Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/A day at San Gimignano

A DAY AT SAN GIMIGNANO.


It was still the early dawn of an autumn day in September, 1860, as our party drove out on the Florentine road away from Siena towards San Gimignano. A moist coldness was in the air, and the heights about Siena were only just visible through the dense veil of vapour which filled the valleys. The broad smooth road rejoiced the hearts of the horses, who trotted along with great animation, and the jingle of their bells accompanied our conversation like music. As we advanced the country gradually assumed a less prosperous aspect. It was well irrigated and diligently cultivated, but was barer and more deserted. The road became a kind of raised causeway, and on each side the fields were sunk far below it. After a drive of five or six miles we passed Monte Righini, a village fortress, crowning a sloping elevation to our right. The battlemented walls only were visible over the brow of the hill, but these were of majestic proportions. On the other side, invisible to us, for the hill dropped down abruptly, was (as our guide-book told us) a piazza, with its duomo, a café, and offices of different kinds, but all now tenantless and falling into ruin. Through the arched gateway we could detect the moss-grown roofs of some time-worn crumbling buildings, while over them the ever-fresh, ever-young sky, set in its stone frame, glowed like a sapphire. We quitted Righini with reluctance, and proceeded on our road along the branch road which leads to Colle.

Few towns are more picturesquely situated than Colle. There are, in fact, two towns. As you cross the bridge over the river which flows at the foot of the lofty rock along which it is situated, it is strange to see how the exigencies of daily life and the influences of peace have called down from their air-built eyrie the dwellers of the rock above. There are two churches, of such equal importance that the bishop, who comes to perform mass on high days and holidays, officiates at both; and this is sufficient to prove the equal importance of the lower and upper town. We crossed the bridge, and drove on through the busy suburb, with its paper mills and dyeing vats and wool-carders, and then ascended to the upper town. Here the houses looked dark, and aristocratic, and dull. After passing through the gates, we issued upon a narrow, steep highroad, at the edge of a ravine which fell straight down beside it, wooded to the very bottom, where flowed the turbulent and tawny-coloured stream. The tops of the old trees which clung to its side waved just beyond the reach of our hands, as we slowly drove on. The lofty rock rose on the other side of us, with its curtain of mosses and ferns veiling its bareness, and crowned with bastion and parapet and terrace, built out from the stately-looking houses placed there. One small circular-shaped terrace supported a close range of large flower pots, and standing between them, with a tall oleander behind her, looking down on us as we drove past, was one of those supremely beautiful women whom one rarely finds out of Italy. Beauty in the North is spread among a whole population, and there is a general sense of it, from the beautiful white and pink complexions and blue eyes which perpetually attract us; but in Italy there is, as it were, a concentration of beauty in one favoured individual. Out of a mass of swarthy skins, dull hair, and dead black eyes, one human being steps forward with all the dark transformed into light, with features clearly cut as a statue’s, and with an amber glory shining through the bronze cheek which transfigures that kind of skin into the rarest and most attractive beauty. So she stood, with her braided hair shining in the sun, as her noble head was bent to look down on us!

We did not atop at Colle, but went on, casting many a lingering look back at its beauty, as it uplifted itself so loftily, with its modest tributary at its feet, and the green sweep of its trees drooping downwards to the water below.

About noon we arrived at San Gimignano. The country is much wilder, after Colle, and the ascent is continuous. Long before we reached it, we could see its strange-looking towers far off in the sunshine, with a billowy sea of plains and valleys around them.

At last we rattled in under the gateway, and had no difficulty in finding the hotel (there is but one), but had some difficulty in entering it. The porch was filled with sacks of grain, heaps of pine cones and yellow maize were piled in dark corners, and the refuse of numerous vegetable carts covered the ground. A way was cleared for us at last, and we ascended a flight of broad, steep, broken stairs, passed a kitchen, ascended still higher, and at last came to an ante-room with different doors, one of which opened into a gaunt-looking dining-room. In this room were two tables, with coarse but clean table-cloths on them, a few glasses and plates. We ordered luncheon, and went out to fulfil our sightseeing duties.

Few towns have a stranger appearance than this of San Gimignano. The humble, mediocre, mediaeval appearance of the houses, and the bare, rude, yet lofty towers that rise from them, look so incongruous as to be almost ludicrous. But the men of Gimignano were very proud of their town lying so high above the sunny plains of Tuscany, and looking down on so many cities, and they were pleased, in their simplicity, to give it this Cybele crown. There are thirteen towers still standing; in the sixteenth century there were twenty-five. They are all built of brick, with an internal winding stair, and were never allowed to exceed a certain height. The little piazza, with its duomo and sala, on the left hand of the hotel, seemed to us very dreary; but this is the description given by a San Gimignanese of his native town, and it is but fair to quote it: “Both Nature and Art combined in the happy days of San Gimignano (happy days which were the reward of the industry and magnanimity (?) of its inhabitants) to render it a very jewel, as Ciaccheri, in his chronicle, calls it; while its beautiful climate, fertile soil, and picturesque position entitled it to the name it also bore, ‘Castello[1] florido,’ the Village of Flowers.”

