Florence – Signa – La Vernia – Camaldoli – Vallombrosa

ABOUT two hours drive from Florence, on the way to Pisa, is Signa, situated where the hills almost meet, on either side of the Arno, and near where the river was at one time choked by an enormous mass of rock, called the Golfolina, which occasioned inundations of the Arno, Ombrone, and Bisenzio, over the whole country. The legend accounts for its disappearance by a thirteenth labour of Hercules ; but Villani, in his history, relates that, in early days, ordinary mortals were employed to break it up.

Leaving Florence by the Pisan highway from the Porta San Frediano, the first village is. Legnaia, with its old hexagonal church of San Quirico. The tall Italian reed grows plentifully behind the walls which line the road, and the villages are, as usual, in long streets, or rows of houses on either side. The Ponte a Greve—a picturesque bridge constructed in early times by Pisan prisoners—crosses the River Greve ; on it is a large tabernacle, containing a fresco of much beauty, and apparently belonging to the fourteenth century. The Ma-donna, in a crimson dress with a dark mantle, has the Child on her knee, who is clothed in red and white, with a green sash-the colours of Faith, Hope, and Charity ; he raises his hand to bless ; St. Lawrence, a beautiful youth, and St. John the Baptist, who turns towards him, are on one side ; on the other, St. Peter with his keys, and another saint.

On the slope of the hills to the left is Scandicci in Alto, where is the Villa of the Altoviti Sangaletti, now belonging to the Passerini family, and built on the site of the old Castle of Scandicci ; near it is a smaller villa, where Limberti, Arch-bishop of Florence, died in 1874. Monte Morello, to the right, rises grandly on the horizon, hedges take the place of walls beside the road, and at the doors of all the houses in the villages, whether in winter or summer, are to be seen groups of handsome well-clothed women gossiping together, whilst their busy fingers are invariably plaiting straw, and their rosy children play beside them. Italians seem to use their houses only for sleep, or to prepare their meals, and the Tuscan peasant is never idle.

After passing through the long villages of Casalina, Campucciola, and Castel Ricci, a lane to the right leads to the ancient Abbey of Settimo, in front of which, it is said, the scene took place of the ordeal by fire, when Peter Igneus, a Vallombrosian monk, submitted to the trial, in order to exonerate his superior, Giovanni Gualberto, from an accusation of simony. He passed triumphantly through the flames, and this act of self-devotion is commemorated in the beautiful marble relief by Benedetto da Rovezzano, now in the Bargello of Florence.

The Parish Church, a little way down the lane to Settimo, has a shield over the door with the lion rampant, the arms of the Manelli family, its patrons, who had their palaces in Florence. It is a picturesque building, with a portico resting on Ionic columns, and a well in front.

The singular octagonal tower ending with a hexagon, and the machicolated walls of the old Abbey of Settimo, form together a striking object on the plain. So late as 1844, a flood from the Arno reached more than five feet above the level of the church, and the crypt, which is of equal size, is always now under water. Beneath the portico is a monument of the fourteenth century, to one Count Lotario, who contributed largely to both church and crypt.

The Abbey was formerly inhabited by Benedictine monks from Vallombrosa, and the high altar, inlaid with marble, was the gift of their brethren. Behind it are five arches of grey pietra serena set in the flat wall, with an architrave of cherubs’ heads and the lamb, of Robbia ware: There are a few good pictures still remaining, although the only one of importance, the Worship of the Magi, by Filippino Lippi, has been re-moved, and replaced by a copy. The rest are, Christ rising from the Tomb, supported by Joseph of Arimathea, the Virgin and St. John on either side, and St. Jerome and St. Damian kneeling in front : attributed to Andrea del Castagno (1390 ?–1457). A Deposition, and several other pictures, are supposed to be by Giovanni di San Giovanni (1590-1636). The ciborium for the sacred oil, in delicately carved marble, was executed by Benedetto da Majano (1442–1497) ; on it are represented the angels at the door of the sepulchre, from whence the Saviour is half risen. The frescoes in this church represent the Martyrdom of St. Quintin, and Christ’s Charge to Peter. Above, is the Eternal surrounded by Angels.

