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Trade on the Arno 17/07/2011

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c. 1910

The Mugnone now falls into the Arno much lower than it formerly did, reaching the greater stream only at the western end of the Cascine: a change which may be reckoned with the rest as one of the causes why commerce no longer comes to Florence by water. Pass this confluence, however; pass the shallow of Marcignana, which the alkuium brought down the Mugnone has formed, and the river begins at once to show what it can do still, in the manner, if not the measure, of the greater past. At Ugnano, scarcely a mile below the Cascine, a true cargo-boat, though of small size, lay waiting its load in the winter of 1909; I suppose this is now the highest point reached by the existing river trade.

Such boats, however, you will find in growing number as you follow the growing river; at Signa, where it has already received the Bisenzio; at the Golfolina, where the Ombrone falls in, and, definitely, at Montelupo, where the Pesa joins the Arno, and where manufactures of earthenware and glass are set on the stream and use it as a means of transport. Empoli sees the confluence of Arno and Elsa, and its match factories bring custom to the growing trade. It is not difficult to understand that, if the river is to compete with its rival the rail, its advantage will lie here; in the transport of fragile things like pottery and glass, or combustibles like sulphur and lucifers, on which the railway levies high charges for so dangerous a freight.

Another advantage appears at Calcinaia, between Pontedera and Pisa, in the canal which runs directly from this point in the river toLeghorn, offering a shorter route thither than the rail can show. Calcinaia is therefore a prosperous place, and here, or at the neighbouring Fornacette, you may see for the first time the really heavy boats of the lower Arno; built to carry bricks or grain to Leghorn, and to return with loads of coal for the kiln, or sulphate of copper for the vineyards. This canal is called the Fosso del Arnaccio, as if the river itself once followed the very route the canal keeps to-day.

Strabo, in fact, speaks of the Arno as ‘threefold’ ; hinting at a considerable delta towards the mouth, and thus it may well be that the present traffic by water is not merely a survival of the past, but that, in a singular persistence, it still keeps the ancient line of passage, a branch of the river once followed across the Pisan plain. Not that the same boats may not be found at Pisa too, lying in the Medicean port with its great sluice and roof, or crowding the canal of the Naviglio for which that port was built in 1603. They are of precisely the type we have already studied atFlorence, with a rather exaggerated sheer fore and aft, which, in the stern, leaves room for a great earthen water-jar under the curve of the tiller. The chief difference is in the size of the boat, for these of the lower Arno may run to twenty-five or even thirty tons as against two or three at Florence.

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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.

Pisa, Siena then Rome 25/02/2011

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c. 1880

There are two routes from Pisa to Rome – one by Leghorn and the coast, which would have obliged us either to stop the night at the uninviting town of Civita Vecchia, or to have arrived at Rome late in the evening. We chose the other route by Sienna. To go by Sienna, the traveller proceeds eastward about half-way along the railway to Florence, and changes carriages at Empoli. From Empoli the railway strikes off southward to Sienna and Rome.

Sienna stands high, being 1330 feet above the level of the sea, and is considered a place of summer residence for its coolness. was therefore somewhat apprehensive, considering the cold weather we had endured, lest it might be too cold. Although, however, it stands high above the level of the sea, it does not seem to be more than 200 feet above the level of the surrounding country, or of the railway, and we did not find it very cold. But a change had taken place in the weather, and it was again a fine cloudless day.

Having decided to go by Sienna, we could not resist making another excursion to the cathedral before starting by the mid-day train, and were all but tempted to ascend the Campanile. But to an invalid it looked chilly outside, and the height deterring; and I being the only one who might have gone, the custodier could not take me alone, the rule, to guard against accidents or suicide, being that not less than three must make the ascent at a time.

The cathedral looked much finer in the sunshine, and we could have lingered long examining it in detail, and would gladly have had there the wearisome time, well-nigh an hour, we were, according to Italian custom, required to spend in the salle-d’attente of the railway.

