“Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)” Part Four
13 minute read
Previously in Part Three of “Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)” – the lip swelling subsided (victory), climbing the duomo, having a wooooow moment, climbing up the rest of the duomo, spreading the act of small acts of kindness (awww), eating smoked salmon, being subjected to a naked fat guy, making a hasty retreat from naked fat guy, climbing a hill, aaaaaargh that naked fat guy, looking over Florence (wow), having an alternative plan, running through Florence, climbing the campanile, a totally awesome and completely amazing sunset, and I can’t get the image of that naked fat guy out of my head!
DAY THREE – FRIDAY
There are two things about Florence that I will never forget.
The first thing that I know I’ll always think about is colour, and in particular the colour of the buildings at sunrise and sunset. When the light hits the buildings it provides an incredible contrast against the sides that remain in the shade. These images will stay with me forever.
Another thing that I will never forget is the incredible sight of Brunelleschi’s dome and the overwhelming sense of awe. It blows my mind to think of how it was constructed, and at a time when there was no electricity, no mass manufacturing, and when an abundance of tools and industrial machinery wouldn’t have been readily available.
Nowadays the word ‘genius’ gets thrown around at every opportunity. If somebody makes us laugh then they’re a comedy genius, if a small piece of technology impresses us then we call it genius, and if somebody manages to ignite one of their own farts then they’re a genius too.
No! Take a look at something like the duomo and the circumstances under which it was built and that, in my humble opinion, is something that is deserving of the word ‘genius’.
After finishing breakfast I decided to visit the Uffizi gallery. And I’m going to be completely honest with you here and say that what made up the majority of art there just didn’t do anything for me. I felt nothing.
While I appreciate the craft and the skill that must have gone into every piece of work that was on display, I felt no depth and absolutely no sense of connection to it. I am far more impressed by sculptures, architecture, and feats of engineering; all of which are their own forms of art.
That being said I can walk endlessly and see hundreds of paintings and feel absolutely nothing, but then out of nowhere one will just hit me and I won’t even know why.
This is exactly what happened to me on this day as I rounded a corner and came face to face with Head of an Old Man by Camillo Boccaccino. In contrast to the religious art that filled the rest of the Uffizi, there was something so very real about this painting and I felt a true sense of emotion and distress spilling out from it.
But the remainder of the time I walked around feeling nothing, and while other visitors sang a chorus of oooooh’s and aaaaah’s, I just stood there with a confused expression on my face which was quickly followed by a shrug of the shoulders as I turned and walked away.
I remember seeing Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and the huge semi-circle shaped crowd that had gathered around it, but all I could do was giggle as I got to thinking about a certain sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In this animated scene where a naked Venus is stood atop the giant scallop shell, a hand reaches up from beneath and then tweaks her nipple like a radio button. Music begins to play and Venus then starts dancing with her legs twirling in a 360 degree motion.
Check out this video and you’ll see exactly what I’m referring to…
So as the other visitors stood in awe of a priceless work of art, all I could think about was nipple-tweaking and a dance routine.
There are so many different forms of art but it’s all about what reaches out and touches your heart on an individual level. It is an expression of the self, and so it stands to reason that what appeals to one person won’t appeal to another. It’s a very personal thing. With that in mind, I’m afraid that the Uffizi gallery just did not do anything for me.
I was feeling somewhat disappointed with how this day had begun. And as I began walking the streets the feeling just wouldn’t go away, despite the fact that the previous day had been so incredible.
I’d taken a walk over to the Ponte Vecchio but had felt let down by that too. All that was on offer was jewellery shops, and that isn’t my thing at all.
I continued walking and it took me some time to realise that I was heading towards the Santa Maria Novella train station. Why was I heading there?
With one foot in front of the other I continued onwards and before I knew it I was stood on the platform of the station in front of the ticket machine. It was like I was on auto-pilot and just a few moments later I was boarding a train towards Pisa.
Still to this day I have no idea where this sudden inspiration came from, but I think I just needed a change of scenery. As the countryside unfolded around me I felt a true sense of calm and I began to feel excited at the prospect of what would await me in Pisa.
During the weeks building up to the trip I’d heard a few people saying that Pisa wasn’t a particularly nice place to visit, but I felt it wise to follow my gut and make up my own mind about the place.
An hour later the train came to a halt in Pisa Centrale station and I climbed down onto the platform. It probably comes as no surprise to hear that my chosen destination was the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, and so I stepped out onto the street and headed north.
The area immediately outside of the station was particularly busy and not entirely welcoming, but the further I walked the better things got. In no time at all I found my way wandering through a quiet neighbourhood which had a very rustic feel to it. The buildings were quaint and colourful, and I snapped a bunch of photographs and walked along like a man without a care in the world. It was so peaceful.
When I finally reached the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) my heart sank at the sight of the hundreds of tourists that awaited me.
Just to clarify, when I say that hundreds of tourists awaited me I don’t actually mean that they were waiting specifically for me. Don’t get me wrong, that would have been totally amazing and it would have felt like all my friends had thrown me a huge surprise birthday party. Only I didn’t know any of these people, and it wasn’t my birthday either.
