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FLORENTINE RAPPRESENTAZIONI AND THEIR PICTURES

BETWEEN the twelfth and the six-
teenth century nearly every country
in Europe possessed some sort of a
religious drama, which in many cases
has lingered on, nearly or quite, to
the present day. Even in England—
in Yorkshire, in Dorset and Sussex,
and perhaps in other counties—the
old Christmas play of St. George and
the Dragon is not quite extinct,
though in its latter days its action
has been rendered chaotic by the
introduction of King George III.,
Admiral Nelson, and other national
heroes, whose relation to either the Knight or the Dragon is a little
difficult to follow. The stage directions, which are fairly numerous
in most of the old plays which have been preserved, enable us to
picture to ourselves the successive stages of their development with
considerable minuteness. In some churches the ‘sepulchre’ is still
preserved to which, in the earliest liturgical dramas, the choristers
advanced, in the guise of the three Maries, to act over again the scene
on the first Easter-day; while of that other scene, when at Christmas the
shepherds brought their simple offerings, a cap, a nutting stick, or a
bob of cherries, to the Holy Child, a trace still exists in the representa-
tion, either by a transparency or a model, of the manger of Bethlehem,
still common in Roman Catholic churches, and not unknown in some
English ones. When the scene of the plays was removed from the
inside of the church to the churchyard, we hear of the crowds who
desecrated the graves in their eagerness to see the performance; and
later still, when the craft-guilds had burdened themselves with the
expenses of their preparation, we have curious descriptions of the
waggons upon which each scene of the great cycles ‘of matter from the
beginning of the world to the Day of Judgement,’ was set up, in order
that scene after scene might be rolled before the spectators at the street
corners or the market place, throughout the length of a midsummer
day. Artists with an antiquarian turn have endeavoured to picture
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164

for us these curious stages. In Sharp’s Dissertation on the Coventry
Mysteries there is a frontispiece giving an imaginary view of a perfor-
mance; and only a few years ago an article was published in an
American magazine, with really delightful illustrations, depicting the
working of the elaborate stage machinery behind the scenes, as well as
the effects with which the spectators were regaled. But of contempor-
ary illustrations the lack remains grievous and irreparable. In England
we have nothing at all for the Miracle Plays, while for the moralities
by which they were superseded, the only manuscript illustration is
a picture of the castle in the Castle of Perseverance, in which, with the
aid of his good angels, its occupant, Man, was set to resist the attacks
of the deadly sins and all the hosts of hell! The later moralities,
printed by Wynkyn de Worde and his contemporaries early in the six-
teenth century, have occasionally a few figures on the face or back of
the title-page, to which labels bearing the names of the characters are
attached. But these were venerable cuts, which had done duty on
previous occasions for other subjects; and so far from being specially
designed to represent the players on an English stage, were really
French in their origin, and only imported into England from the old
stock of Antoine Verard.

    In France we have much the same tale. It is true that so many of
the old French Mysteries still remain in manuscript, unexplored, that
there is a possibility of some pleasant surprise in store for us. But the
printed plays were either not illustrated at all, or sent forth with only
a handful of conventional cuts, some of which, as we have seen, soon
afterwards found their way to our own country. One little ray of light,
however, we have in the pictures, especially of the Annunciation to the
Shepherds and their Adoration, in many of the numerous editions of
the Hours of the Blessed Virgin (the lay-folk’s prayer-books, as they
have been called, of those days), which, from 1490 onwards, attained
the same popularity in print which they had previously enjoyed in
manuscript. In these illustrations we see the shepherds, with their
women-folk about them, as they watched their flocks, till startled
by the angel’s greeting, and again crowding round the manger at
Bethlehem. In one edition they even bear on labels the names Gobin
le gai, le beau Roger, Mahault, Aloris, etc., by which they were known
in the plays.

