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Tuscan springtime

Tuscan springtime
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First Published: Fri, Feb 11 2011. 09 30 PM IST

Enchantress: The Ponte Vecchio straddles the Arno, Photograph by Thinkstock
Enchantress: The Ponte Vecchio straddles the Arno, Photograph by Thinkstock
Updated: Fri, Feb 11 2011. 09 30 PM IST
We stood on the cliffs surrounding the town, taking in what Florence offered. There was nothing but blue sky above us, just as E.M. Forster had described. We saw the Arno meander through the town, languorous and unhurried, and the bridge, Ponte Vecchio, connecting the city. There, the previous afternoon we had bargained with a persistent artist who was trying to convince us that somehow the canvas on which he had painted the old bridge, and which looked identical to the hundreds of other canvases painted by other artists looking for tourists, was in some way different, and more beautiful, than theirs. We smiled as we left him.
Enchantress: The Ponte Vecchio straddles the Arno, Photograph by Thinkstock
And the best way to see that medieval bridge was from the cliff, though we were surrounded by visitors, all training their lenses, taking photographs which would look exactly like those others took, and yet, each image would be different, because each image had a special meaning for the one who took it, capturing not just the bridge in its physical state—its age, its vulnerability— but as the symbol of a special moment with someone the photographer loved.
I was in Florence, my enchantress by my side, as we walked its old cobbled-stones streets, with cheerful cherubs and scary gargoyles protruding from the buildings, as if about to take off. We walked through the sensuous city, whose seductive charm Salman Rushdie describes in The Enchantress of Florence as: “Imagine a pair of woman’s lips, puckering for a kiss. That is the city of Florence, narrow at the edges, swelling at the centre, with the Arno flowing through between, parting the two lips, the upper and the lower. The city is an enchantress. When it kisses you, you are lost...”
Each town has a centre, where all roads lead, and Florence has its Duomo, the magnificent dome atop the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, completed by Brunelleschi in the 15th century, some 150 years after it was first designed. Giotto’s tall bell tower is next to it, and the piazza nearby has been made pedestrian-friendly. This is Italy, so you guard your wallets, you feed the birds, and you kiss in full view of strangers, and then you go to taverns for fresh Chianti. Italian families stroll by, ignoring you, paying attention to Ghiberti’s bronze doors of the baptistery nearby (which Michelangelo described as the gates of paradise), and the black and white marble exterior of the Basilica, which of course suits you fine.
The Duomo dominates the Florence skyline. Photograph by Thinkstock
In A Room with a View, Forster insisted you go to Florence and throw away the guidebook. Indeed, Lucy Honeychurch begins to enjoy the city only after she has put aside the Baedeker, a reference to a popular guidebook of the time. Without that guidebook telling her what to think, she immerses herself in the charms of the city, and Forster nods approvingly, writing: “The pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.” For Forster knew where joy lay: “Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hours may slip away, 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 the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.”
The Basilica di Santa Croce where Honeychurch put aside her guidebook conceals its charms. Its interior looks stern and austere, and the atmosphere is not warm. But the city’s history surrounds you, with the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo. Other memorials remember Dante and Machiavelli. There is no escape from Italy’s rich past and history. There is none from tourists either—so if you see a guide carrying a flag followed by camera-toting crowds, wait. Forget their commentary— there’s no need to take a free ride; facts become irrelevant, this is Florence, emotions are everything.
There is a joy in being left alone, in discovering Florence on your own.
And we were younger and happy when we went there, and under that blue sky that refused to turn gloomy, we discovered the joy of being alone in a crowd. They were tourists, and we felt snooty: They were in shorts and T-shirts, water bottles in one hand, cellphones in the other, taking more photographs of the walls and the statues and the cathedrals that dotted the old town; we let our eyes capture—and preserve—the fragile memories. The days, we knew, would not end soon, with the bars coming alive at night, and you never felt alone. And you began to realize how this town, which banished solitude, made more of you, and how the presence of the crowd reinforces your sense of self.
On our last day we went to Fiesole. That is where Honeychurch kissed, confirming her love. In Forster’s time, you needed a horse carriage to take you there and it took an hour; a bus or a car ride makes the journey quicker.
And in that modest town, after a meal of lasagne made of eggplant and cheese accompanied by more Tuscan wine and foccacia dipped in olive oil, we walked up to the high point, from where you can see almost forever—the valley in its splendour: the lazy river, the even heights of the houses, and there, rising unexpectedly, and astonishingly, the massive Duomo. The sky was bright, the Tuscan sun comforting. How could you not kiss?
We didn’t want this Florentine interlude to end, and we hoped to return.
Write to Salil at detours@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Feb 11 2011. 09 30 PM IST