Art history Florence: a Grand Detour

“The thing about walking in Florence,” said dad, “is that everyone is trying to kill you.”

He was explaining this latest theory while darting out from between two parked cars on a narrow, but busy street, oblivious to the speeding, oncoming delivery van 15 metres away.

He continued: “The other day, I had a motorcyclist driving behind me across the pedestrian crossing.” This might explain why, right now, he was ignoring the zebra crossing several metres away in favour of crossing on a tight, blind corner, up a hill.

He took out his map to check where we were going. Where were we, and where were we going?

We were currently positioned in the middle of a crossroad of narrow laneways – as in, definitely not on the footpath, but on the road, and with motorcycles zooming around us.

The question was, which intersection? Eschewing Google for way-finding, dad favoured the tourist map he’d found at the AirBnb, which was fine if you were looking for a Michelangelo or a McDonalds, but not much else.

Like Boswell and Byron before him, dad was on the latest version of his own ‘Grand Tour’ of Renaissance art and history. Given his inability to map-read, which found him lost at every (wrong) turn, his was more like a ‘Grand Detour’.

But like a 20-year-old backpacker in Thailand, it can be good to travel in order to lose yourself, and find yourself, occasionally.

This time dad was spending several weeks immersed in Neo-Classicism and Romanticism at the British Institute of Florence, attending a series of lectures and guided museum visits. Seeking cultural balm for my soul, and some son-father time, I was happily tagging along.  

The library of the British Institute, one floor up a stately building between the Carraia and Santa Trinita bridges on the south side of the Arno river, has a collection of books as old and musty as its collection of eccentric British gentlemen.

Killing the 10 minutes before the first lecture, dad and I sat in the well-worn club lounges, when an elderly former professor launched a conversation about the recently convicted child sex abuser Cardinal George Pell with his neighbour.

“There is an argument,” he proferred, in a plummy Oxbridge dialect, “that some children, do act in a way that is, provocative?” He phrased his statement like a question.

“I went to a public school, and I just, you never just, you know, it just couldn’t have happened in those types of environments,” he continued, adding by way of evidence, that he had not seen anything first hand.  

 “Well you know what the number one cause of pedophilia is?” I responded, in broad Australian.  

He looked my way.

“Sexy kids.”

A smirk crossed the lips of the other elderly gentleman, who was studiously reading the London Review of Books, and doing his best not to listen in. At this point, dad jumped in with, “Some would also say that English public schools are the greatest form of child abuse.”

There’s no better way to bond than by schooling a pedophile-apologist with a lesson in Enlightenment. With that class now finished, we picked up our belongings and headed into the lecture.

What else to do in Florence?

When not in the classroom, we ate, drank, shopped and sight-saw.  

Observations of the trip in these regards include:

Medici Gelateria opposite the Statuto tramway. You can go (almost) direct from the airport to eating a brioche stuffed with three flavours of gelati within 30 minutes.

Eataly: a runaway success of a supermarket showcasing the best of Italian regional produce, with an okay restaurant within. Though, if we are to stick the puns, the state of the toilets was a bit ‘Shitaly’.

Rinascente has always been a poor man’s department store, but now there’s finally something worth buying. They recently opened a rooftop terrace, and its stunning view over Piazza della Repubblica can be purchased for the price of (an only slightly over-priced) coffee.

The Piazza della Repubblica itself is currently being dug up for renewal. Its famous arch has an inscription that reads:

L’ANTICO CENTRO DELLA CITTÀ DA SECOLARE SQUALLORE A VITA NUOVA RESTITUITO (The ancient centre of the city / restored from age-old squalor / to new life).

This sentiment is better expressed in today’s language by the opening of an Apple Store beneath it.

For those without a budget for first-hand luxury, Florence also has amazing vintage stores, where many designers from name brands find inspiration for their next collections.

One such is Vintage Epoca, where the stylish, elderly storekeeper engaged me in discussion about the state of the world.

“We’re in a World War at the moment, but it’s an economic one,” he said. “And people don’t even know about it.”

I was shopping for a third-hand suit in a back-street of Florence. For the record, I know all about it.


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