In 2018, for my 50th birthday, I moved to Florence. I had always been in love with the city, first as a musical history buff—the piano (Uffizi, 1700) and opera (Palazzo Tornabuoni, 1594) were both invented here—and then as a visitor experiencing the mesmerizing art. Only now, in my fourth year as a resident of this city that I love, can I begin to understand why Florence has been a centre of creation and influence for millennia. I think it is the environment.
As with all things nowadays, the dream began online. (Where else?) First, as an experience my wife and I have come to call “Real Estate Porn”. It started with a Google search of “homes for sale in Tuscany”, which is pretty generic and harmless: a cottage in the hills, a thatched roof, maybe a long-abandoned chicken pen, to be able to cook with morning-fresh eggs? Heaven, right? The first websites were the “foreign” ones. UK and other international agencies flogging their wares, many with the same properties but wildly different price points, which made it clear that I needed to find other sources. I started searching in Italian and found the likes of idealista.it and immobiliare.it, but then I happened upon www.lionard.com, and off I went down the rabbit hole, ogling homes, ancient and newer: homes that were set among rolling hills, floral landscapes, velvet-looking mountains, the kind you just want to reach out and touch. The interiors? Thirteenth to seventeenth-century frescoes. So vibrant, so alive, so present. I imagined myself in the majestic rooms with those frescoes, not just staring at them, but engaging with the characters, imagery and nature therein.
Some form of adrenaline took over and I drew up a list of three of four homes I could possibly see myself living in. Then I did the most insane thing and clicked on the word “contact” on the Lionard website. The note simply read that I was “maybe, perhaps, could be down-the-line interested in buying something”. Within 24 hours an agent replied, more than happy to indulge my lunatic fantasy. And that’s how it more or less started. Impulse shopping! I made an appointment with the agent. The adrenaline took over; I wasn’t even thinking clearly. How could I possibly yank all of my roots out of the ground and plant my feet in fantasyland? That’s when I thought, what roots where? I had been meandering from theatre to theatre (my profession) for 27 years, and my roots included a suitcase that never got unpacked, a computer and a piano keyboard: any piano keyboard anywhere. The piano was invented in Florence. Surely I could be comfortable there.
Then I booked plane tickets for myself and my wife. I promised a weekend adventure. As we flew into Florence’s Peretola airport, the sun was beating down and the rows of olive trees were standing like soldiers guarding ancient relics and their inhabitants. I took note of something very unusual. My chest opened and I was able, for the first time in a very long time, to breathe deeply. With the daily tension of the theatre, the audience and the necessity to “deliver the goods”, there is little space for peaceful breathing, even if one must in order to perform. One learns how to manufacture breath that will service the need, but this was different. This was real, and it was uncommonly deep, and I was still on the plane.
As the stairs rolled up, I couldn’t wait to step onto terra firma. We were at the front of the plane, so when the door finally opened and we stepped into the open blue sky embraced by lush green rolling hills on that April afternoon, I was able to breathe even deeper. It was an experience that I don’t think I’d ever had before.
We made our way to the Airbnb that I had reserved on one of the lungarni. An hour later, the agent picked us up and we began our adventure. We saw this, we saw that, and while one home was more in need of repair than the next, the bits and pieces were making for an excellent historic excursion. I apologized many times to the agent, saying that I was worried I was wasting his time more to indulge my fantasies than any kind of serious property acquisition. He assured me time and again that it’s what he does and he is happy to indulge. I won’t argue, but I did wonder how he could make a living as surely there were others like me who just wanted to revel in the fantasy of the Tuscan dream, even if only for a weekend.
At the end of our time together, the agent suggested that there was this 900-year-old residence that was somewhat abandoned but for a small part, where one of the sisters who still owned the house lived, that much of the property was in desperate need of repair, and that the location overlooked the centre of Florence, but maybe it was too much to get involved in, as it was in such a state. I was of two minds. I didn’t want to waste any more of the agent’s time, but I was curious, in particular because the fellow said one could see the Duomo from the front door. So, we went.
As we began to drive up the hill, on a winding roadway covered by trees, the air began to change. I started to experience that feeling again, the one where my chest began to open. And then, just when it seemed that the climb would never end, we turned into a driveway. A few meters thereafter, the agent parked the car. My wife and I got out of the car and we looked. The environment was all natural, only dotted with ancient beauty: a stone home there, an ancient tower to the other side, a lighthouse to warn of marauders just across the ravine. Nature, history and human contributions taking the former into consideration, into a womb of care as it continues to make appropriate, concerned and careful additions. The only continuous environment I have really known in my life is one that surrounds a keyboard and an audience, oftentimes called a “black box”. I have always appreciated my surroundings, but for the first time in my life, it was there standing on a hill near Florence, looking out at the beauty that nature provided, nature that we must care for with all our might, when I deeply understood the importance of respect and preservation, and what breathing deeply really means.
Without even fully inspecting the house, I made an offer to the agent. Whatever the house needed, running water, a shower, a toilet, a roof that doesn’t leak, somehow we would find the means to fix it. But that deep breath. That deep breath was worth paying everything for.