    But however ready we may be to trace the influence of the miracle
plays in these pictures, as illustrations of the plays themselves they are
                                                                                                     very

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Il Opretta di frate Girolamo de ferrara della ozatione mentale

della ozatione mentale

I

very inadequate;
and the fact re-
mains that in only
one country, and
practically only
in one city in that
country (for the
Sienna editions
are merely re-
prints) did the
religious plays,
which in one
form or another
were then being
acted all over
Europe, receive
any contemporary illustration. This one city was Florence; and
alike for the special form in which the religious drama was there de-
veloped, for the causes which contributed to its popularity at the turn of
the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and for its close connection with
the popular art of the day, the subject is one of considerable interest.
On its literary and religious side, the late John Addington Symonds dis-
cussed it in Studies of the Italian Renaissance with his usual ability,
and many of the plays have been reprinted by Signor Ancona. Of late
years the little pictures by which they are illustrated have also received
attention, a fact amply attested by the extraordinary rise in their
market value. But it is worth while to bring together, even if only in
outline, the pictures and the plays to which they belong, more closely
than has hitherto been attempted, and this is my object in the present
paper.

    Book-illustration in Italy began very early with the publication in
1467, by Ulric Hahn, at Rome, of an edition of the Meditations of
                                                                                                     Cardinal

166

II

Cardinal
Torque-
mada on the
Life and
Passion of
Christ. For
the next
twenty years
its progress
was only
sporadic, and
though we
find illustra-
tions of
greater or
less artis-
tic value
in books
printed at
Naples,
Rome, Ferrara, Verona and Venice, we can only group them together in
twos and threes; there is absolutely no trace of any school of illustrators.
From this sporadic growth Florence was not entirely excluded, for
besides a treatise on geography we find in the 1477 edition of Bettini’s
Monte Santo di Dio, and the famous 1480 Dante, pictures of very con-
siderable interest. They differ, however, from those of the illustrated
books of other Italian towns, in being cut not on wood but on copper,
and it is a remarkable fact that until the year 1490 no Florentine book
is known which contains a cut. The signs of wear in a woodcut of the
dead Christ which appears early in that year, has given rise to a belief
that there may have been some previous illustrated edition, now lost; but
it is more probable that the picture had only been printed separately for
pasting into books of devotion. In any case, it stands apart, with
but one other cut, slightly later in date, from all other Florentine work,
                                                                                                     and

                                                                                                        167

III

and must be looked
on only as an ex-
ample of the spor-
adic illustrations of
which we have
spoken as appearing
in other districts.
But from the 28th
of September, 1490,
onwards for twenty
years, we have a
succession of wood-
cuts which, amid
all the differences
which give them
individuality, are
yet closely linked
together in style,
and which form, on
the whole, by far the finest series of book-illustrations of early date. The
popularity which these woodcuts attained is attested by the repeated
editions of the works in which they appear; while the suddenness with
which they sprang up, the general similarity of style, and the nature of
the books they illustrate, all suggest that we have here to deal with a
conscious and carefully directed movement as opposed to the haphazard
use of illustrations in other cities during the previous twenty years. The
book in which the first characteristic Florentine woodcut appears is an
edition of the Laudi of Jacopone da Todi, printed by Francesco Buonac-
corsi; and both the choice of the book and the name of the printer
offer a tempting basis for theory-making. Printing, we must remember,
though it had been in use for more than a third of a century, was even
then a new craft, and was still taken up sometimes as a side-employ-
ment by many persons who had been bred to other trades or professions.
Our own Caxton, as we all know, was a mercer; the first printer at St.
Albans, a schoolmaster; Francesco Tuppo, of Naples, a jurist;
Joannes Philippus de Lignamine, of Rome, a physician; and so on. In
                                                                                                     natural

168

natural continuation, however, of the work of the Scriptorium in many
monasteries, we find that a large number of the early printers were
members of monasteries or priests, and it was to this latter order that
the Buonaccorsi who printed the Laudi belonged. Now, the name
Buonaccorsi is the name of the family of Savonarola’s mother. A
few months before the appearance of the Laudi the great Dominican
had been recalled to Florence by Lorenzo de’ Medici, and his first
public sermon there—a sermon which had stirred the whole city
to its depths—had been preached on the previous 1st of August. In

IV

the next year we find Buonaccorsi printing the first edition of
the Libro della vita viduale, the earliest dated Savonarola tract o
which I know; and I have not been able to resist hazarding the
conjecture that between the preacher-monk and the priest-printer
there may have been some tie of blood, and that it was to Savona-
rola that the splendid series of Florentine illustrated books owe
their origin.

