Filippo Baldinucci on the Privilege of Burial

A Reminiscence of A.D. 1676

Robert Browning

“NO, boy, we must not”—so began
    My Uncle (he’s with God long since),
A-petting me, the good old man!
    “We must not”—and he seemed to wince,
And lost that laugh whereto had grown
    His chuckle at my piece of news,
How cleverly I aimed my stone—
    “I fear we must not pelt the Jews!

“When I was young indeed,—ah, faith
    Was young and strong in Florence too!
We Christians never dreamed of scathe
    Because we cursed or kicked the crew.
But now—well, well! The olive-crops
    Weighed double then, and Arno’s pranks
Would always spare religious shops
    Whenever he o’erflowed his banks!

“I’ll tell you”—and his eye regained
    Its twinkle—“tell you something choice!
Something may help you keep unstained
    Your honest zeal to stop the voice
Of unbelief with stone-throw—spite
    Of Laws, which modern fools enact,
That we must suffer Jews in sight
    Go wholly unmolested! Fact!

“There was, then, in my youth, and yet
    Is, by our San Frediano, just
Below the Blessed Olivet,
    A wayside ground wherein they thrust
Their dead,—these Jews,—the more our shame!
    Except that, so they will but die,
Christians perchance incur no blame
    In giving hogs a hoist to sty.

“There, anyhow, Jews stow away
    Their dead; and—such their insolence—
Slink at odd times to sing and pray
    As Christians do—all make-pretence!—
Which wickedness they perpetrate
    Because they think no Christians see.
They reckoned here, at any rate,
    Without their host: ha, ha! he, he!

“For, what should join their plot of ground
    But a good Farmer’s Christian field?
The Jews had hedged their corner round
    With bramble-bush to keep concealed
Their doings: for the public road
    Ran betwixt this their ground and that
The Farmer’s, where he ploughed and sowed,
    Grew corn for barn and grapes for vat.

“So, properly to guard his store
    And gall the unbelievers too,
He builds a shrine and, what is more,
    Procures a painter whom I knew,
One Buti (he’s with God), to paint
    A holy picture there—no less
Than Virgin Mary free from taint
    Borne to the sky by angels: yes!

“Which shrine he fixed,—who says him nay?—
    A-facing with its picture-side
Not, as you’d think, the public way,
    But just where sought these hounds to hide
Their carrion from that very truth
    Of Mary’s triumph: not a hound
Could act his mummeries uncouth
    But Mary shamed the pack all round!

“Now, if it was amusing, judge!
    —To see the company arrive,
Each Jew intent to end his trudge
    And take his pleasure (though alive)
With all his Jewish kith and kin
    Below ground, have his venom out,
Sharpen his wits for next day’s sin,
    Curse Christians, and so home, no doubt!

“Whereas, each phiz upturned beholds
    Mary, I warrant, soaring brave!
And in a trice, beneath the folds
    Of filthy garb which gowns each knave,
Down drops it—there to hide grimace,
    Contortion of the mouth and nose
At finding Mary in the place
    They’d keep for Pilate, I suppose!

“At last, they will not brook—not they!—
    Longer such outrage on their tribe:
So, in some hole and corner, lay
    Their heads together—how to bribe
The meritorious Farmer’s self
    To straight undo his work, restore
Their chance to meet and muse on pelf—
    Pretending sorrow, as before!

“Forthwith, a posse, if you please,
    Of Rabbi This and Rabbi That
Almost go down upon their knees
    To get him lay the picture flat.
The spokesman, eighty years of age,
    Gray as a badger, with a goat’s
Not only beard but bleat, ’gins wage
    War with our Mary. Thus he dotes:—

‘Friends, grant a grace! How Hebrews toil
    Through life in Florence—why relate
To those who lay the burden, spoil
    Our paths of peace? We bear our fate.
But when with life the long toil ends,
    Why must you—the expression craves
Pardon, but truth compels me, friends!—
    Why must you plague us in our graves?

“‘Thoughtlessly plague, I would believe!
    For how can you—the lords of ease
By nurture, birthright—e’en conceive
    Our luxury to lie with trees
And turf,—the cricket and the bird
    Left for our last companionship:
No harsh deed, no unkindly word,
    No frowning brow nor scornful lip!

