"The City of Beautiful Towers"

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P131, Harper's Magazine 1904--The city of beautiful towers.jpg


"The City of Beautiful Towers"

BY LOUISE CLOSSER HALE

OVER four hundred years ago in San Gimignano, a hill town of Tuscan Italy, the powerful families of two political factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, erected towers above their palaces with the gentle hope of outdoing their rivals in number and in height. Now and then they fought from them with projectiles and great stones and molten lead. The towers, after centuries of gentle decay, are to-day serving their best purpose. The eccentricities of architecture have placed the town in the path of the tourists' search-light, and the villagers whose ancestors bore the burden of taxation for these skyward vanities are reaping the long-delayed benefit of their labors.

"In the path of the tourists' search-light" does not necessarily mean within three minutes' walk from the station. The traveller is so much of an epicure in these days that inaccessibility but renders more palatable the feast of the unusual, and to him the nine-mile drive through the countryside increases the value of his discovery. Since Queen Victoria was driven over these hills to see what a mediæval town really should be, many have followed in her august wheel-tracks. We did not travel with the pomp of royalty, for Pogni was our single escort through this region. He was fat and sunshiny, and should have walked up the steep grades to save his horses, but did not. We had liked him from the moment he was discovered hissing at us from over the railroad fence. The cabbies, in certain Italian localities, are not allowed to shriek at possible "fares," but are permitted to attract attention by a polite "hiss!" And if there is anything funnier than twenty of these unfeathered geese emitting their war-cry from their perches, it deserves to be dramatized. Pogni, having two horses, hissed twice as loud as those having single cabs, and he sat in the shade of the only tree to do it, proving that he was a lucky man from birth, or a strong one. He was a good whip-cracker as well, and evidently a kind man, for his horses were impervious to the sound, and chose their own gait during the upward climb.

In this manner we drove through the lovely sloping farm-lands, the heart of the Chianti country and the home of comfort and contentment. It seemed that all the men and women of the farmhouses were in the open, garnering the wheat with sickle and twine, and young arms and old. It may have been warm work, but the fields, with their many rows of mulberry-trees festooned with grape-vines, do not suggest the heat of our broad undotted acres. It was the resting-hour for most of them; the huge dun oxen were unyoked and gleaning where they could, and the simple luncheon of bread and cheese, washed down with the red wine of the straw-covered flasks, was as gratefully munched by the circle of peasants in the pleasant shade of the trees.

It was a menu as unalterable as the everlasting hills, for whatever difficulty the Italian housewife may have in procuring the fare, she is not harassed with the necessitous struggle for variety. The harvesters were lending themselves wholly to the leisure of the moment, and it is from this happy abandonment that the lazy sightseer in Italy judges the countrymen to be as indolent as himself. We who thumb our time-tables for the late trains, and from our car-window watch the peasantry stretched out for the noon siesta, were sleeping in the gray hours of the early morning while these contadini were out in the fields, or walking to market at the head of the slow-going ox-team, or setting the house to rights for the long day's work at the wearisome hand-loom. If there are complaints, it is not from the burden of work, but rather from the lack of it; though they are a cheerful people, in sunshine or in storm, and as we returned their bright greetings we chided ourselves for that American characteristic which associates a smiling face with an idle body.

Pogni was an excellent example of sweet temper; for we had made a good bargain with him, and though he declared himself ruined and his horses reduced to starvation, he accepted his defeat with the grace of a vanquished monarch, and, with a courtesy that should be royal, became our host for the hour. He listened with strained attention to our mental wanderings, keen for the pause for breath, when he would leap in with a staccato jab of the index-finger towards some ruined monastery, give us its history, and end with a negative waggling of the same digit and a melancholy "no more." Habitations were his passion, and the strong moment of the drive was the first glimpse of the village towers. Pogni dramatized it by an outward flinging of the arms, a sudden checking of the horses, and a triumphant "Ecco!" What we saw on the highest hill in the distance was a walled citadel, mainly composed of factories with a variety of chimneys, and all hands on a strike. No smoke was blackening the sky, and there was an appearance of desertion that every busy Italian hill town possesses when one is more than a mile beyond the walls. Pogni's satisfaction was so tremendous that one would have thought he had built the towers himself. At every turn of the road which brought us a different view, he would glance over his shoulder with uplifted eyebrows, holding the pose until we flung him an epithet of delight and appreciation. For a couple with a limited vocabulary, this was an exhausting business, and we were relieved to pass within the walls, when he assumed a severe air, and cracked his whip with much hauteur.

