jump to navigation

City and Country 21/07/2011

Posted by florencecapital in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

c. 1905

One of the delights of the hills round Florence is their entire rusticity. The easy access from the city, the constant coming and going, the numerous foreign settlers, the eager seekers of villeggiature, have not destroyed the country life of these radiant rustic regions. For this reason it may be truly said that Florence has no suburbs. A few minutes in the tram and the traveller might be in the olive orchards of the Versilia, or taking agricultural notes from the simple courteous peasants in the heart of the fertile Casentino. The dwellers about Fiesole, at San Domenico, at Settignano, at Maiano, at Careggi, are so many country gentlemen, and are as busied about pressing oil, or making wine, or drying orris-root, as are the dwellers in the town about study, painting, banking, or the delightful Florentine pleasures of this world. These inhabitants of the alluring hills have a character so much their own, that I seem to recognise a country mouse in the Via Tornabuoni, though it has only taken him a few minutes to get there. 

English settlers abound on the hills, another proof of what I have said, that the Englishman, rather than any other foreigner, has the keenest eye for the recondite beauties, and I will now add for the solid comforts, of Italy. Life up here is entirely charming: completely rustic, as I said, but wholly free from the bumpkin element. Our town-mouse friends are frequent visitors, keep our interest fresh and keen in the city’s doings, and prevent us ever sinking into mere Boeotian country mice. It is the country, agricultural, horticultural, floricultural, but the country under ideal conditions.

One of its chief joys is the constant beauty of the outlook. Whether it be winter with the distant hills covered with snow, or summer with its green floor below and blue vault above, the scene is everlastingly beautiful. Then Florence is for ever under our eyes, the text of morning and evening meditations, daily increasing in beauty, as it seems, because of our daily increasing love and understanding of it. So great is its individuality, so far-reaching its part in universal history, so potent its possession of our better self, that we think of it as a system apart: there is that resplendent sun, Brunelleschi’s cupola, with, for moon, the lesser cupola of the Medicean Chapel; there are those seven planets in the Florentine heaven, the Torre del Leone, the Campanile, the tower of the Bargello, the cupola of Santo Spirito, the spires of the Badia, of Santa Croce, of Santa Maria Novella, with constellations too many to enumerate; and there, over towards San Donnino, is the milky way of the winding Arno.

Every glance at the city recalls the noblest memories: the Gonfalonier! and great Princes who have governed the State, the holy Archbishops who have ruled the Church, the Saints who here chose the better part, the glories of the Franciscan, the greater glories of the Dominican, the civilising mission of the Benedictine Order, the builders, the painters, the sculptors, the poets, the scholars, the soldiers, the merchants memories of all are recalled by a glance at one or other of these constellations in the Florentine firmament. Truly our morning and evening meditations never lack for a subject, and are rich in food for the mind and fraught with good for the soul.

Advertisements

Brunelleschi’s Early Years in Vasari 28/02/2011

Posted by florencecapital in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
comments closed

There lived in Florence, as we are told, a man of good renown, very praiseworthy habits, and much activity in his affairs, whose name was Ser Brunellesco di Lippo Lapi, and whose grandfather, called Cambio, was a very learned person, the son of a physician famous in those times, and named Maestro Ventura Bacherini. Ser Brunellesco chose for his wife a young woman of excellent conduct, from the noble family of the Spini, with whom, as part payment of her dowry, he received a house, wherein he and his children dwelt to the day of their death. This house stands in a corner on the side opposite to San Michele Bertelli, after passing the Piazza degli Agli, and while Brunellesco there exercised his calling and lived happily with his wife, there was born to him in the year 1377 a son, to whom he gave the name of Filippo, after his own father, who was then dead. This birth he solemnized with all possible gladness.

As the infant advanced in childhood, his father taught him the first rudiments of learning with the utmost care, and herein Filippo displayed so much intelligence, and so clear an understanding, as to frequently cause surprise that he did not take pains to attain perfection in letters, but rather seemed to direct his thoughts to matters of more obvious utility, a circumstance which caused Ser Brunellesco, who wished his son to follow his own calling of a notary, or that of his great-great-grandfather very great displeasure.

Perceiving, nevertheless, that the mind of the boy was constantly intent on various ingenious questions of art and mechanics, he made him learn writing and arithmetic, and then placed him in the Guild of the Goldsmiths, that he might acquire the art of design from a friend of his. This was a great satisfaction to Filippo, who no long time after he had begun to study and practise in that art, understood the setting of precious stones much better than any old artist in the vocation. He also executed works in niello; among others, figures in silver, two prophets, namely, halflengths, which were placed over the altar of San Jacopo di Pistoia, and were considered very beautiful; these figures were made by Filippo, for the superintendents of the cathedral in that city. He also executed works in basso-rilievo, wherein he showed so complete a mastery of that art, as to make it manifest that his genius must quickly overstep the limits of the goldsmith’s calling. Subsequently, having made acquaintance with several learned persons, he began to turn his attention to the computation of the divisions of time, the adjustment of weights, and the movement of wheels; he considered the method by which they might best be made to revolve, and how they might most effectually be set in motion, making several very good and beautiful watches with his own hand.

Not content with this, Filippo was seized with an earnest desire to attempt the art of sculpture, and this wish took effect in such sort that Donatollo, then a youth, being considered of great distinction and high promise therein, Filippo contracted a close intimacy with him; and each attracted by the talents of the other, they became so strongly attached that one seemed unable to live without the other. But Filippo, who was capable of attaining excellence in various departments, gave his attention to many professions, nor had any long time elapsed before he was considered by good judges to be an excellent architect. This he proved in various works which served for the decoration of houses, as, for example, for that of the house of Apollonio Lapi, his kinsman, at the corner of the Ciai, towards the Mercato Vecchio, where he laboured industriously all the time that the edifice was in course of erection; and he did the same thing at the tower and house of Petraia at Castello, outside of Florence. In the palace of the Signoria also, Filippo distributed and arranged all the rooms occupied for the affairs of their office by the officials of the Monte. He therein constructed the windows and doors after the manner of the ancients, a thing not then very frequently done, architecture being in a very rude state in Tuscany.

There was at that time a statue of Santa Maria Maddalena to be executed in linden-wood, for the monks of Santo Spirito in Florence, and which was to be placed in one of their chapels; Filippo therefore, who had executed various small works in sculpture, being desirous of proving that he could succeed in the greater also, undertook to execute this statue, which, being completed and fixed in its place, was considered exceedingly beautiful; but in the subsequent conflagration of the church in 1471 it was burnt, with many other remarkable things.

Filippo Brunelleschi gave considerable attention to the study of perspective, the rules of which were then very imperfectly understood, and often falsely interpreted; and in this he expended much time, until at length he discovered a perfectly correct method, that of taking the ground plan and sections by means of intersecting lines, a truly ingenious thing, and of great utility to the arts of design. In these inquiries Filippo found so much pleasure that he executed a drawing of the Piazza San Giovanni, wherein he portrayed all the compartments of the incrustation in black and white marble, the foreshortening being managed with singular felicity and grace. He represented the house of the Misericordia in like manner, with the shops of the wafermakers and the arch of the Pecori, giving the column of San Zanobi on the other side. This work having been highly commended by artists, and all who were capable of judging in matters of the kind, gave Filippo so much encouragement, that no long time elapsed before he commenced another, and made a view of the Palace, the Piazza, the Loggia de’ Signori, with the roof of the Pisani, and all the buildings erected around that Square, works by which the attention of artists was so effectively aroused, that they afterwards devoted themselves to the study of perspective with great zeal.

To Masaccio in particular, who was his friend, Filippo taught this art, the painter being then very young; but that he did much credit to his teacher is sufficiently manifest from the edifices depicted in his works. Nor did he fail to instruct those who worked in tarsia, which is a sort of inlaid work, executed in woods of various colours; the efforts of these artists he stimulated so powerfully, that from this time a better method prevailed, and many useful improvements were made in that branch of art, wherein, both then and at a later period, various excellent works were produced, from which Florence derived both fame and profit during many years. Messer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli returning to Florence about this time, and being at supper with some of his friends in a garden, invited Filippo also; who, hearing them discourse of the mathematical sciences, formed an intimate acquaintance with the philosopher, from whom he acquired the knowledge of geometry; and although Filippo possessed no learning, he yet reasoned so well, by the aid of his practical experience, that he frequently astonished Toscanelli.

