Scoping Out Florence, Four Centuries Later

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

I think I was just thrown out of a restaurant in Florence.

I'm in there an hour or so, having a swell time at this place near the Duomo, taking my notes, drinking the chianti, laughing about that corny straw basket the bottle comes in. You know, fun.

The Italians call it a fiasco -- the basket, I mean -- and soon I'm making the obvious joke that if I drink any more of this chianti, I'll become a fiasco myself, which suddenly seems screamingly funny to me in the way things can seem funny during a night of chianti and then tragic the next day. I chuckle to myself, or maybe just a little out loud, doing that snort thing I've been trying to get out of my laugh repertoire for years. Lost in reverie, I do not see the large man approaching my table.

"Sir, would you like the bill?"

"Is there" -- snort -- "something wrong?"

The man looks down at the table. I look at the table. On it are an empty wine bottle, an almost-empty wineglass and a reporter's notebook.

"I'm a journalist," I say. "Writing, drinking -- that's what we do."

Actually, I didn't say that last part. That's the line I just thought of out here while freezing in the shadow of the Duomo at midnight. In the restaurant, I limply offered something about this evening becoming a fiasco and pointed to the straw basket, which is when the large man went to get my bill and also my coat. And so now I'm outside, trying to hide my shame so the Duomo won't see it.

It's quite beautiful, if you want to know. The Duomo, I mean. Brunelleschi and all. But I was talking about fiascos, as in this trip is becoming a fiasco. Why, you say? Walk with me east a bit, past the tourists snapping bad flash pictures of the Duomo's famed baptistery doors at midnight -- they're copies, Grandma! -- and then a few blocks south of the place with the best artisanal sandwiches in the world and the slowest-moving line for them, a little hole in the wall called Antico Noe. (Get anything with porcini mushrooms.) Soon we arrive at the Piazza della Signoria, truly one of the world's great urban spaces, with just the right mix of Renaissance sculpture and clip joints hawking overpriced camera batteries. For full effect, you have to come here now, when it's very late, when the square is almost deserted and Cosimo de' Medici's horse glows promisingly in the Florentine moonlight.

Do you know where the statue of Galileo is? we ask Cellini's Perseus, whom we've interrupted in the middle of decapitating Medusa.

"Non lo so," he curtly replies.

What about you, replica of Michelangelo's "David," sheathed in scaffolding like a mummy, even as the real thing continues to pack 'em in over at the Galleria dell'Accademia?

"Mmh mmh mmh," he says.

None of the piazza's great sculptures knows about Galileo because he's been deposited way over here, in a corner of an alleyway in the shadow of the Uffizi Gallery. In Florence, anywhere you look you can find a Galileo hotel, a Galileo cookie, even a Galileo curling iron; as for Galileo Galilei himself, however, who invented the telescope exactly 400 years ago. . . .

"Only I didn't invent it," says the Galileo statue. We stop and consider the man of the hour. Clearly the intent was to depict the Italian astronomer as perpetual cogitator, his hands reaching for the ineffable, the eyes focused on verities in the middle distance. But in this light Galileo looks a bit sheepish, as if he's about to inform you that you just traveled 4,000 miles only to discover that the telescope was actually invented in 1608, not 1609, and by a Dutch guy, not an Italian. Or maybe he's just saying that the whole telescope thing is more complicated than it first seems. Let's walk along the Arno a bit, shall we?

Over the river and beyond those hills is another hill, one you can't see from here. On it is the villa where Galileo spent the last years of his life under house arrest, condemned by the Catholic Church for all that his telescopes told him. To our left is Trattoria da Benvenuto, known for its excellent bistecca fiorentina, and also the American girls who drunk-dial their moms back home before ill-advisedly boarding Vespas with guys they've just met.

And in between, also on the Arno, is the Museum of the History of Science. It's a dry-sounding name and a perfectly apt one, in the judgment of some. But take one look at the Galileo kitsch on display and you'll be hooked, especially by the glass reliquary containing the middle finger of the astronomer's right hand, now a hideous mass of bone and sinew but still capable of giving the finger to the Church after all these years.

The museum has a special Galileo exhibit scheduled to open later this year; still, everything's already on display: the handsome collection of telescopes past, including the brass and glass marvel that astronomer Giovanni Donati used to observe a solar eclipse in 1860 and the vast collection of early wood-and-brass reflecting telescopes scattered throughout the building.

