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Founding of the Florence Automobile Club 24/03/2011

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c. 1900

The first thing that we saw in the city of Savonarola and Buonarotti was an automobile parade. The automobile pursues one around Europe. It is the Time Ghost of today. It appears suddenly in ancient nooks and corners, and reminds you that this is the end of the nineteenth century. And then, after scaring you, the Time Ghost rattles away, leaving behind it a smell which suggests ghosts, demons, and sulphur. But it is only the smell of benzine.

This Florentine parade followed the inauguration of the first automobile club in Tuscany. It took place in the Barbetti Rotunda near the Cascine. Around the circle twenty-one automobiles were ranged. They were examined by the Count of Turin, who represents the royal family in Florence. The Florentines must have something for their tax-money, so they get a royal prince. The count was good enough to express his princely admiration for the machines, of which there was quite a showing. The fastest was a six-horse-power Stanley, belonging to Prince Strozzi.

We were neighbors of the prince, by the way. He lived across the street from us. Carping people might say that we lived across the street from him, for there is a Strozzi Palace, a Strozzi Street, and a Strozzi Square, while our hotel is on the corner of Strozzi Square and Strozzi Street. But none the less we have a right to say that he lived across the street from us. His habitation is finer than ours, for the Strozzi Palace is one of the sights of Florence. But it is unfinished. The prince’s family have lived there for generations. Two or three hundred years ago the family decided to put an ornamental cornice on the palace, and got halfway around, when they became ‘broke’ and stopped. The cornice has remained unfinished ever since. If Prince Strozzi had a due regard for his ancestors, he would finish his uncompleted palace. But apparently he prefers to live in an unfinished house and spend his money on automobiles.

He had four machines at this opening of the Florence Automobile Club. After the exposition proper, the members ‘conducted’ their machines from the Rotunda out to Florence’s beautiful park, the Cascine. Numbers of handsomely gowned women were seated on the automobiles, and one of them was driven by a lady. I inquired her name, and was told that she was ‘the Signorina Smith’. The other ladies were all marchesas, duchessas, and contessas, but only Signorina Smith was daring enough to conduct a machine. The name sounds un-Italian. I think the Signorina Smith must be American.

The club wound up by a ‘grand five o’clock tea at four o’clock’, at the Cascine. The Italians seem to think that ‘five o’clock’ is a kind of beverage, instead of a time of day. You see signs on the Italian-English tea-roonis, ‘five o’clock tea served at all hours’. And the French even make a verb of it – fiveocloquer, ‘On fiveocloquera a quatre heures’.

The scene was an animated one. We were seated at one of the tables under the trees on the terrace of the Cascine Cafe. A fine military band was playing near at hand. Many of the automobile club were still speeding their machines around the circles and driveways, giving exhibitions of their skill in turning corners and running into trees…

After the ‘inauguration’ of the automobile club, the automobiles dashed through the streets of Florence at a high rate of speed, and there were many accidents. In fact, there were accidents every day. It is rather remarkable that on the Continent the authorities allow such freedom to automobilists. In Europe nearly everything is forbidden. It is forbidden to walk on the grass. It is forbidden to cross the railway lines. It is forbidden, almost, to cross the street. Therefore, that the automobilists should not be forbidden to drive their machines at such breakneck speed is remarkable.

Horse-vehicles are prohibited from exceeding a certain speed. Horned cattle are not allowed on the streets of most large cities, owing to solicitude for the foot-passengers. I have seen loads of live steers transported across Vienna in vans drawn by horses. But the scorching automobilists are more dangerous than horned cattle. On the day that the automobile club was inaugurated in Florence a circular space in the Piazza della Signoria was covered with mounds of flowers. At first we thought it was a flower-market, but on inquiry we found it was in memory of Savonarola, who was burned to death on this spot over four hundred years ago. A Florentine family has for centuries kept up the custom of thus honoring his memory. And around the great square of the Signoria, where he was burned, circa 1500, sweeps the automobile of 1900.