What happened to spring? Yesterday, in the countryside south of Florence, temperatures soared to early summer levels touching thirty degrees and the first poppies appeared.
I have been coming regularly to Florence since we married in that numerically lucky date 7 7 77 and every time I visit this city my heart leaps: it is such a wondrously beautiful place.
Because of teaching commitments in the UK our visits were largely limited to the torrid summers when Florence becomes one of the hottest and most uncomfortable places in Italy, and we explored both city and hinterland on bicycles. It was a veritable sauna and, looking at our photographs at the time, we appeared not only (obviously) much younger but rather thinner as well!
Yesterday we took a trip to the south of Florence on our valiant Cinquina without any particular aim in mind. In Italy, directions to places of interest are indicated by brown-coloured signs. One such notice, south of Grassina, captured our attention: “fonte di Fata Morgana” – the enchantress Morgana’s fount (remember your Ariosto?). A delightfully narrow road directed us through olive groves with branches reminiscent of Daphne’s arboreal transformation to escape the attentions of Apollo. And then we were at the fount – an ornamental water feature once decorating the gardens of count Vecchietti and dating back to 1522. An inscription on a wall plays on the count’s surname (which also means “old men”) translatable thus:
Reader, I am that enchantress Morgana
Who, young, made others young:
Here at the old man’s because I once was old,
Made young again by his fountain.
We were unable to test the water’s claims since the gate leading to the source was firmly shut. What a pity!
We returned via Antella (with its gorgeous oratory giving a picture of how once the interior of Florentine churches were decorated with frescoes all over –Spinello Aretino’s this time) passing through an attractive landscape of farmhouses, castle towers, vineyards, aristocratic villas, forests and little churches.
I have ploughed through many books on Florence and single out three outstanding ones on seeing the city, each very different. For the impatient, short-term visitor the DK guide to Florence and Tuscany is to be recommended with its anatomical illustrations of historical buildings, its colourful street maps and its concise summaries of why Florence is so important for the history of mankind. For those staying longer, Eva Borsook’s book is a must, with its matter-of-fact list of what to see and its delightful intermissions to be read when needing a rest from all that sightseeing. For reflections, both on the city’s art and its people, pondered with erudition and sentiment in a brilliant and witty style (a cornucopia of new words was added to my vocabulary) Christopher Stace’s “City of the Lily” cannot be bettered. Although written over twenty years ago it remains essential reading and, like all superior travel books, can be studied either in situ or in the comfort of your fireside chair. True, many things change and, luckily (at least for Florence), for the better. User-friendliness is now regarded as a virtue in several places – the Stibbert and Bardini museums no longer present an experience of grudging keepers, erratic opening hours and garbled English explanations. New sights have been opened out to visitors; the restoration of the Bardini villa and gardens now form part of a spectacular “green-chain walk” including the Boboli Gardens and the Belvedere fortress, there are well-documented exhibitions at the Palazzo Strozzi, on-line bookings now avoid sweltering queues outside the Uffizi and improved public transportation (including the new tram system) ease the adventure. Several are the results of the cooperation between government and private foundations which will clearly pave the way to further re-valuation of Florence’s seemingly inexhaustible cultural heritage.
The Florentine sunset with its sentinels of cypresses and gentle hills truly lifted my heart: