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A WANDERER IN FLORENCE - Infinite riches in a little room

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By Ruchir Joshi
  • Published 18.08.13

For long I’ve read the cliches about how Italians are crazy drivers and — along with the Greeks — by far the most dangerous of all motoring Europeans. The road from Como to Milan being short and still very much under the penumbra of constipated Swiss drivery, I have to wait till we head from Milan to Florence to test the veracity of the archetyping. As we hit the autostrada the heat feels like it’s coming from a proper home sun; if I don’t look around too much, just keep my eyes on the road in front, it’s possible to imagine one is heading from Delhi to Ambala-Chandigarh on a warm March or October day. The private cars seem to be quite well behaved, nothing like our north Indian DZire maniacs, but the trucks give the game away a bit. Chugging along in a brisk convoy on the right, every now and then a big guy will decide to automotively stretch his arms. Without any warning a massive articulated lorry will suddenly pull out in front of you and go into the leisurely overtake of some annoyance ahead; it’s up to you to stamp on the brakes and pull your puny vehicle back to 80kmph or whatever from the speed limit of 110kmph. Say what you like about Indian highways, slam the behaviour of the smaller vehicles and the state transport buses, but you’ll rarely see an Indian trucker change lanes without ample signalling and warning.

However, since I’m not driving, I get to salivate over the map. The highway to Florence goes through a tirtha-yatra for any addict of Italian food: first up is Parma, with its world famous prosciutto, the amazing ham that’s eaten sliced handkerchief-thin, then comes Reggiano, the home of the ubiquitous Parmigiana (or Parmesan) cheese, and that is followed by Modena which gives the foodie-world the magical Balsamico vinegar. Others being more hungry for art than foodstuffs, we stop only in Parma to pick up some prosciutto. The man behind the counter asks me whether Parma ham is available in India (yes, in Delhi and Mumbai, at extortionate prices) and then googlies me by asking me about cricket, which he’s seen on TV. He says he plays baseball and he finds that complicated enough. I say cricket is a religion, and he should come to India where I will explain it to him (I don’t say I’m fantasizing about him landing at Dumdum with a three-kilo leg of prosciutto aged 30 months). As we zip through Reggiano and Modena I see factories of famous pasta brands. It’s the same feeling I had when I saw tankers carrying scotch whisky in Scotland — the mystique goes right out of the window, replaced by the realization that this is, first and foremost, a huge, highly organized industry with a worldwide export market. As we pass the plants, I have visions of mammoth battering rams made of mile-long spaghetti, two-storey-high vats of pungent vinegar and towering walls made from piled legs of ham.

Reaching Florence that evening, it takes a few glasses of chianti and a free buffet of really good antipasti to get rid of the industrial hallucinations. How beautifully my room is situated becomes fully clear only the next morning when I find myself looking down from my window at the bright green waters of the Arno. Having imagined Florence in some form or other since I read Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstacy as a teenager, the tiny scale of the city comes as a bit of a shock. So huge is Florence in our experience of European art, so influential are its densely packed treasures that the physical size of the town gets completely obfuscated.

On the first day, having taken one look at the serpentine queue winding at the Duomo, I spend my time just treading the streets. It rapidly becomes clear that I’ve chosen to visit Italy at about the worst time possible: it’s searing hot, the lanes are packed with tourists, everything is crowded and everything is expensive (though only by Italian standards and not UK or Switzerland — the last two places to lay claims on my bank balance). On the other hand, there is this light which demands the use of the word ‘pellucid’ even in the height of summer, this razor sharp light which explains, clarifies, all great Italian painting from Giotto to Giorgio de Chirico.

After a while I learn to swim in the tide of tourists, watching them as much as the buildings at which we’re all gawking. Instinctively (not rocket science, it’s tandooring at 41 degrees in the shade), the foiled glutton in me accepts that this is also not the best season, perhaps, to sample the heavier sectors of Italian cuisine: rations across the afternoon consist of small scoops of the best ice-cream in the world, alternated (after a gap) with some of the best coffee a person can get. As I stumble from street to street, somewhere in my head, even though I haven’t yet had any wine, Dean Martin hums his pop-crooner hit That’s Amore — “When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine…”

Later that day and across the next two I go into a ‘chiesa zone’, a series of churches small and big. At some point I find myself in the church of Santa Croce, shaking my head and counting the names. First there is the tomb of Machiavelli. Then there is Dante. Then Michelangelo. “They can’t top that,” I think, foolishly, just as I see the carved letters spelling out “Galileus Galileius”. By the time I get to the composer Rossini, I’m trying not to laugh at the absurdity of this richness. Even as I stifle my laugh, I come across a small 20th-century plaque to Marconi (at which the Calcuttan in me bristles, somewhat). In other churches, a succession of more legendary names, Donatello, Ghirlandaio, Giotto, Caravaggio. I’m not here strictly on an art tour, I miss out on the great Uffizi gallery because the lines are so long and sensible people book well in advance, but I go in where my fancy takes me and take in what I can, perhaps perversely, strictly without the help of any guide book.

In the blur of lasering sunbeams and shaded frescoes, there is one moment I find myself on the verge of tears. It’s a small church, the chiesa of Oggnisanti, and it’s almost empty around noon when I walk in. Like so many places, the old art is interrupted by very contemporary scaffolding needed for restoration work; in Italy, you constantly realize the amount of work being put into protecting, preserving and repairing the incredible heritage. I wind my way past the area being repaired and past the altar to a small chapel. At first I don’t understand where I am. Then I see the notes left on the wooden railing, chits of paper scribbled in several different languages. “You teach me what absolute beauty means. May you have eternal rest...” “Grazie per sempre, fratello mio...” “Thank you for creating beauty in this CRAZY world…” “I admire your humility, so great you are and yet so humble, your tomb so simple.” And one that simply says, “Thank you.” All the notes are addressed to one Botticelli, painter, and the penny finally drops that it’s his tomb I’m looking at.

We can theorize about art all we like, about its importance and unimportance, about taste and the ‘death of taste’ brought about by the arrival of post-modern thought, about the difference between European and Asian art, or between religious and secular work. Botticelli is not even one of my favourite painters. But, standing there, I was unable to wriggle away from the emotion contained in these little scraps of paper. I couldn’t help feeling that these were notes written by young people, a new generation, a bunch of cellphone and computer addicts, but people who’d nevertheless been moved by something painted centuries ago into thinking about the power of beauty in this ‘crazy’ world. It’s likely that most of these worshippers might have received some training to appreciate the beauty in Botticelli’s paintings, but to have accidentally witnessed the combination of education and exposure yielding this raw emotion is, ultimately, one of the best rewards of my stay in Florence.