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Ponte Vecchio.

The other story is that the old bridge is supposed to
be haunted by a ghostly watchman, who takes the form
of a beggar. If anyone is bold enough to cross the
bridge at midnight, they see him leaning over the wall,
but he never speaks to them, and if they ask him a
question, he only laughs. But the goldsmiths who are
comfortably in bed in their quaint little rooms smile to
themselves when they hear the laugh (or at least they
did so in the Middle Ages), and turn over, and go to
sleep again. For by that token they know that their
shops are safe, and that the watchman is watching.

The next bridge that we come to, lower down the
river, is the Ponte S. Trinita, or the Bridge of the Holy
Trinity. It is by the corner of this bridge that Dante
is represented as standing, when he saw his u Sweet
Lady " Beatrice, whom he loved so well, pass, " clad in
white robes between two gentle ladies older than she,"
and where she " saluted him so graciously ' that he
seemed to see the " Heights of All Blessedness."

You all know the picture of the scene ; you see it
everywhere the great poet standing in the corner of
the bridge, in his dark gown, and the fair young girl
passing along the quay with her friends.

Above the Ponte Vecchio is the Ponte alle Grazie,
which used to be very quaint, but was spoilt when a
number of little cells which stood on it, and which

The Arno and its Bridges 29

formed the home of a community of nuns, were pulled
down, some forty years ago.

These nuns wanted to live a stricter life than they
lived in their convents, so they retired to these little
cells, where they could only see the brown waters of the
Arno rolling beneath them.

The only other bridge which we need visit is that
which stands below the Ponte S. Trinita, the Ponte
Alia Carraja, which got its name from the carri or carts
which used to cross it, bringing loads of wool from
the country farms to woollen mills in the city. Here,
also, there is a curious story to be told. It is said
that once upon a time an old man lived at the end of
the bridge who was such a miser that he earned for
himself a name which meant " Fohd of Money," and
who was so hard-hearted that his neighbours said he
must be under the power of the Evil One. It was
known that he had saved a large sum, and great was the
disappointment of his poor relations, of whom he had
many, when at his death not a farthing could be found.

" The devil had taken it, that was evident," so people
said. And it really seemed as if it were true. For
soon afterwards, a strange thing began to happen.
Every night as the clock struck twelve a goat ran on
to the bridge at one end ; but, no matter how closely
people watched it, they could never see it leave the
bridge at the other.

This was very mysterious, and a party of young men
set out one night to hunt the goat, and run it to earth.
They concealed themselves until the animal set foot on
the bridge ; then they followed it, certain of their prey.
But halfway over it disappeared, and no one could tell
where it had gone. The young men were puzzled, and

30 Florence

went to their different homes, saying that the matter
was beyond their understanding, and thought no more
of the matter, all except one, who turned the curious
incident over and over in his mind until he came to the
conclusion that the goat must be an unquiet spirit, who
was condemned to linger about the place where it had
committed some sin.

So next day he took a spade, and went and digged at
the base of the pillar near which the animal had dis-
appeared. And he soon found all the miser's gold,
hidden under a flat stone. The old man had buried it
there, in case his relatives should obtain possession of it
before he died.

The young man gathered it all up, and divided it
among its rightful owners, and from that time the goat
disappeared the uneasy spirit of the miser was " laid."

These are old-time stories, but the bridges about
which they are told are still standing, and as we look at
them we are linked to the bygone days when people
believed such things, and drew morals from them about
the goodness of virtue, and the wickedness of vice.

We do not expect to see the shadowy watchman or
the hunted goat now, but we like to linger on the broad
quays, and watch the numberless little boats, which have
gaily painted helms, being rowed, or u punted," up and
down the river, for in summer, when the Arno is low,
the boatmen use poles instead of oars, and propel their
little crafts in this way. When they want to moor them
they thrust the poles down into the bed of the river.

