Sunday, December 6, 2015

To Florence

Florence boasts the most beautiful women I've ever seen. Sure, a subjective affirmation. But you walk the sidewalks, shoved aside by imperious girls who step out of Renaissance paintings.And Layne's the one who pointed out their ubiquity. Not that I had not noticed already. A pale shoulder draped in blue lace at the Pitti, a green-eyed, pale, auburn woman whose eyes looked through and past mine as we passed by the Arno, a blonde clad in white lounging in front of her jewelers' portal on Ponte Vecchio.

In some cities, it's odd. Prague and as I'd see at Istanbul (at least its airport and on the sixteen hours of flight home would reveal), feature statuesque model types. I reckon until menopause. Then females shrink to gnomes. But in Italy, elegant women resist gravity, nowadays in tight jean-leggings that in the quaint parlance of my youth, as Latina mothers clucked, "would lead to a yeast infection." They strut alongside salt and pepper husbands, fit and cossetted, scarved against the slightest breeze.

Not that a breeze may grace this city, its straight (relatively) grid from Roman times as a military outpost, in more crowded months. I looked at Mary McCarthy's The Stones of Venice in its 1959 large-format edition, and its b/w photos revealed Il Duomo and the nearby Piazza Vecchio in front of the David replica both with about three people, a hundredth of those present even off-season when I waded into the crowds there. Still, McCarthy complains about the heat, the tourists, the poor food, the triple stinginess, envy, and pride that native son and exile Dante characterized of this defiant city.

I found it loud, graffitied, dirty, and brown. Certainly, the contrasting black and white stripes of the Duomo, the Santa Croce, and San Miniano all resembled the Senese cathedral, but they possessed less of its charm. Instead, they all sat among the affluent avenues and the poorer sections, so close that the roofs nearly met, where Vespas roared and trucks thundered. As McCarthy notes, that scooter is named after a wasp, and that sound and that of police sirens filled every restless night for me there. I felt lucky that I could close the windows of our flat on the V. del Colonnia, and that it was not summer, which at least when McCarthy wrote, apparently hosted three places with air conditioning.

When we got off the train from Siena, we noticed people praying at a little chapel. Florence features the same enormous edifices as any old European center, but it feels less intense than Rome or Siena. Perhaps the medieval Guelph-Ghibelline factions, the power of pope vs. emperor, was to blame. The dome of Il Duomo rises, and the Palazzo Vecchio's tower, the same balance as in Siena, but for the Florentine vision, they lack the natural prominence on a hilltop promontory. Instead, in a vista that McCarthy compared to stolid Boston, the clerical and the secular contend in a dispersed panorama.

Our first afternoon, after settling into our second-floor (or is it first) rented flat, we scoped out the local area. Away from the touristed center, we walked past the 1870s synagogue in grand Middle Eastern style. Surrounded by a fence, its gardens looked inviting, but the price of admission seemed steep. The armed guards and airport-security level anti-explosive doors (also seen in Italian banks) attested to the eternal animosity against the community, as did bullet scars from the fascists. The Nazis plotted to blow up the compound when retreating, but partisans foiled the plot. Florence's blackshirts held out against the resistance even after the Allies occupied the city, sniping at victors.

A modest kosher restaurant and a Chabad appeared the only visible evidence of a Jewish quarter. We decided to keep looking for lunch, winding up at a modern place without any distinction, served by an indifferent immigrant waitress. The television kept playing a political meeting and a sports update. We passed near Santa Croce the university for "foreigners" where Amanda Knox attended, and around there, boisterous packs on study abroad shouted in American or whispered in British accents.

Shopping at CONAD, we forgot that produce had to be weighed and tagged beforehand, so we held up the checkout line. In broken Italian and English, I tried to explain to the cashier that back in L.A. (she asked with a trace of condescension where we were from), the scales were embedded on the belt. Still, Layne was happy to prowl the aisles, and the beer and wine were amazingly cheap, even if other items weren't. We decided to concentrate on eating in rather than out after an underwhelming fish dinner where we were relegated to the "foreigners" room alongside a trio of transatlantic academics, a student and his uncle, and a black tourist asking insistently for a variety of house wine that "rossi" did not match. We tried as was my wont to use our Italian, but Layne and I differ. She reasons that service staff have jobs to do and little time for a foreigner's stumbling baby talk in their native language. Give in to English and move along. I, despite my dire attempts to try Gaeilge and learn Italian on Duolingo, figure it's both good manners and good practice to attempt the native language at first. I am not sure which seems right, as efficiency and etiquette appear to clash, but it's a valuable discussion.

