Florence – The Impruneta


THE Impruneta, famous for its black Madonna, is seven miles from the Porta Romana. One road branches off from the Via Sanese at the foot of the descent from the Convent of the Gaggio ; another and better road is from Galluzzo, at the foot of the Certosa. Before entering the village of Ponte Certosa, a lane to the right was the old Etruscan road connecting the two important cities of Fiesole and Volterra. A beautiful drive in this direction lies past a large villa belonging to the Capponi, and leads to the village of Giogoli.

Beyond the Certosa is the hill of Montebuoni, where the Buondelmonti had their castle, and from whence they pounced down on the unsuspecting traveller, and committed robbery and violence on the whole neighbourhood, until their stronghold was destroyed by the Florentines in the twelfth century. Some remains of the ruin is still shown in the little village, which is worth a visit for the view obtained from that height. The lordship of the Buondelmonti extended as far as the Impruneta.

The road now winds along the side of the hills for three or four miles of continuous ascent, presenting lovely views at every turn. In spring the song of the nightingale is heard amidst the trees, and the banks are fragrant with sweet-smelling plants and rich with wild flowers. The small township of Bagnolo, which is first reached, is the ancient lordship of the Gherardini, who had extensive possessions in the Val di Pesa and the Val. di Greve ; their castle was at Montacuto, the site of the Certosa. Bagnolo was the birthplace of Accursius, a celebrated jurisconsult (1151-1229), who was Professor of Rhetoric at Bologna, which chair he resigned to write a voluminous treatise on Law. One of his daughters gave lectures on Roman Jurisprudence in the University of Bologna.

On a range of hills in the distance to the right may be seen the village of San Casciano, and below it, Sant’ Andrea, a villa belonging to the Fenzi family. Near it is another old villa, where Macchiavelli was residing when he wrote his celebrated treatise, the ` Principe.’ A drive to San Casciano, to visit the Villa Macchiavelli, is among the pleasant excursions round FIorence. The name of Macchiavelli is associated in the mind of English readers with the doctrine of expediency, or self-interest seeking its end by unscrupulous fraud or falsehood ; but Professor Villari, in his memoir lately published, no less remarkable for its eloquence and clear style of writing, than for research and exactitude, presents a picture of the period, which proves the cunning and baseness of which Macchiavelli is accused, rather to have belonged to the age in which he lived, and that he even strove to awaken his countrymen to a higher standard of right by exposing their vices. As a writer, Professor Villari observes, Macchiavelli first departed from the mere chronicler to the historian, using narrative to prove that all events are evolutions connected with the development of some great and uniform idea, to which the history of mankind is always tending in every age and nation. In Villari’s own words, ‘ he illuminated the darkness by the electric light of his powerful intelligence, and carried the most admirable order into the chaos that chroniclers had left.’

In a hollow, some distance from Bagnolo, is the village of the Impruneta, well known to all lovers of art by the admirable engraving of Jacques Callot, in which he has given wonderful life and distinctness to the figures engaged in various diversions during the annual fair, which continues to this day. The place has not altered since the time of Callot (1592-1635). The Church of the Misericordia is still there, on a hill behind the village, with shrines at intervals along the path, for pilgrims to offer up their devotions.

The Church of the Impruneta itself has a low portico, sup-ported by columns. The interior is of vast size, and the decorations and pictures show that it is no common village-church. As the sanctuary for the miraculous black Madonna, famous in Florentine history, it is looked on as peculiarly sacred. This image was esteemed so precious that it was brought into Florence in times of war and there placed under the charge of the monks of the SS. Trinità.. It made its entry into the city by the Porta Romana, under an escort of mounted guards, and was met by the archbishop, clergy, and chief magistrates. During the siege of 1529, the black Madonna was conveyed into the cathedral, lest it should fall into the hands of the enemy. It was appealed to during the plague of 1417, and was again supposed to have stayed the disease in 1683.

On either side of the high-altar are shrines, resting on fluted columns. That to the right has a small cabinet with gilt doors, intended to contain a crucifix. Nearly life-size statues of St. John the Baptist and St. Romolo are in Luca della Robbia ware, and there is an exquisite frieze in the same material below, as well as a beautiful group of the Virgin and St. John standing behind the crucified Saviour.

The shrine to the left of the high-altar is said to contain the image of the miraculous Madonna. Before her altar is a silver screen, with representations of incidents from the legends of the Virgin, and in the centre is a portrait of one of the Medici princes, probably the donor.

