18 June: The last of my guests are now gone, the laundry and housework are caught up, and this morning’s scorpion visitor (the 8th in two years) was dispatched with a few whacks of the broom—death by “blunt force trauma.” I’ll be back home in less than two weeks, but I finally have time without entertaining friends to get back to writing overdue blogs, and posting them. The Infiorata has passed for this year, with twenty fewer teams participating, and some of the regular winners of the window/balcony/small street competitions deciding to sit this one out. The “crisi,” as the economic downturn here is called, is affecting everyone, and the cost of competing is just too much for some. Still, Spello is bedecked with flowers everywhere, and the Infiorata designs were far beyond the expectations of my four guests from Sacramento—who were charmed by Spello, good Umbrian food, and warm receptions from my friends here. So, it’s back to writing the blogs. WAY back, in fact, to April and Dolores, my first guest this trip.
12 April 2012
As her trip was winding down, Dolores and I boarded the train and headed for Florence, and the “Hotel Hongo.” Ann Boulamakis, a friend in Florence and one of the Hongo family I know, offered to host us so that Dolores could have a day and an evening in Florence, taking photos and looking around. We arrived with Dolores’ bags, ready for departure at the airport, and then left Anne’s house to head for the “centro storico,” or the historic center of Florence.
We arrived and walked among the many tourists who arrive after Easter, all headed for the Duomo. That is the familiar name of the cathedral, Santa Maria dei Fiori, which is the principal landmark for Florence, and we joined the long line of people waiting to get inside. She got my usual earful of history about “the dome that was impossible to build, until Brunelleschi figured out a way.” It is a free visit, and I took her around the side chapels, and then under the immense dome. There, she could see the people circling the railing, on their way up to the cupola of the dome, but too much for us with so few hours to show her Florence quickly. The crowds were in full force, and the line to get into the church was long, but moving quickly—probably after a mass had closed the sanctuary to visitors.
We set out to see the principal piazzas, including Piazza Repubblica, and then Piazza degli Signoria. That meant a walk down the side street, where my favorite gelato display is along the way. I must have 20 photos here, and now Dolores has at least one, herself.
After some brief rain showers, we emerged into Piazza Signoria, with the Palazzo Vecchio (“Old Palace,” former home of the Medici family) right in front of us. It is another of the skyline landmarks of Florence, and the wet pavement from the recent thunderstorm added to the photos for us. The Palazzo Vecchio also has both the Neptune Fountain, from the 1500s, and a copy of Michelangelo’s “David” near the door. With our tight schedule, this was the only one of the three “Davids” in Florence that I had time to show to Dolores—absolutely not the original, which had lines stretching for blocks for those arriving without reservations in “tourist season.”
We visited the statues in the Loggia dei Lanzi, where the Roman lion statues guard the entrance. I showed Dolores an angle where she could photograph the lion, with David in the background, and she gave it a try. From there, we walked through the U-shaped Uffizi building, where the Medici once had their banking offices (“uffizi” means “offices” in Italian). Since the donation of the vast Medici art collection to Italy by the last of the Medici family, these offices now serve as an immense art gallery, probably among the most prominent and valuable in the world. The Uffizi piazza leads to the Arno River, and the succession of arches that run along the river, supporting the Vasari Corridor. Through this long hallway, the Medici could leave their offices and walk across the top of the bridge nearby, above the street and completely in private, and arrive at their new and larger Pitti Palace south of the Arno River.
Dolores and I walked through the arches to the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge of Florence, spared during the bombing of Florence in WWII. It was once full of butcher shops, centuries ago, but now houses exclusive gold and jewelry shops, lining both sides of the pedestrian street across the bridge. In the flood of Florence in November 1966, the gold shops were inundated suddenly, and all of their wares were washed away into the river. Foot traffic across the bridge moves slowly, with many window shoppers eyeing the display windows along both sides of the roadway. Only a few years ago, this bridge was the center of a Florentine tradition of placing a lock on the bridge with the initials of people in love written or carved onto the lock, and then tossing the key into the river, symbolizing a pair whose love could never be broken. In 2003, the first time I crossed the Ponte Vecchio, there were at least 10,000 locks here, on every possible spot to put one, and then locks on previously placed locks—but now there is an effort to remove any errant locks immediately, and the few that are there are very hard to find (probably the reason they have not been removed already).
