Of the two pictures on the entrance wall, so high as to be imperfectly seen, that on the right as you face it has peculiar interest to English visitors, for (painted by Paolo Uccello, whose great battle piece enriches our National Gallery) it represents Sir John Hawkwood, an English free-lance and head of the famous White Company, who after some successful raids on Papal territory in Provence, put his sword, his military genius, and his bravoes at the service of the highest bidder among the warlike cities and provinces of Italy, and, eventually passing wholly into the employment of Florence (after harrying her for other pay-masters for some years), delivered her very signally from her enemies in 1392. Hawkwood was an Essex man, the son of a tanner at Hinckford, and was born there early in the fourteenth century. He seems to have reached France as an archer under Edward III, and to have remained a free-booter, passing on to Italy, about 1362, to engage joyously in as much fighting as any English commander can ever have had, for some thirty years, with very good pay for it. Although, by all accounts, a very Salomon Brazenhead, Hawkwood had enough dignity to be appointed English Ambassador to Rome, and later to Florence, which he made his home, and where he died in 1394. He was buried in the Duomo, on the north side of the choir, and was to have reposed beneath a sumptuous monument made under his own instructions, with frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi and Giuliano d’Arrigo; but something intervened, and Uccello’s fresco was used instead, and this, some sixty years ago, was transferred to canvas and moved to the position in which it now is seen.
Hawkwood’s life, briskly told by a full-blooded hand, would make a fine book. One pleasant story at least is related of him, that on being beset by some begging friars who prefaced their mendicancy with the words, “God give you peace,” he answered, “God take away your alms”; and, on their protesting, reminded them that such peace was the last thing he required, since should their pious wish come true he would die of hunger. One of the daughters of this fire-eater married John Shelley, and thus became an ancestress of Shelley the poet, who, as it chances, also found a home for a while in this city, almost within hailing distance of his ancestor’s tomb and portrait, and here wrote not only his “Ode to the West Wind,” but his caustic satire, “Peter Bell the Third”.
Hawkwood’s name is steeped sufficiently in carnage; but we get to the scene of bloodshed in reality as we approach the choir, for it was here that Giuliano de’ Medici was assassinated, as he attended High Mass, on April 26th, 1478, with the connivance, if not actually at the instigation, of Christ’s Vicar himself, Pope Sixtus IV. Florentine history is so eventful and so tortuous that beyond the bare outline given in chapter V, I shall make in these pages but little effort to follow it, assuming a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the reader; but