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City and Country 21/07/2011

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c. 1905

One of the delights of the hills round Florence is their entire rusticity. The easy access from the city, the constant coming and going, the numerous foreign settlers, the eager seekers of villeggiature, have not destroyed the country life of these radiant rustic regions. For this reason it may be truly said that Florence has no suburbs. A few minutes in the tram and the traveller might be in the olive orchards of the Versilia, or taking agricultural notes from the simple courteous peasants in the heart of the fertile Casentino. The dwellers about Fiesole, at San Domenico, at Settignano, at Maiano, at Careggi, are so many country gentlemen, and are as busied about pressing oil, or making wine, or drying orris-root, as are the dwellers in the town about study, painting, banking, or the delightful Florentine pleasures of this world. These inhabitants of the alluring hills have a character so much their own, that I seem to recognise a country mouse in the Via Tornabuoni, though it has only taken him a few minutes to get there. 

English settlers abound on the hills, another proof of what I have said, that the Englishman, rather than any other foreigner, has the keenest eye for the recondite beauties, and I will now add for the solid comforts, of Italy. Life up here is entirely charming: completely rustic, as I said, but wholly free from the bumpkin element. Our town-mouse friends are frequent visitors, keep our interest fresh and keen in the city’s doings, and prevent us ever sinking into mere Boeotian country mice. It is the country, agricultural, horticultural, floricultural, but the country under ideal conditions.

One of its chief joys is the constant beauty of the outlook. Whether it be winter with the distant hills covered with snow, or summer with its green floor below and blue vault above, the scene is everlastingly beautiful. Then Florence is for ever under our eyes, the text of morning and evening meditations, daily increasing in beauty, as it seems, because of our daily increasing love and understanding of it. So great is its individuality, so far-reaching its part in universal history, so potent its possession of our better self, that we think of it as a system apart: there is that resplendent sun, Brunelleschi’s cupola, with, for moon, the lesser cupola of the Medicean Chapel; there are those seven planets in the Florentine heaven, the Torre del Leone, the Campanile, the tower of the Bargello, the cupola of Santo Spirito, the spires of the Badia, of Santa Croce, of Santa Maria Novella, with constellations too many to enumerate; and there, over towards San Donnino, is the milky way of the winding Arno.

Every glance at the city recalls the noblest memories: the Gonfalonier! and great Princes who have governed the State, the holy Archbishops who have ruled the Church, the Saints who here chose the better part, the glories of the Franciscan, the greater glories of the Dominican, the civilising mission of the Benedictine Order, the builders, the painters, the sculptors, the poets, the scholars, the soldiers, the merchants memories of all are recalled by a glance at one or other of these constellations in the Florentine firmament. Truly our morning and evening meditations never lack for a subject, and are rich in food for the mind and fraught with good for the soul.

Piazzale Michaelangelo at Dusk 23/04/2011

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c. 1910

We reached the Piazzale, and once more faced that wonderful view of Florence at our feet, which no doubt reminds many people of the vaster but less beautiful view of Rome from S. Pietro in Montorio. The dark city was divided by the gleam of the river, which was beginning to look golden in the afternoon light, as it glided out westward into the sunset. We were rather weary in body, and had to admit that modern life can supply some excellent things afternoon tea being among them. We sat at our table and enjoyed the mental relaxation of watching our various neighbours, some of whom had great struggles with elusive waiters and tea and coffee that refused to appear. We lingered long on the Piazzale, as if fastened to the spot by the sight of the sunset glory. Very unwillingly we at last came down, wondering why we did so, and wondering yet more at the terrible power of habit that forces one indoors (home, as we call it as if the outspread beauties of nature were not home) at stated hours. L. waxed poetical, and began to quote Wordsworth, whereupon the Conscientious Objector crushed all pathos into nothingness by remarking: ‘Wait till you are cold and hungry’. This was true enough to be disagreeable, so we went down by S. Niccolo and home by the Ponte Alle Grazie.