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Our hotel was in the piazza over a tunnelled stable and a closed shop displaying the English sign, "Etrurians Antiquity." The landlord gave us a choice of two large rooms, and for a long time we agonized over the decision. Both had their attractions. The first possessed a fireplace, a real one, such as we had never seen when the weather was cold, but the second had two bunches of waxflowers on the dresser, quite remarkable in coloring and construction, and that our evenings might be devoted to the study of this unusual flora, we chose the bouquets. It was not the decision that our guardian angels would have made, and they behaved very badly about it, later on, by losing us every time we wandered over our own door-sill, and bringing us up, after weary marches through futile corridors, to the room of the fireplace. There we would have to wait until some one of the household would discover us and lead us back to the waxflowers of our choice.

The household consisted of the landlord and his wife, together with the signorina and a "boots"—who must have stayed in the well, for occasionally we heard his hollow voice coming up from a great depth below. The housemaid was a pretty girl, and though her position in life did not entitle her to the courtesy of "signorina," she swished about with such a rush of starched petticoats, and was so amiably inattentive, that we gave her more than her due. In the big dining-hall which we shared with a German artist and his wife, and a French lady who was studying the frescos in the churches, she played with a pet fox while waiting to change the plates, and called down into the square to her companions—girls with less rustle to their skirts, perhaps, but more freedom. As for the landlord, he divided his time between the kitchen at the back of the hotel and the dining-room windows, balancing himself gracefully on the sill every time he heard the sound of wheels. At times he would hurl a platter of spaghetti towards the table on the way to the window, but he never stopped to serve us save when a fresh bottle of wine was to be opened. It was his own wine, of his own bottling, and quite as dear to him as his signora in the kitchen. Afterwards, when we had learned to swing out over the window-sills, and felt the delicious uncertainty of approaching wheels, we found our landlord entirely simpatico, and looked for guests as eagerly as he did.

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Apart from the joy of speculation, there was the beauty of the piazza itself. It is not every one whose summer-hotel windows look into a flat-iron square that has not changed one whit in four hundred years. There was a well near the point of the iron, with deep grooves worn in the stone sides from the ropes of centuries—that was the village club, and the sole ornament of the gravelled open space. Tall buildings, purely mediæval, defined the flat-iron; they had once been palaces, though the occupants probably stabled their horses on the ground floor in those days, as they do now. At our left, from a balcony as gay as sedate geraniums will permit, rose the Cortese tower, and across the square by the archway was the rugged monument of hate of the Cinatti—names that convey nothing to the dilettante in historical research, save a complacent satisfaction in the knowing of them. However, at right angles with the hotel, flanking the drug and tobacco shop, were the two low towers of the Ardinghelli, the Guelphs who began it all, and, farther on, beyond the church, were the two tall towers of the Ghibelline Salvucci, who outdid their neighbors by many feet, and lashed their opponents into a stone-mason's boom. It was not until we had drunk our chocolate and devoured seven biscuits at the café on the corner that we learned our own hotel to be part of the ancient Palazzo del Podesta (the home of the Mayor, we would say), whose campanile, with the clock on one side, became the measure for all extravagant excrescences. From that hour we viewed the results of this ancient rivalry in a different light, and with some degree of anxiety whenever we came upon a new one of unusual height. At various angles of the hilly town our tower was undoubtedly squat; in other spots it soared beautifully, and in one charming locality by the penitentiary it was higher even than the Torre del Comune, which is on a hill and has every advantage, as well as being an official tower and privileged to grow as tall as it pleased.

The Palazzo Publico has more than the tower of the Comune to recommend it. After that graceful extravagance there was a little of the public funds left for frescoing, and though Mr. Sodoma and Mr. Pinturicchio and Mr. Gozzoli did not command as high prices then as they would now, having been "discovered," their services were much valued. In the thirteenth century the poet Dante was despatched from Florence to honor the city by a personal request that representatives should be sent to an assembly of the Guelphs. He was received in the Sala del Consiglio, on the second floor, and a toothless old custodian who shows the room is not quite sure whether his coming was a greater event than the celebration of the six-hundredth anniversary of his coming in 1899, when "flags were everywhere, also notables, and fine bands." Dante's visit was in 1299. Since then the towers arose, and the city, ruined by the continual warring of the two factions, fell an easy prey to Florence, which, in her absorption of all small fry, showed the fine commercial instinct of a modern syndicate. Since then the towers have fallen—there are but thirteen of the original fifty remaining—hurled down piece after piece upon their masters' enemies, perhaps, or converted into something practical, like a bow-window or a summer kitchen.

