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Reminiscences of Florence by Marie Howland

1873

I had six months more to stay on the Continent, and I began for the first time to be discontented in Paris. There was no soul in that great city whom I had ever seen before, but this alone would hot have been sufficient to make me long for a change, except for an accident which unluckily surrounded me with my own countrymen. These I did not go abroad to see; and having lived almost entirely in the society of the French for over two years, it was with dismay that I saw my sanctum invaded daily by twos and threes of the aimless American nonentities who presume that their presence must be agreeable to any of their countrymen, and especially to any countrywoman, after a chance introduction on the boulevard or an hour spent together in a café.

"Seeing these things," I determined to leave Paris, and the third day after found me traveling through picturesque Savoy toward Mont Cenis. All the afternoon the rugged hills had been growing higher and whiter with snow, and now, just before sunset, we reached the railway terminus, St. Michel, and were under the shadow of the Alps themselves.

The previous night in the cars I had found myself the only woman among some half dozen French military officers, who paid me the most polite attention. They were charmed that I made no objection to their cigarettes, talked with me on various topics, criticised McClellan as a general, and were enthusiastic on the subject of our country generally. About midnight they prepared a grand repast from their traveling-bags, to which they gave me a cordial invitation. I begged to contribute my mesquin supply of grapes and brioches, and the supper was a considerable event. Their canteens were filled with red wines, and one cup served the whole company. They drank my health and that of the President of the United States. Afterward we had vocal music, two of the officers being good singers. They sang Beranger's songs and the charming serenade from Lalla Rookh. I finally expressed a desire to hear the Marseillaise. This seemed to take them by surprise, but one of the singers, declaring that he had "rien à refuser à madame" boldly struck up,

Allons, enfants de la patrie,

Le jour de gloire est arrivé;

but his companions checked him before he had finished the first stanza. The law forbade, they said, the production of the Marseillaise in society. We were a society: the guard would hear us and might report it.

"Vous voyez, madame," said the singer, "n'il n'est pas défendu d'être voleur, mais c'est défendu d'être attrapé" (It is not against the law to be a thief, but to be caught.)

My traveling—companions reached their destination early in the morning, and, very gallantly expressing regrets that they were not going over the Alps, so as to bear mer company, bade me farewell.

From the rear of the St. Michel hotel, called the Lion d'Or, I watched the preparations for crossing Mont Cenis. Three diligences were being crazily loaded with our baggage. The men who loaded them seemed imitating the Alpine structure. They piled trunk on trunk to the height of thirty feet, I verily believe; and if some one should nudge my elbow and say "fifty," I should write it down so without manifesting the least surprise.

When the preparations were finished the setting sun was shining clearly on the white summits above, and we commenced slowly winding up the noble zigzag road. Rude mountain children kept up with our diligences, asked for sous and wished us bon voyage in the name of the Virgin.

The grandeur, but especially the extent and number, of the Alpine peaks impressed me with a vague, undefinable sense, which was not, I think, the anticipated sensation; and indeed if I had been in a poetic mood, it would have been quickly dissipated by the mock raptures of a young Englishman with a poodly moustache and an eye-glass. He called our attention to every chasm, gorge and waterfall, as if we had been wholly incapable of seeing or appreciating anything without his aid. As for me, I did not feel like disputing his susceptibility. I was suffering an uneasy apprehension of an avalanche—not of snow, but of trunks and boxes from the topheavy diligences ahead of us. However, we reached the top of Mont Cenis safely by means of thirteen mules to each coach, attached tandem, and we stopped at the queer relay-house there some thirty minutes. Here some women in the garb of nuns served me some soup with grated cheese, a compound which suggested a dishcloth in flavor, yet it was very good. I will not attempt to reconcile the two statements. After the soup I went out to see the Alps. The ecstatic Briton was still eating and drinking, and I could enjoy the scene unmolested. I crossed a little bridge near the inn. The night was cold and bright. Hundreds of snowy peaks above, below and in every direction, some of their hoary heads lost in the clouds, were glistening in the light of a clear September moon, and the stillness was only broken by a wild stream tumbling down the precipices which I looked up to as I crossed the bridge. It was indeed an impressive scene—cold, desolate, awful. I walked so near the freezing cataract that the icicles touched my face, and thinking that Dante, when he wrote his description of hell, might have been inspired by this very scene, I wrapped my cloak closer about me and went back to the inn.

