CHAPTER XIX. The SS. Annunziata and the Spedale degli Innocenti
In the Via della Colonna we find, at No. 26 on the left, the Palazzo Crocetta, which is now a Museum of Antiquities, and for its Etruscan exhibits is of the greatest historical value and interest to visitors to Tuscany, such as ourselves. For here you may see what civilization was like centuries before Christ and Rome. The beginnings of the Etruscan people are indistinct, but about 1000 B.C. has been agreed to as the dawn of their era. Etruria comprised Tuscany, Perugia, and Rome itself. Florence has no remains, but Fiesole was a fortified Etruscan town, and many traces of its original builders may be seen there, together with Etruscan relics in the little museum. For the best reconstructions of an Etruscan city one must go to Volterra, where so many of the treasures in the present building were found.
The Etruscans in their heyday were the most powerful people in the world, but after the fifth century their supremacy gradually disappeared, the Gauls on the one side and the Romans on the other wearing them down. All our knowledge of them comes through the spade. Excavations at Volterra and elsewhere have revealed some thousands of inscriptions which have been in part deciphered; but nothing has thrown so much light on this accomplished people as their habit of providing the ashes of their dead with everything likely to be needed for the next world, whose requirements fortunately so exactly tallied with those of this that a complete system of domestic civilization can be deduced. In arts and sciences they were most enviably advanced, as a visit to the British Museum will show in a moment. But it is to this Florentine Museum of Antiquities that all students of Etruria must go. The garden contains a number of the tombs themselves, rebuilt and refurnished exactly as they were found; while on the ground floor is the amazing collection of articles which the tombs yielded. The grave has preserved them for us, not quite so perfectly as the volcanic dust of Vesuvius preserved the domestic appliances of Pompeii, but very nearly so. Jewels, vessels, weapons, ornaments - many of them of a beauty never since reproduced - are to be seen in profusion, now gathered together for study only a short distance from the districts in which centuries ago they were made and used for actual life.
Upstairs we find relics of an older civilization still, the Egyptian, and a few rooms of works of art, all found in Etruscan soil, the property of the Pierpont Morgans and George Saltings of that ancient day, who had collected them exactly as we do now. Certain of the statues are world-famous. Here, for example, in Sala IX, is the bronze Minerva which was found near Arezzo in 1554 by Cosimo's workmen. Here is the Chimaera, also from Arezzo in 1554, which Cellini restored for Cosimo and tells us about in his Autobiography. Here is the superb Orator from Lake Trasimene, another of Cosimo's discoveries.
In Sala X look at the bronze situla in an isolated glass case, of such a peacock blue as only centuries could give it. Upstairs in Sala XVI are many more Greek and Roman bronzes, among which I noticed a faun with two pipes as being especially good; while the little room leading from it has some fine life-size heads, including a noble one of a horse, and the famous Idolino on its elaborate pedestal - a full-length Greek bronze from the earth of Pesaro, where it was found in 1530.
The top floor is given to tapestries and embroideries. The collection is vast and comprises much foreign work; but Cosimo I introducing tapestry weaving into Florence, many of the examples come from the city's looms. The finest, or at any rate most interesting, series is that depicting the court of France under Catherine de' Medici, with portraits: very sumptuous and gay examples of Flemish work.
The trouble at Florence is that one wants the days to be ten times as long in order that one may see its wonderful possessions properly. Here is this dry-looking archaeological museum, with antipathetic custodians at the door who refuse to get change for twenty-lira pieces: nothing could be more unpromising than they or their building; and yet you find yourself instantly among countless vestiges of a past people who had risen to power and crumbled again before Christ was born - but at a time when man was so vastly more sensitive to beauty than he now is that every appliance for daily life was the work of an artist. Well, a collection like this demands days and days of patient examination, and one has only a few hours. Were I Joshua - had I his curious gift - it is to Florence I would straightway fare. The sun should stand still there: no rock more motionless.
Continuing along the Via della Colonna, we come, on the right, at No. 8, to the convent of S. Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi, which is now a barracks but keeps sacred one room in which Perugino painted a crucifixion, his masterpiece in fresco. The work is in three panels, of which that on the left, representing the Virgin and S. Bernard, is the most beautiful. Indeed, there is no more beautiful light in any picture we shall see, and the Virgin's melancholy face is inexpressibly sweet. Perugino is best represented at the Accademia, and there are works of his at the Uffizi and Pitti and in various Florentine churches; but here he is at his best. Vasari tells us that he made much money and was very fond of it; also that he liked his young wife to wear light head-dresses both out of doors and in the house, and often dressed her himself. His master was Verrocchio and his best pupil Raphael.