The journey from Pisa to Sienna, about seventy miles, is through a mountainous country, with some places of interest by the way, though our prospect was much contracted by reason of a passenger in the carriage who would draw down all the blinds on his side and read a book the whole way, till his wife, out of shame, seeing our disappointment, persuaded him to allow one of the three blinds on his side to be raised, there being no sun peering in even to justify an excuse, which, indeed, never was made. In four hours and twenty minutes we arrived at our destination.

Ciali 02/01/2011

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c. 1900

He was the first acquaintance I made in Tuscany. I was leaning over the steamer’s side looking down at the swarm of boats that surrounded her. I knew no word of the Tuscan tongue, and was dimly wondering how I should get myself and my luggage ashore, and to what extent I should be fleeced in the process, when a brown, clear eye from a boat below caught mine full. It belonged to a gaunt creature in blue serge suit and boating cap, with the face of a Mephistopheles and the bearing and manners of an Archangel. And from his mouth there issued (O dulcet sound!) English – as she is spoke, it is true – but English intelligible with an effort. ‘Inglis gen’lman?’ he queried with a polite grin. I nodded, distrustfully perhaps. ‘You come my boat, sair – ver good boat.’ I reflected a moment. The Mephistophelean face in repose I distrusted profoundly; animated, it seemed to glow with an extra dose of the milk of human kindness. For better or for worse I would go in his boat. ‘All right!’ I shouted down. ‘Au’ri! Au’ri!’, he shouted back with great contentment; and in two minutes more he was beside me on the deck possessing himself of my hand-bags and excitedly bawling directions about my big trunks.

We landed without misadventure; a cab of my guide’s approving sprung, as if by magic, from the quay-side. He openly prevented me giving a silver five-franc piece to the boatman, and made that angry, baffled worthy content himself with two. Then came the difficult question of tipping him. I fingered a variety of coins diffidently, and finally got ready the five-franc piece he had saved me. ‘What hotel you go to, gen’lman?’ I told him, and tried surreptitiously to pass the five-franc piece upon him. He pushed my arm politely away, gently forced me into the cab, and in a trice was on the box beside the driver. At the hotel he came up to my room, and patiently and gleefully unstrapped all my boxes. ‘No spend silver moneys here,’ he said confidentially; ‘sell silver moneys and spend paper moneys. Me show Mister t’morr’ mawnin’. Again I fumbled for the five-franc piece, but he was already at the door bowing me a stately ‘goo-bye, sair!’

I never managed to pass that particular tip; it was the first of a series of defeats which I sustained in attempts to reward loyal and valuable services. This happened six years ago. I know my friend very well now, and prize him highly. His name is Carlo Bianchi; he is keeper of a boarding-house for English seamen. His dominant trait – if we put aside great natural goodnature  –  is an absorbing, awe-stricken admiration for everything and everybody English. You can only pain him in one way  – if you call him either ‘Carlo’ or ‘Bianchi’. He calls himself ‘Charlie White’, and spells Charlie ‘Ciali’ on the card which announces that he has a ‘home’ offering every comfort to members of the Mercantile Marine. It is this passionate admiration of everything British that prompts him, when he has nothing better to do, to go off in a boat to the steamers in the hope of being able to assist some helpless English traveller.

He often meets with scant courtesy and withering scepticism at their hands, but remains undauntedly revering. We must indeed be a great and proud nation to have aroused all this admiration in the bosom of a Tuscan man of the world like ‘Ciali’, for as a rule he sees but degenerate specimens of the Britisher. The members of the English Mercantile Marine who come under his fatherly care are too often the worst of the class, men who have deserted from their ships, or lost their ships through drunken orgies, or who have been politely lodged in the tempered seclusion of a Tuscan gaol, or the still milder fastnesses of the strong room of the Town Hospital consequent upon a Bacchanalian night-brawl. If he encouraged their vices he would get more men into his house, and put more money in his pocket. But he routs them out of unsavoury places, reclaims the wages of which they have been fleeced, packs them into boats, and sends them off to their ships to save them from desertion; and all this because he reveres the mighty British nation even in its dregs. Nearly every morning ‘Ciali’ presents himself at my house with the respectful offer of his services. I have to invent commissions to save him from lapsing into despondency. I do not pay him. He borrows freely, but always pays back. He will accept an old suit of clothes gladly, and wears it with swagger and distinction.

