Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Beyond the city center.

I can hear the constant scream, rubber grating against gravel and rutted blacktop, engines rattling in protest.   Drivers announce their frustrations with two hands on the center of the wheel, producing a persistent chorus of shrill sounds, the neighborhood alarm clock if the trash truck two hours earlier failed to awaken the sleeping.  And I wonder how such small machines can produce such a disturbing racket that seems to trump even the shrillest ambulance squeal.

And why?  Because a large baby pink truck is parked across the intersection of Via Fra Angelico and Via Cimbue, its flashing emergency lights a mesmerizing trick that falls useless on the shaded eyes of annoyed morning commuters.  And the truck driver is absent from his front seat perch; he’s disappeared into Panificio, the neighborhood bakery, for breakfast, oblivious to the uproar in his wake.  From my balcony, I can see it all, angry faces and tired eyes with wrinkles of irritation that mirror the six-hour hand of the clock on the wall, and perhaps the expression on my face as well.  I would still be encapsulated in sleep, wrapped in fleece blankets and hidden behind a wall of pillows, if not for this. 

Closing the shutters of my first floor apartment does nothing to defend against the harsh clatter of noises outside, yet it seals the kitchen in a dark, warm morning haze of protection.  The muted street commotion still finds its way through imperceptible gaps that even light cannot penetrate, yet its presence is somewhat comforting.  It is the sound of home, of my neighborhood beyond the city center.  It’s the daily hubbub of life, comforting in some strange manner, sounds that accompany my “too early” hot cup of coffee and a small pastry from the same bakery down the street. 

Like the truck driver, I too have found a small reprieve from the responsibilities of life, abandoning the redundant route by temporarily leaving the keys in the ignition to pursue a more desirable path.  In this case, the pastry, that leaves you one euro less but fills you with enough imaginary fuel to conquer the day.

And Panificio offers more than morning pastries.   Its corner location is prime to advertise frosted Christmas cookies and miniature pizzas, targeting audiences such as myself, who stop midstride to gaze at the array of baked goods visible through the door.  The atmosphere, as well, is as tantalizing as the treats.  The owner, her short black hair a contrast to pale skin and perfect white teeth, is a presence of pure joy and humor, enough so, that even if bread is not a proper addition to the evening meal, I will stop and buy a loaf just to see her daily antics as the neighborhood comedian. 

On one such visit, I was caught off guard by a new addition to the glass counter.  A small stuffed parrot sat by the cash register.  It looked like it had been sent through the washing machine on several occasions.  Bright red, blue, and yellow synthetic fur lay tangled over beady black glass eyes as it stared vacantly out the door.  But when I approached to convey my request for “pane con sale,” the bird came to life, its wings flapping up and down, its eyes flashing red, as it squawked a fierce tirade of  “ciao, ciao, caio” at me.  And the owner just laughed.  Not a dull ‘ha ha,’ but a full-bellied laugh.  She tossed her head back, mouth open wide, teeth gleaming under the florescent lights, her hand resting on her stomach, whilst the other shoppers joined her at my expense.  And yet, I couldn’t help but laugh as well, more at the ridiculous notion that an electronic parrot had brought strangers together one Tuesday morning. 

After I paid, she slipped a small biscotti to me, hidden beneath my receipt.  Her eyes sparkled with joy, as though it was our little secret, this gift of familiarity a token of understanding and acceptance.  And I left, smiling as well, my salted bread tucked under one arm, the bird deceivingly quiet.  It is a need of the human soul to belong; her gift of a cookie is as memorable as my Italian papers of residency.  Both respond to that irrepressible desire to fit into the Florentine culture and the community past the city center. 

Some mornings, when my sleepy mind cannot handle the intricacies of the coffee percolator (as simple as it may be) and Panificio’s pastry selection holds no interest for me, I venture two blocks down to Café Gioberti, on the corner of Via Vincenzo Ghiberti and Via dell’Orcagna.  It’s rare to find a place to sit down amidst the clutter of Florentine tourist traps.  But here, in this corner café, cherry chairs and light pine tables are a gift at no cost.  The walls are often plain, but occasionally I will arrive to find the café boasting an aspiring new artist, the white plaster adorned with sloppily framed works hanging precariously on unorganized nail holes.  This too magnifies the sense of home; the pride of the community is in its people.  Their aspirations and talents, no matter how amateur, are as important as the coffee, which is served in chipped white porcelain mugs. 

It is the haphazard environment that attracts me; the culture of the café drums to a different beat, welcoming yet impersonal.  Street vendors wander in from the cold, their presence an accepted annoyance as they stand at the edge of café tables, mutely extending small packages of tissues and garish gold necklaces over steaming cappuccinos.  They are treated as invisible presences, waved away with a subtle flick of the wrist, a gesture that could be easily mistaken as a motion of emphasis in a conversation between friends.  I have yet to perfect this dismissive wave.  When a peddler reaches my sun-dusted table, I have no choice but to withstand his aggressive sales tactics, as gaudy items are brandished inches from my face.  However, once frequenting every table, they leave silently, the coffee chatter in the café unchanging; the drum never misses a beat. 

