Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Giardino (n.): garden

Years ago, on my first trip to Florence, I ventured into the Boboli Gardens. It was late in the day and I had already walked up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo and back. My feet were tired and my brain overwhelmed by hours spent in churches and museums, absorbed in the art of Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Piero della Francesca. I had thought a stroll through the gardens would be a respite for my body and my mind, but I was wrong. It was a hilly place, situated in a large triangle between the Palazzo Pitti, Forte Belvedere and Porta Romana, and the challenging terrain—which was not apparent on the tourist map I carried with me—wore me out almost as soon as I arrived.

This morning, some six years later, I’m back to try again, this time on a fresh pair of legs before the heat of the day descends. I use my Amici degli Uffizi card to pick up tickets at the entrance to the Palazzo Pitti, and then move through the cool shade of the courtyard, into the sunlit space beyond. There’s an airy amphitheatre fanning out and up the hill, anchored at the center by an Egyptian obelisk. I follow the path up and reach the terrace of the Neptune Fountain, where the god of the sea has his trident in hand, as if to pierce a fish out of the murky green water below.

Up and up I go, toward the statue of Abundance, until I reach the Porcelain Museum and the adjoining Garden of the Cavaliers, where a row of pink roses are clinging to the iron railing at the edge of the terrace. I stop to catch my breath and survey the surroundings. The imposing Palazzo Pitti is to my back, and the red roofs of Florence lie beyond. Ahead is a yellow valley dotted with old palazzos, olive groves, and cypress trees. I feel as though I’ve traveled a long way in a few steep steps. I’ve wandered no further than the Medicis’ back yard, and yet as if by magic, I’ve been transported from the frenetic streets of the city, to the languid countryside of Tuscany, where I’d very much like to stay for a while.

The morning hours turn to midday and then slip pleasantly into early afternoon. I stroll to the Kaffeehaus and an elegant terraced garden overlooking the city, then through a shaded avenue of cypress, flanked by statuettes, all the way down to an island pond near the Porta Romana gate, where an artist has set up an easel to capture the scene, much as John Singer Sargent did more than a century ago.

By the time I reach the Lemon House and the Buontalenti Grotto, I’m ready to head indoors. It’s been a memorable morning, lounging here much as Henry James did in the late 19th century, and it’s done much to change my initial impression. I think of Versailles for a moment, and about the manicured gardens of grand country estates in Britain. I suppose he was right about the Italian manner, “with flowers rather remarkably omitted, as too flimsy and easy and cheap, and without lawns that are too smart, paths that are too often swept and shrubs that are too closely trimmed.” Indeed, there is something wild and shabby about the Boboli Gardens, “here and there a dried-up fountain, and everywhere a piece of mildewed sculpture staring at you from a green alcove.” But the end result, as Henry James wrote, is an “irresistible mixture of nature and art” that rather inclines one to daydream.

I glance at my watch and head back the pebbled path. There are a multitude of museums to discover within the complex of the Palazzo Pitti, as well as a special exhibit of Jacopo Ligozzi’s work, including some fantastical naturalist and botanical drawings that has just opened in the Palentine Gallery. It’s only when a text message arrives on my phone that I break my gaze from the Raphaels, Titians, and Caravaggios.

Some months ago, a reader from the Midwest had contacted me through my blog to ask for help in planning a special trip to Italy with his son. As it turns out, we’ve landed in Florence at the same time and he’s graciously invited me to join them for a sunset limousine tour of the city. They’re staying at the Hotel Davanzati on Via Porta Rossa, with my old friends Fabrizio and Tommaso, who’ve booked our ride through their sister company, I Just Drive, and so I happily agree to meet them there at 7:30, relishing the chance to catch up.

By 8:00, we’ve settled into the back of a Bentley limousine, with an interior far wilder than I could have imagined. There are curved leather seats in stripes of gray, pink, and blue, a thumping audio system, and a minibar awash in neon light. When we arrive at Piazzale Michelangelo, my kind benefactor offers to take my picture, and I strike my best “mine, all mine” pose while leaning against the door, my arm stretched wide across the roof of the car.

It’s an extravagance being here—arriving by limousine to watch the sun set over a glorious city, both brimming with history and the vitality of youth—but I’m grateful most for an evening of unexpected companionship. As a solo traveler, I’ve come to appreciate these fleeting encounters, and whether I ever meet this generous father and his charming son again, I’m glad we crossed paths here on such a lovely summer’s night.