The scattering of fifty towers along the sky-line might have failed artistically, but we grew very fond of this bakers' dozen, noting many beauties in the rough unfinished piles of masonry, and abandoning our first-formed impression of factory architecture. The German artist and his wife painted them diligently, and various English ladies made hard-pencil sketches in neat books while stopping over from train to train. But it was not the novelty of the towers that caught and held us; it was a quality less tangible, a charm not to be put into words. The whirl of the distaff in the streets had something to do with it; the view of the country from the walls, of the town from the fortress, helped us to linger; the bells that burst into spells of musical coughing, the geniality of the people, the mystery of the dark narrow ways at night, the simplicity of them when the sun shone, the delight of a couple nearing thirty in growing five centuries younger in an hour, all were added reasons that are foolish in the telling; while the joy derived from the hotel windows and the children were subjects for hysteria.

And the children!

As Guelph or Ghibelline in the old days, the youngsters may have entered into the animosity that actuated the building of towers, but it is difficult to picture an Italian lad of the fifteenth century shrieking delightedly to his neighbor that "fried rats and pickled cats are good enough for Democrats," though "ice-cream and sugar-plums are just the cheese for Republicums." No, the little chaps of that era were probably engaged in the more serious business of melting lead for father; but their posterity, not one of whom would know a Guelph from a hot cross-bun, are of the cheerful race that makes a political campaign in Mulberry Street as enjoyable as a Fourth of July picnic. The first child we met wished to be our guide, with no other qualifications than an old army cap and a fine manner when dispersing beggars. He had a friend, however, who spoke English if urged, and who, upon being urged, flapped his arms and murmured "Beautiful view," with the uncertain air of a young bantam trying to crow. After that, we all sat down upon the grass outside the Porta San Giovanni and hunted four-leaved clovers, Domenica and others of her sex joining us. Indeed, it was Domenica who found the first symbol of luck, and presented it to us with a smiling "buona fortuna." She was genuinely surprised at the reward of two cents, but the news of our liberality must have passed quickly through her cohorts, for clovering became a tremendous industry, and we were met hourly at the hotel by politely avaricious little girls with neatly spliced offerings of the three-leaved variety. Domenica finally drove them away. She wore an apron, often a clean one, and was something of a general in her district, though her command was hampered by the care of a baby—a poor thing a little the worse for wear. But she was no greater power among her own than was our friend Sam in the Via delle Romite.

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It was a memorable morning down by the public washing fountains when we met Sam. We were sitting on the clothes-lines, one might say, for the women were spreading their linen on the grass all about us, our own garments decorating either side the roadway with gratifying results. The artist missed a shirt, and became quite peevish about it. He blamed his state of mind to the swarm of flies; and the scribe, with a glowing conviction that literature does not pay, broke off an olive-branch, in a most unpeaceful frame of mind, and proceeded to beat the flies from the artistic atmosphere. At this crucial moment Sam appeared (his name turned out to be Giuseppe, but Sam appealed to our patriotic fancy); we had seen him earlier in the day shamefacedly posing, in a red chiffon scarf loaned by the German wife to the German husband for a bit of color, but the boy had thrown off the filmy yoke of such decadent femininities, and drew near to enjoy the healthy, hostile clash of literature and art. In half a minute he was the possessor of the olive-branch, a true little dove, and was soberly switching the flies from the ankles of the illustrator at four cents an hour. The following morning he was there with his fly-brush and a dozen of his companions as well, all of whom sat upon the grass in a half-circle and watched the switching of the ankles with solemn faces. It was to them the latest whim of a millionaire, and another evidence of the utter madness of these Americans. Sam, in his new capacity, bore himself with a becoming dignity. His attitude was kindly but firm towards his followers, and he varied his accomplishments in the olive-branch line by waving back his comrades who ventured to cross the visual angle of art. Often he brought us stemless carnations, which he shyly presented to his patron with a whispered "per voi e vostra signora" and though openly mocked by sniggering boys who dubbed him "porter," he daily bore the camp-stool through the streets to the very steps of our hostelry.

It was during these sketching hours that Literature again held second place. By nothing but a pocketful of biscuit could she command attention, and then it was such a silent, pleading attention, such a hungry, pitiful attention, that the biscuit disappeared ere she felt the joy of her short-lived prominence. There were wild moments when she fed only the black dog and the white one those wonderful English delicacies, and the human satellites watched unprotestingly, sweetly looking to it that black and white shared equally. There were other happy hours when the biscuit went to those who did some service, and then there was a great brushing off of the signora's skirt, a tying of her shoe-strings, and a carrying of her sunshade. But through all this Sam waved the olive-branch.

