Our Bell Boy, Raymundo, was not a boy at all but a full-grown man. He was a small, that is to say, short man, of slight build and weathered oak complexion. He was a Philippino. He carried our luggage up to our room on the first floor of the Atlantic Hotel. We are in Florence for a few days. He talked about Duterte, condemning Duterte’s vulgar language. I talked about Trump. Raymundo had that kind of laugh that rang like a bell in his throat and burst out of his chest in bursts of chirps. Perhaps he was really a bird first but today he had decided to dress as a man playing a boy in an old school hotel in Florence.
It was only April fool’s day, hardly tourist season but here we were, once again Florence. It was a bright sunny day, which was a relief after the damp and grey early morning start from Heathrow. We spent the night at Crowne Plaza, left the car at the hotel and flew into Bologna for a long weekend. At Bologna we hired a Fiat Cinquecento and drove through at least a dozen tunnels in that half craze traffic that you only get in Italy. The other driver speeds right up close to your rear as if he is going to kiss your arse, all in a hurry, all macho and brutally bullying. Lorries suddenly lurch across from one lane to another with barely a warning. It was a surprise we arrived at Florence at all.
Anyway here we were. Florence. Our room was grand. It had a king-sized bed, an antechamber and bathroom that had a bath with nozzles and inlets to spray water whilst at once irrigating the parts that running water might just miss. This bath was built both to irrigate a dam as well as wash both nostrils and other unmentionable orifices. The last time I saw another machine to match this was in Tokyo but that story is for another day.
Outside the sun shone and the temperature was a cool 21 degrees. The market stalls on the street at 90 degrees specialised in leather goods, shoes, belts, bags, coats, jackets and whatever else man has constructed in leather. East Asians seemed to control the market. We wondered whether these were authentic Italian leather goods or items from China. The traders felt it necessary to inform us that they were made in Italy. All the more reason to believe that a factory somewhere in Chongxi was spewing these leather articles exactly as it does rivets and bolts. More items than there are humans to buy them and even fewer to need them. Alas we are spoilt for choice.
We found our way through the narrow winding streets, heading for the river, the Arno. The streets were packed with people, mostly young and a thronging tourist population. We wondered what the streets would be like in the summer when the tourist season actually kicks off. If you’ve been anywhere near the night market in Bangkok, you will know what to expect.
We stopped at the Palazzo Vecchio. The Young David was as we remembered him. Michaelangelo’s eyes catching the youth as he stood in a relaxed posture resting on one leg, confident and innocent. Exactly how I think of Hippolytus – chaste and pure. If only all young men were like that. There’s an abundance of strapping young men, it’s the chaste that’s missing.
In bronze, next-door was Perseus holding Medusa’s head in one hand and with the other his sword. Medusa, the Gorgon lay at his feet, dead. This Benvenuto Cellini statue matched the exacting mastery of Michaelangelo. Many of the other statues were like chintz to china. By now dusk was drawing close. We must have been walking for an hour at least. The air grew a tad cooler. We headed for Ponte Vecchio. First we glimpsed it from the street by the river and then we walked across to the bridge. The river in the waning light was relatively still and reflected the sky and at the bridge, reflected the arches of the bridges down river. The artists like at the Seine had the most exquisite paintings, pencil drawings of the city, with the dome of the Duomo and the tower shown off at their best, silhouetted against the sky. And then there were the street artists, with reproductions of Rembrandt ‘s Girl with the Pearl Earrings and the Mona Lisa. As always there were the Africans, selling sunshades, or cheap printed reproductions of Klimt’s The Kiss. These were Africans from Mali or Guinea that you will find across the whole of Europe except for Britain. Even as far afield as New York on Broadway you will find them selling umbrellas in case of rain, and these sunglasses, what we called ‘shades’ when I was a boy. The kind of glasses that African tyrants are wont to wear even in the dead of night.
The walkway between the Palazzo Vecchio alongside the Uffizi had statues of Dante, Machiavelli, Boccaccio and others, as we say a veritable Avenue of Italian genius.
On our way back to dinner, we stopped at the Duomo. The last time we were here the children were still children. Now they are both only children by convention since they are both in their 30s. At that time, Jan went up to the tower and I looked after the kids. I am never sure whether I like the Duomo. It is startling in its grandeur. The white and black stripes of its marble cladding is surprising. I can’t say that it’s beautiful or aesthetically pleasing but like the Bullring in Birmingham, it is iconic, to coin a term.
It is a mystery how memory works. I can recall almost in exact detail the young American woman who was our guide all those years ago. She spoke to us about the Medicis, the Strozzis, the Guelph, about the rustications aimed at symbolising impregnable wealth and the warehouses and living quarters above the houses around the Duomo. And then the long impossible afternoon spent at the Uffizi looking at Renaissance paintings of the various stages of the Passion, of the Annunciation, Christ at Golgotha, the Ascension and numerous Mary the sorrowful, the Dolores, the mother and infant, etc. At the end we went to the Boboli gardens to cast off the weight of the finest of fine art.
This time though, we were merely walking the streets and taking in the atmosphere. The city was beautiful even where it was down at heel. And the Italians are masters of style, of aesthetic beauty, at everything that is designed to please the eye. The women and the men too strut, canter, slouch, in the breeziest of manners, always with finesse and elegance.
