My feet will wander in distant lands, my heart drink its fill at strange fountains, until I forget all desires but the longing for home.
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2007-07-25 5:31 PM
"Cornetti Caldi, cornetti freschi!" announces Fabio, triumphantly returning from his morning walk.
My mind grinds into its first morning gear, half dreaming, and begins to interpret. Visions of trumpets (cornets) calling, refreshing? us to wake up, are gradually replaced by fresh, hot pastry: croissants, or "cornetti," horned pastry, are mentioned frequently in the classical British romantic novels I read for entertainment.
After breakfast, we embark on a day in Florence. The unusually heavy clouds of Edinburgh last week recede into the background, serving as a perfect chromatic grey to make the reds and golds of Tuscany shine more brightly.
Fabio has the day planned out. We park his car atop a hill, although our preferred parking place has been unfortunately occupied by the stage crew for an upcoming event and a small Asian wedding party. But the view across the valley remains spectacular. A lizard dashes between the rocks as we round the corner -- Fabio walking in the street as usual -- to enjoy the view from the top.
We look out over the valley, and Fabio points out the four quadrants of Florence, plus some interesting hills and an Etruscan/Roman village occupying one little pass in the distance. Florence has forbidden the building of modern skyscrapers, with the result that the entire town remains in proportion, dominated by its medieval towers, steeples, and Renaissance domes. The deliberate proportionality and good company play tricks with the scale: first it seems far away and small, then before I know it we are in the labyrinth of 3- and 4-storybuildings, narrow streets emphasizing the height of the walls above our heads. Most of these buildings are unremarkable to Fabio, but I obseve them with interest: goldenrod-plastered houses and small businesses with stone foundations; all manner of clever shutters, awnings, and shades; and heavy ironwork protecting the windows. Every third corner seems to have a historic official's palace, Dante inscription, or church of impressive magnitude.
Fabio is a great fan of Dante, and enjoys emphasizing that the famous poet is more welcome in Florence since his death: dead, he is a great way to make money. When alive, he tended to make uncomfortable criticisms of the Florentine culture and governmental corruption. Like Saint Francis (whose church and chapel we visit), Dante had the effrontery to suggest that the rich might do better not merely to "love" the poor, but to ... actually give up some money, food, or personal comfort in order to help them.
We see much man-made beauty: stone facades, elegant and brightly colored in durable green, white, and tasteful pink or yellow; original medieval stonework, warm golden browns with more attention to practical details like scaffolding. Artwork in oils, fresco, bronze, marble, leather, paper, and fabric. Some is of marginal quality; some incomparably original. We note the curators' purist principles, that only original material will be displayed, and later modifications or damages are painstakingly replaced with blank material.
Some of the art cannot be described. If time permits, I will draw it, or at least note the names so that I can find pictures later.
There is a crucifix with Christ slumping in pain, technically showing Byzantine influence, but with assymetries that move it toward more humanist, expressionist schools. Fabio remembers when it was intact; he points out several flood-water markers above our heads on the walls, and laments that this particular cross in 1966 spent some time floating on the floods in its chapel.
We observe Donatello's David lying on styrofoam blocks as it is painstakingly recorded for restoration. We note the fierce psychological portrait of Cosimo de Medici among some of Michaelangelo's early works.
Some of the funeral statuary has the expression I associate with church saints: the expression of a modelwhi is forced to sit still for hours on end, and eventually turns to inner contemplation as a last resort. But many of the statues, some by nameless artists as well as famous masters, capture a delicate or enthusiastic expression: delight, intensity, rest, anger, or simply a quirk such as giving a chubby cherub a little feathery tail (like a duck or bedraggled robin) to complement its wings.
I continue to enjoy the (sometimes decaying) stonework, every building decorated as much by time as by the hands of its artisans. Why is it that some artifacts become more beautiful with wear, the layers of damage and repair adding a sense of history, whereas other things merely become shabby or disintegrate altogether?
We comment cheerfully on the multitude of tourists, and of performing our assigned tasks for economic benefit: spending some money on lunch, sightseeing, and decorated paper, and of course providing two more bodies in order that all the other tourists may fully experience the essential crowds.
Toward the middle of the day, we proceed back across the bridge ... ponte... with all the jewelry shops (and more tourists), and head into the hills for a walk along country roads back to the car. Fabio lived with his family in Florence from age 5 to about 25, and remembers many of these roads and churches from school days and his father's time.
