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Recent Florence by Henry James

 

I HAVE never known Florence more charming than I found her for a week in this brilliant October. She sat in the sunshine beside her yellow river like the little treasure-city that she has always seemed, without commerce, without other industry than the manufacture of mosaic paper-weights and alabaster Cupids, without actuality, or energy, or earnestness, or any of those rugged virtues which in most cases are deemed indispensable for civic robustness; with nothing but the little unaugmented stock of her medieval memories, her tender-coloured mountains, her churches and palaces, pictures and statues. There were very few strangers; one's detested fellow sight-seer was infrequent; the native population itself seemed scanty; the sound of wheels in the streets was but occasional; by eight o'clock at night, apparently, every one had gone to bed, and the wandering tourist, still wandering, had the place to himself,—-had the thick shadow-masses of the great palaces, and the shafts of moonlight striking the polygonal paving-stones, and the empty bridges, and the silvered yellow of the Arno, and the stillness broken only by a homeward step, accompanied by a snatch of song from a warm Italian voice. My room at the inn looked out on the river, and was flooded all day with sunshine. There was an absurd orange-coloured paper on the walls; the Arno, of a hue not altogether (different, flowed beneath, and on the other side of it rose a line of sallow-fronted houses, of extreme antiquity, crumbling and mouldering, bulging and protruding over the stream. (I talk of their fronts; but what I saw was their shabby backs, which were exposed to the cheerful flicker of the river, while the fronts stood forever in the deep, damp shadow of a narrow medieval street.) All this brightness and yellowness was a perpetual delight; it was a part of that indefinably charming colour which Florence always seems to wear as you look up and down at it from the river, from the bridges and quays. This is a kind of grave brilliancy—-a harmony of high tints—-which I am at a loss to describe. There are yellow walls and green blinds and red roofs, and intervals of brilliant brown and natural-looking blue but the picture is not spotty or gaudy, thanks to the colours being distributed in large and comfortable masses, and to it's being washed over, as it were, by I cannot say what happy softness of sunshine. The river-front of Florence is, in short, a delightful composition. Part of it's charm comes, of course, from the generous aspect of those high-based old Tuscan palaces which a renewal of acquaintance with them has again commended to me as the most dignified dwellings in the world. Nothing can he finer than that look of giving up the whole immense area and elevation of the ground-floor to simple purposes of vestibule and staircase, of court and high-arched entrance; as if this were all hut a massive pedestal for the real habitation, and people were not properly housed unless, to begin with, they should he lifted fifty feet above the pavement. The great blocks of the basement, the great intervals, horizontally and vertically, from window to window (telling of the height and breadth of the rooms within); the armorial shield hung forward at one of the angles; the wide-brimmed roof, overshadowing the narrow street; the rich old browns and yellows of the walls,—-these simple elements are put together with admirable art.