Dogs are as welcome as people; black Labradors lounge under tables, paws tangled in their owners feet, tails thumping across wet umbrellas, dusting the terracotta tile in a glittering mist.  Their presence is normally discreet, except for the rare occasion when a small terrier walks past the front store windows. 

It is at that moment when the comforting, homespun atmosphere is shattered.  The elderly woman, who was once feasting on a cornetto, halts mid-bite in alarm, a smattering of powdered sugar suspended on her lip as she stares in horror at the dog’s antics.  And the black Labrador, at first a picture of obedience and good breeding, is now in high pursuit of the smaller canine, his back legs scratching at the terracotta tiles, leaving a Pollock painting of moist nose smudges on the window.

Only the shop’s occupants, those in need of a cane or walker, respond in fright to the disruption.  As loud as it may be, the barista and even the owner of the dog continue their coffee etiquette without pause; the deafening world of neighborhood gossip and busy mornings has arrested their complete attention. 

A short two blocks walk down from Café Gioberti, just past Piazza Beccaria, on Via Cimabue, is the neighborhood gem, COOP.  I have been blessed to live next to this thriving supermarket; however, with such convenience comes the self-imposed sacrifice of possessing a maroon grocery cart.  On my weekly visits to restock empty shelves and a bare refrigerator, I pass by a sisterhood of proclaimed COOP shoppers, all dragging the same burgundy bag that proudly declares, while not explicitly, “I shop at COOP.”  This might not seem like a negative membership, this accidental club a means of necessity and sustenance.  Yet the member profile is a society of white hair and shuffling gaits to which I don’t yet belong. 

And even so, they smile at me sweetly, offering mute suggestions for the best gelato (according to one, the individual servings of cherry), but bear their independence as boldly as their shopping carts.  It would be a colossal mistake to consider their relaxed pace a handicap, for, in certain matters of importance, they are most assertive.  I have witnessed it, watched them weave between focused shoppers at COOP in order to lay hands on the last wheel of Panforte.  And indeed, anyone who can stomach the typical Tuscan chewy fruitcake is worthy of my respect. 

Too often we mistake a wrinkled countenance as disability and subject these figures, wise and well-loved, to cafeteria food, hospital beds, and over-attentive care at the hands of strangers.  But here, in this small neighborhood of Florence, beyond the city center, the elderly are instead hand in hand with daughters and sons, and frequent COOP with pride, their mauve badge of self-sufficiency ricocheting off the many facets of cobblestone behind them. 

Laden with groceries, the walk home from COOP is suitably short.  The neighborhood settles into a comfortable midday lull.  However, the Tabacchi shop across the street is now the height of community bustle.  Its daily activity is visible from my front porch.  And, unfortunately, I can hear the nighttime traffic as well, as desperate addicts angrily accost the cigarette vending machine, rattling the metal garage door as they retrieve their change along with their purchases.

The Tabacchi is the neighborhood antagonist; the warmth of community doesn’t cross its threshold.  The main cashier is dark and moody, a full beard matches his piercing stare, a daily expression I’m afraid.  Normally, I avoid the Tabacchi at all costs, yet, when my stash of stamps dwindles, I am left with no other choice but to venture inside.

I falter over my words, asking for stamps to America.  And he just stares back at me, his finger caught in the pages of his binder, the one with all the stamps.  Briefly, it flies open, but then snaps shut with the same speed.  And I could have sworn (to this day, I’m still not sure), that I saw the 85 cent international stamps, a whole page of them.  But, gruff-voiced and grumpy, he declares that he is simply sold out.  A suspicious grin spreads over his face as he presents to me another option: the euro stamp, first-class among delivery choices.  Only fifteen cents more, he counters.  Unfortunately I need five stamps.  That extra 75 cents would purchase a more appetizing pastry from Panificio down the block, a better choice of calories than licking the back of a glue slathered euro stamp. 

I backpedal out the door and retreat to my safe house across the street, my apartment, Via Fra Angelico 45.  Every neighborhood has its quirks, the comedian baker and her stuffed parrot, the eclectic café with its smudged windows, the COOP cult of shopping bag owners, the mysterious Tabacchi cashier with an invisible Pinocchio nose.  But in my apartment, I am once again safe; I am on the sidelines, watching the neighborhood drama unfold from my balcony.  

And if another pink truck finds pleasure in blocking the six o’clock morning traffic, I can merely close the white shutters and seal myself off from the neighborhood beyond the city center to enjoy my coffee and pastry in peace.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Florence Sketchbook.

I entered this class, doubtful.  Normally I dread drawing—my tendencies to seek perfect lines turn one quick sketch into six hours of torture, my eraser and I in constant battle. 

And as I expected, the first few weeks were painful.  Our prof would weave us in and out of the streets of Florence, stopping for twenty minutes here and there, pointing to nothing in particular and announcing, “sketch this.”  And I would sit, frozen, pencil mid-air.  I’d draw a few lines, scowl at the imperfections, erase, try again, crumple up the paper, try again, and then turn mournful eyes to my prof as she walked by to inspect. 