The sacristy contains a large and interesting altar-piece, by one of the school of Giotto ; probably Taddeo Gaddi, or Giovanni da Milano. In the centre the Virgin and Child are seated, whilst processions of saints approach two and two from either side. Above is a series of small pictures representing the history of the life of the Virgin ; her death, and ascension, when she lets down her girdle to St. Thomas, forming the central group. On the apex is a miniature picture of her coronation. The predella below contains the life of Joachim and Anna, the supposed father and mother of the Virgin.

Other pictures here belong to the same period, and may have been attached to the external doors of the altar-piece. A Bronze Crucifix, by Giovanni da Bologna, is in a room beyond ; the figures of the Virgin and St. John border on the affectation -which belongs to a late school of art.

The village of the Impruneta is celebrated for its manu-facture of pottery, especially flower vases of large size, ornamented with reliefs. They are of a peculiar red clay, and are much valued for their excellence and durability.

Leaving the Impruneta by a road to the right, we arrive at the little church of Santa Felice in Ema, a very old foundation, having been erected in the tenth century ; it is beautifully situated above the little stream of the Ema. Here are the graves of the eminent astronomer, Professor Donati, who died in 1873, and the equally well-known botanist, Professor Parlatore, who died in 1877. The return to Florence from this church is by the Due Strade, where the road again joins the Via Sanese at the foot of the hill of the Gaggio.

Among the numerous walks and drives outside the Porta Romana, one of the pleasantest is to the little church of Santa Margherita in Ripoli, which is a conspicuous object, seen from all the neighbourhood of Florence. The pedestrian is well rewarded for a sharp climb, by the view from the summit of the hill on which it is perched. There is nothing of interest within, except a delicately carved marble pyx to hold the bread and wine. In olden times, when the Florentines were at war with their neighbours of Arezzo, the bell of Santa Margherita was set going, and tolled unceasingly for a month, to warn all persons to make ready for the impending fight.

Within half an hour’s walk from the Porta Romana is the modern observatory, built under the direction of Professor Donati, who has been succeeded as astronomer by a German Professor, Signor Giovanni Tempel. On a corresponding height at a short distance stands the old Torre del Gallo, which the celebrated Galileo made his observatory. The whole range of hills in this direction is known as Arcetri, and in the street just below the Torre del Gallo is the Villa Gioello, the country house of Galileo Galilei. Here he received visits from many distinguished friends, among others, John Milton, who in 1638, at the age of thirty, visited Italy. Galileo was then a blind old man of seventy-four. Milton alludes to his host in ‘ Paradise Lost,’ when describing the shield of Satan :

…his ponderous shield Ethereal temper, massy, large and round Behind him cast ; the broad circumference Hung on his shoulder like the moon, whose orb Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views At evening from the top of Fiesole, Or in Valdarno to descry new lands, Rivers or mountains in her spotty globe.

Galileo at one time made his observations from Fiesole, but what Milton here alludes to are his discoveries on the moon’s surface, by means of a telescope, constructed by himself in 1609. The moon until then had been considered a perfectly round self-luminous body, and it was Galileo who first perceived mountains and valleys with other irregularities ; also that she always turned the same face to the earth, and that her vibrations or vibratory motion bring the more distant parts of her hemisphere occasionally in view. The idea next suggested, that the moon might be inhabited, which the discoveries of Nasmyth in this century seem to have proved impossible, alarmed the so-called religious world of those days.

Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa in 1564, the son of a Florentine noble, Vincenzio Galilei, whose treatises on music are well known. The observations of the young Galileo on the vibrations of a lamp in the Pisan Cathedral led to the discovery and use of the pendulum. He was presented to the Grand Duke Ferdinand I. by his master in philosophy, Guido Ubaldi, and in 1589 was offered the chair of mathematical lecturer at Pisa. He then began to examine the accepted systems of astronomy, and finding them impossible to prove correct, he adopted that of the Danish philosopher, Copernicus. His views were at once denounced as heretical, as opposed to the Bible and to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church. He accordingly, in 1592, resigned his chair at Pisa, and accepted a professorship at Padua. He invented the telescope in 1609, and presented one to the Doge of Venice. It was at this time that he made his first observations on the moon ; his next great discovery was the satellites of Jupiter, which, in compliment to his first patrons, he named the Medicean stars.

Galileo having joined a party in the university who were resolved on the expulsion of the Jesuits, he was denounced by the Fathers to the inquisitors at Rome as dangerous to religion. He, however, presented himself in person to answer for his doctrines. Paul V. granted him an audience,- and the result was so satisfactory that the Pope promised him his protection, with the condition that he should cease to teach the Copernican theory of the earth’s motion.

Galileo returned to Florence, and resided a short time at the Villa Ombrellino at Bellosguardo, where he occupied himself with his garden, but afterwards removed to the Villa Gioello, at Arcetri, where he made use of the Torre di San Gallo for his observations, and probably passed some of his time at Fiesole. He had two natural daughters, who entered a convent, which may still be seen from the windows of the Villa Gioello. They were devotedly attached to their father, for whom they prepared cakes, and made and starched the broad white collars in which Sustermans has painted him.

