Sunday, Aug 03, 2008


Tricks of the eye
In Florence, what you see may not be
what you get.

Florence had pulled a number on me but
 I’m not complaining.

The city lay spread out at my feet, looking more
 than a trifle dull in the mid-morning haze. I am
 on Piazzale Michelangelo, atop a hill on the south
 bank of the River Arno, looking down on Florence.
 Standing beside me, ubiquitous catapult clutched
in one magnificent fist, is David. He’s looking down
 on the city, too. Oxidisation has turned his
splendid bronze statue more than a little green
 but that does not take away from the
 hunk David is.

Two hours into my Florence trawl, I’m wondering
 if it’s a case of great expectations. My guidebook
 quotes liberally from known names, all drooling.
 Thomas Mann: If you allow glory to make you
soft, indifferent, you have lost Florence. Nathaniel
 Hawthorne: I believe that no place could be
 found where life passes more delightfully than
Florence. Someone called Gabriel Faure:
Florence was equal to my dreams. The very
 anti-thesis of my emotions, alas. What am I
 missing here, I wonder.

Crowds and statues
The queues outside the Uffizi gallery are six-deep
and I decide, regretfully, to give it a miss. I take
 a long, leisurely walk through the winding cobbled
 streets of the city, dodging the African merchants
 of fake designer watches and handbags.

The sun is dappled at the Piazza Della Signoria where
 stand the statues of Medusa, the Sabines, Cosimo
the elder, the awesome Neptune himself in the
centre of a still-functioning aquaduct. Here, too,
 I come upon David, a faithful replica of the statue
 housed inside the Galleria Dell Accademia. The sun
 slants across this David, cutting him in half at
an interesting angle; is it my imagination or
does he look rueful?

No Italian city is complete without its very own
magnificent cathedral and in Florence, the
Duomo, the Santa Maria del Fiore, rules. It
is the fourth largest church in the world.
 Brunelleschi’s work is throat-catchingly
beautiful here, the snowy Carrera marble
melding with the Prato green and Maremma
pink. Moorish, Flemish, Gothic, Byzantine
influences all show up in this cathedral, and
 the frescos are, indeed, stunning. To one side
 of the domed church stands the gleaming golden
 door of the venerable Baptistry of San Giovanni.

Inside the cool, hushed environs of the Galleria
Della Accademia stands the real David.
Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Large, white,
brooding, he throws an instant net of enthrallment
 on the viewer. His face is calm and reflective
on one side of the profile; move to the other
side and you will see furrows of anxiety
etched onto his other brow. The hand that
 curls on the sling is a thing of resplendent
 beauty, each knuckle joint etched clearly.
I am in love. With David. And I don’t want
 to leave this place.

Life after David
However, being part of a tourist group has its
 own compulsions and I am back in the piazza
 soon. I recall later that inside the gallery, to
 one side, are Michelangelo’s unfinished
sculptures, a poignant tribute to what might
 have been. However, everything else in
 Florence is an anticlimax after David. I
gaze at the asymmetrical exteriors of the
 Palazzo Vecchio; I stroll in the elaborately
 laid-out Boboli Gardens. I wander the Ponte
 Vecchio in a daze, looking into the tiny
jewellery shops and observing all the locks
 on the bridge. The Vecchio Bridge was
 constructed by Romans and is the only bridge
 that wasn’t destroyed by the Nazis during
their withdrawal from Italy in 1944. The traditional
 take is that lovers attach locks onto the railings
 of the bridge and throw the keys into the Arno
 to forever seal their love. Should I buy a lock
 and key in memory of the alabaster David?

Firenze, established by Julius Caesar himself,
known for being the epicentre of art and
creativity, truly the Renaissance City. The
 fabled land of the Medicis. Galileo lived here.
Dante was sent into exile from here.
Savonarola was hanged here. Why, even
Pinocchio belonged to Florence! I’m still in
somnolent mode, though I do perk up a bit
 when examining some truly superior leather,
 and a few shops with some even better
hand-made paper. Then, I come upon
more hordes of tourista. The magic vanishes.

I really don’t know about Florence. Apart from
David, I didn’t find much to rave about. Not even
 the famous wine of the region, the Crima
Christi, made up for this ennui.

And that was pretty much what I told disbelieving
 friends and family back home. Then, I developed
my photograph of the city from atop the Piazzale
Michelangelo. I looked at it. And looked again. The
photograph showed a city of indescribable beauty
 that shone in the morning light. Florence had pulled
 a number on me but I’m not complaining. You see
 my guidebook also had this quote from Mark
Twain: “In the valley lay Florence, pink, gray
and brown…this is the most beautiful image
on the planet.” And I realised, late in the
 day, that he had got it right!

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