And she would, in broken English, kindly say to me, “Just sketch the space, Brie.”  But the space was enormous—people constantly moving, buildings surrounding me, carts selling leather goods, statues sprouting from broken cobblestone.  And just as I was starting to absorb the wealth of information around me, we were off again, moving to the next space.  Yet I had nothing to show, besides the soggy paper torn to bits in my clenched fist and a sour attitude. 

However, as the semester has progressed, I’ve become more resolute.  This is a ‘sketchbook’ class, Brie.  Lighten up.  I set timers, I use pen, I hide my eraser out of reach (currently it’s in the pocket of my raincoat).  And when the time is up, twenty or thirty minutes, I shrug, put the cap on my pen, clean up my watercolors, and close my sketchbook firmly. 

In the process, scribbling has taken on a new importance.  Whenever I get too frustrated with my current sketch, I literally look away from my work and scribble over the page.  This way, I can’t cling too closely to perfection.  And there’s something about scribbles that seems to make a sketch more authentic.  Even Da Vinci scribbled (I think).  

Below are a few of my sketches (in order from newest to oldest).  In a way, it’s heartbreaking to post them.  But I’ve learned that, while not a perfect work of art, even sketches have their place.  And I realize that if I don’t post them, come December 19th, I might be tempted to leave my sketchbook behind in the dumpster on our street, with the shallow excuse that I didn’t have enough room in my suitcase.  So here’s the proof---that I was enrolled in a drawing course and that I learned something along the way.

The drawing of a hand is sort of a joke.  Our prof gives us homework every week.  And this particular week, she was at a loss and simply instructed “draw a hand.”  Seizing hold of all my artistic liberties, I decided to make it purple and yellow.  Why not? I thought.  A hand any other way is simple uninteresting.  I assumed she wouldn’t care, that I had inserted a touch of modernity into the Renaissance structure of our past work. 

But, when I showed her my drawing, she was silent, and turned to me, soberly.  “The colors are…wrong.  Don’t you think?”

I blinked, confused.  “Uhh…I made the colors wrong on purpose, just for fun.” 

Expressionless, she consulted her grade book, wrote something down, and replied.  “Perhaps stay true to reality for next week.” 

I guess artistic liberties have their limits.

Santa Croce at three times.
Pen and watercolor.
Nov. 2010

Fire extinguisher.
Pen and watercolor.
Nov. 2010

View of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Pen and watercolor.
Nov. 2010

"Second captives from the Boboli Garden."
Accademia in Florence.
Nov. 2010

Figure Drawing.
Nov. 2010

Cemetery in Pisa.
Nov. 2010

Hand in complementary colors.
Chalk pastels.
Oct. 2010

First sketch of San Lorenzo.
Sept. 2010

Coffee maker (first drawing of class).
Sept. 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

As stealthy as an assassin.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

“Some people have said I am too blunt, that I criticize you too harshly.  But this is just the way I was taught.  Perhaps a few of you are not strong enough, that if I push too hard, you might break.  Well, if it comes to that, let’s see what you can do with the pieces.”

“So, Brie, would you like to show me your pieces today?  No pressure.  I can give you some suggestions, help you along.”  Dripping with sweetness and laced with a tinge of sarcasm, Simone tossed these words in my direction.

Another day in digital photography.  My six hour class has followed a path of severe undulations. 
The first day, I was charged with confidence, a complete amateur, camera in hand, its features and abilities still a mystery. 

For the following several weeks, I was swimming in a wide open space, photographs floating around me, completely lost and confused, pulling the trigger of my Canon Rebel at anything that passed me, as though I had been placed, blindfolded, into a ring of bandits and wished only to survive. 

Now, I have fine-tuned my senses, aware of the factors involved, taking advantage of light and composition and layers.  The camera is no longer alien, but an extension of my hand, its strap wrapped possessively around my wrist.  I am a conscious shooter, as stealthy as an assassin. 

Yet, in a way, I am still lost.  Each picture an attempt at perfection, that moment when my professor Simone, all Italian, kisses his fingers and swings his arm freely in the air, an exclamation of delight.  Perfection.  But they are far and few between.  And sometimes I am left in complete confusion.  Why this one?  Why this picture?  Why not the other?

The key to photography I have learned is not to take a beautiful picture.  But to take a beautiful, well-composed picture, that has your name written into every shadow and highlight.  A picture that is distinctly yours.  A picture that represents personal style and consistency. 

Every photographer is forced to throw away beautiful pictures for this sole reason.  And as a beginner, new to the game, my emotions have been stretched as thin as wire, taut, vibrating with energy.  Because something happens when you take what you know to be a beautiful photo; you get this adrenaline boost of excitement: This is it.  This is the one.  It’s perfect. 

And then, back in the lab, you come to the cold realization: it doesn’t fit.  While perfect in every way, it is not your style.  It doesn’t belong to you.  And you must rip it from your grasp, leave it, unstarred, unchosen.  It ceases to exist.  It disappears, as if it was never captured at all. 