    That this should be the case would not be surprising. Savonarola
was no Puritan, or rather he was like the Puritans of the better sort,
and loved art so long as it was subservient to the main object of man s
being. The pamphlets with which he flooded Florence during the next
few years are, for the most part, decorated with a cut on their first page
                                                                                                     or

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V

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

170

or title; and if the subject were ever worked out, it would probably be
found that this was uniformly the case with the original editions, and
those issued with the author’s supervision; while the unillustrated copies
are mere reprints, which the absence of any law of copyright made it
possible for any printer, who thought it worth his while, to issue, with
or without the author’s leave. The woodcuts to the Savonarola tracts
number from forty to sixty, according as we include or reject variants
on the same subject, and fall naturally into three divisions, illustrating
respectively the Passion of Christ, the duties of Prayer and Preparation
for Death, and various aspects of Savonarola’s activity, in which, how-
ever, the representations of him are always imaginary, never drawn from
life. As an example of these cuts, I give that which decorates the title-
page of an undated edition (circa 1495) of the Operetta della oratione
mentale. I have had occasion to use this before in my little work on
Early Illustrated Books, but there is a certain largeness of pictorial effect
about it which gives this cut, I think, quite the first place in the series,
and makes me unwilling to take any other as an example. The cuts in
the Rappresentazioni are seldom quite as good as this, but they form a
parallel series to those of the Savonarola tracts, occasionally borrowing
an illustration from those on the Passion of Christ, and evidently
inspired by the same aims. The same types (our only means of
fixing the printers of these dateless little books), were used in many
of the works of both the series, and it does not seem fanciful to
believe that Savonarola, either directly or through some trusted disciple,
was nearly as intimately connected with the one as he undoubtedly was
with the other.

    We have said that the choice of the work in which appeared
the first typical Florentine woodcut was not without interest for our
subject. Jacopone da Todi, whom the cut exhibits kneeling in an
ecstasy of prayer before a vision of the Blessed Virgin, was a Franciscan
mystic, eccentric to the verge of madness in his manners, but a spiritual
poet of no mean ability, and the reputed author of the Stabat Rater.
He died in 1306, and was probably old enough to have remembered
that strange epidemic of the Battuti, when thousands of frenzied men
and women marched from city to city, scourging themselves almost to
death for the sinfulness of the world, till their career had to be stopped
by the free use of the gallows. When the frenzy was past, those who
survived it formed themselves into companies for the continuance of
their religious exercises in a more moderate form, and from their meet-
                                                                                                     ing

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VII

ing together to sing their
Laudi, hymns of a peculi-
arly personal fervour, in
the chapels of their
guilds, they obtained the
name Laudesi. Of the
writers of these Laudi,
Jacopone da Todi was
the greatest, and it was
out of the Laudi that the
later Rappresentazioni
were gradually developed.
In his excellent account
of the Rappresentazioni,
to which I have already
alluded, Mr. J. A.
Symonds seems to me
to have laid rather undue
stress on the manner in which this development took place, as offering a
contrast to the history of the religious drama in other countries. It
is true that in England the plays which have come down to us
belong almost exclusively to the great cycles which unrolled the
history of man from the creation till the crack of doom, but we have
mention of several plays on the lives of the Saints—e.g.one on St. George
and the Dragon, and another (which survives) on St. Mary Magdalene,
and the popularity at one time of these Miracle Plays, properly so
called, is witnessed by the fact that it is their name under which the
cycles of Scriptural dramas generally passed. At Florence these longer
dramas were not wholly unknown, but they seem to have been acted
only in pantomime or dumb-show, in the great pageants on St. Johns
Day; the shorter plays developing from the Laudi just as, at an earlier
period, the liturgical dramas had developed in France and England out
of the dramatic recital of the gospel of the day. It is worth noting, by
the way, that the Laudi themselves were not superseded, but continued to
be written and sung when the Rappresentazioni were already becoming
                                                                                                     popular.

