5 JULY 1963, Page 26


The Stones, of Florence. By Mary McCarthy. (Heinemann, 18s.)

How desirable is a new, cheaper (but still nol cheap) edition of Mary McCarthy's Stones of Florence? I first read this lively book when it was articles in the New Yorker. It then seemed a miracle of intuition and sophisticated informs.- tion, just what one wanted to know, just the right flavour of gossip and greatness. But now? The gilt is off the gingerbread. Yet this edition will certainly sell, and the tourists Mist; McCarthy despises will cream off from it what they lacked the means or the leisure to discover for themselves in a proper guidebook, or to dive for in Burckhardt or Vasari or Machiavelli a Berenson.

This is a perfectly decent introduction to Florence, and yet it irritates. Tbe snobbery of information and of elite American tourism hang about it. Miss McCarthy is too interested in names, almost too knowing, too little interested


in economy and in geography. The social que • tion to which she devotes most interest mig I seem to be that of the noise made by traffic. t her best (about her favourite paintings), she is mistress of high journalism as a genuine for of literature, a writer fit to take coffee wi Taine; but at her worst (on the later Medici atd on some historical questions), she hovers around downright vulgarity. She is significantly uncodk prehending and dismissive about humanists.l s

shOuld be interested to hear her phrase mo 0 precisely her objection to shirtlessness and boni •

Everyone has his own Florence, and perhaps the trouble is that after all the illuminating sentences and amusing dinner-table anecdotes (did you know that a man was eaten in the Piazza della Signoria in the fourteenth century?) I am still not sure that this one is the real think An element of dusty reality has been left out, tho popolo minuto and the social history of the buildings have not been brought clearly enough to life. Even the physical quality of the Renais- sance, conveyed at times in a prose rather excited than exciting, appears strangely muted. (There remains of it, like a relic, Miss McCarthy's delightful enthusiasm for male Florentine legs.) As for the subtly special quality of nineteenth- century Florence, it defies recapture and con- founds analysis: yet no one perhaps would stand so good a chance as Miss McCarthy of writing about it with distinction.

After so carping and discontented a review, the admission may come strangely that I shall certainly recommend this book to acquaintances, though not to close friends. Short of doing the work and hearing the gossip oneself, no other book exists in its class.