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Saving the Magic City

Italiam petimus!“—We’re off to Italy!—exclaimed John Addington Symonds in his travel journal, enthusiastically repeating it over and over again as he set forth on horseback one October morning in 1883, riding out of the Swiss Alps, through the Majola Pass, down to Chiavenna, a town he praises as “a worthy key to this great gate Italian.” His Latin phrase, which was appropriated a quarter-century later by E.M. Forster, is only pseudo-Virgilian, but the sentiment goes back at least to Aeneas. Whether for dynastic, religious, artistic, medical, antiquarian, or hedonistic reasons, men and women for centuries have longed for Italy. Bernd Roeck’s Florence 1900: The Quest for Arcadia is the most recent account of those who succumbed to this feeling. From the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries, Du Bellay and Montaigne, Sidney and Milton, and those indomitable travelers Thomas Coryate and Fynes Moryson, not to mention Ben Jonson’s Sir Politic Would-be and his logorrheic wife, all traveled to Italy.

By the eighteenth century, the Grand Tour had become such an integral part of a gentleman’s education that Samuel Johnson, who never managed to get there, lamented to Boswell that “a man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority.” A decade later, from 1786 to 1788, Goethe made his famous journey to Italy, his account of which inspired an entire Romantic generation with Italiensehnsucht, longing for the land where the lemon trees flower. Just over a century after that, however, when Freud had a patient who had never been there but dreamed of going to Italy (“gen Italien“), he interpreted her time-honored desire as mere genital obsession.

For northern Europeans, the urge to fuir là-bas was first and foremost because of the weather. In late February and early March, when the gelid north is still wrapped in winter, the Italian sun has already coaxed almond trees into blossom, and the olive groves of Tuscany are carpeted with deep-purple wild anemones. In some cases, travelers hoped, as Keats had, that the vivifying sun would restore their health. Intellectual travelers came to sit and muse among classical ruins, like Goethe in Tischbein’s portrait, enviously pondering the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Aesthetes came for the beauty of the landscape and people and the harmony of existence, invariably commenting on the scent of flowers everywhere.

Others, like Byron, were in flight from impossible spouses or importunate bill-collectors. Some, like Norman Douglas and Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, discovered opportunities for dalliance afforded by amoral freedoms denied them at home. Still others came to Italy because the good life there was simply much more affordable: servants and villas on the Vomero or in Bellosguardo were cheap and plentiful, and dolcefarniente cost nothing. For “the pallid children,” as Auden described them, “of a potato, beer-or-whiskey/Guilt culture,” sun-drenched Italy had become, in Shelley’s often-quoted words, the liberating “paradise of exiles.”

Before 1870, expatriates had mostly gravitated to Venice, Rome, or Naples, although Florence had notably been the home of the irascible Walter Savage Landor, who once threw his cook out of a window at Villa Gherardesca, and, later, of his friends the Brownings, who happily spent their married life in Casa Guidi, across from the Pitti Palace. But with what might be called the Renaissance revival in the second half of the nineteenth century—exemplified in the early 1860s by Jacob Burckhardt’s great history and George Eliot’s Romola, followed a decade later by Walter Pater’s influential The Renaissance and the seven volumes of Symonds’s Renaissance in Italy—Florence took on much more significance.

The well-known world had broken up, and there emerged Florence, a magic city where people thought and did the most extraordinary things,” thinks Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View, and her formulation, removed from its immediate context, comes close to summing up the attraction people felt toward Renaissance Florence. In contrast to the Dickensian grime, smoke, and smog, to all the noise and confusion that characterized the modern city, there was the peaceful, sunlit Florence of the Renaissance—a simpler, purer, more harmonious “magic city” of art and music, learning and piety, strength and beauty. “In the calm of this city,” wrote Isolde Kurz, “the Germans lived as if on an island of spirits, raised above the noise and bustle of the age.”

The great artistic masterpieces that filled the city provided, in Roeck’s words, “a quasi-religious experience” in “a secularized world,” a transcendent escape from quotidian misery; museums were

the temples of a religion of art,…self-contained worlds in an age rent by upheavals, places in which the worshippers could find consolation and could draw hope.

At the same time, a much more scientific approach to art was gaining favor. The foundation of the great Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence in 1897 is symbolic of the change that was taking place, of the fact that a learned group of expatriates was now scientifically classifying, documenting, and judging works of art. “Florence,” says Roeck,

or, rather, the essence of Florence and all that constituted its true identity, namely its art, was emerging from the Romantic world of dreams and gradually being distilled as a petrefact that was now amenable to analysis.

