Monday, January 15, 2018

A 19th century vision of 15th century Florence

George Eliot and the Passage of Time in Florence



"...a world-famous city, which has hardly changed its outline since the days of Columbus, ...seeming to stand as an almost unviolated symbol...to remind us that we still resemble the men of the past more than we differ from them..."

Florence in 1490: bird's eye view from the west
In her novel Romola (1862-63) George Eliot (or Mary Anne Evans) offers a vision of Florence which, besides displaying her deep grasp of the history, language and culture of the city during the Renaissance, regales the modern reader with a vivid portrait of the town at the height of its glory.
 
1914 edition of Romola
But it is her Proem which interests me here. Eliot begins her preamble to Romola by underlining how little many world-famous cities have changed over the centuries, at least at their historical hearts. Her assertion held truer in the 19th century than it does in the 21st, but in the case of historical Florence, it is arguably still - miraculously - the case.
Florence today: bird's eye view from the east
Eliot describes 19th century Florence from the point of view of a late 15th century 'Spirit', a Renaissance Florentine merchant who observes the city from the hill of San Miniato, seeing in it the reflection of his former home. 

the jewel of San Miniato al Monte
The merchant notes the geographical features, naturally unchanged over the centuries: Monte Morello to the north, the Arno to the west and Fiesole with its crown of monastic walls and cypresses; and all the green and grey slopes sprinkled with villas which he could name...  

Villa Medici Fiesole

And although he misses the seventy or more towers that once surmounted the [city] walls...his eyes...are drawn...to the unique tower springing like a tall flower-stem drawn towards the sun, from the square turreted mass of the Old Palace in the very heart of the city... 
Bernardo Bellotto Piazza della Signoria, 1742, painted over 100 years before Eliot described it in Romola
The great dome...raises its large curves still, eclipsing the hills. 
Brunelleschi's Dome, eclipsing the hills
And the well-known bell-towers, Giotto's, with its distant hint of rich colour...
 
detail of Giotto's campanile built between 1334 and 1359

 ...and the graceful-spired Badia...
the elegant "graceful-spired" Badia Fiorentina, flanked by the Bargello: two bell-towers extant since the Middle Ages
Changes are evident to our merchant: [he] lets his eyes travel on to the city walls, and now he dwells on the change there with wonder at these modern times. Why have five out of the eleven convenient gates been closed? And why, above all, should the towers have been levelled that were once a glory and defence? Is the world become so peaceful, then, and do Florentines dwell in such harmony...?
the walls that still surround the San Frediano quarter in the Oltrarno (south of the Arno)

And there flows Arno, with its bridges just where they used to be - the Ponte Vecchio, least like other bridges in the world, laden with the same quaint shops...


Finally Eliot imagines her merchant's nostalgic dreams, evoking the city/civitas as it was in the Renaissance, (at least for male citizens of certain means):

...the yearning of the old Florentine is...to be down among those narrow streets and busy humming piazze...[evincing] the passionate intensity...which could belong only to...the members of a community shut in close by the hills and by walls of six miles' circuit, where men knew each other as they passed in the street, set their eyes every day on the memorials of their commonwealth, and were conscious of having not simply the right to vote, but the chance of being voted for... 
Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Youngest King (detail) 1459-60, Palazzo Medici-Ricciardi

After much reflection along these lines, the merchant resolves to go down into the city:

I will tread the familiar pavement and hear once again the speech of Florentines...

But the author discourages him from facing the inevitable changes that he will find in his city, urging him instead:

to look at the sunlight and shadows on the grand walls that have endured in their grandeur; look at the faces of the little children, making another sunlight amid the shadows of age; look, if you will, into the churches, and hear the same chants, see the same images as of old...
Baptistery of San Giovanni

These things have not changed.


George Eliot, by Lowes Cato Dickinson, 1872







Friday, October 20, 2017

The Fallen Cypress

Resuscitating a Tree


The day the builders came and, manoeuvring their digger in a tight space, crashed into one of three cypresses we planted over ten years ago, setting the tree at a 45 degree angle, we were not sure whether it could be salvaged.
After we watered it thoroughly, presumably to ease its shock (it happened at the height of a very hot summer), the cypress rapidly sank to the ground, where it lay for over two months.
The experts told us it was better to wait for cooler weather but when they came to visit the patient they were concerned that many roots had been broken in the fall; perhaps the tree was compromised. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How to Build a Farmhouse: an 18th Century Architectural Treatise

Delle Case de' Contadini
Ferdinando Morozzi
1770



...farmhouses can be improved, not for the sake of it, but in order to remove many fatal mistakes, as much for the Farmers' lives as for the damage incurred for the owner who cannot derive profit from his Possessions...therefore I will try to discuss this, setting out rules for building anew, modifying and enlarging pre-existing homes based on experience, and the Authorities of the most serious Writers...

...non poco si possono migliorare di piu' le Case de' Contadini, non per il lusso...ma affine di togliere ...tanti errori..funesti...alla vita de' medesimi Contadini, quanto ancora di pregiudizio notabile all'interesse di chi possiede, che non ricava dalle Possessioni quel frutto compensativo...percio'...io procurero' di discorrere sopra le medesime...esponendo le regole per...edificare di nuovo, e correggere, ed aumentare le gia' fatte le quali cose tutte saranno appoggiate all'esperienza e corredate colle Autorita' de' piu' gravi Scrittori... 
 