The Aurora at Fiesole 22/04/2011

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c. 1910

We stopped to think of all this, and then took our way up the sharp ascent, which soon brought us to the wide Piazza at Fiesole the heart of that old Etruscan stronghold the neighbour and constant foe of Florence. The Piazza itself shows an extraordinary mixture of stateliness and squalor in its buildings, and is usually peopled by a strange medley of countryfolk and of tourists of all nations. We disentangled ourselves from the crowd of beggars and sellers of straw hats, fans, and what not, and looked about for a peaceful spot in which to rest. We could think of nothing more pleasant and attractive to mind and body than the terrace of the Aurora Hotel, where we chose a shady table with a lovely view, and were prosaic enough to order our much-needed colazione. Meanwhile, we sat and gazed at the exquisite scene spread out before us. Far below, in a soft mist, layFlorence; the great dome of the Cathedral and the towers of the city showing above an unobtrusive mass of roof, and peeping behind the olives and other trees that veiled the steep slope. Across the valley San Miniato rose with the lines of hills behind it. Italian scenery, at any rate in Tuscany and Umbria, has a curious elusive charm; it does not rise up and proclaim itself picturesque; the lines of colours melt and flow without violent contrasts and sharp contours, and there is everywhere just that touch of austerity which enhances the beauty. The most assertive thing are the cypresses, pointed and uncompromising in their outline, though the effect they make is never hard, as they always seem to be of a lovely shadow-colour. Noon is possibly never quite the most beautiful moment for a landscape, but the day had a touch of blue mistiness that mellowed the light and gave an added colour to the shadows.

Alfred Austin from A Letter from Italy 04/04/2011

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Verse six of Alfred Austin’s A Letter from Italy, published in Lyrical Poems 1891

How looked Florence? Fair as when

Beatrice was only ten:

Nowise altered, just the same

Marble city, mountain frame,

Turbid river, cloudless sky,

As in days when you and I

Roamed its sunny streets, apart.

Ignorant of each other’s heart.

Little knowing that our feet

Slow were moving on to meet,

And that we should find, at last

Kindship in a common past.

But a shadow falls athwart

All her beauty, all her art

For alas! I vainly seek

Outstretched hand and kindling cheek.

Such as, in the bygone days.

Sweetened, sanctified her ways.

When, as evening belfries chime,

I to Bellosguardo climb.

Vaguely thinking there to find

Faces that still haunt my mind,

Though the doors stand open wide,

No one waits for me inside;

Not a voice comes forth to greet,

As of old, my nearing feet.

So I stand without, and stare.

Wishing you were here to share

Void too vast alone to bear.

To Ricorboli I wend:

But where now the dear old friend,

Heart as open as his gate.

Song, and jest, and simple state?

They who loved me all are fled;

Some are gone, and some are dead.

So, though young and lovely be

Florence still, it feels to me,

Thinking of the days that were.

Like a marble sepulchre.

Florence from on high, c. 1850 12/03/2011

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c. 1850

Beautiful Florence ! That is the characteristic epithet by which this capital is always to be described. Seen from a neighboring height, such, for instance, as that of the Convent of San Miniato, or Fiesole, and it must be hard to believe that any vision more lovely could meet the eye, though one should ascend in succession every hill-top in Europe. Directly beneath the convent, encircled by her lofty walls, stands the beautiful capital, adorned as a bride; her jewelry, the Cathedral with its clustering domes, the central one almost as large as that of St. Peter’s – Giotto’s lofty Campanile, with its slender proportions and queenly elegance of form – the grotesque forms of the tower of the Old Palace, with its  embattled walls – the Baptistery, whose gates of sculptured bronze have obtained such celebrity – the Medicean Chapel, whose interior dazzles the eye with its polished marbles, precious stones and painted ceilings – these, together with the lofty roofs with their massive cornices of the Ricardi and Strozzi Palaces, constrain one to cry out as he gazes, Beautiful Florence! Then, the eye leaving the towers and domes of the city falls upon the Arno, which, dividing unequally the capital, and crossing the loveliest plains in the world, winds away among the hills, and enters the Mediterranean vmder the walls of Pisa. When the river by a sudden turn among the mountains has hidden itself from sight, the spectator rests his eye, and rests it indeed, on the broad fields of the richest husbandry imaginable, which stretch from the walls of the city twenty miles towards the west, an absolute plain, to where it meets the roots of the Apennines, and plain, mountain, and cloud, in the purple haze of an Italian sky, are lost in one indistinguishable confusion of colors and forms. No one can even faintly guess what the beauty of a plain is, till he sees this of Florence under the glowing light of a summer’s sunset, the surface of the plain here and there broken by the outline of castle or church, village or villa, by the tapering cypress with its black foliage, or by the Italian pine with its spreading umbrella top, the most picturesque of trees, and which lends its grace to so many of the landscapes of Claude Lorraine.

