Writing Florence and Siena

 

Umbrella City

Brunelleschi’s Duomo is a reluctant traveler through time. It started as half an egg shell standing unevenly on a table surrounded by dumbstruck architects. The humility of it! And then it grew, nourished by devotion and determination. People watered it with prayers. And it grew into the center of Florentine life.

Brunelleschi’s Duomo today has been bought over by tourists. You need to pay to get in. You can buy a taste of the ancient Florentine awe, if you get approved by the barcode scanning machines that grants you access to your version of antiquity, lit up by spotlights. Florentines do not feel as intimate to the monument as they used to. “It’s where the tourists go,” they say. I say I agree, standing in front of the dome with my bright pink umbrella and my brand new winter coat.

Elusive City

When you come from a country where almost everything is less than 200 years old, you are easily impressed by historical monuments. When I first arrived in Florence, I wanted to kiss the cobblestones on which old people and older people treaded on. I wanted to press my ears onto their dirty coolness and beg them to tell me stories of greatness. I ordered the city to reveal its personal stories.

But the city was unyielding. Studying Florence felt like looking at beauty through layers of veil —you see its contours and shapes, but you long to feel its texture and know it intimately. I wanted to press my palm against David’s veiny hand and feel the coolness Michelangelo became so familiar with. I longed to be a faithful Florentine Catholic drenched in religious fervor when I attended mass at the church of San Miniato. I desired to run my fingers along the fresco Giotto painted of Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, maybe even scratch it a little, to see what the plaster would feel like under my fingernails.

City on Fire

I see Michelangelo’s slaves on the streets every day. They are the unfinished Florentines, the trapped sculptures, the works-in-progress… Neither here nor there, they sell roses, bracelets, umbrellas, souvenirs… They lean against corners or walk in a special style of apology. They awkwardly position themselves to not get in the way of touristic sights; history will not remember that they were ever here.

Burnt out, they sometimes ask for a sandwich or two. If I can have an extra three euros for a cup of gelato, they should not have to beg.

“Bless you, grazie mille,” he shook my hand and walked away. I wonder if he will be warm tonight.

City of Committees

If I was commissioned to paint Siena, I would start by dotting the canvas with evenly scattered dots. Then, I would add more dots around the existing dots, creating clusters of dots. I would then add more dots to these clusters, expanding all of them until they overlap. Before long, you would not be able to tell one cluster from another. I will add more and more and more dots, until the canvas becomes one slab of color. Then, I would have painted Siena in its peak greatness.

Underground City

As I was walking uphill with Dante, I saw two heads sprouting from the ground to the left, on a patch of grassless area. I was consumed by disgust and pity when I stepped closer. The stench of rotting meat and dried blood caused me to faint.

When I came to, I observed that one of the heads was gnawing at the other. Where his teeth latched onto, I see a peep of skull. He occasionally chokes on clumps of hair, but swallows them all the same. He would not stop eating, even though I gave him a couple of kicks to stop him.

My master thought my aversion amusing. He laughed but quickly stopped when I started to cry.

“Tell me the whole story,” I pleaded.

“No one knows the whole story,” he smiled gently and passed me a handkerchief.

City of Songbirds

A city without children is a melancholy thing, [it is] like a forest without songbirds.
— Mehta

A city where songbirds chirp in desperate longing is even more melancholy. The city of the merciful people could not bear to leave them be. So, occasionally when the stork makes a mistake, the crying baby bird is bound in a soft blanket in the middle of a quiet night and sent to an Ospedale. She is sometimes accompanied by a small token, tucked snugly in her wrap. The mother plants a tearful kiss on her forehead, rings the bell, and disappears into the night.

The innocent songbird is welcomed into a nest where mothers are shared, and crying does not get her what she wants. But she is always kept warm, looked after by the city’s inhabitants—protective guardians who make sure that she grows up with dignity. She plays underneath arches designed by Brunelleschi, and is watched over by the loving Mary painted by Botticelli. Under God’s watchful eye, she learns mercy, faith, humility, and a means of living. When the time comes for her to take flight, she is welcomed with loving arms into city life, where she sings the songs of generosity that will echo for eternity.

City and Time

The city’s inhabitants think they hold control over their city through their government. The goddess of time laughs at their naivety. In a flutter of her eyelashes she compacts history, just for the mischief of it.