176

popular. Two of the writers of them during this period have a special
interest for us—Maffeo Belcari, as the author also of the earliest printed
Rappresentazioni, and Girolamo Benivieni, as the friend and disciple of
Savonarola, whose doctrine and prophecies he defended in 1476 in a
tract, printed, this also, by Buonaccorsi.

    In an edition of the Laudi of the first of these two writers, seen by
Mr. Symonds, but which I am unlucky enough never to have come
across, there is an interesting cut representing the Laudesi, standing
before a crucifix, singing their praise. In course of time dramatic
divisions had been admitted into the Laudi, and under the name of
Divozioni they were recited with appropriate action in dialogue form.
The actors were for the most part boys, who were formed into confra-
ternities, while the expenses of the plays were doubtless defrayed by
their parents. As the dramatic element in the performances became
more decided, the plays came at last to be generally termed Rappresen-
tazioni, and under this name they attained a great popularity during the
last quarter of the fifteenth century, and the first of its successor.

    Unlike the northern Miracle Plays, which are almost without excep-
tion anonymous, the majority of the earliest Rappresentazioni which
have come down to us contain the names of their authors, and in
editions separated by half a century the text remains substantially un-
altered In English plays the text often appears to have grown up by
a process of accretion, so that a cycle, or even a single play, in the form
in which it has survived, could hardly with justice be assigned to a
single author, even if we knew the name of the first writer concerned in
it. The difference is not unimportant, and is one of numerous small
signs which tell us that the religious drama in Florence, at least in this
stage of its development, was less popular, less spontaneous, than in our
own country, and more the result of deliberate religious effort.

    The earliest Rappresentazione printed was the Abraham of the Maffeo,
or Feo, Belcari, whom we have already mentioned. It was printed in
1485 the year after Belcari’s death at a good old age (he was born in
1410), so that the whole of Belcari’s plays were published posthumously.
Among them are plays on the Annunciation, on St.John the Baptist
visited by Christ in the Desert, and on St. Panuntius. Of the last two
of these I have seen fifteenth-century editions—the one at the British
Museum, the other at the Bodleian Library, each with a single charm-
ing woodcut. No less a person than Lorenzo de’ Medici was the author
of the play of S. Giovanni e S. Paolo, which has also come down to us
                                                                                                     in

VIII

178

in its original edition with a graceful cut; and Bernardo Pulci, who died
in the first year of the sixteenth century, produced a play on the legend
of Barlaam and Josaphat. But the most prolific of these dramatists
seems to have been a woman, Bernardo’s wife Antonia, to whose pen
we owe plays on the Patriarch Joseph, the Prodigal Son, S. Francis
of Assisi, S. Domitilla, S. Guglielma, etc. The names of a few other
writers are known; but there were also numerous anonymous plays,
written very much on the same lines, to some of which we shall have to
allude.

    Almost invariably the plays begin with a Prologue spoken by an
Angel, who is represented in the title-cut of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s San
Giovanni e San Paolo as standing behind the two saints in a kind of
pulpit. In other early plays the Angel is represented in a separate
woodcut whose lower border is cut off, so as to fix on to the border of
the special title-cut of the play. Later on, another design was substi-
tuted for this, without any border at all. I think it probable that these
angelic prologuisings were mostly spoken from some machine at the
back of the stage, especially contrived for celestial appearances. In
other respects, the services of the stage-carpenter do not seem to have
been much called for. The plays were acted, we are told, either in the
chapel of the guild or confraternity, or in the refectory of a convent,
and the arrangements were probably very similar to those in modem
school-plays, the imagination of the spectators being often required to
take the place of a change of scene. In the so-called ‘Coventry’ Plays
we hear of a device by which a new scene, or perhaps rather a new
centrepiece, with the actors all in their places, could be wheeled round
to the front; but more often the whole of the dramatis personce were
grouped at the back or sides, and individual actors merely stepped for-
ward when their turn came. In the play of San Lorenso we are
expressly told that two scenes were shown simultaneously on different
parts of the stage, Decius and his satellites offering their heathen
sacrifices on the one side, while Pope Sixtus comforts the faithful against
the coming persecution on the other. This combination of two scenes
in one is a familiar feature in mediaeval art, and is not unknown even in
these Florentine woodcuts, small as they are: witness our fourth cut, in
which the bartering at the pawnshop, and the indignities offered to the
sacred wafer, tell the story of the play by means of its two most
prominent scenes.

