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 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 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 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

1 comment:

  1. Yet another lovely offering "From A Tuscan Hillside"with wonderful pictorial and historical information linked with George Eliot's novel Romela (1862-63)which gives a 19th century vision of a 15th century Florence through the eyes of a 15th century "Spirit" who was a Renaissance Florentine merchant.George Eliot suggests that the 19th century "historical heart" of Florence had changed little since the 15th century,and may,as Leitha Martin has suggested,still be true in the 21st century.This makes for very pleasant reading.As one who has visited wonderful Florence several times I find this yet another most interesting piece by Leitha.


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