Monday, June 2, 2008

I’m up early for one last breakfast on the rooftop terrace. Of my hotel’s many fine qualities, I think I like this private garden best of all. Good food, beautiful flowers, and a glorious view. What better way to start the day? But on this morning, the gray sky and light drizzle overhead seem to match my mood. I’m excited to get to Florence, but sad to be leaving Rome behind.

With luggage in hand, I take another wild taxi ride, this time to Termini station where I have a reserved seat on a 9:00 AM Eurostar train. It’s Republic Day in Italy and the streets at this hour are largely devoid of their normal rush hour traffic. It gives my driver all the more room to careen around corners at breakneck speed, as he navigates a detour away from the day’s parade route. By the time I arrive, well before departure, I feel dizzy and a little seasick.

I keep a vise-like grip on my bags until the train has left the station, then I sink back into the seat and allow the gentle rocking of the cars to soothe my head until we arrive at Santa Maria Novella on time an hour and forty minutes later.

After another short taxi ride, I’m standing on the curb at the foot of a flight of stairs that leads to a small elevator which spills out into the lobby of the Hotel Davanzati — a necessity that is far less troublesome than it sounds. In my best faltering Italian, I ask the man at the front desk if he speaks English. “No, no,” he says, shaking his head impatiently. I panic. Then his face breaks into a wide and generous grin. “Just kidding!”

This is Fabrizio and this is the moment I know beyond all doubt that I am going to love this place.

Fabrizio shows me to my room, a charming single with a view overlooking Via Porta Rossa. Afterwards, he hands me my reservations for the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia, walks me through a map highlighting all of the major attractions, circles the location of the best gelateria in town — bless his heart — and invites me to a complimentary happy hour, complete with candlelight and prosecco. Now that’s what I call service!

It’s raining steadily by now and I don’t feel much like trudging out into the wet. For an hour or so I curl up in my room and use the laptop provided to post some pictures on Flickr for friends and family back home. I’m feeling nostalgic already.

Since the Capitoline Museum had been my refuge from the weather in Rome, I decide to use the Museo dell’Opera for the same purpose here in Florence. I see some very cool wooden models for the façade of the Duomo, an unfinished Michelangelo Pietà, nearly swallowed up by an inconvenient crowd of French tourists, and finally, Ghiberti’s original bronze panels for the baptistery doors.

Having seen the genuine article, I next walk out to admire the copies that stand in their place in Piazza del Duomo. Michelangelo once called them the “Gates of Paradise,” so impressed was he in their use of linear perspective. However, when I enter the interior of the octagonal structure and my eyes feast on the lush mosaic ceiling, I don’t at first notice a benevolent Jesus with arms outstretched, or the choir of angels overhead. Instead, I fixate on a disturbing image of Satan munching on the naked torso of an unrepentant sinner. Others are meeting an equally unpleasant fate in the jaws of snakes, lizards, and giant beetles. This is, unmistakably, another variation on the punishment of the damned at “The Last Judgment.” It’s a surreal and frightening image, one that might look at home next to a painting by Salvador Dalí or Max Ernst. Remembering that ill-gotten picture of the Sistine Chapel, I cringe.

Satan and his minions notwithstanding, this is an incredible space. By now, it’s mid afternoon. The clouds are starting to break and rays of slanted sunshine are streaming through the room’s narrow windows. When the glass tiles on the ceiling capture the transient light, they shimmer and glow as if lit internally by the flames of a hundred candles.

Back in the piazza, the exterior of the adjacent cathedral dwarfs the baptistery in size and splendor, crowned as it is by Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome. But unlike its neighbor, the interior here is largely a disappointment. I find it sober and bare, as if so much money was spent on its striped veneer of white, green and pink marble that nothing was left for interior decoration. Even the 16th century frescoes that circle the dome seem like an uninspired and redundant choice. I see nude men pushed by horned creatures into the fiery pit of Hell and know that the subject is — once again — “The Last Judgment,” only this time, through repetition, it has lost the power to shock. I sigh in exasperation, convinced that this scene must have been the obsession of every Renaissance artist.