This is why I am still the amateur, still swimming in that sea of possibilities.  How am I to devote myself to one style and leave the others behind?  How am I to commit?  My eye, lacking this severe focus, sees everything at once, and everything as good.

For class this past week, I tried to hone in my senses.  And I was rewarded with direction and approval:  the start, according to my professor Simone and his assistant Eleanor, of a great portfolio.  Here is my final collection in progress.

Mirror self-portrait.
Via Fra Giovanne Angelico, Firenze, Italia.

Morning biker at Piazza Indipendenza.
Firenze, Italia.

Vineyard at Castello Verrazzano.
Greve in Chianti, Italia.

Absent nightlife.
Firenze, Italia.

Portrait of Kait.
San Marco, Firenze, Italia.

Boot shadow.
Firenze, Italia.

Portrait of Megan.
San Marco, Firenze, Italia.

Mercato Centrale near San Lorenzo.
Firenze, Italia.

Overlooking the monastery.
San Marco, Firenze, Italia.

Dairy and parmesan cheese farm.
Parma, Italia.

The last two are of a seperate growing portfolio (according to my prof).  They lack the empty, simplicity of the above collection, but maintain a similar color palette.  They both have a central figure within a crowded environment.  I am still building on this.

"My culture = my democracy."
Protests in the streets.
November 17, 2010.
Piazza dei Ciompi, Firenze, Italia.

The carousel.
Piazza della Repubblica, Firenze, Italia.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Blood and bidets.

Our shower is a rectangle of close quarters.  A porcelain square with raised edges sits in the corner of the bathroom.  And a dark blue plastic shower curtain encloses the space, cutting off its supply of light and in some cases, air.

It’s a tiny space.  More often then not, the plastic sheet sticks to me like a batman cape, and the water temperature never reaches a middle ground.

It was a Friday morning—no class on Fridays.  So I decided to undertake the great annoyance of shaving.

I really hate to shave.  Especially in Italy.  Our shower is too small to accomplish such a task.  Solution.  Shave in the bidet. 

The right leg was a success.  And then I switched legs, bracing my left foot against the bidet, and rebalancing myself to finish the job.  All of a sudden, out of the corner of eye, I noticed a flash of red against the orange terracotta tile.  I had cut my right heel and hadn’t even noticed.  And it was bleeding profusely onto the floor. (And by profusely, it had started to puddle.)  My three blade Venus and I never seem to get along.

I tiptoed, like that would reduce the loss of blood, into the shower, throwing a backwards glance to the floor, grimacing at the mess.

In our shower, you have to give the water time to heat.  Normally I push the showerhead to the side so the initial shock of cold doesn’t cause heart palpitations.  This morning I did the same.   Except, instead of swinging to the side, the entire plumping network fell into my hands!  Standing on one foot, while the other bled, I attempted to jam it back into the wall.  And once I could remove my hands without greater incident, I realized it was pointing directly down at me.  Exactly what I was trying to avoid.

I winced, prepared for the onslaught of cold water, but instead of an icy and rude awakening, the water steamed from the open spigot, HOT.

And then, all of a sudden, instincts roaring, I was an undercover spy, trying to hide myself in the folds of blue plastic while avoiding the boiling rays of the laser beam shooting from the wall.  And my heel was still happily bleeding onto the white porcelain, blowing my cover.  For some reason, it didn’t occur to me to turn off the water. 

Now I couldn’t wrap myself in a clean towel (compliments of fresh laundry day) without actually showering.  It just wasn’t right.  So slowly and methodically, I worked through my shower, trying to limit my time under the water.  Arm in.  Hot! Next, the right leg.  Ouch.  Now the left one.

And then I had this strange feeling.  It was almost as if I was standing in the kiddie end of the pool or had just started to wade into the ocean.  I looked down to find I was showering in a puddle of pink water that had collected at my feet and was dangerously nearing the top lip of the porcelain shower stand.  Awesome. 

I used my toes to wiggle at the drain, trying to somehow nudge it back to life.  And nothing happened.  So I took it as my curtain call and turned off the water.  Shower over. 

And as I cleaned up the footprints of blood, the water slowly ran out of the tub.  What cruel timing.   

I’ll conquer the shower another day.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The gravity of time.

November 13, 2010

I’m rudely becoming more aware of how time is slipping away from me.  Four more weeks and I will once again be surrounded by an English speaking culture, a dash of my previous permanence, the once familiar sights becoming, once again, familiar. 

This past weekend, I embarked on a rather idiotic endeavor to explore Florence as the common tourist, focusing on the museums and cathedrals that I walk past on a daily basis.  How odd it is that we can live in a city and use our stamp of residency as an excuse from seeing “home” in a new light?  I’ve been to numerous cities here in Italy, yet, before this past Saturday, had never set foot in Florence’s Accademia, the home of Michelangelo’s David. 

