Reflections on Florence


Sometimes the actual event fails to live up to the expectation. We’ve all had that holiday, concert, night out that didn’t quite hit the anticipated heights. Of course, anticipation is part of what makes life enjoyable but no-one enjoys feeling deflated or disappointed having invested time and energy into planning something memorable.

Living and studying overseas, and in particular in Florence, has been a long held ambition of mine. Over the years I gradually put the pieces together until I had brought the dream to fruition. There’s a lot to arrange; finding the time free of other commitments, searching for a course which demands enough of you to make it worthwhile but doesn’t get in the way of enjoyment, finding accommodation, funding the trip and so on. Being retired afforded me the necessary time and money and the British Institute Art History course at an hour and a half each day seemed to pitch the educational content at the desired level; the excellent and copious course materials provide ample opportunity to bolster the learning at my own pace.

Saying to your partner ‘I’d like to go and live abroad for a month’ is a significant undertaking. Selfish? Absolutely, 100%. But that doesn’t make it wrong. I’m often telling people they’re not selfish enough. How ‘selfish’ you are is merely a measure of how important your needs are, relative to those of others, in your own estimation. Balance is the key; putting yourself first all the time leads to shallow, unsatisfying relationships while always subsuming to the needs of others fosters resentment and low self esteem.

As it turned out, my trip coincided with my partner’s retirement, which asked even more of her in terms of understanding and magnanimity. The generosity she showed in encouraging my trip is testament to her sweet nature and to the strength of our friendship and love. The fact that we missed each other greatly bears further witness to the depth and mutual supportiveness of our relationship.

I have long held an interest in the arts and in particular those of the Italian Renaissance. As do many, I believe Florence to be the birthplace of that flowering of genius and creativity, so what better place to learn more about the High Renaissance, the epoch which blessed us with Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo and Raphael. Their heritage abounds here, hearing about and seeing their work where it was created is a privilege. In places such as the Medici palace and Santissima Annunziata, one can stand where Leonardo and Michaelangelo stood as they began their journey towards brilliance under the patronage of giants such as Lorenzo the Magnificent. In the Pitti Palace one can stand in a single room surrounded by works which represent every stage of Raphael’s remarkable career and silently thank Anna Maria Luisa de Medici for having the foresight and tenacity to secure the artistic wealth of Florence for its citizens and visitors.

The British Institute have two buildings in Florence, the Palazzo Guicciardini where the Harold Acton library is and where our history of art lectures took place and the Piazza Strozzi in the historic centre where Italian classes are held. Our tutors were uniformly excellent, holding considerable knowledge bases and the gift of lecturing in a consistently interesting manner. Most were Americans and were also working for other educational institutes and all were approachable and supportive. We were provided with downloadable course materials such as slides of relevant artworks and pdfs of scholarly articles. This allowed one to read beyond the scope of the taught material if so desired. I found that one 90 minutes lecture or visit each weekday, backed up by some reading or listening to lectures I had purchased online allowed me to learn effectively while still being afforded time to visit the sights of the city and to just relax in the sun when I chose. Those students also studying Italian spoke of finding the schedule somewhat tiring and demanding.

The counter argument of course is that not speaking Italian limits my ability to live like a local. Many people speak English and are prepared to do so, but I did find myself somewhat reticent to go into a bar or cafe alone; perhaps that’s as much to do with my introspection as linguistic naivety!

Living here is, I found, very easy. Most of the historic and artistic sites are located in a very small central area, easily explored on foot. Some areas are pedestrianised but it’s wise to always keep and eye open for traffic; this can arrive on you unexpectedly and many of the vehicles, being electric, creep up on you silently. We took the bus up to Fiesole; once you figure out the route and the type of ticket needed it’s pretty straightforward and the service is very regular. I’ve used the train here before, both a local one to the suburbs when I came to run a marathon here in 2010, and later on that same trip to go to Rome as our return journey was disrupted by snow back home. The main station is very busy and you need your wits about you but the ticket machines are in English and simple to use. Fares are expensive, especially for the express routes but if you have time local trains will cost much less and the network is good. At present there is just one tram line, so a bit like Edinburgh it’s only useful if you live next to a station. The opening of a second line, including a link to the airport, is imminent.

Shopping is easy, with supermarkets in most main streets and an excellent supply of fresh produce and similar prices to home. There is a large central market selling all kinds of fresh produce, as well as a number of smaller local markets. As there’s no domestic refuse collection you take your waste to a local site where a range of chutes deposit the refuse into appropriate underground storage bins. This encourages recycling. The city centre has department stores and some very upmarket boutiques besides the expected tourist stores.

Also in most streets are public laundries which seem popular with locals. Space is at a premium in the city centre and apartments seem small; going without a washing machine is one way to compensate for the lack of space. If one wants to use a gym there are a few dotted about the city centre; as my apartment was up seven flights of stairs and I averaged 15000 steps daily that wasn’t an issue for me!

I chose an apartment we had used before, with a good central location and an outdoor space. When the weather is fine it’s a treat to take a good book and a glass of wine and sit out. With views of the Duomo and Santa Croce it’s a special place.

One of the joys of living here for a month is the opportunity to find places away from the tourist spots, where local people live and go to relax, eat and drink. Just beyond where I am living is the Sant’Ambrogio area, where there is a local church, piazza with a flea market and a variety of restaurants, including some ethnic ones. There’s also a mosque. Listening to the voices it seems popular with American students. Strolling there at night there’s a buzz about the place, a relaxed, comfortable, welcoming feel.

Another way to branch out is to follow the Lungarno, the roads either side of the river, which soon leave the tourist areas behind. North of the river stretches a range of palazzi and high spec residential blocks, while the character south of the river, the Oltrarno, is more rustic and artisan. These are working class areas but, as often happens in cities, they are peppered with fashionable bars and bistros, some taking over outdoor spaces and popular with trendy young locals. Here there are parks for children to play and joggers to keep fit.

One Saturday I took in the local football team, Fiorentina, who beat Crotone 2-0. It was fun sitting among the colourful home fans, mostly elderly gents. The language of football is universal; we each knew what the other was saying despite the language barrier! The sense of belonging and community that an establishment like a football club gives has undoubtedly been made more poignant by the tragic death recently of the club captain, Davide Astori, from a cardiac arrest aged 31. There are thousands of scarves and flags tied in tribute to the railings of the stadium and emotional scenes as fans stood in tribute.

Florence feels like a safe place and that was the advice we received from our tutors. The women on the course said they felt comfortable walking around on their own, even at night. There is some evidence of homelessness and begging, as there is in every city these days sadly. And some people who want to sell you things can be somewhat persistent. A new addition on this visit for me was the presence of armed troops outside major buildings, such as the Duomo and Uffizi, again reminding us of the times in which we live. What surprised me was the free access of vehicles to crowded spaces, such as the Piazza del Duomo; given recent terrorist vehicular attacks it seems incongruous to have delivery trucks inching past throngs of tourists at peak times. I read that the mayor wants to avoid turning this beautiful city into a military barracks and I applaud his idealism. Please let us never had reason to question his wisdom.

And so my trip comes to a close. I will be left with wonderful memories and a new found understanding of and appreciation for the marvels of this city. For me, this is the most magical place on earth. If you haven’t been before, please come. Take a few days, get beyond the surface and the bustle, seek out the peace and beauty that Florence has to offer those prepared to embrace her charms.

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