Flower of all cities; city of all flowers
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A truly beautiful scene and one which merits our closest attention. As you see, the city lies in a mountain basin; the streets are attractive and spacious, and for miles tall trees and dense ever-greens protect the pedestrian from the glare of the sun. It is a city of two hundred thousand inhabit-ants, complete in itself ; a city of gorgeous palaces, peerless galleries, elegant theaters, brilliant cafés ; a place in which everything harmonizes; where the people are intelligent, polite, sympathetic, and where a residence in the spring and autumn is ideal. Some of the Florentines are strikingly handsome. It was in this city that Tom Moore wrote :
"We oft are startled by the blaze Of eyes that pass with fitful light,
The noble eminence from which we are looking is one of the choicest spots in Florence, and so delighted Michelangelo that he used to call it La Bella Villanella. From it we look down upon the Arno, the river that makes Florence, as the Thames does London and the Tiber Rome. Spanning this river is a succession of bridges, the one nearest us, the Pontealle Grazie, having been built by Lapo in 1235. Its name was derived from an image of the Virgin which was placed in a small chapel on the opposite bank. The curious little houses which originally stood on the piers of this structure were hermitages inhabited by nuns, who, shocked at the worldliness of their convents, retreated here. Afterwards these houses were occupied by families, and in one of them was born Veatto Tommaso dé Bellacci, and in another the poet Benedetto Menzini.
The covered bridge beyond the Ponte aile Grazie is the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest and most picturesque bridge in Florence. We shall have a nearer view of this famous structure, and also of the covered gallery of the Grand Duke which crosses the river above it and connects the Uffizi and the Pitti Palaces, when we can examine them at our leisure. Just this side of the first bridge, the Ponte aile Grazie, and on the nearer bank of the river, " its sinuous stream bathed in liquid gold," is seen the little church of St. Niccolo, before which, in 1529, the citizens assembled to swear allegiance to Florence, vowing to defend the city at the cost of their lives ; and it was in the old square belfry of this church, which looks precisely now as it did then, that Michelangelo concealed himself after the city had been betrayed to the Imperialists, his conspicuous offense being that he had made the plans from which the fortifications were built that had afforded such a masterly and protracted defense of the city. These fortifications, rather than his brilliant achievements in painting, sculpture and architecture, he considered his greatest work ; and this estimate of his powers was not made lightly, for he enabled Florence to stand " a spectacle to Heaven and earth, the one spot of all Italian ground which defied the united powers of Pope and Cæsar." Michelangelo was too valuable a man for the church to lose, and so he was pardoned by Pope Clement the VII for the fortifications he had built. In the sacristy of the little church is a fresco by Ghirlandajo, now much damaged.
Before we direct our attention to the portion of the city which lies across the river, let us not fail to observe the terrace spread out at our feet like a richly embroidered Persian rug. Back of us, but this we cannot see, is the stately church of St. Miniato, built in honor of the Christian martyr Miniatus, who was beheaded here in the third century under Decius. Other churches in Florence are reared in honor of local martyrs of the Middle Ages, but in this case one reaches down to the very beginnings of Christian martyrdom. Miniatus is said to have been a prince of Armenia, who served in the Roman Legion under Decius about 250 A. D. When the army was encamped outside the city, Miniatus was accused of being a Christian and after various unsuccessful attempts to kill him he was finally beheaded. His body was brought to this hillside for burial, and here a church has ever since stood, surrounded by beautiful terraces dotted with noble cypresses, whose long tresses sway gracefully in the breeze and mournfully wave away the years.
Half-way between the Ponte aile Grazie and the Ponte Vecchio, a little back from the left bank of the river, at No. 13 Costa S. Giorgio, is a long house built on a sharp incline and from a tablet on its front wall we learn that there Galileo lived and there a member of the Medici family con-descended to call upon him. When Milton came to Florence in the autumn of 1638, he visited Galileo in that house, and afterwards writing of the visit, he said, "There it was that I found and visited Galileo, grown old, a prisoner of the Inquisition, for thinking, in astronomy, otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought" On the left bank of the river, not far from the Vecchio bridge, is the Palazzo Guicciardini, opposite which is the house of Macchiavelli.
Beyond the river, and seen to our right, is the stately Cathedral with its lovely bell-tower, beyond which you see the dome and upper portion of the beautiful Baptistery. We shall enjoy a nearer view of these famous buildings which will enable us to inspect them to better advantage. The spire seen this side of the bell-tower belongs to the church of Badia, and the square tower seen to the right is the Bargello, an ancient structure, erected in 1255, which has served successively as the residence of the Podesta or chief magistrate of Florence, as a prison from 1574-1782, and, subsequently, as police head-quarters. Since 1857 it has been restored and is now used as a National Museum of plastic and minor arts. It contains some fine works of sculpture by Michelangelo, Donatello and other celebrated Florentine artists.