On the way to Uffizi, our first stop and one of the most impressive and comprehensive art galleries in Italy, I encountered the tone of the day, relinquishing myself to the humbling truth: this was the territory of visitors and I had been transformed.

Walking along the Arno, in the direction of the Uffizi, I found myself lost in my thoughts.  It’s times like these when my surroundings become a blur, and I do not even realize that I am impolitely riding on the feet of a stranger.

A woman, immediately aware of my presence, kindly stepped to the side, and called for husband to do the same.

“Howard.  Howard, dear.  This lady wants to get by.”

“Oh, yes.  Please.  PER FAVORE.”  Howard moved to edge of the sidewalk to let me pass, his hand raised in invitation for me to continue forward.  I paused, caught up in the ridiculous nature of the exchange, and for a minute, walked, suspended, alongside him.

He pronounced every word with severe American intonation, speaking loudly and slowly in my direction.

“COMPRENDE?  Excuse me, COMPRENDE?”  He hesitated, bent slightly at the wait, his ear turned to me, unsure that I had understood.  I, caught off guard by his attempts to communicate, said nothing. 

Howard called back to his wife in confusion, his shoulders raised in a shrug.  “Jean, I don’t think she speaks English,” he announced with certainty.  At this point, I couldn’t help but smile at the direction things were taking and, without a word, picked up my pace to continue my walk in peace.

Undaunted, however, Howard fell in step beside me, intent on striking up a conversation with whom he believed to be pure “Italian” blood.

“We’re going to the art museum.  Where are you going?”

“Si, the Uffizi,” I replied.  Howard’s face contorted with concentration as he tried to digest this new word, and it dawned on me: he doesn’t know that the art museum is the Uffizi.  Unconcerned though, he continues. 

“My wife and I.  We’re from TEXAS.”  He slowly enunciated the words, immediately giving recognition to his Texas drawl and continued confusion over my mother language.

I replied, quite simply, “I’m from Seattle, Washington.”

And then the unveiling.  “Oh my god, so you do speak English!”  Howard is shell-shocked, and all at once, the two are talking to me in full force, divulging in detail their travels throughout Italy.

As we reach the Uffizi, I turned, heading down the covered loggia towards the entrance of the museum.  Howard and Jean stopped suddenly on the sidewalk behind me.

“Is this the way to the museum?” they inquired.  I nodded, and they followed me to the entrance.  Welcome to the Uffizi. 

I could speak forever of the collection of sculptures and canvases that line the three corridors of the Uffizi.  But I will limit myself to one: Botticelli’s “Allegory of Spring.”

Botticelli's "Birth of Venus"

Botticelli's "Allegory of Spring"

Said to be sister to Botticelli’s most well-known painting, “The Birth of Venus,” the “Allegory of Spring” is a wedding present commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent of the wealthy Medici family for his new bride (meant to be hung above the matrimonial bed).  The picture does not do it justice (the dimensions are 124 x 81 in.); in real life, it is a magnificent depiction of mythology.  In the center, the bride-to-be is depicted as the goddess Venus standing in front of a laurel bush, a symbol of Lorenzo. 

Read from right to left, the painting is meant to both welcome and educate the new bride for her upcoming role in the family and home.  On the far right, the story begins.  The blue figure Zephyr, the god of wind, falls madly in love with Chloris, the pale-skinned nymph beside him, and, driven by impetuous passion, rapes her.  Immediately filled with guilt at his actions, Zephry forces Chloris to marry him.  From their union, Chloris is transformed into Flora, the goddess of Spring, flowers pouring from her mouth to clothe her in blossoms.  This story, the allegory of spring conveys two messages: first, to advise the new bride that even if the marriage was not by choice, a humble acceptance will turn winter into spring, and second, in the same way spring is the birth of new life with the abundance of fruit and flowers, so is the painting a symbol of fertility, that the marriage might bring forth great heirs for the Medici family.

Crossing the scene, three graces dance together, their hands intertwined.  They represent chastity, beauty, and love, a message to the bride, that all three are the foundation of a proper wife.  And to the far left of the scene is the god Mercury, who pushes aside the winter clouds of trouble and hardship so that spring can freely flourish. 

Lastly, above Venus in the center of the canvas is a blindfolded Cupid.  It both represents the romantic ideal that love is blind, that even an arranged marriage can result in happiness, and also that love is dangerous, that we can blindly shoot an arrow in the heart of those we care for with thoughtless actions, drawing us back to Zephyr’s story, the painting a full circle of matrimonial wisdom.

From the Uffizi, we stopped at the Bargello Museum, a collection of sculptures and handcrafted works of art used in daily Florentine life during the Renaissance (jewelry, tapestries, carved combs, etc.).   Within the Bargello Museum is the famous bronze David by the great Donatello.  His second David (the first is also at the Bargello Museum) marks two great advancements in Renaissance art.  It is the first nude sculpture since the Classical era (Renaissance is indeed the “rebirth of antiquity”).  And it is the first “sculpture in the round.”  It was never meant to be attached to a building or a wall, but was completed in its entirety, providing the viewer with a full 360 degree view of the young David, his foot on the slayed head of Goliath. 

