A flowering cathedral
The full name of Florence’s Duomo – or cathedral – is the Santa Maria del Fiore. It is one of the most imposing buildings you’re ever likely to see in Europe. It feels like a Herculean Tetris puzzle crowned by the red-brick masterpiece of Brunelleschi.
Beauty tends to attract beauty. Or at least, the seekers of beauty. And this can be a bittersweet burden.
The Duomo is a photogenic church. You will be taking photos of it from every angle and at various times of day. It is particularly eloquent during sunset. In fact, when I went to visit the interior of the cathedral, one of the resident guides said that the church bells ring one hour before sunset, during sunset and one hour after sunset. It’s almost as if the cathedral knows how good it looks in the soft hours of sunset.
And most of the people photographing themselves in front of the Duomo know how good they look with the Duomo behind them.
And this will be one of the few things that annoy you about the grandiloquent city of Florence. That and the lack of affordable bars and overpriced drinks in generic tourist restaurants (do your research before you go to eat, otherwise, you’ll get bitten).
Selfies with Venus
The Duomo isn’t the only place in Florence you’ll encounter the iPhone crowds. Its main sights, like the Piazza della Signoria, the Ponte Vecchio, the Piazza della Reppublica and the galleries of the Uffizi will be crowded with the selfie-swarms most times of day. It shouldn’t put you off visiting and appreciating any of the places. Especially not the Uffizi gallery.
Along with London’s National Gallery and the Louvre in Paris, the Uffizi is one of the greatest art museums in Europe. Its elegant, airy corridors are lined with Roman sculptures, each deifying some human emotion and trait. Its well-curated rooms are an art-lover’s wet-dream; Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Giotto, Caravaggio, Rubens and of course Botticelli.
Florence is a good place to learn about human narcissism. But I can guarantee you, no matter what your gender or sexual orientation: you will not see a more beautiful human being than Botticelli’s Venus.
I couldn’t believe how stunned I was when I first saw her. Her beauty is innocent and confident, fair, golden and radiant, but at the same time she’s covering herself, reminding us she has just been born, and that true beauty lies not in her body but in the natural kingdom she embodies.
Her eyes stay with you. And it was Venus that made me feel more forgiving towards the crowds around me. They are not victims of an egocentric, shallow fashion that is today enabled by iPhones, Kardashians and wealth. They are the victims of an innate narcissism and lust for beauty that is older than Venus and dates back to humanity’s primordial African steps.
It was a lesson only Florence could teach me: human beings are all narcissistic.
The Renaissance empowers the ego
In the Piazza della Signoria, one of the less claustrophobic squares of the city, I took my time observing the statues of Giambologna and Donatello and the rest. And, being a writer, I didn’t look at them as art works. I looked at them as stories.
And it wasn’t about the stories of the rape of the Sabine women or the stories of Perseus beheading Medusa or the killing of centaurs. It was all about stories of heroism. These statues capture an idealised, mythologised moment of human bravery. It told the passersby of Renaissance Florence: this is what you should aspire to.
And they did. I think Florentines being surrounded by this constant narrative of human heroism and over-achievement inspired more of them to super-human feats of art, engineering, trade and science. The geniuses of Florence are the heirs of powerful narratives.
The Duomo was no different. The Santa Maria del Fiore helped a thousand Florentine minds to bloom. How could it not? The Duomo feels imposing and titanic today. But back then it humbled men and women, left them in awe at the unrivalled power of God. And, being narcissists, they wanted a share in that power. The Renaissance was a humanist age, after all. An age that yes was dominated by the church’s affluence, but it was also the first time that man started saying: I can be as powerful and enlightened as God himself.
This was the age when man tried yet again to steal the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Except this time, he wasn’t expelled from Eden – he just built his own.
Holding up the leaning tower
If you stay in Florence you are likely to go on day trips to nearby Tuscan cities. One obvious and popular destination is Pisa and its leaning tower.
The walk from Pisa’s train station towards the tower takes just under thirty minutes. Once you cross over the Arno and enter Pisa’s historic centre you feel a change in the architecture, a metamorphosis that is both sudden and sharp.
