Arriving in Firenze was an odd experience for me. I hadn't realized how vividly I would remember the tracks that came to an abrupt end at the train station there.
Five years earlier, I arrived at this train station on my very first trip out of the country, my brand new passport clutched in my hand after just losing its stamping virginity in Milan. Actually, if I remember correctly, it was also my very first train ride ever. I spoke no Italian then, and wasn't accustomed to seeing signs written in different languages. Everything felt like a dream where all the letters and numbers are jumbled just enough to make you realize that you aren't really awake. Jessie walked me through the station, moving my hands for me to validate my train ticket; the spiritual guide in my lucid dream. She commented then that I seemed underwhelmed by Italy. But, that is often just how I appear when my mind has too many things to process. All my energy was concentrated inside my brain trying to make sense of this new world; my body was slack and willing to be led away without resistance.
But, that was not me this time. This time I arrived as a seasoned traveler. A seasoned traveler with a arsenal of ten or twenty surprisingly useful Italian words and a heady buzz from the train ride, rugged and unshaven.
We met a trio of English girls (one was Irish, to be culturally appropriate) in our carriage car on the train ride from Venezia. They had wisely packed a lunch for the three hour train ride and we had not packed a thing. They were kind enough to share some of their food and plenty of their stories with us. We all laughed together. The girls lamented that the only thing that could make the train ride better would be a bottle of wine.
As it turned out, I had just picked up a bottle of champagne and had it in my daypack. We joyously uncorked it and passed the warm bottle around our carriage compartment until it was empty, staring confrontationally at any new riders that seemed like they may be intent on crashing our ongoing feast to take advantage of the last empty seat in our compartment.
We met up with them again that evening for dinner at a small restaurant called Casa Mia which served family style portions of pastas and pizzas. We filled our table with dishes until the red checkered tablecloths could no longer be seen. After hours of effort, we drug ourselves from the restaurant and limped to a busy public square where a cheesy jazz band was finishing their set; each instrument taking their technical but emotionless final solos. A Senegali man walked around the cafe tables with twenty glittering hats on his head and arms full of light up toys, doing his best to sell them to the drunker Italians in the crowd. Stuffed animals with light up eyes blinked and whizzed and danced.
The next day I hit the scorching streets of Firenze with my camera, intent on having another photo session like the one I had in Venezia. Maybe it was that I had been overstimulated by the beauty of Venice, or maybe it was because I'd already seen most of Florence or maybe it was just so damn hot I couldn't focus through the beads of sweat cascading across my eyelids but I just couldn't find the same visual inspiration on these streets as I had in Venice. As I've thought about it since then and maybe it's really that Florence is just so full of so many gorgeous gorgeous things that the streets between them are given a free pass to be a bit lackluster.
The first of the beautiful things in the less-than-beautiful city we saw was the Galleria Accademia. This is the gallery that houses Michelangelo's statue of David. David may be the most iconic statue ever shaped by the hands of a man, but despite having seen it before in photos on no less than 1,000 occasions, I was still intimidated by the towering stature of the man reveling in his victory over Goliath. There are a couple of copies of the statue around Firenze, but they just do not adequately capture the grandeur of the real sculpture.
Still, to me, this was not the highlight of the gallery. The hallway leading up to David is lined with unfinished works by Michelangelo. In these, you could actually see the original stone blocks giving way to the master's vision; artist and stone both coming to a compromise on what image may emerge. The strokes of Michelangelo's hands were still apparent on these statues, unpolished and undisturbed. And that is where I found the real art, in the strokes, the effort, the perfectionism, the process, the path, the swing of the hammer. It made me want to create.
From there we moved on to the Uffizi Gallery which was so packed with Renaissance masterpieces that statues were stacked in front of other statues and stuffed away into corners near the toilet and the portraits of once powerful and influential men were crowded up the wall so far that you couldn't even make out the faces of the ones at the top. We saw huge paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci and Botticelli. You remember Botticelli, right? The painting of The Birth of Venus, where she surfs into the world as a full grown goddess in her birthday suit on a surprisingly buoyant sea shell? It's another image that has been so ubiquitous and overplayed in books and television advertisements that you can't help but be taken aback as you stand in front of the expansive canvas which holds that image you've seen 1,000 times thinking to yourself, "Wow...yes, this really IS a masterpiece." And then you walk away. And then you walk back. I used to think this painting was boring.
My own face scrunched in front of the nude Venus, her tender face, wondering how many other of my preconceptions primarily consist of the same sort of naive bullshit that this one did. I appreciated the soft colors of the painting a bit longer than the tour group passing through the room did and made the correction in my mind.
That night we filled ourselves up with more amazing food from a restaurant called Il Aqua Due which served me a house selection of five brilliant pastas (the best one one was surprisingly simple, made with fresh pasta and earthy cabbage - fresh pasta makes dried pasta seem like a cruel joke) and a platter of three individual filet mignon steaks, one in a light salad, one covered in a syrupy, confrontational balsamic glaze and a third in a sauce of tart blueberries and peppercorns. All three made me close my eyes and forget how to speak for at least forty-seven minutes.