Donatello's bronze David

We made an additional stop at Orsanmichele before getting lunch.  A small church, seemingly insignificant to the famous sites of Florence, Orsanmichele is nestled on the streets between the Duomo and Piazza della Signora.  The exterior is decorated with a number of niches, each boasting a carved marble statue pertaining to a specific Florentine Guild.  The cathedral is dark and reverent, candle-lit, nearly empty.  Those who enter are rarely tourists; they purposefully frequent the church to sit on the worn pews and pray.  A spiral staircase leads you to the next level, a free museum with the original statues from the church’s exterior (those in the niches now are only copies).  A rare find in Florence, Orsanmichele’s museum has one more spiral staircase in the corner, which leads the unsuspecting visitor to a breathtaking view of the city.   While not greatly advertised, if you ever make it Florence, stop by Orsanmichele.

The next stop was the Accademia, known by all as the home of the original David by Michelangelo.  Yes, you can see a copy in Piazza della Signora, but it gets lost in the large square amidst a myriad of other famous sculptures (Rape of the Sabine Woman and Perseus Slays Medusa).  The David within the hall of Accademia looks more impressive, the two story room giving the statue a grandiose demeanor.  And in this case, you are able to walk the perimeter of David, noting the sling that runs down his back to rest in his hand.

Michelangelo's David in the Accademia

From there we ventured to San Marco, a monastery and church.  Here you are able to walk through the original cells occupied by Dominican monks, each with a fresco painted by Fra Angelico and a window open to the small cloister courtyard below.  On the second story, in addition to hall of cells, there is the library containing a beautiful collection of original illuminated manuscripts.  The pages are magnificent, the words painstakingly written in calligraphy, the illuminations detailed with gold leaf and blue lapis.

Illuminated manuscripts commissioned by the Medici family and created by the Dominican monks.

Following the hall back to the stairway, I stumbled, literally, upon the famous fresco by Fra Angelico, his interpretation of the “Anunciation.”  Studied incessantly in nearly every art survey class I’ve taken, I was shocked to have it so suddenly appear before me, similar to the angel’s appearance before Mary, as he bestowed to her the startling news: she, a virgin, would bear the son of God.  This instance of Immaculate Conception is simply captured by Fra Angelico’s humble depiction of Mary.  She is not dressed in rich fabrics or brocades, yet her simple robe and accepting gesture, her hands crossed over her abdomen, give a different sense to the piece.  Fra Angelico believed this Mary, unlike most depicted in religious paintings of the Renaissance, was a truer and more accurate portrayal of the mother of Christ.

Fra Angelico's "Anunciation"

Our last stop was at Santa Maria Novella.  The church which bequeaths the train station its familiar name, Santa Maria Novella houses the original Masaccio fresco, “Trinity.”  A revolutionary piece of its time, the Trinity presents the viewer with accurate “created” mathematical space.  The scene gives the illusion of receding into the wall, framing a most dramatic picture of the trinity: Christ on the cross, the Father gently holding his arms, and the Holy Spirit a dove in flight between them.  The three parts of the pyramid in addition to the figures below form the triangular composition, similarly used by Raphael in the "Madonna in the Meadow."  To be removed from the wall would greatly change its impact; this piece was specifically designed for this space, this location.  However, after seeing pictures of this Masaccio fresco, in seemingly perfect condition , I was startled at the lack of care taken in preserving the actual fresco itself.  Nearly every photo representation is an untruthful illustration of its current condition.  The colors in true life are dull, pastelled with time, and the figures are less discernible.  Some of the fresco itself has chipped away since its most recent documentation. 

Masaccio's "Trinity"

As we walked through the San Lorenzo market in the direction of dinner, the late night vendors called out to us: “Hello miss.  Miss.  For twenty-four hours, I would just stare into your eyes.  I love the way your mouth moves when you speak and when you think.”  Carmel and I couldn’t help but laugh.  Always something new.

The day ended with Chinese takeout, a new and inexpensive discovery two bridges down from Ponte Vecchio, and a forty-five minute walk home to our little apartment on Via Fra Giovanne Angelico. 

The group of explorers: Kait, Carmel, Cody, and Megan

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My friend Umberto.

November 9, 2010

Every Tuesday afternoon I give tours at Santa Croce.  And upon my arrival, I am greeted by a crew of elderly Italian men, who interrupt their social hour to offer me their seats and to dig in their deep raincoat pockets for hard candies and individually wrapped mints.  They are so sweet, bashfully asking me questions, experimenting with their English, telling me stories of the church and its history, helping me set up my sign advertising “free tours,” and delicately placing the small English flag beside it.

One particular man, Umberto, is especially chatty.  He is the tour guide who trained me, although I think he has forgotten.  Every Tuesday, he shakes my hand deliberately, and with a booming voice, introduces himself.

“I am Umberto!”

“I know.”  I reply with a smile, squeezing his hand in return.