These boats look very picturesque moored like this
in the evening, when their owners employ themselves in
fishing with very quaint nets. These nets are simply
fastened to the four ends of two bamboos, crossed and

The Arno and its Bridges 31

tied together in the centre, so that the net forms a
kind of big shallow basket, and the crossed bamboos
the handle. This is let down into the river by another
bamboo, and can be drawn up and down at the fisher-
man's pleasure. These fishermen are a very interesting
race of men, for they follow traditions of their craft
which have been handed down to them from bygone
centuries, and the fashion of their boats and their nets
never change. Neither do the strange fishing-baskets
which they wear slung to their waists, into which they put
the small fishes which they catch, and which they carry
with them when, their labours over, they go through
the poorer streets of the city, hawking their wares.

These fishing-baskets are not baskets at all, but great
gourds, which the fishermen grow in their tiny gardens
and mould into the shape which they require by resting
the fruit on a flat board while it is growing, which
makes it flat at the bottom, and tying a tight bandage
round it near its top, so as to restrict it and form a
" neck," while at the same time it causes it to swell
out into a nice fat shape in the middle. When the
gourd is fully formed it is cut from its stalk, and
placed in the cottage window to ripen and harden.
Then a little hot pitch is poured into it, and the
fisherman turns it round and round in his hands until
the whole of the inside is coated with the liquid, which
gradually hardens, and renders the quaint and useful
vessel watertight.

But fishing is not the only occupation of these men,
for all of them are renainoli, or sand-collectors,
as well.

When the waters of the Arno are brown and tawny,
as they very often are after a storm, it is a sign that

32 Florence

they are carrying along with them a great deal of sand
which has been washed down from the mountains.
When the river is clear again the rcnainolo knows that
this sand has sunk to the bottom.

Then he puts out in his boat, and, mooring over the
place where experience teaches him that the sand has
settled, shovels it up into his tiny craft by means of his
pala, or long pole with a scoop at the end of it.
When his boat is full he rows to the side of the river,
where another set of men are waiting to pass the sand
through a sieve to keep back stones, etc., and when it
is thus sifted it is sold to masons for building purposes.

If we walk along the banks of the river in the morn-
ing we can watch the washerwomen, who bring their
baskets of clothes to the various flights of stone steps
which run down from the quays to the river for the
convenience of the fishermen, and, kneeling there, pro-
ceed to wash them in the cool running water, spreading
them on the stones and scrubbing them with brushes
to remove the dirt, then hanging them up to dry in the
bright sunshine.



PERHAPS some day, as we are walking along the streets,
we may meet a very curious and weird procession.
Indeed, if you were alone when you met it, and no one
else were in sight, you might be frightened.

For you would see, first of all, four men, dressed all
in black, carrying or wheeling a long black stretcher,
covered by a framework of black oil-cloth. These men
would be followed by six or eight other figures, walk-


i . I r ','. inican.



A Strange Procession

ing two and two, arid wearing long, loose, black cloaks
down to their heels, and hav _ -: peaked ho-:

drawn over their heads and faces, so that n : : _ Jd
be seen of the wearers but their e~rf L it would be
difficult :o say whether they .re men or wome

And yet, when you knov these J gures are,

instead of being frigfatenc . ill look .: :.-.em

with the greates: interest and respect For tht-e
are the Brethren of the Misericrrciia, a society :h


has existed for more than six hur.irri vears, whose

members are pledge i to go a: any hour of the i - or
night to succour ar. dk rerfijn wh: is in need of
help ; to give them "firs: is we would : ...

their home? : to carr them, .: nece - . to a hospital;
or if, when they reach the house, thr find that the
person is dead, to care for the bod", i ifterwards, if ti e
friends iesire it, to carry it to their own or some other
chapel for a funeral service ; then, if need be, to bury it.

They wea- their ?lack hoods in order that they rr.
not be rr: gnized, and obtain " the praise of men '
a rev for their charitable work . alsc that the
friends of the . MMn they have fc Dt be able

to fee;< them out afrerv ;. . :d oiFer them ar.

The wav in which : . 5: :.etv of the M.^r :


was fo^:::.-:_ very :;.:; resting. ^ the ve.;r ::_: i

poor street porter ni:v.ed Pietro Borsi was ^r : .r-.e :
notice that his compar. spent their k sure time
quarrelling an.. . ing. Half in joke, P
suaded them to use their energies in another, and me .
useful wav. He suggested that ; me one of

*. *_

them uttered a blasphemous word he should pa- ;ie
into a common fund, which should be u . to b.
litters, ind that each of them, in turn, should lend :.

