the very first of seeing the cathedral dome and campanile, and the other towers and spires of Florence, which lies beautifully situated in a luxuriantly verdant valley, enclosed by the Apennines and other hills, and intersected by the river Arno, which, seeing for the first time in the soft moonlight in the course of the evening, looked so lovely. The Lung’ Arno, or bank of the river, where most of the principal hotels are placed, is considered the best situation, at least for winter residence. Some of the hotels are unpleasantly near a waterfall or wear stretching across the river, the incessant din of which is troublesome at night. We spent a few nights at one of the hotels there, and afterwards a fortnight at the Pension Molini Barbensi on the left bank of the river, where we found pleasant society and some former travelling acquaintances. The house is a good one, and the rooms are large, but a very little expenditure on sanitary arrangements would improve it as a residence. Living seems not to be expensive at Florence, and lodgings can be procured at a moderate rate. Florence lies upon the same river as Pisa, but I suppose fifty or sixty miles farther up, and the town bears some resemblance to it, but is far more picturesque and far more lively and populous. In fact, Pisa is quite a dull, quiet, dead-alive town beside it. The population of Florence, at present about 170,000, is four times as great as that of Pisa, and it has been a royal town as well as a provincial capital. The river is crossed by six bridges (three, or rather four of them, of very old date) connecting the north and south portions of the city, which, however, lies mainly upon the north shore. Of these bridges (all strongly buttressed against the force of the river, which no doubt occasionally descends in floods with great power), the Ponte Vecchio is peculiar and picturesque, and a remnant of old times, being covered on each side with houses, and on one side, on the top floor, by the long gallery which connects the Uffizi and Pitti Palaces. These houses on the bridge are very curious. Next the street they present to view on both sides small booths or stalls, principally occupied by goldsmiths or jewellers, which very likely much resemble what the shops of Old London were, but at the present day do not, for jewellers’ wares, inspire confidence.

Ass’s Milk and ‘at least some of the Browning Poems’ 30/01/2011

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c. 1890

In Florence the family was again held back from going on to Rome. In London the baby had been ill, in Florence she was very ill. The patience of Dr. Taylor and his wife was great and their faith strong; yet this was a most trying and anxious time for them. To be ill at home is bad, but to be ill in a foreign land, among strangers and hearing strange tongues, is far worse. The best English-speaking doctors of the city were called in, and they were kind and helpful. The child was put on ass’ milk, the ass coming around every day to be milked at the very front door of the hotel. God was merciful, and the child lived.

While some of the beauties of the city and some of her well-known historic spots were seen, still even the children in the pension as well as Dr. Taylor and his son had less heart and interest in picture galleries and other famous spots almost innumerable, because they were devoted to Susy and at least stayed around, anxious to help if in any way they could. Yet they did have a peep at least at some of the wonders and glories of Florence. There were the Uffizi and Pitti galleries, strung out in a strange way on a strange bridge that spanned the Arno. In these galleries are great pictures that once seen go with one through life, such for example as the Madonna della Seggiola, by Raphael, and La Bella by Titian. Of course each visitor has his favorites. The children loved the Boboli Gardens, while Dr. Taylor rejoiced in the Baptistery, in Giotto’s campanile, and in the Duomo.

In the one or two days after the baby was out of danger, and before they set out for Rome, Mrs. Taylor had some glimpses of the pictures and points of interest in the city. Dr. Taylor and his wife had many a chat as they waited and watched about their great and difficult task in this new and largely unknown land; yet they did not fail to think and talk about many of the great men, such as Dante, Savonarola, Giotto, the Medici, and others who had helped to make Florence beautiful and famous. They managed also to read at least some of the Browning poems.

Death at Volterra 24/12/2010

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c. 1900

The great fortress by the gate impresses itself upon you as you draw near; monstrous bulk, monstrous strength, such dignity as consists with mass, it has. The huge walls are of a piece; work of giants, titanic, but not lordly. Etruscan heads directed all this immensity; what goaded slave-hordes wrought it, I know not. It looks as inert and spiritless as convict labour; gloomier Etruscan stronghold Herr Baedeker can never have seen. Fiesole is savage, Chiusi mournful, Perugia a termagant; Volterra has the dulness of the brute. You do but get a premonition of it as you climb the weary leagues into the town, and have Terrific uo time to enlarge it, since you are to shocked again. When the sinister country has you fast, when your spirits have flagged to their lowest, suddenly, a huge bloodcoloured cliff confronts you, clothed in scrub to the peak, the Mons Tumba of this muddy waste. Backed by a storm-cloud, abode for vampires and snakes, spell-struck into silence, it terrifies you. It is as if all your flying fears, winging to a point, should take shape: a bare grey land, a storm brewing in the north, and a blood-red cliff dead in your way. Thus fared knights-errant in the old tales when they took their lives in their hands. ‘And Pereduc journeyed three days and three nights over the desert. And he came to a great mountain in the midst, which was as red as blood, and hight Pavidus.’