“You know?!” He questions with a sideways grin.  And then, without waiting for an answer, he turns to the man sitting next to me, and I hear the same exchange (in Italian) repeated as he moves down the line of his comrades.

You might find it interesting that I received my training from him, with his memory as such.  But I believe that Santa Croce has become his life.  That it is such a core part of his daily living that he simply cannot forget.  During my training, a tiresome three-hour affair, he relayed to me the most basic information of the church in simple English.

“This is the tomb of great Michelangelo.”  And we moved on.

“And here is Dante.  You know, Divine Comedy?”  Yes, yes I did.  And we were once again, on the move. 

 And thus my training was basically self-taught.  My art history book on the table, the Internet browser open, searching to fill the gaps in my understanding.

I can’t help but wonder if I had spoken Italian, perhaps he could have told me more.  And perhaps even under an hour.  Or maybe I am mistaken, and his memory has left him with only skeletal fragments of the story of Santa Croce. 

But I hold fast to my faith in Umberto.  For, at some moments, he would linger longer, his gaze settling on a distance wall or monument, his brow furrowed, pushing wrinkles against his thinning hairline.  He would search for words in front of the Bardi Chapel, attempting to explain the breakthrough of Giotto in using architecture to create space on a flat surface.  And I would see through the language barrier, to a man whose wisdom was caught in a sea of unfortunate confusion caused merely by the division of tongue. 

Eventually, his face would relax, his shoulders would lift to his ears, and with a shrug and a jolly smile, we would move on.

Now, I am one of them.  Sitting in a row along the wall, my English flag in front of me, waiting.  Waiting to pass on what I have learned.

To a group of sixty Italian students with an English translator.

To a Canadian couple and their unending questions.  “What was Michelangelo’s love life like?”  “Why are the stained glass windows so dull—when was the last time they were cleaned?”

To two elderly ladies from California who tipped me five euros for my “passion and enthusiasm for everything art history.”

And I love it all. 

To see the rounded eyes when I tell them that the 1966 flood washed the bodies from the crypt below, leaving all 276 tombs empty. 

To witness the raised eyebrows when I inform them of the feud between the Pazzi and the Medici—how Lorenzo the Magnificent killed the entire Pazzi family and hung their naked bodies in the streets of Florence. 

To watch the visitors raise their camers when we pause by the tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo and Machiavelli and Rossini.

To observe the strained necks when I describe the beauty of the painted wood ceiling and how it captures the Franciscan element of poverty and simplicity. 

And now, after spending so many hours within its walls, Santa Croce has become for me the heart of history here in Florence.  I love my Tuesday afternoons.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The pursuit of the trash tramp.

October 26, 2010

We travelled from rainy Rome to the western coast, the city of Napoli.  I was looking forward to warmer weather, to gaze at the unending sea, to replace buildings with rock-faced mountains.  But I was caught off-guard by Napoli.

Our hostel, “Hostel of the Sun” (ironic, no?), was a short drive from the train station.  When we first arrived, the taxi driver, silent and swift in unloading our luggage, left us standing there, in the rain.  We had attempted to confirm the address, but in response to every “Italianized” comment, we received a grunted “si” and name of the hostel repeated in our direction. 

The building in front of us was brown.  Not the soft warm tan you would imagine on the quaint streets of Italy, but a dusty, dirty color that reflected the artificial lights, electric and sterile.  We called the hostel.  We were lost.  There was no sign, no arrow pointing “This way.”  And as the rain continued and the darkness persisted, standing out in the cold was our last desire.

Now, finding this hostel was my responsibility.  According to the website, it  had received the highest ratings and the best reviews; it even boasted “award-winning.”  Perhaps I should have researched from where the ratings and reviews originated; maybe I should have inquired as to the nature of said award.  But I didn’t.  And at that point, it was a little late.

Nonetheless, there we were.  My stomach in knots, I just stared at the foreboding structure, unable to meet Jared’s eyes.  When I finally turned to look at him, we had nothing to say to each other.  Yet, I could see it in his face, worry, alarm, and slight amusement (in retrospect, the slight amusement was a little slow in coming).   If the night turned out a disaster, I would never hear the end of it.  So I tried to lighten up the situation, reminding him that we had options; there were plenty of hostels scattered around Napoli.  (Never mind the fact that we had no map, the weather was uncooperative, and it was nearing the late recesses of night.)

We entered the building with instructions to go to the seventh floor.  The receptionist for the hostel was friendly and exuberant, almost strangely so, considering the time.  There was a tiny elevator, and tired from the long day of traveling, we took our chances with the antiquity of Italy (normally, I ignore these suspended cages).

The elevator cost five cents to run.  We had some loose change, a two cent, and two pennies.  Five.  Perfect.  Not to be deterred by something so small, we dropped in our coins and waited.  And nothing happened.