After I wrote this, I learned that one more renowned that either Layne or I suffered similarly. "In reality, in Venice I’m barely able to ask for directions on the street, a wakeup call at the hotel. I manage to order in a restaurant and exchange a few words with a saleswoman. Nothing else. Even though I’ve returned to Italy, I still feel exiled from the language." So confesses Jhumpa Lahiri in the new New Yorker, on her attempts to "Teach Yourself Italian." But she persisted, n.b. Layne et alia.

Around us, nonetheless, wherever we went, we saw English on every menu. I wondered, in the land of the tiramusu (literally pick-me-up), why the phrase "pick-up" was in Italian at the airport, and why so much of our language crept into advertising, and I suppose if my hearing was more acute, speaking. I champion local languages even if I lack fluency, but as a bearer of the global lingo now, I also note how, if one meets a throng of Chinese, Germans, Africans, Indians, and British daily, one serving them will likely have to default to the same basic survival English that my Italian imitates.

Our first full day, after skimming Rick Steves' guidebook left in our flat, I concurred with Layne that after so many masterworks, so many museums, we'd be best to settle on a handful of less frequented sites. Our first was a few blocks away, but in such an unprepossessing front that we missed it. The Dominican convent of San Marco hosts the longtime home of Fra Giotto, and we loved its upstairs dormitory. He painted cells for each resident, and there are subtle differences even if the same sacred scene was depicted. I tried to step back as the wings on the angel of the Annunciation glittered, but with suddenly ten minutes to closing (at barely past mid-day), I failed to situate myself precisely.

Dashing into the library full of manuscripts, pitying the fate of frenzied friar Savonarola (he had two cells rather than one there, before he was burnt in the Piazza della Signorina nearby, an ironic bonfire of his vanity after all he fulminated against), and wondering how cold the cells got and how they eased summer's searing for friars clad in heavy white habits and black mantles, we enjoyed our hurry.

I include this painting, even if it is displayed at the Pinacoteca in Siena, as an example of Giotto I admired. I saw this in a textbook of Renaissance art. The strange image reminded me of an attentive student of the Pre-Raphaelites and Giotto, Stanley Spencer. Baffled by the scene, I looked it up.

William Caxton's early English version of the Golden Legend lists a nameless servant of Pope Felix, who ruled eighth after Gregory the Great. The man suffered a "cankered thigh." An Ethiopian was buried in St. Peter ad Vincula, and his "fresh" corpse enabled a transplant by the two saints, patrons of the church where he served. See The Healing of Justinian by Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian

Next, we headed south into an old neighborhood even by local standards. Casa di Dante was for me a must, even if I remained skeptical that this site was the real deal. Nearby at least, the Alighieri family lived and he was born. The exhibits were straightforward, about the herbal expertise this encyclopedic poet-scholar demonstrated, about the battle of Campaldino in which he fought, and about the impact of his famous writings. The displays tried their best with few primary sources extant. The small scale was welcome, even if sparse, compared to the vast exhibitions we'd viewed.

We ended our triple effort after an invigorating snack at an enoteca-artisan (yes) niche behind the Uffizi, where we'd spend a chunk of the next day. Over the Ponte Vecchio, into the Oltrarno, the other side of the river reminded me of Rome's Trastavare. Artisans (for real) worked in little shops on leather, furniture, and crafts. Gradually, we climbed up the slope to the vista at Piazza Michelangelo. There we paused for breath, and a few hundred yards north, we crossed a busy street to trudge up more steps to San Miniato. This abbey occupies the oldest outpost of Christianity in Florence. On a place where the city's first believers were buried in what is a shadowed, redolent terrace, legend tells us that the namesake martyr took his head from the arena, crossed the Arno, and marched up there.