On the city’s winding streets, I see pilgrims in their straw hats hobbling along, exchanging greetings with one another. Nearby, baristas take bathroom breaks to massage their feet, before resuming their shifts to serve the chatter of customers coming in and out. At the frontal border, Michelangelo keeps constant watch atop the watch tower for the Republic’s enemies, scratching his arms every now and then when a mosquito bites. Underneath, accompanied by an angel, Tobias skips and sings as he exits the gate. Behind him, a little terrier snaps at a hissing cat, before running to catch up with his master. At a mansion nearby, Lucrezia de’ Medici sighs in relief after a morning of putting the house in order. She sits by the window, studying stories yet to be rewritten. Just outside her house, a young Francis unrobes himself. A young woman holding a rosary screams for the police to come. At a corner, Dante weeps quietly as he smokes a cigarette. He had just received orders to leave the city or be killed.

Just as casually, with a turn of her head, the goddess of time puts everything back in place. Again, I am sitting in front of my computer on the 3rd floor of Via Ricasoli 46, staring into the distance.

Cities and Flesh

When Mother Mary ascended to heaven, she rose in a womb-shaped cocoon. She was reborn, in a sense, in the kingdom of Jesus. People would look at the stained-glass window of the Sienese Duomo and feel awe at the image of a body literally flying into the sky.

When Jesus was crucified, his disciples thought it important to collect his blood in vials. Even the frescoes at San Marco depict a joyful collection of blood spurting from his hands, feet, and right rib. In churches around the world, his disciples partake in his flesh and blood every day.

When Saint Catherine died, Rome and Siena fought for her corpse. To my horror, they chopped her up to settle the dispute. Everyone wanted a piece of her.

The corporeal becomes the sacred through a collective act of purification. Setting aside the religious reading, the difference between a saint’s body and a normal person’s is the communal agreement of the former’s sanctity. The flesh has been transformed into something more than itself.

Historical artworks receive the same treatment. Because of the collective agreement of their value by inhabitants of the city and beyond, their meaning transcends themselves. Most will be surgically extracted from the architecture they belonged to, and placed in glass cases or hung on walls. They are worshipped by disciples of ideas. I imagine their original bodies mourn for them.

As a disciple of ideas, I am filled with the longing to consume the fragments of bodies I see scattered in museums and cathedrals. I want to sink my teeth into the muscles, chew through the tendons, suck the blood dry, and crunch on the cartilage. I want everything holy to me to be digested and immortalized in me. Only by doing so will I be purified and redeemed. Hence, before Judgment Day comes, I will have begun my ascend to paradise.

Exclusive City

Siena awakens a longing that is acutely unfamiliar to the seasoned traveler. The more the traveler indulges in that longing, the stronger it becomes. The longing arises when she watches a tender conversation between the barista and his frequent customer, when she feels unaccustomed with the height of each step as she descends into the Campo, and when she gets lost in corners of the city where Google maps fail to work —

And so the seasoned traveler lingers around for the crumbs dropped by locals to ravish on. She extends her stay, chooses a café to frequent, learns phrases of the language, studies the histories, makes local friends, walks on every route she discovers to internalize the map of the city, volunteers at the bar of the contrada her rented apartment is in… The more she gobbles up the greedier she becomes, but the longing has developed into an insatiable hunger —

Not long after, another unsuspecting seasoned traveler comes along. He is hit by an acutely unfamiliar longing as he watches a tender conversation between the barista and his frequent customer…

City of Affection

I found the City of Affection in the cup of shared gelato between two giggling dark-haired girls, on the cobblestones where a teenager bents forward to pick up his bright pink glove, as if saying “there you are!”, in the soft tunes of Giotto’s bell tower chiming as my friend and I shared bread dipped in olive oil in our small apartment, in the eyes of the Chihuahua wagging her tail at her elderly owner who squats to give her a pat on the head at Piazza San Marco, in the warmth of the night when the man who clearly had a little too much wine gave a loud smack of a kiss on the side of his wife’s head, in the linked arms of two little old ladies with matching yellow caps walking into a pharmacy, and in the animated conversation between a customer and a salesgirl at my nearest Intimissimi.

 

Painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Effects of Good Government, 1338

This piece is part of our Invisible Cities series.

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