A Hill-Top Stronghold by Grant Allen

Story type: Essay

‘Why, what did they want to build a city right up here for, anyway?’ the pretty American asked, who had come with us to Fiesole, as we rested, panting, after our long steep climb, on the cathedral platform.

Now the question was a pertinent and in its way a truly philosophical one. Fiesole crests the ridge of a Tuscan hill, and in America they don’t build cities on hill-tops. You may search through the length and breadth of the United States, from Maine to California, and I venture to bet a modest dollar you won’t find a single town perched anywhere in a position at all resembling that of many a glowing Etrurian fastness, that ‘Like an eagle’s nest Hangs on the crest Of purple Apennine.’ Towns in America stand all on the level: most of them are built by harbours of sea or inland lake; or by navigable rivers; or at the junction of railways; or at a point where cataracts (sadly debased) supply ample water-power for saw-mills and factories; or else in the immediate neighbourhood of coal, iron, oil wells, or gold and silver mines. In short, the position of American towns bears always an immediate and obvious reference to the wants and necessities of our modern industrial and commercial system. They are towns that have grown up in a state of profound peace, and that imply advanced means of communication, with a free interchange of agricultural and manufactured products.

Hence in America it is always quite easy to see at a glance the raison d’etre of every town or village one comes across. New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore–New Orleans, Montreal, San Francisco, Charleston–are all great ports for the exportation of corn, pork, ‘lumber,’ cotton, or tobacco, and the importation of European manufactured goods. Chicago is the main collecting and distributing centre for the wide basin of the upper Great Lakes, as Cincinnati is for the Ohio Valley, and St. Louis for the Mississippi and Missouri confluents. Pittsburg bases itself upon its coal and its iron; Buffalo exists as the point of transfer where elevators raise the corn of Chicago from lake-going vessels into the long, low barges of the Erie Canal. In every case, in that newest of worlds, one can see for oneself at a glance exactly why so large a body of human beings has collected just at that precise spot, and at no other.

But when you have toiled up, hot and breathless, through olive and pine, from the Viale at Florence to the antique Cyclopean walls of Etruscan Faesulae, you wonder to yourself, like our American friend, as you pant on the terrace of the Romanesque cathedral, what on earth they could ever have wanted to build a town up there for, anyway.

If we look away from Tuscany to our own England, however, we shall find on many a deserted down or lonely tor ample evidence of the causes which led the people of this ancient Etruscan town to build their citadel at so great a height above the neighbouring valley. Fiesole, says Dante, in a well-known verse, was the mother of Florence. Even so in England, Old Sarum was indeed the mother of Salisbury, and Caer Badon or Sulis was the mother of Bath. And when there was first a Faesulae on the hill here there could be no Florence, as when first there was an Old Sarum on the Wiltshire downs there could be no Salisbury, and when first there was a Caer Badon on the heights of Avon there could be no Bath.

In very early times indeed, in the European land area, when men began first to gather together into towns or villages, two necessities determined their choice of a place to dwell in: first, food-supply (including water); and second, defence. Hence every early community stands, to start with, near its own cultivable territory, usually a broad river-valley, an alluvial plain, a ‘carse’ or lowland, for uplands as yet were incapable of tillage by the primitive agriculture of those early epochs. But it does not stand actually in the carse; it occupies as a rule the nearest convenient height or hill-top, most often the one that juts out farthest into the subjacent plain, by way of security against the attack of enemies. This is the beginning of almost every great historical European town; it is an arx or acropolis overhanging its own tilth or ager; and though in many cases the town came down at last into the valley, retaining still its old name, yet the remains of the old earthworks or walls on the hill-top above often bear witness to our own day to the original site of the antique settlement upon the high places.

