Friday, 8 June 2012

Mary McCarthy in Italy - "There is too much Renaissance in Florence,"


An old postcard of Florence

 Mary McCarthy: summers in Florence:
‘The summers are the worst.  The valley of the Arno is a natural oven, in which the city bakes, almost without relief, throughout July and August.  Venice has the sea; Rome has a breeze and fountains; Bologna has arcades; Siena is high.  But the stony heat of Florence has no extentuation.  Some people pretend that it is cooler in Fiesole or near the Boboli Gardens, but this is not true, or at least not true enough.  For the populace and the tourists, the churches are the only refuge, except for UPIM, the local five-and-ten (a Milanese firm), which is air-cooled, and for an icy swimming pool, surrounded by a flower garden, in the Tennis Club of the Cascine that few tourists hear about and that the native population, on the whole, cannot afford.  The Boboli Garden is too hot to walk in until sunset, which is the time it closes.  In some Italian cities, the art galleries are cool, but the Uffizi, with its small rooms and long glassed-in corridors, is stifling, and the Pitti stands with wings extended in a glaring gravel courtyard, like a great brown flying lizard, basking in the terrible sun.  Closed off, behind blinds and shutters, the city’s inhabitants live a nocturnal life by day, like bats, in darkened rooms, wanly lit for the noon meal by electricity.  At seven o’clock in the evening, throughout the city, there is a prolonged rumble that sounds as if it were thunder; the blinds are being rolled up to let in the exhausted day.  Then the mosquitoes come.

For the tourist, it is too hot, after ten o’clock in the morning, to sight-see, with the windows shut and the wooden blinds lowered, to sleep after lunch, too dark to read, for electricity is expensive, and the single bulb provided for reading in most Florentine hotels and households is no brighter than a votive candle.  Those who try to sight-see discover the traffic hazard.  The sidewalks are mere tilted rims skirting the building fronts; if you meet a person coming towards you, you must swerve into the street; if you step backward onto the pavement to look up at a palace, you will probably be run over.  “Rambles” through Florence, such as the old guidebooks talk of, are a funny idea under present conditions.  Many of the famous monuments have become, quite literally, invisible, for lack of a spot from which they can be viewed with safety.  Standing (or trying to stand) opposite Palazzo Rucellai, for example, or Orsanmichele, you constitute a traffic obstruction, to be bumped by pedestrians, honked at by cars, rammed by baby carriages and delivery carts.  Driving a car, you are in danger of killing; walking or standing, of being killed.  If you walk, you curse the automobiles and motor-scooters; if you drive, you curse the pedestrians—above all, old women, children, and tourists with their noses in maps or guidebooks.’
—from The Stones of Florence (1956)

October 25, 1959
... And Here Machiavelli Was at Home


Few places in the Western world have so persistently been "written about" as has Florence. In Victorian days the City of the Lily was considered a must by all travelers with a claim to "culture"; and a remarkable proportion of them proceeded to air their views about it. The result: a few good books, many mediocre ones and a veritable avalanche of undiluted trash. Mary McCarthy's volume with the Ruskinian title, "The Stones of Florence," belongs to the first category, for Miss McCarthy is not only well versed in the subject but her taste is sure and her style -- cool, astringently witty, yet eloquent -- seems tailor-made for depicting the brilliant, mercurial, skeptical Florentines.
Art criticism, social and political history and chronicle all rolled into one, her book opens with a chapter on present-day Florence. It is not one of the happiest chapters. Like many another tourist, the author falls to complaining of noisy, jam-packed streets, overcrowded hotels, exorbitant prices, the rudeness of waiters and the poor quality of the food. All of which is trivial and rather out of place in a work of this sort. Where food is concerned one surely can find more appetizing fare that "tripe, paunch, and a mixture of cockscombs, livers, hearts and testicles of roosters." What Miss McCarthy has to say about other aspects of Florentine life, on the other hand, is important, often exciting and well worth heeding.
The "esthetes" of yesteryear would have shuddered to hear her refer to Florence as "a terrible city *** of drama, argument and struggle." Yet up to a point this is what Florence was. Whether or not the rebellious Catiline was indirectly responsible for founding Florence, the fact remains that few cities have had a more turbulent history. Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Villani and Varchi tell tales of endless strife between rival factions -- Blacks and Whites, Guelphs and Ghibellines, Cerchi and Donati and so forth and so on. "In ancient and in modern times," writes Giovanni Villani, "it has always happened in Florence that anyone who has made himself head of the people has been humbled by that same people who are never inclined to give due praise or acknowledge merit." Evidently, no public office was a sinecure on the banks of the Arno.
However, these are growing pains of democracy: the hazards to which a people thirsting "for an ideal state" are often exposed. What is worthy of note is that this chronically quarreling folk remained for centuries one of the most prosperous if not the most prosperous in Europe. Their looms turned out more and better cloth than was produced anywhere else; their dyers exercised a virtual monopoly on the market; and their bankers financed half of the kings and governments on the continent.
True, in 1889, the Bardi and Peruzzi were bankrupt by the failure of Edward III of England to repay a huge loan he had made with them, but Miss McCarthy's assertion to the contrary, this financial disaster by no means put an end to Florence as "a world banking power." Indeed, during the following century the Medicis were the greatest bankers on the Continent, rivaled by none except the Austrian Fugger, while for generations to come the florin remained, even as far off as India, the soundest monetary unit. Anyway, it is not to its wealth that Florence owes her enduring glory.
It is impossible adequately to summarize the chapters in which Miss McCarthy analyzes the achievements of Florence in the fields of art, letters and science. "Florentine history, in its great period," she writes, "is a history of innovations," and she goes on to prove it: Dante gave Italy its first important work in the vulgar tongue; a Florentine composed the first opera; literary criticism, in the modern sense, began with Boccaccio; Boccaccio's clinical account of the symptoms of the plague was a pioneer contribution to descriptive medicine; Machiavelli was the first to expose the mechanism of power politics, while the first modern art criticism was written by L.B. Alberti.
As for painting, sculpture and architecture, we only need to remember that Giotto, Leonardo, Brunelleschi, Donatello and Michelangelo were Florentines or born within a few miles of Florence. Miss McCarthy is right in saying that Florentine sculptors carved "the best statues since ancient Greece," and Florentine painters were the most original "until the French Impressionists."
The photographs which illustrate this volume are superb, and though not everyone will go along with all of Miss McCarthy's verdicts (many will boggle at her calling Michelangelo's figures on the Medici tombs "somewhat rubbery"), we must be grateful to her for giving us one of the most lively books on Florence to appear in recent times. Indeed, no student of the Renaissance should be without "The Stones of Florence."

       Rubbery Michaelangelo's

Evelyn Hofer (photo contributor to The Stones of Florence)