WE learn of the greatest masters of the old unsophisticated period in Florence and the neighboring towns. In fact, these latter are the fossils of that time, especially Sienna and Pisa. Thanks to the pure, mild air of the climate and the hard stone of which these towns are built, they stand out as clean and perfect, and apparently as brand new, as if finished but yesterday, and yet are monuments of the past. Five centuries ago they were inhabited by their hundreds of thousands of permanent dwellers, and yet, todaysuch are the mutations of time and circumstanceonly a few thousand people are to be found in their empty streets. In their prime they were rivals of Florence, and Pisa was even a rival of Genoa and Venice in the struggle for the retention of the trade and control of the Mediterranean. But they were beaten, and died a sudden, violent death from the fact that the commercial arteries through which their wealth flowed to them were band-aged by their enemies until the stricture was complete. They are dead ; but they are clean, nice corpses, much cleaner than the live bodies of the modern Italian cities. They are preserved just as well, and as untouched, though never covered with lava, as Herculaneum and Pompeii, simply because they were outside of the course of trade, war and rivalry, and left to the gentle influences of the mild Italian climate, the blue sky and the bright sun, showing that nature takes better care of things in Italy than do its people.
All the memorable buildings of Pisa are of white or yellowish marble, and stand together on a little elevation with an intermediate space of fresh green lawn. At first we enter the cemetery, though the whole town, for that matter, seems to be a cemetery. The graves are in a square marble hallway. We walk over them and look out through columns into an open space in the centre, where old cypresses make their slow, grave movements now, as they did when the bodies of that hardy, seafaring race, which is now entirely extinct, were laid under the ground. The walls of this hall are covered with frescos. Many of them, though through all these centuries exposed to the air, are quite fresh, expressing, in somewhat hard and uncouth forms, the stern and rugged creeds of those who lie buried beneath.
One fresco represents the tombs on the judgment day, and the angels who are sending the resurrecting bodies to heaven or to hell, according to their deserts, have such terrible authority in their gestures that you would rather doubt your own existence than their power. These frescos are not beautiful, in any sense, being the struggling efforts of the earlier stages of art, but we feel before them the same horror which comes over us when we read the poems of Dante. The faith in the hearts of men of that period seems to have been more adamantine even than the buildings they erected.
In one of the pictures we see a cavalcade of kings, on horseback, stopped before the open graves of three men. Their faces and gestures show the deep impression made upon them in such a naïve, odd, and yet serious way that nobody would ever think of laughing at them. They are characterized by realism rather that, beauty, and make us think of the churchyard scenes in Shakspere.
Coming out of this place of the dead we are reminded of the present population of Pisa only by the importunate guides and beggars who cling to us like the memories of our sins, following us to the very door of the cathedral.
Here on each side of us are the Roman and Greek columns, won by the Pisans in their wars with the Turks, and looking up we see the old swinging lamp which is said to have given Galileo the idea of the pendulum. It ]hangs from the ceiling by a very large iron rope, and never ceases its almost imperceptible swaying, making us realize the power of the hid-den laws of nature of which the human mind caught glimpses, here and there, in the course of the marching centuries.
The Leaning Tower gives us the same uncanny sense of incertitude. On entering at the basement we discover the marble floor to be perceptibly slanting, producing a peculiar, insecure kind of feeling as we walk over it. Ascending, we find the floor of every story exactly the same in this respect, every one of the numerous pillars and other upright sup-ports being out of plumb, which materially adds to the uneasiness that we cannot control.
The whole structure seems to discredit all the laws of gravity, and. shows us how easily our mind is upset by the slightest change in the ordinary aspect of things. Of course it has a poise and centre of gravity which obey architectural and physical laws, but, at the first sight, it appears to outrage and defy them. As we climb, and, after each flight of stairs, walk around another of the outside galleries which, in deference to the beauty of the tower, have no railings, we experience a peculiar sensation. We don’t know if the storied pillar is leaning or we are leaning. At one moment we are afraid of tumbling over the gallery edge, the next of slipping down the slanting floor. Then again we think it not slanting at all, and conclude, at the end, that it is a puzzle, altogether.
We come down and out of this architectural paradox quite topsy-turvy, when, all at once, from the seemingly calm little streets and corners, pour forth cabs, which surround and follow us, more than ready to serve, and, at each turning of our head, or movement of a finger, the cabmen whip up their horses anew to take their chance in case we may have altered our mind and be desirous of a drive.