The contrast of that past with this present is very melancholy. The shops were all closed, for it was the Feast of St. Michael. On the bench in front of the cafe two soldiers and a few men were lounging, smoking, and spelling the Nazione. They were discussing loudly the merits of “Galibardi,” as the people call him. There was a greengrocer’s stall opposite, and we saw our hostess purchasing provisions for our future meal, and touching and selecting most suspicious-looking vegetables. In the distance a burly man was striding on, followed by a small boy carrying an easel, towards the most picturesque tower; but besides these, no one else was to be seen in the deserted and forlorn piazza.

We entered the church: it was very old, and its adornments were very rude. It is built in the form of the Latin Cross, and the walls and arches are covered with dilapidated frescoes. The names of the painters are said to be Taddeo Bartolo and Benozzo Gozzoli. On each side of the nave the subjects of these frescoes are from the Old and New Testament. But they are almost effaced, and could never have been very good. One panel, however, struck me. It was the raising of Lazarus. Our Saviour is seen standing in a majestic attitude; he has just spoken the words “Lazarus, come forth,” and His hand is raised with a commanding gesture. His disciples are crowded behind Him in attitudes which express awe and fear. The door of the sepulchre is open, and the upright figure of Lazarus, though still swathed by his grave-clothes, is standing within, as if evoked at once by the will of God. Rudely designed, and worse coloured, there is yet great power and vigour in the figure of our Lord.

While the mass was being performed, we went into the sacristy and saw the “Annunciation,” attributed by some to Ghirlandajo. If really his, it is not worthy of him. After mass we were shown the chapel, which contains his two frescoes. These are beautiful. “Santa Fina favoured while on her death-bed with a vision of St. Gregory, who announces to her the moment of her dissolution,” is the subject of the first. “Santa Fina borne in triumph after death through the streets of San Gimignano,” is the subject of the second.

Santa Fina looks a girl of about fifteen; her fair hair is parted, and hangs down on each side of her face. She is lying on a narrow plank of wood, cross-shaped, on the ground, and two women are sitting beside her. Her soft rapt eyes gaze upwards, and she is evidently lost to all but the vision vouchsafed to her. The room is barely furnished. On the table is a cruet with oil, and a pomegranate cut in half on a plate, mystic and yet natural accessories. The women are in the dress of the period. There is nothing in these figures but the most ordinary portraiture of real life, and yet what a touching, beautiful picture it is. The dying girl is so young, has such a saint-like patience impressed on her childlike brow and composed mouth, that the tenderest pity is mingled with our admiration.

In the other fresco there is the same girlish sweetness, but hushed to solemn peace: the bright eyes are closed, the gentle hands clasped, and “umile in tanta gloria” she lies unheeding all the pomps of the funeral show, deaf to the grief and affection lavished on the frail body she has left, received, sheltered, safe with God!

Fina de’ Ciardi belonged to a noble but impoverished family. She lost her father while she was an infant, and lived in the most abject and laborious indigence with her mother, and on the death of her mother, which took place while she was yet a child, she was left entirely destitute. From the age of ten until she died, a period of five or six years, she was deprived of the use of her limbs, partly from disease, partly from the ascetic privations to which the poor little girl in her blind gropings after the only perfection she had ever heard of, condemned herself. On the charity of a lady named Bonaventura, and on the tender care of her nurse Beldia, she depended for bare existence, yet she was always patient, resigned, and grateful. Here there is nothing of outward splendour or romantic interest to attract the imagination. Disease, dependence, poverty, would seem unpromising conditions to win the world’s favour, yet from these was woven the palm which the fair young saint upholds before our eyes. Disease taught patience; dependence, humility; poverty, self-denial.

Without a word as to the supernatural adjuncts of the legend, it must be allowed that there is something touching in the consecration of this youthful goodness: a young girl’s memory floating down the tide of time, till we in the nineteenth century, strangers and wayfarers, come to render our heartfelt homage to the art which has immortalised her, and to be affected by the history of her innocent, suffering, and pious life. That brief epitaph on a slab in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, “Deare childe,” is more powerfully suggestive in some ways,—for who can pass it without a tightening of the heart, as one thinks of the treasure of love which must be there enclosed? but it is more limited. The “deare childe” was beloved, but we know no more. Here the memory is of one loving and suffering, as well as loved. The beatification of Santa Fina was a protest, even in that dark age, in favour of those heroic victories (though rarely thus acknowledged) of the invisible over the visible, and of the divineness of that power often manifested by the feeblest and gentlest of the earth, “to suffer and be strong!”

