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The Autumn in Florence

Florence too has its "season," not less than Rome, and I have
been rejoicing for the past six weeks in the fact that this
comparatively crowded parenthesis hasn't yet been opened. Coming
here in the first days of October I found the summer still in
almost unmenaced possession, and ever since, till within a day or
two, the weight of its hand has been sensible. Properly enough,
as the city of flowers, Florence mingles the elements most
artfully in the spring--during the divine crescendo of March and
April, the weeks when six months of steady shiver have still not
shaken New York and Boston free of the long Polar reach. But the
very quality of the decline of the year as we at present here
feel it suits peculiarly the mood in which an undiscourageable
gatherer of the sense of things, or taster at least of "charm,"
moves through these many-memoried streets and galleries and
churches. Old things, old places, old people, or at least old
races, ever strike us as giving out their secrets most freely in
such moist, grey, melancholy days as have formed the complexion
of the past fortnight. With Christmas arrives the opera, the only
opera worth speaking of--which indeed often means in Florence the
only opera worth talking through; the gaiety, the gossip, the
reminders in fine of the cosmopolite and watering-place character
to which the city of the Medici long ago began to bend her
antique temper. Meanwhile it is pleasant enough for the tasters
of charm, as I say, and for the makers of invidious distinctions,
that the Americans haven't all arrived, however many may be on
their way, and that the weather has a monotonous overcast
softness in which, apparently, aimless contemplation grows less
and less ashamed. There is no crush along the Cascine, as on the
sunny days of winter, and the Arno, wandering away toward the
mountains in the haze, seems as shy of being looked at as a good
picture in a bad light. No light, to my eyes, nevertheless, could
be better than this, which reaches us, all strained and filtered
and refined, exquisitely coloured and even a bit conspicuously
sophisticated, through the heavy air of the past that hangs about
the place for ever.

I first knew Florence early enough, I am happy to say, to have
heard the change for the worse, the taint of the modern order,
bitterly lamented by old haunters, admirers, lovers--those
qualified to present a picture of the conditions prevailing under
the good old Grand-Dukes, the two last of their line in especial,
that, for its blest reflection of sweetness and mildness and
cheapness and ease, of every immediate boon in life to be
enjoyed quite for nothing, could but draw tears from belated
listeners. Some of these survivors from the golden age--just the
beauty of which indeed was in the gold, of sorts, that it poured
into your lap, and not in the least in its own importunity on
that head--have needfully lingered on, have seen the ancient
walls pulled down and the compact and belted mass of which the
Piazza della Signoria was the immemorial centre expand, under the
treatment of enterprising syndics, into an ungirdled organism of
the type, as they viciously say, of Chicago; one of those places
of which, as their grace of a circumference is nowhere, the
dignity of a centre can no longer be predicated. Florence loses
itself to-day in dusty boulevards and smart beaux
quartiers
, such as Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann were to
set the fashion of to a too mediæval Europe--with the effect of
some precious page of antique text swallowed up in a marginal
commentary that smacks of the style of the newspaper. So much for
what has happened on this side of that line of demarcation which,
by an odd law, makes us, with our preference for what we are
pleased to call the picturesque, object to such occurrences even
as occurrences. The real truth is that objections are too
vain, and that he would be too rude a critic here, just now, who
shouldn't be in the humour to take the thick with the thin and to
try at least to read something of the old soul into the new
forms.

There is something to be said moreover for your liking a city
(once it's a question of your actively circulating) to pretend to
comfort you more by its extent than by its limits; in addition to
which Florence was anciently, was in her palmy days peculiarly,
a daughter of change and movement and variety, of shifting
moods, policies and régimes--just as the Florentine character,
as we have it to-day, is a character that takes all things easily
for having seen so many come and go. It saw the national capital,
a few years since, arrive and sit down by the Arno, and took no
further thought than sufficed for the day; then it saw, the odd
visitor depart and whistled her cheerfully on her way to Rome.
The new boulevards of the Sindaco Peruzzi come, it may be said,
but they don't go; which, after all, it isn't from the æsthetic
point of view strictly necessary they should. A part of the
essential amiability of Florence, of her genius for making you
take to your favour on easy terms everything that in any way
belongs to her, is that she has already flung an element of her
grace over all their undried mortar and plaster. Such modern
arrangements as the Piazza d' Azeglio and the viale or
Avenue of the Princess Margaret please not a little, I think--for
what they are!--and do so even in a degree, by some fine local
privilege just because they are Florentine. The afternoon lights
rest on them as if to thank them for not being worse, and their
vistas. are liberal where they look toward the hills. They carry
you close to these admirable elevations, which hang over
Florence on all sides, and if in the foreground your sense is a
trifle perplexed by the white pavements dotted here and there
with a policeman or a nursemaid, you have only to reach beyond
and see Fiesole turn to violet, on its ample eminence, from the
effect of the opposite sunset.

