TWENTY years ago I saw Florence with the eye of sense for the first time, though to my ” mind’s eye ” the old city, within the first circuit, which was ” ancient ” even in Dante’s time (the area still contains much of what brings the perpetual stream of pilgrims to Florence), was more familiar than almost any other city space in the world.
We entered (my wife and I) on foot, between ten and eleven at night, having walked the last seven or eight miles of the way down along the old mountain road that runs direct from Bologna, just west of Fiesole. We chose this approach because I had a fancy that my first sight of Florence should be from the Uccellatoio, whence Dante tells us that in his day the splendour of ” the great city on the fair stream,” first breaking upon the astonished gaze of the traveller, outvied the glories of Rome as seen from Monte Mario. So we had made our plans accordingly.
Florence was the goal of our pilgrimage, but we had spent a few memorable days in Northern Italy on our way. One night we spent in Milan, one in Verona, two in Padua, one in Venice, and two in Ravenna. The apparent folly and the actual wisdom of this race through city after city (which was absolutely counter to all our theories and convictions) seem to me, to this day, equally incredible.
It appears so foolish to have planned so much. But then it was so wise to attempt so little, in the way of specific sight-seeing, in each city. For we never hurried, and we never came away from any-thing till we had got as much out of it as we could take in at a first view. We never came away from anything because ” we really must see ” something else. So in Milan we saw nothing. In Verona we saw the Amphitheatre and Verona ! In Padua we saw the Giottos in the Arena Chapel. In Venice we saw the opalescent light on the lagoons, we breathed the ozone, we saw the great panorama from the top of the Campanile, we felt the lurch of the gondola and the golden glory of San Marco came into our lives never to depart.’ Ravenna was more of a revelation than any other city. The period stretching from the fourth to the sixth centuries, that I had always thought of, or rather felt towards, as a kind of waste land, so far as any significance to human civilisation goes, opened up vista after vista. What if the lost history of Arianism could be re-covered ! What if we could know the whole life of that age in which the great system of Roman Law the most august instrument for the regulation of normal human relations that has ever been forged
1 What must Constantinople have been in the early years of the thirteenth century ! ‘The Venetians who joined the: Fourth Crusade under Dandolo, knew San Marco in all its comparatively youthful glory, but they were one and all stupefied by the unimaginable splendour of Byzantium. The historian Ville-Hardouin was in their company, and I sup-pose his record would have meant nothing very particular to me if I had read it before I had had . the opportunity of learning what the Venetian standard of splendour was likely to be. But now the very name of Byzantium seems to stretch the conception of earthly splendour beyond the dreams of oriental fable by man was matured and perfected ! What enlarged conceptions of art, and of the inexhaustible variety and beauty of the many phases and renderings of the Christian faith and hope, would be ours ! Ravenna is still there just to give us a hint of the lights that once shone in the depths of what we still call the ” dark ” ages. And we saw the Pineta, too Dante’s Pineta, which gave him images for his description of the Garden of Eden. Nowhere indeed was he nearer to us than in Ravenna.
And now we were to call a halt in this wild race, for we intended to make a stay in Florence. And we wanted to see her first from the Uccellatoio. So we took the light railway from Ravenna to Forli, and then turned north-west on the main line towards Bologna, got out at Faenza, and took the little Apennine railway, to climb and bore the mountains till we could strike the direct mountain road from Bologna, a little above Florence. It was a wonderful journey. Now a great city spread itself upon an upland plain, and now the weird forms of desolate clay hills and rocks vindicated the realistic accuracy of the artists (whom we had always credited hitherto with the extreme of childlike naiveté of imagination) in their depicting of the scenes in which the ” Fathers of the Wilderness ” exchanged friendships with ravens, hinds, or lions. When we came to Vaglia we left our train and took lunch at a little inn, where we should have had meagre fare if we had not brought some provisions from Ravenna. They gave us a pat of butter, however, and it was so white (being made, I suppose, from goat milk) that it made the plates and the spotless cloth look blue. I understood why Dante describes the heraldic shield of a certain usurer as bearing a ” goose whiter than butter,” and when I got home I persuaded a certain translator of the Comedy, who had substituted ” curd ” for ” butter ” in his version, to let Dante have his way in the next edition of his volume.
