Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Delving into the Medici

After three years of living in Florence, discovering the infinite beauty and grandeur of its story, its art and architecture, I’ve spent much time studying the masterpieces that I pass by every day through a myriad of resources. I have learned as I go along, slowly, randomly and spontaneously, when for some reason provoked by curiosity and love, without method, pressure or time limitation.

The more I learn, the more I realize how crucial it is for me to develop an in-depth understanding of the Medici Dynasty and its political history, to fully appreciate Florence beyond its surface.  Each and every work of art, every corner, every courtyard, palazzo, basilica and museum was born and backed by a member of the Medici family whose brilliance, wealth, foresight and appreciation for classical thought propelled Florence out of the Middle Ages and into the grand era of the Renaissance, making Florence what it is today.

As I began learning its art, I was naturally compelled to learn about a particular masterpiece and its artist, paying less attention to the person who actually made it possible, albeit, knowing that some variation of a Medici was responsible, but getting confused as to which Medici was which. I bought a chart of the Medici family tree, which I thought would put the lineage into proper historical perspective. But that confused me even more. It rather resembled a corporate organizational chart, muddled by the fact that many of the Medici had the same first names. I acknowledged that in order to connect the dots, it was time to embark upon a serious introspection into the Medici history.

I browsed Florence’s bookstores in search of the perfect book that would bring the Medici history into perspective in a novelistic, exciting, unintimidating and readable format which would crystalize for me the story of Florence’s greatness and provide me with a rich understanding of everything around me, in a non-history book format.  I found my book, The Rise and the Fall of the House of Medici by Christopher Hibbert.

Since it covers a span of 300 years, it is a slow but loveable read, and as I have found, not exactly beachside reading material.  It presents Florence within the context of its rich history, and is accompanied by an index that covers every significant work of art and artist of Florence, which allows it to be used as a valuable reference tool as well.  I will be appreciating and re-reading this book for a long time to come.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dog Days in Florence

I couldn’t resist taking this photo of an overheated dog under a chair at Piazza Signoria today! The days have been hot, the city is eerily empty, most merchants are closed and this poor dog was suffering from the heat! Like every month of the year, August is unique in Florence. Most everyone has taken off for the coast, leaving Florence silent and still.

I actually didn’t think I would be spending August in Florence for my third summer in a row, but did arrange to take off these 2 weeks from guiding bike tours, at least for a break. I had been invited by Nicola’s family to join them as their guest in Siracusa, for 10 days al mare, but I chose instead to stay in Florence.  I will however, definitely take him up on it next year!

So, here I am, choosing again to cling to my beloved Florence, even when she may not be at her very best. Everyone (but me?) bolted for cooler destinations. I am the only resident left in my building. When I look out my bedroom window at night, all is silent and dark.

The heat forced the swallows, sparrows, and even pigeons to leave, and so it is equally silent in the mornings until the church bells ring.  The market is closed, so I cannot find any fresh produce that looks appealing. I waited too long to get my hair cut and so I eagerly await Antonio’s return from Rome in September. Likewise, I procrastinated to have my favorite pair of shoes fixed, and Giuseppe, my shoemaker is in Calabria. Giovanni, my florist is gone to Trapani, so my supply of always-fresh flowers is missing from my table.

What really surprised me though, was the fact that all the tabaccherie are closed too, and so I cannot find a newspaper anywhere! I didn’t notice that last year, because I was still struggling just to understand the headlines.  But now it is a part of my daily routine. The city is asleep, the best restaurants are closed. No feasts, no concerts, just the city and me. While it’s a lonely feeling, it is also special, because I take notice of things that I would otherwise not see, or take for granted just because they are always there.

And yet, I appreciate the silence, and the chance to get out on my bike and ride without a single car on the backroads! And to enjoy the special seasonal treat of insalata di trippa. And it’s hot enough in my bedroom to do hot yoga! I have also found that this is a perfect time to take refuge from the sun by visiting churches and palaces that I want to learn more about, because their cool interiors provide tremendous relief from the heat and they are not crowded right now.

Yesterday I took the opportunity to visit the basilica and museum of Santa Croce. It always makes me feel special to get free entry because I am a resident. It just reminds me of how lucky I am. Every time I revisit a place like Santa Croce, I develop a more profound appreciation of the grandeur of Florence’s history and the miracle of its art. Standing in front of Michelangelo's tomb and Cimbaue's 13th century crucifix always mesmerizes me.

Well, I have survived the first 3 weeks of August, and look forward to everyone coming back next week, all tanned and happy to riunite with fellow Florentines.  The students will come in droves and Florence will change its face once again.  I am so glad that my nephew Michael will be coming to visit me at that time too, when Florence comes alive again!

Although I am enjoying August in Florence again, I do promise that next year I will go to Siracusa with Nicola and his family!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Escaping Summer in the City

As the motorcoach pulled out of Florence, I was on my way for the first time ever for a day excursion   al mare.  In years gone by, I have vacationed on idyllic isolated stretches of southern Italian beaches and isles as an American tourist. Today was my first time going to the beach as a day-tripper to escape the "heat" from everyday life in Florence and the nerve-wrecking turmoil exploding in the global financial markets.

