Before you go to Florence, people who have been there will inevitably say, "Oh, Florence is beautiful." You won't be the first to wonder upon arriving what they're talking about. Aldous Huxley couldn't wait to split, writing to his brother that the place was "a third-rate provincial town," and D.H. Lawrence was equally blunt. "I don't much like the place; never did." Dylan Thomas thought it was "a grueling museum," and Dostoevsky went absolutely nuts in Florence, entering the Uffizi and then immediately running wild-eyed out to the street. Totally off his head, he forgot that he was the great champion of suffering humanity, being nasty to waiters to the point where one man said, "Don't you realize that I'm a human being, too?"
Of course Lawrence and the Russian master are two of the bigger cranks in literature, and Dylan Thomas was sick from Chianti -- but still, you might wonder at first what the fuss is about. The Duomo and Giotto's bell tower are jaw-dropping in their gaudy marble, the Baptistery an example of the school of design whose manifesto is that a thing worth doing is worth overdoing. But beautiful?
Looking to the heights surrounding the city, you might wish to be up there and not down in the dun-colored town walking in hive-like streets swarming with mopeds driven by maniacs. (It's no accident that "Vespa" in Italian means "wasp.") But relax, take it slow -- an easy thing to do here, since despite immediate impressions, Florence is one of the more comfortable Italian cities. The old maxim about the impossibility of getting a bad meal in Italy stands true, and also, if you're willing to pay in the mid-price range of hotels, it's difficult to be shipwrecked in dreadful accommodations.
The capital of the Renaissance is the most welcoming of any Italian city to English speakers. This is due to the Anglo-American invasion of Florence in the latter part of the 19th century and the beginnings of the 20th, when aesthetes, fed up with the clunky pomposity of Victorian art and mores, dreary winters, hideous fashion and ghastly food, came to rediscover the lightness, color and sensuality of the Italian Renaissance. In the early 20th century, there were roughly 500,000 residents of Florence, and one in five were either Brits or Yanks. (Besides the lofty ideals of culture, it was also dirt cheap to live there.)
The tradition continues today, with dozens of American and British universities having satellite campuses in Florence.
Once you've decided to stay and not harangue your travel agent long distance, take a second look at the maniacal mopeds. First, a tip on how to avoid being run down or getting freaked by the demonic bikes. In the narrow medieval byways it's often necessary to abandon the crowded sidewalks and take to the street. Your first experience of this can cause panic as you hear the idiot whine of mopeds bearing down on you. But just keep walking in a straight line, don't look back (because for sure they're gaining on you), and they will pass you. Pass you in a blur, but they will pass. We live in hope.
When you start to think, hey, it must be a serious blast to buzz around on one of those things, then you've made peace with the place. The moped in many ways represents the spirit of Florence, which is the spirit of the adventurous young, dating to the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Look closely and that spirit will attach itself to you, no matter what your age, if you'll let it.
An example: a young woman hanging around outside an art school in a 15th-century building on a narrow street, talking to a friend, backpack slung over her shoulder. Seeing a garbage truck coming down the street making periodic stops, and realizing that once it passes her she'll be stuck behind it, she quickly double-kisses her friend, shouts "Ciao!" and jumps on her moped at the curb like a circus bareback rider, kicks it into gear before the seat of her stretch jeans touches the saddle, cranks the accelerator wide open and is gone in a gray mist of smoke, leaving only the admiring smile of the driver of the truck, which has just missed her, and the joyful shout of his colleague, hand on heart, beseeching the beautiful rider to come back to them.
You have time before going blind and crippling your feet in the museums, so take a tall seat in the back room of Mariano's on Via Parione and linger over a plate of cheeses, dried fruits and nuts, sweet and sour mustard dip, and a glass of wine. You'll be remembered when you go back, which you will.
Wander the flower, food and clothing market of Sant'Ambrogio (a stand-up guy, from all accounts) and then go to the antiques and flea market on Piazza dei Ciompi nearby. Have coffee in even the most dubious cafe with a jam-stuffed doughnut, and you'll stare at your cup and think: I've never had coffee until this moment.