I’m glad we managed to clear that up.
Call me a cynic, but within a matter of seconds I found myself getting extremely irritated at the sheer volume of people that were all stood in that pose. You know the one; the leaning pose which if photographed at just the right angle would make it appear that you were holding the tower up and preventing it from falling. Or is it supposed to look like you’re pushing it back into position? Either way, leave that job to Superman. He really doesn’t need your help.
And I’m sure that within 30 seconds of the photos being taken they will end up being posted on Facebook with the hashtag ‘Leaning Tower selfie’. Only it doesn’t count as a selfie if somebody else takes the photo.
As you can probably tell, I was getting annoyed. After taking a few photos of my own I then found myself a quiet little spot and lay back in the sunshine. It was lovely.
However, that lovely feeling passed in approximately three minutes and seventeen seconds as the decibel range began to increase, courtesy of the swarms of people that surrounded me. It was as though they were really loud and irritating bees and that I was some kind of honey pot that they just wanted to gather around. But this honey pot just wanted to be left alone and so in no time at all I was back up on my feet and moving.
I can confirm that the leaning tower does in fact lean (no surprise there huh), but it does in fact lean way more than I thought it would. It was truly quite astonishing. But despite this spectacular sight, it failed to shift the overpowering sense of irritation that I was feeling.
Mind you, there were two things that really made me smile.
First of all was a young Italian lady who had what was quite possibly the most perfect bottom that I have ever seen in my life. Seriously, it really was quite remarkable. In fact I can quite happily say that it deserved its very own TV show, book, gaming franchise, and a national holiday all of its own.
Secondly, I managed to really annoy somebody. As I was leaving the square I saw a woman who was stood in that leaning pose (like the other ninety percent of people there) while her husband spent a considerable amount of time lining her up for a photograph. I’d now seen one too many people holding this pose and I decided that enough was enough. Just as he started the countdown and shouted are you ready? 1…2… and on the 3 count I jumped in and simulated slapping her hand with a big HIGH FIVE! The man dropped his camera and looked at me with complete disdain. In fact, he actually looked quite angry.
I decided to leave.
With a grin of satisfaction on my face I exited the square and headed back towards the station. It felt like a victory for the little man.
My afternoon in Pisa had been a much needed distraction and I found myself returning to Florence with a brand new vigour.
Feeling refreshed, I decided that it was the perfect time to visit another landmark from the movie Hannibal.
In the movie there is a scene in which Clarice Starling takes a handwritten letter from Dr Lecter to a group of specialists who aim to identify the particular fragrance that accompanies the paper. There is a hint of this, a hint of that, but it is unmistakably a very rare hand cream that could only be engineered by a select few places in the world. This turns Clarice’s eyes towards Florence, and ultimately towards some CCTV footage that shows Dr Lecter sampling fragrances at an exclusive pharmacy.
This footage was filmed at the Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella, and as I opened the huge doorway and stepped inside, I walked along the corridor and imagined Hannibal Lecter taking those very same steps. Unsurprisingly, the first thing that hits you is the medley of fragrances that greet you with incredible warmth; it’s like the colognes and hand creams jump right off the shelves and then wrap you up in a warm and fuzzy bath towel.
Once you reach the end of the corridor it opens up into a bright and beautiful room, with dark wooden display counters boasting an array of Santa Maria Novella cosmetics. There is another room located off to the right, and then another room beyond that. It was stunning and I was in complete awe of my surroundings.
Oh, and I felt completely intimidated by it too because I really had no idea what I was looking for. The product list that I held in my hands didn’t help me much either.
“Can I help you?” asked a lady at one of the counters.
“Erm, yes please.” I responded, without providing any details of what I actually wanted. This was because I didn’t actually know what I wanted.
“What is it that you’re looking for?”
Oh crap. Now I had to respond, and so I just blurted out my reply.
“Cologne. Yes, that’s right. I’d like some cologne please.”
Fantastic. Now I’d given her a response. I’m off the hook.
“What kind of cologne would you like?”
My mind went blank. She could detect this. I shrugged.
The lady attempted to push me further and asked what kind of fragrance I like.
Think Elliot, think! How do you like to smell? Nicely? No, no, I can’t ask for a nice fragrance as it’s bloody obvious I want a nice fragrance. Nobody in the world goes into a pharmacy and wants to come out smelling worse than when they went in.
And then it came to me.
“Fresh! I’d like a fresh smelling fragrance please.”
Surely that had to be enough, but clearly it wasn’t and the lady continued to look at me expectedly. She was waiting for more. I looked at her blankly. She looked at me blankly. And then I gave an awkward little smile on just one side of my face and then shrugged again.
Thankfully the young lady took sympathy on me and helped out both myself and my uneducated nose. One by one she handed me several thin strips of card with various squirts of cologne, but after sampling almost a dozen different fragrances I went back to the very first one and took one final sniff. Looking up at her I flashed a smile and gave her a nod that declared quite confidently that this is the one. She looked back at me and flashed me a smile that quite clearly said it’s about bloody time.