“‘Death’s luxury, we now rehearse
    While, living, through your streets we fare
And take your hatred: nothing worse
    Have we, once dead and safe, to bear!
So we refresh our souls, fulfil
    Our works, our daily tasks; and thus
Gather you grain—earth’s harvest—still
    The wheat for you, the straw for us.

“‘What flouting in face, what harm,
    In just a lady borne from bier
By boys’ heads, wings for leg and arm?’
    You question. Friends, the harm is here—
That just when our last sigh is heaved,
    And we would fain thank God and you
For labor done and peace achieved,
    Back comes the Past in full review!

“‘At sight of just that simple flag,
    Starts the foe-feeling serpent-like
From slumber. Leave it lulled, nor drag—
    Though fangless—forth what needs must strike
When stricken sore, though stroke be vain
    Against the mailed oppressor! Give
Play to our fancy that we gain
    Life’s rights when once we cease to live!

“‘Thus much to courtesy, to kind,
    To conscience! Now to Florence folk!
There’s core beneath this apple-rind,
    Beneath this white-of-egg there’s yolk!
Beneath this prayer to courtesy,
    Kind, conscience—there’s a sum to pouch!
How many ducats down will buy
    Our shame’s removal, sirs? Avouch!

“‘Removal, not destruction, sirs!
    Just turn your picture! Let it front
The public path! Or memory errs,
    Or that same public path is wont
To witness many a chance befall
    Of lust, theft, bloodshed—sins enough,
Wherein our Hebrew part is small.
    Convert yourselves!
’—he cut up rough.

“Look you, how soon a service pair
    Religion yields the servant fruit!
A prompt reply our Farmer made
    So following: ‘Sirs, to grant your suit
Involves much danger! How? Transpose
    Our Lady? Stop the chastisement,
All for your good, herself bestows?
    What wonder if I grudge consent?

“’—Yet grant it: since, what cash I take
    Is so much saved from wicked use.
We know you! And, for Mary’s sake,
    A hundred ducats shall induce
Concession to your prayer. One day
    Suffices: Master Buti’s brush
Turns Mary round the other way,
    And deluges your side with slush.

Down with the ducats therefore!’ Dump,
    Dump, dump it falls, each counted piece
Hard gold. Then out of door they stump,
    These dogs, each brisk as with new lease
Of life, I warrant,—glad he’ll die
    Henceforward just as he may choose,
Be buried and in clover lie!
    Well said Esaias—‘stiff-necked Jews!

“Off posts without a minute’s loss
    Our Farmer, once the cash in poke,
And summons Buti—ere its gloss
    Have time to fade from off the joke—
To chop and change his work, undo
    The done side, make the side, now blank,
Recipient of our Lady—who,
    Displaced thus, had these dogs to thank!

“Now, boy, you’re hardly to instruct
    In technicalities of Art!
My nephew’s childhood sure has sucked
    Along with mother’s-milk some part
Of painter’s-practice—learned, at least
    How expeditiously is plied
A work in fresco—never ceased
    When once begun—a day, each side.

“So, Buti—(he’s with God)—begins:
    First covers up the shrine all round
With hoarding; then, as like as twins,
    Paints, t’other side the burial-ground,
New Mary, every point the same;
    Next, sluices over, as agreed,
The old; and last—but, spoil the game
    By telling you? Not I, indeed!

“Well, ere the week was half at end,
    Out came the object of this zeal,
This fine alacrity to spend
    Hard money for mere dead men’s weal!
How think you? That old spokesman Jew
    Was High Priest, and he had a wife
As old, and she was dying too,
    And wished to end in peace her life!

“And he must humor dying whims,
    And soothe her with the idle hope
They’d say their prayers and sing their hymns
    As if her husband were the Pope!
And she did die—believing just
    This privilege was purchased! Dead
In comfort through her foolish trust!
    ‘Stiff-necked ones,’ well Esaias said!

“So, Sabbath morning, out of gate
    And on to way, what sees our arch
Good Farmer? Why, they hoist their freight—
    The corpse—on shoulder, and so, march!
Now for it, Buti!’ In the nick
    Of time ’tis pully-hauly, hence
With hoarding! O’er the wayside quick
    There’s Mary plain in evidence!

“And here’s the convoy halting: right!
    Oh, they are bent on howling psalms
And growling prayers, when opposite!
    And yet they glance, for all their qualms,
Approve that promptitude of his,
    The Farmer’s—duly at his post
To take due thanks from every phiz,
    Sour smirk—nay, surly smile almost!