Thus labouring perpetually, Brunelleschi next turned his attention to the Scriptures, and never failed to be present at the disputations and preaching of learned men. From this practice he derived so much advantage, by help of his excellent memory, that the above-named Messer Paolo, alluding to him, was accustomed to say that, to hear Filippo in argument, one might fancy oneself listening to a second Paul. At the same time he gave earnest study to the works of Dante, with whose description of localities, and their respective distances, he made himself very familiar, and frequently availed himself of them in his conversations, when he would cite them by way of comparison. Nor, indeed, were his thoughts ever occupied otherwise than in the consideration of ingenious and difficult enquiries; but he could never find any one who gave him so much satisfaction as did Donato with whom he had often held confidential discourse; these two artists found perpetual pleasure in the society of each other, and frequently conferred together on the difficulties of their art.

Now it happened in those days that Donato had completed a crucifix in wood, which was placed in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, beneath the story of the girl restored to life by St. Francis, a picture painted by Taddeo Gaddi, and he desired to have the opinion of Filippo respecting his work; but he repented of having asked it, since Filippo replied that he had placed a clown on the cross. And from this time there arose, as is related at length in the life of Donato, the saying of ‘Take wood then, and make one thyself’. Thereupon Filippo who never suffered himself to be irritated by anything said to him, however well calculated to provoke him to anger, kept silence for several months, meanwhile preparing a crucifix, also in wood, and of similar size with that of Donato, but of such excellence, so well designed and so carefully executed, that when Donato, having been sent forward to his house by Filippo, who intended him a surprise, beheld the work (the undertaking of which by Filippo was entirely unknown to him) he was utterly confounded, and having in his hand an apron full of eggs, and other things on which his friend and himself were to dine together, he suffered the whole to fall to the ground, while he regarded the work before him, in the very extremity of amazement. The artistic and ingenious manner in which Filippo had disposed and united the legs, trunk, and arms of the figure was alike obvious and surprising to Donato, who not only confessed himself conquered but declared the work a miracle. This crucifix is now placed in the church of Santa Maria Novella, between the chapel of the Strozzi family and that of the Bardi da Vernio, and is still greatly praised by the judges of modern times.

The talents of these truly excellent masters being thereupon appreciated, they received a commission from the Guild of the Butchers, and that of the Joiners, to prepare the two figures, in marble, required for the niches appropriated to those guilds among the number surrounding Or San Michele. These figures, Filippo, being occupied by other affairs, suffered Donato to execute alone, which he did to great perfection. After these things and in the year 1401, it was determined, seeing that sculpture had reached so elevated a condition, to reconstruct the two doors of the church and baptistery of San Giovanni, a work which, from the death of Andrea Pisano to that time, there had been no masters capable of conducting. Wherefore, this intention being made known to those sculptors who were in Tuscany, they were sent for, their appointments were given to them, and the space of a year was allowed for the preparation of a story by each master. Among these artists Filippo and Donato were also invited, and each of them was required to prepare a story, in concurrence with Lorenzo Ghiberti Jacopo della Fonte, Simone da Colle, Francesco di Valdambrina, and Niccolo d’Arezzo.

All these stories being completed within the year, and placed together to be compared, were all found to be beautiful, but with certain differences. One was well designed, but imperfectly executed, as was that of Donato; another was admirably drawn, and carefully finished, but the composition of the story was not good, the gradual diminution of the figures being neglected, as in the case of Jacopo della Querela; a third artist had betrayed poverty of invention, and his figures were insignificant, which was the defect of Francesco di Valdambrina’s specimen; but the worst of all were those of Niccolo d’Arezzo and Simone da Colle; while the best was that of Lorenzo di Cione Ghiberti, in whose work perfection of design, delicacy of execution, rich invention, knowledge of art, and well-finished figures, were all combined. Nor was the story of Filippo greatly inferior to that of Lorenzo: the subject was Abraham proceeding to sacrifice Isaac, and among the figures was that of a servant, who, whilst he is awaiting his master, with the ass feeding beside him, is drawing a thorn from his foot. This figure merits considerable praise. All these stories having been exhibited together, and Filippo and Donato not being satisfied with any, except that of Lorenzo, they judged him to be better adapted to execute the work than themselves or the masters who had produced the other stories. They consequently persuaded the syndics, by the good reasons which they assigned, to adjudge the work to Lorenzo, showing that the public and private benefit would be thus most effectually secured. Now this was, in truth, the sincere rectitude of friendship; it was talent without envy, and uprightness of judgment in a decision respecting themselves, by which these artists were more highly honoured than they could have been by conducting the work to the utmost summit of perfection. Happy spirits! who, while aiding each other, took pleasure in commending the labours of their competitors. How unhappy, on the contrary, are the artists of our day, labouring to injure each other, yet still unsatisfied, they burst with envy while seeking to wound others.