After collecting and paying for my cologne, I left the Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella and stepped back out onto the street. And I do have to say, I smelt pretty damn good.
I was feeling like a million dollars as I stepped out of the hotel that evening. Decked out in a pair of nicely fitted jeans, a crisp tailored blue shirt, and bathed in my new Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella cologne, I had the sensation of walking on air. My shoes clicked on the surface of the footpaths in a hypnotic rhythm as the warmth of the night began to seduce me.
I had completely fallen in love with Florence and its laid-back evening culture. The only thing that had been missing was some quality company; somebody to enjoy the evenings with.
Sitting outside of a beautiful little restaurant not too far from the Palazzo Vecchio, I found myself occupying just fifty percent of a small table for two. There was another table for two alongside me with an older couple sat together, but their table was separated from mine by just four inches.
I was sat in silence as they spoke casually, but no matter how much I tried to zone out from what they were saying, I took in every word. There was no escaping it.
I felt like I was eavesdropping on their conversation and I began to feel very awkward, and no doubt they were aware of my presence in equal measures. They’d now stopped speaking and the three of us just sat in silence. The matter had to be addressed. I had to do something.
From the sound of their accent they appeared to be American and so that gave me a starting point. I’ve been to America and so we have that in common. We’re all in Florence right now and so we have that in common too.
Come on Elliot; think of something. Open your mouth and form some words. Break the silence!
“Well isn’t this cosy.” I said with a nervous little smile on my face.
They both turned to look at me without saying anything. Their eyes were now on me.
“And a little bit awkward.” I added, along with a really strange little laugh.
They both smiled warmly and agreed.
“It really is! We didn’t know whether we should say hello or not.”
It seems we’d all been sat there thinking the same thing, but now the ice had been broken. They were Mark and Alison from Connecticut, and their son was studying over here in Italy, hence why they were in Florence.
“To be honest Elliot we’re glad of the company. We’ve only had each other to talk to and we’ve gotten quite bored of the conversation now.”
They of course said this as a joke and with an ease that displayed just how comfortable and solid they were as a couple.
Mark insisted on buying me a large glass of wine and then we sat back and spent the entire evening engaged in wonderful conversation. We talked about travel, family, music, different cultures, and the zombie apocalypse; which is the cornerstone of any meaningful conversation. I mean how are you really able to connect with somebody unless you’ve already agreed an exit and defence strategy?
I said goodbye to Mark and Alison and thanked them for the wine. Walking away from the restaurant with my head swimming from the red wine, I began to wander the streets, venturing down alleyways and heading to places that I’d not yet been.
By doing this I then stumbled upon my next Hannibal landmark, and it was by pure chance. It was the porcellino fountain.
This boar-sculpture fountain is featured in the movie after Inspector Pazzi executes a plan to obtain Dr Lecter’s fingerprints as proof of his existence. In this scene, Pazzi has a young thief wear a silver bracelet while attempting to steal Hannibal’s wallet. On the understanding that the man would make the robbery obvious, Dr Lecter would detect this and then grab him by the wrist in order to foil the attempted robbery. The plan is executed perfectly with Dr Lecter’s fingerprints being left on the bracelet, but the thief gets gutted in the process.
As Inspector Pazzi retrieves the silver bracelet from the dying man, his hands become soaked in his blood. We are then witness to Pazzi washing the blood away in the porcellino fountain.
I was now stood in the same position, looking at the boar as water dripped from its mouth and over my hands. I ran my wet hand over its snout and looked it in the eyes, and then I sat down on the steps.
Every now and then I feel the need to just stop and think about my present moment and my surroundings. We spend so much of our lives in auto-pilot and without ever really thinking about where we are or how we got here. We fail to just appreciate what we have and so to spend a moment just being grateful is one of the most rewarding gifts we can give ourselves.
We are here for such an incredibly short space of time and none of us know when it’s going to come to an end. We may have years ahead of us, or we may have just minutes. We cannot guarantee that we’re even going to wake up the next day, and so it’s critical to just really take some time out to be grateful for everything; the people we share our lives with, the love we’re given, the love that we give, and the moments that we get to experience.
This was one of those moments in which I felt an overwhelming appreciation for life. I was here. I was in Florence. It was a beautiful warm evening and I was in the heart of a stunningly beautiful city in Tuscany. I was surrounded by soft lighting which created an incredible ambience. My head was swimming from the wine that had been very kindly bought for me by a lovely couple, and I thought of my own family and friends back in England. I have my health. I have my freedom. I have an abundance of love in my life.
I am a very lucky man.
And it’s amazing how during these times of clarity and gratitude, money, material items, and all things superficial never come to mind; not even for a moment.
Deep down we all know what the most important things are in life, but it can be so easy to become blinded by the things that we are led to believe are most important.
Take time out for yourself. Take time out for life.
Click here to read Part Five of “Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)”
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