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TRAVELING IN STYLE : LAST STOP : ENCHANTED OCTOBER : Before the Travel Guides of Mssrs. Fodor and Frommer, There Was Henry James. Italy Fascinated the Novelist, But He Feared Its 19th-Century Charms Would Soon Pass.

October 15, 1995|Henry James

During a prolific career--short stories, plays, books of criticism and no fewer than 20 novels, Henry James also found time to be a travel writer. Italy especially enthralled him; he visited there 14 times from 1869 to 1907 and in 1909 published his impressions in "The Italian Hours," a precursor to the modern travel book , from which the edited passage below is excerpted.

In Italy, James found something close to perfection in the languid rhythms of daily life played out against a backdrop of the country's antiquities. "From midday to dusk I have been roaming the streets [of Rome]," he wrote his brother William, the philosopher, in 1869. "At last--for the first time--I live!" But James worried that the approaching 20th Century would make anachronistic what he idealized about Italy. His ambivalence colors this bittersweet ode to Florence.

I had never known Florence more herself, or in other words more attaching, than I found her for a week in that brilliant October. She sat in the sunshine beside her yellow river like the little treasure-city she has always seemed, without commerce, without other industry than the manufacture of mosaic paper-weights and alabaster Cupids, without actuality or energy or earnestness or any of those rugged virtues which in most cases are deemed indispensable for civic cohesion; with nothing but the little unaugmented stock of her medieval memories, her tender-colored mountains, her churches and palaces, pictures and statues.

There were very few strangers; one's detested fellow-pilgrim was infrequent; the native population itself seemed scanty; the sound of wheels in the streets was but occasional; by 8 o'clock at night, apparently, everyone had gone to bed, and the musing wanderer, still wandering and still musing, had the place to himself--had the thick shadow-masses of the great palaces, and the shafts of moonlight striking the polygonal paving-stones, and the empty bridges, and the stillness broken only by a homeward step, a step accompanied by a snatch of song from a warm Italian voice.

My room at the inn looked out on the river and was flooded all day with sunshine. There was an absurd orange-colored paper on the walls; the Arno, of a hue not altogether different, flowed beneath. All this brightness and yellowness was a perpetual delight; it was a part of that indefinably charming color which Florence always seems to wear as you look up and down at it from the river, and from the bridges and quays. This is a kind of grave radiance--a harmony of high tints--which I scarce know how to describe.

After I had looked from my windows a while at the quietly basking riverfront I have spoken of I took my way across one of the bridges and then out of one of the gates. Then I climbed a steep and winding way to a villa on a hilltop, where I found various things that touched me with almost too fine a point. Seeing them again, often, for a week, both by sunlight and moonshine, I never quite learned not to covet them; not to feel that not being a part of them was somehow to miss an exquisite chance. What a tranquil, contented life it seemed, with romantic beauty as a part of its daily texture!--the sunny terrace, with its tanged podere beneath it; the bright gray olives against the bright blue sky; the long, serene, horizontal lines of other villas, flanked by their upward cypresses; the richest little city in the world in a softly scooped hollow at one's feet.

It is true indeed that I might after a certain time grow weary of a regular afternoon stroll among the Florentine lanes; of sitting on low parapets, in intervals of flower-topped wall, and looking across at Fiesole or down the rich-hued valley of the Arno; of walking home in the fading light and noting on a dozen westward-looking surfaces the glow of the opposite sunset. But for a week or so all this was delightful.

The villas are innumerable. In imagination you hire three or four; you take possession and settle and stay. Part of the brooding expression of these great houses comes, even when they have not fallen into decay, from their look of having outlived their original use. Their extraordinary largeness and massiveness are a satire on their present state. They weren't built with such thickness of walls and depth of embrasure, such a solidity of staircase and superfluity of stone, simply to afford an economical winter residence to English and American families.

I don't know if it was the appearance of these stony old villas, which seemed so dumbly conscious of a change of manners, that threw a tinge of melancholy over the general prospect. "Lovely, lovely, but it makes me 'blue,' " the sensitive stranger couldn't but murmur to himself as, in the late afternoon, he looked at the landscape from over one of the low parapets, and then, with his hands in his pockets, turned away indoors to candles and dinner.

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