Each day in Florence begins simply enough. After the breakfast dishes and setting out washing to dry on the terrace (dryers are still not in common use by most Florentine citizens), we walk down to a local cafe in the Santo Spirito neighborhood for a cappuccino and an hour spent reading the morning paper. Italians still read newspapers, would you believe it? The popular local paper is La Nazione, with a local circulation of about 140,000. The paper, founded in 1859, before Italy was unified, boasts 14 editions daily, from Siena to Liguria. Daily, it pumps out over 330 pages of print, from the pens of 200 journalists.
That's right, this one regional paper employs that many journalists and prides itself as being a school for journalism, with the scope of reporting that covers local, national, and international events. Even the pensioner next door, Giovanni, a sworn communist (well, translate that as socialist), faithfully reads it daily and is ready to tell you what he thinks about Ebola, the Isil threat to the Pope, the picture of a gay couple kissing on the front page. Italians of all political stripes, it seems, consider it important to be well informed. I can't speak to what most young people think about print these days, as they are so wrapped up with their PDs and fingering icons. Not much keyboarding going on. If you are on the other end of their transmission, what sort of conversation extends beyond one or two syllable words?
Of course, you can't come to Florence and NOT do the expected. You have to visit the main attractions, have to. The first time in Florence, we were here for only a few days and decided not to visit any of the "must sees" except for the Uffizi Gallery and the Ponte Vecchio. It was not out of snobbery or displaced contrariness that we opted not to — - it was raining and cold, and we could not shake jet lag. The mob milling about the Duomo, the Cathedral that was build between 1296 and 1436, was just too much to attempt to breech, no matter how spectacular it is. So, here we are again, fully prepared to tromp our way through the BIG FIVE, no matter how much the feet hurt or how much bobbing and weaving through the crowds it takes. On to Florence!
Most visitors to Florence do it in a day, two at the most. That is the nature of today's tourism: Get there, take pictures, grab a quick sidewalk table for cold pizza and a warm beer, and spend a good deal of the time listening to your guide through an audio device. He or she will tell you what to look at and why. But do not tarry, as there is more to squeeze into the short time allotted before boarding the bus back to the hotel, the train station, or on to the next town. The better run tours have one extra premium; one must be set free for an hour or so to shop. Florence is, after all, a world-class fashion venue for everything from leather goods to gold watches, fine porcelain, dresses, hats, you name it. One can seek out the vaunted outlets for Bugati, Dior, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Tiffany's, a whole host of high-end venues, many featuring tuxedoed greeters at the door in top hats. Or, one can go down-market and buy from the street stalls or special "open-air" concessions like the Mercato Nuovella. Even the most frugal visitor is expected to go away with something, even if it is only a coffee mug, a wood Pinnochio puppet, a scarf or dish towel, anything that one can stuff into the luggage.
Where do most tours of Florence begin? The most logical starting point is the Duomo, meaning house of God. Some do mistake the word Duomo for dome, since it is indeed the dome of this Cathedral that dominates the skyline of Florence. Its formal name is Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Begun in 1296 in Gothic Style, the church was not completed until 1436, when the dome itself, designed by Fillippo Brunelleschi, was at last capped. My intent here is not to try and describe this massive religious edifice, since there are so many others who have written so masterfully about it. The reader is encouraged to google it and see for her- or himself. Rather the impression I want to provide is that of a cautionary tale.
Approaching the Duomo from any direction along Florence's narrow streets, flanked by three and four storey buildings, one is surprised to turn a corner and realize that there it is, looming overhead. The dome itself is the largest brick dome ever constructed. The entire exterior shell of the cathedral is clad in white Carrara, green Prato, and red Siena marbles, with stained glass panels soaring above massive doors. Wow! But, at its feet the piazza is the marshaling yard, the place of assembly for the phalanxes of group tours, each one distinguished from the others by the color of the audio device about their necks and the color of the umbrella or like banner that the tour guide waves. Milling about between these ordered ranks of group tours are individuals, couples, families, all manner of the unescorted. Long lines form at the entrance to the Baptistry and the Campanile, which charge admission. As for the cathedral's interior, it is a simple matter of walking through a front entrance and finding oneself inside a huge enclosed space, one remarkably spare in decor, except for the marbled floor and stained glass windows.
The interior of the dome has a painted surface of 3600 square meters that illustrates the Last Judgement. On the sides of this massive interior are benches where one can sit and absorb what one is seeing.
And it is just so. What I saw was "A River Runs Through It". For two hours, I sat and watched the surge of people enter and move in a constant flow through the cordoned "aisles". With their cameras, cell phones, tablets, all manner of personal devices, this ever-moving flow of humanity is in part pre-occupied with getting the perfect selfie recorded, or a whole series of selfies. All the while, for many, the apparatus in their ear drones on about this fresco, that painting, that sculpture. Names fly by in machine-gun like rapidity — Zuccari, Vasari, Giotto, Gaddo Gaddi, Cambi, Michelino, Bandinelli, Robbia, and more, more.
The distinct impression is that for most of those riding along in this river of humanity, the most important thing of the moment is the need to record on a device the fact that they were indeed here. It is their face in the lens that will be taken home with them, not an emotional response to what it took dedicated generations of faithful Florentine citizens to build, to dedicate to their God. Reverence is not a word one can apply uniformly to this river, this mass of humanity that passes through the Duomo each and every day. For my way of thinking, there is more awe, reverence, and outright faith bound up in the minds and hearts of visitors to an ancient redwood grove than one is likely to encounter in those making the circuit of the Duomo's interior.
