I’ve ordered a caffe latte and a glass of the house red here at Caffe Piansa, since it’s 3:40pm and there’s not nearly enough caffeine in my system. The waiter tells me that Italians don’t like the taste of milk with their wine, so I order sparkling water as well, to clear my palate.
They are having fun with me the Anglaise, and I with them.
Piansa is a four-umbrella street cafe just outside the Vecchio palace, an iconic old 13th century fortified house in old Florence. A successful banker, Cosimo I bought the Palazzo, doubled, then tripled its size to contain his family and ambitions when it became apparent that the old Palazzo Medici could not possibly expand to match either.
Palazzo Vecchio, towering above the streets of Firenze and fortified against enemy attack. Symbolically and physically more appropriate to the expanding Medici self-image.
…and far far above the people.
It’s a long walk up to the top, where there’s a sizeable guardhouse (now office).
I wonder how often the Medici made the climb. Perhaps they did so to check in on the political prisoners they kept in the cells that line the stairs – some like broom closets with a hole in the floor (for relieving oneself), others large enough to pace three strides from wall to wall, with one barred window.
I’ve just walked three kilometres through the exhibits and the rooms in the Palazzo, up and down the tower, and learned some of the story of how Cosimo I built and decorated his empire. It was his house, but also where Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo II, Pope Leo X (there were four Medici popes, Clement VII, Leo XI and Pius IV) lived while in Florence, along with their wives, children, artists, philosophers, and priors.
When the Medici became royal, they built and moved again, across the Ponte Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti.
Around every corner in Vecchio I find reference to Cosimo I, Leonardo the Magnificent, the Four Medici popes, the generations of royal marriages and appointments that spawned and nurtured the Italian renaissance.
There is a contemporary installation in the Duke of Tuscany’s (smaller) audience room that identifies the Medici insistence upon perpetual expansion in consumption, wealth and power.
The artists argue that it is this worldview of (but not limited to) the Medici in renaissance Italy that has led us to our current era of economic and climate crisis. They have installed life rafts and preservers in the middle of the room, attached by zip cords to a figure who could not possibly pull anyone to safety – a headless mannequin, dressed in high fashion.
What am I struck by, in Firenze? The abundance of astonishingly fine craft in painting, in marble sculpture, in architecture, furniture, inlay, but also philosophy, scientific inquiry (Galileo), fiction (Dante, the first in vernacular Italian, not latin).
An empowerment of the arts which continue to empower Firenze.
Tourism is THE industry, here. 4-600 years after Cosimo I, we come from near and far to worship the art, the architecture, the engineering, the telescopes, the navigational technology. Or at least I do, and others who crowd the Palazzi, The Uffizi, Galileo Museum and the streets of old Florence.
Perhaps different minds worship the unchecked ambition that Medici embodied, as our highest achievement, and never mind the art. I wonder.
Of course there is a dark dark side to it all, historically. God still reigned supreme over knowledge and discovery; no matter how they admired the old gods and the sculptures that glorified them, or Galileo’s insights into the way we see the world, Medici money was irreversibly tied to the Vatican. But these are not the stories told now, centuries later.
What do I want to say, in this place? That there’s not enough music to fill these big beautiful buildings, these narrow streets. That we in this square are all strange, and tired and curious, awkward and wondering what to do.
What will the people around me remember of Florence? Will it be only what they tell in stories to one another, and will that change too over time, only to be corrected and re-triggered by the photographs they took in the remembered moment? I wonder if what is not re-told or photographed is destined to be forgotten.
I think so. Possibly this is why I write, and how I write. Pockets and glimpses of story are interesting to me, here in this little street corner cafe. Some people are aware of being watched, self conscious since I have a laptop and I’m actively using it, others stressed and oblivious.
The waiters joke that I am writing a book. I say yes, a small one. They laugh and say, “Si – piccolo!” They come to stand beside me for a moment, never too long, but companionably. The restaurant ‘front man’ knows I am like him, watching and witnessing.
I don’t like being a tourist. But I am one, willy-nilly, eavesdropping without remorse in six languages (American, British, Canadian, Spanish, Italian, … asian).
My friend the waiter has put on a sweater against the new chill; we can all feel the rain coming. I finish up my tiramisu & espresso, plan to race the oncoming storm toward the Vecchio bridge, and beyond.
Ahhh, but no – here it comes, hard and fast, dribbling over the edges of the cafe umbrellas and into campari, wine and cafe latte. We laugh and pull our tables closer together.
Young Italian tourists run yelling through the downpour, I order another cafe latte and hope an umbrella guy comes by…
Yes! Here he is, and for 5 euro I have the means to venture out again, backwards into history.