Sunday, April 15, 2012

Florence and the Grand Tour

A few weeks ago, I made my first ever trip to Florence. Fantastic art, and fantastic weather to view it in, as well. I don't think I have ever seen quite so many glorious male nudes in one place. A lot of them were from ancient Greece and Rome, of course, but many were not. I fell in love with Donatello's wonderful bronze of David in the Bargello museum.

And since the weather was terrific, we could eat out in the Piazza della Signoria and I could gaze, admiringly, at the beautiful lines of Michaelangelo's David, in the copy that stands outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

Just across from David stands Benvenuto Cellini's bronze of Perseus. Also stunning. Don't you think?

Regency folk couldn't travel to Italy, of course, because it was part of Napoleon's Empire. The Georgians did, however, as part of the Grand Tour. This (the Trinita bridge) is the sort of Florence they saw.

The taste for the Early Renaissance developed only in the nineteenth century, so there are few references to the masterpieces I went to Florence to see. Letters and diaries tell us more about Florentine society than its art.

Horace Walpole, arriving in Florence in the winter of 1739-40, wrote to Richard West of his enthusiasm for the Carnival:

"...I have done nothing but slip out of my domino into bed, and out of bed
into my domino. The end of the Carnival is frantic, bacchanalian; all
the morn one makes parties in masque to the shops and coffee-houses, and all
the evening to the operas and balls. Then I have danced, good gods! how I have danced!

"What makes masquerading more agreeable here than in England, is the great
deference that is showed to the disguised. Here they do not catch at those little dirty opportunities of saying any ill-natured thing they know of you, do not abuse you because they may, or talk gross bawdy to a woman of quality."

Robert Adam, doing the Grand Tour in the 1750s, also reported on Carnival:

"Every mortal masked, from a Marquis to a shoe-black traversing the streets from morning to night. The Corso is a procession of all the equipages in the country and town who go to the great square, ride round making a tour through some of the streets of the town, return to the square again -- one set going, another coming -- by which means those acquainted with the coach they meet, pop their heads out, say a witty thing and take them in again. This solemn procession, with our best coach etc, we used to parade in for two or three hours, that is from 3 to 6 o'clock, when night called us to other amusements."

Hester Thrale, doing the Grand Tour with her new husband in the 1780s, seems unconcerned by the riderless horse races that follow the Corso (and which sound, to modern ears, incredibly cruel):

"After the coaches have paraded up and down some time to show the equipages, liveries, etc, all have on a sudden notice to quit the scene of action, and all do quit it in such a manner as is surprising. The street is now covered with sawdust, and made fast at both ends; the starting--post is adorned with elegant booths, lined with red velvet, for the court and first nobility; at the other end a piece of tapestry is hung, to prevent the creatures from dashing their brains out when they reach the goal. ... At last come out the concurrenti without riders, but with a narrow leathern strap hung across their backs, which has a lump of ivory fastened to the end of it, all set full of sharp spikes like a hedgehog, and this goads them along while galloping worse than any spurs could do, because the faster they run, the more this odd machine keeps jumping up and down and pricking their sides... I never saw horses in so droll a state of degradation before, for they are all striped or spotted, or painted of some colour to distinguish them each from other; and nine or ten start at a time."

But not everything was to her taste. She complains of the noise in the Piazza del Duomo:

"... a dozen fellows crying ciambelli [little cakes] about the square, assisted by beggars, who lie upon the church steps and pray, or, rather, promise to pray, as loud as their lungs will let them, for the anime sante di purgatorio, ballad-singers meantime endeavouring to drown those clamours in their own, and gentlemen's servants disputing at the doors whose master shall be first served, ripping up the pedigrees of each to prove superior claims for a biscuit or macaroon..."

And she complains of the heat, too:

"The sun is so violent that I use no other method of heating up the pinching irons to curl my hair than that of poking them out at a south window with the handles shut in..."

Many of these comments tell us at least as much about British society of the time as they do about Florence.

I'm very glad that the Florence horse races no longer take place. And I shall stick to the art, I think. Especially those beautiful nudes...



Charlotte Sannazzaro said...

I was in Florence in March too! Isn't it simply enchanting. Thanks for the tidbit regarding no travel to Italy during the wars - I need to change something in my WIP as a result. Ciao!

Joanna Maitland said...

Glad to be of help, Charlotte. Best of luck with the WIP.

Yes, Florence is stunning. Well worth a visit, though possibly less rushed than mine. A 3-day visit isn't long to get round all that wonderful art.

Christina Courtenay said...

Perseus is indeed stunning! But those poor horses, doesn't bear thinking about :(

Jane Odiwe said...

I am so envious-I've always wanted to go to Florence-looks as if you had a fabulous time.

Joanna Maitland said...

Thanks, Jane. Yes we had a great time, helped by wonderful weather.

Christina, I have to admit that, on the first evening, in the gloom, I saw that fantastic Perseus from directly side on and, for a moment (honestly -- it was just for a split second) I thought, gosh, for a medieval statue, that's an extraordinarly large... Then I realised it was his sword.


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