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Chapter 34


Sept. 11.

Our situation here is as agreeable as we could well desire. We have three large and handsomely furnished rooms, in the centre of the city, for which we pay Signor Lazzeri, a wealthy goldsmith, ten scudo per month--a scudo being a trifle more than an American dollar. We live at the Cafès and Trattone very conveniently for twenty-five cents a day, enjoying moreover, at our dinner in the Trattoria del Cacciatore, the company of several American artists with whom we have become acquainted. The day after our arrival we met at the table d'hote of the "Lione Bianco," Dr. Boardman of New York, through whose assistance we obtained our present lodgings. There are at present ten or twelve American artists in Florence, and we promise ourselves much pleasure and profit from their acquaintance. B---- and I are so charmed with the place and the beautiful Tuscan dialect, that we shall endeavor to spend three or four months here. F---- returns to Germany in two weeks, to attend the winter term of the University at his favorite Heidelberg.

Our first walk in Florence was to the Royal Gallery--we wished to see the "goddess living in stone" without delay. Crossing the neighboring Piazza del Granduca, we passed Michael Angelo's colossal statue of David, and an open gallery containing, besides some antiques, the master-piece of John of Bologna. The palace of the Uffizii, fronting on the Arno, extends along both sides of an avenue running back to the Palazzo Vecchio. We entered the portico which passes around under the great building, and after ascending three or four flights of steps, came into a long hall, filled with paintings and ancient statuary. Towards the end of this, a door opened into the Tribune--that celebrated room, unsurpassed by any in the world for the number and value of the gems it contains. I pushed aside a crimson curtain and stood in the presence of the Venus.

It may be considered heresy, but I confess I did not at first go into raptures, nor perceive any traces of superhuman beauty. The predominant feeling, if I may so express it, was satisfaction; the eye dwells on its faultless outline with a gratified sense, that nothing is wanting to render it perfect. It is the ideal of a woman's form--a faultless standard by which all beauty may be measured, but without striking expression, except in the modest and graceful position of the limbs. The face, though regular, is not handsome, and the body appears small, being but five feet in height, which, I think, is a little below the average stature of women. On each side, as if to heighten its elegance by contrast with rude and unrefined nature, are the statues of the Wrestlers, and the slave listening to the conspiracy of Catiline, called also The Whetter.

As if to correspond with the value of the works it holds, the Tribune is paved with precious marbles and the ceiling studded with polished mother-of-pearl. A dim and subdued light fills the hall, which throws over the mind that half-dreamy tone necessary to the full enjoyment of such objects. On each side of the Venus de Medici hangs a Venus by Titian, the size of life, and painted in that rich and gorgeous style of coloring which has been so often and vainly attempted since his time.

Here are six of Raphael's best preserved paintings. I prefer the "St. John in the Desert" to any other picture in the Tribune. His glorious form, in the fair proportions of ripening boyhood--the grace of his attitude, with the arm lifted eloquently on high--the divine inspiration which illumines his young features--chain the step irresistibly before it. It is one of those triumphs of the pencil which few but Raphael have accomplished--the painting of spirit in its loftiest and purest form. Near it hangs the Fornarina, which he seems to have painted in as deep a love as he entertained for the original. The face is modest and beautiful, and filled with an expression of ardent and tender attachment. I never tire looking upon either of these two.

Let me not forget, while we are in this peerless hall, to point out Guercino's Samian Sybil. It is a glorious work. With her hands clasped over her volume, she is looking up with a face full of deep and expressive sadness. A picturesque turban is twined around her head, and bands of pearls gleam amidst her rich, dark brown tresses. Her face bears the softness of dawning womanhood, and nearly answers my ideal of female beauty. The same artist has another fine picture here--a sleeping Endymion. The mantle has fallen from his shoulders, as he reclines asleep, with his head on his hand, and his crook beside him. The silver crescent of Dian looks over his shoulder from the sky behind, and no wonder if she should become enamored, for a lovelier shepherd has not been seen since that of King Admetus went back to drive his chariot in the heavens.