The diligences were ready, and we commenced a descent which I cannot even now think of without a shudder. To each of those heavily-laden stages were attached two horses only, and we bounded down the mountain-side like a huge loosened boulder. Imagine the sensation as you looked out of the windows and saw yourself whirling over yawning chasms and along the brinks of dizzy precipices, fully convinced that the driver was drunk and the horses goaded to madness by Alpine demons! I have been on the ocean in a storm sufficiently severe to make Jew and Christian pray amicably together; I have been set on fire by a fluid lamp, and have been dragged under the water by a drowning friend, but I think I never had such an alarming sense of coming destruction as in that diligence. I think of those sure-footed horses even now with gratitude.

We arrived at Susa a long time before daylight. At first, I decided to stay and see this town, which was founded by a Roman colony in the time of Augustus. The arch built in his honor about eight years before Christ seemed a thing worth going to see; but a remark from my companion with the eye-glass made me determine to go on. He said he was going to "do" the arch, and I knew I should not be equal to witnessing any more of his ecstasies.

My first astonishment in Italy was that hardly any of the railroad officials spoke French. I had always been told that with that language at your command you could travel all over the Continent. This is a grave error: even in Florence, although "Ici on parle français" is conspicuous in many shop-windows, I found I had to speak Italian or go unserved. I had a mortal dread of murdering the beautiful Italian language; so I wanted to speak it well before I commenced, like the Irishman who never could get his boots on until he had worn them a week.

I stopped at Turin, then the capital of Italy, only a short time, and hurried on to Florence, for that was to be my home for the winter. It was delightful to come down from the Alpine snows and find myself face to face with roses and orange trees bearing fruit and blossom. Here I wandered through the olive-gardens alone, and gave way to the rapturous sense of simply being in the land of art and romance, the land of love and song; for there was no ecstatic person with me armed with Murray and prepared to admire anything recommended therein. Besides, I could enjoy Italy for days and months, and therefore was not obliged to "do" (detestable tourist slang!) anything in a given time. I was free as a bird. I knew no Americans in Florence, and determined to studiously avoid making acquaintances except among Italians, for I wished to learn the language as I had learned French, by constantly speaking it and no other.

The day following my arrival in Florence I went out to look for lodgings, which I had the good fortune to find immediately. I secured the first I looked at. They were in the Borgo SS. Apostoli, in close proximity to the Piazza del Granduca, now Delia Signoria. I was passing this square, thinking of my good luck in finding my niche for the winter, when, much to my surprise, some one accosted me in English. Think of my dismay at seeing one of the irrepressible Paris bores I had fled from! He was in Florence before me, having come by a different route; and neither of us had known anything about the other's intention to quit Paris. He asked me at once where I was stopping, and I told him at the Hotel a la Fontana, not deeming it necessary to add that I was then on my way there to pack up my traveling-bag and pay my bill. As he was "doing" Florence in about three days, he never found me out. The next I heard of him he was "doing" Rome. This American prided himself on his knowledge of Italian; and one day in a restaurant, wishing for cauliflower (cavolo fiore), he astonished the waiter by calling for horse. "Cavallo"! he roared—"Portéz me cavallo!" "Cavallo!" repeated the waiter, with the characteristic Italian shrug. "Non simangia in Italia, signore" (It is not eaten in Italy, signore). Then followed more execrable Italian, and the waiter brought him something which elicited "Non volo! non volo!" (I don't fly! I don't fly!) from the American, and "Lo credo, signore" from the baffled waiter, much to the amusement of people at the adjacent tables.

I liked my new quarters very much. They consisted of two goodly-sized rooms, carpeted with thick braided rag carpets, and decently furnished, olive oil provided for the quaint old classic-shaped lamp, and the rooms kept in order, for the astounding price of thirty francs a month. Wood I had to pay extra for when I needed a fire, and that indeed was expensive; for a bundle only sufficient to make a fire cost a franc. There were few days, however, even in that exceptional winter, which rendered a fire necessary. The scaldino for the feet was generally sufficient, and this, replenished three times a day, was included in the rent.

One of my windows looked out on olive-gardens and on the old church San Miniato, on the hill of the same name. Mr. Hart, the sculptor, told me that those rooms were very familiar to him. Buchanan Read, I think he said, had occupied them, and the walls in many places bore traces of artist vagaries. There were several nice caricatures penciled among the cheap frescoes of the walls. All the walls are frescoed in Florence. Think of having your ceiling and walls painted in a manner that constantly suggests Michael Angelo!

