We are to be up, dressed and in the car early, early, early this morning. Today we are going to Florence. Of all the cities in Italy, this is the one that gets the most thumbs ups from my friends. I am really looking forward to whatever magic it chooses to reveal to me.
The ride in isn’t as long as I’d anticipated and the direction we choose takes us through a tree-lined residential area that looks like a lovely suburban street almost anywhere. Except it’s in Florence. Italy.
We park at the Piazola Michelangelo, marked by a large green naked man at its center. The David – a replica, but an exact one. We note that we’re parked ‘behind’ him. We’re all still 13.
A quick cup of cappuccino, a quicker glance at the incredible view of all of Florence from above it and we’re off. We descend through manicured gardens full of sculptures, winding this way and that down a steep hill. There is the giant sleeping bronze cat, curled in an open patch of grass, the entire city at his back. The outline of a valise frames a view of the city for creative photo ops and a bronze man in a top hat sits patiently on a bench waiting for, I can only assume, his date in the ladies room.
At the bottom of the hill we are suddenly at eye level with the city of art. To our left the Ponte Vecchio bridge full of shops and very soon tourists, to our right more utilitarian bridges. We cross the Arno on foot. It’s early and a few people are preparing kayaks for a morning glide along the smooth surface of the sparkling river.
So much about this city is asking me to slow down, take it all in, observe. But we’re with a group and have a schedule to keep so I obey to the best of my ability, which is to say, I do a lot of running to catch up and receive a few stern glances. I will be back here two more times during this trip so I surrender to the pack. Mostly.
I don’t immediately fall in love. I mean, It’s Florence and it’s rich and beautiful but I can’t yet feel her. Perhaps it’s the rapid clip with which we’re walking. Maybe she’s just not for me, but I suspect we have stories to write together so I don’t give up.
Our first stop is the Medici Palace Museum. The marble inlay is astounding, the soaring frescoed ceilings enchanting, but the pieces that capture my attention the most are the little terrariums of bones on sticks. I have no idea what they’re actually called or what they were used for. I struggle to understand the need for a vertebra and some dried flowers in glass on a stand. Was this a conquest? A memorium? For now I’ll have to leave it all to my imagination.
From here we wander the streets to the Uffizi – the MUST SEE museum in all of Italy. It is impressive. My father was an artist and I was fortunate to grow up in the Washington DC area, so museums and I go way back. Nearly monthly, from a very young age, we would take in portions of the National Gallery of Art or one of the other Smithsonian Museums. I had my favorites even as a small child. While taking an art history class, as an adult, in art school I was immediately struck by the paintings of Mary Cassatt. Mesmerized. When I shared this observation with my mother, she told me that when I was very little I would hop out of my stroller and run to the room where Mary Cassatt’s paintings hung in the National Gallery. On the other hand, I get a little bored at museums. I love art, but so much of it is static, its story flat. But Botticelli? He loved women. He knew women. His paintings have their scale and proportion shortcomings, but the overall feel is ethereal and soft.
So as I stand before the painting, now behind thick plexiglass bolted to the wall, I am entranced. I want to take in every last brush stroke, question every color choice and touch it. I really, really want to touch it.
Once I have soaked in all the yummy goodness that is Botticelli I’m ready to go. Seriously. Until I learn there is a hermaphrodite room. A whole room. When I get there I am greeted by a reclined marble sculpture that, true to its name, has the genitalia of both a male and female. The face is androgynous, the hair long and lustrous. Full breasts press against a quilted cushion as a flaccid penis rests between the legs. The overall form is feminine with some musculature that hints at male chromosomes. She is beautiful. And a little sad. I circle her several times imagining chiseling away at a block of marble to reveal a human form.
We are to meet our group outside the museum to receive our next set of instructions. There is a church and probably another church and maybe one more church we are to see. We meet others at our meeting point, we’ve been together over a week now so we’re pretty comfortable with one another. We chat about our favorite exhibit, then the city as a whole, then the weather, then we realize we’ve been waiting quite a while. Some texts are made a phone call or two and we’re off again.
Just outside the Uffizi is the Ponte Vecchio bridge. It is now a beehive of tourist activity, so naturally we head there. On our way we are kidnapped and threatened with our lives if we do not stop immediately and buy gelato. I did it for the others, of course. Cups in hand we walk along the Arno toward the bridge and admire the various artists who have their wares displayed.
We push half way through the crowds of people on the bridge. We see mostly the backs of the heads in front of us, getting to a shop or a view on either side seems to require some sort of strategy none of us is really up to so we turn around and head back.
All gathered together now we begin to find our way back to the hill with the gardens and back to the parking lot with David’s green bum watching over our car.
Before leaving, most of us climb another hill to a huge church overlooking the city. It is nearly time for vespers – I don’t know what that is, but I want to be there for it. The church is San Miniato al Monte and vespers, I learn, are sunset prayer services at Catholic churches. At this particular church it is the chanting that people come to hear. I love chanting.
We sit quietly watching as a man who might be God’s brother is walked to a cage. He signs in and takes a seat on a bench along the wall. I expected more such priests or friars or whatever exactly he is. I am too far to look for any identifying marks on his fancy, sparkling robes. Soon a younger man comes to the cage – why a fenced in area at a church, I ponder – and also signs in (maybe they get some sort of credit for being there). This one, the younger one, begins to chant and all sarcasm is expelled through the bajillion goose bumps raised on my skin.
I close my eyes hoping to submerge myself in the waves of magic created by the chants. I want to lay down and soak in this river of kindness. Instead I sit very still. Then he stops. I open my eyes and stare directly at him, hoping he will understand he needs to continue. He doesn’t. I wait a little longer. God’s brother gets up moves to the podium. When it’s clear he will be speaking and not chanting, we leave.
Outside we find the gift shop entrance behind a cascade of jasmine. The smell is intoxicating. As we enter the coolness of the store I do a quick visual search for CD’s. I want a CD of the chants. One of each, please. They have none. I am disappointed but realize they are already within me, somehow tiny particles of love have spun themselves into my DNA and I can still feel them.
I buy honey instead made by the monks and a postcard for my in-laws and walk out into the waning light. Finally the others emerge from the church, most everyone has gone. Those of us that are left walk in silence toward our car.
Whatever happened earlier today or didn’t happen, whatever expectations I had had of Florence that were not being met, it is all past. I am filled with something I could not have sought. And that has made Florence magical.