Like all visitors, I begin at the Piazza della Signoria, for it's here that Florence announces itself. One historian even goes so far as to say that "every great event in the history of Florence has taken place in this piazza". It's one of the most civilized pleasures in the world to idle in a cafe here and feel the reverberations of Florence's past.
The statues in the Loggia dei Lanzi suggest that the Florentines of old had a taste for turbulence. As Mary McCarthy pointed out in The Stones of Florence, they are "writhing, twisting, stabbing, falling, dying on their stately pedestals. " Rape and decapitation are popular themes, for Italian sculptors like to see the body exercised. Michelangelo's David is an exception. Superbly poised in his contrapposto, he is an athlete not of movement but of sheer being. As Conrad said of Lord Jim, he has "a gorgeous virility. " While some writers see David as tensed to attack Goliath, he strikes me as too pleased with his pose ever to give it up. Kenneth Clark said that his head is turned "in a movement toward epiphany," but I think he has already reached it.
"The cruel tower of Palazzo Vecchio pierces the sky like a hypodermic needle"; this is Mary McCarthy again, breathing a little heavily, reaching into her shopping bag of metaphors. But she's right: the piazza has an almost lethal grandeur. As if the setting drove him to it, one of E. M. Forster's characters stabbed a friend here in A Room with a View.
A medallion set in the pavement of the Piazza della Signoria commemorates one of the more brutal ironies of Florentine history. It was on this spot that the fifteenth- century monk Savonarola presided over the Bonfire of Vanities, a huge funeral pyre of "masquerading costumes and masks, false hair and rouge pots, musical instruments and dice-boxes, books of Latin and Italian poets, priceless parchments and illuminated manuscripts, works of art and paintings, especially such as represented female beauty."
The bonfire was a tribute to the power of Savonarola's incendiary preaching. Fulminating against what he saw as a loss of religious faith and a revival of paganism disguised as humanism, he terrified Florence for a while. But then, as if he too were a vanity, as if his religious passion constituted a kind of inverted pornography, the Florentines burned Savonarola himself on the same spot just a year later. It was a classic case of the moth and the flame.
Savonarola's followers were called Piagnones, or weepers, and even Botticelli was said to have been one. But it was a mistake to make Florentines weep, because they are not a penitential people. Their churches, for example, have none of the austerity of the French. A French church or cathedral like Chartres strains at sublimity, at a divine understatement, while for all its beauty the Duomo in Florence is as busy as a market, more manic than depressive. Its striped exterior suggests silk as much as stone. God is dressed here by the ancestors of Armani.
The first dinner in a foreign city is the most important. It's a visceral encounter, a meeting of two chemistries. It answers the question, Is this country for me? and temporarily silences the voice that never leaves the traveler, the voice that asks, What am I doing here? A satisfying dinner restores one's strength after the initial shock of so much otherness.
I had a list of restaurants from an acquaintance who lived in Florence. Though I like to experiment, it's nice to have a few places to fall back on when you're feeling vulnerable. I'm always amused by people who say you can't get a bad meal in France, or in Italy. I've had a number of them. It's partly our fault, because I use eccentric criteria in choosing restaurants. Not being intense about food, I eat atmosphere. My approach is as much anthropological as gastronomic. I don't mean that I am indifferent to food, but that I see the act of dining out as something like theater.
In Paris, I ate in two places that had terrific ambience and terrible food. I managed to do this twice in Florence, too, though one of the places had compensations. It was an outdoor restaurant in the Piazza Santo Spirito, a slightly shabby square that seems to be a hangout. While waiting for dinner, I saw all sorts of mysterious exchanges between resolutely deadpan young people. They seemed to be playing a depressed game of tag or hide-and-seek.
This particular restaurant was jammed and turning people away. It's just like New York City-bad food discourages very few diners. The service was surrealistically slow, and the owner explained that her regular waiter had broken his leg on his motorbike. She had pressed into service an old friend who was a dentist-a whimsical fellow who had once visited Chicago and fancied himself a comedian. The confusion in the place served as a sort of hors d'oeuvre, and the customers' gestures of impatience came straight out of Renaissance sculpture.
Most of the time in Florence I have appetizing, pleasant, reasonable meals. Italians are not as grim as the French about eating, and I felt invited into the bosom of the scene. The noise level is usually jolly, sometimes more than that.