The exquisite simplicity with which it is painted is worthy of the subject and of our reverence.

Afterwards we went to the adjoining Sala Pubblica, where there are the remains of a most majestic fresco, by some supposed to be by Simone Memmi, by others (and this is borne out by the inscription beneath) by Lippo; by others, an earlier Byzantine origin is attributed to it. A pulpit, from which Dante spoke on an occasion when he was sent on an embassy from Florence to San Gimignano, was the most interesting relic to us, with this inscription on a tablet above. What solemn and triumphal music there is in it!

Dante Alighieri, Ambasciatore per la Repubblica Fiorentina, Il giorno VIII. di Maggio MCCXCIX. In questa sala Al comizio Sangimignanese Parlò, Per la Lega Guelfa, E Trionfò. All’ solenne avvenimento Mancava la memore scritta Cui posero Nel MDCCCXLVII. Festeggiando i nipoti.

From thence we strolled to the church of Sant’ Agostino, adorned with the frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli, delineating the life of the saint. The same bright colours and thoughtful heads which give so much beauty to the chapel in the Riccardi palace, are here. We then visited several other churches, but without much to reward us. After stepping in for a moment into a little chapel supposed to have belonged to the Knights Templars, at present whitewashed and bare, we walked on to one standing on a small platform just beyond one of the gates. It is supposed to be built on the site of the first Christian church in San Gimignano, but our guide became so confused in his dates that it was difficult to ascertain who worshipped or was worshipped here. He said it had been built and dedicated to Gesu a thousand years before the year one! I think the unknown God to whom it was dedicated was Nature, for the view is a panorama of wonderful beauty, and is in itself a worship and a prayer. It is a strange pleasant feeling to halt for a moment in such a spot, and take in the wide range of loveliness spread as a banquet before us,—prepared as it would seem during centuries to fill our eyes and hearts, gazed on for a moment and then left for ever, but adding one to the imperishable pictures in our gallery of memory.

We then went over the schools and other public buildings, and we noticed one fact, that the man to whom San Gimignano was most indebted for its civic decorations and prosperity was one of her own people, Onofrio, the “operaio.” Traces of his good works are to be found everywhere, and the whole town may be said to be a monument to his memory. We then fulfilled in the most exemplary way the rest of our sight-seeing duties, but without much to reward us, except that we also obtained a few glimpses of national character and customs in the course of our explorings.

I had noticed once or twice, as we passed and re-passed the same streets, a strange figure in a costume something between a priest’s and a groom’s, and had noticed that in spite of the extreme coarseness of his dress, and the weather-tanned colour of his face, there was an indescribable look of good birth about him, a certain confidence and ease in his air and decision in his bearing which did not suit his dress: and when we were taken to see a fresco in a house belonging to the Pratellesi family, I met with him again.

The house was in a wretched street, and in no ways distinguished from the other poor dwellings near it, except from its large and heavy door. We knocked and were admitted. A narrow passage widened into a large kitchen, where a very dirty woman was cooking, and a middle-aged man was talking to her. By his side was the jockey priest, and from the likeness I saw they must be brothers. The kitchen led into a yard where stood some barrels of fresh-made wine, and little dark red streams oozing from them in every direction. We were conducted across this yard through a mess of cats, fowls, dogs, and vegetable refuse, up some broad steps to a little square plot of ground, half-kitchen, half-court, into a veritable abomination of desolation, half-stable and half-granary. Some sacks were removed, a broken shutter was set wide, and there on the opposite wall was the fresco, by Tamagni.

The dirty servant told us that this part of the house had been inhabited by a religious order, and that this had been the refectory. The air was however too close, and the effluvia too nauseating, for us to remain, and we picked our way out again, not surprised to hear that the community had been established by Sta. Caterina. The saint’s abhorrence of cleanliness had evidently clung to the place. Such filth I never saw in the habitation of any human being. The woman talked grandiloquently of the grandeur of the family whom she served, but hinted at the decadence of their fortunes. On repassing the kitchen we met the priest going out, with his unclerical quadruped at his heels. He touched his hat as we passed him. There was something in his face which interested me. Spirit and courage were in every line of it, but blent with these was a kind of melancholy disdain. The stern exigencies of family pride had evidently forced him into the priesthood. As the younger brother, he had been resolutely set apart for it. What other profession was open to the cadet of a poor, proud, family at San Gimignano? Had he been “vilain, très vilain,” as Béranger says, he could have chosen for himself. That man’s face, with its look of thwarted purpose and passion, made a greater impression on me than the fresco. He was no priest at heart, and evidently rebelled even at the poor necessity of the costume, from the way he wore it.

