Florence – The Environs Of Florence

THE CONVENT OF SAN DOMENICO, RADIA OF FIESOLE

FORSYTH, writing at the commencement of this century, has given the following description of the country round Florence :

‘The environs of Florence owe their beauty to a race of farmers who are far more industrious, intelligent, and liberal than their neighbours, born to the same sun and soil. Leopoldo toiled to make his peasants all comfortable, and the steward takes care that none shall be rich… Every field in the environs of Florence is ditched round, lined with poplars, and intersected by rows of vines or olive-trees. Those rows are so close as to impede the plough, which is considered here as less calculated for produce than the triangular spade with which the tenant is bound by his landlord to dig, or rather to shovel, one-third of his farm. The rich plain of the Val d’ Arno yields usually two harvests a year, the first of wheat, the second of some green crop, which last is sometimes ploughed up and left to rot on the field as manure for the next. This course is interrupted every third or fourth year by a crop of Turkey-wheat (Gran Turco, or Indian corn), sometimes of beans, or rye, and more rarely of oats ; barley was unknown here, until the breweries lately (1809) established at Florence and Pisa called it into cultivation. As you approach the skirts of this narrow plain you perceive a change in agriculture. The vine and the olive gradually prevail over corn—one-half of Tuscany is mountains, which produce nothing but timber, one-sixth part consists of hills, which are covered with vineyards or olive-gardens. The whole is distributed into 80,000 fattorias, or stewardships. Each fattoria includes on the average seven farms.’

The above description, although written some severity years ago, may still in some measure apply to the country surrounding Florence at the present day. One great peculiarity to our English ideas is that the cattle on the farms belong solely to the proprietor, with whom, however, the peasant tenant shares the produce of the animals, their milk, &c. On the other hand, the peasant claims the right of keeping poultry and pigeons, which are allowed free range, and pick up what is to be found on the farm, and the proprietor frequently makes an agreement with his tenant, that he shall supply him with a. certain number of fowls and eggs annually.

There is still but little enterprise, and, notwithstanding the efforts of the late Baron Bettino Ricasoli, and of Cavaliere Cattani Cavalcanti, the latest improvements in agricultural implements have been very rarely adopted.

The climate, as our poet Goldsmith so happily describes in his ‘ Traveller,’ lends almost too much aid to the natural fertility of the soil, to tempt the peasant, with his simple needs, to make any very great exertion.

‘Could Nature’s bounty satisfy the breast, The sons of Italy were surely blest : Whatever fruits in different climes are found That proudly rise, or humbly court the ground ; Whatever blooms in torrid tracts appear, Whose bright succession decks the varied year, Whatever sweets salute the northern sky With vernal lives, that blossom but to die ; These, here disporting, own the kindred soil, Nor ask luxuriance from the planter’s toil ; While sea-born gales their gelid wings expand To winnow fragrance round the smiling land.’

The Traveller.

Beyond the Porta San Gallo ‘a road to the right leads across a tract of land, called Camerata, to the Campo di Marte, Champs de Mars, an extensive park or field, in some part sown with grass for the exercise of the troops. It is surrounded on either side by a road bordered with trees, and from the lovely views in every direction is a favourite drive for strangers.

The district of Camerata is said to have been, in Pagan days, the site of a temple, dedicated to the heathen god Mars, whose columns were afterwards transported to Florence, and now decorate the interior of the Baptistery. The usual and the shortest road to San Domenico is to the left of this road, and for a considerable distance passes between high stone walls, which obscure the view. These stone walls are very common round Florence ; they are cased with a thick layer of mortar or plaster, on which a variety of patterns are frequently traced (or sgraffiati as it is termed in Italian), occasionally in red or black lines. The most favourite device is a scroll,. resembling wheels, which appears to have been adopted from very early, possibly Etruscan, times, as the wheel is an emblem frequently adopted by the Etruscans on their monuments. Villas and their surrounding vineyards, olive gardens, and farms (Poderi) are enclosed within these walls. After passing the entrance to Villa Fossombroni, a huge pile of building is a boy’s school. Shortly before reaching the Piazza of San Domenico stands the Villa Guadagni, a square house which is on the site of the country residence of the historian Bartolommeo della Scala, who was the son of a poor miller and born in 1430 at Colle ; he came to study law in Florence, where his merits having gained the notice of Cosimo de’ Medici, he attained high offices in the Republic, and was sent on a mission to Innocent VIII. on his accession to the Papal throne, when he was created Apostolic Secretary ; he ultimately became Gonfaloniere of Florence. His History of Florence remained incomplete at his death in 1495.

The Convent and the Church of San Domenico are to the east of the Piazza of this name. Here Fra Angelico (1387—1455) resided until the monks had become so numerous that it was deemed expedient for him and several of his brethren to remove to the Dominican Convent of San Marco, within the gates of Florence. But the saintly artist left some very beautiful works behind him, one of which, an altar-piece, still remains in the apse of the church. Its subject is an Enthronement of the Virgin ; the Child is seated on her knee ; she is surrounded by worshipping angels, two of whom kneel in front, and St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Peter, St. Dominic, and San Bonaventura stand on either side. These figures display greater force than is usual in Fra Angelico’s male saints. The predella is only a copy of the original painting, which was sold by the monks about sixty years ago to the Prussian Consul, a Signor Valentini, at Rome, from whose nephew it was purchased in 186o for the National Gallery in London, where it may now be seen. It is in three compartments; the central division represents the Resurrection of our Lord, with angels playing various musical instruments and blowing trumpets. The two side divisions contain Male and Female Saints and Martyrs in Adoration, and at the extreme ends the Blessed, or Beati, of the Order of the Dominicans in their black robes. The frame of this picture contains paintings of prophets and saints, by Lorenzo Credi (1459—1537).