“Then earthward drops each brow again;
    The solemn task’s resumed; they reach
Their holy field—the unholy train:
    Enter its precinct, all and each,
Wrapt somehow in their godless rites;
    Till, rites at end, up-waking, lo,
They lift their faces! What delights
    The mourners as they turn to go?

“Ha, ha! he, he! On just the side
    They drew their purse-strings to make quit
Of Mary,—Christ the Crucified
    Fronted them now—these biters bit!
Never was such a hiss and snort,
    Such screwing nose and shooting lip!
Their purchase—honey in report—
    Proved gall and verjuice at first sip!

“Out they break, on they bustle, where,
    A-top of wall, the Farmer waits
With Buti: never fun so rare!
    The Farmer has the best: he rates
The rascal, as the old High Priest
    Takes on himself to sermonize—
Nay, sneer, ‘We Jews supposed, at least,
    Theft was a crime in Christian eyes!

‘Theft?’ cries the Farmer. ‘Eat your words!
    Show me what constitutes a breach
Of faith in aught was said or heard!
    I promised you in plainest speech
I’d take the thing you count disgrace
    And put it here—and here ’tis put!
Did you suppose I’d leave the place
    Blank therefore, just your rage to glut?

“’I guess you dared not stipulate
    For such a damned impertinence!
So, quick, my graybeard, out of gate
    And in at Ghetto! Haste you hence!
As long as I have house and land,
    To spite you irreligious chaps,
Here shall the Crucifixion stand—
    Unless you down with cash, perhaps!

“So snickered he and Buti both.
    The Jews said nothing, interchanged
A glance or two, renewed their oath
    To keep ears stopped and hearts estranged
From grace, for all our Church can do;
    Then off they scuttle: sullen jog
Homewards, against our Church to brew
    Fresh mischief in their synagogue.

“But next day—see what happened, boy!
    See why I bid you have a care
How you pelt Jews! The knaves employ
    Such methods of revenge, forbear
No outrage on our faith, when free
    To wreak their malice! Here they took
So base a method—plague o’ me
    If I record it in my Book!

“For, next day while the Farmer sat
    Laughing with Buti, in his shop,
At their successful joke,—rat-tat,—
    Door opens, and they’re like to drop
Down to the floor as in there stalks
    A six-feet-high herculean-built
Young he-Jew with a beard that balks
    Description. ‘Help ere blood be spilt!

—“Screamed Buti: for he recognized
    Whom but the son, no less no more,
Of that High Priest his work surprised
    So pleasantly the day before!
Son of the mother, then, whereof
    The bier he lent a shoulder to,
And made the moans about, dared scoff
    At sober Christian grief—the Jew!

“‘Sirs, I salute you! Never rise!
    No apprehension!
’ (Buti, white
And trembling like a tub of size,
    Had tried to smuggle out of sight
The picture’s self—the thing in oils,
    You know, from which a fresco’s dash
Which courage speeds while caution spoils)
    ‘Stay and be praised, sir, unabashed!

“‘Praised,—ay, and paid too: for I come
    To buy that very work of yours.
My poor abode, which boasts—well, some
    Few specimens of Art, secures,
Haply, a masterpiece indeed
    If I should find my humble means
Suffice the outlay. So, proceed!
    Propose—ere prudence intervenes!

“On Buti, cowering like a child,
    These words descended from aloft,
In tone so ominously mild,
    With smile terrifically soft
To that degree—could Buti dare
    (Poor fellow) use his brains, think twice?
He asked, thus taken unaware,
    No more than just the proper price!

“‘Done!’ cries the monster. ‘I disburse
    Forthwith your moderate demand.
Count on my custom—if no worse
    Your future work be, understand,
Than this I carry off! No aid!
    My arm, sir, lacks nor bone nor thews:
The burden’s easy, and we’re made,
    Easy or hard, to bear—we Jews!

“Crossing himself at such escape,
    Buti by turns the money eyes
And, timidly, the stalwart shape
    Now moving doorwards; but, more wise,
The Farmer—who, though dumb, this while
    Had watched advantage—straight conceived
A reason for that tone and smile
    So mild and soft! The Jew—believed!

“Mary in triumph borne to deck
    A Hebrew household! Pictured where
No one was used to bend the neck
    In praise or bow the knee in prayer!
Borne to that domicile by whom?
    The son of the High Priest! Through what?
An insult done his mother’s tomb!
    Saul changed to Paul—the case came pat!

