Our bullet train, which topped out at 298km/h, pulled into the station. We dragged our ever-growing luggage out and onto the street pavers, each hand crafted half a millennia ago, each bearing a hundred chisel marks. And with that, the wheels of Suse’s case, groaning for months at what has been asked of them, finally snapped off.
We looked at each other, now seven hours and three train transfers into our trip, and then at our map. The one on the phone. The one that was down to 8%.
It’s symptomatic of our age that this single device that sits so comfortably in one pocket – my camera, my note pad, my newspaper, my calendar and my address book – is also my phone and my map.
Still, with a balancing act on a single wheel, and several acts of body contortion, we managed to drag it the 500 metres to Plaza Santa Maria Novella, which sits opposite Chiesa di Santa Maria Novella, and into our hotel – Hotel Santa Maria Novella.
“Buongiornio,” I said, in my best French accent.
“Buongiornio,” said the gentleman behind the counter.
He smiled at us knowingly.
“Can we check in please?”
He began tapping away. “Do you know when was this building built?” I asked.
“Maybe 15th century.”
“And do you know what did this building used to be?”
“Oh yes. A palace.”
We made our way upstairs, the mamed bag now being dragged from the battlefield directly to the morgue. As the door opened into a palatial room, we saw the grandeur of it all. I poked my head into the bathroom; Franco Cozzo seemed to have had a field day, until I tapped the wall with my finger. It was real marble.
I exited and into the room, and looked straight ahead. There, through double glazed windows, sat the Plaza Santa Maria Novella.
Right there. Out through our window. Beyond the shutters, and the double glazing.
In Florence, we had a room with a view.
* * * * *
Florence is a city of romance. But, it is a different type of romance when you compare it to France. We’re not talking bedding-your-neighbour type romance – we’re talking bucketloads of history – from Gothic, through Renaissance, through high Renaissance, through Baroque, through Rococo – type of romance. I’m talking the non-bodily kind of romance. I’m talking the ascent from the Middle Ages, over 500 years ago. I mean the beginning of art as we know it and appreciate it today.
So, we appreciated it. We wandered through a real palace, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, which was unsurprisingly taken over and expanded by the Medicis, the family who had a stranglehold over this city for the lions share of the last millenium. We visited Galleria dell’Accademia for Michelangelo’s impossibly impressive statue of David, perhaps his most well known work other than the Sisitne Chapel.
We went to Museo di San Marco to find work of Fra’ Angelico, who when not praying in a tiny cell, was painting frescos on everyone else’s, and we got to see the few material posssssions of the maternal-possession burner, Savaranola, the man who coordinated the bonfire of the vanities, burning the city’s wealth, and some of the most extraordinary art of the time, just a few years before the exact same thing happened to him. We lined up to visit the Uffizi, Italy’s answer to the Louvre, a palace-cum-gallery, with impossibly famous works by Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and some of the other Ninja Turtles.
We had the best gelato in Florence at Edoardos, the line for which snakes out and around the corner, mostly filled with locals. And we ate pizza, in a great coincidence of timing, with one of my great mentors, John McLennan and his wife Pam, at Da Gherardo, a trattoria just on the south bank of the river Arno. As the taxi pulled up to drop us off on arrival, the cab driver leant over.
“What is this place?”
“Is it good?”
“It’s been recommended to us.”
He paused a second longer. “Wow, it’s really old.”
This from the Florentine cab driver to the two Australians.
* * * * *
And, yes, Florence is old. You are hard pressed to building built in the city centre in the last 200 years.
It is a shopaholics dream, with bags, shoes, jackets, and any other leather product you care to want, on almost every street corner. It is a city that has been handcrafting products from before the Renaissance. Shops sell authentic, locally made produce and cheap imports from China – sometimes on the same shelf – in buildings that have been there for ten lifetimes.
So it was no wonder when, on looking at leather jackets, our expressive salesman, Kahir, explained that his store was previously a stable, and was older than the Duomo itself. Given that the Duomo – the crowning glory in the city that is aUNESCO Heritage site – began in 1296, this was quite a thought.
As I looked up at the narrow bricks, interweaved in intricate domes, I looked a little more closely, and began to wonder. These bricks did not lie one on top of the other. In places, at edges, they were entirely reliant on the mortar. This, in an eight hundred year old building.
And we were on the ground floor of five levels. How long is lime mortar good for?
“Are we nearly through with our transaction?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” Kahir continued, “now, let me tell you some more about, how you say, this leather.”
* * * * *
“Yep, that’s it,” Suse replied.
“Who painted it?”
“They don’t know.”
I looked at the picture, painted at the wrong end of the church. And then I looked at my wife.
“When did you decide to choose this for your honours thesis?”
“When I saw it nineteen years ago. When I saw a stream of devotees praying to it. Bringing offerings to it. I was utterly fascinated.”
I looked again at this image of The Annunciation, in the Cheisa della Santisimma Annunziata, with the Angel Gabriel telling the Virgin Mary she ain’t no virgin no more. It was a relatively plain image, by Florentine standards, but surrounding it was a an extraordinary wooden structure, six metres high, tacked above and around it, and beneath this, an alter.
“What’s that all about?”
The Medici family built that around it. It’s a Baroque baldocino. They did it to be associated with the image.” She paused. “People pray to this image. It is the longest continually active miraculous image of the Virgin Mary. The jewels that are stuck to her are votive offerings.”
For a moment I nodded, before remembering that this was my wife, and I didn’t have to pretend.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“The miraculous and the votive bit.”
“A miraculous image is one that after prayer has occurred, miracles follow. People just started praying to this image, and miracles started happening. And they have continued happening for centuries.”
I nodded, this time at least understanding the definition, if not everything else.
With that, a young woman entered the church and approached the image. She knelt before it, and prayed. And Suse began to smile. She lent in.
“That’s what gets me. That it is still of relevance to this generation. After so many years.”
I looked back at my wife, and found I was also smiling. Not for the first time, I didn’t understand, and yet I understood completely.
* * * * *