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Fiesole and the ‘Roman Arena’ 18/02/2011

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c. 1910

But the main interest of Fiesole to most people is not the cypress-covered hill of S. Francesco; not the view from the summit; not the straw mementoes; not the Mino relief in the church; but the Roman arena. The excavators have made of this a very complete place. One can stand at the top of the steps and reconstruct it all the audience, the performance, the performers. A very little time spent on building would be needed to restore the amphitheatre to its original form. Beyond it are baths, and in a hollow the remains of a temple with the altar where it ever was; and then one walks a little farther and is on the ancient Etruscan wall, built when Fiesole was an Etruscan fortified hill city. So do the centuries fall away here! But everywhere, among the ancient Roman stones so massive and exact, and the Etruscan stones, are the wild flowers which Luca Signorelli painted in that picture in the Uffizi which I love so much. After the amphitheatre one visits the Museum with the same ticket a little building filled with trophies of the spade. There is nothing very wonderful nothing to compare with the treasures of the Archaeological Museum m Florence but it is well worth a visit.

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Visit to Giotto’s Birthplace 26/01/2011

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c. 1900

The hill of Vespignano, Giotto’s birthplace, is much too steep for the chestnuts and calash; moreover, we are only too glad of an excuse for walking up the pretty path cut into the hillside, bordered by trees hung with ivy, and leading to a serried rank of young cypresses, ranged together like a black watch on the crest of the hill, as if to guard the modest stone building, which tradition says is the very house where the artist Giotto was born. Even for a shepherd’s dwelling, the house is small and uninteresting, which naturally flings a suspicion over its verity; nevertheless, the spirit which actuates the preservation of all historical sites and relics by the Italian government cannot be too highly commended. The house is converted into a meagre museum, and kept in good order on estates at present belonging to the Villa Capriani-Cateni, the various buildings of which cover the crest of a considerable height and possess a noble outlook into the near hills, which are now taking on a hazy blue mystery in the afternoon light.

A large portion of the villa is of modern architecture, plain and dignified, but the massive, square battlemented tower at one corner is of quite an early date, perhaps the thirteenth century, while not far away is the ruined prison-house of ruddy grey stones and brickwork, with a picturesque round tower, presumably of a still earlier time, and reminding one of the ancient towers still found in parts of Ireland.

The whole pile speaks eloquently of a long residence on this hilltop of a people whose wants were few. their tastes stern and simple as the mighty Apennines which encircled them.

A fine-looking old man is weaving an osier basket as he sits on the terrace in the shadow of the old tower. He answers all our questions with quiet courtesy; but upon our offering him a fee, as we have learned is generally expected, it is gently but firmly declined, and we walk away somewhat abashed, thinking of the varied influences which surrounded young Giotto amid such pastoral scenes and such kindly, self-respecting people. He certainly must have carried much of the experience and knowledge of his shepherd life into his art.

Bored in the Uffizi 08/01/2011

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c. 1910

Another class of tourists there is whom I watch, I own, in amazement, wondering why they come to Italy, since the tastes they manifest would find more gratification at Brighton, if not on Hampstead Heath when Bank Holiday comes round. They hasten through galleries and churches, ruled by their watches, dictated to by the guide-books in their hands. Their methods are so sketchy (from choice and not necessity), that few cities have sufficient attractions to detain them many hours, and one of them has been known to ask if three days was too much to give to Rome! Such come to Florence, sometimes even spend long times here, but never, I venture to say, do they see her as she is. It was lately my fortune (or misfortune?) to follow such a couple round the Uffizi. They were obviously bride and bridegroom, their appearance proved them of the rich and leisured class. They paused before a martyrdom of St. Laurence, and the husband sought information of his wife, who was quick to supply it. ‘You want to know what this is? Why, that poor chap, what’s-his-name? one of those old saints, who was martyred, put on a gridiron like a mutton chop!’ So they disposed of St. Laurence, and, wandering on, stopped again before Piero di Cosimo’s strange, whimsical dream of Perseus, where it was the bride who trusted for enlightenment to the classical learning supposed to be got in public schools. It was, however, but a broken reed to which she trusted, for all the response was, ‘Oh, I forget that old yarn, it’s nothing much anyway. Come along, aren’t we nearly at the end?’ And as they passed on, I heard his question, ‘Do you really like these old daubs?’ and the candid answer, ‘Well, honestly, now I am getting used to them I don’t mind them as much as I did at first!’

