An Existentialist Day in Firenze

If you had a day in the Tuscan capital of Firenze – let’s by all means call it by its local name, it’s one of those places that sound better in the local tongue – and you had to choose between spending it shopping or sightseeing: what would you do?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking just what I thought when we travelled down from our base in Salsomaggiore (see previous blogs) down to Firenze for a day. You’re thinking the question is too philistine to even be asked. But don’t let’s fall into accusations of thought-crime: let’s think. The question is not by any means rhetorical.

Firenze, one could argue, is far too rich, culturally and aesthetically, to absorb in one day (not even a full day: we had to get our coach back at six p.m.). What’s the point of trying to see the Duomo, the house of Dante where Beatrice is buried, the Santa Croce, the Uffizi, the Ponto Vecchio – all in a few hours? It would feel too rushed too mainstream and even kitsch – especially considering you would be inevitably surrounded and crowded by hordes of American and Japanese tourists all day long. Not very local, authentic, after all.

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But on the other hand: shopping is shopping, isn’t it: it is generic: nothing new there: nothing for the soul either. Yet, shamefacedly, I found myself, as soon as our coach stopped us near the Arno river on the fringes of the bejeweled city, seriously contemplating skipping the sights and indulging in the luxuriant luxuries of that ludicrously lavish city. My Epicurean values were being tested. Do I be materialistic and tempted by the false riches of the world? Or give credit and due to the great artists and architects of our Western civilization?

In the end I did both: in the end I did neither. Firenze was an existential crisis I was happy to leave unanswered.

In the morning we toured around the entrancing streets of classical lore and power, deciding not to go into too many museums and just soak up the sophisticated airs of the streetscapes. The square dominated by the elephantine Duomo was mesmerizing: like walking around the reincarnated Titans. The tiles and the intricate sculptures that make up the skin of the uber-Cathedral leave you in awe and proud to belong to a civilization that could master such feats. The square itself is also very lively: Irish pubs intermingle with chic Italian restaurants and hole-in-the wall bakeries. There is life not only from the constant, nauseating flow of tourists, but from hungry, copious, elegant Tuscans.

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The Duomo, known officially as the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers, is a Renaissance masterpiece begun in the 13th century and finished in its entirety when its dome was completed in 1436 – an imposing, iconic structure designed by the Renaissance feather-in-the-crown Filippo Brunelleschi. I may be a lapsed Catholic: but, Santa Maria del Fiore, the pleasure and privilege truly is mine. We did not have time to go inside to explore the crypt or to climb into the dome (what sensational Florentine views would have awaited us!) but just being close enough sufficed to make me feel that this is not an ode to the glory of god, but to the great enterprising grandeur of man.

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Blossoming out away from the square like veins out of a beating heart are many side-streets, dark and alluring, all of them containing some remnant of monumental importance. In one of my favourite such side-street we found the Casa di Dante – what street is it on, why, Via Dante Alighieri, naturally. Inside one can see various documents and exhibits pertaining to the life of Italy’s own Shakespeare, ranging from his odes to the Duomo to his painful exile. The house – previously the Alighieri household – is crammed into an old, red-brick street at the heart of the city (both now and that mystical then). Just walking around in its shadow I felt the honour and almost Medieval sinuousness of “the experience of this sweet life.”

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Walking a few streets down we found ourselves carrying out an unintentional Dante pilgrimage for, unplanned and by sheer accident (for such is the ridiculous cultural wealth of Firenze), we found the shy church of Santa Margherite de’ Cechi where Beatrice Portinari, the great love of Dante, is interred. Beatrice has the peculiar honour of being simultaneously a woman of fact and fiction. Beatrice is the woman who saves Dante and Virgil from Purgatory and awaits them in Paradise – and, it could be said, the great poetic masterpiece The Divine Comedy would never have been conceived had Beatrice not died at the age of twenty-four, leaving a young, melancholy Dante morosely heartbroken. Until that is he began the therapeutic process of writing the greatest work of poetry the Florentine, and later, Italian language has ever known. In the small church where she is buried, visitors kneel at her low tomb and, those that get carried away by tourist-adrenaline, place a letter and a flower in a basket dedicated to their unrequited love, asking Beatrice to intervene like an undead Cupid. The church and the tomb feel like an epithet profaned. O the masses! But who can despoil the beauteous words she put into her lover’s mouth who described her as “the glorious lady of my mind.”

