Another giro around my neighborhood

(At this rate, I may NEVER catch up to current times, but I’m working at it! Another backlog blog, from 17 Feb)

I took another “giro” around my neighborhood (a “tour,” a “turn,” a “stroll,” a “trip”), and, as always, had my camera in hand. This was on 17 February, still overcast and cold, with rain during the day, at times. Between my Via dei Pilastri street (a major one-way and one-lane street out of town toward the east, always full of traffic) and Borgo La Croce (another important parallel street leading to the Santa Croce church) is Via di Mezzo—“Halfway Street.” I always bypass it on the way home to the flat, so I decided to go looking for torn posters or graffiti, and found something else—the Arcigay office, location for the Florence branch of the Association of Lesbian and Gay Italians. I have several friends who would be thrilled to have one of the rainbow flags, so I stopped in and started talking. (Imagine THAT!) No flags were available that day for purchase, but I could get one the next week, if I returned. That day, the office was hosting a conference for journalists, with a buffet of sweet pastries, coffee and tea, and arrays of printed information to carry away. The press was just beginning to arrive, and started talking to me—inviting me to stay, to photograph the event, and to participate. I thanked them for such a warm welcome, didn’t stay, but may go back yet for one of those flags for a friend.

Florence office, Lesbian and Gay Italians

 

As an aside, when I was here in 2003 for the beginning of the Iraqi war, Italians had mounted a campaign to fly the rainbow flag with the word “Pace” (“peace”) from every window and balcony in Italy, and my roomies and I were unable to snap one up for ourselves until the supply caught up with the demand. When I told people here that the rainbow symbolized “gay” in California and the US, they were shocked. For them, the rainbow represents the peace after the storm, when the rainbow appears, and had no recognized association with gay persons—at least not at that time. Now the rainbow flag is a universal symbol around the world to gay, lesbian and trans-gender organizations, as this one in Florence shows.

I have collected photos of torn posters, and also photos of graffiti that catch my interest. These bicycles were parked on the street in front of this piece, which certainly caught my eye. With thousands of artists and art students here, some of the vandalism is actually quite well done, even if spraying paint or using markers on buildings centuries old is still sacrilege. To me, certainly, it is—I might propose amputations as the penalty for defacing these beautiful historic buildings. (But there must be good reason that the name for painted-on vandalism is an ITALIAN word! I understand there was graffiti found in Pompei!)

Graffiti--but an interesting sight, well-drawn

 

It seems that no alley or minor street is without hidden bits of ancient beauty, often passed by and unnoticed by most. This little doorway was just the front of an apartment building, now, with stone framing all around, and with this beautiful coat of arms and angel over the doorway. Without taking the time to see these little spots of beauty, the ancient artwork that was once a normal part of demonstrating the wealth and talent of Florence is forgotten, ignored. THAT is one of the charms of Florence—that these little treasures are tucked away everywhere, waiting to be discovered.

Nearby, although I hadn’t known it, is the ex-church of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi (“pazzi” are “lunatics,” the “insane”). It was built in the 1200s as a monastery, abandoned and reclaimed by the Sisters of Santa Maria Maddalena, who exhumed and brought the saint’s body to this site and added the high frescoes along the interior walls to tell the story of her life. The order eventually abandoned this church and surrounding buildings for another site, farther from the city of Florence, and the former convent currently serves as a school for high school children. The outer door, seen here, gives no indication of the beautiful sights inside. Here, though, is another of the high-water marks from the 4 November 1966 flood of Florence, at the right of the doors (the writing and arrow are my additions).

High water mark, Santa Maria Maddelena dei Pazzi

 

Inside the ex-church, which I happened to be visiting on Ash Wednesday, were incredible frescoes and stonework that decorated the walls, side chapels, and the domed ceilings under the cupola. Larger-than-life statues in marble filled niches along the walls, and the building was a single space, unlike the usual designs here with columns of stone creating side aisles as long as the sanctuary. I could not believe that I was there alone, without even a caretaker in the church, and for nearly an hour. I suppose being there on the first day of Lent was a prod, but I took a moment to pray there, feeling the intense power of the location (EX-church or not)—and then quietly left.

