A Union & a Reunion
We grew up, my sister and I, in the less frenzied Delhi of the ’80s. Our home shared a wall with a family of big-built, big-hearted Pathans from the embassy of Pakistan. With siblings of similar ages on both sides, a bond was inevitably forged, a bank of memories created that included shared festivals, ridiculously good food, memorable outings and awkward growing-up pains. Then, almost abruptly in hindsight, an era ended. The diplomat’s family continued on its nomadic expatriate path, while ours moved on to a bona fide village called Gurgaon. The families lost touch entirely, as might be expected in the pre-internet era. Why is all this relevant to a diary from Florence, you might ask? Because 23 years after vanishing from each other’s sights but never from each other’s memories, five siblings from two neighbouring families were reunited in Florence to celebrate an inter-faith marriage that runs inspiringly against the grain of a fractured planet. A marriage that brought together the wildly disparate worlds of our childhood friend, a Pathan from Peshawar, and a lovely Jewish bride from Brazil. The ceremony combined Islamic and Jewish traditions, the celebrations included Hava-nagila and Peshawari folk music. Meanwhile, on the periphery, a reunion that gave a bunch of thirtysomethings-turned-giggly-teens the sublime pleasure of finding that though our individual lives had grown apart, nothing has altered the people and the bond we remember so fondly from a gentler era. Mubarak and Mazeltov!
Florence is bewitching, almost an embarrassment of riches. Her museums are home to the greatest collection of Renaissance art in the world. Her piazzas, churches, bridges and streets have either been preserved or recreated in all their medieval glory. As a visitor for three days, it is terrible to have to choose between spending one’s time indoors or outside, for both alternatives offer a smorgasbord of visual feasting like almost nowhere else on earth. We rationalise our decision in favour of the outdoors by convincing ourselves that we will return to Florence one day in the future. We wallow in the city’s glorious, sculpture-laden, predominantly pastel-coloured, eminently walkable urban spaces. Constant reference to an art and architecture guidebook lent to us by a friend helps amplify the experience of what we are seeing.
The Medici Chest
By the end of the 13th century, Florence was already one of the richest cities in the Christian world. It suffered a series of setbacks through the 14th century (floods, the plague, military defeats and bank failures). Yet, in the 15th century, Florence rebounded into a dazzling period of artistic, scientific and cultural achievement we now know as the Renaissance. The list of artists who rose to prominence during the 15th century is staggering; it is also no coincidence. Donatello, Botticelli, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (to name a few) were undeniably gifted geniuses. They were also born in the right place, at the right time. The credit for creating a seminal ecosystem so conducive for art and culture to flourish goes to the Medici family that came back to political and economic power in early 15th-century Florence, aided by their role as official papal bankers. Their deep appreciation of the value of the arts and generous, enlightened patronage of artistic talent drove the Renaissance.
Beauty & the Beholder
My wife and I are visibly moved by the stunning ensemble of open-air sculptures in Piazza della Signoria, Florence’s most famous public gathering point for over seven centuries. She slips her hand into mine. We smile and look at our five-year-old daughter. I had wondered if she might be too young to appreciate this trip. At this moment, all my doubts seem to have been unfounded. Slowly my daughter raises her head to take an entire sculpture. “OK, so now can we go to the gelato-wala?” she asks, making sure we get our priorities right.
When one small urban centre offers the world a cast of characters as diverse as Dante, da Vinci, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Galileo and Savonarola, the end result is a mainstream version of history more richly textured, multi-layered and evocative. A living, breathing history of delicious creative conflict abounds in Florence: stories of artistic rivalries (Michelangelo vs da Vinci), stories of rebellion and dissent—ideological (by Savonarola), scientific (by Galileo)—against the hegemonic power of the time (the Church), stories of conspiracy and intrigue. The Delhi I grew up in has an equally rich, if not richer, past and cast of historical characters. If only we did a better job of marketing it and bringing it to life.
The Stendhal Syndrome...
Refers to the overpowering impact excessive exposure to the arts can have on visitors to Florence, rendering victims dizzy and disoriented with pleasure.
Mumbai-based Satyam Viswanathan is a consumer research professional; E-mail your diarist: satyamv AT gmail.com
Florence is my favorite city. I have been there twice. Taking in a cast of characters as diverse as Dante, da Vinci, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Galileo and Savonarola can surely be a heady experience.
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