“‘Stay, dog-Jew . . . gentle sir, that is!
    Resolve me! Can it be, she crowned,—
Mary, by miracle,—oh bliss!—
    My prevent to your burial-ground?
Certain, a ray of light has burst
    Your vale of darkness! Had you else,
Only for Mary’s sake, an pursed
    So much hard money? Tell—oh, tell’s!

“Round—like a serpent that we took
    For worm and trod on-turns his bulk
About the Jew. First dreadful look
    Sends Buti in a trice to skulk
Out of sight somewhere, safe—alack!
    But our good Farmer faith made bold:
And firm (with Florence at his back)
    He stood, while gruff the gutturals rolled—

“‘Ay, sir, a miracle was worked,
    By quite another power, I trow,
Than ever yet in canvas lurked,
    Or you would scarcely face me now!
A certain impulse did suggest
    A certain grasp with this right-hand,
Which probably had put to rest
    Our quarrel,—thus your throat once spanned!

“‘But I remembered me, subdued
    That impulse, and you face me still!
And soon a philosophic mood
    Succeeding (hear it, if you will!)
Has altogether changed my views
    Concerning Art! Blind prejudice!
Well may you Christians tax us Jews
    With scrupulosity too nice!

“‘For, don’t I see,—let’s issue join!—
    Whenever I’m allowed pollute
(I—and my little bag of coin)
    Some Christian palace of repute,—
Don’t I see stuck up everywhere
    Abundant proof that cultured taste
Has Beauty for its only care,
    And upon Truth no thought to waste?

“‘’Jew, since it must be, take in pledge
    Of payment ‘—so a Cardinal
has sighed to me as if a wedge
    Entered his heart—
’ this best of all
My treasures! ‘Leda, Ganymede
    Or Antiope: swan, eagle, ape.
(Or what’s the beast of what’s the breed,)
    And Jupiter in every shape!

“‘Whereat if I presume to ask
    ’But, Eminence, though Titian’s whisk
Of brush have well performed its task,
    How comes it these false godships frisk
In presence of—what yonder frame
    Pretends to image? Surely, odd
It seems, you let confront The Name
    Each beast the heathen called his god!’

“‘Benignant smiles me pity straight
    The Cardinal
. ’Tis Truth, we prize!
Art’s the sole question in debate!
    These subjects are so many lies.
We treat them with a proper scorn
    When we turn lies—called gods forsooth—
To lies’ fit use, now Christ is born.
    Drawing and coloring are Truth.

“‘Think you I honor lies so much
    As scruple to parade the charms
Of Leda—Titian, every touch—
    Because the thing within her arms
Means Jupiter who had the praise
    And prayer of a benighted world?
He would have mine too, if, in days
    Of light, I kept the canvas furled!’

“‘So ending, with some easy gibe.
    What power has logic! I, at once,
Acknowledged error in our tribe
    So squeamish that, when friends ensconce
A pretty picture in its niche
    To do us honor, deck our graves,
We fret and fume and have an itch
    To strangle folk—ungrateful knaves!

“‘No, sir! Be sure that—what’s its style,
    Your picture?—shall possess ungrudged
A place among my rank and file
    Of Ledas and what not—be judged
Just as a picture! and (because
    I fear me much I scarce have bought
A Titian) Master Buti’s flaws
    Found there, will have the laugh flaws ought!

“So, with a scowl, it darkens door—
    This bulk—no longer! But makes
Prompt glad re-entry; there’s a score
    Of oaths, as the good Farmer wakes
From what must needs have been a trance,
    Or he had struck (he swears) to ground
The bold bad mouth that dared advance
    Such doctrine the reverse of sound!

“Was magic here? Most like! For, since,
    Somehow our city’s faith grows still
More and more lukewarm. and our Prince
    Or loses heart or wants the will
To check increase of cold. ’Tis ‘Live
    And let live! Languidly repress
The Dissident! In short,—contrive
    Christians must bear with Jews: no less!

“The end seems, any Israelite
    Wants any picture,—pishes, poops,
Purchases, hangs it full in sight
    In any chamber he may choose!
In Christ’s crown, one more thorn we rue!
    In Mary’s bosom, one more sword!
No, boy, you must not pelt a Jew!
    O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord?”

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