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Visit to Giotto’s Birthplace 26/01/2011

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c. 1900

The hill of Vespignano, Giotto’s birthplace, is much too steep for the chestnuts and calash; moreover, we are only too glad of an excuse for walking up the pretty path cut into the hillside, bordered by trees hung with ivy, and leading to a serried rank of young cypresses, ranged together like a black watch on the crest of the hill, as if to guard the modest stone building, which tradition says is the very house where the artist Giotto was born. Even for a shepherd’s dwelling, the house is small and uninteresting, which naturally flings a suspicion over its verity; nevertheless, the spirit which actuates the preservation of all historical sites and relics by the Italian government cannot be too highly commended. The house is converted into a meagre museum, and kept in good order on estates at present belonging to the Villa Capriani-Cateni, the various buildings of which cover the crest of a considerable height and possess a noble outlook into the near hills, which are now taking on a hazy blue mystery in the afternoon light.

A large portion of the villa is of modern architecture, plain and dignified, but the massive, square battlemented tower at one corner is of quite an early date, perhaps the thirteenth century, while not far away is the ruined prison-house of ruddy grey stones and brickwork, with a picturesque round tower, presumably of a still earlier time, and reminding one of the ancient towers still found in parts of Ireland.

The whole pile speaks eloquently of a long residence on this hilltop of a people whose wants were few. their tastes stern and simple as the mighty Apennines which encircled them.

A fine-looking old man is weaving an osier basket as he sits on the terrace in the shadow of the old tower. He answers all our questions with quiet courtesy; but upon our offering him a fee, as we have learned is generally expected, it is gently but firmly declined, and we walk away somewhat abashed, thinking of the varied influences which surrounded young Giotto amid such pastoral scenes and such kindly, self-respecting people. He certainly must have carried much of the experience and knowledge of his shepherd life into his art.


Ciali 02/01/2011

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c. 1900

He was the first acquaintance I made in Tuscany. I was leaning over the steamer’s side looking down at the swarm of boats that surrounded her. I knew no word of the Tuscan tongue, and was dimly wondering how I should get myself and my luggage ashore, and to what extent I should be fleeced in the process, when a brown, clear eye from a boat below caught mine full. It belonged to a gaunt creature in blue serge suit and boating cap, with the face of a Mephistopheles and the bearing and manners of an Archangel. And from his mouth there issued (O dulcet sound!) English – as she is spoke, it is true – but English intelligible with an effort. ‘Inglis gen’lman?’ he queried with a polite grin. I nodded, distrustfully perhaps. ‘You come my boat, sair – ver good boat.’ I reflected a moment. The Mephistophelean face in repose I distrusted profoundly; animated, it seemed to glow with an extra dose of the milk of human kindness. For better or for worse I would go in his boat. ‘All right!’ I shouted down. ‘Au’ri! Au’ri!’, he shouted back with great contentment; and in two minutes more he was beside me on the deck possessing himself of my hand-bags and excitedly bawling directions about my big trunks.

We landed without misadventure; a cab of my guide’s approving sprung, as if by magic, from the quay-side. He openly prevented me giving a silver five-franc piece to the boatman, and made that angry, baffled worthy content himself with two. Then came the difficult question of tipping him. I fingered a variety of coins diffidently, and finally got ready the five-franc piece he had saved me. ‘What hotel you go to, gen’lman?’ I told him, and tried surreptitiously to pass the five-franc piece upon him. He pushed my arm politely away, gently forced me into the cab, and in a trice was on the box beside the driver. At the hotel he came up to my room, and patiently and gleefully unstrapped all my boxes. ‘No spend silver moneys here,’ he said confidentially; ‘sell silver moneys and spend paper moneys. Me show Mister t’morr’ mawnin’. Again I fumbled for the five-franc piece, but he was already at the door bowing me a stately ‘goo-bye, sair!’

I never managed to pass that particular tip; it was the first of a series of defeats which I sustained in attempts to reward loyal and valuable services. This happened six years ago. I know my friend very well now, and prize him highly. His name is Carlo Bianchi; he is keeper of a boarding-house for English seamen. His dominant trait – if we put aside great natural goodnature  –  is an absorbing, awe-stricken admiration for everything and everybody English. You can only pain him in one way  – if you call him either ‘Carlo’ or ‘Bianchi’. He calls himself ‘Charlie White’, and spells Charlie ‘Ciali’ on the card which announces that he has a ‘home’ offering every comfort to members of the Mercantile Marine. It is this passionate admiration of everything British that prompts him, when he has nothing better to do, to go off in a boat to the steamers in the hope of being able to assist some helpless English traveller.

