Florence, the City of Romance, Has Other Attractions, Too

The Boboli Gardens offers views of Florence, whose history and art mingle with a reputation for romance. The city is full of beautiful things, new and old.
The Boboli Gardens offers views of Florence, whose history and art mingle with a reputation for romance. The city is full of beautiful things, new and old. (© Civic Network Of The City Of Florence)
By Diane Roberts
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 11, 2009

Venus is the presiding deity of Florence -- specifically Botticelli's newborn (but very mature) Goddess of Love. People fall in love in Florence; they fall in love with Florence, too. So it seemed right that I was in town last autumn for the wedding of two American friends who became enraptured with its piazzas and palazzos, its enotecas and trattorias, when they were students. Dante met Beatrice in Florence; this is where Michelangelo celebrated the body and where E.M. Forster's Lucy Honeychurch got her room with a view and her man.

Actually, it's right here in the Piazza della Signoria where Lucy faints into the arms of the handsome George Emerson, beginning their romance. I look around, but I see nobody worth collapsing onto. A bride poses with her bouquet by the statue of Neptune. In front of the Uffizi Gallery, another bride, this one with her groom, mugs next to one of the "living statues" entertaining tourists. There's a gray-dusted Roman emperor and an Egyptian mummy wrapped in gold lamé, but the couple chooses the cupid in all-over white body paint and red lipstick. The cupid aims his tiny bow and arrow at them and grins wickedly.

"Florence's reputation as a city of love comes largely from Anglophone visitors," said Patricia Rucidlo, an American writer who lives in nearby Livorno. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Florence was part of the Grand Tour for art-minded aristocrats and romantic writers. Lord Byron gushed, "Thy very weeds are beautiful."

Rucidlo said that even though the history of Florence is at least as much about power and money as about love, "the city is simply beautiful." And full of beautiful things: leather soft as cream, silks smooth as butter, truffles, chocolate, Ferragamo shoes, Bulgari gems. After all, there are many kinds of love: sacred love, profane love, the love of a gorgeous piece of tanned hide. Wandering up the Por Santa Maria, I spied a suede trapeze coat the color of chestnuts. I breathed in its clean, grassy scent; I stroked it; I wanted it. Nicoletta Manetti, the chic young woman helping me try it on, told me her family had been in the leather business since 1896. "For us, it's not just to sell jackets. When you have a business for four generations, you want to make relationships."

Relationships. I'd settle for a one-night stand with this coat. I feel the way Dante must have on that May day in 1274 when he met Beatrice (her real name was Bice di Folco Portinari) and imagined a new, sweet life for himself. Alas, she married someone else and died young. But in Dante's "Vita Nuova," he writes that "Her name is Love."

I decided to think about the jacket (infatuation demands caution) and go pay homage to the poet in the medieval church of Santa Croce. Dante is not buried here -- he was sent into exile for supporting the wrong political party -- and boy, does his statue look miserable. Niccolo Machiavelli, entombed here in 1527, looks a damn sight more cheerful. And why not? He's surrounded by interesting people: Galileo, the astronomer who defied the pope, is here, and so are Rossini, the opera composer; Marconi, the father of radio; and the Countess of Albany, wife of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Opposite Galileo is Michelangelo's tomb, though if there's anything left of him in there, it's spinning. He had hoped to be buried beneath one of his own Pietas (you can see it in the Duomo Museum) but instead got this cluttered monstrosity designed by his fan, the distinctly second-rate artist Vasari, who memorialized his idol with hysterical personifications of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, all looking as if they suffer from indigestion.

Walking up the Via del Proconsolo past 16th-century palaces and shops selling jewel-colored pashminas and marbled papers, I didn't feel too sorry for Michelangelo, though: The Medici family took him in when he was a kid and later commissioned some of his greatest work.

