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The Giostre and the Etruscans 14/09/2011

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c. 1910

The giostre, still played by the peasants in remote villages of the Apennines, carry on the traditions of the ‘hister’ who brought the dramatic art to Rome and who we are told recited to the sound of a pipe. The giostra players declaim in a sort of Gregorian chant in a plaintive minor key, accompanied by a pipe or little fiddle. The subjects of these giostre are sometimes Bible stories, Joseph and his brethren or the story of David, but there are also some mythical legends that I have not been able to identify. They differ from the regular miracle plays, in that I could not hear that they ever represented the gospel narrative. The words would have to be taken down on the spot, as they have neither books nor MSS., and when asked say they learnt them in the winter evenings, from the old men and women, who all knew them. The public performances of these giostre have been for the most part discontinued, but I was present at the resuscitation of one after fifty years neglect, in the Pistoiese Apennines, where it was played out of doors, at the village festas of the region. It was entirely due to the enterprise of one old peasant, who had acted in his youth and drilled the new generation. When I asked him about the written text of the plays, he said he had never seen them nor anyone else in those parts, but that they were kept at Volterra, This traditional connection of Volterra, the Etruscan capital of the district, with the giostre seemed to me strange and perhaps significant.

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Pistoia and the Vitality of Italian Life 28/01/2011

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c. 1910

Pistoia is one of those small towns which help us to gauge the immense vitality of Italian life. It would be rare to find in France, or Germany, or England, a place of similar size, with the traditions of an independent state, public buildings of artistic distinction, a cathedral, campanile and baptistery, and a number of churches dignified by the work of great sculptors.

The last of the Cancellieri at Pistoia 09/01/2011

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c. 1900

Pistoia and I, on that mild spring morning, seemed to be singing a duet. As I came on I overtook country folk going my way, women on donkeys, plaiting straws as they went, children running, the men walking together and apart, full of the most exuberant talk you ever heard; bullock-carts, laden mules, and such like. There was a steady stream of people setting towards Pistoia, some of whom had come far by the looks of them; mountaineers some, with swathed legs and staves in their hands; priests with vivid green umbrellas; farmers in gigs much too small for their persons. I suppose the road is the greatest leveller next to death ; the dust and sweat had coloured us all alike, and I had no more difficulty at the dazio than the natives. Not that I had less. The customs officers opened my bundle and handled one or two of my books. I let myself be floated in by the pressure of the crowd; together we all swam like a bore-of-the-tide up the long street. I found myself jostling with a sharp-faced, the last of the bristle-bearded countryman, carrying a wickered flask of wine over his shoulder, and fell into some talk with him.

‘Why are we all in such a stew to get to Pistoia?’ I asked him, after passing the time of day.

He looked at me keenly. I soon found out that it took very little to excite a Tuscan’s curiosity. ‘Where can you be from, who know not that?’ he returned at once. ‘It is San Atto we are going to visit.’

‘Ah! San Atto the Bishop. They expose his relics?’

‘That,’ he said, ‘is the state of the case. Every year on this day we go to visit San Atto.’

I admired the devotion, and proposed to share it.

‘Gia, gia’ says he ‘It is a very good custom.’

‘In my country,’ I said, ‘such reverence as this is done by stealth, if done at all. We do not even know certainly the whereabouts of some of our greatest saints.’

My companion’s eyes twinkled; he pondered the remark, then murmured some polite regrets. He thought it curious, he said, that so practical a nation as the English should neglect any obvious source of profit.

‘It is because my countrymen have become absorbed in material profit,’ said I, ‘that they distrust any inward promptings. They affect to despise ceremony; really, they fear it. They will doff their hats to the Queen: ‘There!’  they say, ‘there’s prosperity for you!’ But if you were to put up a figure of the Queen of heaven in a blue cloak and crown of stars they would show their independence by marching past her, chins in the air, and hats jammed down to the ears. They are congees and deference to a living bishop  – you should see them at their shop-doors when my lord drives up in his carriage; but a dead bishop, be he as holy as Grosteste of Lincoln, as puissant in war as Hugh of Durham, they consider to be no more than a spadeful of dust.’

He was greatly interested, he was amazed. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the wildest folly. How can a Queen upon earth help you so far as our Lady in heaven? This is a very shortsighted business. Your nation will never prosper on those terms.’

‘Yours is the opinion of a few of us,’ I replied. ‘We even go so far as to say that a newspaper that supports itself by tickling the baser parts of base people had better do it with the end of a rope and be through with it. But your San Atto, I fear, would come into conflict with our police. They would say, ‘This prelate is dead and has been buried, yet here he is again. Into the ground with him, or into the British Museum’. You would call this madness.’