Paradoxically, just as Florence was acquiring its symbolic status as the home of the Renaissance, it was losing its Renaissance character. Roeck, a professor of history at the University of Zurich, describes the last decades of the nineteenth century, when more and more streets were paved, gas streetlights were installed, tramways were introduced, telephones and electricity were beginning to make their appearance, and even drinking water was becoming available to at least a handful of citizens. The city was also growing rapidly: between 1861 and 1890 it grew by 60 percent to a population of nearly 200,000. Disastrously, when Florence became the capital of Italy in 1865, the city fathers, seeking to confer dignity on what they disparaged as “centuries of squalor,” embarked on an ill-advised program of risanamento (restoration of health), their euphemistic word for slum clearance. (Their opponents termed it sventramento—evisceration.)

The worst of their destructions took place on the site of the original Roman forum, an area that had through subsequent centuries become a place of urban congestion, confused character, and charm, containing the ghetto, the central marketplace (including the fish market designed by Vasari, which was relocated to Piazza dei Ciompi), churches, medieval towers, palaces, and countless craftsmen’s shops. This was all razed and replaced between 1885 and 1895 with a solemn large piazza, built mostly by rapacious speculators, which today is called Piazza della Repubblica and which remains, as the area always had been, the center of the city. Initially placed atop the pretentious triumphal arch on its western side were three allegorical maidens representing Italy, Art, and Science, which the Florentines, with characteristic wit, immediately renamed for three notorious prostitutes of the day; but the statues were made only of plaster, rapidly fell to ruin, and had to be taken down in 1904.

According to the Florentine historian Silvano Fei, during the risanamento, twenty-six streets, twenty squares, and twenty-one parks were destroyed, along with 341 dwellings, 451 shops, and 173 storehouses; 5,822 people were obliged to move elsewhere. Much of the most significant change was the work of a single planner, Giuseppe Poggi, who was the Baron Haussmann or Robert Moses of his day. It was he who created the great viali, broad avenues with calculated vistas, which still expedite traffic today both within the city and on the hills to the south. He was also the architect of grand neoclassical buildings stylistically indebted to Raphael and Bramante; he created several new piazzas; and he reshaped the English Cemetery to resemble Arnold Böcklin’s celebrated Isle of the Dead—except that the cemetery island is surrounded by a sea of traffic, not water.

Poggi’s finest achievement was Piazzale Michelangelo, created in 1869 and visited by every tourist since for its breathtaking panorama of the city spread out below. Under the loggia at the side of the piazza, there is an inscription in tribute to Poggi, which is actually an Italian translation of Christopher Wren’s Latin epitaph in St. Paul’s.

Like most developers, the Florentine speculators wanted to do more and more, proposing further destruction of the medieval and Renaissance town. Borgo San Jacopo, one of the oldest parts of Florence down along the Arno, was seriously threatened, and at one point there were rumors that the Ponte Vecchio was to be torn down. Eventually, even some of the city councilors began to have second thoughts, and a small group of distinguished citizens founded, in 1898, a society “per la difesa di Firenze antica.” Roeck describes how the Anglo-Florentine residents, led by Herbert Horne and Violet Paget, sprang into more effective action, questioning city officials, writing letters to The Times that were then reprinted in Florentine papers, and finally presenting a petition with more than ten thousand signatures, including an astonishing number of the leading writers, artists, and governmental figures from all over Europe and America.

The expatriates’ concern for the appearance of the city was certainly greater than their concern for its citizens, whom, apart from servants and shopkeepers, they scarcely knew. The sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand once salaciously wrote to Conrad Fiedler: “Italy really is a marvelous country. The people play no part here, or at least the clothed ones.” Roeck has a chapter on the civil unrest in Florence in 1898, caused by governmental incompetence in the face of extensive unemployment, serious shortages of food, and a generally deteriorating economy that was the result of Italy’s belated industrialization. By 1898, well over a third of the populace was officially registered as poor, and the city had become “the capital of anarchism in Italy.”

Florence also had one of the highest rates of suicide in Europe. After a disappointing harvest the year before, food prices had risen, and the appallingly underpaid straw workers went on strike; in January, there were demonstrations that had to be broken up by the army. Throughout the winter and spring the price of bread continued to rise, and in April the tobacco workers also went on strike. Then, in May, there was violence in the streets, brief but bloody, which the army had to quell. The expatriates seem hardly to have noticed. But Rilke, whom Cecil Pinsent once described in a letter to Mary Berenson as a nervous little rabbit, fled the city when he witnessed youths throwing stones at the Loggia dei Lanzi.

The central figure in Roeck’s chronicle of Florentine expatriates in quest of Arcadia is Aby Warburg, of whose childhood and student years he has written a definitive account. 1 There is a legend that Warburg agreed to give up his inheritance if his immensely rich Hamburg banking family would buy him any books he wanted. The amazing library he formed ultimately became the heart of the great Warburg Institute, which was moved to London in 1933 to escape the Nazis and which has become an eminent center of Renaissance studies. In 1897, Warburg, who had visited Florence twice as a student, went to live there with his young bride, the sculptor and painter Mary Hertz, and the couple was to reside at various addresses in the vicinity of the Ponte Rosso and Piazza della Libertà until 1904. (It was his wife’s relative Henriette Hertz who founded the important German art and architecture library, the Biblioteca Hertziana, in Rome.)

