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Lung’Arno at the end of the nineteenth century 11/12/2010

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c. 1890

On the Arno! Do not the words recall a familiar scene with the distinctness of an etching. The length of quay curving in the distance to the cloud of foliage of the Cascine, the Piazza Manin midway, with the monument of the Venetian patriot in the centre, the weir and circular abutment of parapet opposite the Hotel de la Paix, and the bronze statue of Garibaldi flanking an orange-colored building beyond, all these features belong to one of the world’s most renowned thoroughfares. Who does not remember, in a much-travelled age, the leisurely holiday crowd of the Lung’ Arno, ebbing and flowing mothers and daughters in their best attire, the babies straggling behind, all prepared to gaze at the passing carriages and their occupants, the ladies in fresh Paris toilettes? A Florentine throng this, worthy of a passing contemplation, renowned for epigram and repartee, keen-eyed, mocking, ready to detect and laugh at any absurdity or weakness, could one but hear and understand the winged sarcasm as it passes from lip to lip. It is, also, a populace not too trustworthy on such occasions as the languidly recurring Carnival, being more prone to hurl missiles than flowers.

No doubt there is an Arlotto Pievano, with a ready jest, in a group of priests taking a walk at the sunset hour. No doubt there may be a barber Burchiello abroad with his family to-day, ready to keep alive a little gayety in a careworn and depressed world by his own trolling songs. The old men are abroad to enjoy the day. The aged Florentine citizen of the middle class is a most interesting type, a certain refinement tempering the shrewdness and intelligence of shrivelled features. Behold him on the Arno, serene, amused, and respectable, as retired merchant, goldsmith, optician, shoemaker. He is also a citizen of the world, the old Florentine, and astonished at nothing new, having seen many pageants. On such occasions the beggars, wrapped in cloaks as withered as themselves, have crept out to warm chilled blood in the sun on the benches opposite the Carraia Bridge. The three blind match-vendors, granted a long life of misery, stand in their accustomed places before the Corsini Palace. The peasant women from the Abruzzi, in their picturesque costume, and with gold ear-rings depending beside their brown cheeks, form a spot of warm color near the weir – red, green, and yellow – with their pile of blankets exposed for sale, wherewith to deck draughty doorway of hotel or pension or to drape the bleak walls of an apartment corridor. These wily sirens knit as they watch for the traveller, to extort a higher price for their wares than need be paid for the same article in the carpet-shops. The flower-vendors circulate beneath the balconies of the hotels, with coaxing smiles, equally sure of their prey, the stranger intoxicated with their burden of sweetness and color.

Who does not remember the night on the Arno? If masculine, you took a fresh cigar, and strolled forth after the dull table d’hôtel, instead of seeking theatre or opera. The Lung’ Arno was silent and deserted, with the lights of the gas lamps reflected in the river, the stars and the moon shining in the sky. The Arno glided along swiftly, with sparkling crests of foam visible occasionally, a stream devoid of volume or steadiness, descending from the mountain height of the Falterona, traversing the Casentino amid vineyards and olive-trees, and pressing onward freer in course, if you will, because the Libyan Hercules once removed the rock, at Signa, which formed a marsh. In the shadows of evening the river has a quiet and pensive beauty of aspect. Never could the traveller apply to the famous current Dante’s scornful epithets, as, ‘rising meanly among swine more fit for acorns than human food’, reaching the ” ‘snarling curs of Arezzo’, thence flowing to the ‘abode of wolves at Florence’, and finally descending to the ‘foxes full of fraud’ at Pisa. ‘The ill-starred ditch’ has an appearance of innocence and tranquillity beneath the stars. In the shades of midnight memories may stir abroad of Buonconte da Montefeltro swept down by the overflow of the Archiano, after the battle of Campaldino, of the ashes of Savonarola cast to the tide from the Ponte Yecchio, of the key of the Famine Tower dropped into the wave at Pisa by the Archbishop Ruggieri.

Possibly a guitar twanged farther up the street, and a singer rendered some Neapolitan ditty in a heavy bass voice. A sullen splash beneath the Ponte Carraia suggested a suicide. The Duomo bell boomed out a few hurried strokes on the still night. Was it a summons for the Misericordia to seek the suicide on the opposite shore?

If feminine, you assuredly strayed as far as the Piazza del Duomo to admire, in a sentimental mood, the marble statues and columns, glorified by the moon. This is one of the world’s thoroughfares, with open spaces visible, of sky, mountain, and open country beyond the suspension bridge, such as no other street, flanked by lofty buildings, churches, and squares, can boast. Not less curious and interesting is the throng of sojourners to be met on this quay. A tide of strangers traverses this pavement each season, and vanishes again. Every stage of peevish invalidism, following the advice of Mr. Wortley Montagu; rosy brides, native and foreign; mothers and daughters, chiefly Anglo-Saxon, and with an abstracted expression often, as of grasping at shadows, having missed the substance in some fashion; and whole phalanxes of the ‘glorified spinster’, scurrying out of the doorways of pensions, always under the pressure of utmost speed of locomotion, such are elements of the winter day on the Arno. Eccentric types abound at all seasons, the old gentleman of parchment visage, who walks for his health, with mechanical precision of gait; the old gentleman, bewigged, rouged, attired with juvenile gayety of taste, suggestive of a bygone generation of club-man of Regent Street or Cheltenham; the old lady, whether of the faded furbelow species of the keepsake album, or fantastic and flighty and from the provinces. In addition, the great of the earth like to walk on the Arno, incognito.

A king, travelling in Italy for the benefit of his health, or to change secretly his religion, as gossip affirms, occupies yonder hotel balcony. A fallen emperor, eager to test all the fresh discoveries of science, is lodged farther on. A slender lady in black, accompanied by a female companion, may prove to be the Empress of Austria, or the elderly lady in a plain carriage the Queen of England. De Stendhal said, ‘The brain is a magic lantern at which one can play for one’s own amusement.’ Rain fell on the umbrella as the Street of the Watermelon was left to seek the Arno bank in a time of flood. The Lung’ Arno gained, the rain ceased, and the umbrella was closed. Promenaders were abroad to gaze at the river, already swollen to a tawny current, brimming from bank to bank, pouring through the arches of the bridges with a menacing violence of volume, and boiling in a mimic cataract at the weir. To-day the bridges hold firm, first, the Ponte Carraia, which we might christen the Arch of Light, for the countless spectacles of which it has been the scene; then, the Ponte Trinita, the Arch of Symmetry, Ammanati’s best title to fame in elegance and simplicity of design; then the old treasure bridge, most precious historical link of all, tottering under the weight of shops and gallery; and finally, Ponte alle Grazie, Arch of Gratitude, modern, spacious, and without especial character since despoiled of the central chapel where was once the miraculous Madonna della Grazie, dear to the contadini, and the cells where the nuns dwelt. The scene was sombre, heavy clouds swept low, and the olive slopes below the Villa Niccolini on the Bellosguardo height were ragged and black. A group of spectators stood at the weir, their faces overshadowed by painful reminiscences, like the sky. ‘See what human skill can achieve’, said the Engineer, complacently, indicating the hydraulic works of the Arno. A Hungarian shook his head. ‘Fire can be dominated, but water is the great destroyer.’ An Italian added, ‘When will the Po and the Adige be taught to wear a bridle by engineering?’ An American woman added in a low tone, ‘You know little about floods in Europe. The Mississippi swallowed our all, five years ago.’