Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Tuscan Cities

The cities I refer to are Leghorn, Pisa, Lucca and Pistoia,
among which I have been spending the last few days. The most
striking fact as to Leghorn, it must be conceded at the outset,
is that, being in Tuscany, it should be so scantily Tuscan. The
traveller curious in local colour must content himself with the
deep blue expanse of the Mediterranean. The streets, away from
the docks, are modern, genteel and rectangular; Liverpool might
acknowledge them if it weren't for their clean-coloured, sun-
bleached stucco. They are the offspring of the new industry which
is death to the old idleness. Of interesting architecture, fruit
of the old idleness or at least of the old leisure, Leghorn is
singularly destitute. It has neither a church worth one's
attention, nor a municipal palace, nor a museum, and it may claim
the distinction, unique in Italy, of being the city of no
pictures. In a shabby corner near the docks stands a statue of
one of the elder Grand Dukes of Tuscany, appealing to posterity
on grounds now vague--chiefly that of having placed certain Moors
under tribute. Four colossal negroes, in very bad bronze, are
chained to the base of the monument, which forms with their
assistance a sufficiently fantastic group; but to patronise the
arts is not the line of the Livornese, and for want of the
slender annuity which would keep its precinct sacred this curious
memorial is buried in dockyard rubbish. I must add that on the
other hand there is a very well-conditioned and, in attitude and
gesture, extremely natural and familiar statue of Cavour in one
of the city squares, and in another a couple of effigies of
recent Grand Dukes, represented, that is dressed, or rather
undressed, in the character of heroes of Plutarch. Leghorn is a
city of magnificent spaces, and it was so long a journey from the
sidewalk to the pedestal of these images that I never took the
time to go and read the inscriptions. And in truth, vaguely, I
bore the originals a grudge, and wished to know as little about
them as possible; for it seemed to me that as patres
, in their degree, they might have decreed that the
great blank, ochre-faced piazza should be a trifle less ugly.
There is a distinct amenity, however, in any experience of Italy
almost anywhere, and I shall probably in the future not be above
sparing a light regret to several of the hours of which the one I
speak of was composed. I shall remember a large cool bourgeois
villa in the garden of a noiseless suburb--a middle-aged Villa
Franco (I owe it as a genial pleasant pension the tribute
of recognition), roomy and stony, as an Italian villa should be.
I shall remember that, as I sat in the garden, and, looking up
from my book, saw through a gap in the shrubbery the red house-
tiles against the deep blue sky and the grey underside of the
ilex-leaves turned up by the Mediterranean breeze, it was all
still quite Tuscany, if Tuscany in the minor key.

If you should naturally desire, in such conditions, a higher
intensity, you have but to proceed, by a very short journey, to
Pisa--where, for that matter, you will seem to yourself to have
hung about a good deal already, and from an early age. Few of us
can have had a childhood so unblessed by contact with the arts as
that one of its occasional diversions shan't have been a puzzled
scrutiny of some alabaster model of the Leaning Tower under a
glass cover in a back-parlour. Pisa and its monuments have, in
other words, been industriously vulgarised, but it is astonishing
how well they have survived the process. The charm of the place
is in fact of a high order and but partially foreshadowed by the
famous crookedness of its campanile. I felt it irresistibly and
yet almost inexpressibly the other afternoon, as I made my way to
the classic corner of the city through the warm drowsy air which
nervous people come to inhale as a sedative. I was with an
invalid companion who had had no sleep to speak of for a
fortnight. "Ah! stop the carriage," she sighed, or yawned, as I
could feel, deliciously, "in the shadow of this old slumbering
palazzo, and let me sit here and close my eyes, and taste for an
hour of oblivion." Once strolling over the grass, however, out of
which the quartette of marble monuments rises, we awaked
responsively enough to the present hour. Most people remember the
happy remark of tasteful, old-fashioned Forsyth (who touched a
hundred other points in his "Italy" scarce less happily) as to
the fact that the four famous objects are "fortunate alike in
their society and their solitude." It must be admitted that they
are more fortunate in their society than we felt ourselves to be
in ours; for the scene presented the animated appearance for
which, on any fine spring day, all the choicest haunts of ancient
quietude in Italy are becoming yearly more remarkable. There were
clamorous beggars at all the sculptured portals, and bait for
beggars, in abundance, trailing in and out of them under convoy
of loquacious ciceroni. I forget just how I apportioned the
responsibility, of intrusion, for it was not long before fellow-
tourists and fellow-countrymen became a vague, deadened, muffled
presence, that of the dentist's last words when he is giving you
ether. They suffered mystic disintegration in the dense, bright,
tranquil air, so charged with its own messages. The Cathedral and
its companions are fortunate indeed in everything--fortunate in
the spacious angle of the grey old city-wall which folds about
them in their sculptured elegance like a strong protecting arm;
fortunate in the broad greensward which stretches from the marble
base of Cathedral and cemetery to the rugged foot of the rampart;
fortunate in the little vagabonds who dot the grass, plucking
daisies and exchanging Italian cries; fortunate in the pale-gold
tone to which time and the soft sea-damp have mellowed and
darkened their marble plates; fortunate, above all, in an
indescribable grace of grouping, half hazard, half design, which
insures them, in one's memory of things admired, very much the
same isolated corner that they occupy in the charming city.

