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A Visit to Three Monasteries 07/09/2011

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c. 1910 recalling the 1860s

It was when the magical change from Winter to Spring had stolen over Tuscany that I paid my first visit, with two companions, to Vallombrosa, Camaldoli, and La Vernia, then all of them convents or, as we say, monasteries. Trollope was too busy completing his History of the Commonwealth of Florence to be of the party; nor was it till two years later that I repeated the visit, with him for guide. But he already knew every inch of the journey, and put us in the way of making it with convenience and pleasure. The railway took us but a very short distance out of Florence. Then our road lay through Compiobbi and Pelago, driving in a country fagherino from the first to the second, and entrusting ourselves to Antonio, popularly surnamed ‘da Pelago’, who had been apprised by Trollope of the intended arrival of his friends. Punctually awaiting us was the said Antonio, with likely-looking mules, bridled and saddled for the excursion.

The road to Vallombrosa, even then, though stony and devious, was fairly good according to Italian standards; and when, about Ave Maria, we approached the Convent, the Prior and his monastic companions standing in the gateway gave the impression of refined monastic life. The hospitable tones in which we were welcomed, our plain but carefully served supper, and our sleep suggesting beds in clean simple cells, confirmed that first impression.

Nothing on the following morning disturbed or modified it; and the climate, when we were taken to see some of the timber of biggest girth in the surrounding woods, felt little less genial than we had left inFlorence. The thoughts and feelings I then experienced made me for a while a silent companion, after we had bidden our kindly monastic hosts farewell, and prayed them to accept a slight return for their gentle hospitality.

Our progress to the Convent of Camaldoli throughout the afternoon and early evening was of a rougher and wilder sort. Road, in the ordinary signification of the word, there was none. But Antonio knew every turn and winding of the way, walking by or behind us, quite unwearied, but sometimes, where the path was steepest and stoniest, availing himself of a grasp of the tail of one or other of the mules. Camaldoli lay secluded amid wilder and more picturesque surroundings than Vallombrosa, the white garb of its serious occupants lending it, however, a refined aspect. But we could see that there was still a covering of snow at no great elevation above it; and the air had in it what Shakespeare calls an eager and a nipping feeling.

Surmising in us more Capuan sensitiveness than they themselves suffered from, or at least were allowed to humour, our hosts at once made a goodly fire in the guests’ room of huge well-dried boughs, four or five feet in length, that served for a sort of fender-hassock, and which we pushed in from where they converged on the hearth. by which in a short time we were thoroughly well roasted. Small mountain river trout, faggioli, or beans, and a dish of admirably cooked macheroni composed a really luxurious supper.

The Prior, who sat by us while we thus regaled ourselves, plied us with questions about the world without, and was most anxious to know how fared their good friend, Trollope. We were equally curious about Camaldolese life, and listened with especial interest to his description of the Sacro Eremo, higher still and deeper in the forest than the Convent itself, and whither periodically a certain number of monks in rotation betook themselves for a more penitential period. There the snow lies thick most of the year; and they had to sweep a path for themselves in the middle of the night in order to reach the chapel firom their cells. Hearing of these nocturnal austerities, we were not wishful to partake of them at the Sacro Eremo, but in the Convent Church at three in the morning, at which hour, we were assured, Matins were recited. The Prior urged that it would break in rudely on our slumbers. But we were importunate, and a promise was given that we should be roused at the hour named. Awaking the next morning at about seven, we were disappointed at not having been disturbed, but the Prior said he had taken compassion on our lay and mundane habits. Inwardly we suspected that this fatherly compassion had been extended to the whole community.

After an ample supply of black coffee and black bread, we mounted our mules to ascend to the Sacro Eremo. Deeper and deeper got the snow, but, despite the admonishing voice of Antonio, we pushed on, and suddenly found our mules imbedded to the saddle girths. Then, for the first time, Antonio lost his head, betaking himself to those semi-blasphemous invocations to all the saints and devils that come so promptly to Italian lips in moments of exasperation. At last, as though nothing else was of any avail, he bent down, struck the snow with the back of his hand, exclaiming, ‘Corpo di Giuda!’ (‘Body of Judas’).