Take one of these noble structures out of it's oblique situation in town; call it no longer a palace, but a villa; set it down upon a terrace, on one of the hills that encircle Florence, with a row of high-waisted cypresses beside it, a grassy court-yard, and a view of the Florentine towers and the valley of the Arno, and you will think it perhaps even more impressive and picturesque. It was a Sunday noon, and brilliantly warm, when I arrived in Florence; and after I had looked from my windows awhile at that quietly-basking river-front I have spoken of, I took my way .across one of the bridges and then out of one of the gates,—-that immensely tall old Roman Gate, whereof the space from the top of the arch to the cornice (except that there is scarcely a cornice, it is all a plain, massive piece of wall) is as great (or seems to be) as that from the ground to the former point. Then I climbed a steep and winding way—-much of it a little dull, if one likes, being hounded by mottled, mossy garden walls—-to a villa on a hill-top, where I found various things that seemed to resolve my journey into a sort of pilgrimage of admiration and envy. Seeing them again, often, for a week, both by sunlight and moonshine, I never quite learned not to covet them; not to feel that not being a part of them was somehow to miss a particular little chance of felicity. What a tranquil, contented life it seemed, with exquisite beauty as a part of it's daily texture! the sunny terrace, with it's tangled podere beneath it; the bright grey olives against the bright blue sky; the long, serene, horizontal lines of other villas, flanked by their upward cypresses, disposed upon the neighbouring hills; the richest little city in the world in a softly-scooped hollow at ones feet, and beyond it the most beautiful of views, changing colour, shifting shadows, and through all it's changes remaining grandly familiar. Within the villa was a great love of art and a painting-room full of successful work, so that if human life there seemed very tranquil, the tranquillity meant simply contentment and devoted occupation. A beautiful occupation in that beautiful position, what could possibly be better? That is what I spoke just now of envying a way of life that is not afraid of a little isolation and tolerably quiet days. When such a life presents itself in a dull or an ugly place, we esteem it, we admire it, but we do not feel it to be the ideal of good fortune. When, however, the people who lead it move as figures in an ancient, noble landscape, and their walks and contemplations are like a turning of the leaves of history, we seem to be witnessing an admirable case of virtue made easy; meaning here by virtue, contentment and concentration, the love of privacy and of study. One need not be exacting if one lives among local conditions that are of themselves constantly suggestive. It is true, indeed, that I might, after a certain time, grow weary of a regular afternoon stroll among the Florentine lanes; of the sitting on low parapets, in intervals of flower-topped wall, and looking across at Fiesole, or down the rich-hued valley of the Arno towards Pisa and the sea; of pausing at the open gates of villas and wondering at the height of cypresses and the depth of loggias; of walking home in the fading light and noting on a dozen westward-looking surfaces the glow of the opposite sunset. But for a week or so all this was a charming entertainment. The villas are innumerable, and, if one is a stranger, half the talk is about villas. This one has a story; that one has another; they all look as if they had stories. Most of them are offered to rent (many of them for sale) at prices unnaturally low; you may have a tower and a garden, a chapel and a stretch of thirty windows, for three or four hundred dollars a year. In imagination, you hire three or four; you take possession, and settle, and live there. About the finest there is something very grave and stately; about two or three of the best there is something even solemn and tragic. From what does this latter impression come? You gather it as you stand there in the early dusk, looking at the long, pale-brown façade, the enormous windows, the iron cages fastened upon the lower ones. Part of the sadness of aspect of these great houses comes, even when they have not fallen into decay, from their look of having outlived their original use. Their extraordinary largeness and massiveness are a satire upon their present fate. They were not built with such a thickness of wall and depth of embrasure, such a solidity of staircase and superfluity of stone, simply to afford an economical winter residence to English and American families. I don't know whether it was the appearance of these strong old villas, which seemed so dumbly conscious of a change of manners, that threw a tinge of melancholy over the general prospect; certain it is that, having always found this plaintive note in the beautiful harmony of the view, it seemed to me now particularly distinct. “Lovely, lovely, but oh, how sad! ” the fanciful stranger couldn't but murmur to himself as, in the late afternoon, he looked at the view from over one of the low parapets, and then, with his hands in his pockets, turned away indoors to candles and dinner.