Florentine Museums and Galleries c. 1910 30/12/2010

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c. 1900

Before we enter any Florentine gallery let me say that there is only one free day and that the crowded Sabbath. Admittance to nearly all is a lira. Moreover, there is no re-admission. The charge strikes English visitors, accustomed to the open portals of their own museums and galleries, as an outrage, and it explains also the little interest in their treasures which most Florentines display for being essentially a frugal people they have seldom seen them. Visitors who can satisfy the authorities that they are desirous of studying the works of art with a serious purpose can obtain free passes; but only after certain preliminaries, which include a séance with a photographer to satisfy the doorkeeper, by comparing the real and counterfeit physiognomies, that no illicit transference of the precious privilege has been made. Italy is, one knows, not a rich country; but the revenue which the gallery entrance-fees represent cannot reach any great  volume, and such as it is it had much better, I should say, be raised by other means. Meanwhile, the foreigner chiefly pays it. What Giovanni de’ Medici and Lorenzo de’ Medici, and even more what Anna Maria Ludovica de1 Medici, who bequeathed to the State these possessions, would think could they see this feverish and implacable pursuit of pence, I have not imagination, or scorn, enough to set down.

Visits to the Uffizi and the Vasarian Corridor 16/12/2010

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c. 1910

Infirm and languid visitors should get it clearly into their heads (1) that the tour of the Uffizi means a long walk and (2) that there is a lift. You find it in the umbrella room at every Florentine gallery and museum is an official whose one object in life is to take away your umbrella and it costs two-pence-halfpenny and is worth far more. But walking downstairs is imperative, because otherwise one would miss Silenus and Bacchus, and a beautiful urgent Mars, in bronze, together with other fine sculptured things. One of the quaintest symbols of conservatism in Florence is the scissors of the officials who supply tickets of entrance. Apparently the perforated line is unknown in Italy; hence the ticket is divided from its counterfoil (which I assume goes to the authorities in order that they may check their horrid takings) by a huge pair of shears. These things are snip-snapping all over Italy, all day long. Having obtained your ticket you hand it to another official at a turnstile, and at last you are free of cupidity and red tape and may breathe easily again and examine the products of the light-hearted, generous Renaissance in the right spirit.

One should never forget, in any gallery of Florence, to look out of the windows. There is always a courtyard, a street, or a spire against the sky; and at the Uffizi there are the river and bridges and mountains. From the loggia of the Palazzo Vecchio I once saw a woman with some twenty or thirty city pigeons on the table of her little room, feeding them with maize.

Except for glimpses of the river and the Via Guicciardini which it gives, I advise no one to walk through the passage uniting the Pitti and the Uffizi unless of course bent on catching some of the ancient thrill when armed men ran swiftly from one palace to the other to quell a disturbance or repulse an assault. Particularly does this counsel apply to wet days, when all the windows are closed and there is no air. A certain interest attaches to the myriad portraits which line the walls, chiefly of the Medici and comparatively recent worthies; but one must have a glutton’s passion either for paint or history to wish to examine these. As a matter of fact, only a lightning-speed tourist could possibly think of seeing both the Uffizi and the Pitti on the same day, and therefore the need of the passage disappears. It is hard worked only on Sundays. The drawings in the cases in the first long corridor are worth close study covering as they do the whole range of great Italian art: from, say, Uccello to Carlo Dolci. But as they are from time to time changed it is useless to say more of them. There is also on the first landing of the staircase a room in which exhibitions of drawings of the Old Masters are held, and this is worth knowing about, not only because of the riches of the portfolios in the collection, but also because once you have passed the doors you are inside the only picture gallery in Florence for which no entrance fee is asked. How the authorities have come to overlook this additional source of revenue, I have no notion; but they have, and visitors should hasten to make the most of it for fear that a translation of these words of mine may wander into bad hands.

Francois vase 02/12/2010

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c. 1910

On the first floor [of the Florence Archaeological Museum] the fine collection of bronzes and bucchero is being re-arranged at the time I write. The bronze statues of Menrva, the Orator, the Chimaera and the fragments of the bronze group of Diana in her chariot, are all here. Among the painted vases the Francois vase reigns supreme. This vase, which I have already described, was found in fragments at Chiusi in 1845 and bought by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It was restored as well as the best experts of the day knew how and stood for half a century, first in the Uffizi, afterwards in its present position, when one disastrous day an official of the gallery, in a fit of mania, dashed it to the ground and it was again reduced to a heap of broken potsherds. It was however immediately put in the hands of restorers and the experience of the last half century has, it appears, taught many lessons in the art of restoration, for when, after several years of the minutest care and labour, it was again exposed to view it was in an even better state than when its second misfortune overtook it.