Travel Letters: Florence, Hotel De L’ Arno (1866)

DEAR WILLIAM, — Here I am in my third day at Florence. Before I begin to rave about the city, I will tell you how I came here. When I wrote to John, I was in the midst of Holy Week at Rome. Many of its services, such as the washing of feet and tending on table by the Pope, were disagree-able and fatiguing, But three things stand out in my recollection as very fine and impressive. One was the Miserere in the Sistine Chapel on Thursday evening, by far the most sublime and affecting sacred music I ever heard. The dim chapel, dusky old frescoes, and splendid presence joined with the wonderful music to make it very impressive. Then the great Papal Benediction on Easter Day at noon, from the balcony of St. Peter’s, the vast piazza crowded full, the peasants from all the surrounding country in their strange dresses, the gorgeous background of soldiery, the perfect stillness, and the voice of the old man ringing out his blessing over them all. It was one of the sights of a lifetime. Third, the illumination of St. Peter’s at night was magnificent. Every line of the majestic dome bursting out in fire, the whole standing as if it were the fiery dome that Michael Angelo conceived and tried to build.

Besides these, the moment in the Easter service was very solemn when the Host was elevated, the silver trumpets sounded in the dome, and the whole vast audience fell on their knees. Romanism certainly succeeds in being very striking in some of its demonstrations. Unfortunately, Easter Monday was a windy clay, and the great fireworks had to be put off, so that I did not see them.

It was hard to leave dear old Rome ; I had learned to love it, and hated to go away. My six weeks there will always be a treasure to me. I know it through and through, but it makes me sorry to think that I shall never see it again. I left on Tuesday morning by rail for Terni, where I stopped over night and went to see the famous falls. They are macle falls, but very beautiful, with more variety of surface and effect, I think, than any cataract I know. Wednesday by rail to Foligno, and thence by Vittoria to Perugia, stopping at Assizi, where is one of the most interesting old churches of all Italy, built in honor of St. Francis, who was hermit here. It is rich in the pictures of Cimabue and Giotto, the first of modern painters,—founders of modern painting.

Perugia is a dear old town, full of the pictures of Perugino, Raphael’s master. Thursday by Vittoria and rail to Florence, passing lake Trasimeno, where Hannibal gave the Romans such a whipping. Of Florence I cannot speak yet, though I have had two great days here. Think of one room in the Uffizi Palace containing the Venus de Medici (I don’t like her, she is too little, physically, morally, and mentally), three Raphaels, two Titians, one Michael Angelo, and lots besides, and that will give you, when you multiply it by fifty or a hundred, some idea of what is waiting for you to see here at Florence. Go to the Athenaeum and look at Michael Angelo’s Night and Morning. They are here in solemn marble, over the Medicis’ tomb in St. Lorenzo church. Yesterday I went up to Fiesole, and looked down on this perfect valley with its beautiful town, and this morning I climbed to the top of Giotto’s Campanile in the great cathedral square, and saw the city from there. Tomorrow I am going down to Pisa to see if that tower really leans, as Woodbridge’s Geography said, and after spending the week here, I shall be off for Bologna and Venice. I wonder sometimes that one does not tire of the very excess of interest and beauty, but the constant change is a constant impulse, and I am fresher for enjoying things to-day than I was when I first set foot at Queenstown.

On arriving here, I found yours of March 20 ; it seems as if I were almost at home to get such recent dates. Now I shall hear regularly every week. Four weeks from today I shall be in Paris. By the way, where are your commissions for the centre of fashions? What number gloves do you wear ? I am glad you think I am economical. I perpetrated one or two extravagances at Rome, a bronze, etc. I saw Miss Foley in Rome and liked her exceedingly ; she gave me some pretty photographs of some of her things, which you will find with those which I sent in John’s letter. I have met friends here who were large purchasers, with whose boxes my modest bundles could be easily and cheaply packed.

Now, a commission for you. I want a copy of Mr. Sumner’s speech on the Representation amendment in pamphlet. I must have it. If you cannot get it any other way, do write to him direct, and ask for it. I am anxious to have it for a particular reason. The Freedmen’s Union have asked me to go to London to the anniversary meetings in May to enlighten John Bull’s Emancipation League. Good-by, I am perfectly well, and, as you see, perfectly happy. Love to all. Affectionately,

PHILLIPS.