P U B L I C A T I O N S > F
R A N C E S S T I L L M A N ' S E
U R O P E D I A R Y
I..........Going from Here to There
XII..........Paris in the Fall
Thursday. June 19th
We arrived in Florence Tuesday afternoon after a hot, dirty and
disagreeable train ride from Venice. Fortunately it didn't take
us long to install ourselves at the Pension Adria, on the far
aide of the Arno River. It is on the top floor of an old three-story
office building. Our room is comfortable (we have two towels apiece!)
and we have breakfast in a bright, cheerful sittingroom overlooking
the river. The Arno, is spanned at this point by a temporary bridge,
most of the ancient and historical bridges were blown up by the
Germans when they retreated in the Second World War. Fortunately
the Ponto Vecchio, most famous of all, was spared.
Wanda, the young Swedish woman who runs the pension, and who speaks
English of a sort, recommended the little restaurant Camillo,
just a block away, as a good place to dine. We found the food
excellent and inexpensive enough, although Pietro, the proprietor's
eldest son, who waits on our table, adds extra lire here and there
on the bill, as the spirit moves him. When we protest he puts
on such a look of injured dignity that we feel like apologizing
to him. We are usually the first guests to arrive, and the family,
who make up the entire staff of the restaurant, are still at their
own dinner in the kitchen, eating with great gusto and talking
loudly and excitedly. Somehow, even the most amicable conversation
is carried on with all the vehemence of a violent quarrel.
The same noisiness seems to prevail everywhere in the streets.
The autos honk their horns incessantly; the little Vespa motorcycles
sputter and rattle and whizz by at a precarious speed; the children
are boisterous at play and the men and women all seem to shout
at one another. Everything is fortissime with never a gradation
Thus far it has been difficult for me to get into the spirit of
Florence, but this I expected. For one thing, the simplicity —
or rather the severity — of the architecture, coming after
the lavish ornateness of Venice, has a sobering effect. Moreover,
if in Paris I felt that I was walking through a series of paintings,
here in Florence I seem to be turning the pages of a history book.
A closed chapter of history at that, for entire Florence has retained
the appearance, the architecture, and the flavor of the Renaissance,
particularly the fifteenth century.
However, closed as the chapter is, one cannot be totally insensible
to the reverberations of that turbulent past, when the individual
republics of Italy clashed fiercely in their passionate love of
independence, when the streets ran sometimes blood and sometimes
wine", when periods of exquisite refinement and sensitivity
alternated with those of pagan pomp and display.
The ghosts of the past are with me most strongly when we stand
in the gloom of the vast cathedral the Duomo, and when we sit
in the evening at the outdoor cafes in the Piazza della Signoria.
It was to the Duomo that great multitudes thronged to listen as
if hypnotized to the fiery priest Savanarola as he thundered forth
his prophecies of punishment and doom. And it was to the Piazza
della Signoria that the same frenzied crowds dragged their erst-while
prophet, to watch in wild exultation as the flames leaped to consume
Friday, June 20th
Even without the shadow of Savanarola, the Duomo has an overwhelming
impact. How striking the exterior is with its facade of white,
green and red marble, and the vast interior, austere in style,
with a bareness more impressive than the most elaborate ornamentation.
There is something awe-inspiring in its immensity, its gigantic
and imposing dome, its dim and mysterious light.
The world-famed Baptistry is nearby, and visitors far flock from
far and wide to see its magnificent bronze doors by Ghiberti and
the richly colored Byzantine mosaics. We never tired of the fine
mosaics and the gilded tabernacle, with its exquisitely carved
figures, its many little Gothic-style towers, and a beautiful
Bernado Daddi Madonna painting in the center.
There are other churches superb in architecture and ornamentation
— the Cathedral of Santa Maria Novello, with its Renaissance
facade of marble, its beautifully designed Gothic interior and
handsome frescoes of Girlandhio and other Florentine masters;
the Orsanmichele, with its glowing stained glass windows, the
Santa Croce, resting place of some of Florence's most illustrious
sons — Michelangelo and Ghiberti, Machiavelli and Galileo.
Some of Giotto's most famous frescoes adorn the walls of Santa
Croce, very handsome aid strong in design. They are scenes from
the life of St. Francis. Unfortunately they had to be repainted
because of the ravages of time, and undoubtedly they have lost
something of their original beauty in the process of restoration.
Saturday, June 21st.
To the Convent of San Marco this morning, to see the lovely paintings
of Fra Angelico. I was enchanted, particularly by the frescoes
on the walls of the little cell-like rooms formerly occupied by
the Dominican monks. Sc gently poetic these paintings are, so
innocent and movingly sincere. The lines are severe, the colors
delicate, with blues and pinks and gold predominating. The Madonnas
and angels and saints do not have particularly expressive faces,
but there is marvelous race and an intuitive balance of composition,
and such joy of creativeness and of religious feeling.