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Warburg Institute, London
Mary and Aby Warburg, circa 1900

Warburg, having completed his dissertation on Botticelli, was doing research on the economic climate of Florence during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and he soon knew far more about the crafts and businesses, patrons and workers, in quattrocento Florence than he did about those in his own day. He was also much preoccupied, of course, with Renaissance art and artists, Leonardo da Vinci, Piero della Francesca, and Ghirlandaio in particular.

But his mental health was always uncertain: he was subject to periods of deep depression and struggled to keep his demons at bay; the dissonant modern world was something he wished to escape. He had a tendency to be querulous (in Florence, he even complained that “you can barely get a decent red wine here”) and Roeck quotes a shockingly nasty letter he wrote to his long-suffering wife in May 1900. Warburg’s son, Max Adolph, once described life with him as living on the edge of a volcano. Ludwig Binswanger, one of Freud’s pupils, later treated him and diagnosed schizophrenia and mental depression.

Although some of his scholarship, like the lecture on Leonardo that Roeck discusses, may seem a reflection of his own inner turmoil, Warburg’s pioneering work in iconology, his emphasis on the classical tradition, his interdisciplinary approach to artistic, intellectual, and social history, his work on magical beliefs and religion, and his uncompleted work on what he called the “Mnemosyne atlas” have all become fruitful fields of research. The importance of his groundbreaking insights has been described in the intellectual biography of him written by Ernst Gombrich 2 and incisively reviewed in these pages by art historian Willibald Sauerländer. As Sauerländer pointed out, Warburg

remained faithful to the concept of cultural history developed by Jacob Burckhardt and Carl Justi, who stressed that art and painting should be studied alongside Renaissance poetry, pageantry, and theater, and that the symbols and ideas used in each could illuminate the others. 3

Sauerländer concisely expresses one of the central paradoxes of Warburg’s thought: “He transgressed the borderlines of conventions but he felt emotionally bound to tradition.” However, since most of this came after he left Florence, it is beyond the scope of Roeck’s account.

Gombrich and Sauerländer also emphasize the revolutionary importance of Warburg’s ideas about classical antiquity in the early Italian Renaissance, especially his insistence that antiquity did not represent, as many had claimed, “quiet idealized beauty,” but rather, expressive images of life and emotions, movement and passion. As Roeck recounts, in the amusing correspondence Warburg had with a young Dutch intellectual, Andre Jolles, about Ghirlandaio’s fresco depicting the birth of John the Baptist in Santa Maria Novella, this was symbolized by a figure they dubbed la ninfa fiorentina. She is the inexplicable Carmen Miranda–like figure at the right of the picture who boisterously flounces into the world of staid, solemn matrons in attendance on John the Baptist’s mother, Saint Elizabeth. Her lively, incongruous, classically garbed intrusion represented for Warburg the embodiment of the Renaissance rediscovery of pagan antiquity tumultuously bursting in on the Christian Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, apart from Warburg, most of the other Germano-Swiss expatriates who form the core of Roeck’s book are not of great interest. They all appear to have lived in worlds apart, retreating from the mundane annoyances of contemporary life into an ideal Renaissance Florence their imaginations contrived. The most eminent of them, Arnold Böcklin, is a taste not much acquired anymore, and Adolf von Hildebrand is tactfully omitted from many histories and dictionaries of art. Isolde Kurz, whom Roeck quotes copiously, was a minor writer of short stories and a gossipy volume of Florentine memoirs. Much more interesting is the journalist Robert Davidsohn, who wrote a pioneering history of Florence based on exhaustive archival research and was almost the only German expatriate who had close relations with local Italians, especially the intellectuals; disappointingly, he is mentioned only in passing.

The Anglo-Florentine community, which included Americans as well, was far more important, but Warburg himself had little to do with it. Herbert Horne, Bernard Berenson, Violet Paget (who wrote under the name of Vernon Lee), Janet Ross (who held court in a villa mentioned in Boccaccio), and Charles Loeser (an early champion of post-Impressionist art who bequeathed eight of his Cézannes to the White House) were all more or less permanent residents of Florence in the decades just before and just after 1900, and Roeck provides accounts of all of them. Like everyone else, he finds Vernon Lee brilliant but perplexing (Henry James told his brother she was “as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent”), and, claiming that Warburg studied some of her writings in detail, Roeck conjectures about Lee’s influence and the debates over art the two historians might have had if they had ever met, which it seems they didn’t. Her Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1887), which is especially concerned with the music and drama of the period, and her sensitive travel essays on the genius loci are still very much worth reading.