This scene of selfie-taking, unfortunately, repeats itself at the other main attractions — The Academy (where Michelangelo's David can be seen), the Uffizi Gallery (once the Medici Palazzo), the Ponte Vecchio (the Old Bridge, which once housed butcher shops and now gold jewelers). At The Academy, I watched one woman have her picture taken in front of every statue and picture, only she never looked at them, or did so so briefly that one wonders what she saw, other than her own shining image with a fixed smile on her face that never varied. Michaelangelo's David is hands down one of the most magnificent sculptures ever carved. Why, then, does it deserve no more than a minute's viewing time by so many tourists? Surely, it is worth more than that.
I am in no way negative about Florence as a city, its great monuments, or its people. St. Francis visited Florence a number of times and his influence is deeply felt by Florentines. St.Francis is, after all, the patron saint of animals and the environment, insisting that it is the duty of humankind to protect nature and enjoy it, not exploit or defile it. Francis also, by going to Egypt in 1219, tried to end the Crusades by appealing to the Saracens directly — if only he had succeeded, our world would be the better for it. So it was that I found myself at Santa Croce, a Gothic Basilica of the Franciscans, on October 4th, the saint's day. The current Pope Francis, who was inaugurated on March 13, 2013, forcibly reminded the world that St. Francis had been concerned with the welfare of the poor and preached against the vanity, pride, and excess riches of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of his day, a concern we have been struggling with since the Middle Ages and longer. So, having come this far, the visitor should try to look beneath the surface facade the recognized art critics pay to the great artists and architects of monumental structures. What makes Florence, THE birthplace of the European Renaissance and humanism, so essential is how many ways it has affected the course of history and the shape of the world in the 21st Century.
A visit to the Basilica Santa Croce is certain to begin to show just how important Florence is to the form and structure of modern life. Keep in mind that the church was first built in 1200, in a poor, swamp infested neighborhood at the edge of Florence, not a particularly propitious beginning. But by 1294, the Franciscans had selected it to be the most important center of their order. To this day, it is the largest Franciscan Church in the World. What makes it deserving of our interest is not that fact that it is the largest church of the Franciscans Order. Nor is it simply a matter of its monumental Gothic architecture.
Nor is it the assemblage of 700 years of art by Gothic and Renaissance masters that draw attention to it — (though it is adorned with works by Vasari, Gaddi, Giotto, Biondi,Robbia, Brunelleschi, Cimabue, and Donatello — to name but some). What really makes Santa Croce extraordinary is that it is the final resting place of many of Florence's (and the world's) most important historical and cultural figures. Here are buried early Renaissance merchants and bankers who helped to establish the world's first international currency, the Florin, to say nothing of inventing the letter of credit, which in our time has morphed into the credit card. The sarcophagus of Dante is here, though his body still rests in Ravenna. Michelangelo Buonarroti, who painted the Cistine Chapel, carved La Pieta and David, is buried here, his work changing forever the direction of western art. Galileo Galilei, the founder of science based on direct observation is buried here. Niccolo Machiavelli, the father of modern political science is buried here. More obscure, but no less important personages are also to be found buried here, such as P. Eugenio Barsanti. The next time you start your car's engine, remember the name Barsanti, the man who invented the internal combustion engine. There are also memorial plaques to Italian explorers of the 16th Century, Amerigo Vespucci and Giovanni da Veranzano. Guglielmo Marconi, who invented long distance telecommunications is honored, as is Antonio Meucci, who invented the radio. There is even a plaque in memorium to Enrico Fermi, who constructed the world's first atomic pile that led to the making of the atom bomb during WWII. And let us not forget to take special note of the statue, Liberty of Poetry, by Pio Fedi.
This statue cannot go unnoticed, as it is unquestionably the "elder sister" of New York's Statue of Liberty. Fedi carved the Liberty of Poetry in 1876. Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty was not unveiled until 1886, ten years later. But the distinction between the two is more than simply of matter of dating. Bartholdi chose to masculinize his statue with the figure of Liberty holding a torch aloft and in her left is the Declaration of Independence. Fedi's stutue is unquestionably softer, gentler, as befitting Liberty of Poetry. She holds a broken chain in her right hand, a symbol of freedom from oppression, not a torch which may signify that America claims to be the light of the world.
I began my sojourn in Florence wondering what made it so essential as a center of thought and action that served to free humanity from the worst effects of a thousand years of decline of Roman culture, of almost universal illiteracy, trenchant poverty, ignorance, and religious intolerance. Florence, even if by pure happenstance, was the place where three men, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccacio set in motion a movement that shifted learning away from the exclusive control of Latin scholasticists within the clergy to one based on the emerging Italian language, a language made alive through poetry. These were men who saw the future of mankind as dependent upon an educated citizenry, one involved in both the literary and philosophical and the practical.
While they wrote sonnets, they also were involved in the practical politics of their day. Alongside such literary greats, the merchants and bankers of Florence transformed the world of trade and finance, putting in place the mechanisms still dominant in today's economic life. Finally, humanism took hold, a movement which placed man at the center of action, which insisted on the inherent dignity of man. In short, Ecce Uomo. Ecce Firenzi.