Tuscan Cities – William Dean Howells
To meet Mr. Howells again on his Italian rambles is like rejoining an old friend in the midst of scenes associated with the beginning of our friendship. This rich volume is a grateful recollection of the book which first gave him a place in our standard literature. Much of the old charm of ‘Venetian Life’ is certainly here. The daring disregard of conventionality, the happy discovery of aspects of life un noticed by previous travelers, the artistic and novel use of illustrative side-lights, the quick insight into the characteristics of places, the unforced flow of delicate humor, the fascination of a style distinguished more by natural grace than by laborious polish, and the genial understanding between the author and the reader – all these qualities reappear in the new record of travel ; and if they seem less striking than they did of old, we must remember that Mr. Howells himself is no longer a fresh sensation but a familiar favorite. Half the volume is devoted to Florence under the title of Florentine Mosaics. Mr. Howells gives us something quite unlike the ordinary impressions of a traveler. Here is neither set description of scenery and architecture, nor systematic study of life and manners ; but the author passes at will from pictures of the streets and squares and churches and palaces, to brief comments upon the people, and glowing transcriptions of dramatic episodes in Florentine history. . . . Siena is visited in the same temper, although Mr. Howells took his pleasure there with a keener zest than the well-known sights of Florence were able to afford him ; and the tour took in Pisa, Lucca, Pistoja, Prato and Fiesole, of which he writes much more briefly than of the more important cities.
Excerpt from the text:
PANFORTE DI SIENA
A MONTH out of our winter at Florence we gave to Siena, whither we went early in February. At that time there were no more signs of spring in the landscape than there were in December, here and there an almond-tree, which in the pale pink of its thronging blossoms showed delicately as a lady’s complexion in the unfriendly air. The fields were in their green arrest, but the trees were bare, and the yellow river that wandered along beside the railroad looked sullen and cold under the dun sky.
After we left the Florentine plain, we ran between lines of reddish hills, sometimes thickly wooded, sometimes showing on their crests only the stems and tops of scattering pines and poplars, such as the Tuscan painters were fond of putting into their Judean backgrounds. There were few tokens of life in the picture; we saw some old women tending sheep and spinning with their distaffs in the pastures; and in the distance there were villages cropping out of the hill-tops and straggling a little way down the slopes. At times we whirled by the ruins of a castle, and nearer Siena we caught sight of two or three walled towers which had come down from the Middle Ages apparently with every turret in repair. Our course was south-westward, but we were continually mounting into the cold, thin air of the volcanic hill-country, at the summit of which the old Ghibelline city still sits capital, proud of her past, beautiful and noble even among Italian towns, and wearing in her mural crown the cathedral second in splendor and surprise only to the jewel-church in the belt of Venice.
It is not my habit to write such fine rhetoric as this, the reader will bear me witness; and I suspect that it is a prophetic tint from an historical sketch of Siena, to which, after ascertaining the monotony of the landscape, I could dedicate the leisure of our journey with a good conscience. It forms part of “La Nuova Guida di Siena,” and it grieves me that the title-page of my copy should have been lost, so that I cannot give the name of an author whose eloquence I delight in. He says: ” Siena is lifted upon hills that rise alluring and delicious in the center of Tuscany. … Its climate is soft, temperate, and wholesome. The summer sojourn is very grateful there on account of the elevated position and the sea breezes that, with an agreeable constancy, prevail in that season. . . . The panorama of the city is something enchanting. . . . Every step reveals startling changes of perspective, now lovely, now stern, but always stamped with a physiognomy of their own, a characteristic originality. From all points is seen the slim, proud tower of the Mangia, that lifts among the clouds its battlemented crest, its arrowy and exquisite shaft. Viewed from the top of this tower, Siena presents the figure of a star— a figure formed by the diverse rays or lines of its streets traced upon the shoulder of the hills. The loveliest blue of the most lovely Italian sky irradiates our city with the purest light, in which horizons magnificent and vast open upon the eye. . . . The hills and the plain are everywhere clothed with rich olive groves, festive orchards, luxuriant vineyards, and delightful bosks of oak, of chestnut, and of walnut, which form the umbrageous breathing-places of the enchanting landscape, and render the air pure and oxygenated.” The native inhabitants of this paradise are entirely worthy of it. “No people in Italy, except, perhaps, the Neapolitans, has the wide-awake-mindedness, the liveliness of character, the quickness of spirit, the keen-witted joyousness of the Sienese. . . . The women dress modestly, but with taste. They are gracious, amiable, inclined to amusement, and affectionate in