Not long ago I wrote a post on the visit the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow paid to Florence. The palazzo in which Longfellow lived during his stay in Florence is alive and well today in one of the most beautiful piazzas in the city, the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella. Known then and now as the Hotel Minerva, this albergo opened at Piazza Santa Maria Novella, # 15-16, in 1869. Alfredo Ciappei was the owner and manager.** (You can see the hotel to the right of the famous church in the image above.)
But the hotel’s history goes back much further. This is Florence, after all.
In the Middle Ages, on the place where the Hotel Minerva now stands, was a building belonging to the “Company of the Archangel Gabriel,” one of the many Florentine confraternities attached to the Convent (monastery) of Santa Maria Novella. In 1472, the building became a part of the Scala Hospital, an important welfare institution of the city.
A great increase in the activity of the piazza presumably took place around 1848, when the 2nd Florentine railway station, called Maria Antonia, was opened, linking the town with Pistoia and Lucca.
The Piazza was by then an attraction for many tourists and it was given the name of “The Mecca of the foreigners.”
The building housing the Grand Hotel Minerva began life as housing for the monks of Santa Maria Novella and afterwards as a home to several noble Florentine families. It officially became the Locanda della Minerva, an Albergo, in 1869.
In the early 20th century, the tavern was turned into a hotel and in the 1950s two innovative Italian architects, Edoardo Detti and Carlo Scarpa, transformed the premises into the Grand Hotel Minerva. Scarpa was a pioneer in balancing new and old, revealing the history of the original building, something the current owners also value. The Maestro, as he was known, deconstructed and transformed the hotel structure, leaving a few rooms unaltered, with beautiful frescoes and original hand-painted ancient wooden beams. While transforming the hotel, Scarpa created design details that would become a symbol of Italian modernist architecture for years to come.
In 1995, a Florentine family purchased the hotel and did a complete renovation.
**I am not a Longfellow scholar, but from my cursory research I discovered that Longfellow was in Florence sometime during his first European sojourn lasting from 1826 to 1829. That is before the Grand Minerva opened officially as the hotel it still is today. However, the conglomeration of buildings on the site were no doubt used as hotel space even before the Minerva was inaugurated.
Once upon a time in Florence, there was a small oratory (church) dedicated to the Compagnia dei Disciplinati di San Giovanni Battista (Confraternity of St. John the Baptist), a group founded in 1376.
The tiny facade of the Cloister of the Scalzo in Florence, on present day Via Cavour, was built as the entrance to that now-destroyed church. Buildings that served the Confraternity were called “dello Scalzo” because the cross-bearers in the Confraternity’s processions walked with bare feet as a sign of humility, and scalzo means barefoot.
The brothers belonging to the Confraternita dressed in long, simple, black robes with a cowl. Their garb is depicted in the della Robbia style glazed-terracotta lunette above the entrance portal to the chiostro.
The emblem of the confraternity is the bust of Saint John the Baptist wearing a garment of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist. He is depicted with a halo and holds a golden cross. In the lunette over the entrance, the saint is in the center, with 2 brothers, one on either side. The saint was intentionally represented in a larger scale than the brothers, as a sign of of his relative importance.
The brotherhood lasted until 1786, when the property was sold. The small oratory was destroyed in the 19th century, to make way for the modern Via Cavour.
Fortunately for posterity and lovers of art in particular, the Chiostro was saved. The Accademia delle Belle Arti used it for a while, but it was opened to the public in 1891.
While the small cortile, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, is a lovely little piece of Florentine Renaissance architecture in and of itself, with its harmonious proportions and lovely use of pietra serena, it is the fresco cycle on the four walls of the cloister that make it a must-see for any art lover.
This fresco cycle was painted by Andrea Del Sarto (Andrea Vannucchi, 1486-1530), and shows episodes from the Life of St. John the Baptist. With the 12 main scenes presented in large, horizontal frames, subdivided by grotesque style motifs, the beautiful cycle is complete. Unlike the more famous places in Florence, such as the Uffizi and the Accademia, one can visit the chiostro in a quiet and relaxed manner, and often have the entire venue to yourself. I highly recommend a visit to this exquisite, almost secret, gem.
