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Venus de’ Medici 10/03/2011

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c. 1850

Art almost constitutes Florence. There are three grand depositories of it. The principal is that of the Imperial Gallery [Uffizi]. Rightly styled imperial. It is contained in a very extensive building, worthy of its builder, Vasari, the artist and the author. It may be said, that there is no end to the works of value and interest which crowd the rooms of this noble establishment. In sculpture there is scarce a Roman emperor, philosopher, poet, whose bust or statue is not there, raked from the ruins of Ancient Rome, or other overturned city of Italy. And beside these, statues of imaginary beings, god or goddess, dryad or hamadryad, satyr or faun, with which the imagination of antiquity teemed, and which genius expressed in such perfection in marble or bronze. Such objects adorn the sides of these extensive galleries. Opening out of the galleries, in their whole length, are halls and saloons, larger and smaller, where are deposited the chefs-d’oeuvre of sculpture, and the masterpieces in painting, from the first appearance of art in the thirteenth century to the close of the sixteenth, with specimens of all the principal schools.

One of these apartments, of especial celebrity, named the Tribune, most lavishly adorned with marbles, gilding, and mother of pearl, has been consecrated to a very few of the most celebrated works in marble and painting, which the traveller who had heard or read of it almost from his youth, enters with the most excited expectations. But they are expectations, which, however excited, can never be disappointed. There, gracefully disposed about the floor, stands the world-renowned Venus de’ Medici, the Arrotino, or grinder, a perfect piece of nature in both form and action, and might stand as well for Shakespeare’s Shylock sharpening the knife for Antonio’s side –  near these the Young Apollo – then the Wrestlers, an antique group of Greek statuary – lastly, the Dancing Fawn, the head and arms restored by Michael Angelo – a marvellous instance of restoration, going, one may believe, beyond the original conception of the artist. The parts supplied by Michael Angelo are in such perfect unity of expression with every other part of the statue, that even though one should discern the fractures where the new members were added, he would suppose them at once to be the ancient members themselves, fortunately discovered, and skilfully re-annexed. In truth, the peculiar merit of the figure will be seen to lie in the action of the head and the arms.

To the first of the statues just named, as lending its chief celebrity to the Tribune, and that which perhaps would be termed the most perfect piece of sculpture in the world – the Venus – I revert for a few moments. This famous statue, ascribed on its plinth to Cleomenes, but subject to doubt, was discovered amongst the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, at Tivoli, in the fifteenth century – though this is also disputed; but, what is certain, is, that whenever and wherever found, it was found broken into thirteen or fourteen pieces; but every fragment there, with the exception of the lower portions of the two arms. The joining together of so many pieces has been done with such extreme skill, that no imperfection is perceptible on the surface. As thus restored and completed, whatever may have been lost of the original perfection, enough remains to substantiate its claims to the reputation of the most perfect representation existing of womanly beauty. That, I suppose, with very few exceptions, to be the common judgment.

