Florence's world-famous Renaissance is represented here by its most illustrious chroniclers, beginning with Dante's vision of an Inferno teeming with his Florentine contemporaries, Boccaccio's bawdy tales of young Florentine nobles in The Decameron, and the artist Cellini's swashbuckling adventures. The city's long tradition of attracting foreign visitors is celebrated by selections from Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, E. M. Forster's A Room with a View, and the rapturous impressions of Stendhal (who gave his name to Stendhal syndrome). Mary McCarthy provides a vivid depiction of a twentieth-century market town; Penelope Fitzgerald weaves a gentle comedy of manners among Florence's fading aristocracy; Vasco Pratolini, one of the city's most renowned modern authors, tells a tender tale of brotherly love among the urban poor under 1930s fascism; and Salman Rushdie dazzles with the magical realism of The Enchantress of Florence. George Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, Cuzio Malaparte, and Iris Origo are among the other brilliant writers whose stories illuminate facets of this fascinating city.
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Henry James, one of the city’s most famous Anglo-American disciples, dubbed Florence ‘rounded pearl of cities – cheerful, compact, complete – full of a delicious mix of beauty and convenience.’ This notion of Florence as ‘complete’ gives us a sense of the city as seen through the rosy prism of its nineteenth- and early twentieth-century author-expats: as a slice of Renaissance splendour frozen in time for their leisure. This gentle vision of Florence is present in the accounts of James, Stendhal and D.H. Lawrence among others, for whom the city was raised up as a benign symbol of Western culture, awe-inspiring yet nevertheless ‘complete’ in its tidy perfection.
Next to this vision competes another perspective entirely. Literary Florence as conjured by its indigenous writers is a far cry from the dewy raptures of its anglophone admirers. Vasco Pratolini’s autobiographical novella Family Chronicle is a beautiful meditation on filial relations and class struggle in Florence under the looming cloud of Fascism in the 1930s, against which the very beauty of the city – the definitive subject of expat accounts –becomes even more poignant as a backdrop to the everyday struggles of the Florentine poor.
The great chronicler of Tuscan character, Curzio Malaparte, saw to the heart of what he called the region’s ‘infernal nature’, which has bestowed on its people since the time of Dante ‘an awareness of forbidden things’. To Malaparte, Florence was above all a city of ‘poetic madmen’ marked by their boundless conceit and ambition, an infernal hubris symbolized by the bloated and billowing dome at the centre of their Tuscan capital.
In Those Cursed Tuscans Malaparte is especially scathing of the foreign ‘idiots’ who have encroached on Florence ever since Charles V first laid siege to the republic in 1530. This date is generally seen as a turning point in the city’s history, after which the surviving Medici heirs were brought in to rule as absolute monarchs. When the Medici line died out in 1737, Florence was handed over to the House of Lorraine and ruled as a vassal state of Austria until Italian Unification in 1861. As Mary McCarthy puts it in her masterful travelogue The Stones of Florence (1953), ‘The story of Florence proper, by almost universal consent, ends with the extinction of its civic life; after this, there is no history (history and story are the same word in Italian) – only the gossip of diarists.’ The scant seventeenth- and eighteenth- century offering in this anthology, represented solely by the Scottish author Tobias Smollett in an account of his Italian Grand Tour, is testament to this.
The story of ‘Florence proper’ resides of course in the Renaissance, which gained momentum in the 1300s and reached its height during the glorious quattrocento. The leading protagonists of this period – the original poetic madmen of Florence – succeeded in changing the course of Western culture. In literature, Dante’s Divine Comedy was so successful it fathered the Italian lingua franca; Boccaccio’s Decameron was a founding text of Western humanism; while great thinkers such as Ficino, Guicciardini, Cellini and Vasari created pioneering works of philosophy, history, autobiography and art criticism.
Even to the modern ear these Renaissance accounts pulsate with humanity, wit and passion (sometimes unbelievably so, in the case of Cellini) and are enlivened by the innate awareness of their authors that they are living through an unparalleled golden age – one that will surely be acclaimed for centuries to come. The heroes and anti-heroes of this period – Dante, Brunelleschi, Lorenzo de Medici, Savonarola, Michelangelo and Machiavelli to name but a few – make up the golden thread of Florentine mythology (as well as the very stone fabric of the city itself), and are duly woven into the pages of this anthology.
The story of the Florentine Renaissance has been a creative source to writers for centuries, constantly given new breath in modern retellings. In the closing tale of this anthology, a fragment of Salman Rushdie’s dazzling novel The Enchantress of Florence, an explorer named Ago Vespucci regales the Mughal emperor Akbar in the palatial court of Fatehpur Sikri with the story of his youth in Florence, featuring his childhood friend Niccolò ‘Il Machia’ – a young Machiavelli. As the narrative shifts, dreamlike, between India and Italy, a mirror is drawn up between these two flowering cities and their parallel renaissances. Unstuck as a static symbol of Western culture, Florence becomes part of the fertile axis between East and West that characterized the sixteenth century – a world of budding exploration, globalization and exciting cultural exchange.
In this anthology these competing versions of Florence jostle together in the form of letters, fiction, diaries, memoir, travelogues and histories to create a portrait of a city which, far from being frozen in time, has a multitude of brilliant and ever-changing faces.
Table of ContentsPreface
DANTE ALIGHIERI, from The Divine Comedy
GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, from the Decameron
ANTONIO MANETTI, “The Fat Woodworker”
BENEDETTO DEI, “The Prosperity of Florence”
MARSILIO FICINO, from Letters
FRANCESCO GUICCIARDINI, “A Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici”
GIORGIO VASARI, from The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects
BENVENUTO CELLINI, from The Autobiography of Benvenuto de Cellini
TOBIAS SMOLLETT, from Travels Through France and Italy
STENDHAL, from Rome, Naples and Florence
GEORGE ELIOT, from Romola
MARK TWAIN, from Travelogues
HENRY JAMES, from The Diary of a Man of Fifty
RAINER MARIA RILKE, from Diaries of a Young Poet
E. M. FORSTER, from A Room with a View
D. H. LAWRENCE, from Aaron’s Rod
D. H. LAWRENCE, “Fireworks in Florence”
W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM, “Up at the Villa”
VASCO PRATOLINI, from Family Chronicle
CURZIO MALAPARTE, from The Skin
CURZIO MALAPARTE, from Those Cursed Tuscans
MARY MCCARTHY, from The Stones of Florence
IRIS ORIGO, “Childhood at Fiesole”
PENELOPE FITZGERALD, from Innocence
SALMAN RUSHDIE, from The Enchantress of Florence