Delle case dei contadini, link to book


On Peasants' Houses is the title of this slim volume published in late 18th century Florence by one Ferdinando Morozzi (mentioned in the post on Le Ripe History). The Tuscan case coloniche or farmhouses inhabited by  sharecroppers, but not owned by them, (see the post on Sharecropping in Tuscany) are the typical clusters of rural buildings for which this part of the world is famous. They are often misnamed villas, but villas were the homes of the gentry and nobility, are grander and often surrounded by formal gardens. 
 
restored casa colonica not dissimilar to the one in Morozzi's drawing below: some might erroneously call it a villa but it is really just a wonderful old farmhouse beautified

Case coloniche are the solid, square stone structures where the farmers, the 'peasants' of the past, lived and worked. Arches, dovecotes, external staircases, towers, terracotta grills on the barns for aeration, are regular features; locations vary but tend to be central to the farmland and on an elevation, if available.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Hilltop View from Le Ripe

We lost some forest but we gained a view
looking almost due east
When we first walked proudly over our property - the sensation of owning land, as opposed to a house, is strangely exciting - we convinced ourselves that our scanty maps showed it extending to the top of the hill. Our imaginations expanded it a little further.
looking north towards Panzano in Chianti


We would climb the hill and confidently point out the (imagined) boundaries to visitors. It was nice owning a hilltop, even if there was no view up there from spring to autumn, because of the forest of leafy oak and ash. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Long Dry Summer of 2017.2

...and the rains came


 ...finally, almost 60 millimetres

I only wish I could have captured the sound and fury of it all, the thunderbolts and lightning flashes. 
Thor and Zeus really let us have it, at last.

looking south towards Radda (invisible)

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Day the Drone flew over Le Ripe

The upside of new technology: aerial photographs


  
A friendly, invited drone buzzed over Le Ripe this morning like an outsize mosquito and obligingly took some photographs.


Maybe next time it will deliver pizza.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Long Dry Summer of 2017.1


Waiting for the rain

these are early morning shots, before the heat sets in

As we walk crunching on the lawns - what say I? - former lawns and meadows, at Le Ripe, I reflect that the place is looking more and more like Australia. The hills have turned prematurely brown, the earth is parched, some bushes and trees, or at least their foliage, have died.
most hills are browner than this, it is quite marked

The drought has been with us since spring. There have been two mediocre rainfalls in the past 4 months or so, totalling about 30ml. It was almost the same last year but at least then we had enjoyed spring rains.
some plants have fallen by the wayside



Saturday, June 10, 2017

Cabbages and Flax

 Surprising Sprouts

At Le Ripe early this spring we had a man with a tractor work over our orchard to tumble out the biggest stones and level the ground for easier mowing.

 The resulting freshly-turned and raked earth cried out for seeds. Grass would have been the obvious choice but inspired by friends, we opted for something prettier.
Our local supplier sells sacks of flax seed. Since the flax flower (linum usitatissimum) is a pretty blue, we thought this would make an attractive first planting before grass seeds were sown in autumn.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Cleaning out the Fish Pond


Fishissitudes

  Each year it is a rather sorry and tiring task of mine to clean out our fish pond which we created in a section of the adapted remains of the former laundry trough at Le Ripe.



Tiring for fairly obvious reasons: the trough measures about 2.5 metres by 1.5 and is about 50 centimetres deep and after one year its base is rich with sludge. It has to be completely drained, emptied of its stones and pots and the sludge and rubble swept out through a narrow plughole.


 A sorry task, because each time the fish seem to be the victims of fate and clumsy handling, one way or another. 
It is remarkable to think that our goldfish, left to their own devices in the pond, have survived extreme heat, extreme cold (including 10cm of ice on the surface of the pond), dirty water (this year for various reasons it was 2 years since a clean-out) and amuchina which is a sodium hypochlorite compound used for disinfecting water to deter mosquitoes. This was added when I thought the fish had perished; I was not trying to murder them.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Oscar Tintori's Garden of Eden


The Citrus Hesperidarium at Pescia

If you drive to the west coast from Florence you may take the Firenze-Mare motorway along the broad valley of the Arno all the way to the sea and Pisa or Lucca. En route you will be treated to views of one of Tuscany's celebrated plant nursery districts (others are to be found further south along the Arno and in Versilia on the coast). 


Battalions of cyprus, platoons of magnolias, brigades of tufted or twisted ornamental bushes, divisions of deciduous trees, regiments of shrubs: an entire army of woody plants marches towards the sea. It is a magnificent display of human enterprise, the varieties of horticulture and human-imposed order.

If you have time (and you really should make time), on the way towards Pisa and the coast, you could make a detour at Pescia (exit at Chiesina Uzzanese) to visit the glorious, perfumed citrus nursery founded by Oscar Tintori. Here you will find gigantic greenhouses covering 2000 square metres and sheltering hundreds of different varieties of citrus plants.