The weather is getting finer and warmer, and I am more and more delighted with my large, empty house and with the views all round. A more perfect spot could not be found even here. The actual town I cannot see; it is hidden by the undulating ground that rises behind San Miniato, ending in the Torre del Gallo, close to the villa where Galileo was exiled, when blind and old, to die. Tradition says that he worked from the top of this tower. I wonder whether he did, or whether Milton was right in saying that he studied the moon from the top of Fiesole. Milton only saw Galileo on his second visit to Florence, as during his first visit the astronomer was kept a close prisoner by the Inquisition.
What was really at the bottom of Galileo's persecution? Religious people thought it militated against the dignity and importance of man that this planet of his should go spinning round the sun - with men's hopes and feelings hanging on by their eyelids instead of remaining quiet in a dignified manner while the sun did its duty in going round, warming and lighting, the earth.
Galileo's blindness seems to have had a 'prophetic fascination' for Milton, and the deep impression left by the sight of the Tuscan astronomer is shown by the way in which Milton once or twice alludes to him in 'Paradise Lost,' not published till nearly thirty years later.
Mr. Stephen Phillips's fine poem to Milton blind might almost apply to Galileo:
The hand was taken by Angels who patrol The evening, or are sentries to the dawn, Or pace the wide air everlastingly. Thou wast admitted to the presence, and deep Argument heard est and the large design That brings this world out of woe to bliss.
Ouida says of Galileo's tower in 'Pascarel,' perhaps the most imaginative and delightful of her Italian books (so true to Nature and so false to human nature!): 'The world has spoilt most of its places of pilgrimage, but the old star-tower is not harmed as yet where it stands amongst its quiet garden ways and grass-grown slopes, up high amongst the hills, with sounds of dripping water on its court, and wild wood flowers thrusting their bright heads through its stones. It is as peaceful, as simple, as homely, as closely girt with blossoming boughs and with tulip-crimsoned grapes now as then, when from its roof in the still midnight of far-off time its master read the secret of the stars.'
But to Galileo at seventy and blind, I wonder what was the use of the old righting tower? The sight of it was a ceaseless joy to me, flanked by splendid Cypresses standing ochre colour against the blue, or dark against some 'billowy bosomed cloud'; and at evening it was 'one red tower that drinks its fill out of the sunset sky.'
This was as I looked to the east. Moving round to the south, the view widened and spread right up the valley of the Arno, where the little puff of gray smoke curled along the base of the hill and showed where the train sped on its way to Rome, through the mountains as they folded one over the other in tints of pearly-gray. Still more south came the hill where Vallombrosa stands, and then a long stretch of villa-dotted low hills. At the end of the ridge was a little grove of pointed Cypresses, and the well-known favourite peasant church of all the country round stood out on its own little hill in the middle distance. Towards the west came a hillock crowned with a flat white villa cut by the Cypresses that surround nearly all the houses, sinking and swelling with Olive and Vine towards the distant view of the Certosa of the Val d'Arno. And so round to the whole beautiful broad valley running towards Pisa, ending in the blue shadows of the Carrara Mountains, with the top of Bellosguardo in the middle distance sharp and black against the gray mist of the plain. Evening after evening I used to try and get home to see the sunsets from my windows, as nowhere else were they so beautiful, and nowhere else did the air blow so fresh and yet so warm as in my home of the winds, the 'Pension d'Arcetri.'
The only sadness that I know of in these Southern summers is that the twilights are so short. I missed much the long, pale primrose evening skies of June, which at home throw up their faint Northern brightness right into the indigo of the star skies of night and almost meet Aurora at her waking.
But the dark evenings are wanted to show the beauty of those wonderful fairy-like things that flit about in millions under the Olive-trees and in the corn. I had never seen the fireflies since the summer I passed under Fiesole when I was a little child of ten, but I had not forgotten them. The poetry that hangs around them is endless; their natural history is prosaic. They are beetles. Both sexes are luminous, though that is not the general belief in Italy. They are nearly related to our glowworm. The colour of the fireflies is warmer and more golden than the blue light of the glowworm, and their beauty is enhanced and made more mysterious because the light comes and goes, and shows much more brightly at intervals. These fireflies are usually only to be met with in quite the South of Europe, but in fine hot summers they can be seen in rarer numbers as far north as Switzerland and even the middle of Germany. The Italians call them lucciole, and associate them with all sorts of pretty poetical stories. Ouida says: 'One cannot wonder that the poets love them, and that the children believe them to be fairies carrying their little lanterns on their road to dance in the magic circle under the leaves in the wood. Some say they die in a day; some say they live on for ages. Who shall tell? They look always the same.'
On one side of my house was a much-neglected but lovely little square, walled garden with beautiful tall iron gates. The beds and paths, edged with stone, were of a simple formal pattern, which gave great dignity to the weedy little wilderness; and there were the usual large terracotta pots with strong, well-grown Lemon-trees in them, the pride of the Tuscan peasant's heart. The flowers on them scented the air; the peasants sell the pale fruit at a special price all the summer through in the town as we sell glass-grown Peaches. I think that if we tried to grow plants of this sort of Lemon at home in pots or tubs, it would be far better than trying to grow the more delicate Oranges usually seen on terraces in England. I was told I should find it too hot, but I never did once. Indeed, at first I was disappointed; it was not warm enough. But in England they had snow early in June. The Irises, the Tulips, all the wild spring flowers were over. I found the fields in places filled with a curious orchidaceous-looking plant which, terrible weed as it was, I thought would look beautiful as a spring pot-plant. It turned out to be a cruel parasitical growth, called Orobanche pruinosa, which grows on the roots of the Broad Beans, destroying whole crops - to the ruin of bad farmers. It also grows on the roots of Geraniums, I am told; which will be convenient in making it a pot-plant at home.
My villa pension was surrounded with fine Cypresses of all sizes and ages. I wonder when and how they came to be planted round the houses? Some say the peasants from all time have planted one as a kind of dower when a daughter was born in the house. In justification of this Mr. Loudon says that Pliny tells several extraordinary stories about the durability of the wood, and that the plantations of Cypresses were cut down every thirteen years for poles, rafters, joists, etc., which made the wood so profitable that a plantation of Cypresses was thought a sufficient marriage portion for a daughter. Theophrastus states that it grew naturally in the isle of Crete, and that those who wish to have the Cypress flourish must procure a little of the earth from the isle of Cyprus for it to grow in. The early botanists supposed that the upright and spreading Cypresses were male and female of the same plant - C. horizontalis the male, C. stricta the female. This is not the case. The horizontal Cypress is quite a distinct species, which comes from the Levant. The evergreen Cypress is a flame-shaped, tapering, and cone-like tree. The male catkins are yellowish, about three inches long, and very numerous. The female catkins are much fewer and of a roundish-oblong form; but both grow on the same tree. I have a sentiment for Cypresses that amounts to a passion. All my life they have remained in my mind as emblems of the fairest land I have ever known.