Last night we went to the obligatory operatic recital. Lenny Lorenzini, a young soprano accompanied by a pianist sang from La Boheme, Tosca, Don Giovanni, Madam Butterfly and two traditional Italian songs. Before opera, there was the matter of dinner. We came upon Restaurant Vivanda, a vegetarian restaurant practically opposite Church of St Monaca, the venue of the operatic recital. Restaurant Vivanda produces its own extra virgin oil, produces its own wine, cooks organic food and slow food and serves tap water. Tap water we thought! Our waitress was dressed in severe black, and was unsmiling, saying with her tight lips I’ve sussed you out, I know that you don’t fit here but I forgive you for choosing wisely. Across the room two American women also in black with tops that spotted half cut sleeves revealing tattoos on their shoulders of warrior women. They both certainly fitted in!
The wines were biological – reflecting the air, climate, season and earth of Florence. No chemist with test tubes measuring pH, evaluating tannins, and seeking to promote some characteristic that Mother Nature had concluded was inessential to the wine’s good.
We were on a shared table with another couple who, like us, did not have a reservation. They had wandered in, off the street, just like us. They weren’t dressed in the obligatory colours of purgatory either. Jan had half-moon pasta filled with ricotta cheese and I had risotto with cheese, purple kale dye, mushrooms I think. To my surprise, this was a delicious meal. It just goes to show that you can’t judge a meal by appearances. And, once our waitress saw that we seemed genuinely to enjoy our meals, she relaxed; all sartorial inelegance on our part was forgiven. Perhaps we were crypto vegetarians, slow time activists. If she only knew that we lived in Moseley, a hotbed of revolutionaries and on alternate weekends in Hebden Bridge, the most unconventional town in Britain she might well have kissed us both, recognizing us as long lost comrades in arms.
The Church of St Monaca had a grand piano centre stage. There were frescoes on each side of the altar – St. Monaca and a bishop dressed in elaborate brocade with a turban. The altar was not visible presumably because it was not yet Easter Sunday. The fresco was the dead Christ being carried down from the cross and of sorrowful Mary wiping his brow. On the ceiling was the Ascension. Inset into the wall to my left was Christ on the Cross, in agony and, Mary looking up at him with longing and despair. We were there to hear La traviata sung by Lenny Lorenzini. She was a soprano whose voice suited the church’s acoustics. The echo vibrated to augment her voice, creating multiple layers of colour and texture. There was a transparency and openness about her voice, I suppose you could say that there was candour, honesty as well as vulnerability, not frailty though in her voice. Her rendition of a Neapolitan folk song was dramatic, even sensual as her whole body sprang into action, arms outstretched, bottom jutting backwards and lust and desire forming the words and pushing the melody outwards to us. It was a great evening out.
Next day we headed for Pisa. The drive took over an hour. The Cathedral at Pisa was a welcome oasis from the heat of the afternoon. It was the kind of afternoon, in Italy that reminds me of that novel by Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli. There is something of bleached dust, of sunlight that is clear, lucid and dry. We had left the cypresses behind, cedar and poplar and early Mayflower perhaps. Pisa itself, the centre of it, was a busy road and dusty houses. It was very definitely not old Florence.
The Cathedral was cool and an impressive shelter. The high ceiling was a feast of gold and more gold- cherubim, floral whorls, and even more emblems and coats of arms. The roof was held up by gigantic granite Roman pillars with marble arches. The interior and exterior white and black marble exquisite and lavish. There were giant canvases by GB Tempesti, Giuseppe Bezzuoli, Francesco Vanni, and a glorious study of light and darkness by Domenico Corvi- The Miracle of St Ubaldesca Pisana.
The carving on the pulpit told the story of the Redemption by Pissaro. The Urn (Sarcophagus) of St Ranieri, the patron saint of Pisa was Roman in origin and bore his bones.
The Baptistery was a tower with a round dome. It was austere and had that coolness of marble spaces, something akin to water from a brook at dawn. At the very centre was a lone figure of a supplicant, a beggar to us, standing naked to the waist with a cloth to cover his modesty and holding a stick. He was thin, and I mean thin. Technically you could say he was emaciated, even cachectic.
The Chapel of Holy Relics had a part of a vest of the Madonna and bones of St Constanza and many more objects that I found either macabre or well, not to my taste. Here too was mention of the Doctors of the Western Church – Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory Magno. Aquinus was a later addition. The Monumental Cemetery was paved with gravestones and the walls lined with sarcophagi. There was the occasional ostentatious statue of a mathematician say or an Archbishop. Nothing that came close to the exfoliations of New Orleans’ cemeteries.
The highlight was, of course, the leaning tower. And it was more than leaning. It was falling over. It was a spectacle to see this mass of marble, partly toppled, leaning into the wind like a drunken man immobilized for fear that he might truly fall over, if he dared to move another step. What a manikin challenge this was – a tower immobilized in mid fall.
I’ve been far too concerned to tell you about our time in Florence and then Pisa that I simply forgot to say any more about Raymundo, our Bell Boy. Well he wore an oversized uniform of blue tunic and brass buttons. His movements were clean and angular, like a gazelle sprinting in the near distance. And his smile was effervescent, beginning in his bright eyes and spreading between mirthfulness and knowing, just the correct side of collusion. If you’re ever in Florence, you must look out for him and the strange naturalness of his boyhood in a man’s body.
Femi Oyebode is a poet, literary critic and traveller. He is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham, UK and the current author of Sim’s Symptoms in the Mind (4th edition). His other books include Mindreadings: Literature and Psychiatry & Madness at the Theatre. He has published six volumes of poetry: Naked to Your Softness and Other Dreams; Wednesday is a Colour; Adagio for Oblong Mirrors; Forest of Transformations; Master of the Leopard Hunt and; Indigo, Camwood and Mahogany Red. Also, he has published his Selected Poems. His research interests include clinical psychopathology, medical humanities, the application of ethics to psychiatric practice and, neuropsychological and neural correlates of abnormal phenomena.
Photos by Jan and Femi Oyebode