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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 2: 1886 - 1900|
CLXXXII. The Villa Viviani
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|'The American Claimant', published in May l (1892), did not bring a very
satisfactory return. For one thing, the book-trade was light, and then
the Claimant was not up to his usual standard. It had been written under
hard circumstances and by a pen long out of practice; it had not paid,
and its author must work all the harder on the new undertakings. The
conditions at Nauheim seemed favorable, and they lingered there until
well into September. To Mrs. Crane, who had returned to America, Clemens
wrote on the 18th, from Lucerne, in the midst of their travel to Italy:
We remained in Nauheim a little too long. If we had left four or
five days earlier we should have made Florence in three days. Hard
trip because it was one of those trains that gets tired every 7
minutes and stops to rest three-quarters of an hour. It took us
3 1/2 hours to get there instead of the regulation 2 hours. We
shall pull through to Milan to-morrow if possible. Next day we
shall start at 10 AM and try to make Bologna, 5 hours. Next day,
Florence, D. V. Next year we will walk. Phelps came to Frankfort
and we had some great times--dinner at his hotel; & the Masons,
supper at our inn--Livy not in it. She was merely allowed a
glimpse, no more. Of course Phelps said she was merely pretending
to be ill; was never looking so well & fine.
A Paris journal has created a happy interest by inoculating one of
its correspondents with cholera. A man said yesterday he wished to
God they would inoculate all of them. Yes, the interest is quite
general and strong & much hope is felt.
Livy says I have said enough bad things, and better send all our
loves & shut up. Which I do--and shut up.
They lingered at Lucerne until Mrs. Clemens was rested and better able to
continue the journey, arriving at last in Florence, September 26th. They
drove out to the Villa Viviani in the afternoon and found everything in
readiness for their reception, even to the dinner, which was prepared and
on the table. Clemens, in his notes, speaks of this and adds:
It takes but a sentence to state that, but it makes an indolent person
tired to think of the planning & work and trouble that lie concealed in
Some further memoranda made at this time have that intimate interest
which gives reality and charm. The 'contadino' brought up their trunks
from the station, and Clemens wrote:
The 'contadino' is middle-aged & like the rest of the peasants--that
is to say, brown, handsome, good-natured, courteous, & entirely
independent without making any offensive show of it. He charged too
much for the trunks, I was told. My informer explained that this
September 27. The rest of the trunks brought up this morning. He
charged too much again, but I was told that this was also customary.
It's all right, then. I do not wish to violate the customs. Hired
landau, horses, & coachman. Terms, 480 francs a month & a pourboire
to the coachman, I to furnish lodging for the man & the horses, but
nothing else. The landau has seen better days & weighs 30 tons.
The horses are feeble & object to the landau; they stop & turn
around every now & then & examine it with surprise & suspicion.
This causes delay. But it entertains the people along the road.
They came out & stood around with their hands in their pockets &
discussed the matter with each other. I was told that they said
that a 30-ton landau was not the thing for horses like those--what
they needed was a wheelbarrow.
His description of the house pictures it as exactly today as it did then,
for it has not changed in these twenty years, nor greatly, perhaps, in
the centuries since it was built.
It is a plain, square building, like a box, & is painted light
yellow & has green window-shutters. It stands in a commanding
position on the artificial terrace of liberal dimensions, which is
walled around with masonry. From the walls the vineyards & olive
orchards of the estate slant away toward the valley. There are
several tall trees, stately stone-pines, also fig-trees & trees of
breeds not familiar to me. Roses overflow the retaining-walls, &
the battered & mossy stone urn on the gate-posts, in pink & yellow
cataracts exactly as they do on the drop-curtains in the theaters.