The "Drunken Bacchus" of Michael Angelo is greatly admired, and indeed it might pass for a relic of the palmiest times of Grecian art. The face, amidst its half-vacant, sensual expression, shows traces of its immortal origin, and there is still an air of dignity preserved in the swagger of his beautiful form. It is, in a word, the ancient idea of a drunken god. It may be doubted whether the artist's talents might not have been employed better than in ennobling intoxication. If he had represented Bacchus as he really is--degraded even below the level of humanity--it might be more beneficial to the mind, though less beautiful to the eye. However, this is a question on which artists and moralists cannot agree. Perhaps, too, the rich blood of the Falernian grape produced a more godlike delirium than the vulgar brandy which oversets the moderns!

At one end of the gallery is a fine copy in marble of the Laocoon, by Bandinelli, one of the rivals of Michael Angelo. When it was finished, the former boasted it was better than the original, to which Michael made the apt reply: "It is foolish for those who walk in the footsteps of others, to say they go before them!"

Let us enter the hall of Niobe. One starts back on seeing the many figures in the attitude of flight, for they seem at first about to spring from their pedestals. At the head of the room stands the afflicted mother, bending over the youngest daughter who clings to her knees, with an upturned countenance of deep and imploring agony. In vain! the shafts of Apollo fall thick, and she will soon be childless. No wonder the strength of that woe depicted on her countenance should change her into stone. One of her sons--a beautiful, boyish form,--is lying on his back, just expiring, with the chill langour of death creeping over his limbs. We seem to hear the quick whistling of the arrows, and look involuntarily into the air to see the hovering figure of the avenging god. In a chamber near is kept the head of a faun, made by Michael Angelo, at the age of fourteen, in the garden of Lorenzo de Medici, from a piece of marble given him by the workmen.

The portraits of the painters are more than usually interesting. Every countenance is full of character. There is the pale, enthusiastic face of Raphael, the stern vigor of Titian, the majesty and dignity of Leonardo da Vinci, and the fresh beauty of Angelica Kauffmann. I liked best the romantic head of Raphael Mengs. In one of the rooms there is a portrait of Alfieri, with an autograph sonnet of his own on the back of it. The house in which he lived and died, is on the north bank of the Arno, near the Ponte Caraja, and his ashes rest in Santa Croce.

Italy still remains the home of art, and it is but just she should keep these treasures, though the age that brought them forth has passed away. They are her only support now; her people are dependent for their subsistence on the glory of the past. The spirits of the old painters, living still on their canvass, earn from year to year the bread of an indigent and oppressed people. This ought to silence those utilitarians at home, who oppose the cultivation of the fine arts, on the ground of their being useless luxuries. Let them look to Italy, where a picture by Raphael or Correggio is a rich legacy for a whole city. Nothing is useless that gratifies that perception of beauty, which is at once the most delicate and the most intense of our mental sensations, binding us by an unconscious link nearer to nature and to Him, whose every thought is born of Beauty, Truth and Love. I envy not the one who looks with a cold and indifferent spirit on these immortal creations of the old masters--these poems written in marble and on the canvass. They who oppose every thing which can refine and spiritualize the nature of man, by binding him down to the cares of the work-day world alone, cheat life of half its glory.

The eighth of this month was the anniversary of the birth of the Virgin, and the celebration, if such it might be called, commenced the evening before, It is the custom, and Heaven only knows how it originated, for the people of the lower class to go through the streets in a company, blowing little penny whistles. We were walking that night in the direction of the Duomo, when we met a band of these men, blowing with all their might on the shrill whistles, so that the whole neighborhood resounded with one continual, piercing, ear-splitting shriek. They marched in a kind of quick trot through the streets, followed by a crowd of boys, and varying the noise occasionally by shouts and howls of the most horrible character. They paraded through all the principal streets of the city, which for an hour sent up such an agonizing scream that you might have fancied it an enormous monster, expiring in great torment. The people seemed to take the whole thing as a matter of course, but it was to us a novel manner of ushering in a religious festival.

