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The Cat Woman 26/12/2010

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c. 1890

Now an odd creature approaches, and pauses to feed the cats with a dainty morsel taken from a capacious pocket. She is the English woman so familiar to Florence, and more mad than forestieri are usually supposed to be. The cats are her sole care. Poveretta! Some affair of the heart turned her brain in early maidenhood. Let her have her own way in peace. It is all the same to cat and citizen. The insane woman has a round, white, and vacant face, curiously resembling the physiognomy of Maggy in Little Dorrit. She wears a faded gown of a bygone fashion, a hoop-skirt, a flowered shawl, and a large poke bonnet of yellow straw, with the ribbons of white watered silk floating over her shoulders. She might have emerged from a woodcut of Cruikshank, in a city where eccentric waifs of all nationalities abound. The cats receive their gifts capriciously.

The vegetable-woman smiles compassionately. Surely it is an indication of remarkable refinement in a people, that no one mocks at nor molests her footsteps with an attendant, jeering rabble of boys, as might so readily happen in the large capitals of the world. Here is a limit to the street Arab’s witticisms, who sang beneath the windows of the archiepiscopal palace, when Pope Martin V was lodged there in an hour of misfortune, that he was not worth a penny, thereby laying up a future grudge of affronted dignity for the Flower City in the mind of the pontiff. The English woman rambles on, with the purposeless movements of an unsettled mind. Doubtless she will find her way to that palace courtyard of the Lung’ Arno Nuovo, which is a startling feline nightmare, where heads peer out of the shrubbery in every stage of cathood. Nor will she return home without pausing at the cloister of the Church of San Lorenzo, where homeless animals receive municipal bounty on occasion, possibly in imitation of the hospital once existing near the Gate of Victory at Cairo.

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Watermelon Street 25/12/2010

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c. 1890 Watermelon Street is the old name for Via Ricasoli, Via del Cocomero

Across the way is the shop of the rosy and smiling vegetable-woman. Her door is stocked with a tempting array of red tomatoes, strings of pearly onions, tufts of celery and radishes, almonds in the green pod, as well as peas and beans, to be eaten raw by the initiated. Salads in all varieties of the crisp, bitter, and curling leaf abound. The salad is as indispensable to the Florentine as to the Greek.

The vender of wood and charcoal occupies a cavernous cellar of our palace wall. Why not? All must live, and each gain his bread in his own way. The carbonajo is a short stout man of forty years of age, robust and vigorous, with a humorous nose turned up at the tip, little, twinkling eyes, and a nature as sound as his own olive and chestnut logs, which he extols with abundant gesticulation. Dusky myrmidons come and go at his bidding, bearing on their backs the bags of charcoal sent down from the Apennines for that primitive altar dedicated to culinary rites, the Florence kitchen.

The man of charcoal has his grievances, like the rest of the world. In his case they assume the shape of modern Viennese iron stoves, capable of burning coke and coal, Parisian inventions to warm humanity with a petroleum lamp, Piedmontese calorifers, with smart brass doors and valves, warranted to consume their own smoke, in lieu of the cavernous, open chimney that formerly devoured fuel with a giant’s appetite, and gave no sign, scarcely deluding shivering mortals with a sensation of transient warmth. In the matter of private history our carhonajo is a widower, and whether from the public reprehension which would attach to him in the opinion of his own circle if he took a second wife, or because his first experience of matrimony was unsatisfactory, he expresses scorn and defiance of womankind.

His son, a small boy with a frosty nose and a wooden expression of countenance, is returned to him at four o’clock in the afternoon from the public school of the quarter, and loiters about the premises, receiving awkward, masculine cares, in the matter of shoe-tying and collar-adjusting, from his fond parent, is played with by the dusky myrmidons at leisure moments, and petted by the Street of the Watermelon, with the kindness so invariably bestowed on children by the Florentines.

The coal-dealer is rigid in the observance of all holidays. He is ready at any time to close his door, place his felt hat jauntily over his left ear, take his little son by the hand, and seek the Arno bank, if any spectacle, such as dragging the current of the river for the corpse of a suicide, invite his interest. Failing result of such gruesome dredging, he contents himself with basking in the sun with his back to the parapet, and inspecting the feathers on the hats of the ladies, the jewels sparkling in their ears, the rich furs, as the file of brilliant equipages passes in the drive of the afternoon to the Cascine. Who so proudly elated as the son of the widower, on such occasions? A fig for stay-at-home, coddling mothers and sisters, if one can walk abroad with the father, making shrill, infantile comments on men and things, so patiently and indulgently responded to by the daddy (babbo) in the streets.