Watching the characteristic performance from the safe and comfortable elevation of my saddle, I meditated on the persistency of Pagan tradition in Italy, and bethought me of the line in Virgil: Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo. (‘Since Heaven will not listen to my prayers, I will appeal to nether Hell’). I need scarcely say that, encouraged by words and copious offers of assistance, Antonio succeeded in wheeling the mules round, and setting their noses downhill, advance to the Eremo being perforce abandoned. For a time he remained absolutely silent as we descended to the Convent. But at last he heaved a deep sigh, and exclaimed, ‘Ahime! Ho perduto tutta la mia devozione’. My companions wondered what he meant. My Roman Catholic training came to their assistance, and I explained to them that probably he had comped at Easter with the obligation of getting ‘absolved’ from his sins at that period, and had been in a satisfactory spiritual state ever since, but that, having now indulged in such shocking language, he had ‘perduto tutta la sua devozione’; in other words, had now forfeited the state of grace he was in, and would have to try to get it back all over again.

Noonsaw us on our way to La Vernia, the famous Franciscan Convent, familiar to the readers of Dante’s Divina Commedia. Our progress was up a gradual pathless ascent; but I believe Antonio could have traversed it in the dark without missing his way. After several hours of delightful zigzagging at a foot’s pace, we at length came in sight of the Monastery, impressed on the eye for life for any who has so approached it. Even Franciscan Convents vary in uncomeliness, those in the valley succumbing to civilizing influences more than those on the heights. La Vernia was in the latter category; and the severest laws of the saintly preacher of poverty were, we soon perceived, in full operation. That was just what we wanted. The only approach to comfort was the cordiality of the reception we met with; but in one’s young days what is material comfort in comparison with new and striking experiences?

Pious ignorance, and what some people would call gross superstition, were the dominant notes in the conversation of these brown-frocked, bare-footed Frati. They allowed that they often in severe Winter weather were hard pressed for food, but they had never experienced what once befell some of their predecessors, tanti anni fa, ever so many years ago, when the Brothers were menaced with absolute extinction by famine. Dragging themselves and each other into the chapel of the Convent, they prayed that Heaven might take compassion on them. Suddenly they heard the great bell at the gateway ring, and thither the least weak of the community tottered. All around, the snow lay thick as ever; but lo! at the gate was a huge basket of bread and food of other kinds. Need I add that the traditional tale ended with the statement, evidently made in perfect good faith, that the Madonna had interceded for them, and Gesu Chisto had sent this relief.

‘Now,’ I said to my companions, ‘is our chance of hearing Matins at three in the morning.’ The request that we might be roused at that hour was accepted as the most natural thing in the world; and, sure enough, when I was lapped deep in slumber on the hardest of beds, I felt a cold hand on my shoulder, shuffled on my clothes, and was shown, by the light of a dim hand-lamp of the old Etruscan pattern, into the long corridor. I found my travelling companions coming halfawake out of their cells, and the Franciscan monks and lay-brothers moving slowly, two by two, and chanting or droning a psalm, towards the underground chapel of which they had told me. Only one large tall candle lighted the way, but I could both see and feel that we were descending. Passing into the chapel having all the dimensions of a church, the Brothers prostrated themselves for a time before the high altar, in silence; then rising, and forming themselves again into processional order, they moved towards the closed doors at the other end facing the sanctuary. Then came the sound of the opening and pushing back of heavy doors on stiff hinges, and we were in the full moonlight, with the undulating line of theApennines clear in the distance.

