‘Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell!’ So says the eccentric Miss Lavish in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, a tale of the effect of a visit to Italy on the stuffy Victorian values of its English visitors.
As an English tourist in Florence, I cannot help but identify with the novel’s protagonist Lucy Honeychurch, who finds herself suddenly flung into the bustling city. Admittedly, the rattling carriages have been replaced by an unforgiving phalanx of Vespas and I am not expected to have a chaperone with me while I explore the labyrinth of streets, but there is something about Forster’s turn-of-the-century vision that still captures Florence. Perhaps it is the constant chiming bells or the statues and frescoes that decorate so many buildings, but the city has refused to age: the myth stands still.
Sitting on the steps of the basilica of Santo Spirito with book in hand, reading the passage quoted above as the two female characters wind the streets in search of Santa Croce, the realisation suddenly dawns: I am on the wrong side of the river. It is one thing to read descriptions of far-flung countries and to allow the mind to form images of places you have never seen; it is quite something else to read these descriptions, looking directly at the scene that jumps from the page a century later. It therefore seems apt not just to read a novel about Florence in the city itself, but to live the novel; to retrace Lucy’s Florence as she discovers it, right up to her hasty departure to Rome, which is (amusingly) neglected in description compared to Florence.
And where more appropriate to start than that infamous room with (you guessed it) a view onto our very own muddy-brown Arno. That precise window of Forster’s Pension Bertolini, whose panorama causes Lucy to contemplate ‘nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it,’ can be traced to room 414 of the present-day Hotel degli Orafi. As it is one of Florence’s more exclusive lodgings, the everyday tourist might instead wander along the porticoes that run the length of the river next to the Uffizi. From here, the window onto Florence becomes complete, from the bustling markets, haggling locals and the busy jeweller’s shops on the Ponte Vecchio to the lonesome rower who cuts slowly through the river’s murky waters.
Standing here conjures up another of Miss Lavish’s statements, that ‘one doesn’t come to Italy for niceness, one comes for life.’ Whilst the beauty of the bridge and the jumbled terracotta-shaded houses cannot be disputed, the ‘knowledgable’ character of Eleanor Lavish is right: it is the people who make the city. And, in turn, it is the city that stirs in Lucy a desire that increasingly draws her away from the expectations of her English society and holds a burning Italian candle temptingly just in her line of vision. She not only aches for Florence but for the person that the city shaped her into with its passionate brush-strokes.
The chapter titled ‘Santa Croce with no Baedeker’ foreshadows the beginning of Lucy’s liberation from the stuffy associations of the English in Pension Bertolini, and we follow her out of the doors. Out into a new city that teems with life, Lucy is led along dirty back alleys in search of the Basilica, and after an indignant Miss Lavish confiscates her trusty Baedeker, she must do so without a guidebook. This idea is particularly relevant today, when tourists wander the streets, noses so firmly fixed to their colour-coded city guides that they fail to notice the tiny details that make up Florence, from the strange array of animal-shaped door-knockers to the plethora of elaborate plinths. Abandoning her own guidebook is an obvious metaphor for Lucy’s abandonment of convention; to no longer look at the city through a window, but to live in it and feel it. The Giotto frescoes that line the walls of Santa Croce can be admired for what they are, not for what someone is telling her that they are.
So throw away the guidebook and enter the unassuming exterior of the church, which ‘though like a barn, has harvested many beautiful things inside its walls.’ Perhaps you may, as Lucy does, discover something you had not noticed before.