Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Postcard from Florence 1: Unsalted Bread

The Duomo is around here somewhere...

My partner is brilliant at researching our holiday trips, and well in advance. She can always find a suitable gîte or flat to rent, the best flights and road routes to get to it, and will already have identified some likely days out and decent restaurants from the guidebooks and websites weeks before we've even left the house. I, by contrast, find even the best guidebooks utterly baffling until I've been "in-country" for a few days. I need to get the feel of a city or a region – literally get its dust on my shoes – before I can start to think of it as a place, made up of sites of interest, galleries, restaurants, and famous streets and squares.

As a consequence, I hadn't really thought much about Florence before first opening the shutters and double glazed windows of our apartment onto the cacophony and brilliant chiaroscuro of an Italian city street, four floors below. Wow! Italy! Florence, no less! I have mentioned before that one of my favourite images is a sketch by Tischbein of the young Goethe, leaning out of an apartment window in Rome, just taking in the view outside, while idly waggling a slipper on one foot. I keep it on my bedside table, as I need to be reminded of the reality of that feeling, those Tischbein moments, awash with the optimism and open-ended possibilities of travel, strange lands, and new languages. It's great, at 62, still to be able feel it, now and again.

After a few preparatory days of walking around in a passive stupor of familiarisation – getting the measure of the streets and the crowds, checking out restaurant menus, trying out my phrasebook Italian, and taking a few exploratory snaps with the Fuji X20, now established in its role as the summer holiday camera – the guidebooks came into focus, with their codes and maps and jargon, and items of interest (to me, at least) began to emerge. One thing I noticed, in particular, was how many cultural figures had lived, and often died, in exile in Florence. And, of those, the names Browning and Tarkovsky leapt out at me.

I suppose I must have known that the Brownings lived in Florence after their elopement, but that knowledge had drifted down, over time, to those lower strata of memory where things like simultaneous equations and Latin grammar are now buried, not needed for many years and beyond instant recall. But when I read that their apartment near the Palazzo Pitti had been preserved intact and could be visited  of course, the Casa Guidi! – I was excited.

For those of a literary bent, there is probably no more formative encounter than the one we have with the books we study at school in the years we are preparing for university entrance; what in England we refer to as the "sixth form". At that romantic, terrible, turbulent age we are open to the poetry of the world in a way we probably never will be again, and I had the good fortune to study Robert Browning's Men and Women as a set text, with a good teacher who happened to be a Browning enthusiast, able to persuade a class of 17-year old boys to take seriously some very adult love poetry, and I have retained a great affection for his work. And the romance between Browning and Elizabeth Barrett is, of course, a cracking good story in its own right.

Wot, no Bob?*

So we went and had a look. It's not exactly easy to find, the Casa Guidi. Luckily, there's a plaque over the street door to commemorate Elizabeth Barrett Browning, more famous as a poet in her day than her husband, and a great and vocal supporter of the cause of Italian unification. You find Piazza San Felice no. 8, ring the "Casa Guidi" bell, and you are let up to the first floor apartment by a housekeeper. It now belongs jointly to Eton College and the Landmark Trust – yes, you can rent some of the rooms – and has been restored to something like its original condition, stuffed in the Victorian fashion with memorabilia and decorative clutter. It doesn't take long to go round, but for a Browning enthusiast is enchanted ground. This is where Men and Women was written! Right here! And, blimey, that is the actual couch from Wimpole Street where EBB languished as an invalid for so many years! Neither my partner nor my daughter have ever studied either of the Brownings, so we didn't hang around for quite as long as I might have wished, not least because there was a genuine sense of intrusion into a private space. Amazingly, according to the visitors' book, we were the first to visit for several days. I hadn't expected a queue, even in August, but I didn't think we'd have the place to ourselves.

Just a 20-minute walk away at 91 Via San Niccolò is the apartment once occupied by exiled Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky, also hard to find, but also marked with a plaque. The Prof and I are both long-standing fans of Tarkovsky's films, but although this is allegedly the base of the Andrei Tarkovsky International Institute it was resolutely shut, so all we could do was gaze up at the shuttered windows and admire the letterbox, which still bears a tiny metal "TARKOVSKIJ" nameplate. Again, no queue, no tributes on the step, just a door in an Italian backstreet. We paid our respects – amazing how quickly three people gazing reverently up at a wall can attract attention – and went for an ice cream.


