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Making Friends in Florence 31/07/2011

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Alfred Austin c. 1910 recalling 1860-1880

One of the most valued friendships of my life, that with Thomas Adolphus Trollope, who was just twenty-five years my senior, was formed shortly after my arrival, and we were often and much together, both in his delightful home in the Piazza della Indipendenza, and in the long walks we took. Almost every Sunday evening we joined a young circle at the house of an English lady in the town, who well illustrated the saying of Shakespeare that ‘small cheer and great welcome make a merry feast’. Though the author of the well-known History of the Commonwealth of Florence was so much older than myself, we seemed to be close friends from the very moment we first grasped each other’s hands. Unlike his brother Anthony, who, though likewise a delightful companion, and brimming over with active intelligence, was in no accurate sense of the word intellectual, and as unhelpful and impatient an arguer as I ever met, Thomas Adolphus Trollope rejoiced in threshing out afresh the old metaphysical and theological problems, handling them with a rare dialectical skill; and many a diologue had we on those unendingly interesting themes. But such were far from being our only diversion. He was known to all the English residents in Florence as ‘dear old Tom Trollope’, not because of his age, for he was then but little past the meridian of life, but of the affection he inspired, and most of all in the younger and more attractive members of that community; and on many a delightful evening did we sally forth together to pass among folk of very moderate means, but fair looks, merry ways and congenial hospitality.

I had not known him long before he took me one evening to one of the most agreeable houses I ever visited, that of Franz Pulszki, the Hungarian patriot and scholar, whom the events of 1848-9 had driven into exile. His wife, the daughter of a Viennese banker, was as charming a hostess as he was a genial host; and, assisted by her young children, she entertained the most heterogeneous body of guests I ever saw gathered together, all equally at home in his spacious Italian villa on the South side of the Arno.

On the occasion of my first evening there, not very long after my arrival, he quitted for a moment his valuable collection of coins he was showing to some other guests, and, coming over to where I was, said in the stentorian tones he seemed incapable of modifying: ‘Ha! there you are. I see you have already made the acquaintance of this charming lady. But she must surrender you for a little, for I want to make you acquainted with her husband.’ Petitioning to be allowed to return, I rose, and soon found myself in the presence of the famous Nihilist, Bakounin, a huge mountain of a man who was sipping a tumbler of tea made in Russian fashion, and propounding to a circle of attentive listeners the most destructive social doctrines in the most cheerful manner. The little group around him made way for us. ‘Here, Bakounin, I want to make known to you an English Conservative who will listen to your revolutionary theories with amicable toleration, but whom you must not detain too long, for he has only just made the acquaintance of your wife, to whom I have no doubt he is longing to return.’

The easy ways of that varied and polyglot society, where musicians, painters, patriotic versifiers, political fugitives with a price placed on their heads, erudite professors, and fair gracious women, gave one abundant choice of social diversion. Of Bakounin and his wife, a Polish lady some years younger than her eloquent husband, and endowed with the proverbial attractiveness of her race, I saw much during that Florentine Winter and Spring, cultivating with them an acquaintance singularly agreeable since so fresh and original.

After Sadowa and the introduction into Austro-Hungaryof the Dak Constitution, Pulszki was free to return to Budapest. Within three months of doing so he lost his wife and eldest daughter, victims to the epidemic of Diphtheria that was then prevailing there. Many years later, when I visited him in the Hungarian capital on returning from an excursion to Greece, Constantinople, and Roumania, he narrated to me how he had lately met Bakounin in the streets of Geneva, how the famous Nihilist had said to him that, despairing of the success of all projects for the amelioration of Society and Mankind, he was starving himself to death, which he calculated would occur in about three days’ time!

Not long after my arrival inFlorence, coming out of the Cafe Doney, I met an old friend, Captain Harry Weldon, whose acquaintance I had first made when he joined the 18th Lancers, a regiment restored to the Army List at the time of the Crimean War. I found he had left the Army, and was married; and of both I saw much in the course of the next few weeks. I need not extol the voice and other gifts of Mrs. Weldon, since they are well and widely known. They were the guests of Mr. Spence, whom I should have named among the most prominent figures in Florence at that date, and for many subsequent years. He owned the famous Villa Medici at Fiesole; and I dined there on Christmas Day.

It is possible that, had I been leading a more solitary life, I might have ‘found my voice’ sooner than I did. But many acquaintances, a few congenial friends, the artistic attractions of Florence, no little music, regarded at that time as exceptionally good, though it would not be highly esteemed to-day, when musical execution has made such striking advance and critical appreciation of it has become so much more fastidious, filled up much of my time.Reading consumed the rest; and, with no definite purpose, though with deep interest, I devoted many an evening to becoming familiar with every incident in the life of Savonarola, and with much of his sermons and his writings. This naturally was associated with Lorenzo de’ Medici, his companions, and the Italian Renaissance; thus providing me with the material for the drama of Savonarola, written so many years later. But my utter unproductiveness at that time continued to reproach and trouble me, compelling me to feel distressfully that I had in no degree justified my abandonment of the Bar and the assertion of personal freedom. But it never for a moment occurred to me to retrace my steps. Freedom of existence and mind at all cost, at every sacrifice, still remained my steadfast Ideal.

The climate of Florence during the strictly Winter months is neither helpful to invalids nor pleasurable to the fastidious. I was not among the former, and perhaps a rather callous supernumerary of the latter. My rooms were often bathed in sunshine whose companion was a piercing tramontana wind; nor is it till the nightingales begin to sing, the fire-flies to flicker among the olivetrees and over the rising spears of the corn, and the yellow banksia roses and wistaria to bloom, that the Fair City unfolds its charms.