The dealer in old books has a musty little shop beyond our palace wall. A stray volume of Petrarch or Ariosto, bound in shrunken, yellow parchment, may be here discovered beneath piles of cheap prints, sheets of music, the red guidebooks picked up by thrifty servants in hotel and pension, the faded albums of the school of keepsake poetry, embellished by the Countess of Blessington, scattered by the decease of old English ladies who had brought the household gods of provincial homes, the mahogany furniture and Wedgwood tea-pots of the auction sales, to Italy. The dealer is a tall thin man of studious aspect, and a uniform, powdery grayness of hue in hair, beard, complexion, and raiment, as if the sun had forgotten to pay him a visit in his dark nook, where he handles little pictures of saints painted on copper, crumbling leaves of woodcuts suggestive of Albert Durer, and portions of dilapidated missals that gleam with gold tracery and softly blended colors on illuminated pages, like fragments of rainbows amid neutral-tinted papers.

As a Florentine, does the gray and shadowy old man share the usual eccentricities of the bibliopole? Has he the excellent memory necessary to the true librarian, a quality to be ranked with that of the king, who never forgets the face of a subject presented to him, the actor, the barber, the club porter, the cabman? Is he entitled to a place between Magliabecchi and the famous old woman, La Mère Mansut of the Latin quarter of Paris? The former regretted that he did not own a copy of the Cosmogony of the historian Zouaras, and once mentioned incidentally that the work in question, bound in white vellum, with red edges, was in the library of the Grand Signior at Constantinople, in the left-hand corner of the third shelf from the ceiling, in the southern kiosque, facing the Golden Horn, in the palace of the old seraglio. The latter, shrewd and lineal descendant of generations of second-hand booksellers, could rummage out from some dark recess of her humble abode an almost forgotten specimen of antique lore at a moment’s notice. Opposite, there is a taciturn antiquarian, whose shop-window affords only transient and oblique glimpses of ivory carvings, enamelled tea-spoons, amber, Venetian lamps, tapestry, and majolica, so often is it closed. A mysterious and silent, if not saturnine, person is the antiquarian, with many business interests in other portions of the town. He would have been accepted as an astrologer or a necromancer in an earlier century…

The Street of the Watermelon is silent. The sound of passing vehicles, the strident clamor of the lace and shoe pedler, the plaintive, minor note of the knife-grinder, pierce the stillness only to die away to quiet once more. ‘He who is contented enjoys life’, says the proverb, reputed to be so venerable that it has grown a white beard.

Reader, come and dwell in the Street of the Watermelon!

The Cab Man 19/12/2010

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c. 1890

The old cabman shrugs his shoulders, and cracks the whip he carries in his right hand, as he returns to his stand on the Piazza of San Marco, where his horse, a patient white animal, with meek nose in a bag of hay, awaits the custom ever more rare since the establishment of tramways. Tramways an established fact, what fate will befall the society of cabmen, who parade in political processions on occasion, with a dark steed — such as they never drive – rampant on a banner of green silk? If the tailors are to ‘build’ the dresses of the ladies here in Italy in obedience to the feminine aspiration of the day to be as masculine as possible, what is to become of such pale and anxious little sarte as the maker of the signora’s yellow robe, bravely supporting a worthy husband out of employment through the failure of a flour mill at Pistoia? In turn, the flour mill was too heavily taxed for the owner to meet his expenses. If the type-writer is to set forth clearly and cleanly the ideas of a time-pressed world on rapidly multiplying sheets, how may bread be obtained by the clerks carefully trained to excel in writing and copying, with beautiful penmanship? Truly, this is a photographic age of swift and sharp impressions and speedy accomplishment.

These questions intrude even on the drowsy tranquillity of an old street at Florence, induced by the presence of the rubicund cabman, in his shirt-sleeves, jolly, and cracking his whip, his visage somewhat too suggestive of the purple glow resulting from a liberal use of Tuscan wine. As the husband of the vegetable-woman, and deeply interested in the business, he rejoices in the nickname of the ortolano (vegetable-dealer) bestowed upon him with the facility of Italian towns.

What befalls the displaced forces of human labor, swept aside by new inventions? One hears no more of them. The vetturino of the Riviera vowed vengeance on the railway, piercing the tunnels of the shore, from the heights of the defrauded Cornice road; still the iron rail endures, and the class of vetturini is nearly extinct. The indignant Venetian gondoliere carried their wrath at the introduction of little omnibus steam-craft into the city to the verge of a strike in the presence of the Queen Margherita, yet the vaporetti puff and shriek along the canals, and the picturesque wielder of the oar must go to the wall sooner or later. Care may lurk in the corner of the eye of the bluff cocher for the venture, from a financial standpoint, of a vegetable shop is fraught with sundry anxieties. If the outlay in rent and commodities be trifling, he doubtless wishes that the account of the superb signora, who has just sallied forth, was less lengthy for daily salad and vegetables, selected by a slatternly maid, and carried home in her apron, while he fears to cut off supplies altogether, lest he is never paid. For the rest, he anathematizes the encroaching tramway in the most ingenious vocabulary of abuse possible to the lower classes of any city; but at least on this July day let us laugh and be merry, whip in hand, while the patient white horse stands at the corner, awaiting a tardy customer.