Pisa’s centre is charming, medieval and rich. But it is also rundown. It’s not something you’re told a lot of the times. Its main street, covered in loggias, restaurants and smuggled churches, is charming but unkempt. The paint on the old buildings is peeling violently. The columns and balconies are blackened. Nothing feels like it should be holding together. Most of the restaurants there, as one can imagine, are generic and touristic.
But like I said, you’re never told that, because the large piazza that contains the Duomo, the baptistry and the leaning tower make up for all of that.
Here, all the buildings are clean. They are a radiant grey and remind you of the Parthenon in its prime. The lawn is immaculately well-kept and you feel like you’re in another Pisa. And all the tourists, travellers and bloggers happily taking photos of themselves with the mythical tower will graciously forgive all of Pisa’s decrepitude.
Why? The leaning tower is surreal and beautiful, yes. Unquestionably. But apart from its distinct architecture and God-challenging height, it has one other characteristic that draws people towards it: you look good taking a photo with the tower of Pisa behind you!
After all, here is the most iconic image of all of Italy. Read Italian textbooks or see a sketch about Italy and you are bound to see some image of the leaning tower.
Now, here you are, John from Leicester, Elizabeth from Cologne, Bob from Baltimore, Juan from Seville, taking a photo with this immensely powerful symbol.
Look at you all, you not only had enough money to afford to come here, but you had the good taste to come here, and now, it’s time to advertise your wisdom to the world. And of course: here you are holding up the tower itself. The tourist in shining armour!
I am not being derogative in any way. I also had lots of photos taken beneath the leaning tower. You will too. It’s fun. And it is endlessly fascinating how our inner narcissist latches on to these great monuments and triumphs of human achievement. It is like, by being there, you want to be a part of that triumph.
You are what you are seen to eat
It isn’t any different when it comes to food in Florence. Italian food, like the leaning tower of Pisa, is a global legend. It has been deified by films, chefs, guide books and history itself. Eating in Florence caters to those travellers who want to get a bite of La Vita Bella.
Everywhere you go in Florence you see bistecca advertised. There is pizza everywhere. Pici pasta – Tuscany’s own, old-style thick spaghetti. And wherever you go you will be stalked by the golden, incense smell of truffles. You won’t mind it. One of the most surprising dishes I had in Florence was in Eataly; a poached egg covered with truffle shavings and parmeggiano.
There are better foods you can try in Florence which are not as internationally renowned. I recommend you try the lampredotto. It’s a bun filled with greasy, spicy tripe. Lampredotto, specifically, is the cow’s fourth stomach. It’s a Florentine delicacy. And there is no better place to have it than All’Antico Vinaio. A van that sells lampredotto in a charming old piazza near the Signoria. Have a lampredotto there, sip at a beer, sit by the van’s counter, and watch the piazza go by.
That is the more authentic, less narcissistic option. You are, however, likely to get far less likes than if you photograph yourself eating a thick, pink, charred t-bone of bistecca fiorentina. The way we choose our foods is also subconsciously driven by our budding narcissism.
Narcissism as souvenir
Narcissism is defined as: ‘excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance.’ And just like any other human trait – if this is moderated, it is cruelly beneficial. If you admire the choices you make when on holiday, if you can admire your physical appearance as you pose in front of the Duomo or the leaning tower; that will help consolidate your memory of the experience. It means you are involved, engaged in the adventure, and a few years down the line, you will remember the experience not simply by remembering place names, but by remembering emotions.
The best souvenir you can get from Florence (apart from truffle oil!) is a good photo of you in front of the sunset-kissed Duomo.
But at times you will be annoyed by the thousands of fellow narcissists around you. There is an easy and uplifting remedy to that. Wake up early in the morning. Go walk the streets of Florence before the crowds are up and while the sun is still rising. You will have Florence all to yourself. And yes, you will brag about it later on in the day, you will feel you and the city have formed a connection none of the other lazy tourists have. And that is when you will fall in love with the city.
And when you go back home, it won’t leave you alone. You will miss this city. A city which you thought you had dominated with the force of your ego. Then you realise you would do anything, even beg, to go back to the city. And visiting Florence is very much like getting a tattoo: you don’t just do it once.