Interior without supporting columns

 

The altar and part of the dome

 

Marble figure, near the altar

 

The frescoes above the alter, in the dome

 

On February 14, the city of Florence cut the ribbons and began the operation of their light rail “Tramvia” (means “Go by Streetcar”) system that leads from the outer suburbs to the train station, near the center of the historic oldest parts of town (“centro”). The bus routes have been changed to eliminate buses coming around the centro, with hubs a few blocks farther out, and traffic (other than the ubiquitous taxis, allowed anywhere) is blocked from around the Duomo, and many of the streets surrounding the Piazza del Duomo. For me, it is a lot easier to get around, although finding the new bus stops is a challenge, having mastered the ones I used regularly, but which no longer exist. Now, the stops are in new locations, and I have to search the maps to find the routes that get me where I need to go.

Accident on the Tramvia the second day

 

The route of the Tramvia has been a controversial one—but all intended to take street traffic and air pollution away from the centro. The monuments and marble buildings are blackened by the smog and soot, and always seem to be in the process of being cleaned, often hidden by scaffolding. One plan had been to bring the tracks directly to the Duomo, deemed the “historic center of the city,” but merchants screamed and cried for change. Any undertaking of this size in an ancient archeological site is also slowed by “finds,” too, as the excavation reveals hidden remnants of the past and digging is halted when the archeologists are brought in to salvage and catalog the antiquities found. Finally, it was agreed that the route stop at the train station, bringing passengers to the station for their trips out of Florence, and to a hub of the stops for many of the bus routes that serve the rest of the city. On my walk, I noticed this headline on one of the city papers, “La Tramvia Si Scontra Con Un’Auto” (“The Tramvia Collides with an Auto”). Two days after the opening of the Tramvia, just after the official ribbon-cutting and elaborate ceremony, the first car vs. Tramvia accident had already occurred, on rain-slick streets—and photos of the black Cadillac Escalade demolished by the tram were everywhere.

This little street shrine to the Virgin Mary and Jesus is a block from my flat, on Borgo Pinti, and is never without fresh flowers (placed by whom, I wonder?). These little ornaments are everywhere, but I saw a still life composition in this one, surrounded by the plumbing, electrical conduits, and exposed wiring that come with buildings too thick, too old, too impossible to add these conveniences after the buildings have been standing for centuries. The walls of plaster-covered stone and brick are probably nearly two feet thick, and modern additions for phones and power and gas and water were hung outside, on the walls, and then run in through the walls to preserve the interiors. Somehow, this little shrine and its neighboring modern additions caught my eye and made me smile. (See the black soot that has accumulated on the “white” marble portico over the shrine? Someone is also in the process of cleaning this, as you can see by the white restored parts of the frame around the shrine, and the dark untouched portions.)

Shrine and modern additions to the building

 

In a few more blocks, without sighting any torn posters to photograph, I came across a total surprise—the Protestant cemetery of Florence, opened in 1828 for the Swiss residents, and originally located outside the city walls (Napoleonic Code: no burials permitted inside city walls). Before this cemetery was created, non-Catholic and non-Jewish residents had to be buried in Livorno, hours away by train. When the city walls were demolished and streets were realigned in the 19th century, this cemetery became surrounded by major streets circling Piazza Donnatello, and became known as “The Island of the Dead.” A famous painting by the same name, painted by Arnold Bocklin, was inspired by this place, which he overlooked from his studio, and which was where his infant daughter had been buried. Eventually, 1400 bodies were buried or entombed here, including many of famous sculptors, writers, and a well-known Anglican priest.