By contrast, one of Florence's own most famous sons, Dante Alighieri, was forced to live out of the city in exile – something to do with Black and White Guelphs, whatever they are – and Florence still doesn't exactly talk up the Dante connection to its tourists. In fact, you'd be forgiven for not knowing there was one. Gucci, yes; Dante, no. We did spot a cafe with the odd name of Sasso di Dante (Dante's Stone) in a little square near the Duomo, and only later discovered this is actually the site of a rock where Dante used to sit each day to watch the construction of the cathedral. I'm not aware of anything in his oeuvre equivalent to "I like work: I can sit and look at it for hours" (Jerome K. Jerome), but on the subject of exile Dante famously had this to say:
You shall leave everything you love most:
This is the arrow that the bow of exile
Shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
Of others' bread, how salty it is, and know
How hard a path it is for one who goes
Ascending and descending others' stairs ...
Paradiso, XVII (55–60)
Now there's yet another thing I didn't think I knew but must surely once have known. But, having done some supermarket shopping on the first day, I discovered that regular Tuscan bread is indeed made without salt and, to this English palate, anyway, is pretty much inedible. Ugh, talk about the taste of exile!  Although I did develop a liking for a very thin, unleavened bread with a crispy, cracker-like texture, seasoned with salt and rosemary, and sold in packs of foot-square sheets in local stores. I suppose exile in Florence might not be so bad, after all...

As to the stairs, though, ascending and descending, after our experience with the ten flights of ten stairs up to our Lisbon apartment last year, this year we made sure we had a lift! Or, at least, my partner did: she's good at that sort of thing.

Florence at night, by summer lightning

Here wrote and died
Elizabeth Barret[t] Browning
who in her womanly heart combined
the science of the scholar and the spirit of the poet
and made of her verse a golden ring
linking Italy and England.
This memorial was placed here
by a grateful Florence

Andrei Tarkovsky
sublime director of a
spiritual cinema
exile in Florence
in this house spent
the last years of his life
guest and honorary citizen
of the city of Florence

Friday, 26 August 2016


Pisa, August 2016

Before we get back to a new season of blogging, I should address the challenge I set in the last post of July, "Hand-tooled Gnomitex". It was:
"A small end-of-blog-year prize, payable in self-esteem (at the current kudos exchange rate), to those who can (a) identify the source of this post's title, and (b) the source of the source, and (c) the source of the source of the source."
The response was underwhelming, to say the least. I know the prospect of Brexit has affected exchange rates, but even so: a stack of kudos has to be worth something, surely. Maybe we all took August off? Anyway, here are the answers:

1. The British satirical fortnightly magazine Private Eye has always made use of allusive in-jokes (for example, "tired and emotional" or "discussing Ugandan affairs"), some of which are of such long-standing that the original allusion has all but been forgotten. One of these is "hand-tooled Gnomitex", a faux-luxurious binding in which books purportedly published by Lord Gnome (the journal's fictitious proprietor) are always bound.

2. But why Gnomitex? "Gnomitex" is a riff on Skivertex, the plastic binding material, resembling leather, in which cheap but "sumptuous" hardbound sets of Dickens, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and other popular "classics" were usually bound, and proclaimed as such in adverts in Sunday colour supplements back in the 1960s and 70s (giving my father a chance to repeat his well-worn line about "genuine imitation leather"). My memory is that the Skivertex was usually said to be "gold-tooled"; the "hand-tooling" of Gnomitex is probably a bit of facetious one-upmanship (Private Eye can be very snobbish about matters of class, aspiration, and popular culture).

3. But why Skivertex? Well, Skivertex derives its name from "skiving", which in bookbinding means to shave off thin layers of leather for binding purposes. In other words, the plastic material resembles skived leather, in the same way the textured paper generally used on British hardbacks resembles real binding cloth*. I don't think there is any etymological connection between "skiving" (as in splitting leather) and "skiving" (as in avoiding work) but I suppose there may be.

On reflection, I suppose it is not impossible that I am the only person in the entire world who could or would make that series of connections. Oh, well. Of course, the lack of a winner means that next year's challenge will be a kudos rollover! So be sure to come back in August 2017!

Talking of skiving, as in avoiding work, a series of postcards from this year's exotic foreign travel will be dropping onto your e-doormat in September, quite some time after my actual return home, just like the real thing. Does anyone still send actual written postcards, I wonder? We haven't received any this year so far, and sent a total of one, I think, and that was delivered via some new-fangled alternative to the postal service, with a detachable QR code to monitor its progress. But, in the world of the instant mass-delivery of a smartphone selfie, even that seems quaint.

Crikey, isn't that tower leaning a bit?

* Both are examples of our favourite useful-but-ugly word, the skeuomorph.