their families. In general their honesty gives no ground for jealousy to their husbands; they are extremely refined in manner, and renowned for their grace and beauty. The comeliness of their figures, the regularity of their lineaments, as well as their vivid coloring, which reveals in them an enviable freshness of fiber and good blood purified by the mountain air, justly awaken the admiration of strangers, … In the women and the men alike exist the sweetness of pronunciation, the elegance of phrase, and the soft clearness of the true Tuscan accent. . . . Hospitality and the cordial reception of strangers are the hereditary, the proverbial virtues of the Sienese. . . . The pride of the Sienese character is equal to its hospitality; and this does not spring from roughness of manners and customs, but is a noble pride, magnanimous, worthy of an enlightened people with a self-derived dignity, and intensely attached to its own liberty and independence. The Sienese, whom one historian has called the French of Italy, are ardent spirits, enthusiastic, resolute, energetic, courageous, and prompt beyond any other people to brandish their arms in defense of their country. They have a martial nature, a fervid fancy, a lively imagination; they are born artists; laborious, affable, affectionate, expansive; they are frank and loyal friends, but impressionable, impetuous, fiery to exaltation. Quick to anger, they are ready to forgive, which shows their excellence of heart. They are polite, but unaffected. Another trait of their gay and sympathetic character is their love of song, of the dance, and of all gymnastic exercises. . . . Dante called the Sienese gente vana (a vain people). But we must reflect that the altissimo poeta was a Florentine, and though a sublime genius, he was not able to emancipate himself from that party hate and municipal rivalry, the great curse of his time.”
But for that final touch about Dante, I might have thought I was reading a description of the Americans, and more especially the Bostonians, so exactly did my author’s eulogy of the Sienese embody the facts of our own character. But that touch disillusioned me: even Dante would not have called the Bostonians gente vana, unless he had proposed to spend the rest of his life in London. As it was, I was impatient to breathe that wondrous air, to bask in that light, to behold that incomparable loveliness, to experience that proverbial hospitality, and that frank and loyal friendship; to mingle in the song and dance and the gymnastic exercises; and nothing but the sober-minded deliberation of the omnibus-train, which was four hours in going to Siena, prevented me from throwing myself into the welcoming embrace of the cordial city at once.
I had time not only to reflect that perhaps Siena distinguished between strangers arriving at her gates, and did not bestow an indiscriminate hospitality, but to wander back with the ” New Guide ” quite to the dawn of her history, when Senio, the son of Remus, flying from the wrath of his uncle Romulus, stopped where Siena now stands and built himself a castle. Whether the city got her name from Senio or not, it is certain that she adopted the family arms; and to this day the she-wolf suckling the twins is as much blazoned about Siena as about Rome, if not more. She was called Urbs Lupata even by the Romans, from the wolf-bearing seal of her chief magistrate; and a noble Roman family sent one of its sons as early as 303 to perish at Siena for the conversion of the city to Christianity, When the empire fell, Siena suffered less than the other Tuscan cities from the barbarian incursions; but she came under the rule of the Longobard kings, and then was one of the “free cities ” of Charlemagne, from whose counts and barons, enriched by his gifts of Sienese lands and castles, the Sienese nobility trace their descent. These’ foreign robbers, whose nests the Florentines went out of their gates to destroy, in their neighborhood, voluntarily left their castles in the Sienese territory, and came into the city, which they united with the bishops in embellishing with beautiful palaces and ruling with an iron hand, till the commons rose and made good their claim to a share in their own government. Immunities and privileges were granted by Caesar and Peter, and at the close of the twelfth century a republican government, with an elective magistracy, was fully developed, and the democratized city entered upon a career of great material prosperity. ” But in the midst of this potent activity of political and commercial life, Siena more than any other Italian city was afflicted with municipal rivalries and intestine discords. To-day the nobles triumphed and hurled the commons from power; tomorrow the people took a bloody revenge and banished every patrician from the city. Every change of administration was accompanied by ostracism, by violence, by public tumults, by continual upheavals;” and these feuds of families, of parties, and of classes, were fostered and perpetuated by the warring ambitions of the popes and emperors. From the first, Siena was Ghibelline and for the emperors, and it is odd that one of her proudest victories should have been won against Henry the son of Barbarossa. When that emperor threatened the free cities with ruin, Siena was the only one in Tuscany that shut her gates against him; and when Henry laid siege to her, her people sallied out of Fontebranda and San Marco, and fell upon his Germans and put them to flight.
