Florence (6 – 9 June 2013)
The plan was to take the overnight bus so that we could firstly save on a night’s stay at a hotel and secondly get an early start in Florence.
The place to board the bus was at this bus stop outside the Matera Villa Longo Station, not Matera Centrale. It all actually felt a little dodgy having to board the bus in the middle of what looked like the suburbs late at night but the bus was comfortable and I had no complaint about the service.
I was feeling quite proud of myself for finding a direct overnight bus from Matera to Florence until reality set in the next morning. I was feeling more tired than I thought I would. Age is really catching up on me!
E had booked a bed at a hostel somewhere else and so we parted ways at the bus station in Florence. We met for dinner while she was still in the city and she joined me for my day trip to Pisa. But Florence was her last stop on her break and she would go home after she had finished her shopping.
It was just too early to check in at the hotel, having arrived at about 8 in the morning. So I dumped my bag at the hotel and went to join the queue at the Galleria dell’Accademia to see David.
Is there anything else in the whole of Florence that represents the city more than he does?
And now a little blasphemy. I really did not think that there was anything about the statue that set it far apart, much less far ahead, from all the other Renaissance era statues. I understand the perfect form and all that and do appreciate the beauty of this masterpiece but it is not as if Michelangelo was the only master in his time. He might have been the best among his peers, but was he really so much better than the rest that he should enjoy so much more fame? But maybe I am thinking this way because I am not an artist.
I also want to add, having been in Israel just a month before, that Michelangelo had made his David a little too ‘white’, although would anyone have done it differently?
In any case, I felt a little sorry for the other masterpieces at the Galleria dell’Accademia. It seemed as if David was the museum’s sole exhibit and everything else was mere decoration. However, there are many marvellous paintings in the museum that deserved attention too.
The cathedral of Florence, Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Basilica of St Mary of the Flower, is madness. I say it is madness not because it is huge, which it is, but because of how decorated it is. It took almost 150 years to complete and the amount of work and money spent on it must have been staggering. Maybe an entire country could have been fed well for years with that kind of money.
The cathedral is really a complex of 3 structures, the church itself, the campanile and the baptistery. I went into all 3, or to be more precise went into 2 and went up 1.
The church itself was cavernous as expected but its interior as compared to its exterior was rather austere. Its dome however was a definite head turner. I also visited its underground vault and there were some ruins and a chapel down there but I did not find them interesting.
What was more interesting to me was this little drama that happened at the gift shop underground. An apparently Chinese woman did not seem to know what a queue was and expected the shopkeeper to tend to her before the customers actually in the queue. The shopkeeper was very obviously annoyed with her and told her to get in line. But she either did not understand him, though she nodded her head at the shopkeeper, or did not bother and held her ground at the counter. After the shopkeeper had finally tended to her, he made a remark in Italian which sounded a little to me like “These Chinese! They are…” That woman totally deserved any impoliteness shown to her, and I was glad that the shopkeeper had told her off. But such behaviour is not helping much with foreigners’ impression of Chinese people in general. If there is one thing I learnt from this journey it is that many foreigners assume that either all Chinese people are from China or the Chinese are all the same people with a common culture of barbarism regardless of which country they actually come from.
And the PRCs wonder why everyone, including ethnic Chinese people outside the mainland, hates them.
On the other hand, there have been stories of racist behaviour in Italy and if the reports are accurate it seems as if racism may be acceptable to some extent in the country. I can tell that the Italians are a proud people, and they do have much to be proud of. However, mighty Rome faded away centuries ago and the world moved on eons ago from the Renaissance. In the present era, people are probably more interested about what is happening in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong than in Rome, Florence or Venice. Unless it is the Pope we are talking about.
Be that as it may, I really cannot blame the Italians, or indeed anyone, for thinking poorly of the PRCs. I have encountered PRCs behaving badly too many times myself and I have my own strong prejudices against them.
I think I got flack for being Chinese from the lady owner of my hotel. Sure she did her job. I got all the services that I paid for. I could not even give concrete instances of racist behaviour. I also tried to think of reasonable explanations for her behaviour. But I could sense racism or some sort of prejudice in the way she tended to me and the stilted manner she spoke to me each time.
I had initially booked a room in a separate building from the reception. When I returned in the afternoon on the first day to check in, I discovered that she had changed my room to one near the reception. That was alright with me since I was not charged extra and I have to say that the room assigned to me was a good one. However, it felt as if she wanted me within her line of vision as much as possible.
At breakfast, I felt that she was more attentive to her American guests (I did not encounter guests from other countries when I was there). She was definitely visibly affectionate to these two American girls staying there at the time.
My booking was for 3 nights but after my second night, as I was leaving the hotel for the day, the lady stopped me at the stairs and asked if I should be checking out that morning. I had to correct her. That left me wondering if she could have checked her own records first before asking me about my booking. Or did she simply assume that I wanted to overstay?