Time was ticking away. Our minds reeled with the elated sobriety of the elite city. So much more to see. Yes, yes: so little time.

Firenze is a city of grandiose open spaces made claustrophobic. The Ponte Vecchio is one of the most beautiful, idyllic man-made space you are ever likely to see. If you can squeeze through the very much man-made crowds and get good breathing space. First constructed in Roman times this old stone bridge straddles the narrowest point of the Arno and its colourful Medieval architecture is still heaving with traditional shops and teeming with squirming hustle and bustle. The view from the bridge – no less hard-fought – is postcard-perfect. Firenze, from this vantage point, with its tall cypresses, calm reflective river and timeless skyline, feels like a city stubbornly clinging on to a classicism long since extinguished. A torch of timelessness in the industrialised present. But the present nonetheless steeps through: street-sellers, peddlers, painters, pseudo-beggars, crowds and their children, make the Ponte Vecchio, on a given day, a Purgatory in the midst of Paradise. We spent no more time there than we needed to. Not for lack of wanting.

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Around the corner another open-air museum awaited us – I am desperately trying to avoid the cliché of calling Firenze a large open-air museum because it is too well eccentric and exciting to describe it using such stuffy phrases. Piazza della Signoria is not a square you want to rush through – hordes or no hordes. It feels like the navel of Western civilization and the elegant marble statues that dot its savannah-like openness stand there as memorials to our foundations. This is more like it, a truly Epicurean square. I spent so much time idling there that I didn’t even visit the Palazzo Vecchio, the Romanesque town-hall built like a fortress. One of the most hauntingly beautiful statues is the Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna. The composition depicts two erotically bound nude men holding up a struggling, shocked woman. This tells the story of when, in 750 B.C. Roman men raped the women of the Sabine people and made them their wives – one of the founding myths of ancient Rome. Interestingly, the word rape comes from the Latin raptio which means abduction. And glorious though the scene may be: make no mistake: the Sabine woman here is being raped. Her expression is unmistakable.

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Nearby, in the Loggia dei Lanzi, stands another gruesome, unignorable monument to the great Medici family that birthed the Firenze we adore: Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini. A bronze sculpture showing Perseus holding aloft the severed head of Medusa, veins and arteries still hanging on, as he looks down, with cold arrogance, on her trampled, decapitated husk of a body. Not even ISIS could conjure up such cold cruelty. Then again, what do such barbarians know of art. Or civility. And here, permit the intrusive footnote: you do feel that Western civilization is worth defending. Just as the Romans (tried) to defend it against Huns and Alemans, so we must defend it from ISIS and all their misbegotten brood.

Before leaving the Piazza della Signoria we could not help but pay homage to the replicated replica of Michalengalo’s David standing before the Palazzo Vecchio.

Now we were getting nervous: lunchtime was approaching and questions stabbed and pinched: to eat or feast on more art: do we have time: one more site: I’m hungry: one more: aahh!

There was one place we had to go – one last visit – because we all of us wanted to see the Temple of Italian Glories. It wasn’t far. Nowhere is far in this breathless city. Situated in its namesake the Piazza di Santa Croce, dominating its open-air market, stood the basilica of Santa Croce: burial site of the likes of Galileo, Michelangelo and Rossini amongst others. The skin of the basilica is similar to its big brother the Duomo; white, rich marble, yet somehow more understated and austere, as befitting its Franciscan history. It is also laid out in the shape of an Egyptian cross and it shelters within sixteen chapels all immortalised by Giotto’s murals.