Here, in all its quiet glory, is the cloister interior:
It is believed that Andrea del Sarto painted the entire cycle, including the paintings in the decorative bands, with one exception which will be discussed below.
In addition to the large panels depicting the saint’s life, four tall, vertical paintings represent the Virtues on the sides of the 2 main axes: Charity (1513), Faith (1523), Justice (1525) and Hope (1523).
The 12 distinct moments from life of Saint John include his birth, the famous dance of Salomè, and the beheading of the saint. The scenes also include the baptism of Jesus and the preaching in the desert. Curiously, the sequence of the scenes is not presented in chronological order on the walls.
We know that the paintings were created over a relatively long period, from 1509-26. This is a bonus for the world of art history, for the stylistic evolution of Andrea del Sarto can be followed, starting with the Baptism of Christ, c. 1509-10. This painting bears the clear influence of the quattrocento Florentine masters.
Self Portrait, Andrea del Sarto
The later scenes, painted when he had achieved his maturity as an artist, reveal the increasingly dynamic sculptural clarity of Andrea’s figures, which he borrowed from Michelangelo and which has the manneristic foreshadowings for which Andrea is noted. In The Capture of the Baptist painted in 1517, we see a more dynamic composition, probably inspired by the work of the very popular Michelangelo and other peers like Andrea’s friend, Franciabigio.
The frescoes painted in the decade of 1520 were made during Andrea del Sarto’s maturity, and we notice the much more solemn and majestic figures. Their heroic proportions run parallel with the era’s then dominant michelangiolismo.
The Baptism of the Multitudes, painted in a sumptuous almost Mannerist style, is both harmonious and complex: it is full of moving figures, many nude, and filled with pictorial virtuosity. This would inspire the entire next generation of artists.
Interestingly enough, Andrea del Sarto himself was a member of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist and practiced a lifestyle based on the sober and spiritual edicts of the group. He was thus a direct messenger of the spiritual values of simplicity shared by his brothers, which is why, perhaps, this spartan approach of monochromatic frescoes were chosen. Certainly, these paintings were less expensive to paint than fresco decorations with gold leaf and precious color mineral pigments. I don’t know why the chiaroscuro palette was chosen; perhaps it was a combination of the two influences.
Not only was Andrea del Sarto a member of this confraternity, but he lived nearby of the current Via Gino Capponi and Via Giusti. You can see his house pinned in red on the map below. Note how close the Chiostro is, located on the upper left side of the map. They are about a 6 minute walk from each other.
The plaque below marks the former home of Andrea Del Sarto.
The coat-of-arms on the corner of the house in which Andrea lived tells us clearly that this section of town was part of Medici territory. It makes sense, the house and Chiostro are very near San Marco.
The photo below shows how close Andrea lived to the Duomo of Florence. He lived, like so many Renaissance artists, in its shadow.
Andrea reached extraordinary stylistic and technical skill and is important, as well, because he played an important role in the complex artistic events of Florence at the beginning of the 16th century. He also played a critical role now recognized as fundamental to the development of Mannerism.
Two of the scenes, the Departure of John the Baptist for the Desert, and the Blessing of the Baptist, were actually painted by the artist’s friend and collaborator, a man known as Franciabigio (Francesco di Cristofano, 1482-1525). Franciabigio was asked to paint these 2 panels because in 1518 Andrea was absent from Florence.
In fact, Andrea had been summoned by King François I to the French court at Fontainebleau. The king personally invited Andrea join the Fontainebleau school, for his fame of being the “faultless painter” (as Vasari would say) had gone beyond the borders of the Italian peninsula. The elegance and balance of Andrea’s figures were considered to have no match among any living painters.
However, Andrea returned to Florence a year or so later and finished the Cloister’s fresco cycle himself.
Admired by Michelangelo, Del Sarto was also teacher to Giorgio Vasari, who later became his biographer, describing him as the faultless painter or “painter without errors.” Del Sarto played an important role now acknowledged as fundamental to the development of Mannerism. Sarto’s style is marked throughout his career by an interest in the effects of color and atmosphere and by a sophisticated informality and natural expression of emotion.