A man walked over to us, silent, and handed us a five cent coin.  We added that to the stash, but the machine and elevator remained silent. Once again, the quiet man returned, mutely opened up the coin collector, pocketed our two and one cent coins and handed the five cent back to us.  Apparently it has a specific diet; it only functions on coins of exactly five cents, and by incorrectly feeding it other amounts, we had condemned the elevator to the first floor.  (We soon discovered that our hostel has a monopoly on the elevator business. Every time when we headed out the door to the next activity, they would hold a wicker basket in our direction and ask, “Do you have a five cent for the elevator?”  So we never actually paid, we borrowed from the source.) 

Hostel of the Sun derives its name from the bright paint applied to its walls, luminous oranges and yellows.  It is, in my opinion, a true hostel.  Barefooted residents lounged on overstuffed couches.  The walls were coated with posters and postcards, ripped, ragged, and dog-eared; no order directed this decorating style.  A kitchen off the main room served a complimentary breakfast of canned fruit cocktail, Wonder bread with nutella, and coffee as thick as maple syrup.  The receptionist chewed and popped her gum, drew scribbles and shorthand directions on maps, and repeated our names, quite emphatically. 

“So JARED, so BRIE, what are your plans for Napoli?”

“You want to climb Mount Vesuvious?! That’s great, JARED.”

“So BRIE, here’s where you want to go for pizza.”

We ventured out into the rainy dark city that night in search of food.  Our destination: L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele.

The most famous pizzeria in Napoli, home of the first pizza, a restaurant of historical significance that has suspended its fame through the recent movie “Eat, Pray, Love.”  But I was unimpressed.  You can only order two types of pizza: Margherita or Marinara.  Jared ordered the extra-large Marinara, I ordered the small Margherita.  And we sat there, fork and knife in hand (Italians don’t often eat with their hands when it comes to pizza), drinking Fanta, and taking a deep breath, thankful that we arrived in one piece. 

The directions had been simple and straightforward, yet the streets were unmarked.  And Jared and I both felt like the city, dangerous and dodgy, could not be trusted.  At one point, I stopped his pursuit, and slowly spelled out the truth, “We need to ask for directions.”  We both had been avoiding this step, afraid that if we admitted confusion to a stranger, we could jeopardize our safety.  But at some point, wandering around at night in a strange city, while sneaking peeks at the map stuffed in Jared’s pocket, spells tourist as loud and clear as asking for directions.

The directions the second time were also very direct, short and to the point.  “200 meters back (we had missed the turn) and take a right on the big street.”  What qualifies as a “big street,” I’m not sure.  But out of luck, when we reached the next road, one that was at least equipped with flickering street lamps (unlike the dark alleys), I looked up to find a glowing sign: “L’Antica Pizzeria” and in small letters “Da Michele.”  Success.

As the night progressed, I began to embrace the truth.  Napoli is not the sweet coastal town I had imagined.  Dark and dreary, even during the day, it is a haphazard collection of city traffic and industrial buildings. 

And, to make matters worse, Napoli was also having a trash strike.  (According to the news, police were alerted to mediate violent riots as the refuse built up over time.  The pope called for peace and a permanent solution, as the excess waste posed dangers to the public health code.)

The 2010 trash strike of Napoli.

A danger to public health.

Upon our arrival, in the heart of the strike, around 2400 tons of rotting garbage poured into the streets, mixing with rain, disintegrating and dissolving and covering everything in a unified stench.  Couches and chairs blocked the sidewalks.  Rotting food poured out from soggy cardboard boxes.  And stray dogs tore through the garbage, in search of food, or perhaps their innate curiosity overwhelming their sense of smell.   

Blocking traffic.

A tramp and trash.

One stray dog, a tramp, most unlike the heroic Disney version, followed us on our way back to the hostel from dinner.  The sky was dark, the city lights played against the puddles that had settled in the cobblestone streets, giving Napoli an eerie “I am Legend” feel.  Jared tried to shoo the dog away, waving his blue umbrella in its direction.  But, without forewarning, the umbrella broke, startling the dog and scaring us. 

The next thing I knew we were running, the dog fast on our trail.  I was so concerned with its pursuit, I started to cross the street to escape, until I heard my name.  “Brie.”  Jared shouted.  And I looked up in time to recognize the headlights.  My heart racing, I backpedaled to the sidewalk.  Jared’s face was pale, the dog at his heels. 

“It’s just a dog.”  He reasoned, berating me for crossing the street without watching for traffic.  But the city, like Gotham in its darkest hours, had transformed the dog into some sort beast, and escaping it had been my only thought.  

Apparently, just as the citizens of Napoli have ignored the trash, so they ignore the pedestrians.  Florence must be the Italian version of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, for I have assumed the jaywalking nature of most Florentines, crossing the streets like a game of Frogger.  I learned that night, this attitude must remain solely in Florence.

The dog took a side alley in another direction, leaving Jared and I to finish the journey home.

We had better hopes for the next day, anticipating that the breathtaking view from the top of Mt. Vesuvius would wash away the unsightly impression of Napoli.  And our climb did lessen the impact of Napoli on our trip.  In fact, it was so memorable, it surpassed Napoli and has received a special place in our hearts.  For we were certainly not prepared for our hike to crater, literally breathtaking as it was.