After some weeks spent in looking at the art-wonders in Florence, I visited many of the studios of our artists. That of Mr. Hart, on the Piazza Independenza, was one of the most interesting. He had two very admirable busts of Henry Clay, and all his visitors, encouraged by his frank manner, criticised his works freely. Most people boldly pass judgment on any work of art, and "understand" Mrs. Browning when she says the Venus de' Medici "thunders white silence." I do not. I am sure I never can understand what a thundering silence means, whatever may be its color. These appreciators talked of the "word-painting" of Mrs. Browning.

They sit on their thrones in a purple sublimity,

And grind down men's bones to a pale unanimity.

I suppose this is "word-painting." I can see the picture also—some kings, and possibly queens, seated on gorgeous thrones, engaged in the festive occupation of grinding bones! Oh, I degrade the subject, do I? Nonsense! The term is a stilted affectation, perhaps never better applied than to Mrs. Browning's descriptive spasms. Still, she was undoubtedly a poet. She wrote many beautiful subjective poems, but she wrote much that was not poetry, and which suggests only a deranged nervous system. I have a friend who maintains from her writings that she never loved, that she did not know what passion meant. However this may be, the author of the sonnet commencing—

Go from me! Yet I feel that I shall stand

Henceforward in thy shadow,

deserves immortality.

But to return to Mr. Hart's studio. One of the most remarkable things I saw in Florence was this artist's invention to reduce certain details of sculpture to a mechanical process. This machine at first sight struck me as a queer kind of ancient armor. In brief, the subject is placed in position, when the front part of this armor, set on some kind, of hinge, swings round before him, and the sculptor makes measurements by means of numberless long metal needles, which are so arranged as to run in and touch the subject: A stationary mark is placed where the needle touches, and then I think it is pulled back. So the artist goes on, until some hundreds of measurements are made, if necessary, when the process is finished and the subject is released. How these measurements are made to serve the artist in modeling the statue I cannot very well describe, but I understood that by their aid Mr. Hart had modeled a bust from life in the incredible space of two days! I further understood that Mr. Hart's portrait-busts are remarkable for their correct likeness, which of course they must be if they are mathematically correct in their proportions. Many of the artists in Florence have the bad taste to make sport of this machine; but if Mr. Hart's portrait-busts are what they have the reputation of being, this sport is only a mask for jealousy. Mr. Hart is extremely sensitive to the light manner Mr. Powers and others have of speaking of this invention. One day he was much annoyed when a visitor, after examining the machine very attentively for some time, exclaimed, "Mr. Hart, what if you should have a man shut in there among those points, and he should happen to sneeze?"

The Pitti Palace was one of my favorite haunts, and I often spent whole hours there in a single salon. There I almost always saw Mr. G——, a German-American, copying from the masters; and he could copy too! What an indefatigable worker he was! Slight and delicate of frame, he seemed absolutely incapable of growing weary. He often toiled there all day long, his hands red and swollen with the cold, for the winter, as I have before remarked, was unusually severe. For many days I saw him working on a Descent from the Cross by Tintoretto—a bold attempt, for Tintoretto's colors are as baffling as those of the great Venetian master himself. This copy had received very general praise, and one day I took a Lucca friend, a dilettante, to see it. Mr. G—— brought the canvas out in the hall, that we might see it outside of the ocean of color which surrounded it in the gallery. When we reached the hall, Mr. G—— turned the picture full to the light. The effect was astounding. It was so brilliant that you could hardly look at it. It seemed a mass of molten gold reflecting the sun. "Good God!" exclaimed G——, "did I do that?" and an expression of bitter disappointment passed over his face. I ventured to suggest that as everybody had found it good while it was in the gallery, this brilliant effect must be from the cold gray marble of the hall. G—— could not pardon the picture, and nothing that the Italian or I could say had the least effect. He would hear no excuse for it, and, evidently quite mortified at the début of his Tintoretto, he hurried the canvas back to the easel. The sister of the czar of Russia was greatly pleased with this copy, and proposed to buy it, but whether she did or not I forgot to ascertain.

