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THURSDAY, JUNE 17, 1926
ITALY AS I FIND HER
LEGHORN, PISA, FLORENCE
By Kennedy Allen
I left the excellent sea-boat Palermo discharging 700 tons of Australian wheat at Leghorn . One has to travel in order to observe the influence of that symbol of power, the waterside-workers' hook. So many of the sacks were ullaged that the sight of the full-ripened grain, pressed down and running over in the barges, was more picturesque than encouraging.
Leghorn is out of the beaten track of tourists. It lacks the charm of antiquity, for it has a history of only a thousand years, and that, of course, is nothing at all in Italy . Nor, however modern its aspect, is it a city of pleasure. Its 100,000 inhabitants consecrate themselves to business. To-day it is one of the few great ports of the Tyrrhenian Sea; tomorrow it may become one of the greatest in the entire Mediterranean . The shipping is enormous. So precious is berthing accommodation that incoming vessels are assigned a minimum of space. Each one is towed into the harbour and moored stern foremost some yards from the quay, parallel with many others disposed similarly at very narrow intervals. Passengers and luggage are conveyed ashore in rowboats. Porters appear to spring up in the water. You will need one or two; a preliminary examination awaits you, at the customs barriers. This experience afforded me my first impression of Italy ashore – the perfect Latin courtesy of the officials, who, nevertheless, did their duty by confiscating a score or so of Egyptian cigarettes, for here, as in France, tobacco is a monopoly of the State which discourages the private importation of it by means of heavy duties.
My next impression was that of the racial type. Here is the explanation. Three centuries ago, in the year 1590, Ferdinand the First, one of the many Grand Dukes whom the celebrated family of Medici gave to Tuscany, promulgated a law that made Leghorn a free port and opened it to the fugitive Jews of Greece, France, Spain, and Corsica. History does not relate whether any came from Aberdeen . From time to time about 9,000 Hebrews flocked thither. Apparently they made good use of their opportunities. As Sergeant Buzfuz might say, they stamped their Semitic images on a progeny whose descendants today constitute what appears to be an overwhelming preponderance of the population. The promise vouchsafed to Abraham seems to have been fulfilled.
The narrow thoroughfares carry an immense traffic of trams – every city except Rockhampton has an electric system – of motor cars, of horse-drawn vehicles, and of pedestrians. The din of a busy city, a commingling of a continuous hum of conversation, with the roar of conveyances, rises all night long. The quietest hour is just before the dawn; if you are lucky you may snatch a crowded hour of fitful sleep between 4 and 5 a.m. Somehow or other the nocturnal movement suggested that, like Chaucer's man of law, Leghorn seemed busier than it was.
In the summer the city cultivates bathing. The season begins – officially – on the first of May. The almost tideless Mediterranean has here no vestige of beach; the winds dash the waves against low-lying rocks or piers or walls, where they can gain no painful inch at all. Visitors to Yeppoon and Emu Park do not realise their good fortune.
I was glad to reach Pisa , which is distant from Leghorn not much more than a Sabbath Day's journey, that is to say, minutes in an express train. Unlike Leghorn , it has a past that is lost in the mists of legend. It is said to be older than Rome , and to have been colonised by Greeks four centuries before the Trojan War. But, whether you are interested in history or not, it is a charming city. Who has not heard of the leaning tower? This is not only a work of art, but an excellent vantage-ground from which, failing an aeroplane, we may obtain an idea of physical configuration of Pisa and its surroundings. Many concealed flights of marble steps, which narrow progressively as we ascend, conduct us past its half-dozen encompassing galleries to the summit, which is 54½ metres high, and from which seven and a half centuries look down. The view is worth the climb, and quite unforgettable. Beyond the confines of the city, whose population is about 70,000, extends a verdant plain, of alluvial origin, in the midst of which, like a silver ribbon, gleams the weary Arno , winding somewhere safe to the sea, 13 kilometres away. To the north, half that distance, stretches the Pisan mountain chain, with the famous quarries of Carrara , well known by repute to those who invested money in the quarries at Ulam. The tower – or, more correctly, the Campanile or belfry – dips toward the south-east, this inclination was purely accidental and the upper balconies indicate an attempt to rectify it in the course of construction, which occupied two centuries, the slope not being uniform, but varying from gallery to gallery.
A few paces away stands the vast and soaring cathedral. It is even older than the Campanile and commemorates a victory gained by the Republic of Pisa over the Saracens in Sicily . With the exception of some ornamental granite, it is built entirely of marble; the material would more than suffice to provide Rockhampton with an adequate post office.
Pisa is the seat of an ancient university. The Great Hall is a perfect bijou; the ceiling is decorated with the most exquisite frescoes.
The railway journey up from Pisa to Florence , which occupies two and a half hours in an express, lies through a smiling countryside that is a joy to contemplate. All the way it is one long cultivation, distributed in small holdings, where, amid the bean, the artichoke, and the asparagus, varied with fields of young wheat, the olive rejoices and the vine is wedded, as in the days of Horace, to trees. The fertility of the soil accounts for much of the charm of Tuscan cooking, which depends largely on the appetising preparation of vegetables and largely dispenses with meat.
The city, with population of a quarter of a million, nestles in a little plain, flanked by enchanting hills.
Not withstanding an unusually prolonged bout of rainy weather the tourist season has set in. Most of the visitors are English; many of these are women well stricken in years, who have unduly delayed their coming to Italy . Then there are the Americans, who, as spring ripens into summer and the long vacation, will arrive in droves. Any fine morning near the spacious hotels that line the south quay of the Arno, men and women of these two nationalities may be heard speaking their respective languages. To the Uffizi and Pitti art-galleries come many Germans, who no doubt find it comparatively easy to forget the part the Italians played in the general carnage of 1914-1918. French visitors are comparatively few; Italians in general consider them a race full of arrogance. On the whole the Teutons appear to get the most out of their inspections. They certainly devote more than a passing glance to a masterpiece and are not conducted here and there in herds. My Italian host remarked the other day that the English hurry through these treasures of art merely to salve their consciences, so that when they return home they may truly say they have been there. Who knows? What Matthew Arnold calls the unslackening stride is an English characteristic.
It is pleasant to recall that both Pisa and Florence are cities consecrated in the pages of Shakespeare. Lucentio, the ingenious lover in the Taming of the Shrew, tells us that he was born in the one and bred in the other. Who does not remember the scorn of Iago for “one Michael Cassio, a Florentine”? From Italy , indeed, Shakespeare drew more than half his inspiration; so did many others English poets whose names will readily occur to my readers. And no wonder. These inspiring Italians, themselves inspired, have filled their fair land with beauty, and to live in their great cities is an aesthetic education. Florence is unrivalled. Her churches, her palaces, her monuments, fill everyone with astonishment.
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