The children were never-tiring, but occasionally they went home, and after that there were the hotel windows that gave upon the square. During the first idle hour at the window we wondered how long we could endure the dreariness of the scene; from that time on, we feared to leave for anything less engaging than the children. We grew to watch for the proud lady who had a noble palazzo across the square, and whose daughters went out attended by a hunchback servant; then there were our friends the knitting-women, who came from their rooms all around the flat-iron, and called greetings to those who were clanking the buckets up and down the well; and of course the patrons of the well themselves were of absorbing interest. Some of them carried copper vessels, and some of them Chianti-bottles; for the flasks are not limited to the good red wine, and at every moment of the day a man, woman, or child was crossing the square with one or more of them in hand. The habitués of the place were great gossips, particularly the men, and got into fierce arguments with the hostlers, who rolled out their little rickety victorias from their tunnelled stables and polished as they shrieked. The horses, too, received a rubbing up or down, and frisked about in the open space with a pretence of youth that we knew to be but the effervescence of the Italian character.

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The Via San Matteo, which ran along the back of the iron, was the busiest roadway of the town. The ox-teams turned into the square from its narrow confines, and the panniered donkeys with their rope nose-bags to their bridles, à la Tantalus, toiled wearily up its steep hill past the church, and sidled gingerly down its steep hill through the archway. A stumpy company of quick-footed infantry clumped along at sunset, and at dusk a herd of goats added to the melee. At five, the bakers came through, seesawing long boards on their heads, on which the fresh loaves safely slid about, and at six the post-chaise made ready to depart for the railroad, with two warning toots of a horn that brought the girls from all directions with letters for the travelling post-box. By the time the evening meal had been served, lights shone out from the corner café, and a glittering officer sipped his vermuth at the little table outside. Inside, a long seat ran around the wall, on which was painted so luxurious a back that for the moment the stranger was perplexed to find so little comfort in such rich upholstery. The men of the village who sat about the room saluted us as we entered, and doffed their hats to the assemblage as they themselves left. A very pretty custom, but of no attraction for us when we knew that the black kitten was already flying about the well as though the square of seven centuries was designed as a playground for her on the day of her birth. It was at the kitten-hour that a tiny boy came out with mother and father and romped while the older folks sat together on the well steps, and though he nightly planned games of stupendous length, long before the black kitten found the sand-man he was asleep in mother's arms; nor did he open up his heavy eyes when father took him home.

Very little of the unusual occurred in this hill town, though there was a closed theatre in another part of the Palazzo del Podesta that suggested possibilities of an enlivening nature. We had not felt the dulness until the signorina rustled in one evening, and told us of two hucksters who were to sell their wares at auction that night in the square. Immediately we enjoyed the elation attendant upon the first night at the opera, hurried into our seats at the window as though we might lose them, and watched apprehensively for an usher to demand our coupons. The wagon stood against the well, piled high with goods; and a long table, on which a bright lamp burned, was in the front. All was ready for business, but the loiterers were few, and our ardor was a little dampened in finding the audience so poor. The performers were not daunted, however; two cornets were suddenly produced, like rabbits from a silk hat, and the pair started for a trip around the town. The tune they played was a little thing of their own, but the Pied Piper of Hamelin did not meet with a more generous response. In a quarter of an hour the gathering was most gratifying, and, to judge by our limited acquaintance, highly representative. The small guide and his English-speaking friend sat on the shafts of the wagon; Pomonica, in a clean apron, hovered about preserving order, while Sam, in a red cap, stood from start to finish with his nose against the lamp.

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The remainder of the evening was one to be taken through half-shut eyelids, with only an occasional uplifting when Domenica's father bought a blue and purple bedspread, and Sam's mother entered into a war of words with the signorina over a table-cover, from the centre of which Italy's martyred king glowered most reprovingly. The crowd rocked with laughter at the jests of the auctioneer, the girls hugged up to their sweethearts, even husbands laid protecting hands upon the shoulders of their wives and bought largely, while the children, mindful of the necessity of well-curbed emotion, made flying trips to the far corners of the square to emit whoops of pent-up energy. The donkey-carts drew up to enjoy the fray, and a herd of belated goats came in from the point of the iron, and stood like foolish carven images, while the little herdsman lingered on the outskirts. The light was acetylene, but the scene that it illumined was of the days of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, when spite-towers were the fashion, and the spite-fence was as foreign as the land from which it rises. By eleven, the square was left to the black shadows and the white moon, and silent save for the notes of the flutist who played in the palace of the Ardinghelli. Lucia he gave us that night, Rigoletto, and the song of Il Trovatore to Leonora, rightly enough from the "donjon-tower."


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1933, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.