Every eye would agree in pronouncing the form, the proportions, the contour of the trunk and lower limbs, not only faultless, but radiant with a loveliness and a grace certainly nowhere else to be seen, nor easily to be imagined. The figure might be termed perfect, but for the head and the arms. The head is thought too small to be in good proportion to the body. But this is not very observable. The position and turn of the head are graceful in the extreme. The countenance is characterized by a sort of doll-like inanimate beauty, which detracts greatly from the pleasure with which it would otherwise be viewed. It may not be said to be devoid of expression, but the expression, such as it is, is far from agreeable, taken in connection with the posture of the hands and arms. These are modern, and every way defective. But their attitude, their chief offence, I imagine to have been very nearly the original one, for this reason – it is but a conjecture – that the representation of Venus in marble seems anciently to have been governed by a set of conventional ideas, which really prescribed the manner in which they should be placed. But the conjecture is made somewhat more plausible by the fact that the Venus of the Capitol at Rome has precisely the same, more than one also in the Imperial Gallery at Florence, and in the Vatican. But, whatever may be the account of this posture, whether originally belonging to the discovered statue or not, what I would say is, that the meaning conveyed by the attitude, and by the expression of the countenance, is not the same, but contradictory. They do not correspond. If the attitude, as is affirmed, be one of modesty, the idea is refuted by the expression of the countenance, which is smirking and even meretricious; which shows the posture to be one – and there can be no greater fault in a work of art – of mere affectation. Were the posture one of genuine modesty, the language of the countenance would necessarily correspond; as in the Venus of the Capitol, where the attitude is the same, but the expression one of purity and dignity. This is a criticism to which this beautiful work is fairly open. But this fault, serious as i it is, cannot deprive it of its divine symmetry; its matchless grace. It is still to the eye delighting in mere form, the most beautiful statue in the world. While, unfortunately, it was necessary to restore the arms, the lower limbs, and the feet especially, have remained wholly uninjured, and are moulded with exquisite art; the only defect that even seemed to exist there being the too great roundness of the arch of the single foot on which the whole weight of the body rests. It may be more beautiful as it is; but it is not so true. The weight of the whole body; being upon one foot, must inevitably spread it, as any one may see. But, as it is, it has all the beautiful roundness of a foot which is at rest.

But whatever defect or faint blemish may be found or fancied in this great work of genius, it is lost in the general blaze of excellence; and we look upon it, and hang over it as lovers, with untiring admiration, the last as the first, and every day that the traveller visits the gallery. Of other objects of art he may tire but he returns to this ever with fresh interest, and fresh delight. The Venus of the Capitol possesses many charms, but it wants that nameless grace which is shed over her Florence rival – a grace indescribable and incommunicable, but none the less certain and undeniable – like that which pervades so many of the forms of Raffaelle; like that, which in another department of art – lends enchantment to a style such as that of Addison or Goldsmith – a style, the deliciousness of which can be acknowledged and felt by all, Mobile it can be copied by none.

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Vasarian Corridor and Facchini 29/01/2011

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c. 1905

Many of my readers will have taken the wonderful walk along this corridor. The limits of the Uffizi galleries terminate with the beginning of the Ponte Vecchio, where, having paid another franc at the turnstile, we enter upon our long covered seemingly endless walk. The corridor is lined on both sides with pictures, in the main portraits. Some of them are bad, but all of them profoundly interesting. There are also some thrilling pictures of popular festas. This is the place to learn history and to study heraldry, flags, crowns and costumes: but I usually see people racing along here, red book in hand and with such an odd fixed look on their faces, eager to get from one surfeit of masterpieces to another.

Do not believe Baedeker when he says: ‘Those who have left their sticks or umbrellas at the entrance to the Uffizi must, of course, return for them after visiting the Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno.’ For the modest fee of 25c. you will find your stick waiting at the exit of the Pitti or the exit of the Uffizi, whichever you happen to want. The one gallery gives you a countermark to claim it from the other gallery, and the facchino carries it round through the streets. The corridor is closed on Sundays.

Il giro in Florence 15/01/2011

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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.

Bored in the Uffizi 08/01/2011

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c. 1910

Another class of tourists there is whom I watch, I own, in amazement, wondering why they come to Italy, since the tastes they manifest would find more gratification at Brighton, if not on Hampstead Heath when Bank Holiday comes round. They hasten through galleries and churches, ruled by their watches, dictated to by the guide-books in their hands. Their methods are so sketchy (from choice and not necessity), that few cities have sufficient attractions to detain them many hours, and one of them has been known to ask if three days was too much to give to Rome! Such come to Florence, sometimes even spend long times here, but never, I venture to say, do they see her as she is. It was lately my fortune (or misfortune?) to follow such a couple round the Uffizi. They were obviously bride and bridegroom, their appearance proved them of the rich and leisured class. They paused before a martyrdom of St. Laurence, and the husband sought information of his wife, who was quick to supply it. ‘You want to know what this is? Why, that poor chap, what’s-his-name? one of those old saints, who was martyred, put on a gridiron like a mutton chop!’ So they disposed of St. Laurence, and, wandering on, stopped again before Piero di Cosimo’s strange, whimsical dream of Perseus, where it was the bride who trusted for enlightenment to the classical learning supposed to be got in public schools. It was, however, but a broken reed to which she trusted, for all the response was, ‘Oh, I forget that old yarn, it’s nothing much anyway. Come along, aren’t we nearly at the end?’ And as they passed on, I heard his question, ‘Do you really like these old daubs?’ and the candid answer, ‘Well, honestly, now I am getting used to them I don’t mind them as much as I did at first!’

