Twain’s Take: Italy 120 years ago more “present” than ever

In The Art of Travel, 6. First Book, Florence by Andrew CohenLeave a Comment

A Tramp Abroad is certainly not the longest of Mark Twain’s titles. At 50 chapters followed by 6 appendixes, it can seem intimidating, but it moves quickly, thanks in no small part to Twain’s wit. Though he doesn’t arrive in Italy until chapter 47, I think this strengthens the impact of the short chapters spent there and gives an interesting insight into how much Italy has changed in the last hundred years. The book’s publication in 1880 would have put Twain in a newly unified Italy, where a sense of national identity was yet to harden, but where the outside world had already imposed its perceptions. When describing universally agreed-upon tourist notes, Twain says that “one must expect to be cheated at every turn by the Italians”, something which I’ve noticed still can persist today (Twain 161). Before coming to Italy, I couldn’t begin to count the number of times that I had been warned about “the gypsy and beggars” on the street. Much like Twain later in his chapter on Turin, I also found myself embarrassed and this stereotype to be disproven. For his part, Twain offered a Swiss coin to a street performer of some ½ decent value (10 cents in his time) and the performer attempted to return it to him, not because it was Swiss as Twain thought, but because he believed it was too much and given by mistake. For my part, I just realized that many of the stereotypes that I had been fed or lead to believe are no longer common or at all true.

When Twain arrives in Florence, in the final chapter of the book, he spends much time fixating on the fact that fig leaves have been attached to the nude art. Quipping that “no one noticed their nakedness before”, Twain echo’s a sentiment that has been expressed by more than a few art history-based professors since I’ve gotten here: if there was one dumb moment in recent art history, the introduction of “modesty” to marble statues is in competition for the top (Twain 190). Like many tourists that come through this city now, Twain only journeys through Florence to see artwork of the Renaissance, specifically the paintings of Titus. The fact that so many people, 120 years later, make the same journey to see the same art has been one of the most fascinating parts of reading this novel/travelogue. Florence has cemented itself as the city of the Renaissance, and living in that perception, it’s continued to attract curious eyes to its many galleries and museums. Twain himself speaks of being “at the door of the Uffizi”, a gallery which today still attracts millions of visitors a year, displaying still much of the same art that Twain saw (Twain 190). Many have told me that Florence has kept itself relatively unchanged in the past 500 years, but reading the work of a noted author and confirming that in the way that he did was incredibly eye-opening.

Something that Twain notes and I’m happy to see changed is the statues being “black, accumulated with grime” (Twain 190). In recent years, Italy has been undertaking many massive restoration projects of art, with the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel in the 1980’s and the work ongoing even now at the Duomo of Florence, the cleaning of artifacts and restoration of original beauty is something that many welcome, and I’m sure the masses that pour through this city year after year for the next 300 will be sure to appreciate.

(Image: The Uffizi's many galleries of art.; Source: The Joy of Florence)

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