Herbert Colborne Oakley   (1869 - 1944)
Traveling In France & Italy

Written at: Florence Italy, June 1925

as reported in: "The Southern Daily Echo" (with spelling unchanged)


Scenes of Growth, Beauty and Toil.


The following is an extract from a letter written to a Southampton friend by Mr. Herbert C. Oakley, the artist, from Settignano, near Florence:

It is getting too hot for me here.  I must either seek the sea, hie me to the mountains, or flee the country like a frightened fugitive - not frightened at his own shadow, betokening a breakdown of sorts - but lamenting that light is all too bright and shadow too scarce.

Sometimes the biter is bit; sometimes the artist who paints his sitters must himself sit.  And this is the case with me just now.  I am being done in clay, and then, cast in bronze by a well-known Italian sculptor during my enforced leisure.  I do my poor best - my appalling best - in Italian what time Signor Calastri’s clever fingers are making me realize my physical shortcomings as revealed in clay.


This morning I've had an idle morning in the country.  Despite a violent thunderstorm yesterday only temporarily was the air cleared and cooled.  To-day nature is feverish with a throbbing pulse; the air is quivering with heat.  The pointed cypresses direct one's gaze to a blue grey sky, wherein, ever-piling higher and higher, are vast cumuli clouds.  Aerial power stations are they potentially; and as they developed yesterday so to-day.  They are mustering their, as yet, silent forces - the thunder echoes and a deluge comes.  To-day all is dry after yesterday's deluge. And just now the growth is phenomenal!  Nature is a quick-changing artist.  A few days ago I saw corn growing - but couldn't say what.  To-day the ears are of wheat, and are fully formed.  The vines grow at a tremendous rate.  A great garden lover and observer here told me that when the earth gets warm you can see six or seven inches growth in a day.  We were smothered in roses all of a sudden.  They come quickly, and quickly die.  In the fields the wild flowers's follow on each other swiftly.  When I came first, tulips were everywhere; then followed anemones of various violet and cerise tints; now tall gladiolias of a vivid magenta colour, and lavender iris in masses; and to-day I saw the first rock roses.  The peasants encourage the iris in their fields, not for aesthetic pleasure, but for the root of the iris- orris root- which, when ground into powder, forms, I believe, one of the mysterious ingredients in the make-up of the toilet of the ladies.


I am at present staying at Settignano, a village about three miles from Florence. The father of Michael Angelo had two farms here, and the great artist's boy-hood was largely spent here, from which place you can see a beautiful panorama of hills and vales, the river Arno, the orange-coloured lichen roofs of Castellos’ country houses and farms, embowered in grey-green trees, Florence, with its domes and cupolas, and here and there the solemn sobriety of cypress trees pointing to the perfect blue of an Italian sky.  Over the whole landscape their ever seems a delicate veil of atmosphere, softening the varied contours of the hills, and giving a greater sense of distance to the mountains, which frame in the splendid perspective of the horizon. Thus we get a perspective of form, of colour, and of tone, and (I must not forget), a perspective of sound, for at certain times during the day and at evening the silver-toned bells of the varied campanelli answer each other from hill to hill, and proclaim, not in so many words, yet they remind us that this fair earth, the scene of beauty and of toil is not all, but that man " cannot Live by bread alone "—though, indeed, the evidence of the Divine Fiat is not wanting that man must, live by the sweat of his brow and wrest his bread by ardurous toil from the earth through the long hours of sultry heat, and cold and rain storm; through all the vicissitudes of physical fatigue and discomfort. 


Then, as one surveys these fertile fields, the scenes of incessant labour, here and there, another harvest is witnessed, too, gathered by an untiring reaper.  There, in the cypress-shaded campo santos, the dead are lying close by the living worker, and life and death are inextricably blended.  Surely the fever and fret of loss or gain must be soberedas the worker realises he is toiling as a passing pilgrim in the fields and vineyards of his fathers, and that soon, too, where he is labouring to get the bread that perisheth, others will take his place, whilst close by he will be sleeping . . . when the air is humming with life, vibrating in great heat, when gay colour is all around, the green lizards swiftly start away at your shadow on the sunny wall, and the care-less flip-flop of butterflies, heavy on glorious wing, pass by. Then the calm of the campo santo makes its great contrast, and though a faint breeze may stir the leaves and gentle rustle in the corn, the cypress is unmoved, the spires of the evergreen are unchanged in their gravity and beauty, for they point away from the earth elsewhere, and hint of a promised peace - not of this world.


Often a funeral takes place at night.  One or two, I remember, took place last year of a rather special character.  The body is escorted by a brass band playing a (to me) new funeral march, and with a big crowd of people slowly marching to the church.  The coffin is smothered with immense wreaths of flowers, and torchlights light up the route with rich fitful gleams of orange light.  The body is borne on foot by quaintly garbed bearers in white, whose peaked cowls, which are slit only where the eyes can peep out.  All crowd into church, I amongst them, for I wanted to see and hear all.  The coffin is placed before the High Alter, and the church is ablaze with candles and torchlights.  Great shadows and great glooms where the church is unlit lend an extra solemnity to the scene.  During the recital of prayers and the chanting of psalms I note the faces of young and old, lit up with fitful gleams of torches or the mellow glow of wax candles, whilst the sonorous and sweet voice of the priest in sober vestments is heard with intermittent "amens" interpolating the different prayers.  Then, the offices for the dead being completed, the coffin is sprinkled with Holy water, and the procession is made; masses of flowers carried on poles, besides those on the coffin, the pall of which is black and gold.  Out in the splendid night go all the mourners.  The sky is an intense indigo blue - of an almost dreadful depth.  Now the bands play a funeral march, mournful and a little macabre.  The orange yellow flares of the torches intensify the black gloom of the mass of people slowly trudging to the campo santo, where the dead await the latest addition to their serried ranks.  It is a solemn sight to see the sad procession descending to the campo santo, funeral marches and the tramp of feet breaking the silence of the night.


Far off the lights of Florence, overhead the light of the stars, and all around us the lights of the fire-flies in myriads.  All is glitter, and yet all is mystery.  Now we reach the campo santo.  There are the graves of the departed.  Nearly all have a lamp lit up at their head, and this light, this symbol, is touching, for death and darkness are associated together, as life and light go hand in hand.  The music ceases.  Only now the sound of a light breeze in the olive trees; some are weeping, for loneliness and the sense of loss must surely be intensified when in darkness of night the dear ones are left behind.  Not to-night will the actual burial take place, but tomorrow.  To-night, the body reposes in the chapel.  In silence all go to their homes - whilst the stars keep watch and the fire-flies flash all around - as Goethe said:-

"Stars over us silent,
Graves under us silent."

"The H. C. Oakley Virtual Gallery" Copyright © 2005-2013 Andrew Gray