Now, it's probably time to devour some culture, which is why you came. You'll go to the Galleria dell' Accademia, of course, to see the big naked white guy. About 18 feet high, David is the great cliche, the most famous statue in the world. But standing before it in its own skylighted gallery, you'll be overwhelmed at the scale of the thing, the nakedness, the drama in the stone, that here is David before battling Goliath. Made when Michelangelo was all of 29, David is young, the killer before the killing, but his stance and expression tell you he is far from innocent.
Seeing it in the flesh (and the enduring and seductive mystery of classical and Renaissance sculpture is that marble has become naked flesh) allows one of Italy's gifts, Humanism -- the belief that the divine is within us -- to shine.
If mystery is a component of all worthwhile art, then modern art's mystery is in its content -- but in Renaissance art it is found in technique. How exactly do blocks of stone take flight, or the folds of a garment have three dimensions, texture and motion in oil on canvas? It's no surprise that artists along with pharmacists in Florence were part of the speziali guild, not just because they ground pigments instead of herbs, but because they too were sophisticated magicians.
You'll experience the magic with every Donatello, Giotto or Gaddi you stand before, but to discover how these alchemists were formed, visit the charming neighborhood of Santa Croce and follow a narrow winding street past an alley lined cheek-by-exhaust-pipe with mopeds to a nondescript building where artists are taught the way they were centuries ago.
"When I was in art school I didn't want someone trying to teach me to be an artist," said Daniel Graves recently. "I wanted someone who'd teach me to draw. Tradition has been broken in the instruction of making art." Graves, an American who came to Florence in the early 1970s to learn the technique and trade of painting -- "About 30 of us migrated here. It was like something out of 'Close Encounters' " -- is the founder and director of the Florence Academy of Art, a school with 76 students and teachers from 25 different countries. Last year there were 100 applicants to fill 10 spots.
Recently he and fellow American Susan Tintori, secretary to the academy, sat in Graves's office and spoke of a movement of art that has come out of the school (and other ateliers) and been called the "New Realism." The movement had a recent major retrospective at the Panorama Museum in Bad Frankenhausen, Germany, which also published a handsome full-color 200-page catalogue. The Century Gallery in Alexandria showcased 60 of the works inspired by the Academy last year.
"We're cutting edge," Graves said, smiling, as he walked through the school with cubicles marked off in black cloth and teachers working with students on how to control, block and focus light. North light is the traditional light of the atelier, Graves explained. "Because it changes the least, you can work all day, which is why many 19th-century factories had north light."
The school's curriculum is intense, with long days. The first year is given over entirely to drawing still lifes, nudes from life, and classical casts, using charcoal and graphite. "You have to control charcoal, there are no accidents, so when you move to pastels there's no problem," Graves said. After a year (or sometimes two) of drawing, oils are taught, but only shades of gray, and the student doesn't receive a full palette of colors until Year Three at the earliest. There is also a full program in sculpture.
Tintori led the way into the small but very fine gallery of students' and teachers' works. "The staff here is teaching and instilling a sense of beauty in art which, when I was in school, was considered weird. Anything realistic was considered taboo, without 'imagination' or 'soul.' "
A visit to the gallery, with its black cloths, softly falling light and hushed intensity of the artists, will allow you a peek into something unchanged for 500 years, a glance into the Renaissance of Florence that will be as vivid as the masterpieces you will go to venerate.
Time to climb the Duomo. Don't go if you're claustrophobic or have a bad heart. Everyone else, get to the south door of the cathedral, pay the $10 and take your time on the straight-up hike through a spiraling labyrinth of 463 stone steps. There are a couple of places where you can stop and rest, including one on a balcony encircling the base of the dome where you become an eerie part of the magnificent 16th-century frescoes by Vasari and Zuccari. Even when you know your heart is coming through your skin, your efforts will be rewarded when you reach the marble "lantern," more than 330 feet above Florence, in the open air, with your fellow heroes.
The city is yours, spread out in its valley. There's the Arno, cutting nobly toward the Ponte Vecchio, and there, rising beyond, the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens. You can see where you had coffee near Sant' Ambrogio, and find your hotel in the silent, sand-colored town, decorated with red-tiled roofs.
If the word "beautiful" comes to your lips, don't be surprised.
Ambrose Clancy last wrote for Travel on London bookshops.