    Of the literary value of the Rappresentazioni it is not possible to
                                                                                                     speak

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speak with much enthusiasm. From a literary standpoint, indeed, the
lives of the Saints, with which most of them have to do, are a difficult
and not very promising subject. Most stories of heroism are best told
in ten lines at longest; and to attempt to spin them out into several
hundred, without any considerable material in the way of authentic
detail, leads inevitably to weakness and exaggeration. In this respect
the Rappresentazioni are neither much worse nor much better than the
average Legenda Sanctorum in verse or prose. They follow these, in
fact, with remarkable fidelity, and as they are written for the most part

IX

in the familiar octava rima, it is only by the speeches being made in the
first person, instead of in historical narration, that they differ very greatly
from them. Thus, to take the plays from which we have chosen our
illustrations, that of S. Francis of Assisi, by Antonia Pulci, faithfully
records all the main incidents as told in the legends—the colloquy with
the beggar during which he was stricken with compunction, the theft
from his father of money to repair a church, the founding of his Order,
the conference with the Pope, and the reception of the stigmata; this
last being, as might be expected, the subject chosen by the artist for the
woodcut on the title. The play of S. Lorenzo shows us the martyrdom
of Pope Sixtus in the Decian persecution, and then the torture and
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180

death of S. Laurence for his refusal to surrender the treasure which the
Pope had bequeathed to the poor of the church. Both of the woodcuts
to these two plays are of great beauty. The first probably follows the
traditions of the many pictures on the subject rather than that of the
stage, though it was, no doubt, for a scene like this that the stage-
managers of the day used their utmost resources. In the martyrdom of
S. Laurence, on the other hand, we may be sure that we have a very
exact picture of the scene as played on some convent stage.

    Both these plays belong to the fifteenth century, and, as is mostly
the case in the earliest editions, have only a rough woodcut each. This
was not invariably so, as in the Bodleian Library there are copies of
editions of the plays of Stella and S. Paulino, which have every appear-
ance of having been printed before 1500, but yet have sets of several
cuts, all obviously designed especially for them. These, however, are
exceptions; and as a rule where we find several cuts, it is easy to trace
most of them back, either to other plays, or to other illustrated books
of the time, such as the Epistole e Evangelii, the Fior di Virtù, Pulci’s
Morgante Maggiore, etc. Thus, of the two cuts given here as illustra-
tions to the curious Rapresentatione duno miracolo del corpo di Christo,
the first alone occurs in the fifteenth-century edition, while in that of
(probably sixty years later) this original cut reappears, with three
others added to it. The first, here shown, representing a drinking
scene, is borrowed, I strongly suspect, from the Morgante Maggiore;
while the second, which shows a man being burnt, and the third, in
which a king is consulting his council, may be called stock-pictures, and
reappear with frequency.

    This play of the Corpo di Christo is an Italian version of a miracle
which was constantly being reported during the middle-ages, and was
often the excuse for a cruel persecution of the Jews. The well-known
‘Croxton’ Play of the Sacrament is cast on the same lines, and a
detailed comparison of the two would yield some points of interest. In
the Rappresentazione the story is well told, and with unusual vivacity.
After the angelic prologue there is an induction, in which a miracle of a
consecrated wafer, dripping blood, is announced to Pope Urban, who
discourses on it with a cardinal and with S. Thomas Aquinas and S.
Bonaventura. The play then begins with a drinking scene, in w ic
a wicked Guglielmo squanders his money, and then takes his wife’s
cloak to the Jewish pawnshop to get more. The poor woman goes
herself to the Jew to try to get her cloak back, and is then persuaded to
                                                                                                     filch

                                                                                                        181

filch a wafer at mass and bring it to the Jew, on his promise to restore
her garment. Her horror at his proposal is overcome by the pretext
that his object is to use the Host as a charm to heal his sick son, and that
if this succeeds he and all his family will become Christians. This, of
course, is a mere fiction, but it serves the woman in good stead; for when
the Jew is discovered by the unquenchable flow of blood from the wafer
he maltreats, he is promptly burnt, while the Judge is warned by a

X

special revelation to spare the life of his accomplice, whose guilt might
easily be represented as the greater of the two.