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Within the church – well it’s a church – but the true glories are the skyscraping monuments of Michelangelo and Galileo. Originally denied burial on consecrated ground it took a long time before the church closed an eye and allowed his monument to be erected in the Santa Croce’s hallowed ground. And it is a great historic vindication to see his sarcophagus watched over by the figures of Astronomy and Geometry. This is greater poetry even than Dante!

Whilst in the church we struck up a conversation with an off-duty tour-guide who explained to us that to be licensed to guide in Firenze you need to undergo a year-long, intensive course, that covers its history, geography and aesthetics. He was a typically refined, young Italian working his dream job – certainly a de facto dream job for most lovers of the classics. And thus, in inspired mood, we tore ourselves away and began hunting for a typical Florentine lunch, intending on spending the second half of the day shopping: a fair compromise, surely.

Food is never a compromise. Food is one of the great pleasures of life. And in Italy: it is up there with the Virgin Mary. Now, of course, this is a deliberate misreading of pure Epicureanism on my part. The modern phrase ‘Epicurean’, meaning someone who indulges in food and drink is a 180 degree corruption of Epicurus philosophy. Epicurus expounded the simple pleasures of frugal gastronomy: his followers in the Garden lived on little more than simple bread and greens. But, just as I could not bring myself to vegetarianism despite the compelling ethical arguments of Peter Singer, so I cannot bring myself to frugality for the sake of Epicurus. At the very least: not in Firenze!

We found a restaurant just off the Piazza del Duomo, situated in an underground wine cellar. The atmosphere was as irreverent and timeless as the rest of the city. But the restaurant was quiet: so it felt less like a museum and more like the infinite now. The waiter that served us – a tall, beacon of blonde campness – walked past the tables twirling his legs pouting his lips as if he were catwalking on the moon. He suggested – God bless his camp soul – we order a kilo of bistecca fiorentina. This tender beef steak derived from the Tuscan breed of Chianina cow, one of the largest breeds of cow in the world (a newborn can weigh around 50kg), used mainly as working animals and also capable of producing incomparably succulent cuts of meat (don’t the best things in life come from those bound to work!). Paying 50euros for the cut (so much for frugality) we were delivered a bleeding portion of t-bone bistecca. A cut of perfection. Truly. For the carnivorous this is Parnassus. As a side we had roast potatoes, silverbeet and white cannellini beans. For dessert we had Tuscan wine. As an aperitif I had a necessary shot of Fernet Branca and yet more wine.

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The waiter was a great guide, the wine a smooth flight and the restaurant a secluded delight. By the time we finished our nth bottle of wine we realised we only had one hour left. One hour for shopping. Fine. No harm. No loss. We paid the luxurious bill including the coperto and soldiered on. But, after our Renaissance savannah and agape feast, it was all half-hearted. The Piazza Repubblica was a thriving hub. It was un-disappointing. And despite the haste we did shop, we spent little at the Guccis, a bit at the likes of Zara, and precociously from the souvenir shops.

That last hour in Firenze was disgustingly materialistic. But I didn’t mind. As we waited for our coach on the edge of the flowing Arno, the sun setting behind the Duomo and over the Ponte Vecchio, I felt luminous, bathed in the light of that old time grandeur. Firenze is an inspirational city. It promotes and promulgates the highest of standards. If you go there, ye tourists, in flip-flops and t-shirts you will come away feeling second-class; like Vandals at the gates of Rome. If you, as I sometimes do, revel in the ragtag music of old-fashioned socialism, with its idealising of the working man, you will come away feeling guilty at not indulging in the theatre of civilization. And if you are an Epicurean proud to be contented with life’s simple pleasures your faith will be shaken, rattled and rolled. Feeling Firenze for the first time you feel unworthy. The second time: you won’t make that childish mistake again.

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