Warburg met Berenson in 1898 but didn’t much like him, and they never became good friends; in later life, Berenson would frequently dismiss as “icononsense” one of the disciplines of art history that most appealed to Warburg. Roeck doesn’t seem to care much for Berenson either. His ambivalent portrait is tinged with innuendo; he never mentions what is probably Berenson’s finest achievement, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903); and although he refers to Berenson’s “discerning eye,” if I read him correctly, he astonishingly suggests that Berenson wasn’t even a “true connoisseur.” 4

A number of other English and American artists, writers, and collectors, while not permanent residents, nevertheless spent significant amounts of time in Florence. Edward Burne-Jones, who on his deathbed said, “Florence is everything and all the rest is nothing,” made four visits between 1850 and 1873. Henry James wrote his first novel while spending several years there in the early 1870s. William Dean Howells lived in Piazza Santa Maria Novella for much of 1892. Also in 1892, Mark Twain wrote Pudd’nhead Wilson while resident in Villa Viviani on the slopes of Settignano. William James joined his brother in Florence for the winter of 1872–1873. Leo Stein, who moved there from Paris in 1913, had been a frequent visitor before then with his sister Gertrude (they were known in Florence as “the Stein frères”), and she once went skinny-dipping in the little laghetto above Berenson’s villa, I Tatti, “clothed in nothing but her fat,” said Mary Berenson, horrified. And at the beginning of the new century, Bertrand Russell and Logan Pearsall Smith often stayed with their brother-in-law, Berenson, at I Tatti, where Edith Wharton made yearly visits.

Roeck’s book, for which he has done an impressive amount of research, tries to be a number of things at once: it is an account of the social and intellectual world of the expatriate community in fin-de-siècle Florence; it continues the biography of Aby Warburg he began with his earlier book; it is a history of late-nineteenth-century Florentine urban development; it is a cultural history; it addresses a wide variety of ancillary topics such as anti-Semitism, anarchism, labor conditions, and economic trends; and it discusses the various aesthetic theories being formulated at the turn of the century. No detail is too small to escape Roeck’s net, not even the plans formed in 1898 to produce artificial ice commercially in Florence.

Such a profusion of matter inevitably blurs his focus, and the reader is repeatedly in some chronological confusion about which decade or which generation he is talking about. He has a tendency to talk all around a subject yet fail to tell you what you really want to know. For example, although he devotes many pages to Warburg’s sojourn in Florence, he gives only the most minimal information about where and how Warburg did his research or about the content and importance of the published scholarship that resulted. (He is also a bit weak on dendrology, speaking of “pine trees, cypresses and holm oaks still decked in their autumn colors,” when they are, in fact, all evergreen.) But despite these flaws, his book tells us more than any single volume that now exists in English about an important period of Florentine history.

The last notable Anglo-Florentines were John Pope-Hennessy, Harold Acton, and Joan Haslip, one a highly distinguished scholar, one a legendary wit, host, and historian, one a popular biographer; each of them gifted, productive authors, each of them Florentine to the core, each of them deft with unhesitant candor. Dining with the three of them was always high entertainment, but also a bit like attending a conclave of the three judges of Hades; for they would peremptorily decree who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out, and, as Lear puts it, take upon them the mystery of things, as if they were God’s spies. But these friends all died, alas, in 1994, bringing the Anglo-Florentine world to a close.

One can’t imagine it will ever return. Florence itself has long since fallen prey to the depredations and demoralizations of mass tourism. Day after day, bus after bus disgorges swarms of tourists who are imperfectly aware of what they are seeing or where they are. I once watched an overweight, middle-aged man walk through Santa Croce, the Westminster Abbey of Florence, clad in nothing but a bikini; I once heard a man in Piazza della Signoria ask his guide, who had just described the execution of Savonarola, “Who did it? Us or the Germans?” Florentine palaces and churches, like the temples of Cambodia, Egypt, and Greece, were never meant to withstand such trampling hoards, and these monuments are constantly imperiled. The throngs everywhere make it harder and harder for serious travelers and scholars either to examine or to enjoy the achievements of the past.

It’s hard to know how to deal with this problem, but something must be done to save this beloved city. To be sure, it can never again become the Arcadia it once was, but one hopes it might return to something a bit closer to the city Nathaniel Hawthorne fell in love with 150 years ago, or even to the one I first knew almost sixty years ago. “I hardly think,” Hawthorne said, “there can be a place in the world where life is more delicious for its own simple sake.”

  1. 1

    Der junge Aby Warburg (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1997).

  2. 2

    Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford University Press, 1986).

  3. 3

    Rescuing the Past,” The New York Review, March 3, 1988.

  4. 4

    In his discussion of Warburg and Berenson, Roeck says that “Warburg was in regular contact with at least one true connoisseur, namely Wilhelm Bode,” the art historian who largely created the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin.

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