On the south side of the river, we passed my favorite fountain on the way to the Santo Spirito church. This fountain is on a corner of a busy street, next to a fruit stand, and I’ve always loved the odd marble face that spits water into the bowl all day. I have seen local residents come to clean their fountain, and keep it in good condition, not relying on the city to do routine maintenance of this landmark for their neighborhood.
Just across from the Santo Spirito church, I pointed out a custom shoemaker to Dolores. This man was teaching three apprentices his trade, and they were busy hand-sewing the soles onto the tops of shoes made in the shop. In the background, on the wall, the shoe forms of their regular customers were stored on a rack. One of the Italian young men offered to come to California and make shoes for us, but was no longer interested when I told him I had no more daughters for him to marry there (and my only daughter’s husband might not be interested in that proposition). I was interested to see that one of the apprentices was Chinese, and barely spoke Italian. I suppose there is need in China, too, for custom shoes, and he will take his trade back with him when he is trained. When I asked the shoemaker the cost of a pair of his shoes, he answered that they begin at €1500 a pair, certainly out of range for most people looking for shoes.
We circled back across the river on another bridge, the Trinita’ Bridge, with a great view west to the Ponte Vecchio. I took Dolores to the Piazza Santa Croce, site of one of the most important churches of Florence. Santa Croce is the burial place of many famous Florentines, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante, Machiavelli, Rossini (writer of operas), Marconi (the inventor of the radio), and other prominent citizens. Michelangelo got his wish to be entombed just inside the right door, so that he could be the first out the door on Resurrection Day. His tomb is decorated with many marble sculptures, but none of them are his work (of course!).
During the flood of 1966, this church was filled with water and mud to a height of nearly 12 feet, and the river current and debris flowing through the building battered the very famous and precious Cimabue cross, which hung over the altar. In 2006, with two girlfriends who were my Florence roomies in 2003, we attended special 40th anniversary events, and a city-wide celebration of the return of the “mud angels,” students and volunteers from around the world who arrived to help dig the treasures of Florence out from the mud and debris. (We were asked over and over if we were “mud angels,” and treated with special deference—but we were only tourists interested in the history of the flood and the recovery of a town that we had learned to love.) At a special photo exhibition, an old man took us aside when he saw us sign the guest book, giving addresses showing that we were from California. He opened his overcoat and pulled out large postcards of a photograph we had seen many times, of a young man working on restoring the Cimabue cross after the flood damaged it severely. With my Italian and his explanations and gestures, we realized that the man in front of us had been the young man in the photo, and he wanted to give us these cards, and give us his signature, as well. We were delighted to meet him, and gratefully accepted the honor of his special gifts to us.
Dolores and I toured the Santa Croce museum, and got a chance to see the Cimabue cross, created by one of the painters considered to be responsible for getting the Renaissance started. Seeing the cross in person was a “first” for me, and had special significance after once meeting the man who did the restoration more than four decades earlier.
We exited through the Brunelleschi chapel, designed by the same man who built the Duomo, and walked through the courtyard of the convent. Of the many attractions of Florence, this is the one I show to those who have little time to see the city, because of all the important people who are entombed here, and the beauty of the church.
After a great dinner at Osteria dei Pazzi, one of my favorite places in Florence to find good meals and entertaining waiters (and Paolo, the owner, who even sat with us for a while and talked about a recent trip to Spello), we headed back to Anne’s house for the night, and then I accompanied Dolores the next morning to the airport and saw her off on her trip back to Sacramento. We had a delightful 9 days, and I’m sure I’ll see Dolores again in Spello, or at least back in Italy. She has “caught the bug,” and had too little time to really do the photography that she does so well, but was in a “target-rich environment,” seeing an Italy totally unlike her only other trip here, to the Carnivale in Venice. Spello is the “real Italy,” to both of us, and I know it will draw her back again soon.