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The Stones of Florence Paperback – 25 Sep 1963
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The author, a witty and sophisticated writer, published seven novels from 1942-1979, of which the most widely known is the semi-autobiographical,sexually outspoken The Group (Virago Modern Classics), made into a movie,The Group (Region 2 Import) Candice Bergen, about the lives of her Vassar classmates. She also published many works of nonfiction, many magazine articles, taught at several colleges, and won many awards. She was born in Seattle, Washington, orphaned at the age of six: her parents were killed in the great flu epidemic of 1918. Her private life was to continue to be eventful; she had many love affairs and several husbands, including, as her second, the esteemed critic Edmund Wilson. She also had a well-publicized friendship with Hannah Arendt, a respected writer-philosopher; and an even better publicized quarrel with the influential writer and playwright Lillian Hellman, of whom she told well-known American TV host Dick Cavett in 1980, "every word she writes is a lie, including and and the." (Hellman sued her for this, but the case was dropped at the playwright's death.)
Florence provided McCarthy with perfect subject matter, and the first thing to be said about this book is that every paragraph displays prodigious learning. Her discussions of the art, politics, geography and history of the city are unparalleled. Be warned though, there is, unfortunately, some repetition, as she's keeping so many subjects in play at once.
McCarthy's thesis is that, although Florence is a treasury of great art and architecture, it is neither easy nor pleasant to view it; after two lengthy visits there myself, Renaissance student that I am, every criticism of hers rings true. I studied Renaissance History at Cornell University, in upstate New York, so Florence was pretty much a must-see for me. But I must say the people are as obdurate as their local stone, interested in their own concerns, and not necessarily thrilled by the throngs of tourists clogging their streets. The streets and sidewalks themselves are generally made of stone, very noisy, wherever you are. Sidewalks are just two to three feet wide: if you're forced into the roadway you risk your life under the wheels of the motorbikes and motorcycles whizzing by. You will never find a soft, non-stone bench to rest your feet. And the city grew in the valley of the river Arno: it's suffocatingly hot in summer, chilly, damp, rainy otherwise. Furthermore the Arno is prone to flooding of historic proportions.
Still, to be sure, this city is a magnet for visitors from around the world. If you dream of it too, prepare yourself: read this book first. No English-speaking writer better understood Florence, or had wider, denser scholarship to offer on the subject.
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THE STONES OF FLORENCE is both direct and impressionistic. McCarthy's prose moves right along, never bogged down by a "perhaps" or the need to recite contemporary opinion. Her progress from the 14th to the 16th century is zig-zaggy, so that most of the Renaissance is spoken of as if on a continuum. There is a sly wit at work (in the personality contest, the score is Leonardo 10, Michelangelo 0) and McCarthy presents a strong spine-she is unequivocal about the decline of the Renaissance in the 16th century as the major players moved away from Florence and the populace fell into a "gee-gaw" mentality.
This is a travelogue and, after a fashion, an art history catalogue, and yet there are no pictures (in this edition). That and its not too chronological organization would suggest an abstract mess but it is nothing of the kind. I became very much aware of how much of the Renaissance was covered in my early education as every reference brought up old lessons and visits to museums out of the tar pits of memory. I felt at home, not at a loss.
The paperback version is text only. No photographs. The description of the book on Amazon and other resources fails to mention this distinction.
I ordered the book for the photographs. Then returned it and ordered a used copy of the hardcover.
She makes you feel the stones and all they have seen.