    An edition of the play of S. Cecilia, probably printed about 1560,
affords a good example of the gradual addition of cuts in later reprints.
This little tract of about twenty pages has no less than eighteen pictures
in it, three of which, however, are only repetitions of one of the most
familiar cuts in the whole series of Rappresentazioni—a Christian virgin
dragged before a king; while three other well-worn cuts are each
repeated twice, so that the number of blocks used was only thirteen,
though these yielded eighteen impressions. As might be expected, the
little pictures are often dragged in with very little appropriateness.
Thus, the Roman soldiers sent to arrest Cecilia gave the publisher an
excuse to show a party of knights riding in the country, and so on. On
the other hand, the little picture here shown of a disputation, though un-
doubtedly executed in the first instance for some other work, probably
                                                                                                     gives

182

gives us a very correct representation of the costume and grouping of
the actors, and the same may be said of the companion picture from the
play of S. Orsola.

    One point in the text of the S. Cecilia deserves noting. In the main
it resembles very closely indeed the legend as it is known to lovers of
English poetry from the version which Chaucer made in his early days
and afterwards inserted, with little revision, into the Canterbury Tales.
But when Cecilia has gone through the form of marriage with the
husband who is forced upon her, and is proceeding with him to his
home, the lads of the neighbourhood bar their passage with a demand
for petty gifts, to which the virgin submits with good grace—a fragment
of Florentine life thus cropping up amid the rather unreal atmosphere
of the old legend.

    Whatever the shortcomings of the Rappresentazioni, their popularity
was very great, and they were reprinted again and again throughout the
sixteenth century. Naturally the woodcuts suffered from continual use,
and the stock-subjects, like that of a general martyrdom shown in cut 8,
are often found in the later editions with their little frames or borders
almost knocked to pieces. Recutting was also frequent, and in the
same edition of the play of S. Mary Magdalene, from which, for the sake
of the unusual freedom in the handling, I have taken the title-cut as
one of our illustrations, it is repeated later on from a new block, clumsily
cut in imitation of the old one.

    As the Rappresentazioni and their illustrations are connected with the
Savonarola tracts on the one hand, so on the other we find them
influencing some less dramatic forms of literature. Thus, among the
early Florentine illustrated books we find a number of Contrasti—the
contrast of men and women, of the living and the dead, of riches and
poverty, etc. These were rather poems than plays, but the name
Rappresentazione is sometimes applied to them in later editions. This
is so, for instance, with the famous Contrasto di Carnesciale e la Quare-
sima, from which the first of the two cuts is here given, the second
representing a visit to the fish and vegetable market for Lenten fare
when the days of Carnival are over. Again we find the same methods
of illustration applied to the Giostre of Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici,
the story of Orpheus, by Angelo Politiano, which forms part of the
former, being adorned with no less than ten admirable woodcuts, of
which the picture here reproduced, of Orpheus frightened by a fury from
attempting a second time to visit Hell in quest of his lost Eurydice, is
                                                                                                     quite

                                                                                                        183

quite one of the finest. The same methods of illustration were also
used in the novelle and other secular chapbooks, which have nothing
either religious or dramatic about them. It is clear, however, that the
religious use was the earlier of the two, and that while the writers of the
Laudi anticipated the practice of later revivalists in adapting profane
songs and tunes into hymns of devotion, it was the secular literature
which was the borrower in the matter of illustrations.

    As to the authors of these charming woodcuts, we know absolutely
nothing. Dr. Paul Kristeller has lately attempted to trace out three or
four distinctive schools of style in them, but no name of any artist can
be connected with them; and we can only conjecture that there were one
or two special workshops in Florence where they were designed and
executed, and that printers and publishers applied to these workshops
when they were in need of cuts.

                                                                                                ALFRED W. POLLARD.

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MLA citation:

Pollard, Alfred W. “Florentine Rappresentazioni and Their Pictures.” The Pageant, 1896, pp. 163-183. Pageant Digital Edition, edited by Frederick King and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2021. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2021. https://1890s.ca/pag1-pollard-florentine/