Facing this picture, to the back of the high altar, is another painting, attributed to Perugino (1446—1523) ; the Virgin with a Dove, who carries a small cross. The stalls of the monks on either side of the choir are decorated with fine reliefs and intarsia work. The architectural proportions of the church are very agreeable, and the decoration round the arches indicate the school of Brunelleschi. The nave is several steps lower than the choir, and has side chapels; in one of which is a Crucifix, by a pupil of Donatello, and in another, an Adoration of the Magi, by Perugino, though it has been retouched by Sogliani (1492—1544), as well as by Santo di Titi (1536—1603). The landscape in the background is very pleasing ; the colouring full and clear, with the exception of the flesh tints, which want clearness. A Baptism of Christ, by Lorenzo Credi, in another chapel, is feeble, but the angels have great sweetness of expression. The Chapter House of the Convent formerly contained a life-size Crucifixion by Fra Angelico, which has been removed and the Chapter House itself has been converted into a greenhouse.

At the foot of a steep descent from the Piazza San Domenico is the Badia, or Abbey of Fiesole ; it is built on the slope of a hill, close to the Mugnone, which at certain seasons of the year becomes a torrent, and is crossed near this spot by a stone bridge.

The abbey is believed to have been originally the Cathedral of Fiesole. It was first dedicated to San Piero and San Romolo, because the remains of the last-named saint were interred in a round chapel, now no longer existing, whose site is recorded by an inscription on the wall outside the present church. In 1028 Jacopo Bavaro, then Bishop of Fiesole, and the founder of the existing cathedral at Fiesole, transferred the body of San Romolo to the cathedral on the hill above, and the Emperor Conrad II. converted the church below into a Badia or abbey.

Shortly afterwards the resident bishops and canons abandoned the building, and were succeeded by Benedictine monks. The Bishops of Fiesole retained their patronage over the Abbey until the year 1440, when some Lateran canons from a monastery near Lucca were invited to take possession of the building, and Cosimo Pater Patriæ, entertaining a warm friendship for one of these canons, Don Timoteo Maffei, of Verona, a man of virtuous habits, and in good repute for his eloquence in the pulpit, resolved to rebuild the Abbey on a larger scale, and to reserve rooms for himself where he might visit his friend. The work was entrusted to Brunelleschi, and the plan was on a magnificent scale. Everything was to be provided that might conduce to the comfort of the canons ; an infirmary, a library, a spacious Loggia, refectory, and offices beneath for cellars, bakehouses, kitchens, and washhouses. The building was begun in 1462, but Cosimo died two years later, and Lorenzo the Magnificent was so absorbed in other matters connected with his personal aggrandisement, that it never was completed. The half-finished façade of the church is composed of black and white marble, in the style of that of San Miniato al Monte. The decorations round the three arches are very elegant, and the windows above are ornamented with doves and other de-vices. The interior of the church consists of a nave, two short transepts, and the choir, which is elevated five steps above the nave. The framework of the two doors in the transepts on either side of the choir, both above and on either side, are of grey stone, pietra serena, brought from the quarries above Settignano, on the eastern slope of the hill of Fiesole. They are decorated with delicate scrolls and designs in relief.

The side arches and proportions of the church are beautiful examples of Brunelleschi’s style of architecture. The high altar was only placed in 1612. It is composed of inlaid white and coloured marbles, executed at the Florentine manufactory of pietra dura. The chapels on either side of the nave are raised by steps, also a favourite plan of Brunelleschi. A small vestibule between the church and the cloister was formerly the sacristy, and contains a lovely marble lavatory designed by Brunelleschi : children ride on the backs of dolphins, and on either side of a large scallop shell are reliefs of angels’ heads, fruit and corn in relief are on the arch above. The cloister is several steps higher than the church and extremely beautiful, one side of it opens on a garden, and a double Loggia on this side of the building commands a view over Florence. The refectory contains a pulpit, of the grey pietra serena stone, so profusely used here for ornamental architecture, another work of Brunelleschi. One end of the refectory has a fresco, by Giovanni di San Giovanni (1590-1636). It was painted in 1620. The subject is Angels Ministering to our Lord after His Forty Days’ Temptation in the Wilderness. The retreating devil to the left in a pilgrim’s dress with bat’s wings, vulture’s claws, and horns on his head, is the portrait of one of the lay servants, who had offended the artist by presenting him with wine and water in place of pure wine, when he noticed that pure wine affected his head. The library was once very rich in MSS., the gift of Cosimo Vecchio to the Abbey, but they were all removed to the Laurentian Library.

In the times of the Medici, the Badia received frequent visits from distinguished persons. Giovanni de’ Medici, after-wards Leo X., was invested with the Cardinal’s hat at this Abbey in 1492, and his brother Giuliano, Duca di Nemours, died here in 1516, whose monument by Michael Angelo is in the new sacristy of San Lorenzo.

During the siege of 1529, the Badia was filled with Spanish soldiers, who committed much destruction. In 1753, the Lateran Canon, Padre Ubaldo Montelatici, the founder of an agricultural society called the Georgofili, the first of the kind in Europe, took up his abode here ; but in 1778 the Abbey was suppressed by order of the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo, and the building handed over to the Bishops of Fiesole.

In 1815 the French completed the destruction which had been commenced by the Spaniards. For a course of years the Badia was let out in private apartments, one of which was occupied by Francesco Inghirami, of Volterra, the well-known antiquary, who, in 1821, printed and published his work on Etruscan Monuments when residing here.

The building has recently been converted into a boys’ school, to which some of the principal families of Florence send their sons.