The sky was clear and blue, as it always is in this Italian paradise, when we left Florence a few days ago for Fiesole. In spite of many virtuous efforts to rise early, it was nine o'clock before we left the Porta San Gallo, with its triumphal arch to the Emperor Francis, striding the road to Bologna. We passed through the public walk at this end of the city, and followed the road to Fiesole along the dried-up bed of a mountain torrent. The dwellings of the Florentine nobility occupy the whole slope, surrounded with rich and lovely gardens. The mountain and plain are both covered with luxuriant olive orchards, whose foliage of silver gray gives the scene the look of a moonlight landscape.

At the base of the mountain of Fiesole we passed one of the summer palaces of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and a little distance beyond, took a foot-path overshadowed by magnificent cypresses, between whose dark trunks we looked down on the lovely Val d'Arno. But I will reserve all description of the view till we arrive at the summit.

The modern village of Fiesole occupies the site of an ancient city, generally supposed to be of Etrurian origin. Just above, on one of the peaks of the mountain, stands the Acropolis, formerly used as a fortress, but now untenanted save by a few monks. From the side of its walls, beneath the shade of a few cypresses, there is a magnificent view of the whole of Val d'Arno, with Florence--the gem of Italy--in the centre. Stand with me a moment on the height, and let us gaze on this grand panorama, around which the Apennines stretch with a majestic sweep, wrapped in a robe of purple air, through which shimmer the villas and villages on their sides! The lovely vale lies below us in its garb of olive groves, among which beautiful villas are sprinkled as plentifully as white anemones in the woods of May. Florence lies in front of us, the magnificent cupola of the Duomo crowning its clustered palaces. We see the airy tower of the Palazzo Vecchio--the new spire of Santa Croce--and the long front of the Palazzo Pitti, with the dark foliage of the Boboli Gardens behind. Beyond, far to the south, are the summits of the mountains near Siena. We can trace the sandy bed of the Arno down the valley till it disappears at the foot of the Lower Apennines, which mingle in the distance with the mountains of Carrara.

Galileo was wont to make observations "at evening from the top of Fiesole," and the square tower of the old church is still pointed out as the spot. Many a night did he ascend to its projecting terrace, and watch the stars as they rolled around through the clearest heaven to which a philosopher ever looked up.

We passed through an orchard of fig trees, and vines laden with beautiful purple and golden clusters, and in a few minutes reached the remains of an amphitheatre, in a little nook on the mountain side. This was a work of Roman construction, as its form indicates. Three or four ranges of seats alone, are laid bare, and these have only been discovered within a few years. A few steps further we came to a sort of cavern, overhung with wild fig-trees. After creeping in at the entrance, we found ourselves in an oval chamber, tall enough to admit of our standing upright, and rudely but very strongly built. This was one of the dens in which the wild beasts were kept; they were fed by a hole in the top, now closed up. This cell communicates with four or five others, by apertures broken in the walls. I stepped into one, and could see in the dim light, that it was exactly similar to the first, and opened into another beyond.

Further down the mountain we found the ancient wall of the city, without doubt of Etrurian origin. It is of immense blocks of stone, and extends more or less dilapidated around the whole brow of the mountain. In one place there stands a solitary gateway, of large stones, which looks as if it might have been one of the first attempts at using the principle of the arch. These ruins are all gray and ivied, and it startles one to think what a history Earth has lived through since their foundations were laid!

We sat all the afternoon under the cypress trees and looked down on the lovely valley, practising Italian sometimes with two young Florentines who came up to enjoy the "bell'aria" of Fiesole. Descending as sunset drew on, we reached the Porta San Gallo, as the people of Florence were issuing forth to their evening promenade.

One of my first visits was to the church of Santa Croce. This is one of the oldest in Florence, venerated alike by foreigners and citizens, for the illustrious dead whose remains it holds. It is a plain, gloomy pile, the front of which is still unfinished, though at the base, one sees that it was originally designed to be covered with black marble. On entering the door we first saw the tomb of Michael Angelo. Around the marble sarcophagus which contains his ashes are three mourning figures, representing Sculpture, Painting and Architecture, and his bust stands above--a rough, stern countenance, like a man of vast but unrefined mind. Further on are the tombs of Alfieri and Machiavelli and the colossal cenotaph lately erected to Dante. Opposite reposes Galileo. What a world of renown in these few names! It makes one venerate the majesty of his race, to stand beside the dust of such lofty spirits.

