Italian Hours/Florentine Notes, part II
A couple of days since, driving to Fiesole, we came back by the castle of Vincigliata. The afternoon was lovely; and, though there is as yet (February 10th) no visible revival of vegetation, the air was full of a vague vernal perfume, and the warm colours of the hills and the yellow western sunlight flooding the plain seemed to contain the promise of Nature's return to grace. It's true that above the distant pale blue gorge of Vallombrosa the mountain-line was tipped with snow; but the liberated soul of Spring was nevertheless at large. The view from Fiesole seems vaster and richer with each visit. The hollow in which Florence lies, and which from below seems deep and contracted, opens out into an immense and generous valley and leads away the eye into a hundred gradations of distance. The place itself showed, amid its chequered fields and gardens, with as many towers and spires as a chess-board half cleared. The domes and towers were washed over with a faint blue mist. The scattered columns of smoke, interfused with the sinking sunlight, hung over them like streamers and pennons of silver gauze; and the Arno, twisting and curling and glittering here and there, was a serpent cross- striped with silver.
Vincigliata is a product of the millions, the leisure and the eccentricity, I suppose people say, of an English gentleman--Mr. Temple Leader, whose name should be commemorated. You reach the castle from Fiesole by a narrow road, returning toward Florence by a romantic twist through the hills and passing nothing on its way save thin plantations of cypress and cedar. Upward of twenty years ago, I believe, this gentleman took a fancy to the crumbling shell of a mediæval fortress on a breezy hill-top overlooking the Val d' Arno and forthwith bought it and began to "restore" it. I know nothing of what the original ruin may have cost; but in the dusky courts and chambers of the present elaborate structure this impassioned archæologist must have buried a fortune. He has, however, the compensation of feeling that he has erected a monument which, if it is never to stand a feudal siege, may encounter at least some critical over-hauling. It is a disinterested work of art and really a triumph of æsthetic culture. The author has reproduced with minute accuracy a sturdy home-fortress of the fourteenth century, and has kept throughout such rigid terms with his model that the result is literally uninhabitable to degenerate moderns. It is simply a massive facsimile, an elegant museum of archaic images, mainly but most amusingly counterfeit, perched on a spur of the Apennines. The place is most politely shown. There is a charming cloister, painted with extremely clever "quaint" frescoes, celebrating the deeds of the founders of the castle--a cloister that is everything delightful a cloister should be except truly venerable and employable. There is a beautiful castle court, with the embattled tower climbing into the blue far above it, and a spacious loggia with rugged medallions and mild-hued Luca della Robbias fastened unevenly into the walls. But the apartments are the great success, and each of them as good a "reconstruction" as a tale of Walter Scott; or, to speak frankly, a much better one. They are all low-beamed and vaulted, stone-paved, decorated in grave colours and lighted, from narrow, deeply recessed windows, through small leaden-ringed plates of opaque glass.
The details are infinitely ingenious and elaborately grim, and the indoor atmosphere of mediaevalism most forcibly revived. No compromising fact of domiciliary darkness and cold is spared us, no producing condition of mediaeval manners not glanced at. There are oaken benches round the room, of about six inches in depth, and gaunt fauteuils of wrought leather, illustrating the suppressed transitions which, as George Eliot says, unite all contrasts--offering a visible link between the modern conceptions of torture and of luxury. There are fireplaces nowhere but in the kitchen, where a couple of sentry-boxes are inserted on either side of the great hooded chimney-piece, into which people might creep and take their turn at being toasted and smoked. One may doubt whether this dearth of the hearthstone could have raged on such a scale, but it's a happy stroke in the representation of an Italian dwelling of any period. It shows how the graceful fiction that Italy is all "meridional" flourished for some time before being refuted by grumbling tourists. And yet amid this cold comfort you feel the incongruous presence of a constant intuitive regard for beauty. The shapely spring of the vaulted ceilings; the richly figured walls, coarse and hard in substance as they are; the charming shapes of the great platters and flagons in the deep recesses of the quaintly carved black dressers; the wandering hand of ornament, as it were, playing here and there for its own diversion in unlighted corners--such things redress, to our fond credulity, with all sorts of grace, the balance of the picture.
And yet, somehow, with what dim, unillumined vision one fancies even such inmates as those conscious of finer needs than the mere supply of blows and beef and beer would meet passing their heavy eyes over such slender household beguilements! These crepuscular chambers at Vincigliata are a mystery and a challenge; they seem the mere propounding of an answerless riddle. You long, as you wander through them, turning up your coat-collar and wondering whether ghosts can catch bronchitis, to answer it with some positive notion of what people so encaged and situated "did," how they looked and talked and carried themselves, how they took their pains and pleasures, how they counted off the hours. Deadly ennui seems to ooze out of the stones and hang in clouds in the brown corners. No wonder men relished a fight and panted for a fray. "Skull-smashers" were sweet, ears ringing with pain and ribs cracking in a tussle were soothing music, compared with the cruel quietude of the dim-windowed castle. When they came back they could only have slept a good deal and eased their dislocated bones on those meagre oaken ledges. Then they woke up and turned about to the table and ate their portion of roasted sheep. They shouted at each other across the board and flung the wooden plates at the servingmen. They jostled and hustled and hooted and bragged; and then, after gorging and boozing and easing their doublets, they squared their elbows one by one on the greasy table and buried their scarred foreheads and dreamed of a good gallop after flying foes. And the women? They must have been strangely simple--simpler far than any moral archraeologist can show us in a learned restoration. Of course, their simplicity had its graces and devices; but one thinks with a sigh that, as the poor things turned away with patient looks from the viewless windows to the same, same looming figures on the dusky walls, they hadn't even the consolation of knowing that just this attitude and movement, set off by their peaked coifs, their falling sleeves and heavily-twisted trains, would sow the seed of yearning envy--of sorts--on the part of later generations.
There are moods in which one feels the impulse to enter a tacit protest against too gross an appetite for pure aesthetics in this starving and sinning world. One turns half away, musingly, from certain beautiful useless things. But the healthier state of mind surely is to lay no tax on any really intelligent manifestation of the curious, and exquisite. Intelligence hangs together essentially, all along the line; it only needs time to make, as we say, its connections. The massive pastiche of Vincigliata has no superficial use; but, even if it were less complete, less successful, less brilliant, I should feel a reflective kindness for it. So disinterested and expensive a toy is its own justification; it belongs to the heroics of dilettantism.