About the year 1617 Galileo again visited Rome, and was well received by Pope Urban VIII., but when in 163o he published his celebrated treatise, ` Dialogues on the Ptolemaic and Copernican Systems,’ the Pope thought he recognised himself in an absurd simpleton who defended the Ptolemaic system. Ridicule was an offence not to be pardoned, and the inquisitors, under the pretext that Galileo had broken his promise not to teach the Copernican doctrines, summoned him to Rome, where he arrived, an old man of seventy, and broken in health. That he was put to the torture seems doubtful, and equally doubtful that he uttered the celebrated speech after a forced recantation,

E pur si muove,’ alluding to the earth’s motion. He was ordered into close confinement in the palace of the Archbishop of Sienna, where the greatest philosopher of the age was treated with contumely, and even forbidden to speak on science. In a century when the nobles and clergy of Florence were going forth in state to do homage to the black image of the Virgin of the Impruneta, the leaders of the people were not capable of appreciating discoveries of philosophical truth.

The eldest daughter of Galileo, Polyxena, or Sister Maria Celeste, was in constant correspondence with her father during his imprisonment at Sienna, and upwards of a hundred of her letters are preserved in the National Library of Florence. The answers were probably destroyed by the abbess of her convent. The serious illness of this daughter induced Galileo to petition fora mitigation of his sentence, and he was at length allowed to leave Sienna for Arcetri, where she died in his arms. From that time he was permitted to live in his town house on the Costa at Florence, though under strict surveillance, and he was able to consult physicians for his health. He paid occasional visits to the Grand Duke at his Villa: of Petraia, but was always conveyed thither in a close carriage, going early in the morning and returning after dark.

It was after his return to Arcetri, and when he had become totally blind from rheumatic gout in the eyes, that he finished another work, his ‘ Dialogues on Motion’ ; but such was the terror inspired by the Roman inquisitors, that he could not find a publisher, and had to send it to Amsterdam. His favourite pupils were Viviani and Torricelli, and Viviani was so warmly attached to him that he continued with him to the last. Galileo expired in his arms suddenly of heart disease in 1642.

A narrow lane leads from the Piazza di Volsanminiato at Arcetri to the grounds surrounding the old Torre del Gallo. In early days the place belonged to the now extinct family of the Galli, who were Ghibellines. Their castle was therefore confiscated by the Florentine Guelphs, and afterwards demolished. It was rebuilt when the land came into the possession of the Lamberteschi, who held it until 1464, when it was sold to Jacopo d’ Orsini Lanfredini, and during the siege of Florence it was the head-quarters of Pier Maria de’ Rossi, of Parma, one of the Imperial Generals, who fortified it, and ,added walls and trenches. Bernardino Lanfredini was re-warded for having hospitably entertained the enemies of Florence, and when the Medici were restored to power he was appointed to important offices.

The villa is now the property of the Galletti family, who have restored it as nearly as possible to the original form, and decorated the cloister at the entrance with the arms of the former occupants. The history of the Villa is recorded on a marble tablet. The only remains of its former grandeur is a beautiful room with a vaulted ceiling entered from the cloister. A narrow staircase leads to the museum in the tower, which contains a collection of relics of Galileo Galilei : his autograph in various letters, his telescope, microscope, &c., with a copy of Sustermans’ portrait and his bust. The tower is reached by a wooden ladder staircase within the room. From the summit of this tower the philosopher observed the libra.-tion of the moon. A splendid view of the whole surrounding country may be hence obtained.

From the Piazza Galileo on the Strada dei Colli, a narrow way leads past several villas to the little church of San Leonardo, whose date is lost in obscurity, though it is mentioned in documents of 1286. Within, is a pulpit remarkable for its high reliefs, representing the life of the Saviour, and resting on ancient Roman columns, with a variety of singular capitals. This pulpit is said to have been brought from Fiesole to San Pier Scheraggio, of Florence. After the destruction of that church it was carefully preserved, and in 1782 was presented by the, Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo to San Leonardo. The cupola over the high altar is decorated with frescoes by Cosimo Ulivelli (1625-1704), and on the right of the entrance is a picture of the Virgin with angels by Neri de’ Bicci. In the sacristy is another work of Neri’s, with the date 1467, and several pictures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

At the further end of the Via San Leonardo, Florence is re-entered by the Porta San Giorgio, built in 1364, and called after a church of that name on the Costa, a steep street, in which is a house with the inscription recording that here was the town residence of Galileo Galilei.