That grim battlemented tower that lifts itself so loftily above the city, seen straight before us, belongs to the Palazzo Vecchio, which we shall view from the roof of the tall square building whose white walls and dark roof you observe to the right of the palace. That structure is the famous church of Or San Michele, built in 1350 on the site of a market or loggia for corn. The loggia, originally open, was covered with a vaulted roof, the upper portion of the structure being still used as a receptacle for grain. That church contains two celebrated statues of the Virgin, and another of the Archangel Michael. The name Or San Michele, granary (horreum) of St. Michael, was taken from the ancient use of the building, and from the church being in particular the Shrine of the Trades, and especially of the arts and crafts of Florence. Though we should not at first think so, that church stands some distance beyond the Palazzo Vecchio.
To the left of the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and halfway between it and the Vecchio bridge (the middle one of the three bridges), is seen a long, dark building with windows in its roof. That is part of the Uffizi Palace, in whose rooms we shall have the pleasure of looking at some of the art treasures contained there. Between this building and th river is the Biblioteca Nazionale (National Library) containing eight thousand manuscripts and three hundred and eighty thousand volumes, many of which are rare literary gems. A continuation of this palace, made up of those unpretentious buildings seen on the right bank of the river this side of the Vecchio bridge, contains the Central Archives of Tuscany, in two hundred rooms of which are four hundred thousand bound volumes and two hundred thousand single documents.
To the right of the Cathedral, but not within the field of our vision, is the Accademia delle Belle Arti, rich in the works of the great masters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and therefore extremely valuable and profoundly interesting to the student of the history and development of Italian art. We shall take a look into this building later and view Michelangelo's David, which is the greatest work of the artist's young manhood.
Now let me call your attention to some general features of the city as it lies spread out before us. The old Roman town of Florentia was situated on the right bank of the river just beyond the Vecchio bridge, and comprised a district the center of which may be identified by that tall chimney seen to the right and beyond the bridge. Afterwards, during the latter part of the Middle Ages, the city extended on both sides of the river in the direction of the eminence from which we are looking. The new quarter of the modern city, in which are the best hotels and residences, is on the right bank of the river, beyond the Palazzo Vecchio and the Cathedral. Back of this new city may be dimly seen the Tuscan hills and the lofty range of the Apennines, down from which came the Etruscans, that race of mighty warriors possessed of marvelous power for assimilating Greek and Oriental culture, and who were artistically and intellectually the very flower of Italy. It was but natural that the city which they founded beside the Arno should partake, in its essential features, of the mental and aesthetical characteristics of this noble race.
After the appalling gloom of the Dark Ages, which on the downfall of Imperial Rome folded entire Europe in its shroud, the first pale streaks of light announcing the approaching dawn of a new age appeared above these walls of Florence ! 'Tis true, the glory which succeeded that bright dawn did not last long. Its splendor scarce outlived two centuries. But in that time Italian art and literature reached their zenith, and Florence ever since has been a treasure house for those who prize inspiring memories and forms which live again on canvas or in marble.
You will observe that the river is bordered on both sides by spacious and handsome quays called the Lungarno, which were formerly, even more than now, the center of the wholesale trade of the city. If you will cast your eye directly over the tower of the church of St. Niccolo, which may be seen on the left bank of the river (the tower where Michelangelo was in hiding), you will observe on the opposite bank of the Arno a broad, two-story structure having six pillars in front of its entrance, resembling the façade of a church. That is the Banca Nazionale. To the left of the Vecchio bridge is the Pitti Palace, not seen by us, but connected with the Uffizi by a covered passage ex-tending over the bridge. We shall have the pleasure of seeing one of the rooms in this palace later on.
We might linger long on this lovely hilltop, our eyes wandering to and fro over the fair city of the Renaissance, discovering constantly new points of interest and new phases of beauty, but our space is limited and we cannot particularize ; yet it will repay us to return to this spot again and again. There are many cities in Italy which are worthy of our prolonged and closest study, but especially is this true of the scene before us, where:
" On the bright enchanting plain,
We will now take our stand on the roof of the church of Or San Michele, which you see to the right of and beyond the Palazzo Vecchio, and which has al-ready been referred to, and look back in this direction. The lines connected with the number 78 on the map make this next position clear to us.