Facing again then to Florence proper you have local colour enough
and to spare--which you enjoy the more, doubtless, from standing
off to get your light and your point of view. The elder streets
abutting on all this newness bore away into the heart of the city
in narrow, dusky perspectives that quite refine, in certain
places, by an art of their own, on the romantic appeal. There are
temporal and other accidents thanks to which, as you pause to
look down them and to penetrate the deepening shadows that
accompany their retreat, they resemble little corridors leading
out from the past, mystical like the ladder in Jacob's dream; so
that when you see a single figure advance and draw nearer you are
half afraid to wait till it arrives--it must be too much of the
nature of a ghost, a messenger from an underworld. However this
may be, a place paved with such great mosaics of slabs and lined
with palaces of so massive a tradition, structures which, in
their large dependence on pure proportion for interest and
beauty, reproduce more than other modern styles the simple
nobleness of Greek architecture, must ever have placed dignity
first in the scale of invoked effect and laid up no great
treasure of that ragged picturesqueness--the picturesqueness of
large poverty--on which we feast our idle eyes at Rome and
Naples. Except in the unfinished fronts of the churches, which,
however, unfortunately, are mere ugly blankness, one finds less
of the poetry of ancient over-use, or in other words less
romantic southern shabbiness, than in most Italian cities. At two
or three points, none the less, this sinister grace exists in
perfection--just such perfection as so often proves that what is
literally hideous may be constructively delightful and what is
intrinsically tragic play on the finest chords of appreciation.
On the north side of the Arno, between Ponte Vecchio and Ponte
Santa Trinita, is a row of immemorial houses that back on the
river, in whose yellow flood they bathe their sore old feet.
Anything more battered and befouled, more cracked and disjointed,
dirtier, drearier, poorer, it would be impossible to conceive.
They look as if fifty years ago the liquid mud had risen over
their chimneys and then subsided again and left them coated for
ever with its unsightly slime. And yet forsooth, because the
river is yellow, and the light is yellow, and here and there,
elsewhere, some mellow mouldering surface, some hint of colour,
some accident of atmosphere, takes up the foolish tale and
repeats the note--because, in short, it is Florence, it is Italy,
and the fond appraiser, the infatuated alien, may have had in his
eyes, at birth and afterwards, the micaceous sparkle of brown-
stone fronts no more interesting than so much sand-paper, these
miserable dwellings, instead of suggesting mental invocations to
an enterprising board of health, simply create their own standard
of felicity and shamelessly live in it. Lately, during the misty
autumn nights, the moon has shone on them faintly and refined
their shabbiness away into something ineffably strange and
spectral. The turbid stream sweeps along without a sound, and the
pale tenements hang above it like a vague miasmatic exhalation.
The dimmest back-scene at the opera, when the tenor is singing
his sweetest, seems hardly to belong to a world more detached
from responsibility.

[Illustration: ON THE ARNO, FLORENCE.]

