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    The Autumn in Florence

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    Chapter 17
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    Florence too has its "season," not less than Rome, and I have
    been rejoicing for the past six weeks in the fact that this
    comparatively crowded parenthesis hasn't yet been opened. Coming
    here in the first days of October I found the summer still in
    almost unmenaced possession, and ever since, till within a day or
    two, the weight of its hand has been sensible. Properly enough,
    as the city of flowers, Florence mingles the elements most
    artfully in the spring--during the divine crescendo of March and
    April, the weeks when six months of steady shiver have still not
    shaken New York and Boston free of the long Polar reach. But the
    very quality of the decline of the year as we at present here
    feel it suits peculiarly the mood in which an undiscourageable
    gatherer of the sense of things, or taster at least of "charm,"
    moves through these many-memoried streets and galleries and
    churches. Old things, old places, old people, or at least old
    races, ever strike us as giving out their secrets most freely in
    such moist, grey, melancholy days as have formed the complexion
    of the past fortnight. With Christmas arrives the opera, the only
    opera worth speaking of--which indeed often means in Florence the
    only opera worth talking through; the gaiety, the gossip, the
    reminders in fine of the cosmopolite and watering-place character
    to which the city of the Medici long ago began to bend her
    antique temper. Meanwhile it is pleasant enough for the tasters
    of charm, as I say, and for the makers of invidious distinctions,
    that the Americans haven't all arrived, however many may be on
    their way, and that the weather has a monotonous overcast
    softness in which, apparently, aimless contemplation grows less
    and less ashamed. There is no crush along the Cascine, as on the
    sunny days of winter, and the Arno, wandering away toward the
    mountains in the haze, seems as shy of being looked at as a good
    picture in a bad light. No light, to my eyes, nevertheless, could
    be better than this, which reaches us, all strained and filtered
    and refined, exquisitely coloured and even a bit conspicuously
    sophisticated, through the heavy air of the past that hangs about
    the place for ever.

    I first knew Florence early enough, I am happy to say, to have
    heard the change for the worse, the taint of the modern order,
    bitterly lamented by old haunters, admirers, lovers--those
    qualified to present a picture of the conditions prevailing under
    the good old Grand-Dukes, the two last of their line in especial,
    that, for its blest reflection of sweetness and mildness and
    cheapness and ease, of every immediate boon in life to be
    enjoyed quite for nothing, could but draw tears from belated
    listeners. Some of these survivors from the golden age--just the
    beauty of which indeed was in the gold, of sorts, that it poured
    into your lap, and not in the least in its own importunity on
    that head--have needfully lingered on, have seen the ancient
    walls pulled down and the compact and belted mass of which the
    Piazza della Signoria was the immemorial centre expand, under the
    treatment of enterprising syndics, into an ungirdled organism of
    the type, as they viciously say, of Chicago; one of those places
    of which, as their grace of a circumference is nowhere, the
    dignity of a centre can no longer be predicated. Florence loses
    itself to-day in dusty boulevards and smart beaux
    quartiers
    , such as Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann were to
    set the fashion of to a too mediæval Europe--with the effect of
    some precious page of antique text swallowed up in a marginal
    commentary that smacks of the style of the newspaper. So much for
    what has happened on this side of that line of demarcation which,
    by an odd law, makes us, with our preference for what we are
    pleased to call the picturesque, object to such occurrences even
    as occurrences. The real truth is that objections are too
    vain, and that he would be too rude a critic here, just now, who
    shouldn't be in the humour to take the thick with the thin and to
    try at least to read something of the old soul into the new
    forms.

    There is something to be said moreover for your liking a city
    (once it's a question of your actively circulating) to pretend to
    comfort you more by its extent than by its limits; in addition to
    which Florence was anciently, was in her palmy days peculiarly,
    a daughter of change and movement and variety, of shifting
    moods, policies and régimes--just as the Florentine character,
    as we have it to-day, is a character that takes all things easily
    for having seen so many come and go. It saw the national capital,
    a few years since, arrive and sit down by the Arno, and took no
    further thought than sufficed for the day; then it saw, the odd
    visitor depart and whistled her cheerfully on her way to Rome.
    The new boulevards of the Sindaco Peruzzi come, it may be said,
    but they don't go; which, after all, it isn't from the æsthetic
    point of view strictly necessary they should. A part of the
    essential amiability of Florence, of her genius for making you
    take to your favour on easy terms everything that in any way
    belongs to her, is that she has already flung an element of her
    grace over all their undried mortar and plaster. Such modern
    arrangements as the Piazza d' Azeglio and the viale or
    Avenue of the Princess Margaret please not a little, I think--for
    what they are!--and do so even in a degree, by some fine local
    privilege just because they are Florentine. The afternoon lights
    rest on them as if to thank them for not being worse, and their
    vistas. are liberal where they look toward the hills. They carry
    you close to these admirable elevations, which hang over
    Florence on all sides, and if in the foreground your sense is a
    trifle perplexed by the white pavements dotted here and there
    with a policeman or a nursemaid, you have only to reach beyond
    and see Fiesole turn to violet, on its ample eminence, from the
    effect of the opposite sunset.