Below, in the city, in wandering about in the streets and churches and museums, it was impossible not to have a good deal of the same feeling; but here the impression was more easy to analyse. It came from a sense of the perfect separateness of all the artistic beauty that formed the shrine of one's pilgrimage from the present and the future of the place, from the actual life and manners, the native ideal. I have already spoken of the way in which the great aggregation of beautiful works of art in the Italian cities strikes the visitor nowadays (so far as present Italy is concerned) as the mere stock in trade of an impecunious but thrifty people. It is this metaphysical desertedness and loneliness of the great works of architecture and sculpture that deposits a certain weight upon the heart; when we see a great tradition broken we feel something of the pain with which we hear a stifled cry. But feeling sad is one timing and feeling angry is another. Seeing one morning, in a shop-window, the series of Mornings in Florence published a few years since by Mr. Ruskin, I made haste to enter and purchase these amusing little books, some passages of which I remembered formerly to have read. I could not turn over many of their pages without observing that that “separateness” of the new and old which I just mentioned had produced in their author the liveliest irritation. With the more acute phases of this sentiment it was difficult to sympathize, for the simple reason, it seems to me, that it savours of arrogance to demand of any people, as a right, that they shall be artistic. “Be artistic yourselves!” is the very natural reply that young Italy has at hand for English critics and censors. When a people produces beautiful statues and pictures it gives us something more than is set down in the bond, and we must thank it for it's generosity; and when it stops producing them or caring for them we may cease thanking, but we hardly have a right to begin and abuse it. The wreck of Florence, says Mr. Ruskin, “is now too ghastly and heart-breaking to any human soul that remembers the days of old;” and these desperate words are an allusion to the fact that the little square in front of the cathedral, at the foot of Giotto's Tower, with the grand Baptistery on the other side, is now the resort of a number of hackney-coaches and omnibuses. This fact is doubtless regrettable, and it would be a hundred times more agreeable to see among people who have been made the heirs of so priceless a work of art as that sublime campanile some such feeling about it as would keep it free from even the shadow of defilement. A cab-stand is a very ugly and dirty place, and Giotto's Tower should have nothing in common with such conveniences. But there is more than one way of taking such things, and a quiet traveller, who has been walking about for a week with his mind full of the sweetness and suggestiveness of a hundred Florentine places, may feel at last, in looking into Mr. Ruskin's little tracts that, discord for discord, there is not much to choose between the importunity of the authors personal ill-humour and the incongruity of horse-pails and bundles of hay. And one may say this without being at all a partisan of the doctrine of the inevitableness of modern desecration and injury. For my own part, I believe there are few things in this line that the new Italian spirit is not capable of, and not many, indeed, that we are not destined to see. Pictures and buildings will not be completely destroyed, because in that case foreigners with full pockets would cease to visit the country, and the turn-stiles at the doors of the old palaces and convents, with the little patented slit for absorbing your half franc, would grow quite rusty, and creak with disuse. But it is safe to say that the new Italy, growing into an old Italy again, will continue to take her elbow-room wherever she finds it.

I am almost ashamed to say what I did with Mr. Ruskin's little books. I put them into my pocket and betook myself to Santa Maria Novella. There I sat down, and after I had looked about for a while at the beautiful church (in which I had often sat before), I drew them forth, one by one, and read the greater part of them. Occupying one's self with light literature in a great religious edifice is perhaps as bad a piece of profanation as any of those rude dealings which Mr. Ruskin justly deplores; but a traveller has to make the most of odd moments, and I was waiting for a friend in whose company I was to go and look at Giotto's beautiful frescoes in the cloister of the church. My friend was a long time coming, so that I had an hour with Mr. Ruskin, whom I called just now a light littérateur because in these little Mornings in Florence he is forever making his readers laugh. I remembered, of course, where I was; and, in spite of my smiles, I felt that I had rarely got such a snubbing. I had really been enjoying the good old city of Florence; but I now learned from Mr. Ruskin that this was a scandalous waste of good humour. I should have gone about with an imprecation on my lips, clad in a voluminous suit of sackcloth