What it is that infuses so rich an interest into the general
charm is difficult to say in a few words; yet as we wander hither
and thither in quest of sacred canvas and immortal bronze and
stone we still feel the genius of the place hang about. Two
industrious English ladies, the Misses Horner, have lately
published a couple of volumes of "Walks" by the Arno-side, and
their work is a long enumeration of great artistic deeds. These
things remain for the most part in sound preservation, and, as
the weeks go by and you spend a constant portion of your days
among them the sense of one of the happiest periods of human
Taste--to put it only at that--settles upon your spirit. It was
not long; it lasted, in its splendour, for less than a century;
but it has stored away in the palaces and churches of Florence a
heritage of beauty that these three enjoying centuries since
haven't yet exhausted. This forms a clear intellectual atmosphere
into which you may turn aside from the modern world and fill your
lungs as with the breath of a forgotten creed. The memorials of
the past here address us moreover with a friendliness, win us by
we scarcely know what sociability, what equal amenity, that we
scarce find matched in other great esthetically endowed
communities and periods. Venice, with her old palaces cracking
under the weight of their treasures, is, in her influence,
insupportably sad; Athens, with her maimed marbles and
dishonoured memories, transmutes the consciousness of sensitive
observers, I am told, into a chronic heartache; but in one's
impression of old Florence the abiding felicity, the sense of
saving sanity, of something sound and human, predominates,
offering you a medium still conceivable for life. The reason of
this is partly, no doubt, the "sympathetic" nature, the temperate
joy, of Florentine art in general--putting the sole Dante,
greatest of literary artists, aside; partly the tenderness of
time, in its lapse, which, save in a few cases, has been as
sparing of injury as if it knew that when it should have dimmed
and corroded these charming things it would have nothing so sweet
again for its tooth to feed on. If the beautiful Ghirlandaios and
Lippis are fading, this generation will never know it. The large
Fra Angelico in the Academy is as clear and keen as if the good
old monk stood there wiping his brushes; the colours seem to
sing, as it were, like new-fledged birds in June. Nothing
is more characteristic of early Tuscan art than the high-reliefs
of Luca della Robbia; yet there isn't one of them that, except
for the unique mixture of freshness with its wisdom, of candour
with its expertness, mightn't have been modelled yesterday.

But perhaps the best image of the absence of stale melancholy or
wasted splendour, of the positive presence of what I have called
temperate joy, in the Florentine impression and genius, is the
bell-tower of Giotto, which rises beside the cathedral. No
beholder of it will have forgotten how straight and slender it
stands there, how strangely rich in the common street, plated
with coloured marble patterns, and yet so far from simple or
severe in design that we easily wonder how its author, the
painter of exclusively and portentously grave little pictures,
should have fashioned a building which in the way of elaborate
elegance, of the true play of taste, leaves a jealous modern
criticism nothing to miss. Nothing can be imagined at once more
lightly and more pointedly fanciful; it might have been handed
over to the city, as it stands, by some Oriental genie tired of
too much detail. Yet for all that suggestion it seems of no
particular time--not grey and hoary like a Gothic steeple, not
cracked and despoiled like a Greek temple; its marbles shining so
little less freshly than when they were laid together, and the
sunset lighting up its cornice with such a friendly radiance,
that you come at last to regard it simply as the graceful,
indestructible soul of the place made visible. The Cathedral,
externally, for all its solemn hugeness, strikes the same note of
would-be reasoned elegance and cheer; it has conventional
grandeur, of course, but a grandeur so frank and ingenuous even
in its parti-pris. It has seen so much, and outlived so
much, and served so many sad purposes, and yet remains in aspect
so full of the fine Tuscan geniality, the feeling for life, one
may almost say the feeling for amusement, that inspired it. Its
vast many-coloured marble walls become at any rate, with this,
the friendliest note of all Florence; there is an unfailing charm
in walking past them while they lift their great acres of
geometrical mosaic higher in the air than you have time or other
occasion to look. You greet them from the deep street as you
greet the side of a mountain when you move in the gorge--not
twisting back your head to keep looking at the top, but content
with the minor accidents, the nestling hollows and soft cloud-
shadows, the general protection of the valley.