Dante's monument may be said to be only erected to his memory; he sleeps at the place of his exile,

"Like Scipio, buried by the upbraiding shore!"

It is the work of Ricci, a Florentine artist, and has been placed there within a few years. The colossal figure of Poetry weeping over the empty urn, might better express the regret of Florence in being deprived of his ashes. The figure of Dante himself, seated above, is grand and majestic; his head is inclined as if in meditation, and his features bear the expression of sublime thought. Were this figure placed there alone, on a simple and massive pedestal, it would be more in keeping with his fame than the lumbering heaviness of the present monument.

Machiavelli's tomb is adorned with a female figure representing History, bearing his portrait. The inscription, which seems to be somewhat exaggerated, is: tanto nomini nullum par elogium. Near lies Alfieri, the "prince of tragedy," as he is called by the Italians. In his life he was fond of wandering among the tombs of Santa Croce, and it is said that there the first desire and presentiment of his future glory stirred within his breast. Now he slumbers among them, not the least honored name of that immortal company.

Galileo's tomb is adorned with his bust. His face is calm and dignified, and he holds appropriately in his hands, a globe and telescope. Aretino, the historian, lies on his tomb with a copy of his works clasped to his breast; above that of Lanzi, the historian of painting, there is a beautiful fresco of the angel of fame; and opposite to him is the scholar Lamio. The most beautiful monument in the church is that of a Polish princess, in the transept. She is lying on the bier, her features settled in the repose of death, and her thin, pale hands clasped across her breast. The countenance wears that half-smile, "so coldly sweet and sadly fair," which so often throws a beauty over the face of the dead, and the light pall reveals the fixed yet graceful outline of the form.

In that part of the city, which lies on the south bank of the Arno, is the palace of the Grand Duke, known by the name of the Palazzo Pitti, from a Florentine noble of that name, by whom it was first built. It is a very large, imposing pile, preserving an air of lightness in spite of the rough, heavy stones of which it is built. It is another example of a magnificent failure. The Marquis Strozzi, having built a palace which was universally admired for its beauty, (which stands yet, a model of chaste and massive elegance,) his rival, the Marquis Pitti, made the proud boast that he would build a palace, in the court-yard of which could bo placed that of Strozzi. These are actually the dimensions of the court-yard; but in building the palace, although he was liberally assisted by the Florentine people, he ruined himself, and his magnificent residence passed into other hands, while that of Strozzi is inhabited by his descendants to this very day.

The gallery of the Palazzo Pitti is one of the finest in Europe. It contains six or seven hundred paintings, selected from the best works of the Italian masters. By the praiseworthy liberality of the Duke, they are open to the public, six hours every day, and the rooms are thronged with artists of all nations.

Among Titian's works, there is his celebrated "Bella," a half-length figure of a young woman. It is a masterpiece of warm and brilliant coloring, without any decided expression. The countenance is that of vague, undefined thought, as of one who knew as yet nothing of the realities of life. In another room is his Magdalen, a large, voluptuous form, with her brown hair falling like a veil over her shoulders and breast, but in her upturned countenance one can sooner read a prayer for an absent lover than repentance for sins she has committed.

What could excel in beauty the Madonna della Sedia of Raphael? It is another of those works of that divine artist, on which we gaze and gaze with a never-tiring enjoyment of its angelic beauty. To my eye it is faultless; I could not wish a single outline of form, a single shade of color changed. Like his unrivalled Madonna in the Dresden Gallery, its beauty is spiritual as well as earthly; and while gazing on the glorious countenance of the Jesus-child, I feel an impulse I can scarcely explain--a longing to tear it from the canvas as if it were a breathing form, and clasp it to my heart in a glow of passionate love. What a sublime inspiration Raphael must have felt when he painted it! Judging from its effect on the beholder, I can conceive of no higher mental excitement than that required to create it.

