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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.

Picnics at Vallombrosa 12/04/2011

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c. 1890

The German governess on the grass reads delicious morsels surreptitiously from a yellow volume hidden amid the wools and canvas of her work-bag, just loaned to her by the young Roman gentleman lounging in a hammock on the edge of the adjacent wood. The fraulein has abundant golden hair, a freckled countenance, and features rounded to insignificance. She is modestly attired in black, and shod with those stout boots, winter and summer, which evince a well-regulated organization. In the service of an affable and genial Sicilian princess, she is supposed to occupy an enviable situation. In reality, she is bound, Ixion-wise, to a wheel of duty that revolves ceaselessly; and she is never alone. Her pupils are handsome, affectionate, and intelligent; yet when she believes that she holds them firmly, by means of the influence of her own superior cleverness, they elude her grasp and mock at her dismay.

She is rendered responsible for them, alive or dead, night and day. Her accomplishments are as varied as the claims upon them. She is expected to read the German, French, and English poets aloud to her patroness, when not lavishing the skill of her own superb musical accomplishments on pouting and refractory young girls. Skilled in artistic and conventual embroideries, her leisure is usually employed in designing or finishing altar-cloths destined for favorite sanctuaries by the princess, who is devote and allows her household no meat from Friday to Monday of each week.

The governess must be sprightly, attentive, polite, and her discretion so absolute that she does not arouse the jealousy and suspicion of the feminine element in her intercourse with the men of the family, young or old, while she must soothe the resentment of maids and nurses that her position is superior to their own, by many zealous little services of letter-writing and gifts. ‘My signora allows the foreign governess to come to the table, while I eat in the kitchen, and all because she has a little instruction,’ says the balia, dandling the last baby in the corridor; and the red ribbons and gold pins of her head-gear bristle with self-importance. ‘Of course! You like it, eh?’’, assents the Piedmontese lady’s-maid, mockingly, a sallow girl with pearl powder visible on her nose, the small head of a snake, a tress of heavy black hair secured by a silver dagger, and eyes suggestive of those domestic tragedies dear to a certain class of French novelists.

Poor fraulein! The young Roman gentleman, whiling away the drowsy afternoon with cigars and novelettes in the hammock, type of the modern golden youth of all lands, —has loaned the governess Tinseau’s Sur le Seuil, partly actuated by kindness, and partly by a wish to tease his mother and sisters.

If the fraulein were another queen of Romania, Carmen Sylva, she would gather the children about her in this unrivalled open-air drawing-room, the meadow of Vallombrosa, and weave graceful legends into stories for their delight, instead of on the shores of the North Sea.

To the right rises the group of buildings, the monastery, church, and campanile, crowned by the whitish Paradisino; and below the belt of oak, beech, and chestnut, all Tuscany extends, veined by the glistening thread of Arno, wending a course from its cradle in the rocky fastnesses of the Falterona to the sea. Instead, the governess sails on the Nile in imagination for a delightful half-hour, and is herself a heroine of romance, young, beautiful, rich, and respectfully adored by a noble gentleman. Poor Fraulein Müller!

The children, resembling human flowers, in their gay costumes, broad hats, and fluttering sashes, play on the lawn. Here some lingering reminiscence of the circus leads a group of chubby boys to attempt to break their necks by feats of ground and lofty tumbling over canes, hoops, and scarfs held by admiring little sisters, bright-eyed, olive-tinted, and vivacious. There the daughters of the Egyptian consul of a neighboring Mediterranean port play a game of the fair with painted cards, a sort of Doctor Busby, under the supervision of their Swiss bonne, heavy tresses braided down their backs, great dark eyes veiled languidly, dresses yellow, dull red, and vivid scarlet, and boots of Russia leather, making a spot of Oriental color amid the sober greens of the height.

The slender and pale little Prussian lad, who executes military manoeuvres all day on the brink of the ravine, using the walking-stick of his invalid father for a repeating rifle, challenges his comrades to the active sport of making war. He wishes continually to far la guerra. The haughty little Duke of Vicenza arranges tin soldiers on a mimic battlefield for mortal combat. ‘These are Austrians, and these Italians’, he proclaims with patriotic fervor. ‘One Italian soldier is more than a match for five Austrians. You will see!’

Two Florentines fence with rattans, in admiring emulation of the feats performed on the platform of the Forest School. A pretty blond Tyrolese maiden reads an English romance. ‘It is so interesting! All about love and marriage’, she confides to her brother, the school-boy of fifteen stretched on the ground at her feet. ‘Mine is much better,’ is the scornful rejoinder, as he turns the leaf of a flaming-covered pamphlet. ‘One man has just killed another, and now everybody must help to find it out.’

Is there nothing new under the sun?

The fat signora, in a costume covered with gigantic bunches of poppies, and the tall thin signora, in a striped black tunic which renders her taller and leaner, take a walk for the health along the ridge, as enjoined by their respective physicians. They pause to rest at a chapel with the wan spectre of San Giovanni Gualberto exorcising the demon that tormented the monk Fiorenzo still discernible in patches of crumbling fresco on the walls. Here a spring of water purling into a fountain forms a deep reservoir in which penitents froze their feet in the icy waters. The two ladies are acquaintances of the table d’hôte. Once returned to the vales below, they will scarcely meet again, for the thin signora is an aristocrat, while the fat signora is a plebeian.