FL. ;

34 Florence

hand once a day to carry some sick or wounded person
for there were plenty of street frays in Florence at
that time to a place of comfort and safety.

So the "Guild of the Men of the Merciful Hearts "
was started, and from this humble beginning it has
grown into a great society. Anyone who wishes to do
so may belong to it labouring men, and men of leisure,
busy shop-keepers, and Grand Dukes. If we go into
the Piazza del Duomo we can see its headquarters,
just opposite the south side of the Campanile. Here
we are shown the numberless little cupboards lining the
walls, in which the cloaks of the Brethren are kept, each
with a card with the name of the owner fastened inside.
Some of these cards bear very humble names, some
have coronets marked upon them, one bears the name
of the King. Here are the hand-litters, and litters on
wheels, and for the Society does not scorn to be up-to-
date in all that concerns its usefulness here are splints,
antiseptics, and a modern two-horse ambulance.

On a shelf stands the ballot-box, like a miniature old-
fashioned barrel churn, in which the members' names
are balloted, in order to make out lists as to who shall
be on duty during the different hours of the days and

When a case of sickness was reported at the u Resi-
dence," as this central house is called, a signal used to
be given from the top of Giotto's Campanile, and, at the
sound, each of the members who were on duty for the
day was bound to leave his work, whatever it was, to
lay down his knife and fork even, if he were at a meal,
and go without delay to the Residence, where he
donned his sombre garments, and, after joining in the
short prayer, " Give us, Lord, Charity, Humility, and

A Strange Procession 35

Courage," helped to shoulder the stretcher, and set out
with his companions on their errand of mercy.

Nowadays the Society is worked on a slightly
different principle. A few officials are paid, and are
always on duty, while the Brethren take it in turn to
be in attendance at the Residence for a few hours at a
time in case they are wanted. This is easily done, for
the Society comprises many members, so that the obliga-
tions do not press heavily on any.

There is another society in Florence which has
existed for a very long time, and which also had a very
humble beginning. I mean the " Buonomini di San
Martino," or " The Good Men of St. Martin."

The founder of this society was not a street porter,
but the Prior of the Convent of San Marco, and a friend
of Fra Angelico, who afterwards became Archbishop of
Florence, and who was one of the most simple-minded
and saintly of men. His name was Antonino, and, it
we care to go and look at his bust in the cell which he
occupied in the Convent of San Marco, or at his statue,
which fills one of the niches on the outside of the
Uffizi Palace, we can read his character in his face as
he looks down at us with a wise, shrewd, and kindly
smile, as if, even yet, he were taking a keen interest in
the doings of the strangers who have come to visit his
Archiepiscopal city.

It was in the days when one great man and his
followers were in power for a few months or a few years,
then fell before some enemy who thought himself a
greater man, and had a larger following ; when factions
were rife, and a family might be rich to-day and poor

This state of things fell heavily on gently-nurtured

36 Florence

people, especially on women and children who had
been brought up in luxury, and who, when poverty
came, would rather starve in silence than beg. And the
worst of it was that no one knew, no one cared. In
fact, no one took the trouble to think about it at all,
save one man, Prior Antonino of San Marco. He
turned the matter over and over in his kindly mind,
and at last he sent for twelve of the best men he knew,
most of them rich tradesmen of the Guilds which had
done so much for Florence, and he talked to them
about the misery which well-born women and delicate
little children had to endure when the party to which
their fathers and husbands belonged fell into disgrace,
and asked them to succour these poor people. His
appeal was successful. The twelve men, touched by
what he said, instantly offered themselves as his assistants
to search out such cases and relieve them.

But where was the money to come from ? Ah ! if the
people of Florence were fighters in those days, they
were also rich, and charitable when a need was laid be-
fore them ; and they are so still.