Here are also some of the finest and best preserved pictures of Salvator Rosa, and his portrait--a wild head, full of spirit and genius. Besides several landscapes in his savage and stormy style, there are two large sea-views, in which the atmosphere is of a deep and exquisite softness, without impairing the strength and boldness of the composition. "A Battle Scene," is terrible. Hundreds of combatants are met in the shock and struggle of conflict. Horses, mailed knights, vassals are mixed together in wild confusion; banners are waving and lances flashing amid the dust and smoke, while the wounded and dying are trodden under foot in darkness and blood. I now first begin to comprehend the power and sublimity of his genius. From the wildness and gloom of his pictures, he might almost be called the Byron of painters.

There is a small group of the "Fates," by Michael Angelo, which is one of the best of the few pictures which remain of him. As is well known, he disliked the art, saying it was only fit for women. This picture shows, however, how much higher he might have gone, had he been so inclined. The three weird sisters are ghostly and awful--the one who stands behind, holding the distaff, almost frightful. She who stands ready to cut the thread as it is spun out, has a slight trace of pity on her fixed and unearthly lineaments. It is a faithful embodiment of the old Greek idea of the Fates. I have wondered why some artist has not attempted the subject in a different way. In the Northern Mythology they are represented as wild maidens, armed with swords and mounted on fiery coursers. Why might they not also be pictured as angels, with countenances of a sublime and mysterious beauty--one all radiant with hope and promise of glory, and one with the token of a better future mingled with the sadness with which it severs the links of life?

There are many, many other splendid works in this collection, but it is unnecessary to mention them. I have only endeavored, by taking a few of the best known, to give some idea of them as they appear to me. There are hundreds of pictures here, which, though gems in themselves, are by masters who are rarely heard of in America, and it would be of little interest to go through the Gallery, describing it in guide-book fashion. Indeed, to describe galleries, however rich and renowned they may be, is in general a work of so much difficulty, that I know not whether the writer or the reader is made most tired thereby.

This collection possesses also the celebrated statue of Venus, by Canova. She stands in the centre of a little apartment, filled with the most delicate and graceful works of painting. Although undoubtedly a figure of great beauty, it by no means struck me as possessing that exquisite and classic perfection which has been ascribed to it. The Venus de Medici far surpasses it. The head is larger in proportion to the size of the body, than that of the latter, but has not the same modest, virgin expression. The arm wrapped in the robe which she is pressing to her breast, is finely executed, but the fingers of the other hand are bad--looking, as my friend said, as if the ends were whittled off! The body is, however, of fine proportions, though, taken as a whole, the statue is inferior to many other of Canova's works.

Occupying all the hill back of the Pitti Palace, are the Boboli Gardens, three times a week the great resort of the Florentines. They are said to be the most beautiful gardens in Italy. Numberless paths, diverging from a magnificent amphitheatre in the old Roman style, opposite the court-yard, lend either in long flights of steps and terraces, or gentle windings among beds sweet with roses, to the summit. Long avenues, entirely arched and interwoven with the thick foliage of the laurel, which here grows to a tree, stretch along the slopes or wind in the woods through thickets of the fragrant bay. Parterres, rich with flowers and shrubbery, alternate with delightful groves of the Italian pine, acacia and laurel-leaved oak, and along the hillside, gleaming among the foliage, are placed statues of marble, some of which are from the chisels of Michael Angelo and Bandinelli. In one part there is a little sheet of water, with an island of orange-trees in the centre, from which a broad avenue of cypresses and statues leads to the very summit of the hill.

We often go there to watch the sun set over Florence and the vale of the Arno. The palace lies directly below, and a clump of pine-trees on the hillside, that stand out in bold relief on the glowing sky, makes the foreground to one of the loveliest pictures this side of the Atlantic. I saw one afternoon the Grand Duke and his family get into their carriage to drive out. One of the little dukes, who seemed a mischievous imp, ran out on a projection of the portico, where considerable persuasion had to be used to induce him to jump into the arms of his royal papa. I turned from these titled infants to watch a group of beautiful American children playing, for my attention was drawn to them by the sound of familiar words, and I learned afterwards they were the children of the sculptor Powers. I contrasted involuntarily the destinies of each;--one to the enjoyment and proud energy of freedom, and one to the confining and vitiating atmosphere of a court. The merry voices of the latter, as they played on the grass, came to my ears most gratefully. There is nothing so sweet as to hear one's native tongue in a foreign land from the lips of children!

Bayard Taylor