When in Florence, one should eat roses-small, sugared petals of them that melt in your mouth and somehow seem suited to this old city, which is both artistic and austere, both an enchanted fairy land of floating lights at night, and a tourist mecca that overwhelms the senses. Here there is a bridge of gold, a duomo that drove its creator mad, and sugar spun delights of both architecture and art, of living statues and breathing history.
This is the birthplace of Michelangelo, the home of the Medicis, the burgeoning flower of the Renaissance. The hotel we stay in was once the servants’ quarters for the Medici family- the family palazzo is just up the street. There’s an old tunnel, with its entryway now bricked up, through which servants once went on cold winter mornings, and masters sometimes moved to hide their assignations with the lesser orders from the world. Now there’s a 12th century wine cellar where we drink a lovely Chianti and eat something that tastes good, but of which I am certain I do not want to know the provenance of its ingredients.
Here in this city lives the David, one of the greatest sculptures of all time, and despite having seen his image a thousand times he’s still a breathtaking sight. I could spend an hour just looking at the vein in his neck- this statue is a wonder for a good reason. It seems wrong to call him a statue, for he seems alive, bigger than life really, as if he might move off his pedestal and stride out of his rotunda to find a modern day Goliath to slay. I love that Michelangelo never believed he created his pieces, but rather that they already existed and were only waiting to be released from their marble prisons.
Throughout the trip I wanted to travel back in time, I wanted to see these cities at the height of their power, their glory, I wanted to hear the swish of skirts and the soft slip of Florentine leather on the cobblestones, and hear the cry of the peddlers. But as I lie on my bed in this servants’ house, I realize that sounds don’t change much through time, for below my shuttered window there is a woman singing to a baby in an effort to soothe it, there is music and the clink of wine glasses and laughter. And during the day I saw artists everywhere, and surely they do not change so much, regardless of the century. They were chalking the Mona Lisa upon hot cobblestones, painting sunflowers which are ubiqitous in this region, and yet still beautiful, and etching scenes of old Florence.
This is a city of art, first and foremost, students come from around the world to study here. Here is housed one of the world’s greatest collections of Renaissance art- so much beauty that one feels overwhelmed, the senses saturated in both the canvases and the names- Botticelli, Titian, Caravaggio, Tintoretto and last, but never least in this city which still bears his stamp in its piazzas and walkways- Michelangelo.
It is here that I find traces of characters, both real and imagined, from my favourite series of books- Dorothy Dunnett’s incomparable House of Niccolo. There is the triptych of Thommaso Portinari, here the former dwelling of the powerful Strozzi family, there a statue of Cosimo Medici. I imagine Nicholas here, tall and dimpled and plotting his next move. The books come alive on a different level for me, despite my having read them so many times before.
Florence is not a city one gets to know quickly, I suspect. This is a city of old manners and formalities, where your parcels are beautifully wrapped in stiff paper and siestas are rigorously observed. Florence, one senses, is a grande old dame who knows herself well, who understands her bones are still those of beauty, and holds her skirts with a delicate hand, a perfect cameo at her throat and a fan held demurely, yet flirtatiously, under her umber eyes. She will allow you to know her by degrees, as you earn it, as she sees fit.
I put away my journal, turn out the light and listen to the sounds of Florence, which might be any time at all, for here the centuries truly do melt together. In the dark, time is a false sort of construct anyway. I close my eyes, my tongue still tasting the sugar of roses.