To the right of the church is a very spacious and beautiful cloister with a colonnade, under which is the entrance to an-other church, founded four hundred years before that of the abbey. A vaulted roof of brickwork rests on columns with rude capitals, which have their shafts half buried by the accumulation of the soil, owing to inundations from the Arno. A kneeling figure of a Bishop is preserved in a corner of the building, which once stood in the middle of the cloister garden. At a short distance from the church and cloister is a large square tower, which probably formed the gateway of the monastic ground, on which is a singular colossal group in terra cotta with traces of colour, representing the Saviour between two Saints; below the group are the arms of Florence, and an inscription, stating that it was made in 1236.

Returning to the Pisan road, another lane on the left leads to the Villa Castagnolo, formerly a wool manufactory belonging to the Arte della Lana, but which was purchased in 1220 by the Della Stufa family, whose property it still remains. In the same century a Della Stufa was sent ambassador to France, and was allowed to add the French lily to his arms. The villa stands on an elevation above the plain ; it is surrounded by gardens, and at the foot are the fields of the Podere, or Farm.

The Commune or District of Signa is in the Campi Bisenzio, or fields bordering on the river Bisenzio, whilst the Arno and Ombrone are to the south and west. There are seven small townships, which collectively bear the name of Signa, and are within the jurisdiction of the Florentine diocese. Poplar trees and corn grow in the plain, and on the hill the vine and olive ; and amidst patches of brushwood is found the grass called Paglia etiola (straw exposed to the sun), the Triticurn oestivum of Linnæus, also called Marzuolo, because sown in March. When gathered, it is pulled up by the roots, and then bleached in the sun. It was introduced into Tuscany in the seventeenth century for the manufacture of hats by one Domenico Michelacci, of Bologna. There are besides, stone quarries on the adjacent hill of Gonforiba.

There is little of interest in the history of Signa, except that from its strong position it was exposed to attacks by the enemies of Florence. In 1326 it was destroyed by Castruccio Castracani, of Lucca, aided by the Ghibelline inhabitants of the town itself; but it was rebuilt the following year and its defences strengthened by the Florentines, then under the command of the Duke of Calabria. In 1397 Count Alberico di Barbiano, the Captain of Free Companies in the pay of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Lord of Milan, attacked Signa, but after taking and sacking the place, he was forced to retire, leaving many of his men dead and wounded.

Lastra-Signa has still the remains of its strong walls, and is entered and quitted by two singular, tall gates. In the centre of the town is a beautiful loggia or portico, in front of what was formerly a hospital. The roof is supported by picturesque old columns, and within, it is divided by cross vaulting, with colour in the arches. It has the arms of the Guild of Silk, and over one of the doors beneath the loggia, is a Madonna and Child with worshipping angels, full of grace, though so much defaced that they are difficult to distinguish.

An old stone bridge over the Arno connects Signa on the left bank with Signa on the right, and not far from this the monks of Settimo had preserves for their fish. Signa-Beata on the right bank is so called from the relics of a saint—a peasant girl of peculiar sanctity—which are exhibited in a church in the town.

Signa on the left bank is chiefly remarkable for its straw manufactures. Open squares within the town are filled with straw hats drying in the sun, and with festoons or little pyramids of straw, dyed in various colours.

The principal villas in the neighbourhood are those of the Alberti, Bruti, and the Pitti Leparelli. At the Villa of Castelletti was, until 1883, the Agrarian Institution of the late Cornmendatore Leopoldo Cattani Cavalcante. Born in 1814, the younger son of the representative of the old family of Cavalcante celebrated by Dante, he succeeded his elder brother, who was killed in a duel, and married an English lady, who shared in his philanthropic labours ; in 1844, when inundations from the Arno devastated the country, he risked his life in the endeavour to save that of others, and established bake-houses to relieve the starving peasantry, whom he received in his Villa of Castelletti. His efforts, as well as those of his wife, were from that time directed to the improvement of the condition of their people ; but, like many schemes of reform, those benefited refused at first to accept them, and even the lives of their benefactors were attempted. In 1855, during the visitation of the cholera, his wife was one of its victims, but Cavalcante after this blow was only roused to more active exertions, and as a Brother of the Misericordia attended the sick and dying. It was then that he first turned his thoughts to the education of the poorer classes, and instituted an agricultural school for boys at Castelletti. A few years later he built a second college on a larger scale to give a thoroughly sound theoretical and practical training in agriculture to the sons of gentlemen, from whom he demanded a merely nominal fee, whilst spending more than 2,000l. annually of his own income for the support of both schools. In 1875 he bought a tract of waste land between Leghorn and Spezia, which he set his pupils to cultivate, and which is now covered with vines and corn ; but in 1883 he was carried off by a fever : his last words were ‘education,’ and that `the rich owe a duty to the poor.’ Since his death, the institute at Castelletti has ceased to exist, but the object the Commendatore Cavalcante had in view has been accomplished, since the Italian Government has now established several schools on the same plan.

