In these years he most often planned to go to Italy. He would look forward to the time when he had finished a book or a group of stories and he would be free. These plans were so much a part of his existence that he forgot them, changed them, remade them without consultation or hesitation.
—Colm Toibin, The Master
I am engulfed by history in Florence. Something extraordinary happened here during the Renaissance. How did it happen? Leonardo, Michelangelo, Galileo, Brunelleschi, Machiavelli, the Medicis—all working together, sometimes across the street from one another.
The streets are narrow and irregular and it is sometimes difficult to find a place to walk. To pass another person you often have to step off into the roadway. It is like Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. A sense of intimacy is created, but it is sometimes dangerous as the cars go whizzing by.
Many of the buildings date from the Renaissance and before. Some are beautiful palazzos or civic buildings, meticulously preserved and thoroughly modernized within. Others are still quite shabby and in need of repair. At first, I am put off by this. But then I am actually back in time, several hundred years. Wandering about the commune then, not now. In the country, the homes and public buildings are painted the most delightful shades of orange, yellow and pink. There are no gray buildings in Tuscany.
On every street there are many small shops, each selling only a few items. The pattern is repeated in the next block, as well as on the next street over. So everything you need—bread, fruit and vegetables, a book, hardware, an espresso—is close to where you live. You go from place to place gathering the things you need. And along the way, you exchange a few and sometimes many words with the people you know—that is, if they are not already chatting with someone else.
In every town there is a central square and many smaller ones. They vibrate with talk and music and the activity of the surrounding banks, restaurants, bookshops, churches, artisans and whoever else is fortunate enough to be there. The piazza is the heart of an Italian town and brings a sense of community to those who live there. It is the place to go and to be seen. For many it is their “Third Place.”
I have been struck by the absence of plants and gardens in most Italian towns and villages. In this respect, they are quite unlike Paris and the other cities and villages in France. It is rare to find trees along the streets, parks in the open areas, or gardens in the center of the old towns of Italy. Of course, this is not the case outside the center. Indeed, in the hills and on the outskirts of Florence there are beautiful parks, villas with classic gardens and uncultivated open spaces with abundant trees and wildflowers.
Here in Italy I am thrown back upon myself like nowhere else. There is no one to talk to. No one I can understand. No one tries to talk with me. The phone never rings. I think this is what it must be like in paradise. There are people everywhere. But you cannot speak to any of them.
The Company of Men
One night at a trattoria in a residential district quite far from the city center, I was one of a group of five men who were seated alone for dinner. I was struck by the rarity of such an event. I was one, the traveling American misfit. Two others were clearly laborers who had come in after a hard day of moving rocks or steel. There was one white collar worker and then a casual but well-dressed man of clearly refined taste. Each of us sitting alone at our table. I was reading my book, the cultured man his newspaper, and the three others were staring into space. I was fascinated by it all. Perhaps because it was far away from the tourist crowd or, more likely, because it was so abnormally normal—ordinary life in this city has its ordinary absurdities along with everything else.
It is not surprising that Italians are so musical. It comes with the language. When Italians speak to one another they virtually sing, with a rhythm and gesture that is slightly operatic. Soon the words echo in your mind, although you haven’t the vaguest idea what they mean. I doubt it would be difficult to learn Italian. It was not long before I found myself quite unexpectedly speaking an Italian word or phrase in a perfectly appropriate way. When most Italians talk, their hands are usually waving wildly, as if they were conducting an overture. I suspect that if you tied up their hands, they would simply be unable to utter a word.
Standing on the banks of the Arno one night I was staring at the Ponte Vecchio. I wondered how that bridge managed to survive the war when all the others, up and down the river, had been destroyed. What motivated the German, a man who perhaps had not lost all his good sense, to spare that bridge? Out in the distance I heard the bombs exploding all over Tuscany. Can you imagine what it must have been like? Night after night, day after day, one beautiful place after another smashed to rubble. Gone forever. Along with all the beautiful men and women who lived there. It was a terrible time. It is strange that it came back to me then. How little I know of what it was like. How far away I was at the time. How young. Yet that vague and remote experience, more than 50 years ago, has a place somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind. It was doing its work that night as I was gazing out over the Arno at the Ponte Vecchio.
One night I watched a man punching buttons on a storefront machine in a residential area of Florence. It was an automatic video vender that operates like a cash machine. Here is what he did: inserted his card, read the menu of available videos, requested a brief review of those he was interested in, selected the one he wanted, and hit the button. Bingo it came rolling out the slot. All the videos were visible behind a window of an unattended mini-store. No human intervention. No exchange of cash. No talk or bantering about the films. Just the person, the card and those buttons. Twenty-four hours a day.
Early this morning the rain began falling on the terra cotta roof outside my window. I could hear the water splashing against the tiles. But now the rain has stopped and the terra cotta tiles are once again dry. When they are wet, they all look the same—dark and wet. Now their colors are apparent, each one a slightly different orange than the other, partly from the dirt or moss or the natural differences between them.
Where did we go wrong? Where did we go wrong in America? I think it is the scale of things. You see that so clearly here in Florence, where everything is so much smaller than in the USA. The buildings are only a few stories high, at most. The stores are often nothing more than living room size. They sell only a few products and are ubiquitous throughout the commune. It is interesting that Florence has always been known as the commune, the community. It is really a community of small neighborhoods. The streets are very narrow. There are no broad highways crisscrossing Florence. I think that has made an enormous difference. The ancient cities were not designed for anything like the automobile. At times there is simply not enough room on the street for both car and pedestrian. Indeed, there is often a little fight for survival when the two meet. In a word, this city was designed to be lived in by human beings. I don’t know who the cities in our country were designed for.
One night at dinner I heard a young child crying in the kitchen. Mama was no doubt hard at work on the pasta. A gruff man from America was sitting next to me. I could not bear the thought of conversation. A blind man and his wife came in to eat. She was so solicitous toward him, guiding him to his seat, helping him decide what to order. As I left, the church bells were ringing in the distance. Really.
Sunday in Florence
It became very warm today in Florence. A hot Sunday with everything closed. The streets were quiet. The mood was subdued. The bustling city became a sleepy hillside village. And it was hot. Delightfully hot. The kind of hot where every now and then you need to stop just to take a breadth of air. And so I went to the park. The enormous park at the south end of Florence which stretches for miles along the Arno. It is known as the Cascine. I wanted to take some pictures, Sunday in the Park, Sunday in the Cascine. But it was impossible. It was too personal. It violated the people I wanted to photograph. How could I intrude upon those people? The man playing his harmonica while walking in the park. The lovers on the grass. The boys playing soccer. The two old ladies walking arm-in-arm, talking about who knows what. All of the novice rollerbladers taking their spills. I walked deep into the park and then back and I do have my pictures, but not on film.