From the train: black fields, a pond steaming gently as the air warms, an achingly perfect stone farmhouse. Later, in a wet valley, two fruit trees in drenched white bloom. Eating panini with goat cheese and arugula (or mozarella and thick-sliced tomato) from the stazione in Venice, and red chili chocolate—the newest excellent Italian thing.
The beautiful bridge and the river with the lights coming on. Bridge of old gold, at the heart of the old city, holding itself apart from the modern workaday hubbub. A blue boat tied in the darkening water beneath the farthest arch. Beauty remembered, beyond the later adult disenchantment. My first feelings for Florence here, at this moment, reclaimed.
ROSSINI AND PUCCINI
The room we’re staying in (and the little bar room with bottles and books and Internet connection) part of Rossini’s apartment, during the time when he was writing The Barber of Seville, the William Tell overture.
And nearby is the Gianni Schicchi of Puccini, based in Florence on a story mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
There are two likely candidates for the Donati house in which the opera Gianni Schicchi actually took place, namely two medieval towers, still in use today. The more likely location is at 35r via Matteo Palmieri (just off Piazza San Pieri Maggiore) and around the corner from via degli Albizi. This property, which today houses a travel agency, is known as the "Torre dei Donati e degli Albizi," the Albizi family being inhabitants after the Donatis [Dante’s inlaws, and mentioned in his Purgatorio]. About one kilometer to the west, at the corner of via dei Ricci and via Corso (so called because the Romans used to race horses there) is another tower known now as "Torre dei Donate e dei Ricci" which is the other possible site of the opera (today a leather shop occupies the ground floor).
We see one of the Donati towers without knowing its possible significance when we’re questing after Dante, our last afternoon.
In glorious February sunshine, an elderly British couple (who look like they must own spaniels and ride to hounds) sitting drinking champagne on the roof of the Uffizi, bottle upended in a silver ice bucket on the little café table. Sublimely unconcerned by the tremendous clock face looking over at us sternly from its tower confinement next door.
A vendor of roasting chestnuts on a street near the Duomo, the charry fragrance marrying with rain in the winter night air.
On another street, another night, the sidewalk artists reproducing works of the Florentine masters with their colored chalks.
The words “Andiamo in gioia” beckoning from the doorway of a gray stone church.
Oh let us go in joy!
A swath of daffodils on a hillside, under the olives, climbing to the hilltown of Fiesole.
From the highest point in the high town, looking out on the Tuscan countryside, on the beginning spring.
The Etruscans, as elusive as ever. Their tombs silent and dark, and even the museums closed for no particular reason when we try to find them. Catching the merest glimpse of Roman ruins through my telephoto lens, between cypresses in the gardens just below the church—closed too. Only an indistinguished bar/café is open, where we eat Penne alla Etrusca, with (mysteriously) peas and ham.
Back in Florence, the Etruscans closed away upstairs at the Archaeological Museum, which we’re surprised to find open, this second try. A fine museum, housing Medici collections—Etruscan, Roman, Egyptian, Greek. A silver amphora, a chariot of wood and bone, a bronze statue of a young man cast by the lost wax method and, lost, fished out of the sea near Livorno. The famous Wounded Chimaera of Bellerophon, the lion with a goat’s head and a serpent for its tail.
Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), who is mistakenly said to have restored the statue, says in his 1558 Vita: “Having in these days been found some old things in the county of Arezzo, among which there was a Chimaera, which is that bronze lion which is seen in the rooms near the great hall of the palace (and together with said Chimaera there had been found also a great number of smaller statuettes, also in bronze, which were all covered of earth, or of rust, and of each one of them there were missing either the head, or the hands, or the feet), the Duke took great pleasure in cleaning them by himself, with some goldsmith's tools.”
We are lucky to have found the museum open at all, since it turns out to have reopened only this past October, forty years after the devastating floods.* The ground floor offers an appropriate, thought-provoking exhibit on reconstructions, letting us consider what goes into making things whole again (or as we can only imagine they might have been); the wistful idea of piecing together fragments of fragments. The wheels of the ancient chariot, a bronze Minerva corroded with time, the famous François Vase that recounts almost all of Greek mythology on its deceptively serene surface.
Broken before being placed in an Etruscan tomb, the vase was uncovered in 1845 and painstakingly pieced together. In 1900 a museum guard threw a stool at the case that held the vase, and smashed it this time into 638 pieces. It was restored over the next four years, and then again seventy years later—incorporating a previously missing piece which somebody had pocketed and taken with him and was only later through perseverence retrieved.
*The Arno River flood of November 4, 1966 killed dozens of people and damaged or destroyed millions of masterpieces of art and rare books in Florence. It is considered the worst flood in the city's history since 1557. With the combined effort of Italian citizens and foreign donors and committees, or angeli del fango ("Mud Angels"), many of these fine works have been restored. New methods in conservation were devised and restoration laboratories established. However, even decades later, much work remains to be done.Two excellent novels, The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga, and The Lost Madonna by Kelly Jones, tell about the young foreigners who came to Florence to help save the river-damaged art.
The student sitting cross-legged on one of the bridges over the Arno, sketching, before the light goes.
OSTERIA DEL CINGHIALE BIANCO
Above a wooden table built into a whitewashed alcove, as in Crete, we are intrigued to see the famous painting of Richard III again, which we’ve just seen in England at the National Portrait Gallery. Why is Richard in Florence ahead of us? The waiter reminds us that the Duke of Gloucester’s emblem was famously the white boar. (Back in London, we’ll find that the new Chinese year, just turning, will be the Year of the Boar.)
In the osteria we eat wonderful Tuscan food. Homemade pappardelle; chicken roasted fra diavola, with herbs; a heavenly salad of nothing more than fresh arugula and shaved parmesan cheese, perfectly simple.
The joy of spending Valentine’s Day in romantic Italy, with my own true love and soul mate, my inamorato. Noting the table here and there of somebody eating alone. At the Cinghiale Bianco, a woman with a book, leaving early, who I recognize—she would once have been me.
CHIESA DI DANTE
At this time of celebration for innamorati, happening by chance upon the Chiesa di Dante, where the poet first saw his Beatrice (then eight), the beloved for whom he'd write his god-touched lines.
But it is her church more than his, a dim and unassuming place, deeply moving in its quiet sincerity. We find her grave against one wall, among the Portinari family graves, a simple stone in a shadowy corner. Others have found it before us, though, come to pay their homage to the woman who inspired love beyond all reckoning, beyond exile and death. Poems or maybe prayers written by hand on notebook pages have been left for her there by the dozens, folded over and confided to the stone. Words of love murmured to Beatrice, still, though Dante is exiled for all time in Ravenna. In one of the big cathedrals in Florence stands an empty tomb with his name.
A light-struck triangle of rock on the plain altar of the church draws the eye irresistibly, simple and moving too, unmoved. As compelling as that other: "andiamo in gioia."
—Christie (February, 2007)