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An Italian education on the streets of Florence


It was dark when I arrived in Florence so my first view from my hotel window the following morning was a wonderful surprise.

The church of Miniato al MonteThe entrance to the Hotel Jennings was on a dark narrow street on the north side of the building, so I didn’t realise until the next day that my bedroom looked out directly over the River Arno and the hillside behind it to the south. The hill was crowned by the famous Church of Saint Miniato al Monte with its Romanesque facade that looks, with its triangular roof end above two round rose windows and an oblong central window, like a permanently surprised bishop. To my right, if I stretched out holding tight to the sill, I could just see the Ponte Veccio, one of the most famous bridges in the world. The sky was a glorious deep warm blue belying the slightly chilly November day. As I gazed happily at the view I reflected that there could be no better way to start my stay in one of the world’s great centres of culture and a place I had always wanted to visit.

By this time I was almost halfway through a two-week package holiday that had so far taken me on a whirlwind tour touring in Rome, continuing down to Naples and Pompeii and which would eventually take me to Venice. I had faced the trip with some trepidation. This was the first time I had travelled abroad completely on my own with no helpful tour guide to rely on if I had any problems, the main being obvious from the start; my complete ignorance of the Italian language! Despite this I was optimistic. I’d managed, more by luck than judgment, to get myself a better view of Florence than Lucy Honeychurch had in E M Forster’s A Room With A View, albeit facing away from nearly all of the most iconic Florence buildings.

Ponte Vecchio, FlorenceDespite my new-found confidence, I made sure I left the hotel that morning fully prepared. I was armed with a phrase book, map and guide, and a small knowledge of some of the main attractions in the city. I was looking forward to seeing Botticelli’s Venus, Michelangelo’s David and all the famous local architectural masterpieces of the Renaissance period that I had read about. I made my way eagerly and hungrily (not having the nerve to try and order breakfast in the hotel dining room) towards the Piazza della Signoria. I knew from my map that this would be a good starting point for my initial foray around the centre of the city. Passing along the backstreets on my way I had to continually jump out of the way of scooters and small motorbikes. Up until now I had thought that they were just a film-maker’s shorthand for ‘Italian street scene extras’, so I was amused to find the cliché had some truth to it. I also stopped at a small cafe and, taking my courage in both hands, tried ordering some breakfast. Through a complicated and partially successful mime show performance I managed to get an espresso – another Italian cliché – and a pastry of some sort. This was followed by a mild panic over the financial transaction. I had no idea how much the waiter was asking me for but eventually the international economic crisis was resolved with much waving of hands and pointing at the till where the total was plain to see. The whole experience was concluded with a ‘Grazie’, ‘Prego’ exchange and I walked out preening in the way one does when one takes command of a foreign language and shows it who the boss is.

The November light cutting through between the buildings was hard and cool, although I, as a North European, compared it favourably to a mild sunny day; not so the local populous who strode along the pavements shivering in their overcoats and furs as if expecting two feet of snow at any second. I got several curious glances as I meandered along in short sleeve shirt and tatty jeans, standing out as the foreign tourist I so clearly was. Florence in autumn was all I’d hoped it would be; with some show of tourists, but not the droves that one hears of filling the city in the summer months. And naturally the quality of the art and architecture didn’t change with the seasons, so for me it was the best of all worlds.

Neptune sculpture, FlorenceI was soon standing in the centre of the Piazza Della Signoria and I felt I was now in the Florence of the guidebooks. Looking around I realised that every building had some kind of iconic status and was intrinsic to the history of the city. Here, looking more like a medieval fort with its brown stone walls and crenulations was the imposing Palazzo Vecchio, topped by an almost minaret-style tower, home to generations of the notorious Medici family. Next to it was the Loggia dei Lanzi with its series of massive arches fronting a gallery of sculptural masterpieces, like a Renaissance theme park. I realised that I was surrounded by the most incredible sculptures I had ever seen. In the centre of the square stood the equestrian statue of Cosimo i de’ Medici, the first Duke of Tuscany. My guidebook also pointed out the massive version of Michelangelo’s David, next to proud Hercules standing over a cowed Cacus. The largest grouping though was the Neptune Fountain, with its stone Neptune standing amidst bronze figures, turned a ghostly turquoise over time.

