Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Michel Montaigne

Michel Montaigne
Anonymous (17th century).
Michel Montaigne (1533–1592) was the proprietor of a vineyard and later a mayor of Bordeaux, France. However, his claim to fame in history is as popularizer of the writing form known as the essay. In 1580, a few months after publishing his first collection, he embarked on a grand tour of Italy by way of Austria, ending in Rome. He did this despite suffering from painful kidney stones or perhaps partly because of it; in addition to the usual tourist stops, he also sought out spas and purveyors of medicinal cures to help with his condition. Montaigne kept a travel diary, which he dictated to a servant accompanying him on the journey. 

Among his stops was a visit to Florence, where he dined with Grand Duke Francisco I de’ Medici and Bianca Cappello at the palace laboratory known as the Casino di San Marco. At the time, their son Don Antonio was a four year old toddler as was, 
in another quarter of the city, future glassmaker Antonio Neri. Within a few years both Francesco and Bianca would be dead, both stricken with pernicious malaria. Don Antonio would be sidelined as the future grand duke by his uncle, Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici. Don Antonio would inherit the laboratory complex and devote his time to the secrets of nature, where Antonio Neri would be employed as an alchemist.

What makes Montaigne’s journal remarkable is his clear, direct observation; his account is an unapologetic window into the thoughts and observations of a sixteenth century traveler. Here some excerpts from his account: 

Florence, seventeen miles, a place smaller than Ferrara, situated in a valley, surrounded by richly cultivated hills. The river Arno passes through the town, and is crossed by several bridges. We saw no fosse round the walls. Today he (Montaigne) passed two stones, and a quantity of gravel, without having had any other notice of it than a slight pain in the lower part of his stomach. The same day we went to see the Grand Duke's stables, which are very large, with arched roofs; there are very few horses of any value here: at least, there were not, when we went over them. We were shown a sheep of a very strange form; together with a camel, several lions and bears, and an animal as big as a large mastiff, but of the form of a cat, all striped black and white, which they called a tiger.  
We looked over the church of St. Lawrence, where the flags are still hanging, which we lost under Marshal Strozzi, in Tuscany. In this church, there are several excellent pictures, and some statues by Michael Angelo. We went to see the cathedral, a magnificent structure, the steeple of which is faced with black and white marble; it is one of the finest and most sumptuous churches in the world. […] 
The same day we went to see the duke's palace. This prince spends a good deal of his time in making imitations of oriental precious stones and chrystal: he has a great taste for alchemy and the mechanical arts, especially architecture, of which he has a more than ordinary knowledge. Next day, M. de Montaigne ascended, the first of us, to the top of the cathedral, where there is a ball of gilt brass, which, from below, seems about the size of your head, though when you get up to it you find it capable of holding forty persons. […]  
Messrs. d'Estissac and Montaigne went to dine with the grand duke, for such is his title here. His wife occupied the post of honour; the duke sat on her right, next to him sat the duchess's sister-in-law, and next to her husband, the duchess's brother. The duchess is a handsome woman, according to the Italian notion of beauty, with a countenance at once agreeable and dignified, and a bosom of the most ample proportions. M. de Montaigne had not been with her long, before he thoroughly understood how she had managed to wheedle the duke into entire subjection to her will, and he had no doubt she would be able to retain him at her feet for a long time to come. The duke is a dark stout man, about my height, with large limbs, and a countenance full of kindliness: he always takes his cap off when he meets any one, which, to my mind, is a very agreeable feature in his character. He looks like a healthy man of forty. On the other side of the table were the cardinal, and a young man of about eighteen, the duke's two brothers. When the duke or his wife want to drink, they have presented to them a glass of wine and a decanter of water, in a sort of bason; they take the wine, and pour as much of it as they do not want into the bason, filling the glass up with water; and when they have drunk it, they replace the glass in the bason, which a page holds for them. The duke took a good deal of water; the duchess hardly any. The fault of the Germans is to make use of glasses out of all proportion too large; here they are in the extreme the other way, for the glasses are absurdly small. I do not understand why this city should be called, par excellence, the Beautiful: it is handsome, no doubt, but not more so than Bologna, and very little more so than Ferrara; while Venice, beyond all comparison, superior to it, in this respect. No doubt the view of the city and its suburbs, from the top of the cathedral, has an imposing effect, owing to the immense space which the suburbs occupy, covering, as they do, the sides and summit of all the neighbouring hills for two or three leagues round; and the houses being so close to each other that they look almost like streets. The city is paved with Hat stones, but in no sort of method or order. […] 
[T]he style of living at the boarding-houses is miserable, though they charge for gentlemen more than twelve crowns a month. There is nothing to amuse you here, or to exercise either body or mind; there is neither fencing, nor riding, nor literature. Pewter is very scarce all about here; you are seldom served in any tiling but coloured earthenware, and that generally dirty. Thursday morning, 24th November, we left this place, and proceeded through a country which did not appear to us very fertile, though it was cultivated on all sides, and thickly inhabited. The road was rough and stony, and, though we went on without stopping, it was not till very late that we got to Sienna, thirty-two miles, four posts.
 Montaigne 1842: Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works of Michael de Montaigne: Comprising the Essays ... ed., William Hazlitt (London: Templeman, 1842). pp. 564-566.

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