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One can mark, too, various stages in this gradual process of secular descent from the wind-swept hills into the valleys below, as freer communications and greater security made access to water, roads, and rivers of greater importance than mere defence or elevated position. At Bath, for example, it was the Pax Romana that brought down the town from the stockaded height of Caer Badon, and the Hill of Solisbury to the ford and the hot springs in the valley of the Avon. At Old Sarum, on the other hand, the hill-top town remained much longer: it lived from the Celtic first into the Roman and then into the West Saxon world; it had a cathedral of its own in Norman times; and even long after Bishop Roger Poore founded the New Sarum, which we now call Salisbury, at the point where the great west road passed the river below, the hill-top town continued to be inhabited, and, as everybody knows, when all its population had finally dwindled away, retained some vestige of its ancient importance by returning a member of its own for a single farmhouse to the unreformed Parliament till ’32. As for Fiesole, though Florence has long since superseded it as the capital of the Arno Valley, the town itself still lives on to our own time in a dead-alive way, and, like Norman. Old Sarum, retains even now its beautiful old cathedral, its Palazzo Pretorio, and its acknowledged claims to ancient boroughship. In England, I know by personal experience only one such hill-top town of the antique sort still surviving, and that is Shaftsbury; but I am told that Launceston, with its strong castle overlooking the Tamar, is even a finer example. This relatively early disappearance of the hill-top fortress from our own midst is in part due, no doubt, to the early growth of the industrial spirit in England, and our long-continued freedom from domestic warfare. But all over Southern Europe, as everybody must have noticed, the hill-top town, perched, like Eza, on the very summit of a pointed pinnacle, still remains everywhere in evidence as a common object of the country in our own day.

I said above that Fiesole was the mother of Florence, and, in spite of formal objections to the contrary, I venture to defend that now somewhat obsolete and heretical opinion. For why does Fiesole stand just where it does? What made them build a city up there, anyway? Well, a town always exists just where it does exist for some good and amply sufficient reason. Even if, like Fiesole, it is mainly a survival (though at Fiesole there are, indeed, olives in plenty and other live trades to keep a town going), it yet exists there in virtue of facts which once upon a time were quite sufficient to bring the world to the spot, and it goes on existing, partly by mere conservative use and wont, no doubt, but partly also because there are houses, churches, mills, and roads all ready built there. Now, a town must always, from a very early period, have existed upon the exact site of Fiesole. And why? To answer that question you have only to look at the view from the platform. I do not mean to suggest that the ancient Etruscans came there to enjoy the prospect as we go nowadays to the hotels on the Rigi or to the summit of Mount Washington. The ancient Etruscan was a practical man, and his views about views were probably rudimentary. But gaze down for a moment from the cathedral platform upon the valley of the Arno, spread like a glowing picture at your feet, and see how immediately it resolves the doubt. Not, indeed, the valley of the Arno as it stands at present, thick set with tower and spire and palace. In order to arrive at the raison d’etre of Fiesole you must blot out mentally Arnolfo’s vast pile, and Brunelleschi’s dome, and Giotto’s campanile, and Savonarola’s monastery, and the tall and slender tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, rising like a shaft sheer into the air far, far below–you must blot out, in short, all that makes the world now congregate at Florence, and all Florence itself into the bargain. Nowhere on earth do I know a more peopled plain than that plain of Arno in our own time, seen on a sunny autumn day, when the light glints clearly on each white villa and church and hamlet, from this specular mount of antique Fiesole. But to understand why Fiesole itself stands there at all you must neglect all this, neglect all the wealth of art that makes each inch of that valley classic ground, and look only, if you can for a brief moment, at the bare facts of primitive nature.

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And what then do you see? Spread far below you, and basking in the sunshine, a comparatively flat and wide, open valley; olive and stone pine and mulberry on its slopes; pasture land and flowery vale in its midst. North and south, in two long ridges, the Apennines stretch their hard, blue outlines from Carrara to Siena against the afternoon sky–outlines of a sort that one never gets in northern lands, but which remind one so exactly of the painted background to a fifteenth-century Italian picture that nature seems here, to our topsy-turvy fancy, to be whimsically imitating an effect from art. But in between those two tossed and tumbled guardian ridges, the valley of the Arno, as it flows towards Pisa, with the minor basins of its tributary streams, expands for a while about Florence itself into a broad and comparatively level plain. In a mountain country so broken and heaved about as Peninsular Italy, every spare inch of cultivable plain like that has incalculable value. True, on the terraced slopes of the hillsides generation after generation of ingenious men have managed to build up, tier by tier, a wonderful expanse of artificial tilth. But while oil and wine can be produced upon the terraces, it is on the river valleys alone that the early inhabitants had to depend for their corn, their cheese, and their flesh-meat. Hence, in primitive Italy and in primitive England alike, every such open alluvial plain, fit for tilth or grazing, had overhanging it a stockaded hill-fort, which grew with time into a mediaeval town or a walled city. It is just so that Caer Badon at Bath overhangs, with its prehistoric earthworks, the plain of Avon on which Beau Nash’s city now spreads its streets, and it is just so that Old Sarum in turn overhangs, with its regular Roman fosses and gigantic glacis, the dale of the namesake river in Wilts, near its point of confluence with the stream of the Wily.