Of the smaller cathedrals of Italy I know none I prefer to that
of Pisa; none that, on a moderate scale, produces more the
impression of a great church. It has without so modest a
measurability, represents so clean and compact a mass, that you
are startled when you cross the threshold at the apparent space
it encloses. An architect of genius, for all that he works with
colossal blocks and cumbrous pillars, is certainly the most
cunning of conjurors. The front of the Duomo is a small pyramidal
screen, covered with delicate carvings and chasings, distributed
over a series of short columns upholding narrow arches. It might
be a sought imitation of goldsmith's work in stone, and the area
covered is apparently so small that extreme fineness has been
prescribed. How it is therefore that on the inner side of this
façade the wall should appear to rise to a splendid height and to
support one end of a ceiling as remote in its gilded grandeur,
one could almost fancy, as that of St. Peter's; how it is that
the nave should stretch away in such solemn vastness, the shallow
transepts emphasise the grand impression and the apse of the
choir hollow itself out like a dusky cavern fretted with golden
stalactites, is all matter for exposition by a keener
architectural analyst than I. To sit somewhere against a pillar
where the vista is large and the incidents cluster richly, and
vaguely revolve these mysteries without answering them, is the
best of one's usual enjoyment of a great church. It takes no deep
sounding to conclude indeed that a gigantic Byzantine Christ in
mosaic, on the concave roof of the choir, contributes largely to
the particular impression here as of very old and choice and
original and individual things. It has even more of stiff
solemnity than is common to works of its school, and prompts to
more wonder than ever on the nature of the human mind at a time
when such unlovely shapes could satisfy its conception of
holiness. Truly pathetic is the fate of these huge mosaic idols,
thanks to the change that has overtaken our manner of acceptance
of them. Strong the contrast between the original sublimity of
their pretensions and the way in which they flatter that free
sense of the grotesque which the modern imagination has smuggled
even into the appreciation of religious forms. They were meant to
yield scarcely to the Deity itself in grandeur, but the only part
they play now is to stare helplessly at our critical, our
aesthetic patronage of them. The spiritual refinement marking the
hither end of a progress had n't, however, to wait for us to
signalise it; it found expression three centuries ago in the
beautiful specimen of the painter Sodoma on the wall of the
choir. This latter, a small Sacrifice of Isaac, is one of the
best examples of its exquisite author, and perhaps, as chance has
it, the most perfect opposition that could be found in the way of
the range of taste to the effect of the great mosaic. There are
many painters more powerful than Sodoma--painters who, like the
author of the mosaic, attempted and compassed grandeur; but none
has a more persuasive grace, none more than he was to sift and
chasten a conception till it should affect one with the sweetness
of a perfectly distilled perfume.

