When I saw the Duomo for the first time, I was stunned by the magnitude. I remember sitting on the steps in the early hours of the morning and staring up at the architecture in silence; I was the only person left in the piazza, but it felt like I was the only person left in the world. There’s something about being alone next to the goliath of a church that makes you feel so small, like you are just a dot in a Seurat painting, tiny but essential.
Being in Florence often felt like that — I was swept up in things that seemed so much bigger than I was. As a student abroad who had never travelled before, I wanted to understand the hype. I wanted to know why Michelangelo’s David filled art textbooks and why people squeezed into every empty space on the Ponte Vecchio. I wanted to see the city from every angle, from the dark cobblestone streets to the top of the red roofs. If I inspected it closely enough, could I finally unlock its secrets?
It didn’t take long for me to realize that my thirst to know Florence couldn’t be satiated easily. I had once laughed at the notion of Stendhal syndrome, but I began to wonder if it was time for a self-diagnosis. There were times when I would take a moment to take in at my surroundings and find myself so overcome with emotion that I had to sit down for a moment. Looking at the architecture for too long left me feeling dizzy. It made my head hurt and my heart swell.
That’s what happens when you explore Florence for the first time. You get caught up in the big pictures, but how can you not? There’s a reason writers still describe the way the sun kisses the Arno at dusk and why artists can’t stop their paintbrushes from forming the elegant arch of the cupola. Those are the things I missed the most when I boarded the plane to go back home. Those are the sights that haunted my dreams for months after.
One year later, when I saw the Duomo again, I wasn’t as awed at the size as the details. Had I simply never noticed the intricacy in the design? There was something tantalizing about the white and green façade, something striking about the mosaics above the doors and the statues of the prophets that gazed down from above. I could stare forever and never notice everything, but I tried anyway. It was too enticing not to.
Being in Florence the second time often feels like that — now that I’m no longer distracted by the magnificence of it all, I can appreciate all the details I hardly noticed the first time. Like how when I’m sitting in my kitchen, I can hear families in surrounding apartments speaking loudly in Italian over dinner, their plates clinking against the table in a cacophonous, familiar tune. Or how I still find little surprises on every corner, like a poem pasted to a building or a picture painted on a wall, inconspicuous but exposed. I even look forward to walking by the same shops on my way from work each day and greeting the store owners, who now recognize me well enough to throw me a joke or offer me a glass of wine. It’s amazing how many little details you start to notice in places you thought you knew so well. You just never knew to look for them.
Those are the things that aren’t advertised in travel guides, that aren’t recommended by friends or written about by bloggers. But they’re what made me fall in love with Florence all over again, and then again and again. I no longer need to spend all my days exploring the centro when there is so much to love in the streets surrounding my own apartment. The aspects of Florence I’ve come to appreciate are rooted in everyday life, in the flow of home and work and all the commutes in between.
And it’s not that I’m no longer awed by the size of the Duomo. I still find myself pausing on the Ponte alla Carraia to catch an extra glance at Ponte Vecchio, and I still wonder about artists and poets of the past. It’s just that I found new things to appreciate too, little everyday moments that fill me with just as much happiness as the big things. Because that’s what makes the Duomo the Duomo: it’s not just about the size, and it’s not just about the details. Without both, you wouldn’t have the heart of our beloved Florence.