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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Florence
By Herman Grimm (1828–1901)
 
From the ‘Life of Michael Angelo’: Translation of Fanny Elizabeth Bunnett

THERE are names which carry with them something of a charm. We utter them, and like the prince in the ‘Arabian Nights’ who mounted the marvelous horse and spoke the magic words, we feel ourselves lifted from the earth into the clouds. We have but to say “Athens!” and all the great deeds of antiquity break upon our hearts like a sudden gleam of sunshine. We perceive nothing definite; we see no separate figures: but a cloudy train of glorious men passes over the heavens, and a breath touches us, which like the first warm wind in the year seems to give promise of the spring in the midst of snow and rain. “Florence!” and the magnificence and passionate agitation of Italy’s prime sends forth its fragrance toward us like blossom-laden boughs, from whose dusky shadow we catch whispers of the beautiful tongue.  1
  We will now however step nearer, and examine more clearly the things which, taken collectively at a glance, we call the history of Athens and Florence. The glowing images now grow cold, and become dull and empty. Here as everywhere we see the strife of common passions, the martyrdom and ruin of the best citizens, the demon-like opposition of the multitude to all that is pure and elevated, and the disinterestedness of the noblest patriots suspiciously misunderstood and arrogantly rejected. Vexation, sadness, and sorrow steal over us, instead of the admiration which at first moved us. And yet, what is it all? Turning away, we cast back one glance from afar; and the old glory lies again on the picture, and a light in the distance seems to reveal to us the Paradise which attracts us afresh, as if we set foot on it for the first time.  2
  Athens was the first city of Greece. Rich, powerful, with a policy which extended almost over the entire world of that age, we can conceive that from her emanated all the great things that were done. Florence, however, in her fairest days was never the first city of Italy, and in no respect possessed extraordinary advantages. She lies not on the sea, not even on a river at any time navigable; for the Arno, on both sides of which the city rises, often affords in summer scarcely water sufficient to cover the soil of its broad bed, at that point of its course where it emerges from narrow valleys into the plain situated between the diverging arms of the mountain range. The situation of Naples is more beautiful, that of Genoa more royal, than Florence; Rome is richer in treasures of art; Venice possessed a political power in comparison with which the influence of the Florentines appears small. Lastly, these cities and others, such as Pisa and Milan, have gone through an external history compared with which that of Florence contains nothing extraordinary; and yet, notwithstanding, all else that happened in Italy between 1250 and 1530 is colorless when placed side by side with the history of this one city. Her internal life surpasses in splendor the efforts of the others at home and abroad. The events through the intricacies of which she worked her way with vigorous determination, and the men whom she produced, raised her fame above that of the whole of Italy besides, and place Florence as a younger sister by the side of Athens.  3
  The earlier history of the city before the days of her highest splendor, stands in the same relation to the subsequent events as the contests of the Homeric heroes to that which happened in the historic ages in Greece. The incessant strife between the hostile nobles, which lasted for centuries and ended with the annihilation of all, presents to us, on the whole as well as in detail, the course of an epic poem. These contests, in which the whole body of the citizens became involved, began with the strife of two families, brought about by a woman, with murder and revenge in its train; and it is ever the passion of the leaders which fans the dying flames into new life. From their ashes at length arose the true Florence. She had now no longer a war-like aristocracy like Venice; no popes nor nobles like Rome; no fleet, no soldiers,—scarcely a territory. Within her walls was a fickle, avaricious, ungrateful people of parvenus, artisans, and merchants; who had been subdued, now here and now there, by the energy or the intrigues of foreign and native tyranny, until at length, exhausted, they had actually given up their liberty. And it is the history of these very times which is surrounded with such glory, and the remembrance of which awakens such enthusiasm among her own people at the present day, at the remembrance of their past.  4
  Whatever attracts us in nature and in art,—that higher nature which man has created,—may be felt also of the deeds of individuals and of nations. A melody, incomprehensible and enticing, is breathed forth from the events, filling them with importance and animation. Thus we should like to live and to act,—to have joined in obtaining this, to have assisted in the contest there. It becomes evident to us that this is true existence. Events follow each other like a work of art; a marvelous thread unites them; there are no disjointed convulsive shocks which startle us as at the fall of a rock, making the ground tremble which for centuries had lain tranquil, and again, perhaps for centuries, sinks back into its old repose. For it is not repose, order, and a lawful progress on the smooth path of peace which we desire, nor the fearful breaking-up of long-established habits, and the chaos that succeeds; but we are struck by deeds and characters whose outset promises results, and allows us to augur an end where the powers of men and nations strive after perfection, and our feelings aspire toward a harmonious aim which we hope for or dread, and which we see reached at length.  5