We find it hard, no doubt, to imagine nowadays that once upon a time England was almost as thickly covered with hill-top villages (though on minor heights) as Italy is in the present century. Yet such was undoubtedly the case in prehistoric times. I know no better instance of the way these stockaded villages were built than the magnificent group of antique earthworks in Dorset and Devon which rings round with a double row of fortresses the beautiful valley of the Axminster Axe. There, on one side, a long line of strongholds built by the Durotriges caps every jutting down and hill-top on the southern and eastern bank of the river, while facing them, on the opposite northern and western side, rises a similar series of Damnonian fortresses, crowning the corresponding Devonshire heights. Lambert’s Castle, Musberry Castle, Hawksdown Castle, and so forth, the local nomenclature still calls them, but they are castles, or castra, only in the now obsolete Roman sense; prehistoric earthworks, with dyke and trench, once stockaded with wooden palings on top, and enclosing the huts and homes of the inhabitants. The river ran between the hostile territories; each village held its own strip of land below its fortress-height, and drove up its cattle, its women, and its children, in times of foray, to the safety of the kraal or hill-top encampment.

In such a condition of society, of course, every community was absolutely dependent upon its own territory for the means of subsistence. And wherever the means of subsistence existed, a village was sure to spring up in time upon the nearest hill-top. That is how the oldest Fiesole of all first came to be perched there. It was a hill-top refuge for the tillers and grazers of the fertile Arno vale at its feet.

But why did the people of the Arno Valley fix upon the particular site of Fiesole? Surely on the southern side of the river, about the Viale dei Colli, the hills approach much nearer to the plain. From San Miniato and the Bello Sguardo one looks down far more directly upon the domes and palaces and campaniles of Florence spread right at one’s feet. Why didn’t the primitive inhabitants of the valley fix rather on a spur of that nearer range–say the one where Galileo’s tower stands–for the site of their village?

If you know Florence and have asked that question within yourself in all seriousness as you read, I see you haven’t yet begun to throw yourself into the position of affairs in prehistoric Tuscany. You can’t shuffle off your own century. For between the broad plain and the range of hills where the Viale dei Colli now winds serpentine on its beautiful way round the glens and ravines, the Arno runs, a broad torrent flood in times of freshet: the Arno, unbridged as yet (in the days I speak of) by the Ponte Vecchio, an impassable frontier between the wide territory of prehistoric Fiesole and the narrow fields of some minor village, long since forgotten, on the opposite bank. The great alluvial plain lies north of the river; the three streams whose silt contributes to form it flow into the main channel from Pistoja and Prato. To live across the river on the south bank would have been absolutely impossible for the owners of the plain. But Fiesole occupies a central spur of the northern heights, overlooking the valley to east and west, and must therefore have been always the natural place from which to command the plain of Arno. A little above and a little below Florence gorges once more hem the river in. So that the plain of Florence (as we call it nowadays), the plain of Fiesole, as it once was, formed at the beginning a little natural principality by itself, of which Fiesole was the obvious capital and stronghold.

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For in order to understand Fiesole aright, we must always manage in our own minds to get rid entirely of that beautiful mushroom growth, Florence, and to think only of the most ancient epoch. While we are in Florence itself, to be sure, it seems to us always, by comparison with our modern English towns, that Florence is a place of immemorial antiquity. It was civilized when Britain was a den of thieves. While in feudal England Edward I. was summoning his barons to repress the rising of William Wallace, in Florence, already a great commercial town, Arnolfo di Cambio had received the sublime orders of the Signoria to construct for the Duomo ‘the most sumptuous edifice that human invention could desire or human labour execute,’ and had carried out those orders with consummate skill. While Edward III. was dreaming of his lawless filibustering expeditions into France, Ciotto was encrusting the face of his glorious belfry with that magnificent decoration of many-coloured marbles which makes northern churches look so cold and grey and barbaric by comparison. While Englishmen were burning Joan of Arc at Rouen, Fra Angelico was adorning the walls of San Marco with those rapt saints and those spotless Madonnas. Even the very back streets of Florence recall at every step its mediaeval magnificence. But when from Florence itself one turns to Fiesole, the city by the Arno sinks at once by a sudden revulsion into a mere thing of yesterday by the side of the city on the Etruscan hill-top. Fiesole was a town of immemorial antiquity while Florence was still, what perhaps its poetical name imports, a field of flowers.

