Florence

“Firenze la bella”, the pride of its natives, the dream of poet and painter and the delight of a multitude of travellers, lies amid graceful hills, clothed with olive gardens and dotted with white villas. In the clear distance are the splendid Apennines. Climb to the terrace of San Miniato, and you will gain a wide general view of this great and beautiful city of culture and the arts. The wonderful campanile of Giotto rises above the surrounding buildings, rivalling the height of the cathedral; the sunlight glows on dome and tower, and the valleys and glens lie in deep shadow, stretching away to the slopes of the mountains.

Very lovely, too, is the prospect from the Boboli Gardens, and finer still the outlook from Fiesole, whence the eye surveys the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Campanile, the noble churches of Bruneschi, the Pitti Palace, and many fair buildings of the Middle Ages.

Gazing over Florence from one of the elevations of the environs, a vast pageant of history seems revealed, and men of illustrious name pass in long procession in the vision of the mind. How numerous are the great thinkers and artists associated with the city from Savonarola to the Brownings! We recall Dante, Giotto, Boccaccio, Michael Angelo–the roll seems inexhaustible. Almost all the famous men of Italy are connected with the culture-history and the political annals of Florence. The city inspires and holds us with a spell; we are impelled to wander day after day in the narrow streets, to linger in the fragrant gardens, to roam in the luxuriant valleys of the surrounding country, and to climb the hill of classic Fiesole.

Rich and beautiful is the scenery between Florence and Bologna, with its
glimpses of the savage Apennines. The glen of Vallombrosa is one of the
loveliest spots in the vicinity, where the old monastery broods amid
beech and chestnut-trees. It was this scene that Milton recalled when he
wrote the lines:

“Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks
In Vallombrosa….”

The history of the city is of abundant interest. Florence was probably
an important station in the days of the Roman Triumviri. Totila the
Goth besieged and destroyed the town, and Charlemagne restored it two
hundred and fifty years later. Machiavelli states that from 1215
Florence was the seat of the ruling power in Italy, the descendants of
Charles the Great governing here until the time of the German emperors.
In the struggle between the Church and the State, the city took sides
with the popular party for the time being. There were, however, constant
factions within Florence, due to the quarrels of the Buondelmonti and
Uberti families. Frederick II. favoured the Uberti cause, and with his
help, the Buondelmontis were expelled. Then came the remarkable period
of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, the former standing for the Pope, and
the latter siding with the Emperor. Florence favoured the Guelfs, and
the Ghibellines resolved to destroy the city; but the Guelf party again
won ascendancy in Florence. The trouble was, however, not at an end. For
years Florence was disturbed by the conflicting aims of these intriguing
parties.

Grandees and commoners warred in Florence in the fourteenth century, and
efforts were made by the aristocratic rulers to curtail the liberties of
the people. This was frustrated by the commoners, and the government
was reformed on a more democratic basis. Peace followed during a period
of about ten years, but calamity befell Florence in the form of the
pestilence described by Boccaccio. Ninety-six thousand persons are said
to have died from the ravages of this plague.

As early as the twelfth century there were many signs in Florence of
intellectual liberty. The doctrine of the eternity of matter was openly
discussed, and on to the days of Savonarola civilising forces were at
work in this centre of culture.

Girolamo Savonarola arose at the end of the fifteenth century, and his
reforming influence soon spread through Italy. “The church is shaken to
its foundations,” he cries. “No more are the prophets remembered, the
apostles are no longer reverenced, the columns of the church strew the
ground because the foundations are destroyed–in other words because the
evangelists are rejected.” Such heresy as this brought Savonarola to the
stake.

Greater among the mighty of Florence was Dante, born in a memorable age
of art and invention. “The Vita Nuova,” inspired by the gentle damsel,
Beatrice, was written when Dante had met his divinity at a May feast
given by her father, Folco Portinari, one of the chief citizens of
Florence. Beatrice died in 1290 at the age of twenty-four. Boccaccio
states that the poet married Gemma Donati about a year after the death
of Beatrice. Dante died in 1321, and was buried in Ravenna.

For me the chief appeal in Seville, Antwerp, or any old Continental town
is in the human associations. In Florence, roaming in the ancient
quarters, the figure of Dante, made so familiar by many paintings,
arises with but little effort of the imagination, for the streets have
not greatly changed in aspect since his day. The atmosphere remains
mediæval.

Can we not see the moody poet, driven from his high estate by the
quarrels of the ruling houses, pacing the alleys, repeating to himself:
“How hard is the path!” Can we not picture him in company with Petrarch,
who, after the merry-making in the palace, remarked that the wise poet
was quite eclipsed by the mountebanks who capered before the guests? And
do we not hear Dante’s muttered “Like to like!”

Two great English poets, Chaucer and Milton, made journeys to Florence.

Giovanni Boccaccio was born in 1313, in Certaldo, a small town some
leagues from Florence. He spent a few years in France and in the south
of Italy, returning to Florence at the age of twenty-eight. Boccaccio
was the close friend and the biographer of Dante, and a contemporary of
Petrarch.

In the time of Lorenzo de Medici, Florence was a prosperous city and a
seat of learning. Machiavelli writes of Lorenzo: “The chief aim of his
policy was to maintain the city in ease, the people united, and the
nobles honoured. He had a marvellous liking for every man who excelled
in any branch of art. He favoured the learned, as Messer Agnola da
Montepulciano, Messer Cristofano Landini, and Messer Demetrio; the Greek
can bear sure testimony whence it came that the Count Giovanni della
Mirandola, a man almost divine, withdrew himself from all the other
countries of Europe through which he had travelled, and attracted by the
munificence of Lorenzo, took up his abode in Florence. In architecture,
music, and poetry, he took extraordinary delight…. Never was there any
man, not in Florence merely, but in all Italy, who died with such a name
for prudence, or whose loss was so much mourned by his country.”