Turning sharply to the right, we were again under cover till we reached the real underground chapel. I thought I could see a large Luca della Robbia over the Altar, which was verified by the next day’s daylight, as the finest one in the world, an almost life-size representation of the Crucifixion. After the intoning of the Miserere, the monks formed afresh, and led the way back to the corridor, where each of them silently entered his own cell. We did the same, enchanted, in the literal sense of the word, by what we had seen and heard, but soon plunged again into the refreshing slumbers of youth.

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Sixth Centenary of Dante 18/08/2011

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c. 1910 remembering the 1860s

After all but six months spent in Florence, it was time for me to turn my thoughts homeward. But it was impossible to bid it farewell before witnessing the celebration of the Sixth Centenary of the Birth of Dante that was to be held on the 16th of May. By six o’clock on the morning of that day, Trollope and I were in our places in the Piazza Santa Croce, where a statue of the Poet by Fedi was to be unveiled, and eight thousand Italian municipalities were to be represented in the Square by deputations carrying the gonfalons of their respective cities and communes. As the sculptor, whom I had met more than once, has for many years been dead, I may say that the Statue disappointed our expectations, as it has that of many a one since. But the ceremony was most impressive.

After sundown, in the company of Charles Lever’s daughters and two American young ladies, I traversed all the principal thoroughfares, nowhere being crushed or jostled, though the streets were crowded, for gentle Tuscan manners, now, I fear, deteriorated there as elsewhere, made movement easy and agreeable. Not the palaces and bridges of the city alone, but the outlying Villas on the hill-slopes for miles around, were illuminated with oil-fed lamps. The Piazza of the Uffizi was covered in and its pavement boarded over for a Peasants’ Ball; and at the Pagliano Theatre were represented the most picturesque scenes from the Divina Commedia, Ristori, Salvini, and Rossi reciting the corresponding passages in the poem.

Then many friendly and some tender farewells had to be taken; and on the following morning I started for Paris, having as travelling companions, and very agreeable ones, Ristori, her husband, and their two young children. As the domes and towers of the Fair City faded from view, I recited to myself the lines I often had cause, again and again, to repeat: Benedetta sia la Madre, Che ti fece cosi bella. Che tu sei tanto graziosa, Che tu sei tanto vezzosa; Benedetta sia Tu!

Making Friends in Florence 31/07/2011

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Alfred Austin c. 1910 recalling 1860-1880

One of the most valued friendships of my life, that with Thomas Adolphus Trollope, who was just twenty-five years my senior, was formed shortly after my arrival, and we were often and much together, both in his delightful home in the Piazza della Indipendenza, and in the long walks we took. Almost every Sunday evening we joined a young circle at the house of an English lady in the town, who well illustrated the saying of Shakespeare that ‘small cheer and great welcome make a merry feast’. Though the author of the well-known History of the Commonwealth of Florence was so much older than myself, we seemed to be close friends from the very moment we first grasped each other’s hands. Unlike his brother Anthony, who, though likewise a delightful companion, and brimming over with active intelligence, was in no accurate sense of the word intellectual, and as unhelpful and impatient an arguer as I ever met, Thomas Adolphus Trollope rejoiced in threshing out afresh the old metaphysical and theological problems, handling them with a rare dialectical skill; and many a diologue had we on those unendingly interesting themes. But such were far from being our only diversion. He was known to all the English residents in Florence as ‘dear old Tom Trollope’, not because of his age, for he was then but little past the meridian of life, but of the affection he inspired, and most of all in the younger and more attractive members of that community; and on many a delightful evening did we sally forth together to pass among folk of very moderate means, but fair looks, merry ways and congenial hospitality.

I had not known him long before he took me one evening to one of the most agreeable houses I ever visited, that of Franz Pulszki, the Hungarian patriot and scholar, whom the events of 1848-9 had driven into exile. His wife, the daughter of a Viennese banker, was as charming a hostess as he was a genial host; and, assisted by her young children, she entertained the most heterogeneous body of guests I ever saw gathered together, all equally at home in his spacious Italian villa on the South side of the Arno.

