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Chapter 36



October 16.

My cousin, being anxious to visit Rome, and reach Heidelberg before the commencement of the winter semestre, set out towards the end of September, on foot. We accompanied him as far as Siena, forty miles distant. As I shall most probably take another road to the Eternal City, the present is a good opportunity to say something of that romantic old town, so famous throughout Italy for the honesty of its inhabitants.

We dined the first day, seventeen miles from Florence, at Tavenella, where, for a meagre dinner the hostess had the assurance to ask us seven pauls. We told her we would give but four and a half, and by assuming a decided manner, with a plentiful use of the word "Signora" she was persuaded to be fully satisfied with the latter sum. From a height near, we could see the mountains coasting the Mediterranean, and shortly after, on descending a long hill, the little town of Poggibonsi lay in the warm afternoon light, on an eminence before us. It was soon passed with its dusky towers, then Stagia looking desolate in its ruined and ivied walls, and following the advice of a peasant, we stopped for the night at the inn of Querciola. As we knew something of Italian by this time, we thought it best to inquire the price of lodging, before entering. The padrone asked if we meant to take supper also. We answered in the affirmative; "then," said he, "you will pay half a paul (about five emits) apiece for a bed." We passed under the swinging bunch of boughs, which in Italy is the universal sign of an inn for the common people, and entered the bare, smoky room appropriated to travelers. A long table, with well-worn benches, were the only furniture; we threw our knapsacks on one end of it and sat down, amusing ourselves while supper was preparing, in looking at a number of grotesque charcoal drawings on the wall, which the flaring light of our tall iron lamp revealed to us. At length the hostess, a kindly-looking woman, with a white handkerchief folded gracefully around her head, brought us a dish of fried eggs, which, with the coarse black bread of the peasants and a basket full of rich grapes, made us an excellent supper. We slept on mattresses stuffed with corn husks, placed on square iron frames, which are the bedsteads most used in Italy. A brightly-painted caricature of some saint or a rough crucifix, trimmed with bay leaves, hung at the head of each bed, and under their devout protection we enjoyed a safe and unbroken slumber.

Next morning we set out early to complete the remaining ten miles to Siena. The only thing of interest on the road, is the ruined wall and battlements of Castiglione, circling a high hill and looking as old as the days of Etruria. The towers of Siena are seen at some distance, but approaching it from this side, the traveler does not perceive its romantic situation until he arrives. It stands on a double hill, which is very steep on some sides; the hollow between the two peaks is occupied by the great public square, ten or fifteen feet lower than the rest of the city. We left our knapsacks at a cafè and sought the celebrated Cathedral, which stands in the highest part of the town, forming with its flat dome and lofty marble tower, an apex to the pyramidal mass of buildings.

The interior is rich and elegantly perfect. Every part is of black and white marble, in what I should call the striped style, which has a singular but agreeable effect. The inside of the dome and the vaulted ceilings of the chapels, are of blue, with golden stars; the pavement in the centre is so precious a work that it is kept covered with boards and only shown once a year. There are some pictures of great value in this Cathedral; one of "The Descent of the Dove," is worthy of the best days of Italian art. In an adjoining chamber, with frescoed walls, and a beautiful tesselated pavement, is the library, consisting of a few huge old volumes, which with their brown covers and brazen clasps, look as much like a collection of flat leather trunks as any thing else. In the centre of the room stands the mutilated group of the Grecian Graces, found in digging the foundation of the Cathedral. The figures are still beautiful and graceful, with that exquisite curve of outline which is such a charm in the antique statues. Canova has only perfected the idea in his celebrated group, which is nearly a copy of this.

We strolled through the square and then accompanied our friend to the Roman gate, where we took leave of him for six months at least. He felt lonely at the thought of walking in Italy without a companion, but was cheered by the anticipation of soon reaching Rome. We watched him awhile, walking rapidly over the hot plain towards Radicofani, and then, turning our faces with much pleasure towards Florence, we commenced the return walk. I must not forget to mention the delicious grapes which we bought, begged and stole on the way. The whole country is like one vineyard--and the people live, in a great measure, on the fruit, during this part of the year. Would you not think it highly romantic and agreeable to sit in the shade of a cypress grove, beside some old weather-beaten statues, looking out over the vales of the Appenines, with a pile of white and purple grapes beside you, the like of which can scarcely be had in America for love or money, and which had been given you by a dark-eyed peasant girl? If so, you may envy us, for such was exactly our situation on the morning before reaching Florence.

