WickedEye's Quotient

9/05/2007 at 11:56

Travels of an Average-Looking American, Missive 4: Sumi’s Tips On Enjoying Florence, Part the Second

My second trip to Firenze- I told you that I was addicted to the place, did I not?- almost didn’t happen.

My first, regardless of the fact that it included San Lorenzo, Santa Croce, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, and the Porta del Paradiso of the Battistero, was a nearly-pure perdition. The hostel at which we stayed was the worst of any I’ve experienced in Europe; every single stroke of luck or timing from our arrival onwards seemed to conspire against Bea and I. Such was the buildup of intransigently horrible events that when she dropped her camera on the steps of Santa Maria del Fiore on the day that we arrived, we both nearly tucked tail and ran. Hell, we both nearly cried.

I debated returning. Why bludgeon myself with such patent unpleasantness again? But I’d not seen the Uffizi, the Bargello, the David. I gritted my teeth, stoked my inherent stubbornness, and returned, prepared to endure any unpleasantness to see the artists I’d loved my entire life.

And wound up in a place and with people who were as perfectly suited to my views and desires as my first trip was- not.

So my first tip? Stay at the Hotel Sampaoli with the brothers Caponi. Leonardo and Ricardo are erudite, good-humored, fiercely principled, and eloquent, brilliant conversationalists- in both English and Italian. They also, not-so-incidentally, run an excellent hotel: clean, comfortable, quiet, efficient. And, as I said, filled with cultured, informed, passionately opinionated conversation, if you want it. (In point of fact it was Orsanmichele that broke the ice between Leonardo and I as soon as I was through his door: “You know Orsanmichele?” Puzzled look. “Yes- former granary turned Medici church, no? Sculptures by Verrochio, Donatello, and Ghiberti?” A long impenetrable stare. “Si. Allora. Come here. Sit down.”)

Which leads to my second tip: Don’t ask Leonardo, Francesca, or Ricardo- hell, any Fiorentino- about the Trevi Fountain. (Yes, this really happened- and, I wince to say, it was an American. Leonardo informs me that it happens on a fairly regular basis.) What this really translates into is “do your homework”, which is the best general travel trip I can give anybody. You’re spending pots of money to get to, and then see, another place- learn about where you’re going, what’s there, and why it’s important to the world. It doesn’t take that long, and will make all the difference to what you see and how it stays with you.

Third tip: Don’t spend all your time shopping. This is another piece of good general advice. Even for those who love to shop- and believe me, Bea is one of those people; I spent more time shopping during the ten days we traveled together than I’d spend in a month and a half of my normal life- there are far better and more interesting things to do. While I bought Florentine leather, Venetian glass, fans, and museum books along the way... stuff is fungible. And all of the above are just that: stuff. Ultimately, you can get it anywhere.

Art, architecture, conversations with natives, espresso or wine or mountain air drunk in along with different views of the place in which you find yourself- these are the things that are unique and irreplaceable, the things which if missed in a given place are not obtainable anyplace else. Treat yourself to them. They, unlike the gorgeous leather belts and purses, the shimmering silver-and-gold glass, will stay with you as long as you have a mind with which to recall them.

Fourth tip: Walk. I’ve already gone on about public transportation in Firenze, and yes, I was there in summer, but the truth is that it’s a very small city, and no matter what the weather you’re going to see more twisting, cobbled alleys fronting improbable palaces and prisons-turned-museums, more jewelry stores spilling into each other on the Ponte Vecchio, walking, than you will any other way. So what if you’ll sweat? Wear antiperspirant, drink enough water, carry some baby wipes, and deal with it. Yeah, it’s plebian. It’s also the best way to see Firenze. (One exception: the Piazzale Michelangelo is a hell of a climb, especially at the end of a day of walking, and dusk is the best time to go. Ride up if you can.)

Fifth tip: Listen. Listen well. Fiorentine Italian- the gorgeous, pure Tuscan dialect- is unequaled; peerlessly beautiful, it is singular in the fact that it was chosen as the standard for Italian based solely on the loveliness of its sound. Dante Alighieri’s title of Pater Patriae- Father of the Country- is based on his popularization of Tuscan Italian in his Commedia (later dubbed Divina by Boccaccio). It is, quite possibly, the most ravishing language in existence, and it flows freely all around you.

Sixth tip (coffee lovers only): A doppio espresso macchiato in Firenze should qualify as a confection. We’re talking near-ecstatic perfection here; don’t miss it.

Most of the rest of my “tips” are actually observations from specific places I went in Firenze, and they belong in a different post. (When will I stop posting about this past summer? Probably next summer. At least that way, I can keep the memories close at hand during my year in Carbondale.) I’ll close with some thoughts from a recent email between Leonardo and I, in response to his question on what I would say- in English- to someone who asked about Firenze:

I would say that Firenze was the place that redefined what the West thought of as beauty. That rediscovered what the West could do with engineering and mathematics. That literally, through its revival of the laws of perspective, changed the way the entire world looked at art.

That seeing Firenze only for its shopping is like seeing the Pacific Ocean only for the soothing sound of its water.

That its palaces and castles are significant not for what they look like but for the opulence of the genius and artistry that they contain. That the grace and allure of the city lies in its anchoring in a past in which it changed the world. And for a time, dominated it.

That Firenze began a tradition so deeply ingrained in Western thought that we take it for granted: that human talent, excellence, and art are worth almost any price paid for their creation.

That if you look carefully and well, what you see will shift your definition of beauty, of power, of achievement, of wealth. And that no matter how much you see, once you truly behold what Firenze offers you will never be able to see enough.

That’s what I’d say. But just to start.

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