CHAPTER XXIV. English Poets in Florence
Casa Guidi - The Brownings - Giotto's missing spire - James Russell Lowell - Lander's early life - Fra Bartolommeo before Raphael - The Tuscan gardener - The "Villa Landor" to-day - Storms on the hillside - Pastoral poetry - Italian memories in England - The final outburst - Last days in Florence - The old lion's beguilements - The famous epitaph.
On a house in the Piazza S. Felice, obliquely facing the Pitti, with windows both in the Via Maggio and Via Mazzetta, is a tablet, placed there by grateful Florence, stating that it was the home of Robert and of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and that her verse made a golden ring to link England to Italy. In other words, this is Casa Guidi.
A third member of the family, Flush the spaniel, was also with them, and they moved here in 1848, and it was here that Mrs. Browning died, in 1861. But it was not their first Florentine home, for in 1847 they had gone into rooms in the Via delle Belle Donne - the Street of Beautiful Ladies - whose name so fascinated Ruskin, near S. Maria Novella. At Casa Guidi Browning wrote, among other poems, "Christinas Eve and Easter Day," "The Statue and the Bust" of which I have said something in chapter XIX, and the "Old Pictures in Florence," that philosophic commentary on Vasari, which ends with the spirited appeal for the crowning of Giotto's Campanile with the addition of the golden spire that its builder intended -
Fine as the beak of a young beccaccia
The campanile, the Duomo's fit ally,
Shall soar up in gold full fifty braccia,
Completing Florence, as Florence Italy.
But I suppose that the monologues "Andrea del Sarto" and "Fra Lippo Lippi" would be considered the finest fruit of Browning's Florentine sojourn, as "Casa Guidi Windows" is of Mrs. Browning's. Her great poem is indeed as passionate a plea for Italian liberty as anything by an Italian poet. Here also she wrote much if not all of "Aurora Leigh," "The Poems before Congress," and those other Italian political pieces which when her husband collected them as "Last Poems" he dedicated "to 'grateful Florence'".
In these Casa Guidi rooms the happiest days of both lives were spent, and many a time have the walls resounded to the great voice, laughing, praising or condemning, of Walter Savage Landor; while the shy Hawthorne has talked here too. Casa Guidi lodged not only the Brownings, but, at one time, Lowell, who was not, however, a very good Florentine. "As for pictures," I find him writing, in 1874, on a later visit, "I am tired to death of 'em,... and then most of them are so bad. I like best the earlier ones, that say so much in their half-unconscious prattle, and talk nature to me instead of high art." But "the older streets," he says, "have a noble mediaeval distance and reserve for me - a frown I was going to call it, not of hostility, but of haughty doubt. These grim palace fronts meet you with an aristocratic start that puts you to the proof of your credentials. There is to me something wholesome in that that makes you feel your place."
The Brownings are the two English poets who first spring to mind in connexion with Florence; but they had had very illustrious predecessors. In August and September, 1638, during the reign of Ferdinand II, John Milton was here, and again in the spring of 1639. He read Latin poems to fellow-scholars in the city and received complimentary sonnets in reply. Here he met Galileo, and from here he made the excursion to Vallombrosa which gave him some of his most famous lines. He also learned enough of the language to write love poetry to a lady in Bologna, although he is said to have offended Italians generally by his strict morality.
Skipping a hundred and eighty years we find Shelley in Florence, in 1819, and it was here that his son was born, receiving the names Percy Florence. Here he wrote, as I have said, his "Ode to the West Wind" and that grimly comic work "Peter Bell the Third".
But next the Brownings it is Walter Savage Landor of whom I always think as the greatest English Florentine. Florence became his second home when he was middle-aged and strong; and then again, when he was a very old man, shipwrecked by his impulsive and impossible temper, it became his last haven. It was Browning who found him his final resting-place - a floor of rooms not far from where we now stand, in the Via Nunziatina.