John Milton’s brief mention of Vallombrosa in Paradise Lost amazingly set off a chain reaction of literary tourism to this Benedictine Abbey that was to reverberate across the following 200+ years. Milton was on a visit to Florence in the late 1630s when he was introduced to Vincenzo Galilei, the third son of Galileo, who took Milton to meet his father, by then an old man under house arrest at his villa in Arcetri in the hills above Florence. There is no record of the conversation but Galileo had been educated for three years at Vallombrosa as a young man from 1575-78 and shortly after their meeting Milton himself most likely visited the Abbey.
Another 30 years were to pass before Paradise Lost was written and published and the salient verse is as follows:
"Till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call'd
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans't
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th' Etrurian shades
High overarch't imbowr;"
Milton, a staunch Protestant and supporter of the puritan usurper Oliver Cromwell during the English interregnum, is describing Hell’s legions in this passage from Paradise Lost and chooses to make a reference to this obscure Catholic Abbey. It would seem that there are no poetry critics who comment on this verse that have in fact been to Vallombrosa because they all miss an obvious point.
At the higher elevations and around the abbey there are some beech trees but the vast majority of the forest consists of firs, pine trees and other evergreen conifers, so Milton could surely have picked a better forest in England or Italy to describe the thickness of the fallen autumn leaves.
And well before Milton’s time the fir trees of Vallombrosa forest were cared for by the monks and when fully grown their long sturdy trunks were used for the construction and renovation of palaces in Florence. So, did Milton actually visit Vallombrosa or did his rabid anti-catholicism make it a convenient place to weave into his description of Hell’s legions?
Or perhaps the name Vallombrosa, meaning ‘valley of shade’ fitted both the rhythm and the purpose of his verse and certainly it can be a dark, gloomy place which the sun struggles to penetrate. Some of the tallest trees in Italy grow here and it is a dense, closely packed forest which can be very spooky if you drive along the narrow, treacherous road at night when all the day-trippers have left. For 5 miles you won’t see another car and your headlights will struggle to pierce the darkness as you crawl along at a snail’s pace.
In the pitch blackness of an autumn evening in 1638 this would have been a perfect setting for Hell’s legions with or without the fallen leaves.
Photo by Michele Tamasco
Vallombrosa is not the easiest place to reach even today, despite its proximity to Florence. At 3,300 feet it towers above the Arno river valley and the western and southern approaches from Tosi and Reggello respectively are both very steep and would have been extremely difficult carriage journeys in the 18th and 19th centuries.
But even so, just one small reference in one of the most celebrated works of English literature was sufficient for William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and others to make pilgrimages here if only to tread in the footsteps of the revered John Milton.
Shakespeare made Verona famous through three of his plays so one short sentence hardly seems enough to do the same for Vallombrosa but somehow it took hold of the imagination.
I think Alfred Lord Tennyson’s visit to Sirmione on the shores of Lago di Garda in homage to the Roman poet Catullus was a much more worthwhile trip than the arduous slog to Vallombrosa that his fellow poets took because at least one of those, Wordsworth in fact, privately expressed some disappointment in what there was to see at Vallombrosa even though he was careful not to suggest as much when he wrote the following lines in his poem simply titled ‘At Vallombrosa’:
“Vallombrosa—I longed in thy shadiest wood
To slumber, reclined on the moss-covered floor!”
Wordsworth’s description is still true today because there is lots of moss and certainly lots of shade which attracts families from Florence every weekend in summer to picnic in the cool shadows here where the elevation guarantees you at least a 10°C temperature reduction.
The less celebrated Della Cruscan English poets of the 1780s also referred to ‘Vallombrosa’s gloomy shade’ in their verses and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1847 came here both to escape the suffocating heat of Florence and to retrace Milton’s steps, though Elizabeth was less than impressed with her accommodation outside the abbey after she was refused a place inside because she was a woman.
Henry James was another visitor during his residency in Florence in the 1890s and of course Gabriele d’Annunzio in 1908, though unsurprisingly for such a noted bon viveur he was very happy to sleep outside the abbey, preferring instead the luxurious surroundings of the Grand Hotel in nearby Saltino.
A bill which he probably didn’t pay as by this time he had developed an unfortunate habit of skipping out of hotels without paying which generally meant he was unable to visit the same hotels twice.
Distillation has long been a tradition in Italian monasteries but mostly for the production of liqueurs and bitters rather than spirits. At Vallombrosa they have recipes going back centuries and produce various elixirs for sale themselves and also on behalf of other abbeys that contain a wide variety of locally grown herbs. But for their dry gin they use only Tuscan juniper from a nearby forest and the recipe for this too goes back centuries and never changes, even as gin fashions come and go. Production remains small at only 5,000 bottles per annum