How to Describe Florence: Henry James’ Impressions


A Small Street in Florence

Italy, especially Florence, has always inspired authors. To prepare myself for my travels to Florence, I browsed the travel notes of several authors and especially enjoyed Henry James’ Italian Hours (available for free on James visited Italy 14 times between 1869 and 1907, and his writing shows deep appreciation for the Italian people, places, and art. Even though the descriptions were interesting and enjoyable to read before I left for Italy, they were more poignant once I actually had seen what James described. I was able to value the beauty of his comparisons and specific details once I was impressed by the same details. I was moved but was not able to describe the impression as effectively as James. Here are some of my favorite views and descriptions (all from the chapters “Florentine Notes”):

“The street is narrow and dusky and filled with misty shadows, and at its opposite end rises the vast bright-coloured side of the Cathedral.”

Via dei Servi

View of the Duomo at the End of Via dei Servi

“…the white walls of Milan must be likened to snow and ice from their base, while those of the Duomo of Florence may be the image of some mighty hillside enameled with blooming flowers.”


Top of the Cathedral in Milan



“The place is the great Florentine Valhalla, the final home or memorial harbour of the native illustrious dead, but that consideration of it would take me far.”

Santa Croce Outside

Basilica di Santa Croce



“…the large, quiet, distributed town-garden, with the vague hum of big grudging boundaries all about it, but with everything worse excluded, being of course the most insolently-pleasant thing in the world…”

Boboli Garden

Giardino di Boboli



Boboli Garden with the Pitti Palace and Florence in the Background


“And the Medici were great people! But what remains of it all now is a mere tone in the air, a faint sigh in the breeze, a vague expression in things, a passive—or call it rather, perhaps, to be fair, a shyly, pathetically responsive—accessibility to the yearning guess. … Time has devoured the doers and their doings, but there still hangs about some effect of their passage.”






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