Incidentally, the terracotta bust in the cloister represents bishop Saint Antonino Pierozzi who, as archbishop, sanctioned (in 1455) the birth of the Compagnia dello Scalzo. The Confraternity became increasingly more popular in Florence, as witnessed by an official document in 1631. The chronicles refer to a large community of brothers composed of a Governor, a council held by two elder brothers, an accountant, a copyist, six nurses, a dozen of specialized clerks, a priest, a doctor, and a servant.
The frescoes in the cloister were exposed to weather and thus deterioration for centuries. In the early 1960s, the frescoes were detached from the walls for restoration and were finally returned to the cloister to be reopened for public viewing in 2000.
Andrea del Sarto’s fresco cycle is certainly among the most important of Florentine painting of the early 16th century. Many experts consider this cycle to be his masterpiece.
There’s a grand old hotel facade in Florence that proclaims on a marble plaque that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the revered American poet, stayed in this place and called the piazza in front of it “the Mecca for the foreigners.” The plaque also notes that Longfellow translated Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Roughly translated, the plaque reads:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(1807 – 1882)
A master in the neo-Latin language
Translator of the Divine Comedy
Among the Florentine palazzi
It was Here
In the Piazza that he called
“The Mecca of the foreigners”
While most Americans are familiar with Longfellow from their high school literature classes, I bet there are many things about the poet that are not commonly known.
Longfellow was born February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine, to an established New England family. His father, a prominent lawyer, expected his son would follow in his profession. Young Henry attended Portland Academy, a private school and then Bowdoin College, in Maine. Longfellow was an excellent student, showing proficiency in foreign languages.
Upon graduation, in 1825, he was offered a position to teach modern languages at Bowdoin, but on the condition that he first travel to Europe, at his own expense, to research the languages. He did so, touring Europe from 1826 through 1829. There he developed a lifelong love of the Old World civilizations and taught himself several languages. It must have been at that time that he stayed in the Florentine palazzo, upon which his visit is proudly announced on the plaque.
Upon his return from Europe, Longfellow married and began the teaching of modern languages at Bowdoin. Because the study of foreign languages was so new in America, Longfellow had to write his own textbooks.
In addition to teaching and writing textbooks, he published Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage beyond the Sea, a collection of travel essays on his European experience. His outstanding work earned him a professorship at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Before he began at Harvard, Longfellow and his wife traveled to northern Europe. Tragically, on this trip his wife, Mary, died in 1836 following a miscarriage. Devastated, Longfellow returned to the United States seeking solace. He turned to his writing, channeling his personal experiences into his work.
He soon published the romance novel Hyperion, where he unabashedly told of his unrequited love for Frances Appleton, whom he had met in Europe soon after his first wife died. After seven years, they married in 1843, and would go on to have six children.
Above: Fanny Appleton Longfellow, with sons Charles and Ernest, circa 1849
Over the next 15 years, Longfellow would produce some of his best work such as Voices of the Night, a collection of poems including “Hymn to the Night” and “A Psalm of Life,” which gained him immediate popularity. Other publications followed such as Ballads and Other Poems, containing “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and the “Village Blacksmith.” During this time, Longfellow also taught full time at Harvard and directed the Modern Languages Department. Due to budget cuts, he covered many of the teaching positions himself.
Longfellow’s popularity grew, as did his collection of works. He wrote about a multitude of subjects: slavery in Poems on Slavery, literature of Europe in an anthology The Poets and Poetry of Europe, and American Indians in The Song of Hiawatha. One of the early practitioners of self-marketing, Longfellow expanded his audience, becoming one of the best-selling authors in the world. He was able to retire from teaching and became the first self-supported American poet.
In the last 20 years of his life, Longfellow continued to enjoy fame with honors bestowed on him in Europe and America. Among the admirers of his work included Queen Victoria, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Prime Minister William Gladstone, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.
Unfortunately, Longfellow experienced more sorrow in his personal life. In 1861, a house fire killed his 2nd wife, Fanny, and that same year, the country was plunged into the Civil War. His young son, Charley, ran off to fight without his approval.
It was after his wife’s death that he immersed himself into the translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which was, by any reckoning, a monumental project.
Why, you might wonder, would he attempt this translation?