But it's the basement that houses the two cylinders that caused all the trouble. One's a bit more than four feet long, the other less than three; each is only a couple of inches in diameter. Glass lenses are mounted on tubes constructed of wood and leather, and neither is capable of magnifying an object more than 21 times. But there they are, the telescopes that permitted Galileo to discover the moons of Jupiter and sent him down that slippery slope: toward scientific proof that the Earth was not the center of the universe, to his condemnation by the Church, to his confinement in the villa on the hill.

Italians have long since made their peace with the fact that Galileo's own telescopes were not the first, but they are adamant that he was the first to grasp the significance of what he saw through them. We prove this at first light when a dramatic Florentine sun rises over the grand basilica at Santa Croce, its rays methodically gilding the piazza bricks one by one. The Franciscan church dates to 1294, its nave now the final resting place for Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini and many more of Italy's greatest hits, a little Westminster Abbey right here in Florence.

Galileo made the cut, too, though not right away. His body was interred in an adjacent chapel for nearly a century before being granted a Christian burial. (He'd wait another few centuries for the pope to un-condemn him, in 1992.) All good things come to those who wait, though, and now, as you see, he's got a swank marble mausoleum in a prime location, just opposite Michelangelo. Yes, Galileo is once more parked in a corner, but hey, not too shabby for a heretic, right?

Back outside, the Florentine sun, clearly pre-Copernican, is sprinting through the sky, turning the city walls a thousand shades of gold. The tripe sandwiches at Il Trippaio are never shown to greater effect than at moments like this, rewarding all Americans willing to leave their parochial appetites behind. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the decibel level is just starting to rise at the Mercato Centrale, the city's whirlwind indoor market, where great wedges of Parmesan crumble at the slightest touch, where pastas come in every unnecessary shape you can think of, where the variety of spices reduces you to a state of utter olfactory chaos.

But those are things every visitor to Florence sees, each perfectly recommendable in an under-the-Tuscan-sun sort of way, but also terribly familiar. They alone can't save your trip from being a fiasco. But a taxi ride up the hill just might. We catch a cab on the south side of the Ponte Vecchio and make our way to the Viale del Poggio Imperiale, which slowly, gracefully rises to a spot high above the city.

The taxi veers left at the villa-turned-girls'-school at the top of the hill, then passes through a gate and onto a private road lined with sycamores. Soon we reach the Osservatorio Astrofisico and, up on its roof, a majestic view of Florence.

What else do we see? The Landi Degl'Innocenti boys, two elderly Italian gentlemen whose appreciation of Galileo depends not a jot on whether it was he or some Dutch guy who invented the telescope.

"Many people do something important but don't understand the importance," says Maurizio Landi, not at all defensively. "Galileo understood the importance of what he saw."

Both Maurizio and his brother Egidio, a professor in astronomy at the University of Florence, have offices at the Osservatorio, which is now used mostly for research and teaching, though you can still see the planets and various nebulae from here when the weather's good. Today the weather is particularly good.

"In Galileo's time, the sky was considered everlasting, not corrupted by time," Egidio says, gesturing up at a brilliant, completely uncorrupted sky. "It was thought that outside the Earth, the laws of physics didn't apply."

Oh, but they do, countered Galileo, applying Copernican principles and "imagining that the stars were worlds of their own, which we now know is true," adds Maurizio, who is a researcher at the observatory. "It was an observation with consequences."

Henceforth, the universe would no longer be seen as an orderly assemblage with the Earth at its center. Now it would be a fiasco in which the Earth played only a minor role. "Needless to say, the Catholic Church found this disturbing," Maurizio continues, leading us to the other side of the roof, the one facing away from Florence.

"He was exiled there," says Egidio, pointing to an adjacent hill and adding with a smile, "This was far enough from town to be considered exile at the time."

Galileo's villa is somewhere behind those trees, he promises. You see the sycamores but not the house, not a place of house arrest but a setting of -- okay, I'll say it -- arresting beauty, complete with all the olive trees and pastoral splendor that the term implies.

Wait. That was a prison?

And I didn't want to create a fiasco -- why?

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