We then returned to the inn, found the gateway empty and clean, and our carriage drawn up under it. Even the stairs had been feebly swept and garnished, and the whole place had been arranged to do us honour. After luncheon two of the party went to see the Oliveto, a convent three quarters of a mile from the town, which contains a beautiful fresco by Pinturicchio, and we remained to rest in the inn till it was time to recommence our journey.

We had only guide-books, and amused ourselves with them, and with looking at the towers we could see from the window, and wondering what life was like at San Gimignano. Our reflections were interrupted by our host. He and his wife and one servant formed the whole establishment, which was of the poorest and most primitive kind. He entered immediately into conversation with us. With the ready politeness of an Italian, he felt it was his duty to endeavour to entertain the two guests under his roof. His manner was courteous, and, if I may so term it, deferentially affable. He began praising the beauty of his native town; its unique adornments, its treasures of art, and the excessive purity and salubrity of its climate. With the last assertion I entirely agreed. He confided to me that he sometimes went to Florence to deposit money in the bank, “Yes, as much as 300 scudi at a time;” but he confessed he wondered how people could breathe down in such a well. He had a podere five miles from San Gimignano. He had just come home when we arrived. The grain we had seen in the entrance was from his own land.

“I walked there at five this morning, worked there till ten, and then I walked home.”

“How old are you?”

“Seventy-six.”

He certainly did credit to the air, for he was a hale, wiry-looking old man, with abundance of health and work still left in him. He told me that his wife and himself were both very strong, but he did not know how it was, his children were not like their parents, they had all died but one. His daughter had died two months ago of consumption in that room (he opened the door of the bedroom which led from the one we were in).

“You need not be afraid,” he said; “the room has been whitewashed, and everything that belonged to her, or that she used during her illness, has been burnt. Will you go in?”

I did so. He pointed out that a new bed had been placed in the room, but the two long low trestles which belonged to the former bed were still there. He assured me, however, that no infection could possibly be feared from these. There was something ghastly in the reiteration of this assertion, and it certainly spoke more for the prudence of the innkeeper than for the feelings of the father. There is an absolute mania in Italy as to the infectious nature of consumption.

There was no trace left of his child in the room in which she had lived and died, and he gloried in it. There were, however, two relics which had escaped the general sacrifice: the first was a pocket edition of “Tasso.” The other relic was on the wall. A spirited sketch of a very handsome head, with a German name beneath it. The whole framed in carved wood. “That was also hers,” the father said. “It was given to her by one of the artists who come here to sketch the beautiful scenery and copy our famous pictures. He stayed three months here, two years ago. He lodged here, and dined here, and seemed like one of the family. She often watched him painting, and he taught her to draw a little. She was so clever—all my children are clever and handsome . . but they die.” This was said as if it was a moral fault in them, which he parentally but justly deplored, and in a tone of deprecation.

“She, Nanina,” he continued, “was like a Madonna. You should have seen her as she lay on that bed opposite this sketch; she would look at it for hours together. With her beautiful colour, and her long dark hair hanging down, she looked like a picture herself. When she was dead, her face seemed as innocent as a child’s. The doctor said the air was too ‘fine’ for her; yet she was born here. She was quite well all the summer. She and my son Michael used to go out with the German gentleman when he was sketching, and walk for miles. It was not till the winter that she began to complain. I thought at first she was dull, for we were alone, and it had been more merry when Signor Reinhof was here. Then my son Carlo came to us, ill, from Florence, and she then seemed to get a little better. She would have returned to Florence with him, but he died here, and I could not go with her, or send her alone. She never held up her head afterwards, and died this summer.”

“Did the German artist ever return?”

“Oh, no, we never heard of him after he left. He went to France, I think. My poor Nanina! She was decidedly ‘tisica.’ It would not have cured her to go to Florence.”

I thought I could trace some other malady than consumption in her case: the slow heartbreak which follows a delusive dream. Life itself given by her in exchange for his summer holiday.

