With William Dean Howells to Florence

Tuscan Cities by William Dean Howells Softcover, $18.00 Tauris Parke, 2011

Tuscan Cities
by William Dean Howells
Softcover, $18.00
Tauris Parke, 2011

For the modern traveler, the road often leads to Florence. From a cruise ship moored in Livorno, it’s possible to inspect the Duomo, buy some souvenirs on the Ponte Vecchio, drink a bottle of cold water on the bus, and return to the ship in time for dinner and the floor show. Another way to see Florence is check into one of the city’s many elegant hotels, leave after breakfast with an armful of guide books, stand in long lines at the Uffizi Gallery, and finally escape to the relative calm and quiet of the Pitti Palace gardens in the late afternoon, when the setting sun, even in winter, gives Florence the light of August. Each traveler who arrives finds their own way around the city, whether by design or chance.

My own favorite visit to Florence came after I left an overnight train at 6:30 a.m. and did all of my touring before noon, at which time I ate a two-hour lunch at a local osteria. In the afternoon, to escape the madding crowds, I rented a bicycle and rode outside the city, under the Tuscan sun, so to speak, to the house where Machiavelli wrote The Prince and looked down on the skyline that William Dean Howells, quoting Dante, calls “the valley where never mercy is.”

The key to unlocking Florence from its golden hordes is to go there with a great guide book, which can be read at night back in the hotel or during an afternoon rest stop in an outdoor café. Without a narrative to focus your wanderings, Florence can easily become overwhelming, a Renaissance theme park with €10 iced drinks or endless waits to admire yet another Madonna and Child. Few companions to Florence are more engaging than William Dean Howells, an American writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, who first went to Italy in 1861 as an American diplomat, stationed in Venice.

Without many diplomatic chores (he had to write an annual memo on shipping traffic and entertain visiting Americans), Howells became fluent in Italian and fell in love with the fractured country that recently had unified. His first two books were Venetian Life and Italian Journeys. In his long post-diplomatic career, Howells returned often to Italy, which became an emotional hometown, although one far from his roots in Ohio. He liked to say that he was “torn between two homesicknesses: the longing for America, the desire to stay in Italy.”

A prolific writer of essays, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoirs, plays, and travel books, Howells was the gold standard of American letters from the Civil War until World War I. For many years he was the influential editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and from that chair befriended the likes of Mark Twain, Henry James, Bret Harte, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, all of whom, if asked, would probably have listed Howells as among the most influential writers of the age. He is credited with having helped to develop a school of literature around the themes of realism. Writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, John Updike, and Edith Wharton later wrote in the style that Howells pioneered with his fiction (The Rise of Silas Lapham, A Hazard of New Fortunes, etc.) and his travel narratives, including Tuscan Cities. He was early in writing about business and divorce. He may have fallen from favor with modern readers because, with so many authors following his style—Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson are among his heirs in travel writing—his templates pale in comparison with the shinier, newer copies.

Howells returned to Tuscany in 1883, to recharge his batteries after many years at the Atlantic and as the high judge of American letters. He had decided to spend more time on his own fiction and essays and was drawn to the idea that a winter in Florence, Siena, and Pisa might be easier to take than those he knew so well in Boston. He also chose to return to the themes of Venetian Life, which is an interior view of the city seen through curious, foreign eyes.

The charm of Howells is that he is as likely to say he’s bored in an art museum as he is to intimately describe the chapel where Dante Alighieri was (unhappily) married. “To tell the truth,” he confesses, “the Duomo at Florence is a temple to damp the spirit, dead or alive, by the immense impression of stony bareness, of drab vacuity, which one receives from its interior, unless it is filled with people.” But in most places he is endlessly curious. He took pride in the sobriquet, “the Lincoln of our literature,” and was among the first American writers, especially when abroad, to write in a conversational style, as if a confidante of the reader.

