The train arrived in Florence at the last reasonable moment, but also exactly when I had said I'd make it from Milan to Florence. This kind of event is typical of Italian deigned systems. Which is to say I arrived sometime around 17:30 local time. About then I saw the woman I was in love with, had been away from for months, through a lot of turmoil with, the most important of it all our own, and we held each other for a very long time in the Santa Maria Novella train station.
We left together.
On May 2, 2016 I figured out that it was going to be a little bit of work to keep up with my manager. I tried sending this text:
It was the whole dumb Apple compatibility thing. I had the wifi I had the desire. So I got it all into an email where I also laid out some hard plans that had developed for my return to Minneapolis--June 3, 2016 was the day. My manager shared my updates with the staff. Which I liked, I was glad to be endeared to these people.
Florence is beautiful. Truly. And the light is more than a little romantic. There are maybe two ways to look at this feature of the city, and I say this trying to understand the beauty that is undeniably present there. The first way I like to understand the look of Florence is through the eyes of the art historian, which was what was spooled out to me by my wonderful guide through the city.
The second way is perhaps through the eyes of a photographer, or a cinematographer which was how I feel I took in the city myself. Both come down to qualities of the geography and the organism of the city which contribute to how it is seen.
First, Florence as the birthplace of Renaissance art, the art historical view of the city. See, the vistas in Florence are highly planar and suggest, if you will, a strict composition. This is the result of it's hilly terrain, river delineated by numerous bridges, and the unexpected preponderance of cypress trees. Surely, just by living in the city, by 1450, there was enough delineation of space by bridges and trees that when a painter sat on a nearby hill deep perspective seemed all but obvious as did the composition in quadrants and thirds. It's almost unescapable.
In the via and piazza the city takes on a cavernous feeling, but it maintains it's strong romanticism even when it's notable places aren't visible. How? Well there's a sense of constant golden hour in Florence which I think has to do with the width of the streets and the default color of the buildings.
In the city the appearance is always lower, indirect, reflected light in closed quarters. So these things conspire towards intimacy and perduring days, unending sunrises and day long sunsets. Or so it seems. Standing close by whoever you're with requires your eyes to focus because the streets place you close. Intimacy is sort of natural and that reflected, indirect, side lighting is flattering.
Truly, the city only really opens up into the full light of day at the Piazza del Duomo. At noon you can easily be bathed in radiant, direct sunlight. The effect here is spiritual in a sense, if for no other reason by how unique it is in Florence to be bathed in light this way. All this is really to say that Florence is one of the most obviously romantic and perhaps even naturally spiritual places I've ever been.
It's also, undeniably Italy's attic. This is where so much of the old stuff of the modern world has piled up. It's where Michelangelo's macaroni paintings can be found. A sublime pieta which can move one to tears and the David too, but also just where he tooled around with marble and had it set on the refrigerator door of 16th Century Florence. Someone just couldn't part with it, and so much of it was heavy so it's here now to stumble across in a totally unexpected way and yet it's also precisely where you go to look for this stuff. This is how discovering the David was, it's in the Accademia, where you'd expect it, still when it appears it's spectacular. Say nothing of Michelangelo's slaves, trapped in stone, the greatest of which live in the Louvre. Some day the selfie-sticks will still be sold on the street with a weird fondness for this time.
The Uffizi is a perfect example of this fact of the city. A fluke of history has placed the Uffizi so highly among museums in the world, and thus it's perhaps the most unfit place to see such priceless works of art. It happens to be where they've come to live, and they are magnificent. Walking the Uffizi becomes like looking over a family album though, bound together but page by page more obviously disparate and taking centuries to unwind. It's exhausting.
Rome is rather different, a place briefly visited, but with such confidence in itself that it was impossible to mistake it for anything other than what it is. Rome's kinship with the New Yorks and Londons of the world makes sense as the former seat of some kind of empire for its time still ticking loudly. It's a world-class city, perhaps almost paradigmatic in that way.
The shape of the city is seen in it's layers which are perhaps greater than only a few cities in the world. Those layers are evidenced by Rome's limited metro, the result of digging a meter then stopping to unearth priceless artifacts from the caesars. So I'm told. But the blue print for so many Western cities is quite literally uncovered here. A grand parkway surrounded by unique neighborhoods, the forum and the seven hills. The same shape is present in the world-class city of my upbringing--Chicago--a center surrounded at first by the common land of the citizens and then the varied neighborhoods and layered. In Rome that center is the active excavation cite of the forum.
There is no mistaking Rome. But, as I say, I ultimately spent little time there. Yet this sense of it as a city that never sleeps, a city that has global ambitions, a city with lights, and so forth, is unmistakable. I was most struck when a quick train ride almost immediately left the sun setting before the Spanish Steps and neon glistened on the streets. And in this respect, what actually solidifies Rome in my mind is it's de facto status and it's depiction in an overlooked HBO show and The Great Beauty (2013) which capture all the aspects of the city I mention irrespective of being there.
Anecdotally, Rome is a city to get lost in. As I discovered on my first day. I went out for a run, the Coliseum was just at the edge of a distance I could reasonably cover. So I went for it. And I found it when I would've wanted to be back to the Air BnB. On the way back I got lost and suddenly found myself in open fields. A 40 minute run became nearly two hours. I didn't lace up my running shoes until I was in France after that.
Staying in Rome's suburbs is interesting. And this first step away from real familiarity meant getting so much wrong. Finding Internet and a wily toaster were the only things that really thwarted an easy time in Rome practically. It has other personal powers. Whatever archetypal power either of these cities has is not something to be underestimated.
Naples would be the next stop and indeed a deeper plumb into the depths of time than either Florence or Rome.