But why this particular height rather than any other of the dozen that jut out into the plain? Well, there we get at another fundamental point in hill-top town history. Fiesole had water. A spring at such a height is comparatively rare, but it is a necessary accompaniment, or rather a condition precedent, of all high-place villages. In the Borgo Unto you will still find this spring–a natural fountain, the Fonte Sotterra–in an underground passage, now approached (so greatly did the Fiesolans appreciate its importance) by a Gothic archway. The water supplies the whole neighbourhood; and that accounts for the position of the town on the low col just below the acropolis.

Who first chose the site it would be impossible to say; the earliest stockaded fort at Fiesole (enclosing the town and arx above) must go back to the very dawn of neolithic history, long before the Etruscans had ever issued forth from their Rhaetian fastnesses to occupy the blue and silver-grey hills of modern Tuscany. Nor do we know who built the great Cyclopean walls, whose huge rough blocks still overhang the modern carriage road that leads past Boccaccio’s Valley of the Ladies and Fra Angelico’s earliest convent from the town in the Valley. They are attributed to the Etruscans, of course, on much the same grounds as Stonehenge is attributed to the Druids–because in the minds of the people who made the attribution Etruscans and Druids were each in their own place the ne plus ultra of aboriginal antiquity. But at any rate, at some very early time, the people who held the valley of the Arno erected these vast megalithic walls round their city and citadel as a protection, probably, against the people who held the Ligurian sea-board. Throughout the early historical period at least we know that Faesulae was an Etruscan border-town against the Ligurian freebooters, and we can see that the arx or acropolis of Faesulae must have occupied the hill-top now occupied by the Franciscan monastery on the height above the town, while the houses must have spread, as they still do within shrunken limits, about the spring and over the col at its base.

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Faesulae was not one of the great Etrurian cities, not one of the twelve cities of the Etruscan League. Volterra occupies the site of the large Tuscan town which lorded it over this part of the Lower Apennines. But Faesulae must still have been a considerable place, to judge by the magnitude and importance of its fortifications, and it must have gathered into itself the entire population of all the little Arno plain. As long as fortis Etruria crevit, Faesulae must always have held its own as a frontier post against the Ligurian foe. But when fortis Etruria began to decline, and Rome to become the summit of all things, the glory of Faesulae received a severe shock. Not indeed by conquest–that counts for little–but the Roman peace introduced into Italy a new order of things, fatal to the hill-tops. Sulla, who humbled Faesulae, did far worse than that: he planted a Roman colony in the valley at its foot–the colony of Florentia–at the point where the road crossed the Arno–the colony that was afterwards to become the most famous commercial and artistic town of the mediaeval world as Florence.

The position of the new town marks the change that had come over the conditions of life in Upper Italy. Florence was a Fiesole descended to the plain. And it descended for just the selfsame reason that made Bishop Poore thirteen centuries later bring down Sarum from its lofty hill-top to the new white minster by the ford of Avon. Roads, communications, internal trade were henceforth to exist and to count for much; what was needed now was a post and trading town on the river to guard the passage from north to south against possible aggression. Fiesole had been but a mountain stronghold; Florence was marked from the very beginning by its mere position as a great commercial and manufacturing town.

Nevertheless, just as in mediaeval England the upper town on the hill, the castled town of the barons, often existed for many years side by side with the lower town on the river, the high-road town of the merchant guilds–just as Old Sarum, for example, continued to exist side by side with Salisbury–so Faesulae continued to exist side by side with Florentia. As a military post, commanding the plain, it was needful to retain it; and so, though Sulla destroyed in part its population, he reinstated it before long as one of his own Roman colonies. And for a long time, during the ages of doubtful peace that succeeded the first glorious flush of the military empire, Faesulae must have kept up its importance unchanged. The remains of the Roman theatre on the slope behind the cathedral–great stone semicircles carved on a scale to seat a large audience–betoken a considerable Roman town. And from a very early period it seems to have possessed a Christian church, whose first bishop, according to a tradition as good as most, was a convert of St. Peter’s, and was martyred, says his legend, in the Neronian persecution. The existing cathedral, its later representative, is still an early and very simple Tuscan basilica, with picturesque crypt and raised choir, of a very plain Romanesque type. It looks like a fitting church for the mother-town of Florence; it seems to recall in its own cold and austere fabric the more ancient claims of the sombre Etruscan hill-top city.

