Florence Eighty Years Ago – Florence, Italy

There is a great deal of prattle about Italian skies; the skies and clouds of Italy, so far as I have had an opportunity of judging, do not present so great a variety of beautiful appearances as our own; but the Italian atmosphere is far more uniformly fine than ours. Not to speak of its astonishing clearness, it is pervaded by a certain warmth of color which enriches every object. – This is more remarkable about the time of sunset, when the mountains put on an aerial aspect, as if they belonged to another and fairer world; and a little after the sun has gone down, the air is flushed with a glory which seems to transfigure all that it encloses.

Many of the fine old palaces of Florence, you know, are built in a gloomy tho grand style of architecture, of a dark-colored stone, massive and lofty, and overlooking narrow streets that lie in almost perpetual shade. But at the hour of which I am speaking, the bright warm radiance reflected from the sky to the earth, fills the darkest lanes, streams into the most shadowy nooks, and makes the prison-like structures glitter as with a brightness of their own.

It is now nearly the middle of October, and we have had no frost. The strong summer heats which prevailed when I came hither, have by the slowest gradations subsided into an agreeable autumnal temperature. The trees keep their verdure, but I perceive their foliage growing thinner, and when I walk in the Cascin on the other side of the Arno, the rustling of the lizards, as they run among the heaps of crisp leaves, re-minds me that autumn is wearing away, tho the ivy which clothes the old elms has put forth a profuse array of blossoms, and the walks murmur with bees like our orchards in spring. As I look along the declivities of the Apennines, I see the raw earth every day more visible between the ranks of olive-trees and the well-pruned maples which support the vines.

If I have found my expectations of Italian scenery, in some respects, below the reality; in other respects, they have been disappointed. The forms of the mountains are wonderfully picturesque, and their effect is heightened by the rich atmosphere through which they are seen, and by the buildings, imposing from their architecture or venerable from time, which crown the eminences. But if the hand of man has done some-thing to embellish this region, it has done more to deform it. Not a tree is suffered to retain its natural shape, not a brook to flow in its natural channel. An exterminating war is carried on against the natural herbage of the soil. The country is without woods and green fields; and to him who views the vale of the Arno “from the top of Fiesole,” or any of the neighboring heights, grand as he will allow the circle of the mountains to be, and magnificent the edifices with which the region is adorned, it appears, at any time after mid-summer, a huge valley of dust, planted with low rows of the pallid and thin-leaved olive, or the more dwarfish maple on which vines are trained.

The simplicity of nature, so far as can be done, is destroyed; there is no fine sweep of forest, no broad expanse of meadow or pasture ground, no ancient and towering trees clustered about the villas, no rows of natural shrubbery following the course of the brooks and rivers. The streams, which are often but the beds of torrents dry during the summer, are confined in straight channels by stone walls and embankments; the slopes are broken up and disfigured by terraces; and the trees are kept down by constant pruning and lopping, until half way up the sides of the Apennines, where the limit of cultivation is reached, and thence to the summit is a barren steep of rock, without herbage or soil. The grander features of the landscape, however, are fortunately beyond the power of man to injure; the lofty mountain-summits, bare precipices cleft with chasms, and pinnacles of rock piercing the sky, betokening, far more than any thing I have seen elsewhere, a breaking up of the crust of the globe in some early period of its existence. I am told that in May and June the country is much more beautiful than at present, and that owing to a drought it now appears under disadvantage.

Florence, from being the residence of the Court, and from the vast number of foreigners who throng to it, presents during several months of the year an appearance of great bustle and animation. Four thousand English, an American friend tells me, visit Florence every winter, to say nothing of the occasional residents from France, Germany, and Russia. The number of visitors from the latter country is every year in-creasing, and the echoes of the Florence gallery have been taught to repeat the strange accents of the Slavonic. Let me give you the history of a the day in October, passed at the window of my lodgings on the Lung Arno, close to the bridge.

