Vincent Price on Florence, crying over Del Sarto’s Madonna, and that $25 bronze fountain figure

I Like What I Know (1959)In 1959, Vincent Price recounted his life-long passion for the art world in I Like What I Know. Here are some extracts from Price’s visual autobiography, in which a 48-year-old Price recalls the high point of his 1928 European tour: Florence…

ON SEEING FLORENCE FOR THE FIRST TIME
‘Florence! This was to be the high point of the whole tour. Arriving alone at dawn, I’ll never regret or forget. I had a light suitcase, so I decided to walk to the hotel, which was not next to the station for once, but on the Arno itself. Oh, God… what a city. How beautiful, how clean, how shining, how romantic. I walked along, clearing the garlic out of my lungs (1) and letting my eyes feast on the city. Then suddenly I rounded a corner, and there it was… the Duomo, Giotto’s Tower… and the doors… the doors to heaven, surely, Giotto, Ghiberti, Donatello, Brunelleschi – thank you!’

‘I remember that I was indeed alone when, around another corner I came one the great square, the Signoria, the Loggia, and the Uffizi. There, across the way, I saw “David”, gleaming in white marble. I didn’t’ know, or care, that it was a copy. It was Michelangelo’s first hell to me, and I answered back – openmouthed – and then “Perseus”, Cellini’s boy with the Gorgon’s head, and around the base those lovely little nudes.’

‘The hotel people spoke English, and being the first of our tour to arrive, I got a wonderful room with a little balcony – around the corner of which I could see the Arno and across from which I could look into what surely must have been Lorenzo the Magnificient’s home. Of course, it wasn’t. But it was a palace, and so romantic I couldn’t believe my eyes.’

‘What did I want to see first? What did I want to see alone? Through what glorious door would I make my first real entrance into the Renaissance? Should I go say a prayer in the Duomo or go up and survey the whole city from the Piazzale Michelangelo? I suddenly remembered I had a friend in Florence – Andrea del Sarto – dead a good many years but very much alive to me since he first introduced himself in our minister’s house at home through his “Madonna of the Harpies”. Now, where did she live?… The Uffizi!… There I would start my journey; there I would say hello to an old friend and meet some new ones.’

THE UFFIZI AND FLOODING UP OVER DEL SARTO’S MADONNA
‘Florence!… The Duomo!… The Uffizi!… These words, names, places are exclamation marks in themselves… you have to put dots of wordless wonder after each one. There is noting else to say. The Uffizi!…’

‘Has anyone ever gone through those doors, blasé, disgusted, bored and not been lifted – ‘sent’ – immolated – within a matter of moments? I haven’t been there for twenty seven years, but I’m ‘sent, just remembering it… sent into the greatest world of art, sent back into a civilization of art and excitement that has never had an equal.’

Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo‘First off, in the Uffizi I met a portraitist who let me look, through his eyes, into the eyes of the people of the past: Bronzino. There they are. The Medici, the men, the children, and the beautiful Eleanor of Toledo, in a gown so sumptuous she had herself painted in it – and buried in it. Bronzino is not a deep, psychological portrait painter, but his pictures are true memorials to his sitters. If you want the future to remember what you look like, dig up Bronzino and have him ‘ do’ you!… Hard, crisp, elegant, real – descriptive of his sitters and of his portraits of them.’

‘I was in the flood. I was drowning in the world of art. I was sailing on a shell with Venus. I was a witness to the Holy Family… And then, suddenly, I came upon a room… and there she was. My own personal Madonna.’

Madonna delle Arpie‘I know now that del Sarto was not the greatest painter – far from Browning’s ‘perfect painter’. I know he was soft, overblown… I know that in the lists of greatness, he’s nowhere near the top… but there she was! Oh beautiful, serene, soft-eyed, and glamorous – she’s not the Virgin Mother, not the Woman of Sorrows – she’s the Queen of Goddesses, a woman to worship as a woman. She is beautiful, and she’s in love with all mankind. Especially with me.’

‘Only three things have ever caused me to weep, for beauty’s sake or for art’s sake: the Madonna of Andrea del Sarto, the first time I saw John Gielgud’s play Hamlet in London, and Kirsten Flagstad’s Isolde. I’m always open to let them flood again, but for my tear ducts it’s apparently got to be a special thing to make them flood… and anyway, I hate it. It hurts and makes me embarrassed, even if I’m alone.’

‘And there I was, standing in the Uffizi with a watermelon in my throat and two painful jets of warm salt water spurting out of me eyes. At that moment the whole world could have walked into that gallery, and I wouldn’t have been able to cover up. Then I heard a soft voice, over my shoulder, say: “Come over here, I’ll show you the one that makes me cry.”

‘I blew my nose, blotted my eyes, buried as much of my face as I could in my handkerchief, and blurted out a feeble: “Sorry… something in my eye.” ‘

‘The voice said: “Yes… beauty”.’

‘It belonged to a woman who must have been the mother of my Madonna, a lovely, comfortable, middle-aged Saint Anne. She took me firmly by the arm, led me out of the room and down the hall, and brought me up, still, in front of one of the most beautiful little pictures of all time: the “Annunciation” by Leonardo da Vinci.’

‘”That’s the one that makes me cry,” she said. I looked at it for a long time, and when I turned around to thank her, she was gone. Secretly, I was glad I didn’t have to thank her, but I always will be grateful for the knowledge that someone else could behave juts as cornily as I did.’

Annunciation (Leonardo)

Leonardo da Vinci – Annunciazione (1472–1475)

THE PONTE VECCHIO AND THE FLORENTINE FOUNTAIN SAGA
‘I had saved a small amount with which to buy Mother and Dad a present, and Florence would get that money, my economic chauvinism stemming from gratitude for its being so beautiful. And I was determined to get it on the Ponte Vecchio. I shopped and thought of silver, of leather, of everything sold on that bridge, but nothing really said ‘buy me’. Back and forth I searched and finally found it… a little bronze fountain figure. Twenty five dollars. He was a cutie, holding a fish out of which the water squirted. There are hundreds of figures like this, but I’d never seen them, and somehow I felt sure that the shopkeeper’s information about its being modern was just to spoof me – that this was an original Donatello-Verrocchio, undiscovered until now by me!’

‘I bought it, lugged it to a packer, sent it home via collect freight and sighed with delight that I had found a treasure in Florence and that my parents would have it forever – in the Middle West of America.’

‘They received it in good order. The collect freight was sixty dollars. Then my father was forced into building a pool for it to fountain into. This cost two hundred and fifty dollars. The entire family spent two years, dragging rocks back from the Ozarks, to make the surrounding rock garden. The final blow came when Mother decided to import three hundred and fifty dollars worth of rare bulbs from Holland to set the whole thing off, and as a background two mature willow trees were brought in, employing six workmen for three days. Then I decided, with Mother’s permission, to grow water lilies. What I didn’t know, but soon found out, was that they must be planted in rich, preferably, cow manure – under the water. This murky operation caused the death of twenty-five high priced, fan-tailed goldfish and yearly saw me up to my armpits in fresh cow dung, having spent the two previous days catching the replaced goldfish, who multiplied over the years to a final count of three hundred and two. Some years later, after the death of my parents, I decided I must keep the Florentine fountain. I dislodged it from its Million Dollar Park to send it to California, where once again a pool had to be built for it and flowers planted, and to date only two sad goldfish have survived to revel in the splashing waters.’

(1) Although his mother put garlic in every dish in the Price household, Vincent found the smell of it in his air-tight third class carriage, which he shared that previous day with four Italians munching on a 50 variety sausage meal, too much to bear. According to his diary, he passed out on the fumes.

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