After eating all that food we decided we'd pass out on the spot if we didn't have a walk, so we strolled along the Arno River with no particular destination in mind. We passed the Ponte Vecchio, the covered bridge goldenly lit up, its arsenal of jewelry dealers closed for the night. We passed by the handrails at the riverbank which were covered in padlocks decorated with lovers' names, symbols of their devotion. Whenever I see this I can't help but picture them laughing, kissing, tossing the key away into the Arno without cares. We kept walking, past the new dresses and leather shoes of the shopping district and away from the city center.
After some time, I looked over the bank of the river and saw movement at the next bridge. As we walked closer we realized that there was a cafe with a small outdoor bar set up by the river. We immediately resolved to have a drink there.
As we climbed down to the cafe, we also saw a stage set up with instruments and lighting. We had accidentally showed up an hour early for an outdoor performance of an Italian cock-rock band. We found a table and settled in eagerly.
When they finally started playing, the sound was incredibly unbalanced, the vocals too loud and the PA system was trembling with the staticked buzz of overworked electronics rapidly on their way to meet their maker. Every kick of the bass drum sounded like a small explosion. I sat nervously, waiting for the singer to receive a lethal shock from his alcohol soaked microphone.
But, it never happened. Instead, in true Italian form, the band said some annoyed words, the only ones I understood being variants of "fuck," shrugged and after three songs or so the issues with the equipment had all been straightened out. The area around the stage had also transformed from empty to packed, with Italian couples laying on the banks of the river with bottles of wine, a few of the drunker girls dancing loosely to the music and one strange man prowling the crowd with a faceless mask adorned with blinking LED's where his eyes might have been (had he possessed three of them.) The band was sloppy but talented, the songs were raw but catchy. It was immensely fun. It reminded me so much of my old band and all the music we used to play and loved to see so often. It was rough and angry and silly and full of life. They played just to be playing. No better reason to play. You could tell. You could feel it. We ended the night as the band ended their set.
A common motif in our travels has been climbing. The next day in Firenze, we decided that our first climb would be to the top of the Duomo, a beautiful church whose green and white marble walls can't really be appreciated until you are standing beside it, straining your neck to try and see the top. (Failing.) The church takes up an entire city block and towers above the rest of the city. Climbing to the top of the dome was an experience in itself. The stairs seemed to wind up steeply forever and the hallways might have been designed by an ultra-modern architect with a fresh-out-of-university appreciation for severe materials and dystopian visions. Obviously it wasn't. But, the walls of the passageways came at you at the most acutely jagged angles, the staircases meandered aimlessly at times, doorways weren't square, walls didn't seem continuous. Despite being several stories above the ground, you felt like you were crawing in a cave.
Before you emerge at the top of the dome, you are given a chance to have an up close look at the frescoes that adorn the inside. This particular painting was a dramatic depiction of heaven and hell, with angels kicking back happily near the top of the dome and the tattered bodies of sinners being beaten and devoured by demons and lizard creatures along the bottom edges. There were skeletons and twisted screaming faces and flames. I pictured myself actually being in that church on a Sunday morning, looking up as a child to see those demons.
I can see why they chose them. Maybe had I been constantly exposed to such terrible visions in my youth I wouldn't have been able to so cavalierly toss aside my religious affiliations as I got older. Who knows. Imagery is a powerful thing.
From the top of the dome we could see all of Firenze, including our next destination: a pilgrimage to the top of a mountain; the Piazza del Michelangelo and the monastery that capitulates that hill.
There was another stream of endless steps to reach the top of the hill, and the church that adorned the top was gilded and beautiful. But, our main desire was to buy some of the special liquors that these monks have made for generations and are still making today.
When we stepped into the small shop, we were greeted by the sound of intensely technical piano playing, the notes chromatically crunched together in a way that clearly fingerprinted it as a product of the 20th century. We bought our liquors randomly, since we had no idea what they actually were. The monk smiled happily at us and wished us well on our way.
Sitting outside, watching the sun start to settle into the horizon we decided that what we really needed to do was march back into that shop and ask the monk what the hell he was listening to, because it was an absolutely striking piece of music.
So, that's what we did.
When we asked the monk about the music, he was a little bit taken aback by our ignorance, but then said (in that very adult kind of way), "Oh, yes, you are probably too young to know."
The artist was Keith Jarrett, a jazz pianist, and the monk was easily one of his biggest fans. He described to us the story of one of the earliest Keith Jarrett recordings, that it was accidental - the recording engineer just testing the equipment, that the sound was unique because the piano itself had a very broken midrange, forcing the player to focus on extremely low and high notes only. The monk pulled out this album and played us the intro. He said, "The whole album is amazing, but the first seven minutes that introduce it - for me - these seven minutes are perfect." When a man who has dedicated his entire life to a humble worship of God calls something "perfect," you need to be paying attention.
And it was brilliant. Keith Jarrett humming harmonies to himself and stomping beats on the floor as he improvised his way around the crippled piano. The monk's eyes closed and he smiled. He watched us for our reactions.
"You know, in here, all day we have to play Gregorian chants. You know these? Yes, they are very beautiful. But, sometimes, in the afternoon...I need something different."
That was the wisdom the monk left us with.
We bottled it up with our liquors and packed our bags for Rome.