I visit his fat ‘Signora’ at the boarding-house sometimes, and contrive to slip trifles into the children’s money-boxes. Filthy lucre I can only pass off on him by resorting to ruse. A firm of solicitors in England is paying for this, I say, or an English shipowner wants such and such a thing done; then all ‘Ciali’s’ scruples vanish. But I have to use this species of finesse sparingly, for he is wily and observant, well versed in every branch of honest deception, and a past-master in the gentle art of giving without seeming to give. Certainly his faith in human nature would receive a rude shock if he were ever to detect me in anything so perfidious as an attempt to reward devoted services which were meant to be given out of pure loyalty and affection. Poor ‘Ciali’! He managed to wind himself very closely about my heart-strings. Most keenly did I realise this one terrible night last December. I saw – a familiar enough sight – a company of the masked Misericordia Brothers running full tilt down the main street with their easy-springed hand ambulance cart, foot-passengers and traffic willingly making an avenue for them, as when a fire-engine tears along the London streets. The light of a fitful gas-lamp revealed the form of a prostrate human being in the cart, and then lit up with momentary horror the ghastly features of poor ‘Ciali’ contorted with the anguish of mortal pain. I saw, with a pang at my heart, a sign which showed me it was a very serious case.

These Misericordia Brothers, for all they are a religious confraternity, are a very practical set of people. One of the Brothers was running alongside, holding the dying man’s wrist, and keeping his fingers upon the flickering pulse; in his left hand he held a large stop-watch, so that if the sufferer died upon the road the police could be informed of the exact moment of death. I followed swiftly towards the hospital; but before many moments were over the pace of the runners slackened, for the poor pulse had ceased to beat for ever. It seems that two pot-valiant Welsh firemen had got into an altercation with a sober Tuscan seaman. A real or fancied insult to the girl on the man’s arm was the cause of it. The blood which gets into a Tuscan’s head upon the venom motions of mad jealousy is more deadly than any drink: out came the inevitable knife. But ‘Ciali’, the peacemaker, was near at hand. He rushed up – too late alas! – to quench the flames, for the insensate Tuscan no longer knew what he did, and poor ‘Ciali’ received, just above the heart, the terrible blade that was meant for a far unworthier breast. And so he died, a martyr to his love of Great Britain, and in heroic devotion to her offscourings. ‘Ciali’s’ funeral was a great affair. All the waterside population turned out. Many British seamen were present; most of them took a turn at carrying the coffin the five long miles to the Campo Santo. Best of all, an English captain who had known him for years, and like everybody else used him as ‘unpaid factotum’, brought a Red Ensign, and covered the coffin with it. Borne to his grave by British seamen and covered with the Union Jack! The tingling sensations of an honest, simple pride must surely have caused him to turn in his coffin. If the poor fellow could but have known of the honours that awaited him in death, how exultantly he would have marched into the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns. May his soul rest in peace!

Orange blossom in Pisa 31/12/2010

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c. 1900

My most vivid impression of Pisa is a trivial one connected with orange-blossom. On a certain sunny May-day, when, after long years, we were renewing acquaintance with the dreamy old city, the perfume of orange flowers met us as we entered the streets. It was floating everywhere on the still air. Through the quaint white thoroughfares, in which the grass pushed its way unchecked between the paving-stones, each high garden wall was overtopped by the burnished green leaves of orange trees, starred with multitudes of small creamy flowers. Their sweet scent accompanied us on our way, leaving us only when the town lay behind, and we had reached the great open grassy space where stands that magnificent group of buildings renowned all the world over. On two sides of this square the ancient battlemented walls of Pisa form an enclosure, in which are grouped the Cathedral, the Baptistery, and the ‘Leaning Tower’, while behind them, unseen, lies the Campo Santo. Time and the sun’s beneficent rays have mellowed these venerable marble monuments to a warm creamy hue. Solemn and perfect they stand, watching the generations come and go beneath their carved and fretted walls, a trinity of beauty, set between the emerald of the grass and the turquoise of the sky.

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!