It was twilight. Lights popped on down over the city that spread out below. Inside, it was very dark. A side chapel had been illuminated, but by the time we headed to it, it too was devoid of light. Founded in 1018, the Olivetan Benedictines still lived here; I caught a glimpse of a tonsured monk picking up prayerbooks in the choir stalls. I thought we made it for the chanted Office, but again as often in Italy, my timetable was not that of the hidden reality around me. So, we made the rounds of what felt a venerable sanctuary, and the shrouded nature of it made it feel antiquated, and formidable.
Marble, stone, gilt: the ingredients of so many edifices. Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad grumbled why the beggars outside so many did not turn their efforts towards the keepers within the holy precincts. As often, my soft heart for such Catholic splendor jostled with my hard head about wealth.

We dined at our flat, happy to eat pasta, to drink Tuscan red. I found RAI's classical station and let it play the same familiar songs the station back home did, never with much originality. The first news of the latest Paris murders filtered in, but solid reports were lacking at least in English, from our limited perspective. Our internet was iffy as usual and so we settled for resting our tired feet at last.

Draped at its base by a French tricolor, his right arm banded in black, the replica David stood. The Uffizi required us to undergo security, but the lines went smoothly and the exhibits flowed along. As I teach the Botticelli "Primavera," I took a chance to shove past the selfie-stick tour guide mob. Up close, it did not reveal anything I had not noticed before, so I peered at the manner in which the artist created the toenails of his characters. Rick Steves' guide had pointed out an insight I did not catch, that the joined fingers of the dancers represented another level of the nuptial message, the obvious.

Steves estimated two hours for the place, and he was right. By the time you make the whole horseshoe upstairs, in a well-designed layout, you are weary. Below, the "foreign" painters jostle against blue backgrounds in what feels a basement, so the Flemish and Spanish and French masterpieces lose clout among a lot of lesser Baroques. As with the featured Italians here and at the Pitti Palace, as Steves cautions, picking out the hits from the misses is difficult for the unaided eye. But Rubens' "Portrait of Isabella Brant" stood out, emanating radiance, as if no spotlight was needed.

So, we walked rather than strolled past many on the lower floor, and so did many fellow gazers. The later centuries, frankly, don't wow me as much. After the major works dazzle, it's all aftermath.

The rest of the day, we shouldered aside those same visitors as we tried to move forward under the arches next to the Arno. A wonderful promenade, but you risk your life being pushed off the walk into traffic. McCarthy bemoaned that the Via Romana took traffic across the Ponte Vecchio, hard to believe, into the area where thousands crowded. At least, like Siena, some stretches were clearer.

Night found us back to stroll near the arch of the Republic. McCarthy dismisses this as awful, and the district as poor. The first may be debatable, but the second is now untrue. The Via dei Servi runs as straight as a Roman road, where high-end stores flaunt shoes, dresses, and purses. While my Italian stay failed to uncover any of Berlusconi's "velines" who "reported" evening news, or the at least R-rated ads that Tim Parks claimed festooned major city merchants, the Calzadonia models certainly looked fetching in a store that had many branches, or else each one kept luring my male gaze thither.

Our final morning, we made it to the Pitti, across the river. It occupies a garden only of gravel. But its contents rival its more famous counterpart. Cluttered more than the Uffizi, I found for once the lower level more intriguing. We had less time to linger, as our train time pressed us, but the romanticized Arts and Crafts tinged paintings of domesticity, love, and rural life from a century ago pleased me, although there were too many patriotic murals of the battles for independence against the Austrians.

At the Florence train station, we had a little time. Layne and I alternated watching our bags. Next to them, Italian children cavorted brattily. I suppose the low birth rate means, as in China, that offspring are spoiled more by elders and parents alike. There's a massive Feltrinelli bookstore there, and I browsed its English-language shelf but failed to find any enticing titles. So, I walked up and down each terminal, but failed to find the chapel. Perhaps I confused it with Siena's station? Still, feeling as if I was a little watched given the edgy mood of security, I found a week-old newspaper abandoned, to practice my Italian. Thus prepared, we left the Arno for the never-before-seen prospects of Venice. 

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