Filippo was requested by the superintendents to undertake the work, in concert with Lorenzo, but he would not consent to this, desiring rather to be the first in some other art, than merely an equal, and perhaps secondary, in that undertaking. Wherefore he gave the story in bronze, which he had prepared, to Cosimo de’ Medici, who caused it at a subsequent period to be placed in the old sacristy of San Lorenzo, and at the back of the altar, where it still remains. That of Donato was given to the Guild of the Money-changers.

Il giro in Florence 15/01/2011

Posted by florencecapital in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
comments closed

c. 1880

We have spent two mornings in the Uffizi and Pitti galleries, one in each. The latter is now called the ‘Palatine’. When I was here in 1870 admittance was free as air, whereas now, as in every museum or ancient building, a franc each is the fee. But these galleries are always crowded and, indeed, the sum is very small as compared with prices in America, and considering the richness of the collections. There are pictures in these galleries which I can shut my eyes and see, and which are a great joy to me. This time we have given more attention than ever before to Fra Angelico and Botticelli the latter on account of an article on his works in a late Harper. But your sisters have for some time been reading up for this week, which is, as the theatre people say, their ‘benefit’, and which they richly deserve. I do wish them to get the best of Italy so that in case of their removal to America they may have stored in their memories precious pictures in abundance of this land of art and beauty.

One morning was given to Santa Croce, the Westminster Abbey of Italy, and yesterday morning to San Marco, with the wonderful frescoes of Fra Angelico in the convent there, now a government museum, and the cell from which Savonarola went forth to die. It never seemed so real to me before. An hour was given also to the church of San Lorenzo, with its double-starred new sacristy and Medici chapel. Tomorrow we must go to the Academy of the Belle Arti. Of course, we have given due attention to the Duomo and Giotto’s Tower and the Baptistery. The Duomo is now resplendent in its facade completed only last year. At the Baptistery we witnessed an infant sprinkling (what a contradiction in that place!), and at San Lorenzo witnessed a bridal procession issue as we entered. There was a wealth of lovely bouquets fastened to the doors of the carriages, but the bride seemed neither young nor beautiful. Two afternoons we have sauntered on Lung’ Arno, looking at the pretty bric-a-brac in this capital of brica-bracdom, and one bright clear afternoon we rode in a carriage on the famous and beautiful ride over the hills of San Miniato, enjoying a lovely view of the city, river and encircling hills. This paper was made at Ponte di Lima, about three miles from Cutigliano, where also the government stamp paper is made.

Proem to Romola 07/12/2010

Posted by florencecapital in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

1863

‘The greatest historical novel ever written’? Perhaps. But Romola (1863), a story of late fifteenth-century Florence, is usually relegated by critics to the ‘B’ list of Victorian novels – try buying this ‘classic’ in one of Florence’s English bookshops… And though George Eliot (1819-1880) has kept her reputation as a major nineteenth-century author – a reputation that if anything has grown over time – Romola is unfairly hidden behind other works including Middlemarch, Silas Marner and even the (mediocre) Mill on the Floss. A particularly beautiful passage is the one quoted here, the opening ‘proem’ where George Eliot imagines a Renaissance Florentine being summoned back from the dead to stand at Piazzale Michelangelo – where we finished our last class – and made to look down over modern (i.e. nineteenth-century) Florence.