From the piazza I decided to visit the nearest, and one of the world’s most famous, art gallery; the Uffizi. Uffizi means ‘office’ and it was here that the Medicis had their administrative and judicial departments – hence the name. Entering the building I was immediately aware of a change from the noisy bustling outside world to an atmosphere of cool hush and reverence that the building and its paintings and sculptures commanded. Awaiting me were all those Botticellis, Raphaels and Michelangelos. For me the highlight was the original statue of David. In contrast to the giant out in the piazza, this version is much smaller and stands on a pedestal in a large alcove of panelled cream wood and is lit from a skylight above creating a simple natural surrounding for the plain white marble statue. Truly a thing of beauty. As I wandered from room to room gazing at the paintings that I had only seen previously in art books and online, I found my feelings of awe being replaced by something I had started to feel in Rome during the previous week. Impossible though it seemed, I was starting to become bored with this endless parade of masterpieces. It started to dawn on me why this was; I was starting to get ‘religious images overload’. Here I was, in the centre of the Catholic world surrounded by works of art from a period when virtually all the subjects were of biblical themes. I was starting to lose count of the number of crucifixions, adorations, virgin and child, and assumptions I had seen. With this terrible possibility in my mind, I thought it best to leave galleries and building behind for the rest of the day and take a walk through the parks and gardens that were another, hopefully less religious, feature of Florence’s attractions.

So I left the Uffizi, walking across the Ponte Vecchio, lingering for a while over the small shops that line both sides of it and appear from the river view to be desperately clinging on for fear of falling into the water below. Upon reaching the south bank of the Arno and leaving this marvel of fourteenth century engineering behind, I immediately detected a change of atmosphere. I was away from the bustle of the city centre and into a different world. A world of trees, with their cooling shade; the sound of bubbling water in fountains; occasionally broken by the sudden shouts of laughing children as they ran passed, presumably having just left a nearby school. I had entered the Boboli Gardens. Here was a series of formal gardens filled with meticulously, one could say severely, cut hedges and bushes broken up by an array of ponds and fountains and, yet again, armies of statues, creating an overwhelming impression of green, blue and grey. I could have wandered for hours through the peace of the gardens, but I was aware that the afternoon was aging rapidly and I still had much to see.

Boboli Gardens, FlorenceOn leaving by the south entrance I walk through quiet, autumnal avenues swept by brown leaves. The road slowly meandered uphill and I knew from my map of the city that I would come out eventually on the hill I had seen from the hotel window earlier that day. The weather was still, to my mind, mild and pleasant and I took my time on my walk, my mind as well as my steps wandering in the peacefulness of the afternoon. I was brought back to reality as I turned the last corner and found myself in on the Piazzale di Michelangelo just below the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, the church I had seen from a distance that morning. It is an area of fir trees, neatly cut low hedges and ivy strewn walls– and cars. Lots and lots of cars. The route I had taken through the day had, to the most part, avoided the main roads, but now I was back amongst the cacophony of the ubiquitous, noisy, irritating cars that seem to be even more ubiquitous and noisy in Italy than any other country I have visited in my travels. So I was pleased to leave the road behind me as I puffed and wheezed my way up a million very steep steps to see if the church was as beautiful on the inside as it had appeared from the outside across the valley that morning. Despite my earlier resolution to avoid any further contact with all things religious for the rest of the day, I was not disappointed. Despite aching legs from the Alpine climb I could still appreciate the beauty of the interior with its trussed timber roof, intricately marble floor designs and masses of illuminated frescoes on every wall surface. The overwhelming impression was of shining gold and polished marble and was very foreign to my Church of England-raised sensibilities. I would almost have considered it possible that it was the inside of a mosque, if it hadn’t been for the profusion of Catholic iconography on every wall.

On leaving the building I realised that it was starting to get dark. I knew it was too far for me to walk back through the dark suburbs without getting lost on the way so I thought my only choice was to try and extend my command of Italian to successfully hiring a taxi and getting the driver to deposit me somewhere near my hotel.

‘Ho-tel. Jen-nings,’ I enunciated as clearly and as slowly as possible. I received a quizzical look. I repeated the four short syllables as loudly as I felt I politely could. Nothing. I took out my map and in the fading light tried to point out to him the rough area of my destination. Finally I got a response; an energetic grinning nod and a gesture meaning that I should get into the back of his modern chariot. A matter of minutes later I had retraced my route of the day and was deposited with a triumphant flourish from my driver…at the railway station. I shrugged, paid the total I could see glowing red on the display on the dashboard, and walked the half mile or so back to my hotel.

Hunger and thirst told me it was time to venture out again to find a restaurant in which I managed to order a pizza and glass of wine quite successfully I thought. The waiter and I seemed to understand each other quiet well: ‘Pizza.’ ‘Si.’ ‘Vino.’ ‘Si.’ ‘Grazie.’‘Prego.’ ‘Ciao.’

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