My favorite restaurant was not far from the Ponte Vecchio. Yet it was half empty. When I asked the owner about this, he said that most of his customers were Americans and that there were few of these in Florence now because of the recession.
Walking is my favorite pastime in a foreign city, but because of Florence's narrow sidewalks and unremitting traffic, which force you to go in single file, it's hard to carry on a conversation. The person walking in front tosses throwaway lines over his shoulder while the one in back casts thoughts up and out the way you cast with a fishing rod.
Though most French writers wept over Haussmann's boulevards in Paris, claiming they destroyed the picturesqueness or medieval coziness of the city, boulevards do make it possible to flaner, to stroll or browse. In Florence, the piazzas serve as parenthetical boulevards in the absence of real ones. They're like pockets in time: you don't feel the present rushing through the past there as you do in the streets. For serious walking in Florence you must go to the Boboli Gardens, behind the Pitti Palace. As Robert Harbison said in his Eccentric Spaces, the gardens are "conducive to erroneous wandering"-just what you need after a morning of strenuous concentration.
What shall you do during Florence's three-hour siesta, from one to four in the afternoon? I found a perfect answer on the terrace of my room. With a beer or a split of Champagne in my hand, I gazed down at the city and reviewed it through what Ruskin called "the pathos of distance." Seeing it from above, one is able to separate its strands, to sort out and achieve some perspective on all those perspectives. Afterward, I took a nap and let the unconscious do its work; I dreamed of Florence, which is itself a dream.
Later, I wanted to see the people of Florence relaxing, taking their ease outdoors. The Piazza delIa Signoria is too self-conscious, too charged with visitors for this, and the Piazza della Repubblica is unwelcoming; for all its great size, it is mere willed space, a piece of city planning. But the Piazza Santa Croce, a homely, slightly run-down square, is just right, and I sat there for a couple of hours and observed the neighborhood life.
As I watched them talking, walking, sitting, laughing, playing with their children and dogs, I thought about how different Italians are from us. While Parisians remind me of New Yorkers in their nervous, never-resting alertness, their incessant consciousness, Florentines seem as remote as South Sea Islanders. Though they're celebrated for their politeness, I wondered whether this was not, at least partly, a result of their lack of curiosity. While the probing, judging eyes of the French tend to isolate and confirm you in your Americanness, the Italian attitude leaves you feeling rather irrelevant. And this has the further effect of making you feel irresponsible, which may not be a bad thing for a traveler.
Even with minimum of Americans, the Uffizi was crowded. But while it's customary to complain about this, I think a case can be made for crowded viewing. With people talking and pushing all around you, wearing every kind of costume, including bathing trunks, you see the pictures in medias res, competing with life itself. Instead of a pure soul-to-soul confrontation, the situation has saving elements of irony and vulgarity, which help you to keep your balance.
I enjoy the individual comedies, the competition in art appreciation, people jostling for a view, their faces darkening when someone comes between them and the thing on the wall. Some visitors are shy in the presence of great art and look at it sideways; others walk right up and pick its nose. If you think about what art is and what it can do, there's some-thing shocking in a mass of people in a room all responding in one degree or another. There's a religious vibration, as well as a suggestion of orgy. You can also feel a sad awareness of the failure of art-because it does fail for many.
A tour guide was discoursing, in heavily accented English, on Leonardo's Annunciation. "The angel," he was saying, "is telling this young girl that God has planted a miracle in her body. She is innocent, a virgin, she knows nothing of these things. . . . " He paused to let that sink in. Then he said, "Feelthy! Dairty!" and a surge of dismay rippled through his audience. But he was referring to the fact that the painting had not been cleaned and its true colors could only be guessed at.
Florence must have hundreds of Annunciations, and painters differ dramatically in imagining this controversial episode. It's curious that the chamber in which the Virgin sits reading a book almost always includes what might be called a Freudian profusion of architectural columns. While the attitude of the angel varies only in the degree to which he seems to be dancing, the Virgin's reaction to the miracle is a study in medieval psychology. Sometimes she hugs the idea of her pregnancy to her bosom together with her book, and her face is full of blind inward satisfaction. In other versions she is electrified by what is, in effect, a metaphysical rape. In Simone Martini's wonderful fourteenth-century Annunciation, the Virgin winces away from the angel, and her eyes narrow as if she were undergoing the actual pain of defloration. She looks as if she was grief-stricken at the loss of her innocence and already filled with nostalgia for it.