After a glass or two of prosecco on the return drive to Piazza della Repubblica, we joke that we should to stand up through the moon roof like Richard Gere in the movie Pretty Woman, but our driver, Leonardo, says that they’ve had to seal it off because people were throwing bottles out the window and into the street. “Italians can’t be trusted with anything nice,” he says, for a moment I’m reminded once again of the British tourist with the walking stick I met on the way to Fiesole.

Ecco l’Italia. That’s Italy!

By the time we part and I wish my new friends well on the remainder of their trip, the sky has darkened into a velvet black. It’s tempting to stay out late, walking the streets or listening to Claudio on the bridge, but it’s been a busy day and I still need to pack. I’m about to go on a vacation from my vacation. In the morning, I’m taking a train west in pursuit of palm trees and the Ligurian sea.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The sky outside is feigning blue this morning. I want to be optimistic, I really do, but the weather report is ominous, and for that reason I mistrust my eyes. Nervous about the order of my itinerary, which today was to include a day trip to Pisa and Lucca, I decide after breakfast that it’s time to appeal to a higher power. I must ask Fabrizio.

Behind the elegant painted desk in the lobby of the Hotel Davanzati lies command central. While Fabrizio multitasks by checking a series of Italian websites on one computer screen, I wait and amuse myself by staring at the other. It’s displaying a picture of this very room. I can see the same striped drapes and Oriental rug. There is only one difference between this virtual world and the real one (aside from the perpetual threat of rain in the latter). On screen, Scooby Doo is dancing!

Chuckling, I look up in time to see Fabrizio’s face as he scans the other monitor, and it betrays a slight grimace. “Ahhh… let’s not look at that,” he says. It must be bad. Although the forecast shows no sign of improvement, my day trip can wait until tomorrow. With plenty of museums to explore here in Florence, it might as well.

The first stop on my amended route is the San Marco monastery. It is here in the 15th century that a Dominican friar known as Fra Angelico created small devotional frescoes on the otherwise stark dormitory walls, depicting scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. His most famous work, “The Annunciation,” shows a seated and demure Mary greeted by the angel Gabriel, revealing to her that she will give birth to the Son of God. This is the image at the top of the stairs, and I am able to capture it at a distance before I see the now familiar “No Photography” signs on the landing. Back goes the camera into the bag…

Up close, the scene is even more charming. Gabriel’s wings are bold in color and look as though they were constructed from the plucked feathers of a peacock. Mary’s hands are crossed at the waist as if to feel for signs of life within.

For the next hour, I follow a serpentine pattern into and out of each cell, leaving only when the rowdy passengers from a tour bus disturb the silence.

I follow Via Cavour down to San Lorenzo and roam the street market, looking for bargains on leather goods, and then drift through the Mercato Centrale to admire the produce. The Medici Chapels are here in the square, too, and I am eager to see the interior of the octagonal dome I spotted from the top of Giotto’s belltower on my first day in Florence. Alas, with a jungle of scaffolding reaching from floor to ceiling, the “Chapel of the Princes” is reminiscent of Santa Croce, but far worse since it’s stuffed into a much smaller space. The “New Sacristy,” with its sculptures by Michelangelo, is the only saving grace, enough at least to defend the cost of admission.

As the lunch hour passes, I again take stock of the weather. The sky is blue and seems determined to remain so, but I’m still not convinced. I make a return visit to “Caffé le Logge” for a sandwich and chocolate tart and eat both while walking across the Ponte Vecchio to the south bank of the Arno. I desperately want to see the city skyline from Piazzale Michelangelo and hiking there in the rain just won’t do. I decide to seize the opportunity now, before the next storm hits.

It never does. Against all odds, the day stays clear and bright, with a pleasing canopy of cumulous clouds.

I enjoy the walk along the river, but as I turn to the right and head uphill, my legs begin to burn. By the time I reach the long, steep steps that lead to square, I have to stop more than once to catch my breath.

Still, the view from the top is stunning. From a distance, the architectural details of the city melt into harmonious shades red and yellow. Like the brush strokes in an impressionist painting, the impact from afar is greater than the sum of its parts.

With the storage card on my camera much fuller than when I arrived, I lumber back down the hill in the direction of the Palazzo Pitti. Along the way, here is what I ponder:

Itineraries can be a wonderful thing, as long as they are flexible enough to allow for spontaneity. Deciding to spend the day in Florence was spontaneous, born perhaps of a perceived necessity, but it was spontaneous nevertheless. Of course, the trouble with spontaneity is that it can lead someone to do silly things.