In fact, although “The Divine Comedy” is hailed today as a major work in the Western canon, it was not always so highly regarded. Although recognized as a masterpiece in the centuries immediately following its publication in 1320, the work was largely ignored during the Enlightenment, with some notable exceptions such as Vittorio Alfieri; Antoine de Rivarol, who translated the Inferno into French; and Giambattista Vico, who in the Scienza nuova and in the Giudizio su Dante inaugurated what would later become the romantic reappraisal of Dante, juxtaposing him to Homer.
The Comedy was “rediscovered” in the English-speaking world by William Blake – who illustrated several passages of the epic – and the Romantic writers of the 19th century.
Longfellow spent the several years following his 2nd wife’s death by translating Dante’s Divine Comedy. To aid him in perfecting the translation and reviewing proofs, he invited friends to meetings every Wednesday starting in 1864. The “Dante Club,” as it was called, regularly included William Dean Howells, James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton, as well as other occasional guests.
In his celebrated translation, instead of attempting hendecasyllables, Longfellow used blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). He followed Dante’s syntax when he could, and wrote compactly in unrhymed tercets (the “Mountain”/”fountain” rhyme here would appear to be accidental). The effect is nothing like Dante’s sinuous tide of terza rima, but Longfellow’s verse flows not un-melodiously, the cadence of the line pleasantly varied with both feminine and masculine endings. In general, the style is plain rather than florid.
The full three-volume translation, the first American translation, was published in the spring of 1867, though Longfellow continued to revise it. It went through four printings in its first year.
The elite of the New World were already familiar with Dante from their travels to Italy as well as British translations of his work. But, owning a copy of Longfellow’s translation of Dante was a must for those Americans who identified with the highest Western culture.
Instead of attempting hendecasyllables, the American poet uses blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). He follows Dante’s syntax when he can, and writes compactly in unrhymed tercets (the “Mountain”/”fountain” rhyme here would appear to be accidental). The effect is nothing like Dante’s sinuous tide of terza rima, but Longfellow’s verse flows not un-melodiously, the cadence of the line pleasantly varied with both feminine and masculine endings. In general, the style is plain rather than florid.
It was an amazing achievement. Moreover, Longfellow’s translation has held up through the 150 years since it was published. A leading expert in the written word notes it as perhaps the best of the many subsequent translations of the work in English.
You can read her blog post here:
In it, Professor Haven notes:
I have a number of translations of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in my home – among them the translations of Charles Singleton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Peter Dale, and others.
But perhaps the most neglected one is the battered volumes I found on ebay, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This overlooked translation finds a new champion in Joseph Luzzi, in “How to Read Dante in the 21st Century” in the online edition of The American Scholar:
… one of the few truly successful English translations comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a professor of Italian at Harvard and an acclaimed poet. He produced one of the first complete, and in many respects still the best, English translations of The Divine Comedy in 1867. It did not hurt that Longfellow had also experienced the kind of traumatic loss—the death of his young wife after her dress caught fire—that brought him closer to the melancholy spirit of Dante’s writing, shaped by the lacerating exile from his beloved Florence in 1302. Longfellow succeeded in capturing the original brilliance of Dante’s lines with a close, sometimes awkwardly literal translation that allows the Tuscan to shine through the English, as though this “foreign” veneer were merely a protective layer added over the still-visible source. The critic Walter Benjamin wrote that a great translation calls our attention to a work’s original language even when we don’t speak that foreign tongue. Such extreme faithfulness can make the language of the translation feel unnatural—as though the source were shaping the translation into its own alien image.
Another scholar recently recommends Longfellow’s translation as the best way to read Dante in the 21st century.
You can read Mr. Luzzi’s essay here:
See also: Longfellow’s Dante: Literary Achievement in a Transatlantic Culture of Print
by Patricia Roylance https://www.jstor.org/stable/41428522?read-now=1&seq=14#metadata_info_tab_contents
Or, you can read the translation for yourself. Fortunately for us, in the 21st century you can read Longfellow’s translation online:
As for me, whenever I walk through the piazza that Longfellow is said to have named “the Mecca for the foreigners” I will remember the poet and his time in Florence. I feel the same keen appreciation for this lovely space as he apparently did.