On the occasion of my first evening there, not very long after my arrival, he quitted for a moment his valuable collection of coins he was showing to some other guests, and, coming over to where I was, said in the stentorian tones he seemed incapable of modifying: ‘Ha! there you are. I see you have already made the acquaintance of this charming lady. But she must surrender you for a little, for I want to make you acquainted with her husband.’ Petitioning to be allowed to return, I rose, and soon found myself in the presence of the famous Nihilist, Bakounin, a huge mountain of a man who was sipping a tumbler of tea made in Russian fashion, and propounding to a circle of attentive listeners the most destructive social doctrines in the most cheerful manner. The little group around him made way for us. ‘Here, Bakounin, I want to make known to you an English Conservative who will listen to your revolutionary theories with amicable toleration, but whom you must not detain too long, for he has only just made the acquaintance of your wife, to whom I have no doubt he is longing to return.’

The easy ways of that varied and polyglot society, where musicians, painters, patriotic versifiers, political fugitives with a price placed on their heads, erudite professors, and fair gracious women, gave one abundant choice of social diversion. Of Bakounin and his wife, a Polish lady some years younger than her eloquent husband, and endowed with the proverbial attractiveness of her race, I saw much during that Florentine Winter and Spring, cultivating with them an acquaintance singularly agreeable since so fresh and original.

After Sadowa and the introduction into Austro-Hungaryof the Dak Constitution, Pulszki was free to return to Budapest. Within three months of doing so he lost his wife and eldest daughter, victims to the epidemic of Diphtheria that was then prevailing there. Many years later, when I visited him in the Hungarian capital on returning from an excursion to Greece, Constantinople, and Roumania, he narrated to me how he had lately met Bakounin in the streets of Geneva, how the famous Nihilist had said to him that, despairing of the success of all projects for the amelioration of Society and Mankind, he was starving himself to death, which he calculated would occur in about three days’ time!

Not long after my arrival inFlorence, coming out of the Cafe Doney, I met an old friend, Captain Harry Weldon, whose acquaintance I had first made when he joined the 18th Lancers, a regiment restored to the Army List at the time of the Crimean War. I found he had left the Army, and was married; and of both I saw much in the course of the next few weeks. I need not extol the voice and other gifts of Mrs. Weldon, since they are well and widely known. They were the guests of Mr. Spence, whom I should have named among the most prominent figures in Florence at that date, and for many subsequent years. He owned the famous Villa Medici at Fiesole; and I dined there on Christmas Day.

It is possible that, had I been leading a more solitary life, I might have ‘found my voice’ sooner than I did. But many acquaintances, a few congenial friends, the artistic attractions of Florence, no little music, regarded at that time as exceptionally good, though it would not be highly esteemed to-day, when musical execution has made such striking advance and critical appreciation of it has become so much more fastidious, filled up much of my time.Reading consumed the rest; and, with no definite purpose, though with deep interest, I devoted many an evening to becoming familiar with every incident in the life of Savonarola, and with much of his sermons and his writings. This naturally was associated with Lorenzo de’ Medici, his companions, and the Italian Renaissance; thus providing me with the material for the drama of Savonarola, written so many years later. But my utter unproductiveness at that time continued to reproach and trouble me, compelling me to feel distressfully that I had in no degree justified my abandonment of the Bar and the assertion of personal freedom. But it never for a moment occurred to me to retrace my steps. Freedom of existence and mind at all cost, at every sacrifice, still remained my steadfast Ideal.

The climate of Florence during the strictly Winter months is neither helpful to invalids nor pleasurable to the fastidious. I was not among the former, and perhaps a rather callous supernumerary of the latter. My rooms were often bathed in sunshine whose companion was a piercing tramontana wind; nor is it till the nightingales begin to sing, the fire-flies to flicker among the olivetrees and over the rising spears of the corn, and the yellow banksia roses and wistaria to bloom, that the Fair City unfolds its charms.