Being in the Duomo, two or three days ago, I met a German traveler, who has walked through Italy thus far, and intends continuing his journey to Rome and Naples. His name is Von Raumer. He was well acquainted with the present state of America, and I derived much pleasure from his intelligent conversation. We concluded to ascend the cupola in company. Two black-robed boys led the way; after climbing an infinite number of steps, we reached the gallery around the foot of the dome. The glorious view of that paradise, the vale of the Arno, shut in on all sides by mountains, some bare and desolate, some covered with villas, gardens, and groves, lay in soft, hazy light, with the shadows of a few light clouds moving slowly across it. They next took us to a gallery on the inside of the dome, where we first saw the immensity of its structure. Only from a distant view, or in ascending it, can one really measure its grandeur. The frescoes, which from below appear the size of life, are found to be rough and monstrous daubs; each figure being nearly as many fathoms in length as a man is feet. Continuing our ascent, we mounted between the inside and outside shells of the dome. It was indeed a bold idea for Brunelleschi to raise such a mass in air. The dome of Saint Peter's, which is scarcely as large, was not made until a century after, and this was, therefore, the first attempt at raising one on so grand a scale. It seems still as solid as if just built.

There was a small door in one of the projections of the lantern, which the sacristan told us to enter and ascend still higher. Supposing there was a fine view to be gained, two priests, who had just come up, entered it; the German followed, and I after him. After crawling in at the low door, we found ourselves in a hollow pillar, little wider than our bodies. Looking up, I saw the German's legs just above my head, while the other two were above him, ascending by means of little iron bars fastened in the marble. The priests were very much amused, and the German said:--"This is the first time I ever learned chimney-sweeping!" We emerged at length into a hollow cone, hot and dark, with a rickety ladder going up somewhere; we could not see where. The old priest, not wishing to trust himself to it, sent his younger brother up, and we shouted after him:--"What kind of a view have you?" He climbed up till the cone got so narrow he could go no further, and answered back in the darkness:--"I see nothing at all!" Shortly after he came down, covered with dust and cobwebs, and we all descended the chimney quicker than we went up. The old priest considered it a good joke, and laughed till his fat sides shook. We asked the sacristan why he sent us up, and he answered:--"To see the construction of the Church!"

I attended service in the Cathedral one dark, rainy morning, and was never before so deeply impressed with the majesty and grandeur of the mighty edifice. The thick, cloudy atmosphere darkened still more the light which came through the stained windows, and a solemn twilight reigned in the long aisles. The mighty dome sprang far aloft, as if it enclosed a part of heaven, for the light that struggled through the windows around its base, lay in broad bars on the blue, hazy air. I would not have been surprised at seeing a cloud float along within it. The lofty burst of the organ, that seemed like the pantings of a monster, boomed echoing away through dome and nave, with a chiming, metallic vibration, that shook the massive pillars which it would defy an earthquake to rend. All was wrapped in dusky obscurity, except where, in the side-chapels, crowns of tapers were burning around the images. One knows not which most to admire, the genius which could conceive, or the perseverance which could accomplish such a work, On one side of the square, the colossal statue of the architect, glorious old Brunelleschi, is most appropriately placed, looking up with pride at his performance.

The sunshine and genial airs of Italy have gone, leaving instead a cold, gloomy sky and chilling winds. The autumnal season has fairly commenced, and I suppose I must bid adieu to the brightness which made me in love with the land. The change has been no less sudden than unpleasant, and if, as they say, it will continue all winter with little variation, I shall have to seek a clearer climate. In the cold of these European winters, there is, as I observed last year in Germany, a dull, damp chill, quite different from the bracing, exhilarating frosts of America. It stagnates the vital principle and leaves the limbs dull and heavy, with a lifeless feeling which can scarcely be overcome by vigorous action. At least, such has been my experience.

We lately made an excursion to Pratolino, on the Appenines, to see the vintage and the celebrated colossus, by John of Bologna. Leaving Florence in the morning, with a cool, fresh wind blowing down from the mountains, we began ascending by the road to Bologna. We passed Fiesole with its tower and acropolis on the right, ascending slowly, with the bold peak of one of the loftiest Appenines on our left. The abundant fruit of the olive was beginning to turn brown, and the grapes were all gathered in from the vineyards, but we learned from a peasant boy that the vintage was not finished at Pratolino.

We finally arrived at an avenue shaded with sycamores, leading to the royal park. The vintagers were busy in the fields around, unloading the vines of their purple tribute, and many a laugh and jest among the merry peasants enlivened the toil. We assisted them in disposing of some fine clusters, and then sought the "Colossus of the Appenines." He stands above a little lake, at the head of a long mountain-slope, broken with clumps of magnificent trees. This remarkable figure, the work of John of Bologna, impresses one like a relic of the Titans. He is represented as half-kneeling, supporting himself with one hand, while the other is pressed upon the head of a dolphin, from which a little stream falls into the lake. The height of the figure when erect, would amount to more than sixty feet! We measured one of the feet, which is a single piece of rock, about eight feet long; from the ground to the top of one knee is nearly twenty feet. The limbs are formed of pieces of stone, joined together, and the body of stone and brick. His rough hair and eyebrows, and the beard, which reached nearly to the ground, are formed of stalactites, taken from caves, and fastened together in a dripping and crusted mass. These hung also from his limbs and body, and gave him the appearance of Winter in his mail of icicles. By climbing up the rocks at his back, we entered his body, which contains a small-sized room; it was even possible to ascend through his neck and look out at his ear! The face is in keeping with the figure--stern and grand, and the architect (one can hardly say sculptor) has given to it the majestic air and sublimity of the Appenines. But who can build up an image of the Alp?

