They said the ride would be 45 minutes. Later, when described by the guidebook, it was 90 minutes. The Maitre d’ last night said it would be an hour and and a half. On the bus they said it would be two and a half hours. I was glad we got underway promptly before it turned into four hours. Apparently Firenze is moving away from the coast at an ever-expanding rate.
We arrived at the port of La Scuzzia, or La Spazia, a naval port constructed for the fearsome Italian navy. A town of 100,000 or so, not very scenic around the area we toured. Mostly state blocks of flats with the usual graffiti and clothing hanging from strings, tumbledown balconies, the general feeling of decline and decay. Once out of town we saw the mountains of Tuscany, which you see above, and the quarries from which the gleaming white Carrera marble is hewn. It’s like passing the factory that made the canvases for DaVinci.
After two hours on the road we pull into a roadside gas station, no doubt by arrangement with the owners, and everyone crashes the joint for an opportunity to void their bladder without paying someone or queuing in a museum, and get a coffee. (You know you are thinking in Euroterms when you get a coffee, as opposed to getting coffee. European, singular, American, quantity.) Then we drive into Florence, park along the trickling Arno, follow our guide - a German woman who’s lived in Italy for 30 years and speaks with an English accent - to the Piazza del Santa Croce, where we will meet up later in the afternoon. A detail of the exterior:
We are on our own. First, the church, where a matron guides the inappropriately attired out of the church because they are displaying an excess of legs. Extraordinary statuary, dead people entombed in the floor: ancient Europe, its tradition and culture reduced to a photo opportunity. We walk down to the Arno by side streets, and since the Uffizi is booked and packed with a mile-long line, investigate the Palazzo Pitti.
Named for its original inhabitants, kicked out by the Medicis, later occupied by the Napoloeonic forces, then the home of the first king after unification. Which remind me: I’d seen some graffiti that required explaining 150 ano de shame. Asked the tour guide who, exactly, was ashamed of unification, and why - Northern League stuff? She said yes, also Italians, they are still very racist. By which she meant the north hated the south. I noted that our state in the USA was 153 years old, which meant it was really older than Italy.
“Dad,” Natalie hissed. “She doesn’t care.”
Got tickets from a booth at the Pitti; the clerk, upon learning we were Americans, turned frosty. Okay fine whatever. We saw an exhibit of old clothes, which was of no interest to me whatsoever, but the rooms - last made over in the 18th century, it seemed, or early 19th - were fascinating. And endless procession of salons with ornate ceilings.
The occasional grand room, which I snapped surreptitiously, because it was against the law - come and get me, cabinari! - but you got the sense of stifling social orders and elaborate political gavottes. We ended up in an immense formal expanse called the Boboli gardens.
For reasons I can only imagine, there was a statue of Mnester, of all people.
Here’s the inscription on the base:
Can’t find any translations online, but I’ll bet it’s the name of an actor, and he’s posed “as Mnester,” afamous actor during the reign of Claudius. Seems a peculiar choice for an aristocratic, since Mnester was executed for his participation in a coup.
It was a theater, lined with statues in niches above the stone benches.
What did they do? What did they see? All these blank stone faces, bored with the long unspooling of history since the powdered ladies fled, disinclined to tell tales. But you can imagine, the pretty countesses or the rich ones with powerful names fanning themselves and giggling and watching the calves of the young bucks in white silk tights and BO beneath the stiff coat. Music. Invisible servants. A world unto itself, a masque, eternal and all-powerful right up unto the moment it wasn’t.
The view was superb:
Man, imagine that at night in the 16th century, with all the lights of the city burning bright, and the red aircraft-warning-light atop the Campinale blinking on and off. Awesome!
We took a path that led down into some underbrush; felt like a secret passageway. Below, a spooky grotto.
Looks like a building with Elephant Man’s disease, or some sort of skin condition.
As wikipedia notes about the place, that’s “a natural refuge to allow shepherds to protect themselves from wild animals; it originally housed The Prisoners of Michelangelo (now replaced by copies), statues that were first intended for the tomb of the Pope Julius II. Other rooms in the Grotto contain Giambologna's famous Bathing Venus and an 18th-century group of Paris and Helen by Vincenzo de' Rossi.”
That would be this:
Then off through Florence. Across the Old Bridge, over to the scupture building . . .
. . . with all the pictures of dudes beating other dudes for mythical reasons, and then looking to others to confirm he should continue beating him.
Then up to the Duomo. My heart started to pound. All the things I saw in high school books, the “Civilization” series, the dark rooms of college art history classes. Finally.
Stood at Ghiberti’s doors at the Baptistry, and drank it in. Okay, it’s a replica; cue Terry Gilliam in “Holy Grail” saying “It’s only a model.” FINE. There was no possibility of getting inside, since people had been queuing since 1949. So we found a restaurant, and I realized for the first time that the Sodas of the World attraction at Epcot lied to me. I wanted some Beverly, dammit. Everyone loves to say they hate Beverly, but I like it, and was looking forward to making my daughter say ewwww when I ordered it, sipped, and made an expression of sublime satisfaction. Couldn’t find it anywhere.
Back to the meeting place - but en route I found some old European neon. Makes sense, us being in Europe, but this seems uniquely European.
When we got on the bus everyone fell asleep as if gassed, and when we woke we were back in La Scuzzia. The ship boomed its notes and we headed out, the sun setting behind the hills.
Absolutely exhausted. We skipped the big dinner, because we were late; dropped Gnat off at the tween club, had our adult moment in the Cove. A British couple ordered an elaborate smoothie, and I asked what it was.
“It’s called a BBC,” she said.
“BBC 1, 2, 3, what?” She sipped.
“You’ve already paid your license fee,” I said. “It should be free.”
Yes, I’m Mr. Cliched Cultural Reference! I know a half-dozen details about your culture, let me trot them out for you. When I went to exchange money for Euros the clerk was from Ukraine, and I startled her by singing the Mnohaya Lita. She sang a few bars with me. Spasibe. I’m fargin’ insufferable, I’m having such a good time.
Tomorrow: the home of us all. Tomorrow: Rome.