From Signa an excursion may be made to the summit of a steep hill south of the town, on which is situated the curiously fortified village of Malmantile, enclosed within its stone walls, which have stood many a siege, and defied the forces of the Prince of Orange in 1529. Malmantile was made the subject of a long satirical poem by Lorenzo Lippi, in the last century.

The old Palace of Artimini is also within a short drive from Signa. It stands at a considerable height above the plains between the right bank of the Arno and the river Ombrone. The country round was always celebrated for its game, its general fertility, and excellent wine. In early days the name Artimino included a large and thickly populated district, and the coins, medals, and images found here, seem to prove that it was once colonised by the Romans. In the fourteenth century there was a strongly fortified castle be-longing to the Pistoiese, which gave much trouble to the Florentines, by whom it was demolished in 1325; it was partially restored three years later, and some of the old ruin still remains. It is now a magnificent villa, and in the Hall is a small bronze image of a Bull discovered in this neighbourhood, and in the same style as that of the famous Farnese Bull at Naples.

The family of Artimini, whose residence has been already mentioned at Soffiano,’ west of Bellosguardo, once possessed this villa, and their old burying-ground may still be seen near it. The property had been in the family for more than two hundred years, when the Grand Duke Francis L was desirous of purchasing it, to bestow on Bianca Cappello. The Artimini declined the offer, when Francis sent the money by a troop of armed men, who enforced compliance with his demand.

This story has a greater semblance of truth, since in the last generation a request was made to examine the documents in the Archives relating to the history of the Villa Artimini, which was granted by the Grand Duke Leopold II., but after-wards refused by his Council, who it would appear were alarmed lest, even after this lapse of years, some inconvenient claim might be brought forward. Two of the Artimini family sat in the Council of Two Hundred in Florence, and they thus acquired the right as noble citizens to occupy the highest offices in the State.

In the account we have given of the neighbourhood of Florence, the limits of our space have obliged us to omit many places of interest within an easy distance by walks, drives, or railway excursions. Vinci, the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci, the Carrara Mountains, Serravezza, Lucca, Pescia, Monsummano, Pistoia, and Prato to the west ; to the east, Vallombrosa, and the district of the Casentino beyond Vallombrosa, in which is the field of Campaldino, where Dante fought. Here also is the little town of Poppi, whose Palazzo Pubblico contains the staircase said to have been copied by Agnolo Gaddi for the Bargello, and the celebrated monasteries of Camaldoli and La Vernia. The Franciscan Monastery of La Vernia, in the midst of widespreading beeches, is un-changed since the days when St. Francis preached to the birds near the little chapel half-way up the ascent, and slept on the iron couch, still preserved among the rocks. Camaldoli is inhabited by Carthusians, and surrounded by pine forests, from the heights above which, on a clear day, may be seen the Mediterranean and Adriatic.

Vallombrosa is reached in four hours from Florence, and offers peculiar attractions from the beauty of the situation, the shady walks in the forests of pine and beech, as well as from the abundance of wild flowers. Since the suppression of the monastery the building has been converted into a college belonging to the Woods and Forests, and the old guest-chamber or hospitium into an hotel. The place has been fully described in a charming little book by the American sculptor, Mr. Story, of Rome.

Before the existence of the monastery, the wooded hill of Vallombrosa was the resort of Guido of Arezzo, who in the tenth century invented the system of musical notation still in use. The Hermitage was founded by San Giovanni Gualberto about 1015, and was inhabited by a branch of the Benedictine Order ; it was visited by the celebrated Countess Matilda, and at various times by Emperors, Empresses, and other august personages. The monk Hildebrand, afterwards Pope Gregory VII., is said to have taken the vow of celibacy in this monastery, and five Vallombrosian monks at different periods filled the chair of St. Peter.

Below Vallombrosa is Paterno, where the Emperor Otho III. ended his days at the early age of twenty-two, in the year 999, poisoned, as was supposed, by Stephania, the widow of the Roman Consul Crescentius, whom the Emperor had cruelly beheaded for having dared to maintain Rome independent of the Empire. Paterno afterwards became the winter residence of the monks, who left the snows of their monastery to seek a milder climate.

Vallombrosa is best known, wherever the English language is spoken, by the lines of our poet Milton.