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.