The Trenitalia express we are on is speeding past expansive swathes of muted green fields, undulating in rolling intervals of dull, dry crops of maize and olives, their continuity broken only by narrow paths that run all the way up to the base of the low hills beyond. The cypresses appear every now and then lining the horizon like sentries standing guard against unknown enemies. It’s late November and the sun is a weak yellow, barely holding up against the vast stretch of grey sky that is pitched tight and gloomy over us.
Everything in Italy feels surreal on the first visit. It is difficult to imagine a land so lyrical and beautiful from continents away. Art, sculpture, and remnants of ancient civilisations are scattered along street corners and town squares in swells of luminous Carrara domes, life-like statues carved from marble and alabaster bent in impossible arches to fend off an unseen attacker or lay obeisance to higher powers. The figures are alive—their veins are protruding, blood pulsing, mouths open in vitriol and vengeance—all frozen to take you back hundreds of years where this modern world was conceived and its first stirrings experienced.
The Santa Maria Novella Firenze, the main station in Florence, appears provincial after the great rush and buzz of Roma Termini. It is almost empty, the platforms are wet, there has been a persistent rain since morning, and people seem rather quiet in conducting their commute-related activity. Cigarette butts can be found almost at every corner, as can be tourists wandering along, figuring out ways to leave the grey of the station behind and be swallowed up whole in the promise of the city outside its gates.
My husband and I walk out into the rain, our B & B is a walkable distance away. The street meets a thoroughfare that is wide enough to barely accommodate a flying horde of Fiats, Maseratis, and Volvo buses, all chasing, it would seem, after an imaginary band of robbers, their horns blaring. The B & B is located at a turn in a residential quarter, and stands four storeys tall. We push open the wooden doors and climb up a winding set of stairs. The smell of mould escapes from the cracks of the ancient walls of the structure. The staircase is interrupted midway, at the landing, by a stained-glass window, creepers rising over it. We’re greeted by Attilio, the owner, who tells us enthusiastically how we are located so close to the Duomo and the Uffizi. He suggests, his eyes sparkling, where we can get the best pasta just a short walk away, and smiles, in a self-congratulatory way, when he reveals that he has a friend who runs the most popular pizzeria in town.
The journey has left us tired and we debate if indulging in a nap would be wise before setting out to explore Caravaggio’s “Medusa,” Botticelli’s “Venus,” and Michelangelo’s “David.” But we’re hungry, both for sights and food, and decide against it as that would lead to losing minutes from the limited 48 hours we have in the city.
We step out, accepting the constant drizzle as a feature of Florence, just like the towering brick red of Brunelleschi’s Duomo, which looms magnificently over the city. We’re annoyed with the weather, but we carry on walking. We are consulting the city map that Attilio has given us, the locations of the city’s primary attractions circled in blue ink. We want to see the Duomo first, but we seem to have taken a wrong turn. We decide to check with the grocer’s that stands next to where we’ve wound up. I’m surprised to find a Hindi-speaking woman, dressed in red churidar and bangles. She points me to the turn ahead on the left. I ask her how long she has been here and she answers: “10 years.” I prod her for her opinion of the Duomo, to which she says, “I don’t know, I haven’t been there. But all visitors see it… You must go,” she adds. Further on, as we approach the piazza where Mercato Centrale spreads out like a fallen, old beast, we see African and Asian hawkers selling trinkets and faux Gucci handbags for €50 (Rs4,017). They look tired, insistent and pleading, impatient to sell their wares and escape the rain.
We pick our way through Piazza della Signoria, which is milling with eager tourists who have all gathered around the Loggia dei Lanzi searching for art and human greatness. They’re propelled by their drive to be surprised, to be transported to a world that is ancient and unknown. And they are not disappointed. At the Loggia, which opens out like a statue-laden film set, a bronze-sculpted Perseus stands victorious with Medusa’s severed head in one corner. Dominating the gallery on the other end, in impeccable white marble, stands Giambologna’s “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” Violence, submission, victory, defeat all come together under a Florentine sky to lay bare the possibilities of art and its power to move city dwellers to astonishment. And transported we all are across centuries to the 1400s when the Renaissance spirit was born in these damp, dimly lit Firenze streets unravelling its glory and expanding its influence of renewal and rejuvenation all over Europe under the patron of the powerful Medici brothers.
Standing at the Loggia and staring at the imposing sculptures I wonder about how, in the 21st century, Medusa’s head could be recreated not by hand but by 3D printing. I feel a little embarrassed at the thought. The talent, precision, and vision of these artists baffle my negligible understanding of art and I let the gushing wave of admiration take over. Yards away, Ponte Vecchio is getting ready for the evening. We lounge nearby, eating giant gelatos. A solitary boy in striped T-shirt and white shorts practices his rowing on the Arno. Two teenaged girls hang by the river beside us giggling uncontrollably, while smoking cigarettes. I’m not sure if it’s the boy in the canoe who’s the cause of their sudden mirth. Above us the sky changes colour from a resolute grey into a featureless black. The halogens light up on cue and the Florentine cityscape becomes as vivid and dream-like as an oil painting that adorn its many galleries.
When you think of a city, Florence doesn’t quite meet the prerequisites of an urban hub—it’s not beset with the hideousness of skyscrapers or chrome-and-steel malls, overflowing garbage vats, pollution or a buzzing hipster culture. Instead, it sits at the bottom of the hilltop village of Fiesole, faint smoke escaping from intricate chimneys. Clumps of red-topped houses sit in an uneven huddle centred on the Ponte Vecchio and the Campanile. Its people navigate the narrow, poorly lit lanes riding cycles in tailored suits or cover distances on foot, dressed in Fashion Week finery as if headed for a perpetual ball going on somewhere. The smell of meat and cheese play havoc with your appetite and every now and then you wonder if you should stop for another glass of wine or take another trip to the gelataria, only to arrive at a sobering realisation that too much choice doesn’t do anyone any good. Of course, there’s the unruly suburbs somewhere beyond the periphery of Dante’s neighbourhood, but its sounds and impressions don’t permeate Florence’s mythical landscape.
Rain that descends on us in big, fat drops only adds to the city’s magic. Noticing that there’s still time before the Baptistery before us closes for the evening, we seize the opportunity and dash through Ghiberti’s gilded Gates of Paradise. Inside, the precious mosaics that crown the high octagonal dome would take several nights of diligent studying to fathom. It was in this Baptistery that Dante was baptised, which he later mentioned in his Inferno. The mosaics take you through the beginning of the world and offer a gold-hued, detailed glimpse of the Purgatory where evildoers are burnt and tortured, and chewed and bitten by beasts, snakes, lizards and half-humans. The interiors of the Baptistery unfurl a supernatural world where human endurance is rendered insignificant in the face of high art.
One visit to Florence is never enough no matter that you’ve seen the Uffizi, the Palazzo Pitti, Galileo’s severed middle finger, chopped off because he was considered an enemy of the Church, or you’ve spent the high summer exploring the Tuscan hills filled up to your bosom in the simplicity of spaghetti Bolognese. For in Florence, timelessness is a way of life. It is tangible in the hordes of tourists whose tide never seems to ebb; it is embedded in the stones that help you imagine how Michelangelo, Vassari, Raphael and Bocaccio could have all been here at the same time polishing their art, fastidious in detail and imagination; it is apparent on the covered Ponte Vecchio where traders discuss business leaning against walls that bloom with centuries-old frescoes; it is clear in the crouched violin maker’s shadowy studio cramped with broken shells of violins and loose strings.
It is this image of timelessness that remains with me years later when I can still see the fine rain falling eternally in Florence.
Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.