‘Why,’ says my friend, ‘I should. As I understand it, there is a plain bargain. We run to San Atto with our difficulties, who, as having been Bishop of  Pistoia, knows all the circumstances to a tick. My own, now, is a scapegrace son, who has set up for a footpad under Vallombrosa, and be hanged to him. Very well. I take my case to San Atto. He says, Two candles at my altar before I look into it. That is fair enough. But you see the lie of the thing.’

I had indeed never seen it more clearly. I asked him if he was a Tuscan.

He shrugged his shoulder. ‘Who knows what I may be, sir?’ said he. ‘I am by birth, like my father before me, a Vajanese. We don’t reckon ourselves to be of any nation but that. The Marquess is my master, and he’s no Tuscan, but a Pistolese.’

‘He may be a Tuscan for all that,’ I said, to which he assented readily.

‘Well,’ he continued, after a pause, ‘he’s a great lord, and should have the best of everything while it lasts. One is taken and another is left. Now my own name, let me tell you, was good for something once upon a time.’

I begged him to tell it me. ‘My name of origin,’ he replied, ‘ is Cancellieri. In fact Gino Cancellieri is the whole of it; but they call me Maso’s Gino in the ordinary way, and as often as not II Bazza, because of this great chin of mine.’

It was now my turn to be interested, not in his chin, which was nothing out of the common run, but in his name. This unshaven hedger bore the arms which Pistoia had assumed in his right – the chequer-board arms, the White and the Black. In this man’s blood had been brewed that infernal drink which drove Florence mad and Corso Donati to a dog’s death. All this I told him. ‘Your forefather, my dear sir,’ I ended, ‘was tyrant of  Pistoia.’

The last of the Cancellieri took this at first with great phlegm. ‘He may have been, for all I know,’ he said; ‘but my own father was a road-mender, and broke stones betwixt Piastre and Cireglio. He was famous for it. You have been walking on his metal this morning, I doubt, and permit me to say there is no better. Tyrant of  Pistoia, was he? Well, there’s a trade for a man!’ The humour of it now tickling him, he laughed gaily. I said that I considered it a less reputable trade than road-mending; but Cancellieri would have his laugh out now that he had caught it. ‘Why, it may be so,’ he allowed. ‘I don’t care to dispute it. But what gravels me is the justice of it. My grandfather, as you may say, walked soft-foot upon the sweat of the Pistolesi, and now here are the Pistolesi doing the same by my father. Well, well, that’s as good as a comedy any day.’

‘The thought consoles you?” I asked.

He raised an eyebrow; it is thus the Tuscans usually shrug. ‘I say that it tickles me,’ he answered.

‘You may not relish justice for a full meal, but you may learn to be diverted by it as a snack. That is my case, signorino. To meet again, sir; your servant.’ He took off his woollen cap as he made this little speech, and I saw him engage a friend in lively conversation.

Pistoia – Gate to Tuscany 07/01/2011

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Pistoia, being one of the gates of Tuscany, should be seen at the beginning, never at the Auroral end of your errantry. I have been thoughts. lucky in this that not only have I seen it first, but that I have always seen it in early morning light, saluting the dawn, as I was doing. I saw it from Cireglio, after the long and painful traverse of the hills from Modena; I saw all the Val d’Arno lie below me like a carpet, with  Pistoia for a rose upon the intricate pattern – a blot of pink and purple in the vague bluegreen field. Little as I knew of it then – indeed, I knew nothing more of it than that pistols were called by its name – I could not fail to see it as the threshold of the enchanted land to which I was wandering, a pilgrim to its holy places. Through  Pistoia, Florence was mine, Pisa, Siena, Volterra, sea-washed Orbetello. The Arno, whose every stone Dante knew, lay in the midst of that brocaded plain, and into Arno flowed those rivers of lovely names – slow Elsa, whitebeached Sieve, Era and Ema, Evola and Pesa, names of very music. I need not say that I was very young; it is necessary to be that if you are to see Italy aright. Nor is it possible for me to describe with what drum-music of the heart I looked upon the vivid, sunlit glory to which I made my descent. Not only did it surpass promise, it out-topped the expectation, even the suspicion, of its glory. The incomparable freshness of every hue – the daring of a race of men who should wash their house-fronts orange or rose, who should paint them white and keep them at that bridal point – the effrontery and success of their building, whose farmhouses were like boxes, and yet picturesque; whose churches like barns, and yet venerable. Heavens! if I was ragged, rather hungry, a truant, without pence—what did these things weigh? Here was I, the bridegroom, before the unveiled bride. The nearing prospect of the little old city, dipped in green and gold – a dome of dusky red, a grey tower or so, weather-bitten passion to walls, something bright and clean, some prosperous air, touched and took prisoner my confidence. I became an ingenuous youth, and rightly so, before such engaging manners.