We visited the factory on the estate, where wine and oil are made. The men had just brought in a cart load of large wooden vessels, filled with grapes, which they were mashing with heavy wooden pestles. When the grapes were pretty well reduced to pulp and juice, they emptied them into an enormous tub, which they told us would be covered air-tight, and left for three or four weeks, after which the wine would be drawn off at the bottom. They showed us also a great stone mill for grinding olives; this estate of the Grand Duke produces five hundred barrels of wine and a hundred and fifty of oil, every year. The former article is the universal beverage of the laboring classes in Italy, or I might say of all classes; it is, however, the pure blood of the grape, and although used in such quantities, one sees little drunkenness--far less than in our own land.

Tuscany enjoys at present a more liberal government than any other part of Italy, and the people are, in many respects, prosperous and happy. The Grand Duke, although enjoying almost absolute privileges, is disposed to encourage every measure which may promote the welfare of his subjects. The people are, indeed, very heavily taxed, but this is less severely felt by them, than it would be by the inhabitants of colder climes. The soil produces with little labor all that is necessary for their support; though kept constantly in a state of comparative poverty, they appear satisfied with their lot, and rarely look further than the necessities of the present. In love with the delightful climate, they cherish their country, fallen as she is, and are rarely induced to leave her. Even the wealthier classes of the Italians travel very little; they can learn the manners and habits of foreigners nearly as well in their own country as elsewhere, and they prefer their own hills of olive and vine to the icy grandeur of the Alps or the rich and garden-like beauty of England.

But, although this sweet climate, with its wealth of sunlight and balmy airs, may enchant the traveler for awhile and make him wish at times that his whole life might be spent amid such scenes, it exercises a most enervating influence on those who are born to its enjoyment. It relaxes mental and physical energy, and disposes body and mind to dreamy inactivity. The Italians, as a race, are indolent and effeminate. Of the moral dignity of man they have little conception. Those classes who are engaged in active occupation seem even destitute of common honesty, practising all kinds of deceits in the most open manner and apparently without the least shame. The state of morals is lower than in any other country of Europe; what little virtue exists is found among the peasants. Many of the most sacred obligations of society are universally violated, and as a natural consequence, the people are almost entire strangers to that domestic happiness, which constitutes the true enjoyment of life.

This dark shadow in the moral atmosphere of Italy hangs like a curse on her beautiful soil, weakening the sympathies of citizens of freer lands with her fallen condition. I often feel vividly the sentiment which Percival puts into the mouth of a Greek in slavery:

"The spring may here with autumn twine
And both combined may rule the year,
And fresh-blown flowers and racy wine
In frosted clusters still be near--
Dearer the wild and snowy hills
Where hale and ruddy Freedom smiles."

No people can ever become truly great or free, who are not virtuous. If the soul aspires for liberty--pure and perfect liberty--it also aspires for everything that is noble in Truth, everything that is holy in Virtue. It is greatly to be feared that all those nervous and impatient efforts which have been made and are still being made by the Italian people to better their condition, will be of little avail, until they set up a better standard of principle and make their private actions more conformable with their ideas of political independence.

Oct. 22.

I attended to-day the fall races at the Cascine. This is a dairy farm of the Grand Duke on the Arno, below the city; part of it, shaded with magnificent trees, has been made into a public promenade and drive, which extends for three miles down the river. Towards the lower end, on a smooth green lawn, is the race-course. To-day was the last of the season, for which the best trials had been reserved; on passing out the gate at noon, we found a number of carriages and pedestrians going the same way. It was the very perfection of autumn temperature, and I do not remember to have ever seen so blue hills, so green meadows, so fresh air and so bright sunshine combined in one scene before. All that gloom and coldness of which I lately complained has vanished.

Traveling increases very much one's capacity for admiration. Every beautiful scene appears as beautiful as if it had been the first; and although I may have seen a hundred times as lovely a combination of sky and landscape, the pleasure which it awakens is never diminished. This is one of the greatest blessings we enjoy--the freshness and glory which Nature wears to our eyes forever. It shows that the soul never grows old--that the eye of age can take in the impression of beauty with the same enthusiastic joy that leaped through the heart of childhood.