Cimitero degli Inglesi (English Cemetery)

 

I have always been drawn to these old cemeteries for the incredible investment in fine sculpture that is hidden on these obscure tombs, but fully worthy of museums. With the sculptor talent available in Florence, this little island was no disappointment in that regard, and I found it during one of the few breaks in the series of storms, so the sun gave some good light to see the work there. Some of the stones have fallen, or been damaged by vandals, and now the gates are locked and the cemetery is cared for and overseen by a Swiss order of nuns. I took my life in my hands to cross the streets to get out to the island, and then circled the iron gates to find no open way in. Finally, seeing a bell, I rang the buzzer that summoned a nun, who opened the automatic gate to greet me. “Closed,” she said, “until 2, but you are welcome to enter now. You must, however, register your camera.” I followed her to a small library, filled out the necessary paperwork, including my home address, and was admitted—but not until telling her that I had noticed her Italian speech had a British accent. I was correct, she said, switching to English, and she told me I had a California accent—recognized from having served 6 years in a convent near San Francisco, in California. (I was proud of my detection of her accent, while struggling to understand why I had to get a license to take in my camera! No restrictions whatsoever on the use of the photos, according to her, just restrictions on “unlicensed” cameras, I guess. Seems to me that a “guest book” would have accomplished the same goal, wouldn’t it?)

The first outstanding tomb ornament was this one; of an angel pointing the way with a finger, escorting her charge to Heaven. This tomb was over 150 years old, but the detail was still remarkable, and this must have brought some small comfort to the family who had lost their young daughter.

Angel on grave marker points the way

 

Detail, angel marker

 

A total surprise, however, was the tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, prominently marked and featured in the literature of the cemetery. There are only a few paths paved with small stones, and I was restricted to those paths, exclusively, for my safety from teetering markers which could fall if bumped or touched. One path went directly to Browning’s tomb, with a small pillar beside the pathway identifying the tomb as hers. The stone carving work is detailed and beautiful, including her profile carved into the veined marble.

Pillar on the pathway marks Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb

 

Relief portrait of the poet on her tomb

 

EBB tomb at the top of the rise

 

I was quickly losing my sunlight, as a big storm was coming in from the North. I searched for a few other examples of the fine sculpture there, and found this pair of little angels, reading from a roll call, I suppose. This stone has certainly been cleaned or maintained, but the faces and wings of the little angels are perfectly detailed, and seemed to be undamaged by time.

Angels reading the roll call

 

Detail, two angels marker

 

I stayed on the few paths, but found a shot or two of more distant works, still impressive. Light was coming and going as the clouds came in, so I was nearing my time to leave.

Highlights in a moment of sunshine

 

I was particularly fond of this little dove, on the tomb of the wife of a prominent British military man. It was showing the effects of many years of weathering, but was a revealing tribute from her husband to mark her tomb.

Dove marks the tomb of a military man's wife

 

The last sculpture was of a Russian woman, grieving the death of her husband. Every detail in the fringe of her shawl, her hands with a wedding ring, her wreath, and her face told the tale of her sorrow and mourning. I could only guess whom he was, unable to read the lettering on the tomb, which was in Cyrillic script.

Marvelous detail of obvious grief

 

When the rain sprinkles began to suggest that I might want to get my camera inside some cover, I headed for my warm, dry flat. Passing this window of a “pasticceria,” or “pastry shop,” I thought I’d tell you about “cenci,” little flat bits of rolled dough, cut into any odd shape, and deep-fried, then dusted with powdered sugar. The name means “rags,” and refers to the irregular, folded shapes that result from the randomness of shapes, and the frying. I have seen these for 9 years now, and have yet to go inside and find out how they taste. How could they be anything but wonderful bits of fried, sweet crunchiness?

Cenci, a sweet bite found all over Florence

 

This last photo is of the front of the Jewish temple, a neighborhood landmark just a block from my flat, but usually hidden from view by the tall buildings and from the narrow streets. I was passing by, headed home, and found a British couple on vacation, checking their guidebook to find out what this was, so I was able to help them. I am situated in one of the most heavily monitored areas of the city because of the presence of the “sinagoga,” and also the regional headquarters of the carabinieri, across from my front door. But it is the synagogue that is being protected from damage or vandalism, primarily, with cameras visible from every direction. The exterior is Byzantine, and the interior is Moorish. This was built to replace the synagogues of the Jewish ghetto that once stood in the Piazza della Repubblica since the 16th century,  There is a museum here, also, and it is on my list to explore when I have a chance, maybe during the next big storm. I may even pop into “Ruth’s,” the kosher deli and kosher “gelateria” (ice cream shop) next door!

 

The synagogue, just around the corner from me

 


That’s it for this post—hope all is well with you! Ciao!