Fragrance in Travel Literature-Scenes and shrines in Tuscany by Dorothy Nevile Lees

Scenes and shrines in Tuscany by Dorothy Nevile Lees

But if the gods have dowered you with this power, and
you have ever looked down on the city lifting her brows in
some blue dawn to the light which strikes from far beyond
Vallombrosa; or in the magical moment of her trans-
figuration at sunset, when the yellow of her buildings
blazes till she seems a city of pure gold ; or on some
enchanted night of summer, when the dark has veiled all
that is trumpery and modern, and you see only her soaring
dome and her towers springing towards the stars, while
the breeze stin*ing the lemon-trees bears you a breath of
fragrance, and from somewhere in the darkness comes the
throbbing, sweet and a little piteous, of mandolines: if
you have once seen her so, you can never again forget her,
for she is tenacious of her old power in her age as in her
youth, never losing her hold on hearts ; and she will win
your heart and keep it, and you can never again forget
her until you forget all things, and, called by death,
mothered by the warm red earth, you turn from the light
and look no more upon the sun.

Many such there are still, in far-off English cities full
of noise and smoke, who would think the doors of Paradise
were opening did the way lie clear for them to pass the
great mountain-gates which are set to the northward of
this lovely land : and I, I have been made free of all this
beauty, dowered with this unspeakable privilege for
how many rounded years ? Certainly, if I am not happy, I
ought to be ! Life, which gives orriy thorns to some, has
given me, with my thorns, many roses, which will retain a
lingering fragrance to solace me even in those still years
of age which now seem very far away.

There is the great Villa, quiet and spacious, a house of
old romance : across the valley, clothing the hills, are the
still, fragrant pine-woods, where I can lie all day and
watch the sky : beside me I hear the splash of the
fountain in its mossy " vasca " : around spreads the garden
where roses and asparagus, lilies and strawberries, thrive
side by side. Yes, it is certainly well that I am happy,
for I should be dreadfully — and rightly — ashamed of
myself if I were not.

St Anthony, as everyone knows, is the patron and
protector of horses and stable-men. On his festa the
cabmen of the various stands send their patrons bread
shaped into crowns, hearts, and various designs, with a
large woodcut of " Sant' Antonio Abate "" with his pig, —
expecting, one need not say, a " mancia " in return. At
the city stables and mews vested priests are to be seen,
with lights and clouds of incense, sprinkling the horses
with holy water ; and in country places cows and sheep, as
well as horses, are gathered to receive this blessing in the
open space before the church, unless the priest — for a
consideration — goes up the winding ways to the old farms
among the olives, and blesses them in the fold and stall.

We took the road winding up through the pine-woods,
past the grotto, now a chapel, where San Zenobi used,
they say, to retire from his episcopal cares in Florence for
meditation and prayer. Only once a year is this lonely
oratory opened ; and then, on May 25, the feast of the
saint, while down in the cathedral roses are being blessed
for the people by the touch of his relics, the priest from
the little church by the Villa goes, followed by his
acolyte, up the shaded road, and celebrates Mass upon
the chilly altar ; and once more, after long silence, the old
sacred words are heard there, and incense rises to the
rounded roof.

The sun shone upon the emerald turf and undergrowth ;
the dying oak thickets glowed like bronze; blue mists
lingered among the distant tree-trunks; the ground in
sheltered places was rosy with cyclamens ; the pine-needles
filled the air with their spicy fragrance. Far down on
the plain lay Florence, with its belfries and cupolas,
and the great dome which Brunelleschi set, dwarfed by
distance to the size of an egg-shell, rising in the midst.
Beyond rose the mountains, and it was pleasant to be
assured by the aspect of Monte Morello that we were
in no danger of rain.

It was with a sense of relief, of being set free from some
strain, that we saw the light, warm and golden, steal back
across the land ; and, after the gloom of the pine- woods, it
was pleasant to pass into the bright little convent garden,
fragrant with lavender and rosemary, gay with old-
fashioned flowers. Down the middle ran a pergola
covered with morning-glories ; in one corner stood a row
of primitive bee-hives ; a sun-dial marked the uneventful
hours ; an old stone bench under a moss-grown wall offered
a fitting place for musing and rest.

In every church a "Sepolcro" is an-anged — a chapel
filled with plants, flowers, and a silvery grass grown in the
darkness of convent vaults, to represent a garden. Some
of the decorations in churches where the parishioners are
wealthy are exquisite in their cool fragrance of massed
ferns and flowers, but nothing is rejected, and the tiny
pot of primroses, the bunch of gillies, of the poor, finds a
place equal in honour beside the roses and orchids of the
rich. In the Sepulchre is sometimes laid a figure of the
dead Christ, surrounded by the instruments of His suffer-
ing, and watched over by the Blessed Virgin, her heart
pierced by the seven swords of her sorrow ; but to me there
is something too painfully realistic, too emotional, in such
an exhibition : I love better the little quiet gardens, where,
since the Blessed Sacrament is reserved behind the altar,
the Body of Christ is in very truth buried mystically in
the Tomb.

