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

Written at: Florence Italy, early 1926

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


The Beauties of Winter Time.


Mr. Herbert C. Oakley, the artist, who is at present staying near Florence, writes as follows to a friend in Southampton:-

I arrived here in the very middle of October - just too late to see the vintage of grapes; a time to rejoice frankly in the grape harvest, to rejoice in wine, and to enter in the merriment and festivity of it all in a state of mind and heart antipathetic to all who are "Pussyfoots".  Let me remark in passing, that of all the emotions which find expression in modern life I believe joy to be the rarest.  And here in Italy, very modern in aim and outlook as she now is, there is little of joy to be noticed.  The country as a whole seems disposed (as far as my observation goes) to pin their faith in electricity, rapid transits, telephones, trains, wireless, and money-making.  In fact, a great wave of materialism has swept over Italy and is sweeping over it.


Very beautiful the grey olive slopes of Tuscany looked in the autumn, wonderful the limpid gold of many a sunset, which in a peculiar way floods the Vale of the Arno, and transmutes by a wonderful alchemy the landscape that in the West is ready to dissolve into the baseless fabric of a dream.  Imagine Florence then at such an hour, merely an effect, nothing substantial about her.  Out of the dusty gold rises Bruneschelli's dome, the tower of Santa Croce, where Michael Angelo is buried.  The Palazza Vecchio, the exquisite tower of Giotto, a Campanile in which hang bells of splendid sonorousness, deeply solemn and sweet, and though low in tone, they are heard all over the city and beyond.


Up until and during November I used to take tea and ices, etc., out of doors, but suddenly in December the cold weather set in, and greater cold I've never experienced.  All Saints' Day was observed as a general holiday, and truly marvellous  scenes I witnessed at the Campo Santo at Settignano, typical of many such all over Italy - flowers everywhere.  It was at twilight when I visited the cemetery.  Practically every grave was covered with flowers.  At the head of a grave a lamp burns and everywhere crowds of people.  Unforgetable is the impression of the Autumn evening, of the sacred spot all lit up with hundreds of lamps in the peaceful valley enfolded in olive-sloped hills and evergreens against the remnants of dying daylight in the west. Dark spires of cypresses made splendid, solemn silhouettes, and nothing was wanting that could  lend impressiveness to this  very human scene.  The Italians do not forget their dead, and I believe that the lit lamps glowing at the various grave-heads testify to their belief in the symbol of light as witnessing to Life and Light when death's dark  portals are passed  by those who have gone before.


The other day, about mid-day, or shortly after, I had occasion to knock at the door of my padrona (landlady).  In response to her "avanti" (come in) I stepped inside.  There she was, sitting before a photograph of an elderly lady, and before the photograph a lamp steadily burned, and a few flowers lay in front of the picture also.  At first I thought she was burning a light to the Madonna or to her patron saint.  No, as she afterwards explained, it was the anniversary of her mother's death, and all that day the lamp is kept burning before her mother's portrait by the lonely daughter in her dark and dull sitting-room.  There was a pathetic beauty of sentiment about this simple scene, and I am told that in Italy the anniversary of the death of relations and friends is often so kept.

On the day of my birthday, in December last, an Italian artist hearing of the anniversary forwith purchased and presented me with some choice flowers.  I thought the act a pretty compliment and  it marked another Italian habit which surely is graceful.  I returned thanks in such flowery language as  my Italian vocabulary permitted, remarking how fitting were flowers as a  gift from one artist to another artist, for they represent beauty to those whose happy business it is to pursue beauty.


When Christmas came, I resisted the instinct to go and spend it in England.  Instead I went to Sturla, between Genoa and Nervi.  Surpassing far in beauty any garishly lit Christmas tree were the evergreens, the feathery grey-green and tiny myriads of the yellow ball-flowers of the Mimosa lemon trees, but above all, the bright globes of the oranges gleaming out of the rich green foliage.
     What a wealth of natural beauty in this Ligurian coast landscape!  Great rocks, pine-clad, and as high as mountains, drop sheer into the tideless sea.
     I used to take tea at the Madinella, on the terrace at Nervi,, out of doors, during the last days of December, the temperate climate, the wealth of the evergreens, the presence of great palms, the soft breezes from the Mediterranean combined to cheat the idea of winter.  I let myself go to the full in the indulgence of day dreams, everything around me perfectly in harmony and in rythm.  I forgot the problems of esthetics - my work in a sculptor-studio away in Florence.  Rest, such as I had craved, was mine, and the whole scene a conspiracy of beauty.  I am compelled to use a metaphor I have before used - the landscape, the seascape, seemed a magnificent drop scenic of flawless technique, and only the setting sun enflamed in amber and rose in a sky of green, and the splendid sound of reiterated waves on a rocky shore broke this illusion.  How suddenly twilight came and the colour went out of everything.  How suddenly massed silhouettes took the place of glowing detail - how changed the whole aspect of things when the moon rose from behind the splendid rocks of Porto Fino, and the whole sky became a darker blue than ever we see in England - fathomless darkness almost dreadful to look at.


When Margherite of Savoie died recently - the late Queen-Mother of Italy - the mourning was universal, and I should judge sincere and spontaneous.  Everybody's dress assumed a sombre sobriety, and wonderful impressive Requiem Masses were celebrated in every city and town in Italy that can claim any sort of importance; and in the Duomo, the Cathedral of Florence, amid a sumptuosity of black and gold decorations, Requiem Mass, attended by multitudes of people, officials, societies, etc., was sung.  His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Florence celebrated.  I couldn't get inside to "assist" at the solemn function, but towards the end of the service I waited outside - one among vast crowds - and saw the dignitaries make their exit.  The cardinal, wreathed in smiles, appeared, splendidly vested, and amid much doffing of hats on our part, and gestures of blessings from His Eminence, he passed to his waiting motor-car, the bells of Giotto's Campanile ringing all the time.

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