I have three books set in Italy. As I work on publishing them, I find that I write these interesting bits as random exercises to help shake out some of the story writing angst I suppose. This one doesn’t deserve to be closed away in a dark notebook. It needs light.
I love Italy. Or perhaps I’m called to Italy.
I began to dream of Italy after seeing Roman Holiday when I was in my developmental teenage years. The black and white film ignited something in me, and I’m glad it was that film that did the job. Because, as would seem apropos, after that first brush with The Eternal City, everything went from black and white into gorgeous Tuscan color.
I was seventeen when I went to Europe for the first time. Of all people, I went with my High School Choir. We ended our European tour in Italy, visiting Florence and Rome. I fell in love with everything Italian then.
But it was on the steps of Santa Croce, the church where men like Machiavelli, Galileo and Michelangelo are buried, that I truly began my love affair. It was June and warm, tourists swarmed around us, flies attracted to the honey of history. Sweat pooled in my lower back and I fanned myself with a cheap fan I broke down and purchased. No longer caring if my peers were going to make fun of me, it was hot.
Was it the water?
The thought caught me unaware, I wasn’t sure what I had been thinking about really, other than the heat and it was hot, but that one simple thought struck a chord deep enough that I still recall the moment it crossed my mind. And it’s such a ridiculous little thought, as far as thoughts go.
But was it the water?
Was it the water of Florence that incited such talent? How did all those talented people find themselves confined in the same place? What was it about this city that it drew men to her? How did they migrate to this place, at this time, together under one glorious Tuscan sky?
Of course, now, older and wiser and a student of history, I have answers to those questions. The Medici Family and their sponsorship of the arts, sciences, philosophies and architecture (to name a few) brought these men together in one place. Florence was where the money and opportunity lay. So now, I often find myself in a dreamy philosophical quandary, was it the artist that created the renaissance or was it the Medici?
For the sake of my romantic spirit, I often bend toward the idea of fate and a symbiotic relationship. Chicken or egg, both had to be present to create what they did.
I’ve walked the streets of Florence often since that first youthful summer. I’m lucky enough to have a sister, with a fiercer dream than my own, who moved to Florence and has made a life for herself. So my visits to Florence are two fold, to sooth the spirit of the historian and writer and to visit my sister. (I suppose it helps that I also have a free place to stay.)
When I explore Florence, every outing, every step feels like an indulgence.
I’ve walked along the Arno River, the life blood of Florence, in the cool spring rain. An umbrella haphazardly perched on my shoulder. Unaware of the mist of water collecting on my face as the green blue waters rush by. I’ve gone dreamy eyed over the way low clouds hugged the Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge, as it stretched its ancient collection of small peach, orange, yellowed stucco shops across the Arno.
I’ve bundled myself against the November cold after crossing the old bridge and turning down a narrow corridor walkway that leads to the Uffizi museum. Uffizi means offices in Italian, and the offices that once belonged to the Medici now house desperately gorgeous piece of art, like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. However, it’s the outside corridor that interests me. Every few feet there’s a column, and in each column, about six feet off the ground is an alcove that holds a sculpture. These sculptures are actually a parade of men who helped define the Renaissance. A who’s who of that golden age. Galileo holds the telescope he used to spot the moons of Jupiter. The father of the Italian language, Dante, wears a laurel leaf crown and holds the lyre of a poet. Michelangelo stands with a chisel and hammer by his feet. Leonardo da Vinci holds a tablet in his left hand, and looks out from his alcove with a serene glance over the world he helped influence. Giotto holds the plan to the city’s bell tower he designed. And Lorenzo de Medici, the great art patron who set the tone for the Renaissance, rules over it all.
Personally, I drop off a quick prayer at the feet of Boccaccio, a famous Italian writer of the 14th century. He stands forever marbleized holding a book lightly in his hand, a finger keeping his place where he was interrupted. His gaze on the horizon, as if he just figured out how to describe it.
Each step through Florence, each turn, each gaze, brings about a new wonder. I’ve spent time walking backstreets and just studying door knockers and address plates. Little details that define this city as much as her famous Duomo.
I’ve spent a cold Valentine’s Day in Florence, not in a romantic embrace, but rather, alone. Settled on the steps of the loggia, a covered open air sculpture garden in the Piazza della Signoria, as the sun set. I wrote mad, mindless dribble as the creations of artists who died hundreds of years ago kept me company.
I’ve stood, sweat drenched, in front of Santa Maria del Fiore, more popularly known as the Duomo. I’ve strained my neck muscles gazing heavenward in an attempt to take in all of the Duomo’s green, white and gray Gothic façade. I’ve watched throngs of tourists gawk open mouthed, ponder and philosophize, complain and exalt their plight in the shadow the grand dame casts.
In that same heat, I’ve confined myself inside the maze of stairs that lead to the top of Dome, twisting and turning, ducking my head as we rounded claustrophobic corners. Breathing heavily the body odor of ourselves and everyone that has come before us. And I’ve pressed my hand to my chest to settle the ache induced by the view of the setting sun over distant hills once we stood on top. I struggled to find words and express color as the last rays of sunlight illuminated terracotta roof tops.
I must admit, when I scrape together just enough money to visit Florence my first order of business is an Italian cappuccino. My tired feet have carried me across ancient stones of Florence and into as many café’s as they have historical sites.
A symphony of clinking cups and spoons being set upon saucers, is the welcome greeting every visit. I’ve worked hard to learn the language and always wonder if I studied just to have the ability to order my favorite drink in my favorite city in the tongue of the locals.
I stand at the bar, because that’s how you do it in Italy. A coffee is meant for sipping momentarily here, not lengthy contemplation.
“Posso avere un cappuccino?” Can I have a cappuccino, I ask the tidy barista. A nod of the head is the only answer I’ll receive. A saucer is placed before me along with a spoon. And with a scream of steam and gurgle of the espresso machine, my cup is placed atop the saucer. I add a little sugar, give a swirl and then comes that fine moment. When the world stand still and my mouth dances in anticipation of the first sip. I revel in my drink. And still, I know this is not a moment that should be lingered over, so I finish my drink in three sips the way the Italians do. I give a wave to the barista and “grazie”. I pay my fee for my personal extravagant moment and head back out into the busy streets of Florence.
Maybe I’ll head to the outdoor market near San Lorenzo, or perhaps I’ll head up the hill to look over the city from the Piazzale Michelangelo. The possibilities for exploration are endless and I’m in the mood to exhaust my feet and over indulge my senses.