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The Artist's Wife

  History/Biography of Ary Stillman  

P U B L I C A T I O N S  >  F R A N C E S    S T I L L M A N ' S    E U R O P E    D I A R Y

CHAPTER I..........Going from Here to There

CHAPTER II..........Mishap in Milan

CHAPTER III..........Venice

CHAPTER IV..........Florence

CHAPTER V..........Siena

CHAPTER VI..........Rome

CHAPTER VII..........Assisi

CHAPTER VIII..........Nice

CHAPTER IX..........Barcelona

CHAPTER X..........Solsona

CHAPTER XI..........Gerona

CHAPTER XII..........Paris in the Fall

Tuesday, June 24th

This morning when we emerged from the railroad station at Siena, after checking our baggage, we discovered that the city was perched high on the hills above us. The station bus had already departed, so there was nothing to do but to climb in the direction of the town. The road followed very close to the old walls of the city, winding and twisting higher and higher, with wonderful vistas of green countryside.

The sun was hot and glaring and we were wilted by the time we had reached the top of the hill and found ourselves in the narrow streets of the city. So we stopped at a little out-door cafe and ordered cold drinks, and tried to get some information about hotels or pensions. But no one spoke either English or French. Finally Ary said: "We shall have to use our intuition in finding a place to stay." Then Ary starts using his intuition it is a signal that adventure is ahead, and I wondered at what outlandish place we would land this time. It didn't take long to find out. We had copied the names of several pensions from a guide book which we had found in Florence and Ary chose the first one — Albergo Bernini.

We found the street and the number, but there was no sign of a pension — just a crumbling old stone building with a pile of dirt in front of the doorway, where workmen evidently had been doing some excavating. I was about to turn away; but Ary took my arm and led me through a dark hallway until we came to a massive iron door, and there, under the heavy iron knocker was a scrap of paper with the inscription "Albergo Bernini." I looked at Ary aghast, but he was already lifting the knocker.

There was a dull clang, and after a minute or two the door was opened by a stout, middle-aged woman in house dress and apron. She looked at us in bewilderment. Ary tried to make her understand what we wanted. When he showed her our United States passport she opened her eyes wide, and with excited exclamations she led us into the apartment. The light was dim and I had a confused impression of things being in a state of disorder — or was it the chatter which the woman kept up in the tongue so strange to me. She was hot and perspiring and she looked tired and overworked. Evidently she had seen better days, however, for the room which she showed us was fitted with solid, substantial furniture, and the sheets were embroidered and the bedspread hand-crocheted — relics of past affluence.

How she and Ary ever understood each other I don't know, but eventually we found ourselves installed in the room, with the agreement that we were to pay 3000 lire (five dollars) a day for room and meals for the two of us.

The room is a large one, with wide windows looking out on a story-book view — a nearby church with tall tower, a broad expanse of countryside broken by gentle green hills: in the distance the old wall of the city, and within the wall a winding road where any moment one might expect to see an armored knight on a white horse wending his way up the hill to his lady love who awaits him in the castle above...

Another window, in the foyer, gives a fine view of the famous cathedral, the Duomo, and one can climb a narrow stairway to an outside terrace, gay with plants and flowers, with a magnificent vista of the massed buildings of the town, and the Duomo towering over all.

There are about a dozen guests, all Italian, and none of them able to speak English or French. At meal time they are seated around a big table, with the landlady, in freshly laundered house-dress and neatly brushed hair, at the head. We have a small table to ourselves in the corner of the room. At lunch today the group at the big table — mostly young men and women in their early twenties — cast curious glances at us and talked together in low tones, apparently feeling a sense of restraint in the presence of foreigners. But by dinner-time they seemed to have forgotten us entirely. Conversation became louder and more animated, until they were all in a heated discussion. We couldn't understand a word, but we were intrigued by the beauty of the language. This is not the language one hears on the street — it is musical and rhythmic and full of cadences — it is the language of Dante and the Italian poets who came after him.

Wednesday, June 25th

I woke up early this morning and sat at the window watching an unforgettable sunrise. Then to sleep again until the maid knocked at the door with a pitcher of hot water. There is running water in the room, but the shiny new hot water faucet seems to be solely for decorative purposes, and even the cold water comes out in a thin trickle. However, who cares about plumbing when there are Sienese paintings to be seen!

We had a thrilling day, going from one cathedral to another, and to the City Hall, with its frescoes by Lorenzetti and Simone Martini, and to the Pinocateca and the various church museums. Tonight I am dizzy with it all and Ary insists that from now on we must take it in moderation. There is such a thing as being too greedy in absorbing even things aesthetic, and it leads to its own kind of auto-intoxication. So tomorrow we shall forego paintings, and shall get acquainted with the city itself.

Thursday, June 26th

This city is truly mediaeval in character. It is built high on the hills, like so many of the Italian towns in the Middle Ages, when each city was an independent unit and had to protect itself zealously from outside enemies. The buildings are constructed of massive blocks of stone. Heavy iron doors are impregnable to spears or battering run or hurled rocks, and there are tall towers from which the countryside could be watched and secret passage-ways leading to underground tunnels where anxious rulers could flee before the coming of the enemy.