We notice olives, some with fruit coming on, others strangely without.
Fabio comments on the pride of Florence, to close so many doors to the tourists, yet charge money to enter the churches and sanctuaries. (As a part-time Florentine, Fabio is allowed to criticize. I remain appreciative, and over dinner later suggest that perhaps this diffidence, or distance, helps to preserve the character of the town. If they were too eager to please, then like many tropical islands, soon there would be no Florence but only "Florence Springs Resort."
Behind closed doors, we passed the guardhouse (due to open at 5pm), the rose garden (only open May and June), the restaurant where Fabio had hoped to stop for a snack (hours scratched out on the sign, changed from 10:00AM-2:00 to 17:00AM-2:00, presumably new evening hours), and a number of elegant villas and gardens.
We find a "cafe michaelangelo" open near where we parked the car, and enjoy fresh orange juice before descending once more into the car-friendly quarters of Florence. We meet Marta, Fabio and Adele's daughter, who is a researcher on biomolecular treatments for heart tissue. She also gives us water and orange juice (the days here are quite hot, although our walk in old Florence was graced with a brief, refreshing rain), and we talk with great enthusiasm.
Marta's English, like Fabio's, is fluent and easy. Later that night, I wonder if she is forced to learn English for her profession? Latin American scientists I had met in Oregon told me that much of the cutting-edge research is published in English, and that one must learn the language to have a chance of keeping up with professional standards.
I have forgotten to bring any gift for Marta among my Oregon treasures -- since she no longer lives at home, she does not figure as frequently in Fabio's correspondence. So while we are sitting to drink, I ask for paper and scissors to make an "unseasonable" artwork. Between talking, I cut her a snowflake based on my recent impressions of Florence. Alternating bands of dark green and bright white stone, become alternating notches of paper and open space. A cupola, a spire, a crennelated tower, and brick-laid chunks of heavy grey stone underfoot.
We talk of mastery of arts and sciences, practice, and training someone in five minutes to copy what we have spent years researching. I show her also the folding technique for hearts and arrows, hoping that with her specialty she will enjoy it.
Home again with a phone call to Adele, dinner, and then the three of us take a leisurely walk on a dark, dusty path through the pines, to the next village where gelato beckons like a prize. We meet a friend and her new, very large mountain dog puppy. We observe a monument to a wartime atrocity, in which 29 local villagers were hung by German soldiers in reprisal for a partisan's shooting of 5-6 German soldiers.
Fabio asks Adele my question about olives, and she reports that they can be grown from seed, but it's faster to cut a branch and put it in the ground. I remain curious about -- grafting or rooting directly? Are they pollinated by bees or flies or wind? Are all the wild areas managed, or are there places where some kind of "native," "Primeval" wilderness still holds its own? (Fabio reports that there were in the past few centuries more hillside farms, which are now abandoned and returning to wilderness... this does not quite answer my question.)
Our theme for orgainzing excursions has become "the piazza," a study of a culture which spends time in public to meet friends and enjoy the long cooling dark.
But I come to realize that this place's agriculture also bears exploration: this is one of the places I have been wondering about, where there is living memory of land management that stretches back easily 300 years, perhaps as much as 3000, among the same people. The current inhabitants both live with the conseqences, and to some extent follow the practices, of the former generations; there is more continuity than in some places, where conquest or cultural conversion makes radical changes.
So perhaps I will find a way to ask for more introductions to farmers. Fabio's friend Sergio, who grows olives and makes his own wine, might be a good place to start.
But here is the disconnect of culture: as I put it last night at dinner, "travelling to a place where everyone speaks English is a bit like looking in a mirror: "Oh, I look good in Italy!" but there is a certain disincentive to learn or really immerse in local culture."
Sergio and Ernie might communicate effectively with only their hands, but for myself I must rely on Fabio's translation. We urban linguists can speak of many things, but we may not know one olive from another until they are in the jar with the label on.
Food here is fresh, excellent, healthy, delicious. This afternoon we are going for another drive, to see a medieval village, stop in Sienna's major piazza, and perhaps drive back through the wine and hill country of Chianti -- called "Chiantishire" for the number of English, German, American, and Swiss owners who have "invested" in this region.
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