Alone as I was in Florence, cultivating only the acquaintance of Italians, yet was I never troubled with ennui. I read much at Vieussieux's, and when I grew tired of that and of music, I made long sables on the Lung Arno to the Cascine, through the charming Boboli gardens, or out to Fiesole. Fiesole is some two miles from Florence, and once on my way there I stopped at the Protestant burying-ground and pilfered a little wildflower from Theodore Parker's grave to send home to one of his romantic admirers. Fiesole must be a very ancient town, for there is a ruined amphitheatre there, and the remains of walls so old that they are called Pelasgic in their origin; which is, I take it, sufficiently vague. The high hill is composed of the most solid marble; so the guidebooks say, at least. This is five hundred and seventy-five feet above the sea, and on its summit stands the cathedral, very old indeed, and built in the form of a basilica, like that of San Miniato. From this hill you look down upon the plain beneath, with the Arno winding through it, and upon Florence and the Apennine chain, above which rise the high mountains of Carrara. Here, on the highest available point of the rock, I used to sit reading, and looking upon the panorama beneath, until the sinking sun warned me that I had only time to reach the city before its setting. I used to love to look also at works of art in this way, for by so doing I fixed them in my mind for future reference. I never passed the Piazza della Signoria without standing some minutes before the Loggia dei Lanzi and the old ducal palace with its marvelous tower. Before this palace, exposed to the weather for three hundred and fifty years, stands Michael Angelo's David; to the left, the fountain on the spot where Savonarola was burnt alive by the order of Alexander VI.; and immediately facing this is the post-office. I never could pass the post-office without thinking of the poet Shelley, who was there brutally felled to the earth by an Englishman, who accused him of being an infidel, struck his blow and escaped.

I made many visits to the Nuova Sacrista to see the tombs of the two Medici by Michael Angelo. The one at the right on entering is that of Giuliano, duke of Nemours, brother of Leo X. The two allegorical figures reclining beneath are Morning and Night. The tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici, duke of Urfrino, stands on the other side of the chapel, facing that of the duke de Nemours. The statue of Lorenzo, for grace of attitude and beauty of expression, has, in my opinion, never been equaled. The allegorical figures at the feet of this Medici are more beautiful and more easily understood than most of Michael Angelo's allegorical figures. Nevertheless, I used sometimes, when looking at these four figures, to think that they had been created merely as architectural auxiliaries, and that their expression was an accident or a freak of the artist's fancy, rather than the expression of some particular thought: at other times I saw as much in them as most enthusiasts do—enough, I have no doubt, to astonish their great author himself. I believe that very few people really experience rapturous sensations when they look at works of art. People are generally much more moved by the sight of the two canes preserved in Casa Buonarotti, upon which the great master in his latter days supported his tottering frame, than they are by the noblest achievements of his genius.

The Carnival in Florence was a meagre affair compared with the same fête in Rome. During the afternoon, however, there was goodly procession of masks in carriages on the Lung' Arno, and in the evening there was a feeble moccoletti display. The grand masked ball at the Casino about this time presents an irresistible attraction to the floating population in Florence. I was foolish enough to go. All were obliged to be dressed in character or in full ball-costume: no dominoes allowed. The Casino, I was told, is the largest club-house in the world; and salon after salon of that immense building was so crowded that locomotion was nearly impossible. The floral decorations were magnificent, the music was excellent, and some of the ten thousand people present tried to dance, but the sets formed were soon squeezed into a ball. Then they gave up in despair, while the men swore under their breath, and the women repaired to the dressing-rooms to sew on flounces or other skirt-trimmings. Masks wriggled about, and spoke to each other in the ridiculously squeaky voice generally adopted on such occasions. Most of their conversation was English, and of this very exciting order: "You don't know me?" "Yes I do." "No you don't." "I know what you did yesterday," etc., etc., ad nauseam. How fine masked balls are in sensational novels! how absolutely flat and unsatisfactory in fact! There was on this occasion a vast display of dress and jewelry, and among the babel of languages spoken the most prominent was the beautiful London dialect sometimes irreverently called Cockney. I lost my cavalier at one time, and while I waited for him to find me I retired to a corner and challenged a mask to a game of chess. He proved to be a Russian who spoke neither French nor Italian. We got along famously, however. He said something very polite in Russian, I responded irrelevantly in French, and then we looked at each other and grinned. He subsequently, thinking he had made an impression, ventured to press my hand; I drew it away and told him he was an idiot, at which he was greatly flattered; and then we grinned at each other again. It was very exciting indeed. I won the game easily, because he knew nothing of chess, and then he said something in his mother-tongue, placing his hand upon his heart. I could have sworn that it meant, "Of course I would not be so rude as to win when playing with a lady." I thought so, principally because he was a man, for I never knew a man under such circumstances who did not immediately betray his self-conceit by making that gallant declaration. Feeling sure that the Russian had done so, when we placed the pieces on the board again I offered him my queen. He seemed astounded and hurt; and then for the first time I thought that if this Russian were an exception to his sex, and I had not understood his remark, then it was a rudeness to offer him my queen. I was fortunately relieved from my perplexing situation by the approach of my cavalier, and as he led me away I gave my other hand to my antagonist in the most impressive manner, by way of atonement in case there had been anything wrong in my conduct toward him.