The Florentines, as we have seen, were of the pope’s politics; or, rather, they were for their own freedom, which they thought his politics favored, and the Sienese were for theirs, which they believed the imperial success would establish. They never could meet upon the common ground of their common love of liberty, but kept battling on through four centuries of miserable wars till both were enslaved. Siena had her shameful triumph when she helped in the great siege that restored the Medici to Florence in 1530, and Florence had her cruel revenge when her tyrant, Cosimo I., entered Siena at the head of the imperial forces fifteen years later. The Florentines met their first great defeat at the hands of the Sienese and of their own Ghibelline exiles at Montaperto (twelve miles from Siena) in 1260, when the slaughter was so great, as Dante says, ” che fece l’Arbia colorata in rosso; ” and in 1269 the Sienese were routed by their own Guelph exiles and the Florentines at Colle di Val d’Elsa.
A story is told of an official of Siena to whom the Florentines sent in 1860 to invite his fellow-citizens to join them in celebrating the union of Tuscany with the kingdom of Italy. He said, Yes, they would be glad to send a deputation of Sienese to Florence, but would the Florentines really like to have them come? ” Surely! Why not?” “Oh, that affair of Montaperto, you know ” — as if it were of the year before, and must still, after six hundred years, have been rankling in the Florentine mind. But perhaps in that time it had become confused there with other injuries, or perhaps the Florentines of 1860 felt that they had sufficiently avenged themselves by their victory of 1269. This resulted in the triumph of the Guelphs in Siena, and finally in the substitution of the magistracy of the Nine for that of the Thirty. These Nine, or the Noveschi, ruled the city for two hundred and fifty years with such unscrupulous tyranny and infamous corruption, that they ” succeeded in destroying every generous sentiment, in sapping the noble pride of character in the Sienese population, and if not in extinguishing, at least in cooling, their ardent love of liberty,” and preparing them for the rule of the ever-dreaded one-man power, which appeared in the person of Pandolfo Petrucci in 1487. He misruled Siena for twenty-five years, playing there, with less astuteness and greater ferocity, the part which Lorenzo de Medici had played a century earlier in earlier rotten Florence. Petrucci, too, like Lorenzo, was called the Magnificent, and he, too, passed his life in sensual debauchery, in political intrigues ending in bloody revenges and reprisals, and in the protection of the arts, letters, and religion. Of course he beautified the city, and built palaces, churches, and convents with the money he stole from the people whom he gave peace to prosper in. He, too, died tranquilly of his sins and excesses, his soul reeking with treasons and murders like the fascinating Lorenzo’s; and his sons tried to succeed him like Lorenzo’s, but were deposed like Pietro de’ Medici and banished. One of his pleasing family was that Achille Petrucci who, in the massacre of St Bartholomew at Paris, cut the throat of the great Protestant admiral, Coligny.
After them, the Sienese enjoyed a stormy and intermittent liberty within and varying fortunes of war without, till the Emperor Charles V., having subdued Florence, sent a Spanish garrison to Siena with orders to build him a fort in that city. The Spaniards were under the command of Don Hurtado de Mendoza, who was not only, as my “New Guide” describes him, “ex-monk, astute, subtle, fascinating in address, profound dissimulator,” but also the author of the ” History of the War of Granada,” and of one of the most delightful books in the world, namely, “The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes,” Spanish rogue and beggar, for whose sake I freely forgive him on my part all his sins against the Sienese; especially as they presently drove him and his Spaniards out of the city and demolished his fort.
The Sienese had regained their freedom, but they could hope to keep it only by the help of the French and their allies the Florentine exiles, who were plotting under the Strozzi against the Medici. The French friendship came to little or nothing but promises, the exiles were few and feeble, and in 1554 the troops of the Emperor and of Duke Cosimo — him of. the terrible face and the bloodstained soul, murderer of his son, and father of a family of adulteresses and assassins — came and laid siege to the doomed city. The siege lasted eighteen months, and until the Sienese were wasted by famine and pestilence, and the women fought beside the men for the city which was their country and the last hope of liberty in Italy. When the famine began they drove out the useless mouths (bocche inutili) the old men and women and the orphan children, hoping that the enemy would have pity on these hapless creatures; the Spaniards massacred most of them before their eyes. Fifteen hundred peasants, who tried to bring food into the city, were hung before the walls on the trees, which a Spanish writer says “seemed to bear dead men.” The country round about was laid waste; a hundred thousand of its inhabitants perished, and the fields they had tilled lapsed into pestilential marshes breathing fever and death. The inhabitants of the city were reduced from forty to six thousand; seven hundred families preferred exile to slavery.
Charles V. gave Siena as a fief to his son, Philip II., who ceded it to Cosimo I., and he built there the fort which the Spaniards had attempted. It remained under the good Lorrainese dukes till Napoleon made it capital of his Department of the Ombrone, and it returned to them at his fall. In 1860 it was the first Tuscan city to vote for the union of Italy under Victor Emmanuel — the only honest king known to history, says my “New Guide.”