Changing Villas and Tom Trollope 10/07/2011

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c. 1910 remembering the 1860s

Shortly before making this expedition to the three Convents, I had shifted my quarters from the Lung Arno, in Florence, to an all but unfurnished little villa outside the Porta Romana, commanding a view of the City, Fiesole, and all the hills on the other side of the valley. It belonged to a furrier who had a shop in Florence, but had been suggested to me by Miss Isa Blagden, who was herself in a villa not far from it. A more comfortable one had been rejected by her because, as she playfully said, the contadini occupying it had three handsome daughters, and my reputation must be carefully guarded. I was well content with the smaller one, rudimentarily convenient though it was, as all I wanted was to sleep and breakfast in it, and loiter away the morning among the sprouting vines, burgeoning fig-trees, purple anemones, blood-red tulips, and white jonquils. Between one and two I went down to the city, and there remained till nine or ten of an evening, using the Club and Vieusseux’s as what the Florentines call my recapito or place where you leave and call for your parcels.

Spring is capricious in every European country; and I walked home in May three nights running in a slight snow-storm that had by morning left no trace. Then real, sunny, debonair Spring spread itself over Tuscany, and life was worth living indeed. But a shadow was cast over one’s enjoyment by the death, not unexpected, of Theodosia Trollope, the charming wife of my friend; and, as he and I walked away together from her grave in the English cemetery, where also lies Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he said he felt very lonely, and would I not come and stay with him in his Villa in the Piazza dell’ Independenza? Thither I betook myself with my sparse baggage that afternoon; and the change was from Spartan austerity to a happy combination of English comfort, Italian art, and a garden blooming with roses. I did all I could to distract him, and to concentrate his attention on the final chapters of his History of the Commonwealth of Florence.

He was still, in the matter of style, somewhat under the scarcely beneficial influence of Carlyle, whose simpler manner in the Life of Stirling I have always admired more than in his later and more popular ejaculatory writings. In opinion and tone of thought, Trollope was a traditional Liberal of the more sanguine kind; generous, but hardly practical, it has always seemed to me, because allowing too little for certain permanent forces alike in individual and collective human nature. I mention this, because, many years later, his brother Anthony said to me one day, when staying at Swinford, ‘You know how attached I am to you. But there is one thing for which I cannot forgive you. You have made my brother Tom a Conservative’. Nothing could have been less true. Life had done for his brother what he attributed to me. But the end of this little story has yet to be told. Not many years later, Anthony himself became a ‘Unionist’, and denouncedGladstoneand all his works in the energetic language that was habitual in his fervid conversation.

International Florence in 1864 17/04/2011

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c. 1910 from the writings of Alfred Austin

There may have been fewer English residents in Florence in 1864 than there are now, but they were more noteworthy, more distinct personalities, and exercised more social influence among a people that, like the Florentines, are not prone to be lavishly hospitable. I had brought four or five letters of introduction with me, and, as a newly-arrived young bachelor, I was accorded a welcome much in excess of my merits. Charles Lever and his family; Thomas Adolphus Trollope, his delicate, gifted, and charming wife, and their little girl Bice; Charles Fuller, the sculptor, and Mrs. Fuller, a delightful musician with a fine and highly-trained voice; Mde. Laussot, who afterwards married Karl Hillebrand, an accomplished master of three languages; Isa Blagden; George Maquay and his charming American bride; Messrs. French, the bankers; ‘Old Kirkup’, as he was invariably called; Lady Orford and her two young daughters; Pulszki, the Hungarian patriot and exile, himself one of the most accomplished of men, with a singularly interesting family and social circle; Bakounin, the Russian Nihilist, and his fair young Polish wife; Sir George and Lady Otway – these and others of less note more than satisfied my readiness to avail myself of friendly intercourse.