As soon as the observer can bear to withdraw his eyes from scenes like these, he raises them to the surrounding hills, which, as if for a wall of shelter and defence, surround the city on every side, save the single point where the Arno penetrates the vast mountain embankment to join the sea. These hills are not marked by any of the very picturesque forms, which are to be noticed among so many of the mountains of Italy, but, rather, by those graceful curves and sweeps, those indescribable beauties of long undulating lines, which, like so many other objects in that remarkable region, cause the traveller again and again to exclaim as he surveys them, ‘How Beautiful!’ They are the delectable mountains of Bunyan: and ought to be residences of blessed spirits. Gentlemen’s country-seats, the villas and palaces of princes, ruins of past ages, old convents and old castles, farm-houses with their long lines of out-buildings, villages –  these, all interspersed with groves of the pine and the olive, creep up the sides of the hills, or crown the lower summits, and guide the imagination to spots of loveliness such as Dante’s Beatrice might have dwelt in, or that circle of beauty where Boccacio’s tales were rehearsed; spots of loveliness that perfectly enchant the traveller, and half persuade him that his senses have been imposed upon by some theatrical trick. When I say that the whole outward aspect of Florence is so beautiful, the city and all its environs, almost especially its environs, the only epithet is applied to it by which it can be truly characterized – and in this I believe all would agree. There are other cities, the effect of which strikes deeper, and whose monuments are far more interesting, such as Rome; and, for magnificence and variety of scenery, Naples is unrivalled. All other places must strike one as flat and prosaic by the side of that imperial capital –  but, for beauty, there is nothing like Florence. And not only beauty, but extreme beauty – the beauty of a belle, of a belle in high dress – whose beauty is universally acknowledged, and universally worshipped.

Arrival on the Lung’ Arno 05/03/2011

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c. 1880

We stayed in Rome until 27 April, when we left for Florence. We had intended going round by the attractive town of Perugia, but the morning of the 26 was wet, and, delaying our departure for a day, we gave up Perugia, partly because to have gone upon a Friday would have involved spending a Sunday there. The latter part of our journey was interesting. On arriving at the outskirts of the town the railway circumnavigates it, so that we had an opportunity from the very first of seeing the cathedral dome and campanile, and the other towers and spires of Florence, which lies beautifully situated in a luxuriantly verdant valley, enclosed by the Apennines and other hills, and intersected by the river Arno, which, seeing for the first time in the soft moonlight in the course of the evening, looked so lovely. The Lung’ Arno, or bank of the river, where most of the principal hotels are placed, is considered the best situation, at least for winter residence. Some of the hotels are unpleasantly near a waterfall or wear stretching across the river, the incessant din of which is troublesome at night. We spent a few nights at one of the hotels there, and afterwards a fortnight at the Pension Molini Barbensi on the left bank of the river, where we found pleasant society and some former travelling acquaintances. The house is a good one, and the rooms are large, but a very little expenditure on sanitary arrangements would improve it as a residence. Living seems not to be expensive at Florence, and lodgings can be procured at a moderate rate. Florence lies upon the same river as Pisa, but I suppose fifty or sixty miles farther up, and the town bears some resemblance to it, but is far more picturesque and far more lively and populous. In fact, Pisa is quite a dull, quiet, dead-alive town beside it. The population of Florence, at present about 170,000, is four times as great as that of Pisa, and it has been a royal town as well as a provincial capital. The river is crossed by six bridges (three, or rather four of them, of very old date) connecting the north and south portions of the city, which, however, lies mainly upon the north shore. Of these bridges (all strongly buttressed against the force of the river, which no doubt occasionally descends in floods with great power), the Ponte Vecchio is peculiar and picturesque, and a remnant of old times, being covered on each side with houses, and on one side, on the top floor, by the long gallery which connects the Uffizi and Pitti Palaces. These houses on the bridge are very curious. Next the street they present to view on both sides small booths or stalls, principally occupied by goldsmiths or jewellers, which very likely much resemble what the shops of Old London were, but at the present day do not, for jewellers’ wares, inspire confidence.

Day-trip to Monte Morello 23/02/2011

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c. 1845

Whoever looks on the valley of the Arno from San Miniato, and observes the Appenine range, of which Fiesole is one, bounding it on the north, will immediately notice to the northwest a double peak rising high above all the others. The bare, brown forehead of this, known by the name of Monte Morello, seemed so provokingly to challenge an ascent, that we determined to try it. So we started early, a few days ago, from the Porta San Gallo, with nothing but the frosty grass and fresh air to remind us of the middle of December. Leaving the Prato road, at the base of the mountain, we passed Careggi, a favorite farm of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and entered a narrow glen where a little brook was brawling down its rocky channel. Here and there stood a rustic mill, near which women were busy spreading their washed clothes on the grass. Following the footpath, we ascended a long eminence to a chapel where some boys were amusing themselves with a common country game. They have a small wheel, around which they wind a rope, and, running a little distance to increase the velocity, let it off with a sudden jerk. On a level road it can be thrown upwards of a quarter of a mile.

