A Celebration of the Florentine Lily and the White Night
Note: I write this post in honor of today's iris - the first to open in my yard.
"The Florentine Lily" is an iris that grew wild in Tuscany hundreds of years ago. The iris became the basis of the "Giglio" - the symbol of Florence. It was first seen on flags in 1290. While similar to the fleur-de-lis, the giglio has two stamen in addition to the three upright petals. It also has a rough, root-like area. Here is more info.
Second Note: This post is quite long, as was this day.
A Typical Tuesday
Brian's teaching schedule meant that he held office hours on Tuesday mornings from 10am until 12:30. He then taught class from 3-6pm. Then there was a figure drawing group from 6:30-8:30pm. I would usually meet Brian for lunch, and we would have a late supper when he returned from drawing.
On this Tuesday, Brian's office hours were held at the Bargello. He and the students had free entry passes, and the Bargello was his favorite place to draw (there were chairs that could be moved; it was rarely crowded with tourists; and the sculpture collection is excellent). After his drawing time, I met him outside the museum, and we went to eat. I had packed a lunch, and so we headed to eat at the Oblate, a public library with an open courtyard terrace and views of the dome. We did not manage to eat much of our lunch there; smokers had congregated, and we could not escape the fumes. So we left. I think we perched on a bench near the Duomo to finish lunch, but I don't remember... maybe we sat in Piazza San Marco?
The Oblate also has a small café, and Brian had intended to have a coffee after lunch, so we sought out a different café instead. We went to Piazza SS. Annunciata, and tried out a little place just to the left of the entrance to the church. I remember it seemed hot and crowded. They were playing Buena Vista Social Club over the stereo.
Next we did a very normal thing to do in Italy - we tried to find a restroom. We decided our best bet was a museum, so we used our free entry passes to the Museum of San Marco, and left the museum as soon as we were done.
Next we headed to the English Cemetery. Brian's students were to meet there for class, but we arrived while the gates were still locked for lunch. We found a park bench (which are incredibly rare) and sat to pass the time until the gates opened and Brian's students arrived. Brian read in preparation for class. I did the same.
The English Cemetery
The assigned reading for class that day was Elizabeth Barrett Browning's, Casa Guidi Windows. The Brownings were living in Florence when Elizabeth died. She was buried in the English Cemetery, which is also known as the Protestant Cemetery. Brian held class in the cemetery that day to introduce his students to this monument (the cemetery), and it seemed fitting to discuss Browning's work at her graveside. (Casa Guidi still stands and is sometimes open for visitors, but the timing did not work with the class schedule.)
Brian and I had been to the cemetery before, but we had not met the caretaker, nor had we been welcomed with cookies and lemonade. On this day, there was a celebration of the Florentine Lily, refreshments were provided, and the caretaker came to speak with us. When she learned that we were a class (eight of us in total) there to talk about Browning, she invited us into her library. The caretaker is a nun named Julia Bolton Holloway, and in addition to being the caretaker, she is Professor Emeritus in Medieval Studies at the University of Colorado, Bolder, and she has published books on Browning. She spoke to the class briefly about her interest in Browning and about her current service work with the Romani people in Florence.
We proceeded into the cemetery, and Brian began his class discussion of the poem - particularly its politics. I walked around and took photographs. The caretaker brought a visitor to introduce to the class. The visitor was Richard Parker, a founder of Mother Jones Magazine and the great-grandson of Theodore Parker, an American Transcendentalist and early minister of the Unitarian Church, who is buried in the Cemetery. He was visiting the cemetery for the first time.
As Brian's discussion of the political and historical meaning of the poem ended, he shifted into an artistic discussion of the text. He asked me to read a few excerpts, and I chose passages that seemed particularly fitting, considering our location. Below is what I read. I changed the line breaks and spacing from the original so that I could read it as if a single passage.
(VII. 1-3 and 8-33)
We do not serve the dead – the past is past!
The dead, upon their awful ‘vantage ground, - the sun not in their face, - shall abstract no more our strength:
we will not be dis-crowned through treasuring their crowns…
O Dead, ye shall no longer cling to us with your stiff hands of desiccating praise, and hold us backward by the garment thus, … Still no!
We will not be oblivious of our own lives, because ye lived before,
Nor of our acts because ye acted well, -
We thank you that ye first unlatched the door –
We will not make it inaccessible by thankings in the doorway any more.
But we will go onward to extinguish hell with our fresh souls, our younger hoe, and God’s maturity of purpose.
Soon shall we be the dead too!
And that, our periods of life may round themselves to memory, as smoothly as on our graves the funeral-sods,
We must look to it to excel as ye, and bear our age as far, so to be invoked by future generations, as the Dead.
Cold grave, we say?
It shall be testified that living men who throb in heart and train without the Dead were colder.
If we tried to sink the past beneath our feet, be sure the future would not stand.
Precipitate this old roof from the shrine – and insecure, the nesting swallows fly off, mate from mate.
Scant were the gardens, if the graves were fewer!
Why, who would fight for Athens, and not swear by Marathon?
Who would build temples, without tombs in sight?
Who live, without some dead man’s benison?
Who seek truth, hope for good, or strive for right, if looking up he saw not the sun!
Your last rhythms will need the earliest key-note.
Could I sing this song, if my dead masters had not taken heed to help the heavens and earth to make me strong?
Who denies the dead libations from full cups?
Unless we choose to look back to the hills behinds us spread, the plains before us sadden and confuse;
If orphaned, we are disinherited.
…It were foul to grudge Savonarola and the rest their violets!
Rather pay them quick and fresh!
We who are the seed of buried creatures, if we turned and spate upon our antecedents, we were vile.
Bring violets rather!
If these had not walked their furlong, could we hope to walk our mile?
Therefore bring violets!
Yet if we, self-baulked, stand still a strewing violets all the while,
These had as well not moved, ourselves not talked of these.
So rise up with a cheerful smile, and having strewn the violets, reap the corn,
And having reaped and garnered, bring the plough and draw new furrows ‘neath the healthy morn
And plant the great Hereafter in this Now.
Ice Cream, Drawing, and Dinner
We ended class a little early and walked back to the city center with a couple of students. We had gelato on the way.
Brian went to his figure drawing class, but did not stay for the full time.
We had some dinner in the apartment (I cooked Italian :) ), then we made our plans for the night. It was "White Night."
Other than being the Eve of May (the night before May begins), we never figured out a reason for this city-wide festival.
It was unlike everything else we experience in Florence; we could always link festivals to religious occasions or to some commercial venture (like the WineTown event or the International Gelato Festival). White Night was completely surreal.
Events began at 9pm.
My calendar for 4/30/13 reads:
B did office hours. I brought him lunch. Ate at Oblate, but smokers scared us off. B got coffee at café playing BV Social Club by SS. Annunc. San Marco for toilet. English Cem. Sat on bench for a while. Celebration of the Florentine Lily. Read EBBrowning out loud. Ice Cream on way home. B went to figure drawing. Supper at home then out for White Night events.