Florence By Moonlight
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A RIVER, even in a city that has no trade, still presents a busy and an animating scene. In Florence, the Arno, with its numerous bridges, offers all that is most gay and attractive in the city. Its waters, radiant and spark-ling in the mid-day sun, add life to the whole prospect, and when the heat is spent, and night closes in, the landscape assumes a mellower hue, the starry, cloudless sky, and clear pale moon, shining, as it does in these southern climates, with the splendour but of a lessened day. The sensations produced from the continued return, on each succeeding morning, of unchanging lovely weather, is peculiarly striking to those who have been accustomed to the turbulence of a northern sky. You lie down and rise to the same glorious light, and meet again, as evening comes, the same soothing feelings.
A traveller thinks that he has seen a city when he has rolled through her streets, and looked upon her fine edifices and noble palaces. And yet I would not give one solitary midnight hour in Florence, in which I can wander through her deserted streets, see the long perspective, and wonder, at each angle, how the narrow arches, and opposing buttresses, are to open up into other succeeding lines, for whole weeks of idle sights.
My first impressions of Florence have all been by moonlight, in solitary evening walks. The heats of the day are excessive, and as there is no twilight, it is in the serene and silent midnight hour that you love to wander forth, and inhale the cool breeze and freshened air—How beautiful it is to gaze on the splendour of the moonbeams, reflected on the Arno, showing its bridges in grand perspective, the city, and its huge masses of ancient buildings, lying in deep full shadow before you, the rays hardly reaching to the centre of the narrow streets, while they glitter on the tops of towers and buildings, whose projecting square roofs, almost touching each other, rear their ponderous bulk against the clear blue sky.
In such a night as this, (the calm night of a sultry day,) sallying forth, as was my custom, and passing through narrow alleys, I chanced to enter a market-place, chiefly resorted to by the poorer inhabitants of the city.
It was crowded with numbers of this class, who, with famished haste, seemed eager to buy their little stores of provisions, battling and bargaining with clamorous, but good-humoured vociferation; all complaining loudly that the venders demanded too much for their goods; but yet seasoning their reproaches with much drollery and repartee, which, in spite of the sorry, meagre, half-naked figures that were presented to the eye, gave a gaiety inconceivable to the whole scene. Among those composing the different groups, tall finely-formed women with dishevelled hair, pale faces, and care-worn countenances, made a conspicuous part. These, with the venders of meat, their boys, dogs, and men, stalking with bare arms and grisly visages, filled up the picture; while dim and infrequent lamps darkly showed all the dismalness of the place, and the wretchedness of the food they were purchasing.
Among the crowd I distinguished a woman, who, with her little daughter, sat apart, at a distance from the busy, boisterous crew, waiting while her husband bargained for what their necessities required. She seemed poor as the others; but she was beautiful, and presented one of those feeling-touching countenances, which the eye of a painter would have dwelt on with delight; one which Da Vinci might have followed, and such as Carlo Dolce would have copied for one of his Madonnas. The crowd began gradually to disperse, and I walked along to the more distant precincts, among public buildings, gloomy palaces, and dark walls.
Traversing the great centre of the city, along streets darkened from the height of the buildings, I passed along these immense edifices with strange feelings of solitude, as if in a dream, as if the gay and peopled world had vanished, and these gloomy mementos of the past alone remained. It was night, and in this distant spot not a soul was stirring, not a foot was heard, when, on crossing a narrow alley, the prospect suddenly opened, and the slanting rays of the full moon, falling with a softened light among the magnificent monuments of ancient times, displayed a splendid scene.
At that moment the tower bell of the prison struck loud and long, tolling with a slow and swinging motion, seeming, from the effect of reverberation, to cover and fill the whole city; even in day this bell is distinguished from any I ever heard; but in the dead silence of the night it sounded full and solemn. Impressed by the feelings excited by the grandeur of the scene, I still prolonged my walk, and insensibly wandered on. The silence of night was unbroken, save by an occasional distant sound, arising from the busiest quarter of the city, or from time to time by the song of the nightingale, which reached me from the rich and beautiful gardens that skirt the walls of Florence, recalling to my mind the voice of that sweet bird, as I heard it when detained in the narrow valley of the gloomy Arco. I remember how its little song thrilled through the long melancholy of the night, a lengthened oft-repeated note, which still came floating on the air like alight sleep.* Involved in these musings of lulled and idle thought, I suddenly beheld in the distance, issuing from the portals of a large edifice, forms invested in black, bearing torches, which, casting a deepened shadow around, rendered their dark figures only dimly visible. Still increasing in numbers, as they emerged from the building, they advanced with almost inaudible steps; gliding along with slow and equal pace, like beings of another world, and recalling to mind all that we had heard or read of Italy, in the dark ages of mystery and superstition. As they approached, low and lengthened tones fell upon the ear; when the mournful chanting of the service of the dead, told their melancholy and sacred office. The flame of the torches, scarcely fanned by the still air, flung a steady light on the bier which they bore, gleaming with partial glare on the glittering ornaments, that, according to the manner of this country, covered the pall.
I looked with a long fixed gaze on the solemn scene, till, passing on in the distance, it disappeared, leaving a stream of light, which, lost by degrees in the darkness of night, seemed like a vision. The images presented to the mind had in them a grand and impressive simplicity, a mild and melancholy repose, which assimilated well with the hopes of a better world. It seemed like a dream, yet was the impression indelible.