Waked by the jangling of all the bells in Florence and by the noise of carriages departing loaded with travelers, for Rome and other places in the south of Italy, I rise, dress myself, and take my place at the window. I see crowds of men and women from the country, the former in brown velvet jackets, and the latter in broad-brimmed straw hats, driving donkeys loaded with panniers or trundling handcarts before them, heaped with grapes, figs, and all the fruits of the orchard, the garden, and the field. They have hardly passed, when large flocks of sheep and goats make their appearance, attended by shepherds and their farmilies, driven by the approach of winter from the Appenines, and seeking the pastures of the Mar emma, a rich, but, in the summer, an unhealthy tract on the coast.

The men and the boys are drest in knee-breeches, the women in bodices, and both sexes wear capotes with pointed hoods, and felt hats with conical crowns; they carry long staves in their hands, and their arms are loaded with kids and lambs too young to keep pace with their mothers. After the long procession of sheep and goats and dogs and men and women and children, come horses loaded with cloths and poles for tents, kitchen utensils, and the rest of the younglings of the flock.

A little after sunrise I see well-fed donkeys,in coverings of red cloth, driven over the bridge to be milked for invalids. Maid-servants, bare-headed, with huge high carved combs in their hair, waiters of coffee-houses carrying the morning cup of coffee or chocolate to their customers, baker’s boys with a dozen loaves on a board balanced on their heads, milkmen with rush baskets filled with flasks of milk, are crossing the streets in all directions. A little later the bell of the small chapel opposite to my window rings furiously for a quarter of an hour, and then I hear mass chanted in a deep strong nasal tone.

As the day advances, the English, in white hats and white pantaloons, come out of their lodgings, accompanied sometimes by their hale and square-built spouses, and saunter sti y along the Arno, or take their way to the public galleries and museums. Their massive, clean, and brightly polished carriages also begin to rattle through the streets, setting out on excursions to some part of the environs of Florence—to Fiesole, to the Pratolino, to the Bello Sguardo, to the Poggio Imperiale. Sights of a different kind now pre-sent themselves. Sometimes it is a troop of stout Franciscan friars, in sandals and brown robes, each carrying his staff and wearing a brown broad-brimmed hat with a hemispherical crown. Some-times it is a band of young theological students, in purple cassocks with red collars and cuffs, let out on a holiday, attended by their clerical instructors, to ramble in the Cascine. There is a priest coming over the bridge, a man of venerable age and great reputation for sanctity—the common people crowd around him to kiss his hand, and obtain a kind word from him as he passes.

But what is that procession of men in black gowns, black gaiters, and black masks, moving swiftly along, and bearing on their shoulders a litter covered with black cloth? These are the Brethren of Mercy, who have assembled at the sound of the cathedral bell, and are conveying some sick or wounded person to the hospital. As the day begins to decline, the numbers of carriages in the streets, filled with gaily-drest people attended by servants in livery, increases. The Grand Duke’s equipage, an elegant carriage drawn by six horses, with coachmen, footmen, and outriders in drab-colored livery, comes from the Pitti Palace, and crosses the Arno, either by the bridge close to my lodgings, or by that called Alla Santa Trinith, which is in full sight from the windows. The Florentine nobility, with their families, and the English residents, now throng to the Cascine, to drive at a slow pace through its thickly planted walks of elms, oaks, and ilexes.

As the sun is sinking I perceive the Quay, on the other side of the Arno, filled with a moving crowd of well-drest people, walking to and fro, and enjoying the beauty of the evening. Travelers now arrive from all quarters, in cabriolets, in calashers, in the shabby “vettura,” and in the elegant private carriage drawn by post-horses, and driven by postillions in the tightest possible deer-skin breeches, the smallest red coats, and the hugest jack-boots. The streets about the doors of the hotels resound with the cracking of whips and the stamping of horses, and are encumbered with carriages, heaps of baggage, porters, postillions, couriers, and travelers. Night at length arrives —the time of spectacles and funerals.

The carriages rattle toward the opera-houses. Trains of people, sometimes in white robes and sometimes in black, carrying blazing torches and a cross elevated on a high pole before a coffin, pass through the streets chanting the service for the dead. The Brethren of Mercy may also be seen engaged in their office. The rapidity of their pace, the flare of their torches, the gleam of their eyes through their masks, and their sable garb, give them a kind of supernatural appearance. I return to bed, and fall asleep amid the shouts of people returning from the opera, singing as they go snatches of the music with which they had been entertained during the evening.