My wife was no great pedestrian, even twenty years ago, so we were glad to come across a peasant who was driving his eggs to the market in a donkey cart, and who cheerfully added the ” signora ” to his load, while I walked by his side, holding such converse as the Tower of Babel still leaves possible under such circumstances. When he stopped to bait, we parted from him, with mutual satisfaction as to terms, and pursued our way on foot.
The unwarned traveller by this road would see neither the Uccellatoio nor Florence. For when you have just passed, on your left, the tangle of byways that throws a net round the mountain village of Pratolino, the present road cuts inside a little ridge on a spur of Monte Morello, and so escapes a stiff rise up to the Uccellatoio and misses the view of Florence ! And the city, as a whole, is never seen if you miss it here. But we were forearmed. The very friend who had not dared to trust the British public with Dante’s ” white butter ” (though I am sure he knew all about it himself, for what he does not know about Italy is hardly worth finding out) had told us what to do.
So we forked off to the right from the present highway, and, keeping the old road of Dante’s day, climbed the ascent to the Outlook. But black care was already seated on our hearts ; for we had miscalculated our time, and at first we feared, and then dismally acknowledged that we knew, that night would have fallen before we came in view of Florence. And so it was. We reached the spot, and all in a moment, as we turned a corner of the hill, there gleamed up out of the valley, like a cloud of fire-flies, the lights of Florence, still some miles distant. Tired travellers are apt to be over-nice as to accommodation (unless indeed they are dog-tired, which we were not as yet), and there seemed no remotest chance of finding any quarters at the Uccellatoio that I could in conscience ask my wife to accept, with a view to recovering in the morning the chance we had lost at night. So with a pang we relinquished the dream of years ; but after all we were too rich to repine, and we tried to console ourselves with the idea that this ” first view ” craze was only a fancy, and had a strong flavour of sentimentality about it ; and that we should have many other opportunities of looking down upon Florence from the Uccellatoio. As a matter of fact, neither of us has ever been there again.
So on we trudged, expecting soon to find some conveyance, perhaps a tram. But we were disappointed. Through Trespiano (which Dante seems to wish were still the northern boundary of the Florentine territory, as it was in the good old times) on into the outskirts of Florence herself we went, through interminable stretches of the modern city, till suddenly, after just one moment of confusion, caused by a sight of San Lorenzo, we found our-selves right on the area of Cacciaguida’s 1 Florence and mine. There was the Baptistery, the trans-formed Temple of Mars, according to Florentine tradition, the Cathedral of Cacciaguida’s day, and Dante’s ” mio bel San Giovanni,” where he was baptized, and where he vainly hoped that his reconciled City might crown him as a poet when once he had completed the Paradiso. And there were the bronze doors, ” worthy to be the gates of Paradise,” added in the Renaissance times. Hard by was Giotto’s Tower, and the great Duomo, of which Dante saw the foundations, but no more. It seemed only a few steps (but this I was prepared for) to the Loggia dei Lanzi and the Palazzo Vecchio, and then to the Ponte Vecchio all actually here ” if anywhere.” Then a turn to the right, a pause on the Ponte Santa Trinita, as the moon rose over San Miniato and the Arno twinkled under her beams, and in a few moments we were groping our way in pitch darkness up the ” well ” of an old palace, now a hospitable pension, where we lay down with thankful hearts to sleep in Florence, and henceforth for a season to measure our hours by the boom of the great bell that still floods the air of Florence with its mellow wealth of sound, from the height of Giotto’s Campanile, and is still a living presence in our hearts.