The Beautiful Light in Florence: The Start of a Three City Trip Through Italy
Part 1 of 3
The Italy of my youth was framed by Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, but most importantly, by the God of my mother.
Marguerite’s God was a white Italian man who probably sounded like her Italian professor at Bronx Community College and wore the same dour expression. I imagined that this God had thinning hair and judged me constantly for failing to say the rosary, or even hold one as often as my mother did. I also imagined that he loved her, probably, but never as much as me.
What I knew of Italy was framed by New York and New Yorkers when I had to cross through Little Italy in the Bronx on my way to school, inhaling the heavenly scent of freshly baked bread made by Italian immigrants in America who imprinted us with their pizza and with Catholic saints. I never imagined I would actually go to the continent shaped like the boots I coveted (and I am proud to say that I did, in fact, once own a pair of delightfully decadent-to-me suede leather thigh-high boots, thank you) until my sister moved there, and invited me to come for my milestone birthday.
The older I get, the more I whine about the life of an introvert. (Sorry, friends who have been subjected to said whining.) Newly, introvert-embracing me, imagined embarking upon a solo trip to Paris that might or might not include work. But when you have a sister in Naples who tells you to come visit, you go.
Let me tell you what I did not do.
I did not look up or practice any Italian. (Google Translate is magic. It also helps to know some Spanish.)
I did not look up anything on Trip Advisor or Yelp, barely looked at the links that our travel agent sent ahead of a three-city trip through Florence, Rome and Naples.
It *sounded* like a dream. To everyone I mentioned this trip, the response was a breathy, “I’m jealous.” Throughout the duration of the planning of the trip until the day that I left, I was in the process of leaving a job working with a lot of people I loved, which was more emotionally taxing than I have words to say.
In the morning, I left my laptop in the office and said a tearful goodbye. In the afternoon, I had a late lunch and a delicious donut-and-hot chocolate date. He sent me off with a small Moleskine notebook with the hashtag #builtbygirls on the cover.
I packed clothes, shoes, bubble wrap for copious amounts of wine to bring back and a pair of heels based on the advice of one blog that turned out to be wrong.
It turns out that it is not so easy to just leave one version of your life to embrace another, but God knows more than me; the universe made April 20th the day to leave one reality and fly off into the unknown universe of another.
So, off to Italy I went.
The light in Florence is magic. It falls in golden streams on everything and smells like satin warmed by steam from a fresh plate of pasta.
We stayed at a lovely, cavernous bed and breakfast not far from the first major landmark in Italy I instantly fell in love with, the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower, known there simply as the Duomo. We had three days there, and yet never went inside, but seeing the outside, both in the daytime and at night, was enough.
Instantly, we learned that we stood out; four of us were black women, one of us a white woman, all American. Gypsies approached us constantly, along with the other obvious tourists. Street salesmen looking to shill selfie sticks called us sister if they were African or Obama if they were not.
Most spectacular to me was a tour of the Florence art museum that houses Michaelangelo’s David. To explain why, it helps to know that I have spent the better part of the last three decades shaping my identity around work that paid me to do anything other than write essays or fiction or poetry — the work that I love most. Put another way, I have not identified as an artist since I was a little girl. I have a lot of valid reasons for this and a lot of not so valid excuses for it.
But the moment at which I found myself in Italy, at the foot of the David with a tiny radio around my neck and earphones into which a tour guide named Louisa was lovingly describing the bad-tempered, diminutive Michaelangelo was also the moment of my particular crossroads.
There had been opportunities, moments like this before in my life, to choose the safety of another shore, a more easily understood identity to package for friends and family or others on social media. A better, more polished brand.
I had always chosen better press for myself. For my ego. Because of fear.
Louisa explained that Michaelangelo was a small, angry man with a broken nose earned in a fight. (My kind of dude. I love them scrappy.)
We know of his brilliance because of the Sistine Chapel but also because of the David — he was said to consider that whatever he would carve from the marble was already contained inside of the shapeless block. This line stunned me — it is akin to the first draft of a writer’s work. The real story is in there, revision reveals it further as you go.
But everything sounds so much better when Italians say it. Louisa could read to me the ingredients of all the processed foods in the world and it would be fascinating.
I was so busy thinking of all the different ways Michaelangelo’s approach to marble applies to writer’s work that I didn’t hear where David was originally intended to be placed. There is something beautiful and hard to turn away from everywhere the eye lands in Italy, and this seemed particularly true in Florence, which is another reason I was distracted from this detail. But what matters is that Michaelangelo crafted the details of David, the veins in his hands, the curls of his hair, for his own standards. No one else was meant to see them, because David was never intended to be situated at ground level.
Michaelangelo made the boy David from the Bible into a fearless man who would face Goliath with hearts in his eyes. He would be imbued with God’s strength, naked but for a slingshot. Vulnerable but poised. It was because of David reshaped in this way that Florence became the birthplace of the Renaissance and reset Western Art.
I can be obtuse at times — deliberately stubborn and intractable. But this was the tender, loving message from God to me at this moment in my life to leap into the life that I have dreamed of creating for myself that I needed affirmed halfway across the world from my writing desk. I smiled and took too many pictures of David. Tried to text my paramour but probably failed to translate the significance, though he sweetly affirmed my excitement over seeing so much art.
We had a cooking class in Florence that produced one of the best meals of the trip featuring homemade pasta. (I made HOMEMADE PASTA.)
With our hearts and bellies full of magic and love, we took our first train of the trip to Rome.