It is strange how obsequious, and, at the same time, how lazy these Italians are. They enjoy, the whole day long, the comfort of their rags, lying in the sun motionless like snakes ; but suddenly start up at the sight of a foreigner, with no higher ambition than, in some may, dignified or not, to get a few cents ont of him. They don’t want riches, but, on the contrary, are altogether careless and easy going, and show little of the “pith and moment” of their ancestors.
Florence itself is something between the old and the new, not quite a fossil and yet not quite alive. We revive here all strong impressions accruing from the past, and are imbued with some pleasant ones from the present. It was for years the residence of the new Italian king and court before their migration or transference, in 1870, to Rome. In those years of kingly presence the city underwent great changes. All along the river was built a fine promenade, and a splendid road over some of the surrounding hills. But, in spite of these, and many other admirable improvements, to a thorough-going American there is still more than enough that seems out of repair; and yet, when he has seen a good sunset, or a day suffused with real Florentine light, everything seems to him perfect. Sometimes for weeks, in fall or spring, the sky is cloudless, the air is bracing, and the sun by day and the moon by night fill the whole valley with a mild halo or glow which tranforms the tumbling old houses piled up along the river into things of beauty.
Some hours before sunset the rattling of the carriages follows the flowing of the river down to the park, where we get the best view of the Florentines, who are extremely fond of show. The first thing they buy when they have a little money is a livery for a stately servant man ; the next is a livery for a coachman, and then they hire the coachman. After that they buy a shining patent-leather equipage, and then a pair of high-stepping horses which will stamp the pavements as much as possible. Finally, the ladies try their credit at the mil-liner’s shop, and stretch it as far as possible to get a splendid outfit for their afternoon drives, when, with a grand air and imposing presence, they lean back in the perfect contentment of patrician pride unmindful of their unpaid bills.
The Florentines don’t buy stoves or wood to keep warm in winter, but furs. All their splendors they keep for “the season.” In other times it is understood that everybody is out of town, at their country seats. If you meet “anybody” it is altogether incognito, possibly in the “bus” instead of in the shining carriage. It is then that other gorgeous apparitions fill the streets. They sport enormous golden earrings and flaming dresses ; they have glistening black eyes and ebon hair, but sallow and powdered complexions. After you have closed your eyes a moment, before so much dazzling splendor, you dare to look again and are agreeably surprised to recognize some porter’s wife or shop girl, who smiles with real dignity. You cannot help thinking that their love of the beautiful, which prompts them to so bedeck themselves is peacefully combined with indifference to the dirt they have left at home.
It is easy to find in the stores light, cheap, showy materials, but next to impossible to find good substantial goods, especially in under-wear. A shopkeeper told us that, in furnishing a trousseau for a great Italian lady, the amount spent for the whole linen supply was less than that spent for one dress. Foreigners living in Florence have almost everything sent from abroad. The Italians produce very little except light silks, straw ware, mosaic and some things of art value. They have two very strange customs. They levy duties on eatables at their city gates, thus taxing the poor, who are remarkably submissive and long suffering, and the merchants or tradesmen make very little or no difference of price in wholesale or retail transactions.
There are in Florence (and, indeed, in all Italy) many dawdlers who wish for nothing better than to tramp about the whole day long, for a few cents, and to whom even light work is accounted a burden. The poorest have the same great patrimony for which the richest of the world come in the winter to Italy-the sun and the genial climate ; and they learn from it the great art of idling and being content with little. When they are hungry they lie down and let the sun shine on their stomachs. In case the latter should crave too strongly fora more substantial diet, they beg a cent from the next God-sent foreigner, who seems to them a supplement of the kindness of nature ; the cent secured, they go to the nearest fruit stand and buy some hot chestnuts or a handful of polenta.
The government itself is just as improvident. It spends more freely in endowing the theatres, or for the carnival and public spectacles, than in needful charities or beneficent institutions. Its great hobby is the Italian army, and especially the Italian navy. All of Italy’s cities are full of soldiers in romantically draped cloaks, bewitching gray trousers and the whole tail of a bird on the side of their hats. Their taste inclines more to the extraordinary than the modest, and they seem like the tamed offspring of the imposing brigands who ruled Italy in former generations. Their stirring military music, made with more spirit than skill, seems, even in peace, a fierce demonstration against their enemies. They apparently endeavor to use up their entire energy in blowing their lungs through all the old brass instruments they can find in the country.
In truth, Italy seems, notwithstanding all the great improvements of the last decades, less a rising country than an antiquity shop full of interest for the student. The manners of the people are gentle and agreeable. They have a smile on their faces which, like the soft Italian skies, repairs every weakness or defect in the national character.