Walking is difficult, because the streets are steeply sloping, and the cobble-stone pavements are treacherous. But the town is wonderfully picturesque and has a romantic flavor that is appealing after the severity of Florence. There are lovely squares, especially the one which is topped by the Duomo with its zebra-like striped facade of black and white stone, and the even more beautiful Piazza del Campo. The latter, lying in a pocket formed by ridges of hills, is huge and shell-shaped, with graceful sloping sides, and it is encircled with ancient Gothic palaces. An outstanding building is the famous Palazzo Publico (City Hall.) Today the workers have started preparations for the palio which will be held on July 2nd — a colorful celebration, featuring horse-races, with all the riders and other participants dressed in elaborate medieval costumes and carrying banners of velvet and gold. We spent the late afternoon hours at an outdoor cafe on the square. There were few people at the tables, the only movement being afforded by the flocks of black birds which wheeled down the slope of the shell in military-like formation and then winged their way up over the towers and the turrets of the surrounding buildings.

Just like prints I have seen of drawings from the Middle Ages are the funeral precessions which pass through the streets. Fear clutches at your heart and for a few terrified minutes you are back in the period of the dread plagues, whoa the order of "Brothers of the Misericordia" was first founded — these mysterious black-hooded, black-robed figures with veiled faces who move silently in solemn procession through the streets accompanying the black hearse bearing the dead. How incongruous it is to hear the clanging of the ambulance as it speeds toward the hospital, and then to see these same black-hooded "Brothers" in their 13th century garb emerge from the car and carry the stretcher into the hospital.

Even the people begin to take on the appearance of 13th century paintings — or is it that the early Sienese masters captured so faithfully the characteristics of the Sienese women? They are different in features and in mien from the Florentines. There is a young woman at our pension who looks as if she had just stepped down from a Lorenzetti or Duccio painting. She is tall, deep-bosomed, serene, with deep set dark eyes under black eyebrows and straight black hair brushed away from a high forehead. She is the most eloquent of the group at the dining room table. Who these young people are remains a mystery to us, but we have decided that they must be employed in government positions. Yesterday a man with his wife and child joined the table, and from the eloquence of his conversation and the way in which the others deferred to him we felt that he must be a public official of some sort. It is baffling not to be able to follow what they are saying.

One young woman doesn't join in the conversation to any extent — her sole preoccupation is with the food. She is quite a handsome girl but terribly stout, and her capacity for piling in food is amazing. Spaghetti meat, vegetables, great quantities of Italian bread and decanters of red wine disappear as if by magic, and then she casts glances at our table to see if perhaps we are getting some special dishes. Usually she brings a few extra delicacies to the table with her, which she places by the side of her plate and guards jealously — grapes, ripe red plums, or fancy little cakes. The others laugh at her, but she ignores them, as she ploughs her way through one course after another.

She was still at the table tonight when we returned from a walk after dinner. It is a heavenly evening and we are sitting at the window now, watching the myriad of brilliant stars and the mediaeval towers outlined dramatically against the inky sky…

Saturday, June 28th.

I am drunk with the beauty of these Sienese paintings. There is an indescribable aura about them, a radiance, a rare delicacy of spirit, a subtlety of coloring and line, that simply ravishes one's senses and one's soul.

Guido da Siena, adhering closely to the Byzantine style, produced static, stylized Madonnas, strong and powerful in design, solemnly rich in color. But Duccio, the true father of the Sienese school, added a new quality to his paintings. As Ary says, Duccio "retained the Byzantine style, but where there was no spark in the Byzantine, Duccio was all aflame." There is superb majesty in the face and form of his Madonnas and his saints, yet such simplicity and restraint. I always feel a close kinship between painting and music, and to me, Duccio is Bach, in his profundity, the soaring of his spirit and at the same time the unshakable foundation on which the structure of his work is built.

How can one describe the Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzettis, sublime in conception, quite Oriental in their mystical quality and in the drawing of the mountains and some of the figures, and in the delicacy of color, and the Simone Martinis, so naively spiritual, so exquisite in their pale color and so ethereally graceful.

There is great charm too in the fifteenth century Sasettas and Giorgios, but they are more sophisticated and lack the air of simplicity which is such an integral part of the appeal of the earlier artists. The Sasetta figures and background landscapes remind one of Persian miniatures, flatly and decoratively painted, with exquisite clarity and purity of color. Giorgio is even lighter and more gay than Sasetta and not at all profound, even in the religious scenes. His blond, bushy-haired angels look like ballet dancers and his Madonna like lovely young debutantes.

One would expect that reproductions of the old masters would be shown widely in shop-windows about the city, but there are few to be seen. This afternoon when we were walking down the hill to Albergo Bernini we saw a crowd gathered around an artist who had placed his paintings on the street corner for display. We were curious and stopped to look, and to our disappointment found that they were sugary little reproductions of the Siena streets and landscape. It made me feel very unhappy.