  Our pleasure in these events in no degree resembles the satisfaction with which, perchance, a modern officer of police would express himself respecting the excellent condition of a country. There are so-called quiet times, within which, nevertheless, the best actions appear hollow and inspire a secret mistrust; when peace, order, and impartial administration of justice are words with no real meaning, and piety sounds even like blasphemy; while in other epochs open depravity, errors, injustice, crime, and vice form only the shadows of a great and elevating picture, to which they impart the just truth. The blacker the dark places, the brighter the light ones. An indestructible power seems to necessitate both. We are at once convinced that we are not deceived: it is all so clear, so plain, so intelligible. We are struck with the strife of inevitable dark necessity—with the will, whose freedom nothing can conquer. On both sides we see great powers rising, shaping events, and perishing in their course, or maintaining themselves above them. We see blood flowing; the rage of parties flashes before us like the sheet lightning of storms that have long ceased; we stand here and there, and fight once more in the old battles. But we want truth: no concealing of aims, or the means with which they desired to obtain them. Thus we see the people in a state of agitation, just as the lava in the crater of a volcanic mountain rises in itself; and from the fermenting mass there sounds forth the magic melody which we call to mind when the names “Athens” or “Florence” are pronounced.  6
  Yet how poor seem the treasures of the Italian city, compared with the riches of the Greek! A succession of great Athenians appear where only single Florentines could be pointed out. Athens surpassed Florence as far as the Greeks surpassed the Romans. But Florence touches us the more closely. We tread less certain ground in the history of Athens; and the city herself has been swept away from her old rocky soil, leaving only insignificant ruins behind. Florence still lives. If at the present day we look down from the height of old Fiesole on the mountainside north of the city, the cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore,—or Santa Liparata, as it is called,—with its cupola and slender bell tower, and the churches, palaces, and houses, and the walls that inclose them, still lie in the depth below as they did in years gone by. All is standing, upright and undecayed. The city is like a flower, which when fully blown, instead of withering on its stalk, turned as it were into stone. Thus she stands at the present day; and to him who forgets the former ages, life and fragrance seem not to be lacking. Many a time we could fancy it is still as once it was; just as when traversing the canals of Venice under the soft beams of the moon, we are delusively carried back to the times of her ancient splendor. But freedom has vanished; and that succession of great men has long ceased which year by year, of old, sprung up afresh.  7
  Yet the remembrance of these men and of the old freedom still lives. Their remains are preserved with religious care. To live with consciousness in Florence is, to a cultivated man, nothing else than the study of the beauty of a free people, in its very purest instincts. The city possesses something that penetrates and sways the mind. We lose ourselves in her riches. While we feel that everything drew its life from that one freedom, the past obtains an influence, even in its most insignificant relations, which almost blinds us to the rest of Italy. We become fanatical Florentines, in the old sense. The most beautiful pictures of Titian begin to be indifferent to us, as we follow the progress of Florentine art in its almost hourly advance from the most clumsy beginnings up to perfection. The historians carry us into the intricacies of their age, as if we were initiated into the secrets of living persons. We walk along the streets where they walked; we step over the thresholds which they trod; we look down from the windows at which they have stood. Florence has never been taken by assault, nor destroyed, nor changed by some all-devastating fire. The buildings of which they tell us stand there almost as if they had grown up, stone by stone, to charm and gratify our eyes. If I, a stranger, am attracted with such magnetic power, how strong must have been the feeling with which the free old citizens clung to their native city, which was the world to them! It seemed to them impossible to live and die elsewhere. Hence the tragic and often frantic attempts of the exiled to return to their home. Unhappy was he who at eventide might not meet his friends in her squares,—who was not baptized in the church of San Giovanni, and could not have his children baptized there. It is the oldest church in the town, and bears in its interior the proud inscription that it will not be thrown down until the Day of Judgment,—a belief as strong as that of the Romans, to whom eternity was to be the duration of their Capitol. Horace sang that his songs would last as long as the priestess ascended the steps there.  8
  Athens and Florence owed their greatness to their freedom. We are free when our longing to do all that we do for the good of our country is satisfied; but it must be independently and voluntarily. We must perceive ourselves to be a part of a whole, and that while we advance, we promote the advance of the whole at the same time. This feeling must be paramount to any other. With the Florentines, it rose above the bloodiest hostility of parties and families. Passions stooped before it. The city and her freedom lay nearest to every heart, and formed the end and aim of every dispute. No power without was to oppress them; none within the city herself was to have greater authority than another; every citizen desired to co-operate for the general good; no third party was to come between to help forward their interests. So long as this jealousy of a personal right in the State ruled in the minds of the citizens, Florence was a free city. With the extinguishing of this passion freedom perished; and in vain was every energy exerted to maintain it.  9