We were interested and amused by the Fra Angelico interpretation
of Heaven and Hell. The scene of Paradise radiates a pure happiness,
like a child's dream. But the Inferno, despite its grotesque devils,
fails to terrify. Some art historians maintain that this part
of the painting was done by one of Fra Angelico's pupils. But
I prefer to believe that the good friar, in his gentleness of
spirit, just couldn't conceive a Hell of horrors.
Sunday, June 22nd
Today we visited palaces. The Ufizzi Palace first, where we saw
a magnificent collection of Sienese and Venetian paintings, as
well as those of the Florentine school. Among the Florentine paintings
there is a large and handsome Cimabue, a representation of the
Madonna and child, quite similar to the one at the Louvre and
equally arresting in its powerful strength and forceful design.
There are Giottos and Fra Fillipo Lippis, Gaddis and Daddis. And
there are many Botticellis, especially two of his masterpieces,
"Printemps" and "The Birth of Venus". The
figures are graceful and ethereal looking, with a haunting chant,
quite unrelated to flesh and blood reality. And of course there
are Leonardo di Vinci canvases, with that strange, mysterious,
almost surrealist quality which characterized his work.
From the Ufizzi we went to the Pitti Palace, but the guard at
the door told us we had only half an hour to see the paintings
before mid-day closing. "You can make it if you run"
he said. We hardly felt like running, and since the paintings
at the Pitti are mostly High Renaissance, which doesn't appeal
to us especially, we gave up the idea and walked to a cafe at
the Piazza della Signoria for lunch.
From our cafe we could look across the square at the Pallazo Vecchio,
a massive, forbidding looking mediaeval edifice with two watch-towers
rising high into the sky. Here it was the building itself which
interested us. As you enter, your attention is focused on the
elaborately carved stone columns — such a surprise after
the austere looking exterior, and particularly striking since
the remainder of the vast room is also extremely severe. The other
rooms are equally impressive, with lofty ceilings, handsome stone
floors, beautifully inlaid wooden doors and woodwork, and walls
covered with Flemish and Italian tapestries elegant in texture
Monday, June 23rd
This morning we said goodbye to several of our favorite buildings,
including the Duomo, the Baptistry, and the Orsanmichele with
its lovely stained glass windows.
Lunch at our favorite cafe in the Piazza della Signoria. The Piazza
was resplendent with flags and banners, and the Pallazo Vecchio
and the nearby Loggia della Signoria with its many statues (Benvenuto
Cellini's "Perseus" and a copy of Michelangelo's "David"
among them) were all bedecked with tapestries of crimson and gold.
Grandstands have been erected and chairs placed on the platform
of the Loggia, for the dignitaries of church and city. For tomorrow,
the day of St. John the Baptist, the annual football game in mediaeval
costume will take place.
After lunch we drove up high into the hills, to Fiesole and later
to Settingano. There are attractive hotels and luxurious villas
in Fiesole, with spacious grounds over-looking the rolling green
hills, and the city of Florence far below. Settingano, smaller
and more primitive, I always associate with Bernard Berenson,
who for so many years sat like a monarch in his villa on the hills
and received the adulation of artists and intellectuals from all
over the world. He was scholarly and witty and urbane, and probably
no single person has done so much to initiate art-lovers into
the centuries during which the culture of the Renaissance came
to its full flower.
Personally I have never been a worshipper at the shrine of the
Renaissance. I feel no particular "sympatico" with this
period, with its elegant and polished art expressions, and seeing
the Florentine masterpieces at first hand has not changed my views.
True, I have utmost admiration for the skillful composition, the
superb craftsmanship and the restrained elegance of the Florentine
painters. However I prefer a more spontaneous and emotional approach.
Ary and his friends have discussed this very question so many
times. It is not, as the worshippers of the Renaissance are apt
to maintain, that the "modern" artist negates the accomplishments
of the Renaissance masters. However, he resists the pressures
that would dictate that our culture must be based on the Renaissance.
He rejects the thesis that art must be an expression of logic
and clarity of thought and that the intellect must always dominate
with conscious control. Perfection of technical accomplishment
has lost its meaning for the modern painter. For one thing, he
has learned to appreciate the art of the primitive peoples, their
implicity and their direct expressiveness, their vision of a "soul-world",
of a soul realism that is above surface realism. He feels that
the intellectual realism of the Renaissance painters was achieved
at the sacrifice of that expressiveness of the spirit.
Since I am in agreement with this point of view, I feel that I
could never be entirely happy in Florence, despite its rich treasures
of art and historical value. I wonder how I will react to Siena,
where it is said that the heart rather than the intellect prevailed.