This is Part One of a series of reflections on recent Italian travels; places discovered and people encountered.
Firenze: a city with none of Rome’s remains of splendors past. But what Florence lacks in temples and pottery from Antiquity, it more than makes up for in Renaissance heritage. In the centro historico, palazzos dating to the 14-16th century flank each other tightly, while marble-facade churches added much-welcomed spots of colors in an otherwise very monochromatic city – the local quarried stone, the pietra serena, is a cold harsh gray. A few square towers from the 12th century remain, but they often go unnoticed because the Florentine streets are very narrow and looking at rooftops while walking – although a great source of gorgeous frescoes and woodwork – is risking being ran over by Vespas every second. One cannot “do” Florence in six days; the time I had allotted for this portion of my travels. When every church is home to a Donatello sculpture or a Giotto fresco, one can only apologize to the Renaissance Masters in advance for all the art that will not be viewed. In the flat I rented, a long, narrow, tiled loft with twelve feet tall vaulted ceilings, I found an American travel guide to Florence with a stern warning: do not fall prey to Stendhal Syndrome or “hyperkulturism” – a “psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place.” The story goes that Stendhal visited Florence during his Italian travels and was overwhelmed attempting to see every single museum, monument, piazza, and piece of art in the city.
First impressions about Florence: it is compact and a delightfully walkable city, it is bursting at the seams with tourists, it is devoid of trees and greenery except for a few parks and squares. After an initial walkabout where I spent more time avoiding rambunctious school groups than looking at facades, I realized Stendhal’s plight and threw out my “to see” list. Instead of pizzerias, I bought handmade fresh pasta at the Central Market and cooked in my flat. I took frequent cappuccino breaks – which, at 1.20 euros apiece, revive the soul without draining the wallet. I took a city bus and escaped to the Tuscan countryside. I took refuge in over a dozen churches, some exuding profound reverence, like Santa Croce, some steeped in mysticism, like Santa Maria Maggiore. I climbed up Giotto’s Campanile at 8 in the morning and watched Florence wake up under azure skies before it was swallowed by the daily cacophony of street peddlers, exhaust from dusty Vespas, and tour guides louder than the next. I showed up early at the Uffizi, but still queued for over an hour – but what is an hour when Botticelli’s Venus and countless other treasures await inside?
The best thing I found in Florence, however, was a book. In the gift shop of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, I found Irving Stone’s The Agony and The Ecstasy, a romanticized biography of Michelangelo (in English). I had brought plenty to read but felt compelled to buy it. The second I cracked its spine, I was immediately transported to Florence circa 1489, when 13 year old Michelangelo began his first apprenticeship with famed fresco painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. I can’t tell how much is historically accurate and how much came out of Stone’s imagination, but it matters little. In reading about Michelangelo’s childhood in Florence, I learned about a city bathed in the arts under the patronage of Lorenzo de Medici. Most of Florence’s landmarks were already build at that time: Il Duomo, Santa Croce, Santo Spirito, San Lorenzo, the Palazzio Vecchio, the Pontevecchio… Michelangelo became my tour guide to Florence. I adjusted my walkabouts as I turned the pages. On my last day, a Monday, I had planned on going to the Galleria del Academia to see the David and other sculptures of Michelangelo’s. Many Florentine museums are closed on Mondays, including the Galleria, and so there was no David. Instead, I went to Santa Croce and stood in front of Michelangelo’s tomb, located in the right aisle of the church, two tombs down from Machiavelli and directly across from Galileo. I lit a candle in front of a sculpture by Donatello – art ecstasy is no different than religious ecstasy. Later on, I went to 70 Via Ghibellina to visit Casa Buonarroti and walked the very same floors Michelangelo and his family walked centuries ago. His two earliest marble sculptures, the Madonna of the Steps (1491) and The Battle of the Centaurs (1492) are housed there. After having read extensively about their carving in The Agony and The Ecstasy, it was like they had just been carved for me.
It may seem sacrilegious to have spent six days in Florence and not have gone to see the marble statue of David. But to have retraced Michelangelo’s Florentine steps, to have laid eyes on the very same frescoes and crucifixes he used to draw as a boy, to have seen his family home, was the most authentic Florentine experience I could have asked for.
And now I have a reason to come back.