One day during the latter part of my stay in Florence I went the second time to the splendid studio of Mr. Powers. He talked very eloquently upon art. He said that some of the classic statues had become famous, and deservedly so, although they were sometimes false in proportion and disposed in attitudes quite impossible in nature. He illustrated this by a fine plaster cast of the Venus of Milo, before which we were standing. He showed that the spinal cord in the neck could never, from the position of the head, have joined that of the body, that there was a radical fault in the termination of the spinal column, and that the navel was located falsely with respect to height. As he proceeded he convinced me that he was correct; and in defence of this, my most cherished idol after the Apollo Belvedere, I only asked the iconoclast whether these defects might not have been intentional, in order to make the statue appear more natural when looked at in its elevated position from below. I subsequently repeated Mr. Powers's criticism of the Venus of Milo in the studio of another of our distinguished sculptors, and he treated it with great levity, especially when I told him my authority. There is a spirit of rivalry among sculptors which does not always manifest itself in that courteous and well-bred manner which distinguishes the medical faculty, for instance, in their dealings with each other. This courtesy is well illustrated by an anecdote I have recently heard. A gentleman fell down in a fit, and a physician entering saw a man kneeling over the patient and grasping him firmly by the throat; whereupon the physician exclaimed, "Why, sir, you are stopping the circulation in the jugular vein!" "Sir," replied the other, "I am a doctor of medicine." To which the first M.D. remarked, "Ah! I beg your pardon," and stood by very composedly until the patient was comfortably dead.

While Mr. Powers was conversing with me about the Venus of Milo, there entered two Englishwomen dressed very richly in brocades and velvets. They seemed very anxious to see everything in the studio, talked in loud tones of the various objects of art, passed us, and occupied themselves for some time before the statue called California. I heard one of them say, "I wonder if there's anybody 'ere that talks Hinglish?" and in the same breath she called out to Mr. Powers, "Come 'ere!" He was at work that day, and wore his studio costume. I was somewhat surprised to see him immediately obey the rude command, and the following conversation occurred:

"Do you speak Hinglish?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"What is this statue?"

"It is called California, madam."

"What has she got in 'er 'and?"

"Thorns, madam, in the hand held behind the back; in the other she presents the quartz containing the tempting metal."

"Oh!"

We next entered a room where there was another work of the sculptor in process of formation. Mr. Powers and myself were engaged in an animated and, to me, very agreeable conversation, which was constantly interrupted by these ill-bred women, who kept all the time mistaking the plaster for the marble, and asked the artist the most pestering questions on the modus operandi of sculpturing. I was astonished at the marvelous temper of Mr. Powers, who politely and patiently answered all their queries. By some lucky chance these women got out of the way during our slow progress back to the outer rooms, and I enjoyed Mr. Powers's conversation uninterruptedly. He showed me the beautiful baby hand in marble, a copy of his daughter's hand when an infant, and had just returned it to its shrine when the two women reappeared, and we all proceeded together. In the outer room there were several admirable busts, upon which these women passed comment freely. One of these busts was that of a lady, and they attacked it spitefully. "What an ugly face!" "What a mean expression about the mouth!" "Isn't it 'orrible?"

"Who is it?" asked one of them, addressing Mr. Powers.

"That is a portrait of my wife," said the artist modestly.

"Your wife!" repeated one of the women, and then, nothing abashed, added, "Who are you?"

"My name is Powers, madam," he answered very politely. This discovery evidently disconcerted the impudence even of these visitors, and they immediately left the studio.

As the day approached for my departure I visited all my old haunts, and dwelt fondly upon scenes which I might never see again. My dear old music-master cried when I bade him farewell. Povero maestro! He used to think me so good that I was always ashamed of not being a veritable angel. I left Florence when

All the land in flowery squares,

Beneath a broad and equal-blowing wind,

Smelt of the coming summer.

My last visit was with the maestro to the Cascine, where he gathered me a bunch of wild violets—cherished souvenir of a city I love, and of a friend whose like I "ne'er may look upon again."