and ashes. I had taken great pleasure in certain frescoes by Ghirlandaio, in the choir of that very church; but it appeared from one of the little books that these frescoes were but a narrow escape from being rubbish. I had greatly admired Santa Croce, and I had thought the Duomo a very noble affair; but I had now the most positive assurance I was all wrong. After a while, if it was only ill-humour that was needed for doing honour to the city of the Medici, I felt that I had risen to a proper level, only now it was Mr. Ruskin himself I had lost patience with, and not the stupid Brunelleschi or the flimsy Ghirlandaio. Indeed, I lost patience altogether, and asked myself by what right this garrulous cynic pretended to run riot through a quiet traveller's relish for the noblest of pleasures,—-his wholesome enjoyment of the loveliest of cities. The little books seemed invidious and insane, and it was only when I remembered that I had been under no obligation to buy them that I checked myself in repenting of having done so. Then, at last, my friend arrived, and we passed together out of the church, and through the first cloister beside it into a smaller inclosure, where we stood a while to look at the tomb of the Marchesa Strozzi- Ridolfi, upon which the great Giotto has painted four superb little pictures. It was easy to see the pictures were superb; but I drew forth one of my little books again, for I had observed that Mr. Ruskin spoke of them. Hereupon I was all smiles again; for what could be better, in this case, I asked myself, than Mr. Ruskin's remarks? They are, in fact, excellent and charming, and full of appreciation of the deep and simple beauty of the great painter's work. I read them aloud to my companion; but my companion was rather, as the phrase is, “put off” by them. One of the frescoes (it is a picture of the birth of the Virgin) contains a figure coming through a door. “Of ornament,” I quote, “there is only the entirely simple outline of the vase which the servant carries; of colour two or three masses of sober red and pure white, with brown and grey. That is all,” Mr. Ruskin continues. “And if you are pleased with this you can see Florence. But if not, by all means amuse yourself there, if you find it amusing, as long as you like; you can never see it.” You can never see it. This seemed to my friend insufferable, and I had to shuffle away the book again, so that we might look at the fresco with the unruffled geniality it deserves. We agreed afterwards, when in a more convenient place I read aloud a good many more passages from Mr. Ruskin's tracts, that there are a great many ways of seeing Florence, as there are of seeing most beautiful and interesting things, and that it is very dry and pedantic to say that the happy vision depends upon our squaring our toes with a certain particular chalk-mark. We see Florence wherever and whenever we enjoy it, and for enjoying it we find a great many more pretexts than Mr. Ruskin seems inclined to allow. My friend and I agreed also, however, that the little hooks were an excellent purchase, on account of the great charm and felicity of much of their incidental criticism; to say nothing, as I hinted just now, of their being extremely amusing. Nothing, in fact, is more comical than the familiar asperity of the author's style and the pedagogic fashion in which he pushes and pulls about his unhappy pupils; jerking their heads toward this, rapping their knuckles for that, sending them to stand in corners, and giving them Latin verses to copy. But it is not either the felicities or the aberrations of detail, in Mr Ruskin's writings, that are the main affair for most readers; it is the general tone that, as I have said, puts them off or draws them on. For many persons he will never bear the test of being read in this rich old Italy, where art, so long as it really lived at all, was spontaneous, joyous, irresponsible. If the reader is in daily contact with those beautiful Florentine works which do still, in a way, force themselves into notice through the vulgarity and cruelty of modern profanation, it will seeing to him that Mr. Ruskin's little books are pitched in the strangest falsetto key. “One may read a hundred pages of this sort of thing,” said my friend, “without ever dreaming that he is talking about art. You can say nothing worse about it than that.” And that is very true. Art is the one corner of human life in which we may absolutely take our ease. To justify our presence there the only thing that is demanded of us is that we shall have a great deal of vivacity, In other places our vivacity is conditioned and embarrassed; we are allowed to have only so much as is consistent with that of our neighbours; with their convenience and well-being, with their convictions and prejudices, their rules and regulations. Art means an escape from all this. Wherever her brilliant standard floats the need for apologies and justifications is suspended; there it is enough simply that we please or that we are pleased. There the tree is judged only by it's fruits. If these are sweet, one is welcome to shake them down.