Of course it is true that the masters who gained enduring fame for Siena all lived during the span of one hundred years, from the middle of the thirteenth to the middle of the fourteenth centuries. That was a rare period, when Siena, inflamed with patriotic fervor, religious devotion and artistic creativeness, erected her magnificent churches, palaces and public buildings and covered their walls with paintings of incomparable beauty.

It seemed like a burst of creative genius — a flaming passion which must quickly burn itself out. But while it lasted the entire city was saturated with it. Thus when after three years of devoted and inspired work Duccio completed his masterpiece "Maesta" for the altar-piece of the Duomo, it was borne to the cathedral in a great procession of priests and friars, city officials, and men, women and children of the town, amid lighted candles and the ringing of bells and blaring or trumpets.

Maesta by Duccio

Sunday, June 29th

We spent this afternoon in San Gimignano, an old mediaeval town high in the hills. As our bus climbed the steep roads, Ary entertained me with the story of his adventures of twenty years ago, when it took him half a day to reach the town, instead of an hour and a half. It seems that he and the young French student with whom he was traveling wanted to make the trip from Siena, and an old Italian with a skinny little horse and dilapidated old wagon persuaded them to let him drive them. The horse became more droopy and discouraged by the minute as he pulled them up the steep hills, and finally they had to get out of the wagon and push it every time they came to an especially sharp incline.

We had no such trouble with the bus this afternoon in fact, the driver went like mad, and we had to hold on to the seat ahead so as net to lose our balance. The scenery was beautiful — the Tuscan hills, dotted with vineyards and olive groves and little farms; the teams of white oxen with strips of red cloth on their heads as protection from the flies; farmers with their wives and children in the fields all threshing wheat by hand. Finally the entrance into the narrow gate and the street with its ancient buildings and palaces stretching ahead, and we were in this famous city of towers. There are only thirteen still standing out of seventy-six. One of them, we were told, has been bought by an American woman who is also the owner of a tower in the city of Assisi. A novel but expensive hobby!

We had tea in the famous square Piazza della Cinterna, where Savanarela once preached, and visited the Cathedral and the museum of the City Hall. There were frescoes in the Cathedral by Barno di Siena and others — lovely although faded by time. And in the museum we found charming frescoes by an unknown artist of the early Sienese period, very poetic, with colors and texture like Persian tapestry. These were on secular themes — a very naive representation of a civil marriage, with the bride and groom taking a bath together in one tub (our guide told us that in the olden days this was required as a marriage preliminary); also a very Oriental scene of the couple, after the marriage ceremony, in a white pavilion, with attendants and other figures grouped around.

Another wild ride home by bus, and a delicious dinner, with great quantities of soup, some sort of shell-shaped pasta, fish, vegetables, fruit and iced red wine.

Monday, June 30th

A young neighbor boy who speaks French came to see us last evening, and he told us of a palace which we ought to visit before we leave for Rome tomorrow. It is Palazzo Chigi-Saracini, and its owner is a Count, who traces his family tree back to the twelfth century. He is the last of the line, having no wife or child. The family has a long tradition of interest in art and music, and the present owner has established a music school in a building adjoining the palace.

The palace and its art collection are open to the public upon request, so this morning Ary and I climbed a flight of stairs and pulled the metal chain attached to the door-bell. A caretaker appeared and handed us over to another servant, who led us through the various rooms and gave us explanations of the outstanding pieces.

Here were many paintings, both of the early and the later Sienese period, and countless rooms with beautifully carved woodwork, crystal chandeliers, carved and painted chests, exquisite lace curtains and embroideries of all kinds. Also a collection of costumes and of Etruscan figures, and an elaborate bedroom with canopied bed. Coats-of-arms, beautifully decorated, and a detailed family tree mapped out on the wall, and the tall tower from which centuries ago the trumpets sounded far and wide to announce that Siena had successfully resisted the siege of Florence and had maintained its independence.

The library houses an extensive collection of music, and there is a music room all set up with chairs, ready for the concerts which are held here during the summer months. Each year a famous orchestra conductor and soloists are invited here to stay in the palace and to give performances. There are autographed photographs of artists such as Segovia — a sketch of Paganini autographed by a few bars of music, and a bust of Lizst standing on the piano on which he himself had played.

We paid last-minute visits to our favorite spots this afternoon and then came back to the pension to pack our bags. In the evening, after dinner, we sat in front of our window and looked out at the most beautiful night I have ever seen. The moon was intoxicating: the dark sky streaked with silver and bursting with brilliant stars, and the whole panorama from the Duomo to St. Catherine's like magic — the ancient churches silhouetted dramatically against the black sky, the massed buildings, the romantic winding road. The beauty of the scene was so intense that it was painful it was as if one were transported from the world of reality to a mysterious sphere of ecstasy. It was this ecstasy that must have inspired the Sienese masters many centuries ago, and which they transferred to altars and cathedral walls.

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