"Quando il mare è in tempesta, restate sulla spiaggia.  Starsene tranquillo in vacanza".  While reading this bit of advice in the financial section of yesterday's  La Nazione, I was convinced that the moment was calling me. As much as I heretofore have always avoided participating with the droves of Italians who, every August, ritualistically abandon their jobs and their cities to partake in the frantic mass exodus to the coast, I desperately needed to "go fishin", both literally and figuratively.

And after a relaxing 2 hour motorcoach drive,  I found myself "nel posto giusto, al momento giusto".  At the seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi, in the Tuscan province of Lucca, with a striking view of the magnificent white marble mountaintops of Massa-Carrara in the background.  As the world awaited the final official word on the state of the global credit wreckage from "La Casa Bianca", I exhaled and turned off my IPhone.

Had I not already been fiercely reluctant to "beach it" at the height of Italy's coastal horror season, the following 3 brilliant reviews (written by my friend and fellow blogger, Liz Petrosian), were already enough to convince me hands-down that doing so would be like committing beach-side suicide, thus risking my chance of ever again returning to Florence.  If you want a good laugh, read these 3 witty pieces:  Angel of Death Wears a Wet Speedo,  Beach Vignette,  Flesh Circus

However, the allure of drenching myself in saltwater until my limpid body and brain floated away with the tide was beyond enticing.  After 3 years of summers spent innocently, lovingly, and secretly discovering the real Florence in its strange and solitary August emptiness,  it was time to consider myself a budding member of the mad Italian masses.  I decided to bolt for the coast, if only for one day, just to be safe.

On the advice of other Florentines, I took the coach to Forte dei Marmi instead of the train to Viareggio and went on a Monday, to avoid the "bollino nero". Never having done this before, I didn't know how the beaches worked. From the window of the coach I saw hundreds of "bagni". These are beach-side establishments with low-profile Laguna Beach type exteriors hidden by lush bouganvilla and palm trees, where you pay an annual fee for your own designated spot on the sand with an ombrella, table and lounge chairs. A restaurant, bar, showers and bathrooms are incuded.  If you go just for the day, you can rent a spot if available.
I walked into the first bagno I saw and asked for a spot vicino al mare.  After paying for my assigned spot, the manager escorted me to my private little front-row piece of paradise where I spent the day relaxing and observing the Italian way of spending a day at the beach.  There were some things I liked and others that I did not like. However, overall, it was more than just a beautiful day at the was amusing.

Each bagno is like its own private piazza on the beach.  You choose which bagno you like the best, according to its personality and reputation.  Families and friends go to the same bagno, year after year.  The one I went to felt like a tiny neighborhood.  Everyone knew everyone but me. The advantages of this system are many.  It's like home away from home. You can leave your personal belongings and valuables at your chair when taking a dip, without worrying that they will be stolen, because each bagno has its own heart-attack gorgeous male bagnoguarda, the guard who looks after the bagno. The sand is perfectly manicured, everything is meticulously clean and orderly.  Each bagno has its own raised walkway leading to the water, so you don't have to burn your soles on the sand when headed for a dip.

In between extended dips in the warm, calm caressing water, I spent the day mostly observing others as they carried on their customs at the bagno. I was not surprised to see a chocolate colored mass of  bodies baking their brains out in the sun, turning over at precisely timed intervals while checking out their tan lines. From this respect, it was like the Jersey Shore of the early '70's.  A feature of this particular bagno was posted on a sign in the bar.  They will send you a free SMS when it is time for you to turn over to keep an even tan.

Because I spend so much time in the sun on my bike, I inadvertently have a tan by anybody's standards, but felt like a self-conscious pathetially pallic China Doll amid the shiny black lacqured bodies surrounding me. The funniest thing of all, was the woman sitting across from me.  Every time I looked up at her, she was wearing a different bikini.  I counted a total of 5 during the day.  She never got wet, spent the whole day on the phone smoking cigarettes and getting annoyed when a speck of sand landed on her foot.

At 13.00, almost the whole beach got up and walked away.  I wondered where they had gone until the salty scent of  zuppa di vongole permeated the air.  They had all retreated to the bagno's restaurant for a 3 hour lunch where they ate spaghetti alle vongole, wine and other frutti di mare.  There were others who couldn't resist the best tanning hours of the day.....they ate mozzarella balls, plump green olives and panini out of their beach bags.

I was compelled by curiosity and the smell of clams to take my own pranzo, while watching the priceless scene of chatter, digestion and re-digestion, followed by a hand of cards and a shot of espresso.  Then they all headed back to their assigned spots for Chapter Two of a day al mare.

In the afternoon I walked south along the water observing other bagni.  It was a gorgeous day.  Although I tried to read my most recent book, The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, I felt too far away from Florence for it to be relevant.  The day passed quickly and before I knew it, I was on the motorcoach, passing the beach town of Viareggio, which in comparison to Forte dei Marmi, reminded me of Asbury Park.  Which made me miss the sounds of the arcades and the smell of cotton candy, hot giant pretzels, cheeseburgers and French Fries at the Jersey Shore.