CHAPTER XXV. The Carmine and San Miniato
The human form divine and waxen - Galileo - Bianca Capella - A faithful Grand Duke - S. Spirito - The Carmine - Masaccio's place in art - Leonardo's summary - The S. Peter frescoes - The Pitti side - Romola - A little country walk - The ancient wall - The Piazzale Michelangelo - An evening prospect - S. Miniato - Antonio Rossellino's masterpiece - The story of S. Gualberto - A city of the dead - The reluctant departure.
The Via Maggio is now our way, but first there is a museum which I think should be visited, if only because it gave Dickens so much pleasure when he was here - the Museo di Storia Naturale, which is open three days a week only and is always free. Many visitors to Florence never even hear of it and one quickly finds that its chief frequenters are the poor. All the better for that. Here not only is the whole animal kingdom spread out before the eye in crowded cases, but the most wonderful collection of wax reproductions of the human form is to be seen. These anatomical models are so numerous and so exact that, since the human body does not change with the times, a medical student could learn everything from them in the most gentlemanly way possible. But they need a strong stomach. Mine, I confess, quailed before the end.
The hero of the Museum is Galileo, whose tomb at S. Croce we have seen: here are preserved certain of his instruments in a modern, floridly decorated Tribuna named after him. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) belongs rather to Pisa, where he was born and where he found the Leaning Tower useful for experiments, and to Rome, where in 1611 he demonstrated his discovery of the telescope; but Florence is proud of him and it was here that he died, under circumstances tragic for an astronomer, for he had become totally blind.
The frescoes in the Tribuna celebrate other Italian scientific triumphs, and in the cases are historic telescopes, astrolabes, binoculars, and other mysteries.
The Via Maggio, which runs from Casa Guidi to the Ponte Trinita, and at noon is always full of school-girls, brings us by way of the Via Michelozzo to S. Spirito, but by continuing in it we pass a house of great interest, now No. 26, where once lived the famous Bianca Capella, that beautiful and magnetic Venetian whom some hold to have been so vile and others so much the victim of fate. Bianca Capella was born in 1543, when Francis I, Cosimo I's eldest son, afterwards to play such a part in her life, was two years of age. While he was being brought up in Florence, Bianca was gaining loveliness in her father's palace. When she was seventeen she fell in love with a young Florentine engaged in a bank in Venice, and they were secretly married. Her family were outraged by the mesalliance and the young couple had to flee to Florence, where they lived in poverty and hiding, a prize of 2000 ducats being offered by the Capella family to anyone who would kill the husband; while, by way of showing how much in earnest they were, they had his uncle thrown into prison, where he died.
One day the unhappy Bianca was sitting at her window when the young prince Francis was passing: he looked up, saw her, and was enslaved on the spot. (The portraits of Bianca do not, I must admit, lay emphasis on this story. Titian's I have not seen; but there is one by Bronzino in our National Gallery - No. 650 - and many in Florence.) There was, however, something in Bianca's face to which Francis fell a victim, and he brought about a speedy meeting. At first Bianca repulsed him; but when she found that her husband was unworthy of her, she returned the Prince's affection. (I am telling her story from the pro-Bianca point of view: there are plenty of narrators on the other side.) Meanwhile, Francis's official life going on, he married that archduchess Joanna of Austria for whom the Austrian frescoes in the Palazzo Vecchio were painted; but his heart remained Bianca's and he was more at her house than in his own. At last, Bianca's husband being killed in some fray, she was free from the persecution of her family and ready to occupy the palace which Francis hastened to build for her, here, in the Via Maggio, now cut up into tenements at a few lire a week. The attachment continued unabated when Francis came to the throne, and upon the death of his archduchess in 1578 Bianca and he were almost immediately, but privately, married, she being then thirty-five; and in the next year they were publicly married in the church of S. Lorenzo with every circumstance of pomp; while later in the same year Bianca was crowned.
Francis remained her lover till his death, which was both dramatic and suspicious, husband and wife dying within a few hours of each other at the Medici villa of Poggia a Caiano in 1587. Historians have not hesitated to suggest that Francis was poisoned by his wife; but there is no proof. It is indeed quite possible that her life was more free of intrigue, ambition and falsehood, than that of any one about the court at that time; but the Florentines, encouraged by Francis's brother Ferdinand I, who succeeded him, made up their minds that she was a witch, and few things in the way of disaster happened that were not laid to her charge. Call a woman a witch and everything is possible. Ferdinand not only detested Bianca in life and deplored her fascination for his brother, but when she died he refused to allow her to be buried with the others of the family; hence the Chapel of the Princes at S. Lorenzo lacks one archduchess. Her grave is unknown.
The whole truth we shall never know; but it is as easy to think of Bianca as a harmless woman who both lost and gained through love as to picture her as sinister and scheming. At any rate we know that Francis was devoted to her with a fidelity and persistence for which Grand Dukes have not always been conspicuous.