It was the middle ages, however, that finally brought down Fiesole in earnest to the plain. Pisa had been the earliest Tuscan town to attain importance and maritime supremacy after the dark days of barbarian incursion; but as soon as land-transit once more assumed general importance, Florence, seated on the great route from the north to Rome by Siena, and commanding the passage of the Arno and the gate of the Apennines, naturally began to surpass in time its distanced rival. As early as the Roman days a bridge is said to have spanned the Arno on the site of the existing Ponte Vecchio. The mediaeval walls enclosed the southern tete du pont within their picturesque circuit, thus securing the passage of the river and giving Florence its little Janiculus, the Oltrarno, with its southern exit by the Porta Romana. The real ‘makers of Florence’ were the humble workmen who thus extended the firm hold of the growing republic to the southern bank. By so doing, they gave their city undoubted command of the imperial route from Germany Romeward, and brought in their train Dante and Giotto, Brunelleschi and Donatello, Fra Angelico and Savonarola, the Medici and the Pitti, Michael Angelo and Raffaele, and all the glories of the Renaissance epoch. For as at Athens, so in Florence, art and literature followed plainly in the wake of commerce. But the rise of Florence was the fall of Fiesole. Already in the eleventh century the undutiful daughter had conquered and annexed her venerable mother; and in proportion as the mercantile importance of the city in the plain waxed greater and greater, that of the city on the hill-top must slowly have waned to less and less. At the present day Fiesole has degenerated into a mere suburb of Florence, which, indeed, it had almost become when Lorenzo the Magnificent held his country court at the Villa Mozzi, or even earlier, when Boccaccio’s lively narrators fled from the plague to the gardens of the Palmieri, though it still retains the dignity of its ancient cathedral, its municipal palace, its gigantic seminary, and its great overgrown Franciscan monastery, that replaces the citadel on the height above the town. Nay, more, with its local museum, its bishop’s palace, and its quaint churches, it keeps up, to some extent, all the airs and graces of a real living town. But in reality these few big buildings, and the graceful campanile which makes so fair a show in all the neighbouring views, are the best of the little city. Fiesole looks biggest seen from afar. All that is vital in it is the ecclesiastical establishment, which still clings, with true ecclesiastical conservatism, to the hill-top city, and the trade of the straw plaiters, who make Leghorn straw goods and pester the visitor with their flimsy wares, taking no answer to all their importunities save one in solid coin of good King Umberto.

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One last question. How does it come that in these southern climates the hill-top town has survived so much more generally to our own day than in Northern Europe? The obvious answer seems at first sight to be that in the warmer climates life can be carried on comfortably, and agriculture can yield good results, at a greater height than in a cold climate. Olives, vines, chestnuts, maize will grow far up on Italian hill sides, and that, no doubt, counts for something; but I do not believe it covers all the ground. Two other points seem to me at least equally important, especially when we remember that the hill-top town was once as common in the north as in the south, and that what we have really to account for in Italy is not its existence merely, but rather its late survival into newer epochs. One point is that in Southern Europe the state of perpetual internal warfare lasted much longer than in the feudal north. The other point is that each little patch of country in the south is still far more self-supporting, has had its economic conditions far less disturbed by modern rearrangements and commercial necessities, than in Northern Europe. In England every town and village stands upon some high road; the larger stand almost invariably upon some railway or some navigable river. In Italy it is still quite possible, where agricultural conditions are favourable, to have a comparatively flourishing town perched upon some out-of-the-way mountain height. Even a carriage road is scarcely a necessity; a mule path will do well enough for wine and oil and the other simple commodities of southern life. The hill-top town, in short, belongs to an earlier type of civilisation than ours; it survives, unaltered, on its own pinnacle wherever that type of civilisation is still possible.

And I sincerely hope our pretty American friend will pardon me for having thus publicly answered, at so great length, her natural question.

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