What sets Howells apart from the majority of his American contemporaries—except for Mark Twain and his Innocents Abroad—is that he uses his travel books as rough drafts for his novels, and spends as much time examining character (as would Tolstoy, another of his favorites) as he does the cathedrals. In Tuscan Cities, Howells includes wonderfully evocative sketches of Dante, Cosimo the Elder, Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Savonarola, who come alive on his walks across Florence, known then to only a handful of travelers. At Dante’s house, struck by the village dimensions of the city, he writes, “A life of the ordinary compass witnessed so many atrocious scenes, that Dante, who peoples his Inferno with his neighbours and fellow-citizens, had but to study their manners and customs to give life to his picture.”

Touring their opulent palaces across Florence, Howells describes the vanities and brutalities of the Medici, saying of Cosimo that he is a man “capable of striking his son dead in his mother’s arms,” as literally happened. Moving through the family haunts, Howells writes: “From the first Medici to the last, they were nearly all hypocrites or ruffians, bigots or imbeciles; and Lorenzo, who was a scholar and a poet, and the friend of scholars and poets, had the genius and science of tyranny in supreme degree, though he wore no princely title and assumed to be only the chosen head of the commonwealth.” As if in line at the Uffizi and looking down the long portico, Howells remembers the violence that has often accompanied the poetry in these grand palaces: “Plenty of men have been hung from its windows, plenty dashed from its turrets, slain at its base, torn in pieces, cruelly martyred before it; the wild passions of the human heart have been beaten against it like billows; it has faced every violent crime and outbreak. Yet it is sacred, and the scene is sacred. . .”

A son of American midwestern optimism, the democratic Howells is never comfortable in the presence of old world monarchy and intrigue. The theme that elevates Tuscan Cities from a simple guide book to something more serious is the compassion that Howells shows for the death of the Florentine republic, a political experiment that he finds as uplifting as Jefferson’s America. In his wanderings, he is quick to condemn the tyrants and eager to praise those that gave Florence the hopes of self-government. He mourns: “Yet Florence, the genius of the great democracy, never showed more glorious than in that supreme hour, just before she vanished for ever, and the Medici bastard entered the city out of which Florence had died, to be its liege lord where no master had ever been openly confessed before.”

That democratic spirit leads Howells to follow the life and death of Savonarola, a revolutionary priest who even today seems semi-unreal, as if conjured from the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Savonarola consigned the follies of the Medici culture to his “bonfires of the vanities.” In my favorite passage, Howells describes the deathbed encounter at Villa Careggi between Savonarola and Lorenzo the Magnificent, who, negotiating until the end, tried to cajole a purgatorial pass from the austere priest, hoping that he might waive the Medici’s fondness for greed and revenge. Instead Savonarola asks Lorenzo to confess the sins he has committed against Florentine democracy, which may explain why the priest himself ended up hanging in the Piazza Vecchio and was lowered onto his own conflagration. Howells’s sympathies are with the doomed priest, but as an aside to the reader, he says he would rather have spent an evening with Lorenzo than with Savonarola, who might have shown up in his hair shirt.

Far too many people visit Florence in July. They suffer in the crowds and the midday sun, and never wish to return—yet another Florentine tragedy, because beneath the overcrowded theme park, as Howells discovered, is a city as vibrant as Dante’s poetry. For those planning an escape to Florence, my suggestion is to visit the Florence that interests you, but do so in a different time zone than the day trippers. Certainly the Italians eating dinner at 11:00 p.m. will not care. Maybe set out in the late afternoon and early evening, and then sleep until noon? Or start early, as I did, and quit before the tour buses put on their parking brakes.

I would also engage Howells as your private guide. Think of each section in Tuscan Cities as an excursion and, after morning coffee, head out with him as he takes you down small alleys or into the palaces of the Medici, if not to the nearby cities of Siena or Pisa. Let his words enliven a long luncheon or share evening drinks back at the hotel. “The Florence that I saw,” he concludes, “was indeed no longer the Florence of the sentimentalist’s feeble desire, or the romancer’s dream, but something vastly better: contemporary, real, busy in its fashion, and wholesomely and every-daily beautiful.”

About Matthew Stevenson

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author, most recently, of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays, and Whistle-Stopping America. His next book, Reading the Rails, will be published in 2015. He lives in Switzerland.