Florence? What is this metaphysical perfection? Strolling down its streets, flipping through its yellowing, exquisite pages, bowing politely and nodding to the ethereal ghosts that jostle alongside you in the fifth dimension, one is struck down by the futility of aspiration here. If it weren’t for Brunelleschi and all the other heavies, if so many of the visionaries and pioneers hadn’t had their greatest hits here, maybe it would be different. But in the face of such loftiness—the Faustian hubris of Dante, the colossal conceptions of Michelangelo, the grotesque beauty of the Baptistery—it’s hard to slot the train of creativity onto the tracks of realization. Why bother to put pen to paper, easier and better to put napkin to mouth as all of one’s pathetic little dreams of greatness ebb and flow and finally dissolve, jettisoned onto the crepuscular beach of reality, shared by writhing half beings and sailors who have fallen from grace.
Far easier to sip Montalcino, far easier to wander up to costa di San Giorgio and locate that secreted, secret walk that plugs one straight into the viale Michelangelo and seems like some happy aberration, a country walk paradoxically situated within the city. Within whose environs there is no trace of the Florentine cacophony, no ambulance sirens impaling the charm of the centro storico.
During that walk you will see the foliage and trees slumbering in their wintry sleep, but perhaps here and there some small and premature nods of affirmation and recognition might be heralding the onset of spring—spring, which is like the crisp and exciting glossiness of the new 20 euro note. The few gracious villas and houses are locked and barred and safeguarded, their inner secrets and treasures tantalisingly suggested in fractured glimpses of the affluent gardens within, a middle-class paradise sealed off in the cherished, sickly notion of private property, deterring would-be trespassers. That is part of the Florentine enigma and allure: the city teases and hints at so many other worlds of beauty, the maze-like streets often terminating in cul de sacs, shops in the interim having mysteriously disappeared behind metal screens, playing havoc with one’s memory.
Consider the Ponte Vecchio. Does it not constitute the most enigmatic of architectural beauties? It always makes me think of a single train carriage that has somehow been gracefully wedged into the structures on either side of it—the old bridge is so accidental, and yet so tangibly there. But what is it, in fact? Can it be classified or even defined? It is a bridge suffering from an identity crisis, two rows of shops that have mutated into a crowded walkway in which the ethereal and commerce have become irrevocably entwined.
Florence, indeed Italy, is a place of masks and veils. Its citizens wear masks habitually to get through the daily grind of life. No other people is as well versed in the fine art of ambiguity. A thing is impossible but possible, something is both clear and abstract, the dynamic of chiaroscuro informs the whole fabric of life here. So the Italians made the law, already torturous, even more so and the language of the law is at its most painstakingly, pedantically exhausting here, if one has ever taken the trouble to peruse a legal document. And yet the law seems exhaustingly provisional at the same time.
The traffic, too, comes with a heavy matrix of instructions and rules, but who actually follows them? Then there’s the sacred cult of the Receipt, which always makes me laugh. Here, receipts must be laboriously handed out and pressed upon the forlorn recipient of them, the enthusiasm of its donor at odds with the blandness of the article, the recipient forgiven for thinking he is about to be handed some attractive gift on the house. It seems to go in accordance with the emphasis on the little, the small, the finite, as trivial matters of finance and commerce are given priority while larger examples of fiscal corruption and impropriety at governmental and political levels are merely brushed aside.
One finds the same contradictions in all aspects of social life. Ask for directions and a theatrical insistence will inevitably begin on the sheer impossibility and complexity that the route necessitates, only to eventually concede, after some hesitation, that the destination is really rather easy to find after all. I wonder why there always has to be that initial resistance: perhaps it’s all about having access to the esoteric wisdom of a navigating guru, secret knowledge that Italians are only grudgingly willing to impart to naïve disciples, unversed in the wise ways of the world.
A similar contradictoriness can be observed whenever an Italian takes leave of a bar or café. After uttering farewells and shaking hands the same individual is invariably still hovering around the premises half an hour later, by that time having spun out an elaborate web of aborted leave-takings and revived new arrivals until the whole thing is an inextricable whirl of thwarted, constipated action.
I find it fascinating to ponder these aspects of the nationwide sensibility. I am not sure of the extent to which these contradictory impulses apply to all Italians, and it would be foolish to speculate, but time and again I have been struck by them.
Florence, as opposed to Rome, Milan or even Venice, seems to me to be the Italian city that most clearly embodies these polarized complexities. There is something a little bit sadistic about its gorgeousness. I have often been struck by the pokiness of shops and bars and the obvious abdication of comfort, the sense that some small sliver of suffering must accompany any routes into pleasure. In winter, shop doors are left open despite the bone-chilling cold, and some of the most elegant places are often filled with the stench of damp and little reminders of the sewers that sit beneath ancient palazzi. I have yet to find a café in the centro storico in which I could feel I could linger for hours without fear of scrutiny or interruption.
That is if I could get inside the place, given the formidable gift this gente have for blocking doorways. For some reason a door is to an Italian what a flower is to a bee, and he will hover around one, conduct conversations around one, smoke next to one and do all within his means to ensure both exit and entrance are denied to those within and without. Perhaps it’s the notion of the portal that is so attractive, the idea of the “in-between” place that is neither in nor out but tantalizingly poised between hell and heaven, the limbo of an eternally youthful possibility that is unfortunately eternally on hold, eternally unrealized.
Surely less jaundiced souls than mine have found within these contradictions and opaque avenues the basis for celebration and hilarity, but I confess I am still scratching my head and taking refuge in my Anglo-Saxon trumpeting of rationality and clarity. I scutter off into my den of one dimensionality and into my reservoir of the real and the stark and the non-negotiable. Perhaps it’s easier to stay put there, safer, less taxing.
So here I am, in my cave, shunning the Florentine cacophony, removed from it as if in the belly of the whale, where Jonah considered his sobering duties to God and his role as the chastening cleanser of Nineveh. As a writer, of course it is de rigueur for me to retreat into some kind of tunnel, into womb-like tenebrosity, planning my next move, being furbo, as I cogitate on my next PR drill, my next piece of perfect pitch pitching to a literary agent. It’s hard living in that tunnel, the light is bruised and arthritic, the sounds of the world reach me so distantly that I dismiss them as ghostly, imagined.
But finally I can bear it no more. I must emerge from my crustacean-like existence, enter into the Florentine light. Florence calls to me, that Medicean siren, and I am powerless to resist. Once more unto the beach.