by Ingeborg Robles
I admit: the first time I came to Florence, I did everything the obvious way. Incidentally, the first time I ever set eyes on this gorgeous city was on our honeymoon! ... Honeymoon! ... In Italy...! – How much more obvious can you get, right? But back then I didn't treasure originality just for the sake of originality. I also didn’t like convention just for the sake of convention. So at first I wanted no honeymoon. Then, as we had some free time, we decided in the last minute to still go for it, but no, we didn’t want to be original! So we went to Italy. And to Florence. And in Florence we ate pasta, and went to see David, and spent hours at the Uffizi, and strolled through the Boboli Garden and so on... Everything, obviously, with guide in one hand, map in the other. In other words, we did all the obvious things.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I still think this can be a valid way of tourism, too. You read, look, learn. It is comforting, too. What’s foreign, won’t be too disturbing. You will not be rocketed out of your accumulated life experience by shock-waves of ever new details. Instead, you are gently enriched by a unifying portrait of a new city and culture: Put together a few phrases of Italian, eat Italian food and admire Italian art. That’s ok.
But it’s not the only way.
One day, I stumbled upon a little, relatively insignificant detail. I read somewhere that in 1911 the French writer and intellectual Romain Rolland had stayed in the Hotel Berchielli on his visit to Florence.
I must have walked past the hotel Berchielli uncountable times without ever even noticing it. It is situated just a few steps from Ponte Vecchio on the Lungarno, but I only noticed it the day I was looking for it. It’s a nice hotel. Coloured glass windows and a blue staircase, like a dolls house, only in the dimensions of a luxury hotel. I felt slightly uncomfortable, though, since I didn’t have a real purpose there. That’s when my eyes fell on the back exit. I quickly stepped out. And found myself in another world…
The square is small. For a moment I almost feel oppressed. To gain some visual breath, I look to the left where the Piazza del Limbo opens up to a small street. There stands a narrow house on which it says in big letters: „Bagni nelle antiche terme“. I get closer, I am standing right in front of the house, no young Romans in white Togas, alas! Instead shop windows with shirts, cashmere pullovers, expensive menswear, all in the conservative style. The shop belongs, as it says, to the English company “Thomas Mason” which was founded, that’s also written on the sign, in 1796 in Lancashire. A piece of 18th century Lancashire in the heart of Florence – rather unobvious! I try to imagine some Lancashire sheep licking the feet of a proud, swaggering Florentine youth…
Then comes the part which I call retrospective tourism. Instead of starting with a guide, or the Internet, choosing the hotel that’s right for my finances, reading up on Michelangelo and the most important museums and then, filled up with information, seek out the „real“, I have found myself, by just following some arbitrarily, casually picked up fact, in a completely unforeseen context pointing in all sorts of different directions requiring more information.
First, inevitably, comes some correction. The Piazza del Limbo, I find out, doesn’t refer to Dante, even though I might be forgiven for having thought so since in the vicinity run the truly sombre streets “Vicolo del Limbo” and “Via del Purgatorio” which are indeed named after the “Divine Comedy”. The Piazza del Limbo, however, takes its name from a cemetery once located there for children who died before having been baptized.
The church Santi Apostoli is in fact one of the oldest churches in Florence, it was built in the 11th century. Inside, one can admire the stones from the Holy Grave in Jerusalem, which the Florentine Pazzino de’ Pazzi brought back from the crusades. They are still used today to light the fire for the traditional “Scoppio del Carro” on Easter Sunday. And with the Palazzo Borgherini-Rosselli del Turco next to the Church we also have a little reference not just to Jerusalem, but also to Turkey!
I suggest you have a go at it yourself: Start with something simple, something you come upon by chance, a little detail, follow it up. And let yourself be guided by the unobvious connections that spring up by and by. Maybe you won’t end up with Florence in your pocket, but maybe some of the city’s essence - its historical complexity and irreducibility to just one idea - will reveal itself.