What types of details did George Eliot use to recreate the market scene in Romola? Which are specific to the novel's time and place? Which details provide clues about daily life in 15th century Florence?
George Eliot's (nee Mary Ann Evans) novel Romola features a complicated love triangle involving the titular character, the blind scholar Bardo de’ Bardi’s daughter, the shipwrecked scholar, Tito, and the local barber’s daughter, Tessa. It's set against the backdrop of a rapidly transforming Florence (immediately following the death of the town’s long-time leader, Lorenzo de’ Medici, and the looming war against France), and provides perhaps one of literature’s longest drawn-out sentences describing the central market and its role in the town’s day-to-day life. For purposes of brevity, it is not reproduced in whole here. Suffice it to say, the following passage from the opening chapter of Romola, titled “Proem,” provides Eliot’s first and most descriptive passage regarding the market:
“They had now emerged from the narrow streets into a broad piazza, known to the older Florentine writers as the Mercato Vecchio, or the Old Market. This piazza, though it had been the scene of a provision-market from time immemorial, and may, perhaps, says fond imagination, be the very spot to which the Fesulean ancestors of the Florentines descended from their high fastness to traffic with the rustic population of the valley, had not been shunned as a place of residence by Florentine wealth. In the early decades of the fifteenth century, which was now near its end, the Medici and other powerful families of the popolani grassi, or commercial nobility, had their houses there, not perhaps finding their ears much offended by the loud roar of mingled dialects, or their eyes much shocked by the butchers’ stalls . . . The proud corporation, or Art, of butchers was in abeyance, and it was the great-harvest time of the market-gardeners, the cheese-mongers, the vendors of macaroni, corn, eggs, milk, and dried fruits . . .”
In that passage, Eliot provides the reader nuggets of historical and cultural background that reflect her long-time interest in Italy and, particularly, Florentine culture. Eliot’s interest in Italy has been well-documented (see, for example, Andrew Thompson’s George Eliot and Italy; Thompson notes the influences on Eliot’s literature stemming from this interest in Italian history and culture and the details she accumulated during her six visits there), and her personal observations are felt throughout her novel. The Old Market, Eliot points out, served as the focal point of Florentine life, and was one place where the upper classes could be counted on to be found mingling among the lower classes, including the merchants whose stands and stores characterized this socially-important venue. The market had, Eliot points out, evolved over time, with its streets becoming increasingly peopled by the less-affluent and less-cultured among Florentine society. The market, though, retained its position as the main confluence of Florentine society, with the more rugged elements sharing space with the more refined hold-outs from an earlier period. As she wrote later in that opening chapter:
“Ladies and gentlemen, who came to market, looked on at a larger amount of amateur fighting than could easily be seen in later times, and behold more revolting rags, beggary, and rascaldom, than modern householders could well picture to themselves. . . But, still, there was the relief of prettier sights: there were brood-rabbits, not less innocent and astonished than those of own period; there were doves and singing-birds to bought as presents for the children; there were even kittens for sale . . . And high on a pillar in the center of the place – a venerable pillar, fetched from the church of San Giovanni – stood Donatello’s stone statue of Plenty, with a fountain near it where, says old Pucci, the good wives of the market freshened their utensils, and their throats also; not because they were unable to buy wine, but because they wished to save money for their husbands.”
Eliot’s descriptions of the Old Market reflect her study of Italian history and her observations of Florentine culture. She was able to capture the essence of a central square in a bustling, vibrant city as it had inevitably aged over the years. Romola would have suffered greatly if not for the author’s first-hand observations of the novel’s settings. Her descriptions, while occurring within the context of her less-than-fluent prose (at least as observed by one reader who can write run-on sentences with the best of them) make her novel a valuable source of insight into the Italy of an earlier time.