As the supreme moment drew near a gilded faldstool
was set in the centre of the altar-steps. The Archbishop
was led to it from his throne, and knelt there, bowed
almost to the earth, his robes sweeping about him in
heavy folds. Behind him, a row of Bishops and Canons,
the priests and deacons, the choir, and his two servants in
black liveries, knelt with bent heads. There was a long
pause ; the air was dim with incense, sweet with plaintive
music, which seemed to come from very far away. It was
a hush vibrating with holy things. Then the organ burst
out suddenly in a triumphant peal of music, which filled
the whole building : all was movement again ; the Arch-
bishop was led back to his seat ; the great silver candle-
sticks were carried away ; the service went on.

At the High Altar many priests were celebrating, with
elaborate ritual and singing, with many lights, gorgeous
vestments and much incense, the mystery of the Mass.
The sun came in, a little subdued by cotton blinds,
through the white glass of the clerestory windows, and
paled the candle flames.

It was nearly six o'clock on a March evening when,
attracted by the streams of people entering, I turned into
the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella. The
light inside the building was already growing dim, and
seemed the more so owing to the black, tent-like canopy
which had been erected above the nave, midway between
the ground and the vaulted roof, to concentrate the sound,
and which had the gloomy effect of a pall extended above
the people's heads. The last light of the setting sun,
creeping in through the lancet windows of the clerestory,
touched the dust and lingering mist of incense in the air
until it glowed like golden haze ; and, stealing into side-
chapels, caught the gold of old pictures, and flushed the
stone mouldings and painted glass.

Turning to the right, we took a narrow cart-track
through the pine-woods, where the air was hushed and
fragrant as in some minster aisle. The dying bracken
and brushwood was touched by the sun to russet,
bronze and gold ; the slender trunks of the umbrella
pines rose, like church columns, to the roof of living
green. The heather carpeted the ground with pink
and purple. Far down, seen in glimpses between the
rank of columns, lay the Valley of the Arno, a mystery
of space and light and air, of delicate line and colour,
over which were scattered, pearl-like, white villas and
little towns.

Why do we not all rise with the sun ? I wondered, as
I leaned over the low wall of the garden and looked down
the slopes of podere and up the opposite pine-clothed
hills.

A small green lizard lay upon the broad ledge at a
little distance, basking in the sun, while half a dozen of
the same fraternity darted in and out of the crevices in
the crumbling stone. In the fields below the maples
were clothed with tender foliage, draped with fair tendrils
by the clinging vines ; the cherry trees were decked like
dainty brides, in a splendour of white blossom ; the olives
glittered silver in the early sunlight, their grey, twisted
trunks rising from an emerald sea of young corn among
which the scarlet poppies leapt like flame. The grassy
banks were bright with a myriad buttercups and dandelions;
in places the ground was carpeted by patches of deep
crimson clover ; along the green paths among the olives
grew hedges of pink roses and stately ranks of iris, — the
Florentine emblem, — blue and purple, with sharp sword-
like leaves. The laburnums dangled their golden chains ;
the lilacs, a mass of white and purple, filled the garden
with perfume ; the acacias were in flower, — frail tassels of
white bloom fringed with lace-like green ; pale clusters of
wistaria hung thickly against the wan, time-stained plaster
of the Villa, and mingled with the long festoons of Banksia
rose, white and yellow, which drooped about pergola and
wall, clung to old moss-grown statues, and even wound
about the cypress trees. Far above, the larks were
pouring out their joy in the soft illimitable blue ; around
the loggia the newly returned swallows were skimming ;
in the garden the insects were busy about the freshly
opened buds. Everywhere there were roses, roses. Down
in the Plorentine streets the flower-sellers would be
offering them, yellow, pink, cream and crimson; on the
altars of Madonna in the cool dim churches they would
be laid, since to-day was the first of the month of Mary.
Everywhere, alike in town and country, there was song
and scent and joy and loveliness, and to me, at least, the
world was " very Heaven "" upon this first of May.
Strolling across the shimmering garden, between the
glossy-leafed and golden-fruited lemon-trees, which, in
their great earthen pots, had been carried out from their
winter quarters to border the terraces and walks, I came,
near the house, upon Adolfo, the gardener, padding about
on bare brown feet, filling the old majolica pots for the
salotti with roses and lilac.

It was a pretty picture which met our eyes at the top
of the hill. The clean, slender trunks of the pine-trees
rose up to the green umbrella-like tops, from a carpet of
fading heather and yellowing fern ; the air was sweet with
the aromatic scent of resin ; and the contadini, adding by
their bright costumes to the picturesqueness of the
scene, were busy, with much laughter and chatter, in
gathering the cones which came thumping down from the
trees.