A friend, Susanna Giannini, dropped a line inviting me to an evening of music in the centre of Florence. I jumped at the chance, not knowing exactly what I was getting into, but I didn’t question it when Susanna said, “This is something you should do as a Florentine”. Susanna, born and bred in Prato from a Tuscan family going back centuries, is someone I have imagined seeing in centuries-old paintings, maybe by Michelangelo or Botticelli, such is her countenance. She edits books on Florence; she acts in local plays; she’s been in locally filmed movies; she’s worked in the fashion industry: she seems to be a beating heart of Florence. She is also very generous, as most real Tuscans are. When I mentioned that I had some out-of-town guests, she said, “Bring them along. I’ll arrange the tickets.”
We all decided that a simple concert, culturally invigorating as that might be, would not be enough. The concert was to begin at 9:15pm, a remarkable Florentine tradition, so that families could dine together before the main event instead of rushing to the theatre directly from work, ticking off all the “scheduling requirements” of the culturally nouveau set. One of the Florentine friends in our group chose the restaurant and the hour, 7pm, to meet off piazza Santa Croce. Funnily, the other Tuscans in the group didn’t know about this trattoria, Casa Toscana. Warm, welcoming, a roaring fireplace, wooden farmhouse tables and comfortable chairs, thick burgundy velvet curtains, not bottles of wine, but Tuscan flasks, and the best bistecca alla Fiorentina and roasted potatoes one could ever dream of having. The coccoli, antipasti, risotto and lasagna, all served around a family table combining Florentine elegance with a farm-to-table feel, is unique. My out-of-towners marveled at the delicious food and the ambience. Our group, some being introduced to this delectable experience for the first time in spite of being locals, could be heard pleasurably humming while eating the toothsome Tuscan food. A Florentine’s wordless aural approval while eating is a sign that one has engaged with the real thing.
Just a little before nine, happily sated, we began our walk to the concert venue. The late October evening was unseasonably warm. There had been two days of much-needed heavy rain after a very dry summer and the city centre felt fresh. Flowers and vines hanging from balconies or potted in front of shops seemed especially alive and verdant. Lighting illuminated the streets with a certain clarity, the ancient dust having been washed away. There were many people about and the city seemed softer than it has in recent times. As always, anywhere one looks, there is something heart-filling: a fresco of Madonna and Child on a street corner, 800-year-old gigantic arched palazzo doors, a mysterious courtyard with Medici-era decorations, a gently curving edifice that seemed to have been fashioned by hand. As we arrived in front of the venue, the piazza was populated in a way I had never before seen. A serpentine line, four people abreast, was winding its way around the entire piazza, not a beast, but an elegantly fluid, living and breathing animal. There was no one guiding these serpentine turns; they somehow organized on their own, naturally. It was quite beautiful to behold, especially because it was the piazza del Duomo, with the concert to be held inside Florence’s most wondrous constructions, the Cathedral itself, a true wonder of the world.
The Duomo is a staggering accomplishment. Grand as it is to behold, there is something safe within its confines. It doesn’t feel forbidding. The Duomo welcomes and envelops you in its warmth. (That a Medici brother was murdered there by the Pazzi… Well, that’s a good story, but it doesn’t feel haunted for some reason as many such establishments do.)
There were perhaps 2,000 Florentines in attendance, seated in rows, 20 either side of the central aisle, and yet it felt as if we were in an intimate group. This is something I am noticing more and more with each Italian city I spend time in. As magnificent as the cities might be, there is an affinity that each resident or visitor can have with the built environment. The cities don’t tower over you. They don’t swamp you. They embrace you. It’s the same with Italian art and music. Even the most opulent churches are warm and inviting in spite of themselves, in the same way that many Italians are standoffish, or perhaps protective, in the larger cities, but all they want to do is share the beautiful world they are a part of.
As several thousand people snaked their way into the cathedral, there was no commotion, no noise, no pushy behavior, no disorganization. I had never seen anything quite like that. We had all arrived to enjoy a concert, in concert. It felt like a glorious and glamorous village get-together. Tickets were gratis, by reservation only.
Not long after the appointed hour, well not too long after the appointed hour because no performance in our parts ever starts on time, a real annoyance to an outsider, but to an Italian a generosity. (“But we cannot begin just yet because Signora So and So has not yet arrived as she needed to tidy up after serving her guests’ dinner over which she slaved all afternoon!” / “The guests are here already, but we must wait for the Signora!”) When one becomes accustomed, there is a charm to it all. Not only does the delay seem reasonable, it becomes a part of life and is absolutely necessary. And then suddenly, the lights dim. A bass player enters with his instrument and, in an isolated light, he begins a drone: one long, continuous, deep tone. That one single bass note somehow brings the entire cathedral to mystical life. The characters in the frescoes appear to become animated. Crickets lodged in the cathedral’s eves begin to chirp. Suddenly, we are surrounded by spirits of times past and they are alive right before our eyes. A soft trumpet serenades in the distance, as if coming from a distant land, and a quorum of string players, violinists and violists gently play tremolandi in the upper silvery registers of their instruments as they delicately march in processional onto the stage. Slowly, the warm wailing of the trumpet comes closer as he makes his way to join the other players. And for the next hour and some, a mesmerized audience of 2,000 are breathless among the spirits that seem to dance around us as the musical group Musicus Concentus, along with soloists Paolo Fresu (trumpet), Daniele di Bonaventura (accordion) and Uri Caine (piano) play sacred music tinged with modern jazz, as previous and present lives intermingle in a whimsical evening in Florence.