Fragments of Florence
There are several ways to take Florence, Italy. One is innocently and for the first time on virgin foot. The other is with a random friend that you just happened to bump into in another Italian city, someone that has taken an educational tour of the city and all its highlights and can dispense with you all that he learned in various lectures. The next way is by bicycle. A rickety terror on two wheels rolling over talking stones of ancient rumors, and the interrupting puddles from the night before. The last way is with a female model who is taller than you and whom all the Italian men turn around to catch a look at.
I’ve had the privilege of trying all these. Let me expound on a few. But first…
Florence has held its sway over me ever since I didn’t go to it the last time that I was in Italy. Yes, we completely skipped out on a visit to Florence. Instead, stuck to the southern parts. Hung around Sicily and Rome for a long while. So ever since then, I’ve been meaning to come back and gallivant about the place. Where else can you point to a single city and say so much of the world has changed because of it, except for maybe Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, or possibly London.
My desire was simply to walk down the same streets and alleyways that so many great and inspired men had walked down once upon a time. Florence was one of those golden places in history where the world transformed itself and gave birth to something staggering and magical. Beauty and grandeur were actual themes of God back then. It all tied back to man and his place in the world, the universe. His understanding of the order of the cosmos and the turmoil of life, yet the divine celebration, the impossible mystery captivated humanity and he went about the walled cities next to cold rivers enflamed with some sort of mission. From the marketplace to the banquet halls hovered a spirit of Genius. This was back in the day when genius was regarded not as the acquisition of knowledge as it is today, but as an incomprehensible fire of bright, uncontrollable movement. -As some wild, untamed spirit creating sacred effigies out of paint and stone and verse. I wanted to know what inspired these men. To drink from the same skies and the same fountains that they drunk from. This was a land sprinkled with artists and poets. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael….Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio. Something wholly divine was taking place on the street corners, in the echoing cathedrals, and in the riotous taverns once long ago. I wanted to see if I could catch a spark of it. Maybe it was in the way the sun looked when it hit a field of olives, or maybe it was in the luscious wine they sopped with their unbuttered bread. Maybe it was in the song of some lost canticle being raised to the tops of cathedral domes amidst candlelight.
My first visit to Florence, I was almost as determined on seeing the house of Dante as the statues and paintings of the High Renaissance Masters. But what I found on the way to this great poet’s house was this little chapel hidden away in the alley. This little church was where Dante was said to have first sighted his beloved Muse…Beatrice. Then poem after poem flowed forth causing quite a stir among the medieval society. In those days, poets would talk to one another in sonnets. They were conversational pieces. One inspired poet would send his work to another poet about a ravishing girl. This 2nd poet would turn around and write a response. Mostly to the point of “Well, you think your lady is magnificent…let me tell you about mine.” And he would jot down some outrageous, fluffy things about his Muse and shoot it off to the other poet. Of course, I must mention that these poets probably would hardly have even spoken to the girl that they are writing these sonnets about. In some cases not even been acquainted with the female in verse. That’s just the way it was back then with their courtly love conventions. I’ve tried to revive this convention a time or two in my life…with little effect.
But Dante went on. Not just making fancy rhymes about his Muse. He started to hang entire theological concepts on this tradition. Pretty soon, his sweet Beatrice, who had died many years before most of his poems were alive and kicking, she was used as a vehicle in one of the major works this world has ever known. Dante after climbing out of hell with Virgil and up a mountainside, meets Beatrice who takes him up into the Heavens towards the Light of God. Beatrice a vehicle of Pure Love, Agape,…having this tremendous role in the cosmology of the universe. But I should stop here, I am getting all professorial as my English major proves and I'm actually revealing that school loans is not the only thing that can drag on after ones degree.
I ran into him in a train station in Siena. I knew that he was in Italy. But didn’t know his exact location necessarily. He also knew that I was in Italy but my whereabouts as they tend to be, were up in the air. I was realizing the mistake I had made in coming to the train station. Getting edgy and wondering that I had gone to the wrong place for my planned trip to San Gimignano. Right when I turned around I saw David before he saw me, acting entirely on impulse, I grabbed his collar and shook him, laughing in the amazement of actually running into someone by accident in the most random places of the world. He freaked out not realizing that I was me, but some mugger being excessively open about my intentions. Until he actually looked at my face and realized it was me…his older brother’s roommate…that’s right, “The Rooskie” as they call me. His eyes widened as he yelled that. All the other students from the same group noticed this also. But they are Harding students…they just had this blank, sheepish look on their faces. The same faces that they probably wear in chapel, in the student center, in class, in probably half their life spans. My indecision and annoyance was cured right then, I would be catching a train to Florence with David and we would wander the streets.
And that was what we did. Our feet took off through the main piazzas in the early night. Crossing the Ponte Vecchio we just headed up hill making our own paths as we did. And finding the most brilliant viewpoint of the city. Descending back again, across the Arno while the rain drizzled and our feet got sopping wet and sore. We dined at this little Trattoria back behind the Accademia. One of the best meals I’ve ever had in a long time. Then we wandered the streets again getting ourselves lost on the way to the train station. Oh yeah, I actually saw the statue of David with David. Really impressive. Michelangelo’s marvelous masterpiece. I’m almost ashamed to mention as a side note as though it was insignificant. I think its just that there is so much to be said about Michelangelo. It would take an entire article.
A bicycle in Florence is ideal. It’s very much akin to renting a gondola in Venice (okay not that romantic; and certainly not that expensive. Maybe more like renting camels in Egypt or elephants in Thailand) Well you get the point. Its one of those vehicles with an idyllic sparkle to it. Little did I realize that the bicycle that I was to be given would be the most cumbersome, rickety, piece of machinery. Da Vinci could have invented a better bicycle out of discarded picture frames. But nevertheless, it got me around. Making lots of mechanical rattles and whirring. I guess it kind of let people know I was coming their way. No interesting story here. Except maybe the fat Italian man who tried to elbow me as I squeezed around a corner with him. Bicycles in Italy are better kept on the roads dodging cars rather than people on the sidewalks. Also, a stop every now and then for a coffee or a gelato is to be expected.
She was living in Prato where I was staying with a friend of mine. She was an American. Tall, athletic. Really fun. Some other Americans showed up whom I actually knew. And we all went to Florence for a day. By this time I was a veteran on the streets (I had gotten lost enough times by now) and could look like a pro. So I escorted her around various places. We even tried sneaking into the Boboli Gardens…old Medici palace grounds. And then I took her up on this rooftop hotel. Well, we had to sneak up there. Where you could see Brunelleschi’s Duomo towering over the city like a Mother Goddess of Nurture and Compassion. We even had to clamor on a roof for a short while to get to this magnificent spot in the nighttime.
Above all when in Florence, or anywhere in Italy really, you must breathe everything in. Don't rush. It's very unItalian. It takes awhile for Chianti to ferment, for King David to be born straight out of marble, and for all beauty to hit the eye so sublimely like Dante saw when he finally, finally made it to Paradise.