CHAPTER XXII. The Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele to S. Trinita
A city of trams - The old market - Donatello's figure of Abundance - An evening resort - A hall of variety - Florentines of to-day - The war with Turkey - Homecoming heroes - Restaurants - The new market - The bronze boar - A fifteenth century palace - Old Florentine life reconstructed - Where changes are few - S. Trinita - Ghirlandaio again - S. Francis - The Strozzi palace - Clarice de' Medici.
Florence is not simple to the stranger. Like all very old cities built fortuitously it is difficult to learn: the points of the compass are elusive; the streets are so narrow that the sky is no constant guide; the names of the streets are often not there; the policemen have no high standard of helpfulness. There are trams, it is true - too many and too noisy, and too near the pavement - but the names of their outward destinations, from the centre, too rarely correspond to any point of interest that one is desiring. Hence one has many embarrassments and even annoyances. Yet I daresay this is best: an orderly Florence is unthinkable. Since, however, the trams that are returning to the centre nearly all go to the Duomo, either passing it or stopping there, the tram becomes one's best friend and the Duomo one's starting point for most excursions.
Supposing ourselves to be there once more, let us quickly get through the horrid necessity, which confronts one in all ancient Italian cities, of seeing the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele. In an earlier chapter we left the Baptistery and walked along the Via Calzaioli. Again starting from the Baptistery let us take the Via dell' Arcivescovado, which is parallel with the Via Calzaioli, on the right of it, and again walk straight forward. We shall come almost at once to the great modern square.
No Italian city or town is complete without a Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele and a statue of that monarch. In Florence the sturdy king bestrides his horse here. Italy being so old and Vittorio Emmanuele so new, it follows in most cases that the square or street named after him supplants an older one, and if the Italians had any memory or imaginative interest in history they would see to it that the old name was not wholly obliterated. In Florence, in order to honour the first king of United Italy, much grave violence was done to antiquity, for a very picturesque quarter had to be cleared away for the huge brasseries, stores and hotels which make up the west side; which in their turn marked the site of the old market where Donatello and Brunelleschi and all the later artists of the great days did their shopping and met to exchange ideals and banter; and that market in its turn marked the site of the Roman forum.
One of the features of the old market was the charming Loggia di Pesce; another, Donatello's figure of Abundance, surmounting a column. This figure is now in the museum of ancient city relics in the monastery of S. Marco, where one confronts her on a level instead of looking up at her in mid sky. But she is very good, none the less.
In talking to elderly persons who can remember Florence forty and fifty years ago I find that nothing so distresses them as the loss of the old quarter for the making of this new spacious piazza; and probably nothing can so delight the younger Florentines as its possession, for, having nothing to do in the evenings, they do it chiefly in the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele. Chairs and tables spring up like mushrooms in the roadway, among which too few waiters distribute those very inexpensive refreshments which seem to be purchased rather for the right to the seat that they confer than for any stimulation. It is extraordinary to the eyes of the thriftless English, who are never so happy as when they are overpaying Italian and other caterers in their own country, to notice how long these wiser folk will occupy a table on an expenditure of fourpence.
I do not mean that there are no theatres in Florence. There are many, but they are not very good; and the young men can do without them. Curious old theatres, faded and artificial, all apparently built for the comedies of Goldoni. There are cinema theatres too, at prices which would delight the English public addicted to those insidious entertainments, but horrify English managers; and the Teatro Salvini at the back of the Palazzo Vecchio is occasionally transformed into a Folies Bergeres (as it is called) where one after another comediennes sing each two or three songs rapidly to an audience who regard them with apathy and converse without ceasing. The only sign of interest which one observes is the murmur which follows anything a little off the beaten track - a sound that might equally be encouragement or disapproval. But a really pretty woman entering a box moves them. Then they employ every note in the gamut; and curiously enough the pretty woman in the box is usually as cool under the fusillade as a professional and hardened sister would be. A strange music hall this to the English eye, where the orchestra smokes, and no numbers are put up, and every one talks, and the intervals seem to be hours long. But the Florentines do not mind, for they have not the English thirst for entertainment and escape; they carry their entertainment with them and do not wish to escape - going to such places only because they are warmer than out of doors.
Sitting here and watching their ironical negligence of the stage and their interest in each other's company; their animated talk and rapid decisions as to the merits and charms of a performer; the comfort of their attitudes and carelessness (although never quite slovenliness) in dress; one seems to realize the nation better than anywhere. The old fighting passion may have gone; but much of the quickness, the shrewdness and the humour remains, together with the determination of each man to have if possible his own way and, whether possible or not, his own say.