One may read a great many pages of Mr. Ruskin without getting a hint of this delightful truth; a hint of the not unimportant fact that art, after all, is made for us, and not we for art. This idea of the value of a work of art being the amount of entertainment it yields is conspicuous by it's absence. And as for Mr. Ruskin's world of art being a place where we may take life easily, woe to the luckless mortal who enters it with any such disposition. Instead of a garden of delight, he finds a sort of assize court, in perpetual session. Instead of a place in which human responsibilities are lightened and suspended, he finds a region governed by a kind of Draconic legislation. His responsibilities, indeed, are tenfold increased; the gulf between truth and error is forever yawning at his feet; the pains and penalties of this same error are advertised, in scriptural terminology, upon a thousand sign-posts; and the poor wanderer soon begins to look back with infinite longing to the kindlier aspect of common duty. There can be no greater want of tact in dealing with those things with which men attempt to ornament life than to be perpetually talking about “error.” A truce to all rigidities is the law of the place; the only thing that is absolute there is sensible charm. The brim old bearer of the scales begs off; she feels that this is not her province. Differences here are not iniquity and righteousness; they are simply notes in the scale of inventiveness. We are not under theological government.

It was very charming, in the bright, warm days, to wander from one corner of Florence to another, paying one's respects again to remembered masterpieces. It was pleasant also to find that memory had played no tricks, and that the beautiful things of an earlier year were as beautiful as ever. To enumerate these beautiful things would take a great deal of space; for I never had been more struck with the mere quantity of brilliant Florentine work. Even giving up the Duomo and Santa Croce to Mr. Ruskin as very ill-arranged edifices,—-though it is surprising what an amount of incidental pleasure an ill-arranged edifice, of a great fashion, can bestow,—-the list of the Florentine treasures is well-nigh inexhaustible. Those long outer galleries of the Uffizi had never seemed to me more picturesque; sometimes there were not more than two or three figures standing there, Baedeker in hand, to break the charming perspective. One side of this gallery, it will be remembered, is entirely composed of glass; a continuity of old-fashioned windows, draped with white curtains of rather primitive fashion, which hang there till they grow picturesquely yellow. The light, passing through them, is softly filtered and diffused; it rests mildly upon the old marbles—-chiefly antique Roman busts—-which stand in the narrow intervals of the casements. It is projected upon the numerous pictures that cover the opposite wall, and that are not by any means, as a general thing, the gems of the great collection; it imparts a faded brightness to the old ornamental arabesques upon the painted wooden ceiling, and it makes a great, soft shining upon the marble floor, in which, as you look up and down, you see the strolling tourists and the motionless copyists almost reflected. I don't know why I should find an extreme entertainment in so humble a mise en scène ; but, in fact, I have seldom gone into the Uffizi without walking the length of this third-story cloister, between the (for the most part) third-rate pictures and the faded cotton window curtains. Why is it that in Italy we see a charm in things which in other countries we should consign to the populous limbo of the vulgarities? If, in the city of New York, a great museum of the arts were to be provided, by way of decoration, with a species of veranda inclosed on one side by a series of small-paned casements, draped in dirty linen, and furnished on the other with an array of pictorial feebleness, the place being surmounted by a thinly-painted wooden roof, strongly suggestive of summer heat, of winter cold, of frequent leakage, those amateurs who had had the advantage of foreign travel would be at small pains to conceal their contempt. Contemptible or respectable, to the judicial mind, this quaint old loggia of the Uffizi admitted me into twenty chambers where I found as great a number of ancient favourites. I do not know that I had a warmer greeting for any old friend than for Andrea del Sarto, that most beautiful of painters who is not one of the first. But it was on the other side of the Arno that I found him in force, in those great dusky drawing-rooms of the Pitti Palace, to which you take your way along the aerial tunnel that wanders through the houses of Florence and is supported by the little goldsmith's booths on the Ponte Vecchio. In the rich, insufficient light of these beautiful rooms, where, to look at the pictures, you sit in damask chairs and rest your elbows on tables of malachite, Andrea del Sarto becomes peculiarly effective. Before long you find yourself loving him as a brother. But the great pleasure, after all, was to revisit the earlier geniuses, in those specimens of them especially that bloom so tenderly upon the big, plain walls of the Academy. Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi are the sweetest and best of all painters; as I sat for an hour in their company, in the cold , great hall of the institution I have mentioned,—-there are shabby rafters above and an immense expanse of brick tiles below, and many bad pictures as well as good ones,—-it seemed to me more than ever that, if one really had to choose, one could not do better than choose here. You may sit very quietly and comfortably at the Academy, in this big first room,—-at the upper end, especially, on the left,—-because, more than many other places, it savours of old Florence. More for instance, in reality, than the Bargello, though the Bargello makes great pretensions. Beautiful and picturesque as the Bargello is, it smells too strongly of “restoration,” and, much of old Italy as still lurks in it's furbished and renovated chambers, it speaks even more distinctly of the ill-mannered young kingdom that has (as unavoidably as you please) lifted down a hundred delicate works of sculpture from the convent walls where their pious authors placed them. If the early Tuscan painters are exquisite, I can think of no praise positive enough for the sculptors of the same period, Donatello and Luca della Robbia, Matteo Civitale and Mino da Fiesole, who, as I refreshed my memory of them, seemed to me to leave absolutely nothing to be desired in the way of purity of inspiration and grace of invention. The Bargello is full of early Tuscan sculpture, most of the pieces of which have come from suppressed convents; and even if the visitor is an ardent liberal, he is uncomfortably conscious of the rather brutal process by which it has been collected. One can hardly envy young Italy the number of disagreeable things she has had to do.

The railway journey from Florence to Rome has been altered both for the better and for the worse: for the better, in that it has been shortened for a couple of hours; for the worse, inasmuch as, when about half the distance has been traversed, the train deflects to the westward and leaves the beautiful old cities of Assisi and Perugia, Terni and Narni, unvisited. Of old, it was possible to visit these places, in a manner, from the window of the train; even if you did not stop, as you probably could not, every time you passed, the picturesque fashion in which, like a loosened belt on an aged and shrunken person, their old red walls held them easily together was something well worth noting. Now, however, by way of compensation, the express train to Rome stops at Orvieto, and in consequence . . . In consequence what? What is the consequence of an express train stopping at Orvieto? As I glibly wrote the above sentence I suddenly paused, with a sense of the queer stuff I was uttering. That an express train would graze the base of the horrid purple mountain from the apex of which this dark old Catholic city uplifts the glittering front of it's cathedral—-that might have been foretold by a keen observer of our manners. But that it would really have the grossness to stop there, this is a fact over which, as he records it, a sentimental chronicler may well make what is vulgarly called an ado. The train does stop at Orvieto, not very long, it is true, but long enough to let you get out. The same phenomenon takes place on the following day, when, having visited the city, you get in again. I availed myself of both of these occasions, having formerly neglected the more harmonious opportunities of the posting method. And really, the railway station being in the plain, and the town on the summit of an extraordinary hill, you have time to forget all about the triumphs of steam while you wind upwards to the city gate. The position of Orvieto is superb; it is worthy of the “middle-distance” of a last century landscape. But, as every one knows, the beautiful cathedral is the proper attraction of the place, which, indeed, save for this fine monument, and for it's craggy and crumbling ramparts, is a meanly arranged and, as Italian cities go, not particularly impressive little town. I spent a beautiful Sunday there, and I looked at the charming church. I looked at it a great deal,—-a great deal considering that on the whole I found it inferior to it's fame. Intensely brilliant, however, is the densely carved front; densely covered with the freshest looking mosaics. The old white marble of the sculptured portions is as softly yellow as ancient ivory; the large, exceedingly bright pictures above them flashed and twinkled in the splendid weather. Very beautiful and interesting are the theological frescoes of Luca Signorelli within; though I have seen pictures I can imagine myself growing fonder of. Very enchanting, finally, are the clear-faced saints and seraphs, in robes of pink and azure, whom Fra Angelico has painted upon the ceiling of the great chapel, along with a noble sitting figure—-more expressive of movement than most of the creations of this pictorial peace-maker—-of Christ in judgment. But the interest of the cathedral of Orvieto is mainly not the visible result, but the historical process that lies behind it; those three hundred years of devoted popular labour of which an American scholar has written an admirable account.