One of the things you become aware of in working your way through the Uffizi is the evolution of the human face. While you see here mostly idealized faces, they reflect a psychological progress all the same. In the earlier works, piety often erases humanity from the face and imposes a blank or rapt expression, an immobile and abstracted listening to a remote and incomprehensible God who moves in mysterious ways. The human face generally appears rather stupid when its personality is suspended, although occasionally a pious person may look like the cat who swallowed the canary, or like someone sucking on a lozenge. Occasionally, there's a suggestion that a person has just removed his glasses and his eyes have not yet adjusted. All too often, a pious expression looks like a stare that, finding nothing to fix on, rebounds back on itself and becomes a stare staring, like the sound of one hand clapping.
After so many otherworldly faces, it's a relief to arrive at Botticelli's women in the Primavera. Here's the prototypically modern face, evolution's latest shimmering product, as ambiguous as the human condition. These are the faces of fallen angels, fashion models, divorcees and adulterers, readers of modern fiction and poetry. We are suddenly in the heart of the Renaissance; everything vibrates with expectation, nervousness, and conceit. Humanity is just beginning to realize how interesting it is, and how profanely beautiful.
Because so much of Florence's art is religious, the secular works take on an unnatural emphasis-at least for me. In front of Michelangelo's Dawn, a larger-than-life female nude in the Medici Chapels, I felt some of the self-consciousness of a person watching a pornographic movie.
Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo- the three men who produced the most radically beautiful images of women in the Renaissance-were not sexually attracted to them. Like fashion designers and choreographers, they were free of the kind of lust that conventionalizes the way we see women. There was nothing to keep them from speculating. In Dawn, and to a lesser extent in Night, Michelangelo expresses, almost against his will, the muscular power of female passivity. Dawn suggests not an awakening from sleep but a recovery from sexual extravagance. Nobody sleeps that voluptuously.
Michelangelo's women have been criticized for their "masculinity," their powerful biceps and small, widely separated breasts, which seem pinned on like afterthoughts. Yet the attitudes of these figures are exquisitely feminine-even more so than some of Michelangelo's squirming men. And no one has ever depicted a more seductive belly, pubic mound, or pair of thighs than he has in Dawn. He seems to have anticipated by four hundred years the muscle-conscious women of today.
Just as we Americans eat too much in Paris, we gorge on art in Florence. You can't get away from art, and it may begin to oppress you. The responsibility of responding is like a judgment on your education and your taste. When the king of France moved out of the Louvre, he said that he couldn't live with all those great paintings and sculptures, and I know how he felt. After a while, I find myself hungering for the ordinary, and that's when it's time to go shopping. This may even be one of the reasons people shop so furiously in Europe-it's a way of escaping the high demands of art and reasserting the self. Art makes us anxious in the best sense, and shopping buys peace.
Supported by their history, Italians have taken a possessive attitude toward the idea of beauty. In the sixteenth century a writer named Agnolo Firenzuola published a book that defined beauty down to the smallest detail, such as the precise turn or tint of the whorls of the ear. Proportion, one of the governing principles of beauty, was an obsession with Leonardo, and he worked out a theory of cosmic harmony in which everything partook of a universal rhythm or measure.
Eager to outfit ourselves with cosmically harmonious clothes, I browsed the Via de Tornabuoni, the Madison Avenue of Florence, with a guilty thrill of greed and abandon. But I was disappointed. This year's fashions struck me as rhetorical. That's the only way I can describe them, for while they seem to be making a statement of some kind, it was a forced one, without charm. The colors were hard and electric, and there were too many white or scarlet leather jackets. Of course, it's possible that Italian designers had taken such a quantum leap that they outdistanced our understanding. We're always ready to doubt our own sophistication: that's how fashion works.
The city of Dante, Michelangelo, and Leonardo is equally famous for its handbags. There must be enough handbags here to outfit every woman in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. What happens to handbags that don't sel!'? Can they be altered or restyled? Taken apart and recombined? Or are they plowed under, like farm surplus, to protect prices? I imagined a handbag dump on the outskirts of town, smelling so powerfully of leather that it dizzied the rats and crows.
Clive (drowning in honey)