If you want to know a place quickly, take a ride on its public bus.
I stepped out of the Florence train station and immediately started walking towards a dome. My backpack creaked behind me: hot weight. Pizza from a bakery provided my lunch as the wind twirled pigeon feathers down the dome’s steps.
A physical city, I thought as I ate. Texture of stone, texture of sweat on skin. Taste of crops grown on dry hills.
I thought of the Florence I had loved so well in high school and university, found within the cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The poet who wrote love of his city into scattered sheets of animal skin, his touch of words to pen to parchment a link to the home he remembered in exile.
As I ate a thought lodged like a pit in my mind: Dante, defying convention to write in the vernacular. The words his pen wrote were the common words of common people: a rough language, simple and honest, exiled from the lofty Latin of intellectual tradition.
I ran through the other names of the city: Michelangelo’s marble anatomy. Da Vinci ‘s human sketches. Galileo ‘s planets. All solid art, honest, and true.
I walked to the bus, found a seat. A couple kissed loudly behind me through several bus stops and then sat down, he moving on to the commonplace happenings of his phone, she staring ahead.
Florence is the vernacular, I decided. Thought with physicality. The beauty within substance. Bodies as truth.
I conveniently sidestepped the rest of Dante ‘s story, about the weight of physicality that must be shed to float up to paradise. By now I was walking up a hill lined with hot olive groves, and the weight of my pack was all the restraint I could manage.
It came as a shock when I stepped out of the sun and into my hostel, and found myself in the vast, walled cool of a medieval monastery.
“Pilgrims would stop here on their way to Rome or Assisi,” a man explained as he checked my hostelworld booking. “The monks would give them a bed and look after their bodies. It’s where the words ‘hostel’ and ‘hospital’ come from.”
The building, he told me, dated back to the 1200s. And I could pick any fruit from the orchard outside.
The rest of the evening was spent oohing over the building, the orchard, and the sunset view from the terrace, with pasta and wine, and a comprehensive demonstration from some university students of the number of French cuss words per one in English.
Breakfast the next morning was too good to handle: homemade blackberry cake, tarts with fruit from the orchard, perfect coffee.
I took a train into Florence (Firenze in Italian, by the way…and now we pretend we didn’t both think that was only the name of the centaur from Harry Potter.), and wandered the plazas and outsides of museums until the sheer volume of their history grew overwhelming. I wrapped my picnic-blanket sarong around my waist as a makeshift shirt to gain entrance into the Duoma, but found I liked the colored marble of the outside even better.
Finally I made my way to Via Dante Alighieri for the site of Dante ‘s house, reconstructed as a museum that unconsciously followed the triple-layered structure of the Divine Comedy: The first floor punished you with the background history of Florentine families you said you had wanted. The second floor moved upwards through war into Dante ‘s exile.
The third floor was paradise. Two original illuminated manuscripts. One precise replica. A sculpture of the winds of the first circle of the Inferno.
(Guess who’s a nerd. Answer: me.)
My final morning in Florence left me feeling confused. I planned to head to the Uffuzi museum to see some of the city’s art, but the statues outside had broken my confidence. Bloody victories with faces carved in gleeful triumph. Violence against women repeated as though it were a thing of beauty. The carrying-off of bodies, not of people, all above the clicks of camera phones.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the way the statues made me feel, other than that I didn’t feel like celebrating the side they showed of physical reality.
Dante’s answer to the problem was Platonic: physical love is a vessel for spiritual love, because paradise is present within its physical imitations. Good love, then, is to love the spirit through the body. The body still holds value, almost paradoxically: in the indivisible stab of light that Dante sees as the Trinity, he thinks he can glimpse a human figure. But the spirit is most important, and the spirit remains.
I no longer agree with Dante.
Good is action; it does not need spirit. And people (myself included) can hurt each other and know they are doing so, without an absence of spirit to prove the hurt. Or we can help each other, love each other, and create a place of beauty.
Florence is a beautiful city. It is beautiful in its stone. It is beautiful in its pigeons, in the fruits on the trees. The sun. The tastes. The rich and generous culture. The woman with the wrong bus line, so anxious to help me find the bus I already knew, and the old man who walked a block to help me find my stop.
Florence is the vernacular. It is beautiful physical truth pouring from beautiful physical minds. It is science, invention, the testing of limits.
The history of art in the Uffuzi museum told the opposite story of Dante: That of beauty becoming solid. Symbolic lines gaining weight. Bodies stepping out from painted barriers. Substance, as substance, as art. As beauty. And that is the story I choose to tell.
The bus home was full. I stood in back, pressed against a frizzy-haired grandma and a young man in a tucked-in shirt. The bus rocked around turns, so we all grasped the yellow pole for support, our arms forming sun-spokes above layered hands. Different arms, skin with stories. Cool blouses and t-shirts and buttoned cuffs. All in light through windows.
I felt in that touch the peace of poetry. Of love.
Of love that knows and names the sun and other stars.