Thanks to the generosity of the Irish Writers Centre I was able to partake of a week-long residency in Florence as the guest of St Mark’s English Church in early October 2019. During the week, I gave an evening reading of my work and held a workshop some days later in which I showed how one of my poems progressed from the status of being a vague idea to being a published piece in The Irish Times. I was very taken by the enthusiastic reaction of the participants on both occasions.
Apart from these duties, my days were filled with wandering around this beautiful city and exploring its famous piazze and intriguing narrow streets. The church of Santa Maria Novella was as beautiful as I remembered from twenty-five years ago when I first spent a few days here (and when I could tramp around tirelessly from dawn to dusk. Not so now!). And to make the visit to the church even more exciting, this time it included an exhibition of Leonardo’s groundbreaking experiments — in art and in science – which was so stunningly presented that I am sure the Great Man himself would have been pleased.
The majestic Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery were of course de rigueur. The gallery is a work of art in itself, quite apart from its magnificent contents. Again Leonardo: how marvellous his Adoration of the Magi, which he left unfinished. And here I have to say how much I have always found intriguing an artist’s unfinished works and the glimpse they give into his (or her) ideas and methods of approaching a subject. Think of those unfinished statues that Michelangelo left with the half-formed figures seeming to struggle out of the marble. Marvellous.
Speaking of whom, I made a visit to the Casa Buonarotti in the Via Ghibellina and, yes, I was aware that it was not actually his house (no more than the Dante House in Via Santa Margherita was ever Dante’s house) but was bought by Michelangelo the Younger, himself a man of letters and the arts, who employed many of Florence’s leading artists of the time (including Artemisia Gentileschi) to decorate the building. As such, it is a tribute not only to Michelangelo but to the entire Italian Renaissance as well. Not to be missed by any visitor interested in that great flowering period of the arts in Italy.
When I had mastered the bus routes, I took time to ramble a little around the suburbs in search of second-hand bookshops and to sample something of city life away from the city centre and the Great Sights. I was pleased at the sight of groups of people chatting on their piazzas or sitting out dining in front of their ristoranti. Their casual groupings reminded me of those figures Canaletto put into his painting to make his depiction of great buildings and edifices a little less overpowering. The general air of relaxation and unstressed living was infectious and in great contrast to the trafficy, tourist-crowded inner thoroughfares. I enjoyed the Great Sights as much as anyone else of course, but it has to be admitted that one can tire of Great sights and something in me relished the moments spent reading outside a coffee shop a book picked up from one of the many independent bookshops specialising in used books.
Also somewhat out from the centre of the city is the Orto Botanico (Botanic Gardens) which provided me with a measure of much-needed tranquillity. There are many gardens in Florence but this one happened to be on the itinerary I had set myself for the day. An hour or two of sitting close to Mother Nature is always very restoring. This Orto Botanico (in Via Micheli) does not compare with our own in Glasnevin either in scale or attraction, but is wonderful nevertheless. In fact it is a ‘working’ garden, part of the University of Florence and it was interesting to see students engaged in the sketching and photographing plants, presumably for further study and analysis. It is located in a quiet area and was therefore doubly tranquil. Greenery is always welcome. It’s the Andrew Marvel in me (and I believe in everyone) that loves to retreat ‘To a green Thought in a green Shade‘.
St Mark’s English Church is the focal point for English people (and English-speaking people) in Florence and here I must thank its Chaplain and management personnel for making my stay such a pleasant one. The church is itself is an historical part of Florence, stemming I believe from the era of ‘The Grand Tour’ and is the venue for various cultural events throughout the year. During my stay, no evening passed but the strains of the choir rehearsing for their next event or the soaring notes of opera made their way up to my apartment. During my week a well-attended production of La Boheme was mounted.
What else is there to say about this magical city of the Medici and its eternally courteous citizens? You will get a lot of information from any decent guide book but there’s nothing like a sampling of the real thing. Like taking a stroll across the Ponte Vecchio and down along the Arno in the evening when the traffic has died down. At the Ponte Santa Trinita, you can pause at the corner of the bridge where Dante met Beatrice and was so hurt when she wouldn’t look at him because she had found out that he had flirted with someone else, a moment forever captured in Henry Holiday’s famous painting and one of the many great moments forever associated with this great city. Book your tickets now.