    Facing again then to Florence proper you have local colour enough
    and to spare--which you enjoy the more, doubtless, from standing
    off to get your light and your point of view. The elder streets
    abutting on all this newness bore away into the heart of the city
    in narrow, dusky perspectives that quite refine, in certain
    places, by an art of their own, on the romantic appeal. There are
    temporal and other accidents thanks to which, as you pause to
    look down them and to penetrate the deepening shadows that
    accompany their retreat, they resemble little corridors leading
    out from the past, mystical like the ladder in Jacob's dream; so
    that when you see a single figure advance and draw nearer you are
    half afraid to wait till it arrives--it must be too much of the
    nature of a ghost, a messenger from an underworld. However this
    may be, a place paved with such great mosaics of slabs and lined
    with palaces of so massive a tradition, structures which, in
    their large dependence on pure proportion for interest and
    beauty, reproduce more than other modern styles the simple
    nobleness of Greek architecture, must ever have placed dignity
    first in the scale of invoked effect and laid up no great
    treasure of that ragged picturesqueness--the picturesqueness of
    large poverty--on which we feast our idle eyes at Rome and
    Naples. Except in the unfinished fronts of the churches, which,
    however, unfortunately, are mere ugly blankness, one finds less
    of the poetry of ancient over-use, or in other words less
    romantic southern shabbiness, than in most Italian cities. At two
    or three points, none the less, this sinister grace exists in
    perfection--just such perfection as so often proves that what is
    literally hideous may be constructively delightful and what is
    intrinsically tragic play on the finest chords of appreciation.
    On the north side of the Arno, between Ponte Vecchio and Ponte
    Santa Trinita, is a row of immemorial houses that back on the
    river, in whose yellow flood they bathe their sore old feet.
    Anything more battered and befouled, more cracked and disjointed,
    dirtier, drearier, poorer, it would be impossible to conceive.
    They look as if fifty years ago the liquid mud had risen over
    their chimneys and then subsided again and left them coated for
    ever with its unsightly slime. And yet forsooth, because the
    river is yellow, and the light is yellow, and here and there,
    elsewhere, some mellow mouldering surface, some hint of colour,
    some accident of atmosphere, takes up the foolish tale and
    repeats the note--because, in short, it is Florence, it is Italy,
    and the fond appraiser, the infatuated alien, may have had in his
    eyes, at birth and afterwards, the micaceous sparkle of brown-
    stone fronts no more interesting than so much sand-paper, these
    miserable dwellings, instead of suggesting mental invocations to
    an enterprising board of health, simply create their own standard
    of felicity and shamelessly live in it. Lately, during the misty
    autumn nights, the moon has shone on them faintly and refined
    their shabbiness away into something ineffably strange and
    spectral. The turbid stream sweeps along without a sound, and the
    pale tenements hang above it like a vague miasmatic exhalation.
    The dimmest back-scene at the opera, when the tenor is singing
    his sweetest, seems hardly to belong to a world more detached
    from responsibility.

    [Illustration: ON THE ARNO, FLORENCE.]