More than three centuries and a half ago, in the mid springtime of 1492, we are sure that the angel of the dawn, as he travelled with broad slow wing from the Levant to the Pillars of Hercules, and from the summit of the Caucasus across all the snowy Alpine ridges to the dark nakedness of the Western isles, saw nearly the same outline of firm land and unstable sea – saw the same great mountain shadows on the same valleys as he has seen today – saw olive mounts, and pine forests, and the broad plains green with young corn or rain-freshened grass – saw the domes and spires of cities rising by the river-sides or mingled with the sedge-like masts on the many-curved sea-coast, in the same spots where they rise today. And as the faint light of his course pierced into the dwellings of men, it fell, as now, on the rosy warmth of nestling children; on the haggard waking of sorrow and sickness; on the hasty uprising of the hard-handed labourer; and on the late sleep of the night-student, who had been questioning the stars or the sages or his own soul, for that hidden knowledge which would break through the barrier of man’s brief life, and show its dark path, that seemed to bend no whither, to be an arc in an immeasurable circle of the lives of men have hardly changed; and those other streams, the life-currents that ebb and flow in human hearts, pulsate to the same great needs, the same great loves and terrors. As our thought follows close in the slow wake of the dawn, we are impressed with the broad sameness of the human lot, which never alters in the main headings of its history – hunger and labour, seed-time and harvest, love and death.

Even if, instead of following the dim daybreak, our imagination pauses on a certain historical spot and awaits the fuller morning, we may see a world-famous city, which has hardly changed its outline since the days of Columbus, seeming to stand as an almost unviolated symbol, amidst the flux of human things to remind us that we still resemble the men of the past more than we differ from them, as the great mechanical principles on which those domes and towers were raised must make a likeness in human building that will be broader and deeper than all possible change. And doubtless, if the spirit of a Florentine citizen, whose eyes were closed for the last time while Columbus was still waiting and arguing for the three poor vessels with which he was to set sail from the port of Palos, could return from the shades and pause where our thought is pausing, he would believe that there must still be fellowship and understanding for him among the inheritors of his birthplace.

Let us suppose that such a shade has been permitted to revisit the glimpses of the golden morning, and is standing once more on the famous hill of San Miniato, which overlooks Florence from the south. The Spirit is clothed in his habit as he lived: the folds of his well-lined black silk garment or lucco hang in grave unbroken lines from neck to ankle; his plain cloth cap, with its becchetto, or long hanging strip of drapery, to serve as a scarf in case of need, surmounts a penetrating face, not, perhaps, very handsome, but with a firm, well-cut mouth, kept distinctly human by a close-shaven lip and chin. It is a face charged with memories of a keen and various life passed below there on the banks of the gleaming river; and as he looks at the scene before him, the sense of familiarity is so much stronger than the perception of change, that he thinks it might be possible to descend once more amongst the streets, and take up that busy life where he left it. For it is not only the mountains and the westward-bending river that he recognizes; not only the dark sides of Mount Morello opposite to him, and the long valley of the Arno that seems to stretch its grey low-tufted luxuriance to the far-off ridges of Carrara; and the steep height of Fiesole, with its crown of monastic walls and cypresses; and all the green and grey slopes sprinkled with villas which he can name as he looks at them. He sees other familiar objects much closer to his daily walks. For though he misses the seventy or more towers that once surmounted the walls, and encircled the city as with a regal diadem, his eyes will not dwell on that blank; they are drawn irresistibly to the unique tower springing, like a tall flowerstem drawn towards the sun, from the square turreted centuries that have passed since he used to walk under it. The great dome, too, greatest in the world, which, in his early boyhood, had been only a daring thought in the mind of a small, quick-eyed man – there it raises its large curves still, eclipsing the hills. And the well-known bell-towers – Giotto’s, with its distant hint of rich colour, and the graceful-spired Badia, and the rest – he looked at them all from the shoulder of his nurse.

‘Surely,’ he thinks, ‘Florence can still ring her bells with the solemn hammer-sound that used to beat on the hearts of her citizens and strike out the fire there. And here, on the right, stands the long dark mass of Santa Croce, where we buried our famous dead, laying the laurel on their cold brows and fanning them with the breath of praise and of banners. But Santa Croce had no spire then:[1] we Florentines were too full of great building projects to carry them all out in stone and marble; we had our frescoes and our shrines to pay for, not to speak of rapacious condottieri, bribed royalty, and purchased territories, and our facades and spires must needs wait. But what architect can the Frati Minori have employed to build that spire for them? If it had been built in my day, Filippo Brunelleschi or Michelozzo would have devised something of another fashion than that – something worthy to crown the church of Arnolfo.’