Take this afternoon, for instance. I made a decision to visit Piazzale Michelangelo in the early afternoon to avoid rain that never came. But now I want to attend vespers at San Miniato al Monte, where the local monks sing in Gregorian chant. That has created an awkward a space of time between 2:30 and 5:30 PM. A quick look at the map suggests that my best option for filling that time is the Palazzo Pitti and the adjoining Boboli Gardens. The map, however, represents a flat, two-dimensional space. I am standing on a hill — a very large hill — and marching down it now will necessitate another climb back to the same place later. Quite dumb when you think about it, but apparently I have neither patience nor foresight.

By the time I reach the grounds of the Palazzo Pitti, I am understandably tired. I decide to see the royal apartments and then lounge in the garden for a nice, long while. But as it turns out, I can’t buy a ticket for the royal apartments alone, or for the garden alone, or for that matter, for the two of them in combination. The powers that be have decided to bundle the admission of each with a distinct array of small museums that I have no interest in or time to see. This seems to be a different, and less advantageous, arrangement than the one described in my guidebook, but there is nothing much to be done. I opt to pay ten Euros for a ticket that gives me admission to the Boboli and Bardini Gardens, as well as a costume gallery and porcelain museum.

Once I am past the ticket booth, the security desk, and a second ticket taker, I am let loose onto the grounds at last. I don’t, however, know where to go. As in most museums in Italy, the price of admission does not include a map or floor plan. And as it turns out, the garden is nestled into the same hilly landscape I just finished climbing to the east. This makes it impossible to see what’s at the top of a hill without actually going there. Random wandering seems to be the only option.

For the next hour, I give this my best shot on tired legs. I am hoping to find a beautiful flower bed or a lovely fountain with a bench nearby. But the use of the word “garden” in this context seems ill-applied. From what I can see, it appears to be a forest on a hill, much of it in a natural (read: unkempt) state. The Medici may have been great patrons of the arts. It seems they were not, however, patrons of flowers. I recall seeing a postcard for sale in the gift shop by the entrance showing a single pink rose. Now I feel like demanding its location.

There are three things of value to a tourist – time, energy, and money. To me on this particular afternoon, the Boboli Gardens offend all three. My frustration ebbs away only when I stop for a pair of pastries at the Open Bar Café on Via de’ Bardi. Oh, why is it that food is such solace for the soul?

At least after today’s marathon, I don’t have to worry about the calories.

I arrive at San Miniato al Monte with enough time to tour the church thoroughly before vespers. It’s a beautiful space, well lit by the afternoon light streaming in through the small elliptical windows set high into the walls of the nave. The service, however, is being readied in a more austere crypt below.

By the time I note the placement, most of the seats are already filled by teenagers, chatting loudly amongst themselves. Several are bent over on the floor collating sheet music. For a moment, I am puzzled, but then as I watch an adult gesticulate to one of the Benedictine monks, I decide that they must be an impromptu choir, intent on singing, but uninvited all the same.

The monk seems to have agreed to something, but seeing their bags cast widely across the benches, he directs them to move their things into the corner. They do, and then file into line in front of the altar. They sing one song, which isn’t terrible, but then push their luck by reforming for another. At this point they are cut off by a tremendous baritone from behind, soon joined by others in the collective intonation of Gregorian Chant. Looking rather peeved, the teenagers gather their bags and stomp off, not bothering to stay for the actual service.

Many people don’t, actually. Aside from a handful of Florentines for whom this is the local parish church, tourists seem to come and go, treating it with less respect than a typical concert or theater event. By the time we make the sign of peace, I am the only stranger left and those around me greet me warmly in Italian and shake my hand.

The tourists who left early, including those impertinent teenagers, have been rude and disrespectful, which is crime enough. But in their haste they have also missed out on something special. In the gentle texture and rhythm of the chant, in the community of neighbors, and the deep connection to the traditions of the past, there is serenity. Fleeting, perhaps, but easy to miss in the rush of modern life, even for those on holiday who spend too much time obsessing about how much money it costs to wander through a garden.

For me, it lasts long through the sunset I watch from the terrace of Piazzale Michelangelo, back down the hill, along the river, and across the bridge where Claudio is singing tonight. All the way back to the hotel in the dark.