Let us go to a little square in the centre of the town,
near the Duomo, the Piazza San Martino, at the corner
of which is the tiniest of tiny churches, dedicated to
the Soldier Saint. Look at this old almsbox let into
the wall, and translate, if you can, the inscriptions above
and below it. This is the very almsbox which these
twelve men, with Prior Antonino at their head, set up
at once to receive contributions for their work. They
chose this little church as their headquarters, probably
because of the story of how its Patron Saint shared his
cloak with a beggar, and thus it was that they obtained
their name.

How Children are Cared For 37

It was not the name that Prior Antonino chose for
them, however, that was very pathetic and very telling,
and it has its place still in the lower inscription, under
the almsbox. Let us read it u The Providers for the
Shamefaced Poor."

It all seems connected with bygone days, does it not ?
But if we go at certain times into the little church, we
will find a kind-faced official sitting in a tiny vestry,
where there is a deep shelf piled up, not with priests'
robes and things for the Church, but with loaves of
bread ; and, if you watch long enough, you will see a
stream of shabbily-dressed people come up in ones and
twos, and present tickets, and carry away loaves instead.

The Good Men of San Martino still provide for the
Shamefaced Poor.



IF we leave the Cathedral Square, and pass along the
street called the Via de' Servi, we find ourselves in
another square, the Piazza della S. Annunziata, and
here we will see a long building with a loggia in front,
which is reached by a flight of broad steps, and over
which there are a number of what look like enormous
blue china plates set in the wall, each one with the
figure of the dearest little swaddled bambino, or baby,
raised upon it, in what is known as bas-relief.

You will recognize them at once as something rather
special, for, if you have been looking in the shop- win-
dows, you will have seen dozens of copies of them, on
post-cards, or plaques, or china ornaments.

This building is the Spedale degli Innocenti, or

38 Florence

Foundling Hospital, but before we enter it I must tell
you something about the bambino s over the loggia.
They are the work of an artist whose name was Andrea
della Robbia, and the work which he and his uncle
Luca did is unique that is, there is nothing else like it.
Luca began his life, as so many of his brother artists
did, in a goldsmith's shop, but instead of spending his
time in making statues in marble and bronze, he turned
his attention to terra-cotta, and modelled sweet little
babies' heads in that material.

Then he made up his mind that he would find out
the way to make a " glaze," or hard, shiny surface, to his
terra-cotta, which would stand both wind and rain, and
should, as he said, " make works of clay almost eternal."
For he lived in an age when artists were plentiful, and
there were numbers of rich men who desired to have
pictures and frescoes on the walls of their houses, where
it was too damp, or too exposed, for pictures and frescoes
to be. And Luca thought that if he could discover
such a glaze, then he could produce figures in bas-
relief to fill these vacant places. He was a mere boy
when he took this idea into his head, but he worked on
doggedly and patiently, day and night, often standing
in the cold workshop till his feet were nearly frozen,
and at last he succeeded in producing this curious glazed
porcelain in which so many of his works are executed.

The fame of them spread abroad, orders flowed in
from all over Italy and all over Europe, and Luca had
to get his brothers, and a nephew, Andrea, to come and
help him. But he kept the secret that he had dis-
covered in the family. No one else knew how to
produce the glaze, and although Andrea della Robbia
taught it to his sons, they had not inherited the family

How Children are Cared For 39

talent, and made little use of their knowledge, and so the
hard-won, newly-discovered art was forgotten and lost.

The Hospital has existed for more than four hundred
years, and it receives all the poor little babies who have
no one rightly to look after them, and whose mothers
are quite willing to give them up so long as they are
not asked to take any further interest in them. It is
very sad to think that there are such mothers, but it is
far better for the babies to be brought up carefully, and
healthily, as they are, and taught to work, than to be
left to grow into girlhood and boyhood " anyhow."

It is in the charge of the Sisters of an Order known
as the Order of St. Vincent de Paul, and very kind and
capable women they look in their blue linen gowns, and
aprons, and great white caps quite fit to " mother " the
crowds of tiny infants who compose their large family.

