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A Hill-Top Stronghold
by [?]

One can mark, too, various stages in this gradual process of secular descent from the wind-swept hills into the valleys below, as freer communications and greater security made access to water, roads, and rivers of greater importance than mere defence or elevated position. At Bath, for example, it was the Pax Romana that brought down the town from the stockaded height of Caer Badon, and the Hill of Solisbury to the ford and the hot springs in the valley of the Avon. At Old Sarum, on the other hand, the hill-top town remained much longer: it lived from the Celtic first into the Roman and then into the West Saxon world; it had a cathedral of its own in Norman times; and even long after Bishop Roger Poore founded the New Sarum, which we now call Salisbury, at the point where the great west road passed the river below, the hill-top town continued to be inhabited, and, as everybody knows, when all its population had finally dwindled away, retained some vestige of its ancient importance by returning a member of its own for a single farmhouse to the unreformed Parliament till ’32. As for Fiesole, though Florence has long since superseded it as the capital of the Arno Valley, the town itself still lives on to our own time in a dead-alive way, and, like Norman. Old Sarum, retains even now its beautiful old cathedral, its Palazzo Pretorio, and its acknowledged claims to ancient boroughship. In England, I know by personal experience only one such hill-top town of the antique sort still surviving, and that is Shaftsbury; but I am told that Launceston, with its strong castle overlooking the Tamar, is even a finer example. This relatively early disappearance of the hill-top fortress from our own midst is in part due, no doubt, to the early growth of the industrial spirit in England, and our long-continued freedom from domestic warfare. But all over Southern Europe, as everybody must have noticed, the hill-top town, perched, like Eza, on the very summit of a pointed pinnacle, still remains everywhere in evidence as a common object of the country in our own day.

I said above that Fiesole was the mother of Florence, and, in spite of formal objections to the contrary, I venture to defend that now somewhat obsolete and heretical opinion. For why does Fiesole stand just where it does? What made them build a city up there, anyway? Well, a town always exists just where it does exist for some good and amply sufficient reason. Even if, like Fiesole, it is mainly a survival (though at Fiesole there are, indeed, olives in plenty and other live trades to keep a town going), it yet exists there in virtue of facts which once upon a time were quite sufficient to bring the world to the spot, and it goes on existing, partly by mere conservative use and wont, no doubt, but partly also because there are houses, churches, mills, and roads all ready built there. Now, a town must always, from a very early period, have existed upon the exact site of Fiesole. And why? To answer that question you have only to look at the view from the platform. I do not mean to suggest that the ancient Etruscans came there to enjoy the prospect as we go nowadays to the hotels on the Rigi or to the summit of Mount Washington. The ancient Etruscan was a practical man, and his views about views were probably rudimentary. But gaze down for a moment from the cathedral platform upon the valley of the Arno, spread like a glowing picture at your feet, and see how immediately it resolves the doubt. Not, indeed, the valley of the Arno as it stands at present, thick set with tower and spire and palace. In order to arrive at the raison d’etre of Fiesole you must blot out mentally Arnolfo’s vast pile, and Brunelleschi’s dome, and Giotto’s campanile, and Savonarola’s monastery, and the tall and slender tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, rising like a shaft sheer into the air far, far below–you must blot out, in short, all that makes the world now congregate at Florence, and all Florence itself into the bargain. Nowhere on earth do I know a more peopled plain than that plain of Arno in our own time, seen on a sunny autumn day, when the light glints clearly on each white villa and church and hamlet, from this specular mount of antique Fiesole. But to understand why Fiesole itself stands there at all you must neglect all this, neglect all the wealth of art that makes each inch of that valley classic ground, and look only, if you can for a brief moment, at the bare facts of primitive nature.