In the early 12th century, Florence gained independence from the Holy Roman Empire and spent most of the next 200 years in conflict over who would rule: the aristocratic, feudal-minded Ghibellines or the rising urban-capitalist Guelphs. In the 14th century the Medicis, prosperous wool merchants and bankers, took over. They were tyrannical but talented, producing generations of princely patrons, a brace of popes, two queens of France and, while they were at it, the Renaissance. The Medicis didn't always love one another, but they sure loved art.

I stood in front of "Night," "Day," "Dusk" and "Dawn," allegorical figures by Michelangelo in the basilica of San Lorenzo. The church, consecrated in 393, is just across the road from the Medici palazzo, and the family did most of its burying here: obscure kinfolk in the crypt; grand dukes in the Cappella dei Principi, a 17th-century explosion of alabaster, lapis lazuli and gold; Lorenzo de' Medici, Il Magnifico himself, plus his son and grandson, in Michelangelo's New Sacristy.

"Night" reclines, poppies under her feet and an owl by her knee. She adorns the tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, but such a vital body defies the very idea of death. Her stone skin is supple with soft folds of flesh.

Michelangelo's glorious sensuality makes a person hungry. Happily, another of the types of love Florence partakes in is the love of good food. I was due to meet Wilder and Tallie, fellow wedding guests, for dinner. At Pandemonio, a trattoria on the south side of the River Arno, we were introduced to our main course, a raw slab of garnet-red local Chianina beef the size of a church Bible, ready to become bistecca Fiorentina. The Chianina breed is among the oldest in the world, and so anciently tasty it was praised by the poet Virgil, back in 30 B.C. Patricia Rucidlo says this famous dish "came about when 18th-century English tourists came to Florence and demanded beefsteak."

The bistecca was taken away to be cooked. Wilder, Tallie and I ate sottoli (vegetables marinated in olive oil) while waiting for it to return, taking in the atmosphere, drinking a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino. Pandemonio's not hellishly loud, but it is lively. Finally the bistecca arrived, peppery and brown outside, red as a Roman carnelian inside. Bliss. We started fantasizing about living in Florence: maybe finding a nice rich aristocrat to marry, one with a villa, a vineyard and maybe a few head of cattle.

Later, we promenaded in the cool Florentine night, thinking about dessert. Tallie spotted a place. "Come on, y'all," she said. Hemingway looks like a hipster bar: guys in black jeans and girls with long legs and eyeliner. Despite the name, it wasn't about fish or Cuba or bulls; apparently Papa had a thing for cioccolata. The place does chocolate cakes, chocolate gelato, chocolate mousses and parfaits and truffles, chocolate martinis and liqueurs and hot chocolate that's as far from the thin, sickly-sweet stuff you're used to as an Armani jacket is from a Walmart sweatshirt. You choose your cocoa concentration: 55 percent, 85, 100: Wilder got a cup of 85 percent and began to look as beatific as a saint on an altarpiece. "I think I'm in love," he said.

In the morning, I flung open my shutters, Lucy Honeychurch-style. Her hotel room looked out over the Arno; here at the Annalena, a late-medieval palazzo-turned-convent-turned-pensione, my room looked out over the Boboli Gardens. I was hoping to ogle a handsome Florentine weeding the chrysanthemums, but alas: All I saw was an orange cat sunning itself. What do you do in the absence of romance? Shop. I decided to go back for that suede coat.

At Por Santa Maria Leather, an assistant offered cappuccino or a glass of wine (shopping here is more like a date than a commercial transaction), and Nicoletta Manetti showed me snapshots of Venus Williams and Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, who visited the shop a couple of years ago. "We try to make the experience of shopping fun," Manetti said.

Euphoric over my shameless act of retail, I strode back toward my hotel. The sun shone on the palazzos and churches, the marble saints and pagan gods, the lovers hand in hand walking through the Piazza della Repubblica. Florence echoes with the passions of dead poets, but it was time for me to get ready to go to a wedding. I walked past the Uffizi, where the cupid was still smiling his naughty smile. He aimed his arrow, but not at me.

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