It’s four o’clock and the steadily improving weather is an encouraging sign. I do a quick comparison of the lines to climb the dome and Giotto’s belltower, and decide to go for the latter. Compared to St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, where the spiral stairs were narrow and confining, this is a relatively easy climb of 414 steps. The view from the top is a full 360 degrees overlooking a sea of red tiled roofs. Based on what I’ve seen in guidebooks, I spot San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapel to the north, the Palazzo Vecchio to the south, Santa Croce to the east, and the church of San Miniato al Monte in the far distance on a hill across the Arno.

Back on the street below, I decide, as in Vatican City, that the Herculean effort involved in such a climb is worthy of reward. I pull out Fabrizio’s map with its ink circle around the intersection of Via de Calzaiuoli and Via dei Tavolini and make a beeline for “Perché No!” Why not? That’s the literal translation of the name, but it seems a reasonable attitude to take with several hours left before dinner. The combination of peach and pear gelati I order is perfection itself, the best I have ever had.

I head back to the hotel for a rest, then to the happy hour underway in the dining room. By now I have decided to trust Fabrizio’s recommendations on all things implicitly. I would gladly eat at the local McDonald’s if he felt it worthy of culinary attention, but he directs me to Trattoria al Trebbio for dinner instead. It’s a small place, tucked into the intersection of three narrow streets near the church of Santa Maria Novella. As an antipasti, I enjoy a tasty, if somewhat monochromatic, salad of pear and pecorino cheese, and for my main course, a plate of tagliatelle with portabello mushrooms. With Fabrizio’s help in making the reservation, I have snagged the last seat on the patio and for this I am grateful.

After dinner, I stroll down to the River Arno and watch the sunset from Ponte Santa Trinità. The midday rain has given way to a glorious sky that deepens into a rich azure blue just as the sun recedes behind the horizon. At 9 PM, the street lamps lining Lungarno Acciaiuoli spring to life and I turn to see the Ponte Vecchio and its twin below reflecting into the still water. It’s a more beautiful bridge than I imagined, one that has probably changed little since the days of Vasari and the Medici, or the fictional lovers in Forster’s A Room with a View. In the book, after returning to England, George Emerson falls into a disagreement with the dreary Mr. Beebe on the subject of coincidence. “It is Fate that I am here,” persists George. “But you can call it Italy if it makes you less unhappy.” For me these past five days, fate and Italy have seemed very much entwined.

I walk along the river until I reach the bridge itself. The butchers and fishmongers of the medieval city are long gone, replaced by jewelers whose wooden doors and wrought iron hardware at the close of day resemble a row of pirates’ treasure chests. When I turn to glance up Via Porto Santa Maria I can see the top of Brunelleschi’s dome peeking out above a sea of neon signs. The sound of music, however, pulls my attention back to the bridge and to the man who stands under the center arch, guitar in hand, serenading the crowd. His name his Claudio Spadi and he is, without doubt, the most gifted street musician I have ever heard. As he transitions easily between unfamiliar Italian songs and popular American ballads, each more pleasant than the last, I can’t believe that people with far less talent win recording contracts on reality TV, while this guy sings for his supper on the Ponte Vecchio behind a sign that reads: “Be generous. Every coin is blessed… this is my job.”

Come to think of it, given the view, he may have the better deal.

As I wind my way back to the hotel, I am distracted by the roar of a very different kind of music. I follow the sound to Piazza della Signoria where I find neat rows of seated spectators and a military band playing under the loggia. It’s still Republic Day, after all, and this must be part of the local celebration. A copy of Michelangelo’s “David” stands to the left in a position that makes it seem like he is listening in rapt attention, his work of slaying giants done for the day.

As the strains of the last march leave the air, the conductor turns to the audience and his right arm snaps into an impressive salute. He gestures to the musicians, who stand in unison, red and white plumes projecting from their bicorne hats. Like the minstrel on the bridge, finding them here has been an unexpected delight.

I wonder if Maurizio has ever been to Florence?

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