    What it is that infuses so rich an interest into the general
    charm is difficult to say in a few words; yet as we wander hither
    and thither in quest of sacred canvas and immortal bronze and
    stone we still feel the genius of the place hang about. Two
    industrious English ladies, the Misses Horner, have lately
    published a couple of volumes of "Walks" by the Arno-side, and
    their work is a long enumeration of great artistic deeds. These
    things remain for the most part in sound preservation, and, as
    the weeks go by and you spend a constant portion of your days
    among them the sense of one of the happiest periods of human
    Taste--to put it only at that--settles upon your spirit. It was
    not long; it lasted, in its splendour, for less than a century;
    but it has stored away in the palaces and churches of Florence a
    heritage of beauty that these three enjoying centuries since
    haven't yet exhausted. This forms a clear intellectual atmosphere
    into which you may turn aside from the modern world and fill your
    lungs as with the breath of a forgotten creed. The memorials of
    the past here address us moreover with a friendliness, win us by
    we scarcely know what sociability, what equal amenity, that we
    scarce find matched in other great esthetically endowed
    communities and periods. Venice, with her old palaces cracking
    under the weight of their treasures, is, in her influence,
    insupportably sad; Athens, with her maimed marbles and
    dishonoured memories, transmutes the consciousness of sensitive
    observers, I am told, into a chronic heartache; but in one's
    impression of old Florence the abiding felicity, the sense of
    saving sanity, of something sound and human, predominates,
    offering you a medium still conceivable for life. The reason of
    this is partly, no doubt, the "sympathetic" nature, the temperate
    joy, of Florentine art in general--putting the sole Dante,
    greatest of literary artists, aside; partly the tenderness of
    time, in its lapse, which, save in a few cases, has been as
    sparing of injury as if it knew that when it should have dimmed
    and corroded these charming things it would have nothing so sweet
    again for its tooth to feed on. If the beautiful Ghirlandaios and
    Lippis are fading, this generation will never know it. The large
    Fra Angelico in the Academy is as clear and keen as if the good
    old monk stood there wiping his brushes; the colours seem to
    sing, as it were, like new-fledged birds in June. Nothing
    is more characteristic of early Tuscan art than the high-reliefs
    of Luca della Robbia; yet there isn't one of them that, except
    for the unique mixture of freshness with its wisdom, of candour
    with its expertness, mightn't have been modelled yesterday.

    But perhaps the best image of the absence of stale melancholy or
    wasted splendour, of the positive presence of what I have called
    temperate joy, in the Florentine impression and genius, is the
    bell-tower of Giotto, which rises beside the cathedral. No
    beholder of it will have forgotten how straight and slender it
    stands there, how strangely rich in the common street, plated
    with coloured marble patterns, and yet so far from simple or
    severe in design that we easily wonder how its author, the
    painter of exclusively and portentously grave little pictures,
    should have fashioned a building which in the way of elaborate
    elegance, of the true play of taste, leaves a jealous modern
    criticism nothing to miss. Nothing can be imagined at once more
    lightly and more pointedly fanciful; it might have been handed
    over to the city, as it stands, by some Oriental genie tired of
    too much detail. Yet for all that suggestion it seems of no
    particular time--not grey and hoary like a Gothic steeple, not
    cracked and despoiled like a Greek temple; its marbles shining so
    little less freshly than when they were laid together, and the
    sunset lighting up its cornice with such a friendly radiance,
    that you come at last to regard it simply as the graceful,
    indestructible soul of the place made visible. The Cathedral,
    externally, for all its solemn hugeness, strikes the same note of
    would-be reasoned elegance and cheer; it has conventional
    grandeur, of course, but a grandeur so frank and ingenuous even
    in its parti-pris. It has seen so much, and outlived so
    much, and served so many sad purposes, and yet remains in aspect
    so full of the fine Tuscan geniality, the feeling for life, one
    may almost say the feeling for amusement, that inspired it. Its
    vast many-coloured marble walls become at any rate, with this,
    the friendliest note of all Florence; there is an unfailing charm
    in walking past them while they lift their great acres of
    geometrical mosaic higher in the air than you have time or other
    occasion to look. You greet them from the deep street as you
    greet the side of a mountain when you move in the gorge--not
    twisting back your head to keep looking at the top, but content
    with the minor accidents, the nestling hollows and soft cloud-
    shadows, the general protection of the valley.