He often meets with scant courtesy and withering scepticism at their hands, but remains undauntedly revering. We must indeed be a great and proud nation to have aroused all this admiration in the bosom of a Tuscan man of the world like ‘Ciali’, for as a rule he sees but degenerate specimens of the Britisher. The members of the English Mercantile Marine who come under his fatherly care are too often the worst of the class, men who have deserted from their ships, or lost their ships through drunken orgies, or who have been politely lodged in the tempered seclusion of a Tuscan gaol, or the still milder fastnesses of the strong room of the Town Hospital consequent upon a Bacchanalian night-brawl. If he encouraged their vices he would get more men into his house, and put more money in his pocket. But he routs them out of unsavoury places, reclaims the wages of which they have been fleeced, packs them into boats, and sends them off to their ships to save them from desertion; and all this because he reveres the mighty British nation even in its dregs. Nearly every morning ‘Ciali’ presents himself at my house with the respectful offer of his services. I have to invent commissions to save him from lapsing into despondency. I do not pay him. He borrows freely, but always pays back. He will accept an old suit of clothes gladly, and wears it with swagger and distinction.

I visit his fat ‘Signora’ at the boarding-house sometimes, and contrive to slip trifles into the children’s money-boxes. Filthy lucre I can only pass off on him by resorting to ruse. A firm of solicitors in England is paying for this, I say, or an English shipowner wants such and such a thing done; then all ‘Ciali’s’ scruples vanish. But I have to use this species of finesse sparingly, for he is wily and observant, well versed in every branch of honest deception, and a past-master in the gentle art of giving without seeming to give. Certainly his faith in human nature would receive a rude shock if he were ever to detect me in anything so perfidious as an attempt to reward devoted services which were meant to be given out of pure loyalty and affection. Poor ‘Ciali’! He managed to wind himself very closely about my heart-strings. Most keenly did I realise this one terrible night last December. I saw – a familiar enough sight – a company of the masked Misericordia Brothers running full tilt down the main street with their easy-springed hand ambulance cart, foot-passengers and traffic willingly making an avenue for them, as when a fire-engine tears along the London streets. The light of a fitful gas-lamp revealed the form of a prostrate human being in the cart, and then lit up with momentary horror the ghastly features of poor ‘Ciali’ contorted with the anguish of mortal pain. I saw, with a pang at my heart, a sign which showed me it was a very serious case.

These Misericordia Brothers, for all they are a religious confraternity, are a very practical set of people. One of the Brothers was running alongside, holding the dying man’s wrist, and keeping his fingers upon the flickering pulse; in his left hand he held a large stop-watch, so that if the sufferer died upon the road the police could be informed of the exact moment of death. I followed swiftly towards the hospital; but before many moments were over the pace of the runners slackened, for the poor pulse had ceased to beat for ever. It seems that two pot-valiant Welsh firemen had got into an altercation with a sober Tuscan seaman. A real or fancied insult to the girl on the man’s arm was the cause of it. The blood which gets into a Tuscan’s head upon the venom motions of mad jealousy is more deadly than any drink: out came the inevitable knife. But ‘Ciali’, the peacemaker, was near at hand. He rushed up – too late alas! – to quench the flames, for the insensate Tuscan no longer knew what he did, and poor ‘Ciali’ received, just above the heart, the terrible blade that was meant for a far unworthier breast. And so he died, a martyr to his love of Great Britain, and in heroic devotion to her offscourings. ‘Ciali’s’ funeral was a great affair. All the waterside population turned out. Many British seamen were present; most of them took a turn at carrying the coffin the five long miles to the Campo Santo. Best of all, an English captain who had known him for years, and like everybody else used him as ‘unpaid factotum’, brought a Red Ensign, and covered the coffin with it. Borne to his grave by British seamen and covered with the Union Jack! The tingling sensations of an honest, simple pride must surely have caused him to turn in his coffin. If the poor fellow could but have known of the honours that awaited him in death, how exultantly he would have marched into the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns. May his soul rest in peace!