Since both are very religious, do they commune over San Giovanni Gualberto on this spot, or on the edifying example of the brethren who dipped their bare feet in the freezing waters of the basin in winter weather, as an atonement for their sins? No. The lean signora describes the trousseau of her daughter, who married a naval officer at Spezia during the previous season. The fat signora discourses on the relative efficacy of certain mineral springs beyond Pisa, once frequented by the gouty Medici. Both agree, with solemnity of conviction, on the abomination of using butter in cookery instead of good oil, and the necessity of sustaining the health with sound wine, Chianti, Pomino, or Brolio.

White butterflies flutter about the sunny slope. A lizard basks on the chapel steps. Drowsy sounds, faint, soft, inarticulate, float up from the Casentino.

Is there nothing new under the sun?

Up at the Paradisino a brisk little American matron, having dined in a former chapel, with a little rusty bell still suspended in the open belfry above the roof, seats herself on a sofa in a chill salon, to chat with the German artist about Scheveningen, Norway, and the midnight sun. In the wall behind the sofa is the mural tablet of a monk of Vallombrosa, recording shining virtues of the cloister of past centuries. This ripple of modern feminine occupation, the laughter of children, and the bustle of every type of pert maid, does not disturb the Vallombrosans in their tombs.

Vallombrosa by Funicular Railway 02/03/2011

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Vallombrosa is now very easy of access: an hour about from Florence to Sant’ Ellero; about another hour in the Funicular from Sant’ Ellero to the Saltino station, and there we are, three thousand feet and more above the level of the Tuscan sea, gazing over all the beauties of the Val d’Arno Superiore, and only twenty minutes’ walk from the world-famed Abbey.

The Funicular railway was made in 1892 by the exertions of Count Joseph Telfener, since deceased. The system is cogwheel and infallible; no accident has ever occurred, for no accident could occur.

We are pushed up the mountain side in open carriages, and freely enjoy a glorious view, passing first through vineyards and olive orchards, then constantly through mountain shrubberies and woods of juniper, arbutus, ilex, beech, and chestnut (how beneficently the air changes with the first appearance of the chestnut), until we land on a level with the pine-forests.

Outside the station is the Grand Hotel Saltino, finely placed to catch all the breezes from the four quarters of the globe; opposite is a Hotel Milton, as one might have expected after all those countless references to a certain quotation which nothing shall induce me to quote.

Here, too, are the few shops and most of the villini and chalets. On the road to the abbey we pass on the right the Grand Hotel Croce di Savoia; on the left the noble Hotel Castello di Acquabella. I may call it noble (though they would fain have it ‘grand’ also) for it is really a fine chateau in mediaeval style, built for himself twenty-five years ago by Count Pio Resse, with no thought of the accommodation of pleasure-seekers.

Soon we are in the first of the pine-forests with its ‘insuperable height of loftiest shade’, and the communal road takes on that billiard-table-like smoothness peculiar to roads that are sheltered by pines. We pause for a moment to drink in the strong, exhilarating, aromatic odour of the forest, and my companion would fain have broken away for a sylvan ramble. But I am in haste to be at the abbey, and drag him reluctant along with me. In a brief space the towers and campanile of that vast historic building come in sight, and in a few minutes more we have passed through the courtyard and found cool shelter in the dark Abbey Church.

Wordsworth, At Vallombrosa 01/02/2011

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From Memorials of a Tour in Italy, 1837

‘Vallombrosa –I longed in thy shadiest wood

To slumber, reclined on the moss-covered floor!’

Fond wish that was granted at last, and the Flood,

That lulled me asleep bids me listen once more.

Its murmur how soft! as it falls down the steep,

Near that Cell – yon sequestered Retreat high in air –

Where our Milton was wont lonely vigils to keep

For converse with God, sought through study and prayer.

The Monks still repeat the tradition with pride,

And its truth who shall doubt? for his Spirit is here;     

In the cloud-piercing rocks doth her grandeur abide,

In the pines pointing heavenward her beauty austere;

In the flower-besprent meadows his genius we trace

Turned to humbler delights, in which youth might confide,

That would yield him fit help while prefiguring that Place

Where, if Sin had not entered, Love never had died.

When with life lengthened out came a desolate time,

And darkness and danger had compassed him round,

With a thought he would flee to these haunts of his prime

And here once again a kind shelter be found.               

And let me believe that when nightly the Muse

Did waft him to Sion, the glorified hill,

Here also, on some favoured height, he would choose

To wander, and drink inspiration at will.

Vallombrosa! of thee I first heard in the page

Of that holiest of Bards, and the name for my mind

Had a musical charm, which the winter of age

And the changes it brings had no power to unbind.

And now, ye Miltonian shades! under you

I repose, nor am forced from sweet fancy to part,          

While your leaves I behold and the brooks they will strew,

And the realised vision is clasped to my heart.

Even so, and unblamed, we rejoice as we may

In Forms that must perish, frail objects of sense;

Unblamed–if the Soul be intent on the day

When the Being of Beings shall summon her hence.

For he and he only with wisdom is blest

Who, gathering true pleasures wherever they grow,

Looks up in all places, for joy or for rest,

To the Fountain whence Time and Eternity flow.