Monday, April 07, 2008

first impressions of florence

Florence is a pretty beautiful place. You probably know that, as I did before I arrived; the birthplace of the renaissance, the original centre of Italian fashion, an architectural jewel to rival Venice. You'll hardly find anyone who disputes these assertions, so expectations are naturally high. And yet. Knowledge, information, familiarity with photographed vistas, none of this really compares to the first corner turned in a place of bewildering beauty. Turning that first corner, seeing that first glorious basilica or stretch of river, is a dazzling, unexpected privilege.

Arriving in Florence I meet one of my authors, Matt, at the airport and we share a cab into the city. We try to hold a conversation, one about events in Zimbabwe and another about quite why it is that town planners of European cities so regularly allow their suburbs to be defaced by dreadful architecture, but fail on both counts and are reduced to giggles as we watch our impossibly Italian driver bang his hands on the steering wheel, shout furiously at other drivers and exhibit a frankly amazing portfolio of hand-gestures, ranging from the exasperated to the profane. It's impossible to ignore, on our way in, despite the afore-mentioned ugliness of much that we pass, the incredible alteration of perspective which the Mediterranean colour palate induces; it is as if wearing tinted contact lenses, all the normal hues transformed into a sunny, dusty coalition of faded pinks, yolk yellows and lobster reds.

We arrive at our respective hotels and say cheerio, parting to check in and prepare for the first exploration into town. I'm impatient so once I've found my room and set aside my belongings, I grab my camera and dash back out onto Via Della Scala, which is a narrow street lined with hotels and restaurants. I have a map, but I ignore it and take a right turn, led by intuition, heading out under a brilliant blue sky. I can't have walked more than forty or fifty yards before I round my first corner, encountering with shock the vast and impressive geometric facade of the internally severe Santa Maria Novella church. Not knowing quite how much better it gets than this, I stand awed for a few moments, before heading further into town, following the crowds.

I quickly surmise a few things; firstly, that the stereotype of Italian sophistication is grounded firmly in fact; it's fairly easy to swiftly identify the locals and differentiate them from the many tourists. They are dressed to perfection, innately stylish and amusingly affected. Men plant themselves mid-pavement to chat, scarves loped carefully around their necks. Women sashay slowly along, dressed in expensive boots and fashionable leather jackets. Accordingly, the streets are lined with expensive boutiques.

Secondly, I quickly realise that the Santa Maria Novella was a red herring. Despite its impressive facade, it is a mere aperitif. Looming ahead is Brunelleschi's dome, belonging to the famous Duomo. Although the building surrounding it is obscured, I grow increasingly excited as I approach, until at last I veer round another corner and am faced with the glory of Florence's stunning cathedral. Extraordinarily ornate, carved in white Carrara, green Prato and red Maremma marble, the cathedral boasts stunning detail, from reliefs depicting the history of mankind to marvellous busts of Florentine artists and merchants, along with - of course - sculptures of Christ, Mary and John the Baptist. The bronze doors to the main building are impressive, yet serve only to highlight the magnificence of the facing "gates of paradise", magnificent, glowing reproductions of the original Baptistry doors (the real things are housed nearby in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, preserved in containers filled with nitrogen).

The square bustles with activity. The locals, predictably, are studied and impassive. But everyone else simply stands agog, eyeballing this magnificent creation. I do likewise. Little do I know I haven't yet seen Florence at its very, very best.

1 comment:

Michi said...

...I just say "BELLA ITALIA".... :o)