When a baby is received, its full name and address is
given, and also particulars about its parents, but the
Sisters only enter these in a book, so that the child,
when it grows older, can find out, if it will, to whom it

While it is in the Hospital it wears a little medal,
with a letter and a number stamped upon it, by which
it can be identified. This sounds like the sternest kind
of poor-house, does it not? But, indeed, it is not so.
No babies could be better looked after. Each one has
its tiny crib, like an iron clothes-basket, lined with
spotless white, and swung from an iron hook. And
there are numbers of pleasant-looking nurses, dressed
in clean white overalls, who attend to their wants under
the eyes of the Sisters.

No " rich ' baby could have more care in all that
regards health. Here are racks filled with bottles

4-Q Florence

of milk, hermetically sealed so that no germs can reach
it. Here are scales for weighing the tiny mites, with a
nice soft pillow resting on them, so that they may not
catch cold.

Here is the room, with an even temperature, in
which they are washed on a big table, with taps for hot
and cold water in the centre of it, and a soft covering,
like a down quilt, with another covering of oil-skin
above it, where the babies can lie and kick during the

If they are quite strong they are sent out into the
country when they are a few weeks old, and boarded
with some kindly country-woman, who brings them up
with her own children till they are old enough to begin
to work. Then the boys often go to be soldiers, or
they may remain with their foster-parents and work on
the land, while the girls either do the same, or go to

There is another very old and useful institution
for looking after poor children in Florence. This is
the Bigallo, the ancient loggia of which forms a quaint
corner in the Piazza del Duomo.

Long, long ago, this house was the headquarters of
a Society for the Protection of Orphans, but it fell into
disuse, and the funds were used, 1 am sorry to say, for
searching out, not fatherless boys and girls, but heretics,
and then persecuting them. So that, in the days of
San Antonino, of whom we have read as founding the
" Society of the Providers for the Shamefaced Poor,"
the Bigallo was a place to be dreaded.

But when Antonino became Archbishop, he turned
the Charity back to its original intention, and per-
suaded the officials, who were known as " Captains," to


Where the Babies are Baptized 41

seek out the poor and destitute, instead of persecuting
their fellow-Christians.

So, ever since, the institution has taken charge of the
orphan children of respectable parents, or of widows
who cannot support their families, and it educates and
trains them, and sets them up in trades, or sends them
out to suitable service, when they are old enough to go.



UNTIL quite recently Italian babies were dressed in a
very curious way indeed, many of them wear the dress,
if dress it can be called, still, especially in the country.
They were " swaddled ' -that is, a long strip of linen
was rolled round and round their bodies, until they
were as stiff as little mummies. Then they were laid
on a pillow which their nurse or mother carried in her
arms. We have seen that Andrea della Robbia's bam-
binos, on the front of the Foundling Hospital, are
swaddled in this manner.

It was believed that this way of dressing infants
made their little backs straight, and their limbs strong,
but nowadays we know better, and the custom is
dying out.

When they are three days old the babies are taken,
if possible, to church to be baptized, and in Florence
there is only one place where this ceremony is per-
formed, so that all the Florentine babies, for the last
seven hundred years at least, have been baptized on
the same spot, if not at the same font.

This church is known as the " Baptistery," and it is

FL. 6

42 Florence

one of the three buildings which make the Piazza del
Duomo so famous.

It hardly looks like a church outside, for it is a round,
or, rather, an octagonal building that is, as you know,
a building with eight sides, and it has a very plain
octagonal dome. It has three doors, two exactly
opposite each other, on the north and the south, and
another on the east, which, however, is always closed,
being just behind the altar. These doors are very
beautiful, and have a story which will require a chapter
to themselves.

The Baptistery is one of the oldest buildings in
Florence, for before it was a Christian church it is
supposed to have been a heathen temple, dedicated to
Mars. Then it was turned into a church, and dedicated
to St. John the Baptist, and served as the Cathedral.

It was a very plain little building in those days, with
walls of flint, and it stood in the middle of a church-
yard ; but when Arnolfo, about whom we will read
presently, came in the thirteenth century, and began to
erect all his new buildings, he thought that the plain
little grey Cathedral might be made more beautiful, so
he encased it in marble, so that it should look as fair
and brilliant as the magnificent new Church of St. Mary
of the Flowers, which was rising beside it, commonly

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Online LibraryElizabeth Wilson GriersonFlorence → online text (page 3 of 7)