Then when I finally checked out and she was writing out a receipt for me, she wrote “Cina” under country of origin. I had to correct her, “Singapore! No Cina! No!” I think that was when she realised that she had made certain wrongful assumptions about me and she took a look at my passport before returning it to me. She had my passport the whole time and she did not even bother to look at it carefully! Yes, the Singaporean passport is a bright neon traffic-stopping visible-outside-the Milky-Way red, but a red passport is not necessarily a Chinese one. Anyway she made the correction in the receipt.
But even if the lady was not racist, she was surely vain. I think she received an appreciation letter from one of her guests and she started reading it as I was going to tell her about leaving my bag with her for a few hours after I had checked out. She got so excited about the letter that she forgot that I was not done with her yet.
E and I had a personal encounter with a PRC during dinner on our second night in Florence. He was a waiter at the restaurant and thought that we were his countrymen. He therefore came excitedly to speak to us. He asked us where we were from, expecting to hear the name of a Chinese province, and mistakenly heard “Xinjiang” instead of “Xinjiapo” (Singapore in Mandarin). I wonder if he was disappointed that we were not from China after all. Nevertheless, he seemed quite happy to be able to speak Mandarin to someone. I was on the other hand more interested in getting my order so0ner and was a bit worried that his chatting would cause my horse meat to be served later. But to be fair this particular PRC did seem like a nice person.
Anyway, back to the cathedral. The campanile afforded great views around the area though the climb was hard for an unfit person like me. The stairs just seemed to go on and on endlessly! The baptistery, named after St John, was absolutely gorgeous. Its interior was truly a sight to behold especially its wonderful mosaic ceiling.
I want to make mention of 2 churches that I had visited too. One is the Basilica of Santa Croce which is the place of burial or commemoration of many distinguished Florentines such as Galileo and Dante. The other is the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte standing on one of the highest points in the city and somewhere behind the Piazzale Michelangelo. The latter was one of those places that I had not planned to visit but was very happy that I did. It also made me find out who St Miniato was since I had never heard of that name before.
St Miniato, or Minias, was a Christian Armenian prince who had served in the Roman army. He later became a hermit and was then denounced for being a Christian. The Emperor who was camped outside Florence at the relevant time ordered that he be thrown to the beasts. A panther was set on him but it refused to devour him, of course. Then in true Christian tradition the saint got beheaded and he calmly picked up his own head and walked back to his hermitage.
I just love all these Christian stories. They make me want to try beheading some Christians to see if they could still walk about after that. Now who would like to be a martyr?
The Uffizi Gallery is another art museum that is worth the long agonising queue to get in. I was in the queue for at least an hour but the wait was worth it. The gallery is a treasure trove of priceless masterpieces and it felt surreal to me to see the original famous works. I think I enjoyed the works of Botticelli most. There is something ethereal about his style that appeals to me.
Being in a well-preserved historic old city means that a visitor must spend some time walking about and enjoy the cityscape and buildings. The first thing that I noticed about Florence was that its buildings seemed taller than those in many other important mediaeval European cities. This I decided must be attributed to the wealth of the city when the Medicis ruled.
As I walked about the city, I started looking out for all the places mentioned in the song “O Mio Babbino Caro”. I was pretty shocked by the Arno which was like the Yellow River of Europe. Is Lauretta sure that she would jump in there? Or was she merely making sure that her threat would sound sufficiently terrifying to scare her babbo? The Ponte Vecchio was somehow interesting to look at though I really did not want to spend too much time on it with the whole world and in any case I was not interested in buying any gold. I am not sure if I had gone to the correct Porta Rossa and I did not notice any shop selling wedding rings there.
The Piazza della Signoria is where the Palazzo Vecchio stands. The palazzo is a fortress town hall and one of the landmarks of the city. In front of it stands a copy of Michelangelo’s David. When I visited there seemed to be some sort of political rally going on.
Across the Arno is the Piazzale Michelangelo with another copy of David. Now how many Davids do they need in one city? And why do people even bother to pay money to see the original one if that is all in the museum that they are interested in? Each copy looks exactly the same as the original after all. In any case the reason I went up to the piazzale was to take in the famous view and not to see David 3.
I did not give myself a lot of time in Florence. Even though I am not an artist, I have always enjoyed looking at art. The birthplace of European Renaissance is such an important repository of Western art and civilisation and there are still plenty of masterpieces in the city that I should see but did not have time for this round. A return visit for me is therefore not merely desired but obligatory.
However I sensed that Florence was merely tolerating tourism as a necessary evil much like other famous tourist attraction cities like Venice. Although the Florentines were generally alright to me, I could still feel this latent fatigue and cynicism in them. I think I would be like that too if my home were flooded with strangers treating it like a museum. But would they have preferred their city mediocre?