At this the Spirit, with a sigh, lets his eyes travel on to the city walls, and now he dwells on the change there with wonder at these modem times. Why have five out of the eleven convenient gates been closed? And why, above all, should the towers have been levelled that were once a glory and defence? Is the world become so peaceful, then, and do Florentines dwell in such harmony, that there are no longer conspiracies to bring ambitious exiles home again with armed bands at their back? These are difficult questions: it is easier and pleasanter to recognize the old than to account for the new. And there flows Arno, with its bridges just where they used to be – the Ponte Vecchio, least like other bridges in the world, laden with the same quaint shops where our Spirit remembers lingering a little on his way perhaps to look at the progress of that great palace which Messer Luca Pitti had set a-building with huge stones got from the Hill of Bogoli close behind, or perhaps to transact a little business with the cloth-dressers in Oltrarno. The exorbitant line of the Pitti roof is hidden from San Miniato; but the yearning of the old Florentine is not to see Messer Luca’s too ambitious palace which he built unto himself; it is to be down among those narrow streets and busy humming piazze where he inherited the eager life of his fathers. Is not the anxious voting with black and white beans still going on down there?[2] Who are the Priori in these months, eating soberly-regulated official dinners in the Palazzo Vecchio, with removes of tripe and boiled partridges, seasoned by practical jokes against the ill-fated butt among those potent signors? Are not the significant banners still hung from the windows – still distributed with decent pomp under Orcagna’s Loggia every two months?

Life had its zest for the old Florentine when he, too, trod the marble steps and shared in those dignities. His politics had an area as wide as his trade, which stretched from Syria to Britain, but they had also the passionate intensity, and the detailed practical interest, which could belong only to a narrow scene of corporate action; only to the members of a community shut in close by the hills and by walls of six miles’ circuit, where men knew each other as they passed in the street, set their eyes every day on the memorials of their commonwealth, and were conscious of having not simply the right to vote, but the chance of being voted for. He loved his honours and his gains, the business of his counting-house, of his guild, of the public council-chamber; he loved his enmities too, and fingered the white bean which was to keep a hated name out of the borsa with more complacency than if it had been a golden florin. He loved to strengthen his family by a good alliance, and went home with a triumphant light in his eyes after concluding a satisfactory marriage for his son or daughter under his favourite loggia in the evening cool; he loved his game at chess under that same loggia, and his biting jest, and even his coarse joke, as not beneath the dignity of a man eligible for the highest magistracy. He had gained an insight into all sorts of affairs at home and abroad: he had been of the ‘Ten’ who managed the war department, of the ‘Eight’[3] who attended to home discipline, of the Priori or Signori who were the heads of the executive government; he had even risen to the supreme office of Gonfaloniere; he had made one in embassies to the Pope and to the Venetians; and he had been commissary to the hired army of the Republic, directing the inglorious bloodless battles in which no man died of brave breast wounds — virtuosi colpi – but only of casual falls and tramplings. And in this way he had learned to distrust men without bitterness; looking on life mainly as a game of skill, but not dead to traditions of heroism and clean-handed honour. For the human soul is hospitable, and will entertain conflicting sentiments and contradictory opinions with much impartiality. It was his pride, besides, that he was duly tinctured with the learning of his age, and judged not altogether with the vulgar, but in harmony with the ancients: he, too, in his prime, had been eager for the most correct manuscripts, and had paid many florins for antique vases and for disinterred busts of the ancient immortals – some, perhaps, truncis naribus, wanting as to the nose, but not the less authentic; and in his old age he had made haste to look at the first sheets of that fine Homer which was among the early glories of the Florentine press.[4] But he had not, for all that, neglected to hang up a waxen image or double of himself under the protection of the Madonna Annunziata, or to do penance for his sins in large gifts to the shrines of saints whose lives had not been modelled on the study of the classics; he had not even neglected making liberal bequests towards buildings for the Frati, against whom he had levelled many a jest.

