If you come to Florence for the first time, a city you may have visited previously in art and imagination, there is one supreme moment of epiphany. It is not a place that surrenders easily, unlike Rome and Venice. But there you are, right in the centre, walking along narrow streets unknown to you.
It's the evening of your first day. You have not long arrived, driving up from Rome. You are tired. But life is short; you want to explore before going to bed, using every drop squeezed from the fruit of time. You turn into a narrow and rising alley for pedestrians only. On both sides are goldsmiths’ shops, so close together that you almost feel that you could reach out and touch both sides. You reach the top of the incline. There are no more shops. The vista is free. There is the River Arno. You are at the top of the Ponte Vecchio - the Old Bridge. This is your A Room With A View moment!
This is the city of Dante, of the Medici, of Botticelli, of Donatello, of Machiavelli, of Savonarola, of Michelangelo and so many others. It's a city of poets and painters, of soldiers and bankers, of prophets and outcasts. It's where the Renaissance was born, in a place still suffused with its traces. There is a romance to Florence, sensual, yes, but something else, something divine. Here Dante saw Beatrice (say it in Italian: bet-reach-eeh. It's so much more beautiful than the English pronunciation) He fell in love with perfection, and perfection was what she remained, near yet distant, adored yet unattainable. It was by the banks of the Arno that they met for the last time, the briefest of brief encounters. She died eight years later, aged only twenty-four. She was his salvation, destined to live forever in one of the greatest poetic epics ever penned.
Florence is an impossible place, impossible to absorb in a few days. I think perhaps it would take a lifetime to experience and understand all it has to offer! I can only give you a small sampler. Once again I visited the two Davids, Donatello's in bronze at the Bargello Museum, and Michelangelo’s marble giant in the Academia Gallery. The later is an expression of power and virtue, a political statement, a symbol of the Florentine Republic after the Medici were temporarily cast aside. I love it but it has an intimidating quality. I far prefer Donatello's much more intimate creation. Yes, I know the two are not comparable in terms of size, technique or purpose, but the bronze David, free of politics, is just so sensual, so beautiful, so superbly and simply erotic!
To the Uffizi now, principally to see the work of Botticelli, my favourite Renaissance painter. You've probably seen illustrations of Primavera and The Birth of Venus, but how marvellous it is to stand before them, captivating, sublime and mysterious. I'm not presumptuous enough to hazard an interpretation of Primavera; I leave that to others. It just thrills me. I think the figure of Flora, off to the right, is another dimension of perfection and sensual beauty, this time in a female form.
We had a room with a view, a view of the Duomo, the central cathedral, topped by the magnificent dome designed and built in the fifteenth century by Filippo Brunelleschi. It was a reflection of his talent and of the grandeur of Florence. There is another view, right at the top, a God's eye view of the city, all laid out before you. Be warned though: the ascent from the inside of the dome is not for the feint of heart! From the gallery I looked down to the interior far below, the place where Savonarola once preached to a congregation of thousands at the height of his power.
Not far from here is the Baptistery, the oldest building in the city, dating back to the sixth century. Enter through the wonderful east doors, by long tradition known as The Gates of Paradise, only to be confronted, looking up to the ceiling, by the Gates of Hell! It's breathtaking mosaic in a medieval Byzantine style, dominated by the central figure of Christ. This is the Last Judgement, with a fearsome demon consuming the damned. The place is busy but try, if you can, to lie on your back looking up, even only for a moment or two.
Of course it wasn’t all art and culture. We picnicked in the park. We dined by starlight. There is a wonderful restaurant not far from the Ponte Vecchio where I had wild boar served with polenta, soft and succulent, complemented by some local wine. Alas, all dreams end. We flew back yesterday afternoon from Pisa, back to grey old London making ready for an Olympic party. I feel, though, that I have just descended from Mount Olympus!