Of the patient successive efforts of painting to arrive at the
supreme refinement of such a work as the Sodoma the Campo Santo
hard by offers a most interesting memorial. It presents a long,
blank marble wall to the relative profaneness of the Cathedral
close, but within it is a perfect treasure-house of art. This
quadrangular defence surrounds an open court where weeds and wild
roses are tangled together and a sunny stillness seems to rest
consentingly, as if Nature had been won to consciousness of the
precious relics committed to her. Something in the quality of the
place recalls the collegiate cloisters of Oxford, but it must be
added that this is the handsomest compliment to that seat of
learning. The open arches of the quadrangles of Magdalen and
Christ Church are not of mellow Carrara marble, nor do they offer
to sight columns, slim and elegant, that seem to frame the
unglazed windows of a cathedral. To be buried in the Campo Santo
of Pisa, I may however further qualify, you need only be, or to
have more or less anciently been, illustrious, and there is a
liberal allowance both as to the character and degree of your
fame. The most obtrusive object in one of the long vistas is a
most complicated monument to Madame Catalani, the singer,
recently erected by her possibly too-appreciative heirs. The wide
pavement is a mosaic of sepulchral slabs, and the walls, below
the base of the paling frescoes, are incrusted with inscriptions
and encumbered with urns and antique sarcophagi. The place is at
once a cemetery and a museum, and its especial charm is its
strange mixture of the active and the passive, of art and rest,
of life and death. Originally its walls were one vast continuity
of closely pressed frescoes; but now the great capricious scars
and stains have come to outnumber the pictures, and the cemetery
has grown to be a burial-place of pulverised masterpieces as well
as of finished lives. The fragments of painting that remain are
fortunately the best; for one is safe in believing that a host of
undimmed neighbours would distract but little from the two great
works of Orcagna. Most people know the "Triumph of Death" and the
"Last Judgment" from descriptions and engravings; but to measure
the possible good faith of imitative art one must stand there and
see the painter's howling potentates dragged into hell in all the
vividness of his bright hard colouring; see his feudal courtiers,
on their palfreys, hold their noses at what they are so fast
coming to; see his great Christ, in judgment, refuse forgiveness
with a gesture commanding enough, really inhuman enough, to make
virtue merciless for ever. The charge that Michael Angelo
borrowed his cursing Saviour from this great figure of Orcagna is
more valid than most accusations of plagiarism; but of the two
figures one at least could be spared. For direct, triumphant
expressiveness these two superb frescoes have probably never been
surpassed. The painter aims at no very delicate meanings, but he
drives certain gross ones home so effectively that for a parallel
to his process one must look to the art of the actor, the
emphasising "point"-making mime. Some of his female figures are
superb--they represent creatures of a formidable temperament.

There are charming women, however, on the other side of the
cloister--in the beautiful frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli. If
Orcagna's work was appointed to survive the ravage of time it is
a happy chance that it should be balanced by a group of
performances of such a different temper. The contrast is the more
striking that in subject the inspiration of both painters is
strictly, even though superficially, theological. But Benozzo
cares, in his theology, for nothing but the story, the scene and
the drama--the chance to pile up palaces and spires in his
backgrounds against pale blue skies cross-barred with pearly,
fleecy clouds, and to scatter sculptured arches and shady
trellises over the front, with every incident of human life going
forward lightly and gracefully beneath them. Lightness and grace
are the painter's great qualities, marking the hithermost limit
of unconscious elegance, after which "style" and science and the
wisdom of the serpent set in. His charm is natural fineness; a
little more and we should have refinement--which is a very
different thing. Like all les délicats of this world, as
M. Renan calls them, Benozzo has suffered greatly. The space on
the walls he originally covered with his Old Testament stories is
immense; but his exquisite handiwork has peeled off by the acre,
as one may almost say, and the latter compartments of the series
are swallowed up in huge white scars, out of which a helpless
head or hand peeps forth like those of creatures sinking into a
quicksand. As for Pisa at large, although it is not exactly what
one would call a mouldering city--for it has a certain well-aired
cleanness and brightness, even in its supreme tranquillity--it
affects the imagination very much in the same way as the Campo
Santo. And, in truth, a city so ancient and deeply historic as
Pisa is at every step but the burial-ground of a larger life than
its present one. The wide empty streets, the goodly Tuscan
palaces--which look as if about all of them there were a genteel
private understanding, independent of placards, that they are to
be let extremely cheap--the delicious relaxing air, the full-
flowing yellow river, the lounging Pisani, smelling,
metaphorically, their poppy-flowers, seemed to me all so many
admonitions to resignation and oblivion. And this is what I mean
by saying that the charm of Pisa (apart from its cluster of
monuments) is a charm of a high order. The architecture has but a
modest dignity; the lions are few; there are no fixed points for
stopping and gaping. And yet the impression is profound; the
charm is a moral charm. If I were ever to be incurably
disappointed in life, if I had lost my health, my money, or my
friends, if I were resigned forevermore to pitching my
expectations in a minor key, I should go and invoke the Pisan
peace. Its quietude would seem something more than a stillness--
a hush. Pisa may be a dull place to live in, but it's an ideal
place to wait for death.