 For the Unseen Powers were mighty. Who knew – who was sure – that there was any name given to them behind which there was no angry force to be appeased, no intercessory pity to be won? Were not gems medicinal, though they only pressed the finger? Were not all things charged with occult virtues? Lucretius might be right – he was an ancient, and a great poet; Luigi Pulci, too, who was suspected of not believing anything from the roof upward (dal tetto in su), had very much the air of being right over the supper-table, when the wine and jests were circulating fast, though he was only a poet in the vulgar tongue.[5] There were even learned personages who maintained that Aristotle, wisest of men (unless, indeed, Plato were wiser?), was a thoroughly irreligious philosopher; and a liberal scholar must entertain all speculations. But the negatives might, after all, prove false; nay, seemed manifestly false; as the circling hour swept past him, and turned round with graver faces. For had not the world become Christian? Had he not been baptized in San Giovanni, where the dome is awful with the symbols of coming judgement, and where the altar bears a crucified image disturbing to perfect complacency in oneself and the world? Our resuscitated Spirit was not a pagan philosopher, nor a philosophizing pagan poet, but a man of the fifteenth century, inheriting its strange web of belief and unbelief; of Epicurean levity and fetichistic dread; of pedantic impossible ethics uttered by rote, and crude passions acted out with childish impulsiveness; of inclination towards a self-indulgent paganism, and inevitable subjection to that human conscience which, in the unrest of a new growth, was filling the air with strange prophecies and presentiments.

He had smiled perhaps and shaken his head dubiously, as he heard simple folk talk of a Pope Angelico,[6] who was to come by and by and bring in a new order of things, to purify the Church from simony,[7] and the lives of the clergy from scandal – a state of affairs too different from what existed under Innocent the Eighth for a shrewd merchant and politician to regard the prospect as worthy of entering into his calculations. But he felt the evils of the time, nevertheless; for he was a man of public spirit, and public spirit can never be wholly immoral, since its essence is care for a common good. That very Quaresima or Lent of 1492 in which he died, still in his erect old age, he had listened in San Lorenzo, not without a mixture of satisfaction, to the preaching of a Dominican Friar, named Girolamo Savonarola,[8] who denounced with a rare boldness the worldliness and vicious habits of the clergy, and insisted on the duty of Christian men not to live for their own ease when wrong was triumphing in high places, and not to spend their wealth in outward pomp even in the churches, when their fellow citizens were suffering from want and sickness. The frate carried his doctrine rather too far for elderly ears; yet it was a memorable thing to see a preacher move his audience to such a pitch that the women even took off their ornaments, and delivered them up to be sold for the benefit of the needy.

‘He was a noteworthy man, that Prior of San Marco,’ thinks our spirit; somewhat arrogant and extreme, perhaps, especially in his denunciations of speedy vengeance. Ah, Iddio non paga il Sabato [God does not pay on a Saturday] – the wages of men’s sins often linger in their payment, and I myself saw much established wickedness of longstanding prosperity. But a Frate Predicatore who wanted to move the people – how could he be moderate? He might have been a little less defiant and curt, though, to Lorenzo de’ Medici, whose family had been the very makers of San Marco: was that quarrel ever made up? And our Lorenzo himself, with the dim outward eyes and the subtle inward vision, did he get over that illness at Careggi? It was but a sad, uneasy-looking face that he would carry out of the world which had given him so much, and there were strong suspicions that his handsome son would play the part of Rehoboam.[9] How has it all turned out? Which party is likely to be banished and have its houses sacked just now? Is there any successor of the incomparable Lorenzo, to whom the great Turk is so gracious as to send over presents of rare animals, rare relics, rare manuscripts, or fugitive enemies, suited to the tastes of a Christian Magnifico who is at once lettered and devout – and also slightly vindictive? And what famous scholar is dictating the Latin letters of the Republic – what fiery philosopher is lecturing on Dante in the Duomo, and going home to write bitter invectives against the father and mother of the bad critic who may have found fault with his classical spelling? Are our wiser heads leaning towards alliance with the Pope and the Regno [Naples], or are they rather inclining their ears to the orators of France and of Milan?