We found the crowd around the race-course but thin; half the people there, and all the horses, appeared to be English. It was a good place to observe the beauty of Florence, which however, may be done in a short time, as there is not much of it. There is beauty in Italy, undoubtedly, but it is either among the peasants or the higher class of nobility. I will tell our American women confidentially, for I know they have too much sense to be vain of it, that they surpass the rest of the world as much in beauty as they do in intelligence and virtue. I saw in one of the carriages the wife of Alexander Dumas, the French author. She is a large, fair complexioned woman, and is now, from what cause I know not, living apart from her husband.

The jockeys paced up and down the fields, preparing their beautiful animals for the approaching heat, and as the hour drew nigh the mounted dragoons busied themselves in clearing the space. It was a one-mile course, to the end of the lawn and back. At last the bugle sounded, and off went three steeds like arrows let fly. They passed us, their light limbs bounding over the turf, a beautiful dark-brown taking the lead. We leaned over the railing and watched them eagerly. The bell rang--they reached the other end--we saw them turn and come dashing back, nearer, nearer; the crowd began to shout, and in a few seconds the brown one had won it by four or five lengths. The fortunate horse was led around in triumph, and I saw an English lady, remarkable for her betting propensities, come out from the crowd and kiss it in apparent delight.

After an interval, three others took the field--all graceful, spirited creatures. This was a more exciting race than the first; they flew past us nearly abreast, and the crowd looked after them in anxiety. They cleared the course like wild deer, and in a minute or two came back, the racer of an English nobleman a short distance ahead. The jockey threw up his hand in token of triumph as he approached the goal, and the people cheered him. It was a beautiful sight to see those noble animals stretching to the utmost of their speed, as they dashed down the grassy lawn. The lucky one always showed by his proud and erect carriage, his consciousness of success.

Florence is fast becoming modernized. The introduction of gas, and the construction of the railroad to Pisa, which is nearly completed, will make sad havoc with the air of poetry which still lingers in its silent streets. There is scarcely a bridge, a tower, or a street, which is not connected with some stirring association. In the Via San Felice, Raphael used to paint when a boy; near the Ponte Santa Trinita stands Michael Angelo's house, with his pictures, clothes, and painting implements, just as he left it three centuries ago; on the south side of the Arno is the house of Galileo, and that of Machiavelli stands in an avenue near the Ducal Palace. While threading my way through some dark, crooked streets in an unfrequented part of the city, I noticed an old, untenanted house, bearing a marble tablet above the door. I drew near and read:--"In this house of the Alighieri was born the Divine Poet!" It was the birth-place of Dante!

Nov. 1.

Yesterday morning we were apprised of the safe arrival of a new scion of the royal family in the world by the ringing of the city bells. To-day, to celebrate the event, the shops were closed, and the people made a holiday of it. Merry chimes pealed out from every tower, and discharges of cannon thundered up from the fortress. In the evening the dome of the Cathedral was illuminated, and the lines of cupola, lantern, and cross were traced in flame on the dark sky, like a crown of burning stars dropped from Heaven on the holy pile. I went in and walked down the aisle, listening for awhile to the grand choral, while the clustered tapers under the dome quivered and trembled, as if shaken by the waves of music which burst continually within its lofty concave.

A few days ago Prince Corsini, Prime Minister of Tuscany, died at an advanced age. I saw his body brought in solemn procession by night, with torches and tapers, to the church of Santa Trinita. Soldiers followed with reversed arms and muffled drums, the band playing a funeral march. I forced myself through the crowd into the church, which was hung with black and gold, and listened to the long drawn chanting of the priests around the bier.

We lately visited the Florentine Museum. Besides the usual collection of objects of natural history, there is an anatomical cabinet, very celebrated for its preparations in wax. All parts of the human frame are represented so wonderfully exact, that students of medicine pursue their studies here in summer with the same facility as from real "subjects." Every bone, muscle, and nerve in the body is perfectly counterfeited, the whole forming a collection as curious as it is useful. One chamber is occupied with representations of the plague of Rome, Milan, and Florence. They are executed with horrible truth to nature, but I regretted afterwards having seen them. There are enough forms of beauty and delight in the world on which to employ the eye, without making it familiar with scenes which can only be remembered with a shudder.

We derive much pleasure from the society of the American artists who are now residing in Florence. At the houses of Powers, and Brown, the painter, we spend many delightful evenings in the company of our gifted countrymen. They are drawn together by a kindred, social feeling as well as by their mutual aims, and form among themselves a society so unrestrained, American-like, that the traveler who meets them forgets his absence for a time. These noble representatives of our country, all of whom possess the true, inborn spirit of republicanism, have made the American name known and respected in Florence. Powers, especially, who is intimate with many of the principal Italian families, is universally esteemed. The Grand Duke has more than once visited his studio and expressed the highest admiration of his talents.

Bayard Taylor