  That which, however, exhibits Athens and Florence as raised above other States which likewise flourished through their freedom, is a second gift of nature, by which freedom was either circumscribed or extended,—for both may be said of it; namely, the capability in their citizens for an equal development of all human power. One-sided energy may do much, whether men or nations possess it. Egyptians, Romans, Englishmen, are grand examples of this; the one-sidedness of their character, however, discovers itself again in their undertakings, and sometimes robs that which they achieve of the praise of beauty. In Athens and Florence, no passion for any time gained such ascendency over the individuality of the people as to preponderate over others. If it happened at times for a short period, a speedy subversion of things brought back the equilibrium. The Florentine Constitution depended on the resolutions of the moment, made by an assembly of citizens entitled to vote. Any power could be legally annulled, and with equal legality another could be raised up in its stead. Nothing was wanting but a decree of the great parliament of citizens. A counter-vote was all that was necessary. So long as the great bell sounded which called all the citizens together to the square in front of the palace of the government, any revenge borne by one towards another might be decided by open force in the public street. Parliament was the lawfully appointed scene of revolution, in case the will of the people no longer accorded with that of the government. The citizens in that case invested a committee with dictatorial authority; the offices were newly filled; all offices were accessible to all citizens; any man was qualified and called upon for any position. What sort of men must these citizens have been who formed a stable and flourishing State with institutions so variable? Sordid merchants and manufacturers?—yet how they fought for their freedom! Selfish policy and commerce their sole interest?—yet were they the poets and historians of their country! Avaricious shopkeepers and money-changers?—but dwelling in princely palaces, and these palaces built by their own masters and adorned with paintings and sculptures which had been likewise produced within the city! Everything put forth blossom, every blossom bore fruit. The fate of the country is like a ball, which in its eternal motion still rests ever on the right point. Every Florentine work of art carries the whole of Florence within it. Dante’s poems are the result of the wars, the negotiations, the religion, the philosophy, the gossip, the faults, the vice, the hatred, the love, and the revenge of the Florentines: all unconsciously assisted; nothing might be lacking. From such a soil alone could such a work spring forth; from the Athenian mind alone could the tragedies of Sophocles and Æschylus proceed. The history of the city has as much share in them as the genius of the men in whose minds imagination and passion sought expression in words.  10
  It makes a difference whether an artist is the self-conscious citizen of a free land, or the richly rewarded subject of a ruler in whose ears liberty sounds like sedition and treason. A people is free, not because it obeys no prince, but because of its own accord it loves and supports the highest authority, whether this be a prince, or an aristocracy who hold the government in their hands. A prince there always is; in the freest republics, one man gives, after all, the casting vote. But he must be there because he is the first, and because all need him. It is only where each single man feels himself a part of the common basis upon which the commonwealth rests, that we can speak of freedom and art. What have the statues in the villa of Hadrian to do with Rome and the desires of Rome? what the mighty columns of the Baths of Caracalla with the ideal of the people in whose capital they arose? In Athens and Florence, however, we could say that no stone was laid on another,—no picture, no poem, came forth,—but the entire population was its sponsor. Whether Santa Maria del Fiore was rebuilt; whether the church of San Giovanni gained a couple of golden gates; whether Pisa was besieged, peace concluded, or a mad carnival procession celebrated,—every one was concerned in it, the same general interest was evinced in it. The beautiful Simoneta, the most beautiful young maiden in the city, is buried: the whole of Florence follow her with tears in their eyes, and Lorenzo Medici, the first man in the State, writes an elegiac sonnet on her loss, which is on the lips of all. A newly painted chapel is opened; no one may be missing. A foot-race through the streets is arranged; carpets hang out from every window. Contemplated from afar, the two cities stand before us like beautiful human figures,—like women with dark sad glances, and yet laughing lips; we step nearer, it seems one great united family; we pass into the midst of them, it is like a beehive of human beings. Athens and her destiny is a symbol of the whole life of Greece; Florence is a symbol of the prime of Roman Italy. Both, so long as their liberty lasted, are a reflection of the Golden Age of their land and people; after liberty was lost, they are an image of the decline of both until their final ruin.  11
 
 
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