In Search Of A View

A devoted reader of E.M. Forster’s on a 21st century pilgrimage back to Florence

A bronze bas-relief on Ghiberti’s Baptistery

Palazzo Vecchio

Bas-relief on Ghiberti’s Baptistery

A bronze bas-relief on Ghiberti’s Baptistery

It may be less comfortable than flying and it’s certainly no longer cheaper, but, for me, the night train is still the only romantic way to get to Italy. I love cracking open the supermarket prosecco in the intimate confines of the train compartment as you roll out of the Südbahnhof, offering it around in plastic beakers to break the ice with your doubtful fellow passengers, making up your beds as the train hits the twisting valleys of southern Austria, sleeping fitfully through the darkened Friuli and then deeply through the mournful plains of the Veneto, before being spewed out, grit-eyed but euphoric, in the cold dawn expanses of Florence’s  Santa Maria Novella station.

I was not on holiday, exactly. This was more a sort of cultural pilgrimage. You see, for three centuries now at this time of year, young Britons and Americans have crossed the Alps southwards, looking for what novelist Malcolm Bradbury describes as a “magical revelation,” as they found their way to “art, self-improvement, sunshine, health, romance and happiness.” Byron and Shelley wrote grandly about the experience, Elizabeth Barrett Browning earnestly, and Mark Twain with his tongue firmly in his cheek in his wonderful mock memoir Innocents Abroad.

But the one that captures the scene most perfectly is E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View – a tale of self-discovery saturated with the splendor and passion of Florence and the rich comedy of the northern tourists that flood her. It was published exactly 100 years ago, when the author was just my age, so it seemed like the right time to follow the trail of his heroine Miss Lucy Honeychurch and see what has changed over a full century of tourism.

The first thing we did at the station, of course, was consult a guidebook. The red-covered Baedeker, ubiquitous in Forster’s day, has now been replaced by the blue-covered Lonely Planet, but as unrepentant tourists, we are no less dependent on its established wisdom.  It sent us (wisely) to the nearby Mercato Centrale, the largest covered market in Europe. After all, if you arrive in the city of culture, it’s good to start with the sort of art that everyone can understand immediately – food.

Snacking directly at the counters, we worked our way through a bewildering maze of delicious Tuscan sausages and cheeses perched on thick unsalted bread and drizzled in cloudy olive oil…

Suddenly, the white-whiskered butcher, for some unseen reason, broke out in uncontrolled rage and launched himself furiously at the throat of a rival stand-worker across the aisle, as three colleagues struggled to restrain him – and keep his hands as far as possible from the many lethal knives in plain view. Were we, like Lucy, to witness a Florentine murder? Thankfully the butcher’s colleagues were strong and successfully held him back, and before we left the market, he was placidly cutting up sausages again.

Now fully fortified, we packed the guide book away for a while, and, as the Forster’s pompous lady novelist Miss Lavish recommends, ‘simply drift’ through the gray-brown streets.

It’s here more than anywhere that you regret the passing of time. Drifting is a difficult art in 2008, with the pavements so perilously narrow and the constant swarms of moped riders and impatient taxi drivers brushing so narrowly past your ankles. Even in Florence, it’s hard to find romance while walking single-file in a thick broth of diesel fumes.

We turned the corner, though, and the romance was back. We’d entered what Forster uncharitably described as “another piazza, large and dusty, on the further side of which rose a black and white façade of surpassing ugliness.” We were looking at Santa Croce basilica. I disagree: Nicolò Mata’s massive marble façade, all reflected light and gracious triangles, is far from ugly, the wide, airy square still making aesthetic sense even as a group of Asian children, armed with blue plastic bats and a bright orange ball, were showcasing the very un-Italian game of cricket to a curious and enthusiastic crowd. The game brought the square alive; and as setting for a “day of sports” it was a highly appropriate choice. The ability to surprise is one of the chief charms of any town.

Palazzo Vecchio

Palazzo Vecchio

As well as playing the stage to the burning of heretics, the Piazza Santa Croce is also one of the acknowledged nursery of the great sport the Italians lovingly call ‘il Calcio,’ and we Brits call football. In Renaissance Florence teams dressed in colored costumes were already kicking (rather solid) balls around the huge square on feast days. Their game was more organized, more colorful and more refined than its contemporary Anglo-Saxon cousin mob-football, and it was also more theatrical. Cultural anthropologists might like to think about this differing heritage when watching the elegant but dive-prone Filippo Inzaghi and the rampaging but honest Wayne Rooney nowadays.

Miss Honeychurch was certainly right about one thing, the massive basilica, designed under the Franciscan principles of sober austerity does look rather like a `barn.’ She was also right about the temperature: “She watched the tourists: their noses were as red as their Baedekers, so cold was Santa Croce.” The chill certainly lends urgency to the progress from one monument to the other. Unlike Lucy, we sadly didn’t have a kindly free-thinker like Mr. Emerson to lead us through the Giotto frescoes in the Peruzzi chapel, but we did splash out on an audio guide. It’s an engaging companion that told us the fascinating story of why the pulpit seems to have been built without steps (it’s all to do with aristocratic rivalry over burial rights); and, unlike the garrulous Mr. Emerson, it shuts up at the press of a button.

The cold can be penetrating, though, and our audio guide over, we went rushing out the doors like kids after school and straight into a welcoming trattoria on the Via Guelfa, with wooden baskets and dried herbs hanging from the ceiling. Like Miss Lavish the novelist, we had an unflagging enthusiasm for anything ‘typical’. What we got was also surprising, mostly because we couldn’t understand the menu: First a soup called ribollita, which means twice boiled in Italian, and is a gruel of bread and vegetables that is so thick and wholesome it could power you through anything, save perhaps the monstrous queue for the Uffizi Gallery.

Next we had “trippa alla Florentina” which we perhaps should have known was what in English is called tripe, the lining of a cow’s stomach. Still, it was delicious and, as Forster would have us know, Italy is about shedding northern inhibitions and opening yourself up to new experiences.

Once you’ve eaten tripe and washed it down with a half-litre of house wine that you’d like to think was probably decent Chianti, nothing intimidates you: not the snarling stone lion in the Loggia della Signoria, nor the blood-thirsty bronze Perseus for that matter or even Giambologna’s muscular rapist. Florence, for all it’s austere churches and history of bloodshed is a kind city dominated by its soft hills and gentle flow of the river Arno.

It’s a city to sit along the Lungarno della Grazie on the parapet overlooking that river, near the site of the modest Pension Bertollini, now a posh and exclusive hotel called the Jennings-Riccioli, where Lucy stayed and fretted about the view and learned to feel and fear those feelings and finally to embrace them.

Once there at the river you should sit, ice-cream in hand and guide book firmly tucked away, and watch the portrait painters hawking their trade to the tourists, the shopkeepers gesticulating flamboyantly to one another and the haphazard rowers sculling without rhythm on the gurgling water that Lucy heard “bearing down the snows of winter into the Mediterranean.” For after all, this great city of art that is Florence is most of all a city of life:

“Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away,” Forster wrote, “and the traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but v the blue sky and the men and the women who live under it.”

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