‘Brutto paese!’ quoth Trombino, a snug youth for choice… Once past this fatal place you have the grim bulk of the fortezza towering over your way. As my own cortege crawled up, Iremember that a little company of madmen strayed about us, going slowly homewards to Volterra – fit pinfold! – herded by one man in a Government cap. He seemed glad of my company, so I conversed with him a little. His madmen were very old, but had, he told me, all been homicides in their day. Solitary confinement had done its work; they would lay hands suddenly on no other men. So the law allows them to roam at will, to pick wild-flowers and twist garlands for their white pows: a peaceful ending to their labours. They looked upon us. our equipage and advance, with mild unwondering eyes. Once we had been grist for their long knives, but now were less than the flowers in the hedgerow. After life’s fitful fever… A straggling suburb succeeded, a row of drab houses, a cheerless trattoria with unglazed windows, pigs, chickens, children, stern-faced women in men’s hats – here are disjected notes. A diligence came tearing down the hill, full of scared pale people escaping from Volterra; but we crept ever upwards and trailed painfully by the walls, the watch-tower, the great boulder of the fortress, and entered the doomed city by the Florence Gate.

Trombino flogged the horses into a feeble canter, and brought us up to the door of the old inn with some sort of a rattle. Cut a thin reed from scream-beset Scamander For hazard of this music! No one came out to receive us. It might have been a dead-house; and so it was. Windtortured abode of madmen and grey murderers! Heart of earthquakes, fallen, still falling Volterra! It wanted but this. But I must endeavour to be calm. To our notions—whose inns are as good as our hotels are bad – there is no comfort, but much hospitality in a Tuscan inn. At Volterra, the fact is that I had neither; but there were reasons. Mr. Carmichael, in a recent and agreeable work, shows that he found something to his taste. His landlord, however, was not dying of typhoid as mine was. To me all Volterra was exactly accursed, from the landlord to the land. A raw sea-mist was blown upon a searching wind through all the corridors of the house. Mad old women whispered and chuckled to themselves in corners, pawing and patting, as it seemed to me, waxen figures of the stricken host. Now and then there came a scurrying of fear-fanned feet, now and then the clanking of pails, the sudden banging of doors. A daughter of the house was in tears, her sister in hysterics; the doctor spat upon the floor, signifying his diagnostic pother. Death alone sat hale in the guest-chambers, and had bespoken the chief seat at the feast. Clearly, all these things were far from Mr. Carmichael, who was able to ruminate with unencumbered mind upon the Etruscans, the alabaster industry, and the landslip – as most pleasantly he does in his little Tuscan book. To me the gloom, the shadow, the cruel sea-wind with its tainted burden of fog, blighted the eyes, and perhaps struck a palsy upon the judgment. But I am by no means so sure that this, which has been foretold by the road, is not sealed to Volterra by history.

The Best Hotels according to Hare 09/12/2010

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Augustus Hare (‘the thinking man’s Baedeker’) in the sixth edition of his guide to Florence (1904) included the following list of best hotels in Florence.

Hotel Paoli, at the end of the Lung’ Arno della Zecca, near S. Croce, quiet and suited for winter quarters.

Hotel Bristol, comfortable, more central.

Hotel Anglo-American, Via Garibaldi, reasonable. Hotel de la Ville, large, central (Piazza Manin).

Hotel New York (once Palazzo Ricasoli), newly done up (Piazza del Ponte alla Carraia).

Hotel Savoy, in the centre (on the site of the Mercato Vecchio), comfortable, large, expensive.

Hotel Minerva, near Santa Maria Novella, quiet, clean, and old-fashioned, no view.

Hotel Grande-Bretagne and Royal adjoining, frequently under new management.

Hotel Albion, small, facing the Arno.

Hotel Berchielli, small. Lung’ Arno Acciaiuoli.

Hotel Europa, 3 Via Tornabuoni.

Hotel Washington, near Piazza S. Trinita, and facing the river (Lung’ Arno, Amerigo Vespucci).

Pisa’s best inn 03/12/2010

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c. 1900

There is a good inn up a dark lane [in Pisa] – La Cervia its name – kept by a stately widow, and kept in good order. To hear her rate the maids, to see the waiters fly, is to be assisting at a comedy of Goldoni’s. ‘Padrona, si,’ ‘Padrona, no,’ is all they dare say to her. I came upon her one morning cheapening a fish. It was a vast fish, and a good (as I can testify, who ate of it afterwards); the proud taker of it knew its merits and was voluble upon them. The Padrona listened without changing a muscle; she heard every word, but never moved a hair. At the end, still looking at the fish, she asked, ‘Quanto domandi?’ The man smiled wistfully, shrugged, and murmured some supposed price. She heard him, though I did not; her bosom laboured with a tumult and was delivered of a sigh. She lifted the gill of the fish with a contemptuous finger, and – ‘Pah!’ says she, and lets it down again with a splash. After that she condescended to name her own price, which was immediately accepted. She asked me at dinner, did I not think it an admirable fish ? And as fresh as fresh!