Nothing could be more charming than the country between Pisa and
Lucca--unless possibly the country between Lucca and Pistoia. If
Pisa is dead Tuscany, Lucca is Tuscany still living and enjoying,
desiring and intending. The town is a charming mixture of antique
"character" and modern inconsequence; and! not only the town, but
the country--the blooming romantic country which you admire from
the famous promenade on the city-wall. The wall is of superbly
solid and intensely "toned" brickwork and of extraordinary
breadth, and its summit, planted with goodly trees and swelling
here and there into bastions and outworks and little open
gardens, surrounds the city with a circular lounging-place of a
splendid dignity. This well-kept, shady, ivy-grown rampart
reminded me of certain mossy corners of England; but it looks
away to a prospect of more than English loveliness--a broad green
plain where the summer yields a double crop of grain, and a
circle of bright blue mountains speckled with high-hung convents
and profiled castles and nestling villas, and traversed by
valleys of a deeper and duskier blue. In one of the deepest and
shadiest of these recesses one of the most "sympathetic" of small
watering-places is hidden away yet a while longer from easy
invasion--the Baths to which Lucca has lent its name. Lucca is
pre-eminently a city of churches; ecclesiastical architecture
being indeed the only one of the arts to which it seems to have
given attention. There are curious bits of domestic architecture,
but no great palaces, and no importunate frequency of pictures.
The Cathedral, however, sums up the merits of its companions and
is a singularly noble and interesting church. Its peculiar boast
is a wonderful inlaid front, on which horses and hounds and
hunted beasts are lavishly figured in black marble over a white
ground. What I chiefly appreciated in the grey solemnity of the
nave and transepts was the superb effect of certain second-storey
Gothic arches--those which rest on the pavement being Lombard.
These arches are delicate and slender, like those of the cloister
at Pisa, and they play their part in the dusky upper air with
real sublimity.

At Pistoia there is of course a Cathedral, and there is nothing
unexpected in its being, externally at least, highly impressive;
in its having a grand campanile at its door, a gaudy baptistery,
in alternate layers of black and white marble, across the way,
and a stately civic palace on either side. But even had I the
space to do otherwise I should prefer to speak less of the
particular objects of interest in the place than of the pleasure
I found it to lounge away in the empty streets the quiet hours of
a warm afternoon. To say where I lingered longest would be to
tell of a little square before the hospital, out of which you
look up at the beautiful frieze in coloured earthernware by the
brothers Della Robbia, which runs across the front of the
building. It represents the seven orthodox offices of charity
and, with its brilliant blues and yellows and its tender
expressiveness, brightens up amazingly, to the sense and soul,
this little grey comer of the mediaeval city. Pi stoia is still
mediaeval. How grass-grown it seemed, how drowsy, how full of
idle vistas and melancholy nooks! If nothing was supremely
wonderful, everything was delicious.

[Illustration: THE HOSPITAL, PISTOIA.]


Henry James