The house is a very fortress for strength. The main walls--all
brick covered with plaster--are about 3 feet thick. I have several
times tried to count the rooms of the house, but the irregularities
baffle me. There seem to be 28. There are plenty of windows &
worlds of sunlight. The floors are sleek & shiny & full of
reflections, for each is a mirror in its way, softly imaging all
objects after the subdued fashion of forest lakes. The curious
feature of the house is the salon. This is a spacious & lofty
vacuum which occupies the center of the house. All the rest of the
house is built around it; it extends up through both stories & its
roof projects some feet above the rest of the building. The sense
of its vastness strikes you the moment you step into it & cast your
eyes around it & aloft. There are divans distributed along its
walls. They make little or no show, though their aggregate length
is 57 feet. A piano in it is a lost object. We have tried to
reduce the sense of desert space & emptiness with tables & things,
but they have a defeated look, & do not do any good. Whatever
stands or moves under that soaring painted vault is belittled.
He describes the interior of this vast room (they grew to love it),
dwelling upon the plaster-relief portraits above its six doors,
Florentine senators and judges, ancient dwellers there and former owners
of the estate.
The date of one of them is 1305--middle-aged, then, & a judge--he
could have known, as a youth, the very greatest Italian artists, &
he could have walked & talked with Dante, & probably did. The date
of another is 1343--he could have known Boccaccio & spent his
afternoons wandering in Fiesole, gazing down on plague-reeking
Florence & listening to that man's improper tales, & he probably
did. The date of another is 1463--he could have met Columbus & he
knew the magnificent Lorenzo, of course. These are all Cerretanis--
or Cerretani-Twains, as I may say, for I have adopted myself into
their family on account of its antiquity--my origin having been
heretofore too recent to suit me.
We are considering the details of Viviani at some length, for it was in
this setting that he began and largely completed what was to be his most
important work of this later time--in some respects his most important of
any time--the 'Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc'. If the reader
loves this book, and he must love it if he has read it, he will not
begrudge the space here given to the scene of its inspiration. The
outdoor picture of Viviani is of even more importance, for he wrote
oftener out-of-doors than elsewhere. Clemens added it to his notes
several months later, but it belongs here.
The situation of this villa is perfect. It is three miles from
Florence, on the side of a hill. Beyond some hill-spurs is Fiesole
perched upon its steep terraces; in the immediate foreground is the
imposing mass of the Ross castle, its walls and turrets rich with
the mellow weather-stains of forgotten centuries; in the distant
plain lies Florence, pink & gray & brown, with the ruddy, huge dome
of the cathedral dominating its center like a captive balloon, &
flanked on the right by the smaller bulb of the Medici chapel & on
the left by the airy tower of the Palazzo Vecchio; all around the
horizon is a billowy rim of lofty blue hills, snowed white with
innumerable villas. After nine months of familiarity with this
panorama I still think, as I thought in the beginning, that this is
the fairest picture on our planet, the most enchanting to look upon,
the most satisfying to the eye & the spirit. To see the sun sink
down, drowned in his pink & purple & golden floods, & overwhelm
Florence with tides of color that make all the sharp lines dim &
faint & turn the solid city into a city of dreams, is a sight to
stir the coldest nature & make a sympathetic one drunk with ecstasy.
The Clemens household at Florence consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Clemens,
Susy, and Jean. Clara had soon returned to Berlin to attend Mrs.
Willard's school and for piano instruction. Mrs. Clemens improved in the
balmy autumn air of Florence and in the peaceful life of their well-
ordered villa. In a memorandum of October 27th Clemens wrote:
The first month is finished. We are wonted now. This carefree life
at a Florentine villa is an ideal existence. The weather is divine,
the outside aspects lovely, the days and nights tranquil and
reposeful, the seclusion from the world and its worries as
satisfactory as a dream. Late in the afternoons friends come out
from the city & drink tea in the open air & tell what is happening
in the world; & when the great sun sinks down upon Florence & the
daily miracle begins they hold their breath & look. It is not a
time for talk.
No wonder he could work in that environment. He finished 'Tom Sawyer
Abroad', also a short story, 'The L 1,000,000 Bank-Note' (planned many
years before), discovered the literary mistake of the 'Extraordinary
Twins' and began converting it into the worthier tale, 'Pudd'nhead
Wilson', soon completed and on its way to America.
With this work out of his hands, Clemens was ready for his great new
undertaking. A seed sown by the wind more than forty years before was
ready to bloom. He would write the story of Joan of Arc.