    Florence is richer in pictures than we really know till we have
    begun to look for them in outlying corners. Then, here and there,
    one comes upon lurking values and hidden gems that it quite seems
    one might as a good New Yorker quietly "bag" for the so aspiring
    Museum of that city without their being missed. The Pitti Palace
    is of course a collection of masterpieces; they jostle each other
    in their splendour, they perhaps even, in their merciless
    multitude, rather fatigue our admiration. The Uffizi is almost as
    fine a show, and together with that long serpentine artery which
    crosses the Arno and connects them, making you ask yourself,
    whichever way you take it, what goal can be grand enough to crown
    such a journey, they form the great central treasure-chamber of
    the town. But I have been neglecting them of late for love of the
    Academy, where there are fewer copyists and tourists, above all
    fewer pictorial lions, those whose roar is heard from afar and
    who strike us as expecting overmuch to have it their own way in
    the jungle. The pictures at the Academy are all, rather, doves--
    the whole impression is less pompously tropical. Selection still
    leaves one too much to say, but I noted here, on my last
    occasion, an enchanting Botticelli so obscurely hung, in one of
    the smaller rooms, that I scarce knew whether most to enjoy or to
    resent its relegation. Placed, in a mean black frame, where you
    wouldn't have looked for a masterpiece, it yet gave out to a good
    glass every characteristic of one. Representing as it does the
    walk of Tobias with the angel, there are really parts of it that
    an angel might have painted; but I doubt whether it is observed
    by half-a-dozen persons a year. That was my excuse for my wanting
    to know, on the spot, though doubtless all sophistically, what
    dishonour, could the transfer be artfully accomplished, a strong
    American light and a brave gilded frame would, comparatively
    speaking, do it. There and then it would, shine with the intense
    authority that we claim for the fairest things--would exhale its
    wondrous beauty as a sovereign example. What it comes to is that
    this master is the most interesting of a great band--the only
    Florentine save Leonardo and Michael in whom the impulse was
    original and the invention rare. His imagination is of things
    strange, subtle and complicated--things it at first strikes us
    that we moderns have reason to know, and that it has taken us all
    the ages to learn; so that we permit ourselves to wonder how a
    "primitive" could come by them. We soon enough reflect, however,
    that we ourselves have come by them almost only through
    him, exquisite spirit that he was, and that when we enjoy, or at
    least when we encounter, in our William Morrises, in our
    Rossettis and Burne-Joneses, the note of the haunted or over-
    charged consciousness, we are but treated, with other matters, to
    repeated doses of diluted Botticelli. He practically set with his
    own hand almost all the copies to almost all our so-called pre-
    Raphaelites, earlier and later, near and remote.

    Let us at the same time, none the less, never fail of response to
    the great Florentine geniality at large. Fra Angelico, Filippo
    Lippi, Ghirlandaio, were not "subtly" imaginative, were not even
    riotously so; but what other three were ever more gladly
    observant, more vividly and richly true? If there should some
    time be a weeding out of the world's possessions the best works
    of the early Florentines will certainly be counted among the
    flowers. With the ripest performances of the Venetians--by which
    I don't mean the over-ripe--we can but take them for the most
    valuable things in the history of art. Heaven forbid we should be
    narrowed down to a cruel choice; but if it came to a question of
    keeping or losing between half-a-dozen Raphaels and half-a-dozen
    things it would be a joy to pick out at the Academy, I fear that,
    for myself, the memory of the Transfiguration, or indeed of the
    other Roman relics of the painter, wouldn't save the Raphaels.
    And yet this was so far from the opinion of a patient artist whom
    I saw the other day copying the finest of Ghirlandaios--a
    beautiful Adoration of the Kings at the Hospital of the
    Innocenti. Here was another sample of the buried art-wealth of
    Florence. It hangs in an obscure chapel, far aloft, behind an
    altar, and though now and then a stray tourist wanders in and
    puzzles a while over the vaguely-glowing forms, the picture is
    never really seen and enjoyed. I found an aged Frenchman of
    modest mien perched on a little platform beneath it, behind a
    great hedge of altar-candlesticks, with an admirable copy all
    completed. The difficulties of his task had been well-nigh
    insuperable, and his performance seemed to me a real feat of
    magic. He could scarcely move or turn, and could find room for
    his canvas but by rolling it together and painting a small piece
    at a time, so that he never enjoyed a view of his
    ensemble. The original is gorgeous with colour and
    bewildering with decorative detail, but not a gleam of the
    painter's crimson was wanting, not a curl in his gold arabesques.
    It seemed to me that if I had copied a Ghirlandaio in such
    conditions I would at least maintain for my own credit that he
    was the first painter in the world. "Very good of its kind," said
    the weary old man with a shrug of reply for my raptures; "but oh,
    how far short of Raphael!" However that may be, if the reader
    chances to observe this consummate copy in the so commendable
    Museum devoted in Paris to such works, let him stop before it
    with a due reverence; it is one of the patient things of art.
    Seeing it wrought there, in its dusky nook, under such scant
    convenience, I found no bar in the painter's foreignness to a
    thrilled sense that the old art-life of Florence isn't yet
    extinct. It still at least works spells and almost miracles.

    1873.
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