Florence is richer in pictures than we really know till we have
begun to look for them in outlying corners. Then, here and there,
one comes upon lurking values and hidden gems that it quite seems
one might as a good New Yorker quietly "bag" for the so aspiring
Museum of that city without their being missed. The Pitti Palace
is of course a collection of masterpieces; they jostle each other
in their splendour, they perhaps even, in their merciless
multitude, rather fatigue our admiration. The Uffizi is almost as
fine a show, and together with that long serpentine artery which
crosses the Arno and connects them, making you ask yourself,
whichever way you take it, what goal can be grand enough to crown
such a journey, they form the great central treasure-chamber of
the town. But I have been neglecting them of late for love of the
Academy, where there are fewer copyists and tourists, above all
fewer pictorial lions, those whose roar is heard from afar and
who strike us as expecting overmuch to have it their own way in
the jungle. The pictures at the Academy are all, rather, doves--
the whole impression is less pompously tropical. Selection still
leaves one too much to say, but I noted here, on my last
occasion, an enchanting Botticelli so obscurely hung, in one of
the smaller rooms, that I scarce knew whether most to enjoy or to
resent its relegation. Placed, in a mean black frame, where you
wouldn't have looked for a masterpiece, it yet gave out to a good
glass every characteristic of one. Representing as it does the
walk of Tobias with the angel, there are really parts of it that
an angel might have painted; but I doubt whether it is observed
by half-a-dozen persons a year. That was my excuse for my wanting
to know, on the spot, though doubtless all sophistically, what
dishonour, could the transfer be artfully accomplished, a strong
American light and a brave gilded frame would, comparatively
speaking, do it. There and then it would, shine with the intense
authority that we claim for the fairest things--would exhale its
wondrous beauty as a sovereign example. What it comes to is that
this master is the most interesting of a great band--the only
Florentine save Leonardo and Michael in whom the impulse was
original and the invention rare. His imagination is of things
strange, subtle and complicated--things it at first strikes us
that we moderns have reason to know, and that it has taken us all
the ages to learn; so that we permit ourselves to wonder how a
"primitive" could come by them. We soon enough reflect, however,
that we ourselves have come by them almost only through
him, exquisite spirit that he was, and that when we enjoy, or at
least when we encounter, in our William Morrises, in our
Rossettis and Burne-Joneses, the note of the haunted or over-
charged consciousness, we are but treated, with other matters, to
repeated doses of diluted Botticelli. He practically set with his
own hand almost all the copies to almost all our so-called pre-
Raphaelites, earlier and later, near and remote.

Let us at the same time, none the less, never fail of response to
the great Florentine geniality at large. Fra Angelico, Filippo
Lippi, Ghirlandaio, were not "subtly" imaginative, were not even
riotously so; but what other three were ever more gladly
observant, more vividly and richly true? If there should some
time be a weeding out of the world's possessions the best works
of the early Florentines will certainly be counted among the
flowers. With the ripest performances of the Venetians--by which
I don't mean the over-ripe--we can but take them for the most
valuable things in the history of art. Heaven forbid we should be
narrowed down to a cruel choice; but if it came to a question of
keeping or losing between half-a-dozen Raphaels and half-a-dozen
things it would be a joy to pick out at the Academy, I fear that,
for myself, the memory of the Transfiguration, or indeed of the
other Roman relics of the painter, wouldn't save the Raphaels.
And yet this was so far from the opinion of a patient artist whom
I saw the other day copying the finest of Ghirlandaios--a
beautiful Adoration of the Kings at the Hospital of the
Innocenti. Here was another sample of the buried art-wealth of
Florence. It hangs in an obscure chapel, far aloft, behind an
altar, and though now and then a stray tourist wanders in and
puzzles a while over the vaguely-glowing forms, the picture is
never really seen and enjoyed. I found an aged Frenchman of
modest mien perched on a little platform beneath it, behind a
great hedge of altar-candlesticks, with an admirable copy all
completed. The difficulties of his task had been well-nigh
insuperable, and his performance seemed to me a real feat of
magic. He could scarcely move or turn, and could find room for
his canvas but by rolling it together and painting a small piece
at a time, so that he never enjoyed a view of his
ensemble. The original is gorgeous with colour and
bewildering with decorative detail, but not a gleam of the
painter's crimson was wanting, not a curl in his gold arabesques.
It seemed to me that if I had copied a Ghirlandaio in such
conditions I would at least maintain for my own credit that he
was the first painter in the world. "Very good of its kind," said
the weary old man with a shrug of reply for my raptures; "but oh,
how far short of Raphael!" However that may be, if the reader
chances to observe this consummate copy in the so commendable
Museum devoted in Paris to such works, let him stop before it
with a due reverence; it is one of the patient things of art.
Seeing it wrought there, in its dusky nook, under such scant
convenience, I found no bar in the painter's foreignness to a
thrilled sense that the old art-life of Florence isn't yet
extinct. It still at least works spells and almost miracles.

1873.

Henry James