From the chapel, a gradual ascent along the ridge of a hill brought us to the foot of the peak, which rose high be fore us, covered with bare rocks and stunted oaks. The wind blew coldly from a snowy range to the north, as we commenced ascending with a good will. A few shepherds were leading their flocks along the sides, to browse on the grass and withered bushes, and we started up a large hare occasionally from his leafy covert. The ascent was very toilsome; I was obliged to stop frequently on account of the painful throbbing of my heart, which made it difficult to breathe. When the summit was gained, we lay down awhile on the leeward side to cover ourselves.

We looked on the great valley of the Arno, perhaps twenty-five miles long, and five or six broad, lying like a long elliptical basin sunk among the hills. I can liken it to nothing but a vast sea ; for a dense, blue mist covered the level surface, through which the domes of Florence rose up like a craggy island, while the thousands of scattered villas resembled ships, with spread sails, afloat on its surface. The sharp, cutting wind soon drove us down, with a few hundred bounds, to the path again. Three more hungry mortals did not dine at the Cacciatore that day. The chapel of the Medici, which we visited, is of wonderful beauty. The walls are entirely encrusted with pietra dura and the most precious kinds of marble. .The ceiling is covered with gorgeous frescoes by Benevenuto, a modern painter. Around the sides, in magnificent sarcophagi of marble and jasper, repose the ashes of a few Cosmos and Ferdinands. I asked the sacristan for the tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent. ‘Oh!’ said he, ‘he lived during the Republic he has no tomb; these are only for Dukes!’ I could not repress a sigh at the lavish waste of labor and treasure on this one princely chapel. They might have slumbered unnoted, like Lorenzo, if they had done as much for their country and Italy.

Fiesole and the ‘Roman Arena’ 18/02/2011

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c. 1910

But the main interest of Fiesole to most people is not the cypress-covered hill of S. Francesco; not the view from the summit; not the straw mementoes; not the Mino relief in the church; but the Roman arena. The excavators have made of this a very complete place. One can stand at the top of the steps and reconstruct it all the audience, the performance, the performers. A very little time spent on building would be needed to restore the amphitheatre to its original form. Beyond it are baths, and in a hollow the remains of a temple with the altar where it ever was; and then one walks a little farther and is on the ancient Etruscan wall, built when Fiesole was an Etruscan fortified hill city. So do the centuries fall away here! But everywhere, among the ancient Roman stones so massive and exact, and the Etruscan stones, are the wild flowers which Luca Signorelli painted in that picture in the Uffizi which I love so much. After the amphitheatre one visits the Museum with the same ticket a little building filled with trophies of the spade. There is nothing very wonderful nothing to compare with the treasures of the Archaeological Museum m Florence but it is well worth a visit.

Florence: Bridges and Palazzo Pitti 05/02/2011

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c. 1800 based on late eighteenth-century visits.

Florence is unquestionably a very beautiful city. Independent of the churches and palaces, some of which are very magnificent, the architecture of the houses in general is in a good taste, the streets are remarkably clean, and paved with large broad stones, chiselled so as to prevent the horses from sliding.

This city is divided into two unequal parts by the river Arno, over which there are no less than four bridges in sight of each other. That called the Ponte Della Trinita is uncommonly elegant: it is built entirely of white marble, and ornamented with four beautiful statues, representing the four seasons. The quays, the buildings on each side, and the bridges, render that part of Florence through which the river runs, by far the finest.

The number of inhabitants in Florence is calculated by some at eighty thousand. The streets, squares, and fronts of the palaces are adorned with a great number of statues; some of whom by the best modern masters, Michael Angelo, Bandinelli, Donatello, Giovanni di Bologna, Benvenulo [sic], Cellini and others. A taste for the arts must be kept alive, independent almost of any other encouragement, in a city where so many specimens are continually before the eyes of the inhabitants.

Florence has been equally distinguished by a spirit for commerce and for the fine arts – two things which are not always united. Some of the Florentine merchants formerly were men of vast wealth, and lived in a most magnificent manner. One of them, about the middle of the fifteenth century, built that noble fabric, which, from the name of its founder, is still called the Palazzo Pitti. The man was ruined by the prodigious expence of this building, which was immediately purchased by the Medici family, and has continued ever since to be the residence of the sovereigns. The gardens belonging to this palace are on the declivity of an eminence. On the summit there is a kind of fort, called Belvedere. From this you have a complete view of Florence, and the beauteous vale of Arno, in the middle of which it stands. The prospect is bounded on every side by an ampitheatre of fertile hills, adorned with country houses and gardens.

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.