“My second son died two years ago. He was a priest and a clever lad, but the flower of my family was Carlo. He was a genius. I was told that he would have been one of the most famous men in Tuscany. He gained every prize at school, and I was advised to send him to study medicine. I could afford it,” said he, with modest dignity, “and I sent him. The testimonials he received I will show you.” He went away and returned in an incredibly short space of time, from a journey to the very top of the house. “Here they are,” and he slipped into my hands a quantity of written and printed testimonials, two diplomas, and last of all a portrait! A hideous daub of his beloved Carlo. It was out of all drawing, coloured like a caricature, the nose at variance with the eyes and the eyes with each other. “You see,” he said, “he looks like a perfect gentleman; he went into the best society. They say he would have been the best physician in Florence, and in Florence are the greatest physicians of the world. He had studied too much, and was sent home for change of air and repose; it was just after his sister began to be ill; they were inseparable, but he died two months after he returned. His funeral was the handsomest that has been seen for years in San Gimignano, and we are famous here for our splendid funerals. He was so impatient to get well and continue his studies that he was imprudent, and got worse every day. Poor Carlo!” There was something touching yet ludicrous in the mingled regrets and vanity of the old man. His voice quite changed as he pointed to his only living child, a man dressed like an ostler, whom we saw in the piazza below, smoking and talking with our coachman. “That is Michael; he is strong and well, but has no brains. He is not like the others, but he is his mother’s favourite. He works for me in the stables,” and the old man nodded his head significantly, “he is good for that; but his mother loves him better than all the others put together. She says he is satisfied with San Gimignano, and with his poor old mother; the others she could not understand,—they were like Signori. ’Cosa vuole;’ she thinks there is no place like this, for she has seen no other; I know better, for I have seen Siena, Livorno, and Firenze, but I must remain here, for I have property here. After all I have seen, I can tell you I prefer this house to Ricasoli’s. It is a corner house, and from it you can see both the piazze. There is no house better situated anywhere.”

“Content is richer than a king,” says the old song, and it was well for the old man he was so satisfied; but when he had taken me all over, up and down, his large, many-storied, dirty, cold, ugly house, I could not be surprised at the anxiety of his poor son to leave it. Widely severed from all his native associations by the force of education and habits, he must have found himself as out of place here as would the graceful marble Campanile of Florence, if it were to be suddenly transported by the side of the brick Torre de Ardinghelli. The carriage was now announced, and we took a friendly farewell of our communicative host and drove out to meet our friends.

While we waited for them on the road we were surrounded by beggars, who were of course delighted to levy contributions on chance “forestieri.” One of these beggars was a young woman with an infant asleep in her arms. I asked its name.

“It is a girl,” she said, “and we could not, therefore, call it Victor Emanuel, or Cavour, or Garibaldi, so we have called it ‘Italia.

The word sounded like music, and I stooped down to kiss the little sleeping babe, and blessed the name-bearer and the name.

It was now about half-past four, and we chose the Poggibuosi road for our return. On referring to our guide-books we found that in the old chronicles it was thus affectionately described. “Once one of the fairest and strongest forts in Italy, with fine walls and towers, beautiful churches, rich abbeys and glebes, and lovely marble fountains; populous and full of pleasant dwellings, like a good city (una buona città), now deserted and ruined.” The last phrase is no longer true. The railroad to Siena from Florence has a station here, and in the progressive march which all Italy is now making, I doubt not that in a few more years this rapidly rising and improving town will merit its ancient name of “una buona città.”

We were all a little tired, and content to lean back in silence and try to individualise the impressions we had received, and so stereotype them on our memory. On comparing notes, we found we were all agreed on one point. In all we had seen and in all we had read (we had taken with us the elaborate and minutely-descriptive work of Canone Pecori), through the details of wars and divisions, and heresies and revolts, the only two names which lived, life-like in our recollections, were those of Sta. Fina, the poor little crippled girl, and of Onofrio, the “operaio,” to whose judicious guardianship the embellishment of his native town was entrusted. Foster says that the names of Sesostris, Semiramis, &c., are distinguished through the dying glimmer of ancient history from the ocean of blood which surrounds them; here, on the contrary, Guelphs and Ghibelines, abbots and abbesses, warlike achievements and change of dynasties, have been confused together by time, but the halo of the saint and the work of the craftsman remain. And it is possible that as no legend invests it with miraculous properties Onofrio’s, is the dearest to us.

The road where it turned off from the one we had travelled in the morning was far flatter and less varied. There were long stretches of green fields with lines of tremulous poplars, and cattle lazily pasturing among them. We passed through Poggibuosi, and left Gertaldo behind us, with its castellated monastery just visible. The quiet was unbroken; a few labourers were in the fields stripping the last grapes from the vines; but in the road we met no one. The shades of evening had now drawn in, and at ten o’clock at night I was driving alone, along the lovely circuitous lane which led to my own villa.

I. B.


  1. The word “Castello” is always applied to a walled village.