Irreverent about the Uffizi 06/01/2011

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c. 1900

There is one other thing which, taken with this, makes gallery-visiting like a dream of havoc. It is that they fight among themselves, the distraught pictures; that, not content with abiding their own deaths, they are to kill one another. The Uffizi, then, may be considered as one vast shambles, where 2000 Madonnas and 2000 Bimbi are strangling each other. Thus stated, the position will not bear thinking of; thus stated, a great picture-gallery of devotional and votive pictures may become an offence to decency and self-respect which no honest man can afford himself. None of this touches the dilettante and his dry light of research; but I am by no means the only man who has been touched by it. In it is to be found, by him who cares to inquire, the reason why, in this book, my little say about Tuscan pictures at large has been mostly confined to those which are still growing in the corners where they were planted.

Visits to the Uffizi and the Vasarian Corridor 16/12/2010

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c. 1910

Infirm and languid visitors should get it clearly into their heads (1) that the tour of the Uffizi means a long walk and (2) that there is a lift. You find it in the umbrella room at every Florentine gallery and museum is an official whose one object in life is to take away your umbrella and it costs two-pence-halfpenny and is worth far more. But walking downstairs is imperative, because otherwise one would miss Silenus and Bacchus, and a beautiful urgent Mars, in bronze, together with other fine sculptured things. One of the quaintest symbols of conservatism in Florence is the scissors of the officials who supply tickets of entrance. Apparently the perforated line is unknown in Italy; hence the ticket is divided from its counterfoil (which I assume goes to the authorities in order that they may check their horrid takings) by a huge pair of shears. These things are snip-snapping all over Italy, all day long. Having obtained your ticket you hand it to another official at a turnstile, and at last you are free of cupidity and red tape and may breathe easily again and examine the products of the light-hearted, generous Renaissance in the right spirit.

One should never forget, in any gallery of Florence, to look out of the windows. There is always a courtyard, a street, or a spire against the sky; and at the Uffizi there are the river and bridges and mountains. From the loggia of the Palazzo Vecchio I once saw a woman with some twenty or thirty city pigeons on the table of her little room, feeding them with maize.

Except for glimpses of the river and the Via Guicciardini which it gives, I advise no one to walk through the passage uniting the Pitti and the Uffizi unless of course bent on catching some of the ancient thrill when armed men ran swiftly from one palace to the other to quell a disturbance or repulse an assault. Particularly does this counsel apply to wet days, when all the windows are closed and there is no air. A certain interest attaches to the myriad portraits which line the walls, chiefly of the Medici and comparatively recent worthies; but one must have a glutton’s passion either for paint or history to wish to examine these. As a matter of fact, only a lightning-speed tourist could possibly think of seeing both the Uffizi and the Pitti on the same day, and therefore the need of the passage disappears. It is hard worked only on Sundays. The drawings in the cases in the first long corridor are worth close study covering as they do the whole range of great Italian art: from, say, Uccello to Carlo Dolci. But as they are from time to time changed it is useless to say more of them. There is also on the first landing of the staircase a room in which exhibitions of drawings of the Old Masters are held, and this is worth knowing about, not only because of the riches of the portfolios in the collection, but also because once you have passed the doors you are inside the only picture gallery in Florence for which no entrance fee is asked. How the authorities have come to overlook this additional source of revenue, I have no notion; but they have, and visitors should hasten to make the most of it for fear that a translation of these words of mine may wander into bad hands.