‘There is knowledge of these things to be had in the streets below, on the beloved marmi in front of the churches, and under the sheltering loggie, where surely our citizens have still their gossip and debates, their bitter and merry jests as of old. For are not the well-remembered buildings all there? The changes have not been so great in those uncounted years. I will go down and hear – I will tread the familiar pavement, and hear once again the speech of Florentines.’

Go not down, good Spirit! for the changes are great and the speech of the Florentines would sound as a riddle in your ears. Or, if you go, mingle with no politicians on the marmi, or elsewhere; ask no questions about trade in the Calimala;[10] confuse yourself with no inquiries into scholarship, official or monastic. Only look at the sunlight and shadows on the grand walls that were built solidly, and have endured in their grandeur;[11] look at the faces of the little children, making another sunlight amid the shadows of age; look, if you will, into the churches, and hear the same chants, see the same images as of old – the images of willing anguish for a great end, of beneficent love and ascending glory; see upturned living faces, and lips moving to the old prayers for help. These things have not changed. The sunlight and shadows bring their old beauty and waken the heart-strains at morning, noon, and eventide; the little children are still the symbol of the eternal marriage between love and duty; and men still yearn for the reign of peace and righteousness – still own that life to be the highest which is a conscious voluntary sacrifice. For the Pope Angelico is not come yet.

 


[1] Santa Croce’s tower was not built until 1842-44 and was despised by Renaissance snobs like Eliot: this then is a snide aside on a building that was only twenty years old when Romola was published.

[2] Voting in the inner councils of the Florentine Republic were often carried out with black and white beans that were placed in a bag and afterwards counted.

[3] The ‘Ten’ and the ‘Eight’ were councils of state made up that number of men.

[4] Edited in 1488 by the Greek exile Demetrius Chalcondylas.

[5] Lucretius is the Roman poet. Luigi Pulci (obit 1484) was a friend of Lorenzo the Magnificent and tutor to his children – his poetry was distinctly unorthodox. Note that a poem included by Luigi’s elder brother Luca is included in part two of the course reader.

[6] Mythical Pope Angel who would come to restore order to the Church and the world.

[7] Simony is the crime of selling church offices.

[8] Major Florentine Renaissance figure, Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican preacher based at San Marco who attempted, with much success, to revolutionise Christian life in the city.

[9] Old Testament reference: bad ruler that followed wise Solomon.

[10] Even Homer nods: Eliot, for all her endless research for the novel, wrote ‘Calimara’ here.

[11] Tragically the city walls would be pulled down in the decade following the publication of Romola, one of several catastrophic urban planning decisions made in those years. George Eliot miscalculated then with her image of permanence!

Bowing before Ruskin at Santa Croce 04/12/2010

Posted by florencecapital in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

c. 1910

These remind those of us who read Ruskin of a certain passage in his Mornings in Florence, concerning one particular fourteenth-century tomb, greatly admired by him, appreciation of which he insists upon as being an infallible test of the intelligence and taste of the modern traveller. Stroll into Santa Croce some spring morning, and you may witness the not unusual spectacle of a group of Anglo-Saxon tourists gathered about the effigy of old Galileo Galilei, an ancestor of the famous astronomer, examining it with eager interest, and turning from time to time to the text-book in their hands. This is the passage they are studying: ‘’If you can see that the lines of that cap are both right and lovely, that the choice of the folds is exquisite in its ornamental relations of line, and that the softness and ease of them is complete, though only sketched with a few dark touches, then you can understand Giotto’s drawings and Botticelli’s, Donatello’s carving and Luca’s. But if you see nothing in this sculpture, you will see nothing in theirs, of theirs. Where they chose to imitate flesh, or silk, or to play any vulgar, modern trick with marble (and they often do) – whatever, in a word, is French, or American, or Cockney in their work, you can see, but what is Florentine and for ever great – unless you can see also the beauty of this old man in his citizen’s cap – you will never see.’ Poor tourists! What a rock to make shipwreck on! Little did the pious Galilei think, when he caused this stone to be carved for his father, that hordes of barbarians from those mysterious lands over the seas, of which, perchance, he had heard from some adventurous traveller, would come in later times to gaze at that sculptured effigy, with no murmured prayer for the repose of the soul of the learned doctor, but with the desperate intention of applying Ruskin’s test to their own inexperienced souls, as a guide among the shoals and shallows of Florentine Art.