Our train to Florence was due at 10 at night, from Salzburg station. We were migrating from Austria to Italy. It was the 28th of May 2018, a full moon night. We had spent the major part of the evening near the Salzach river, just watching the people slowly getting ready for the evening – to spend it in the rhythm of the river, slow, quiet and affectionately meandering down the town. We waited for the night train in a reasonably empty station fighting our sleep-laden, heavy eyelids. At last, the train arrived and we were all excited at the prospect of boarding a sleeper-car for the first time in our travels in the continent. It would be our longest run. We were expected to reach Florence around 8 in the following morning. The train staff were considerate enough to arrange for all of us in the same coupe, seeing that we were a single family. That saved us the anxiety of welcoming an unknown stranger amidst us. We settled our boxes and occupied our respective berths. The train rushed through the darkness without, keeping alongside the dark and looming Austrian Alps, and a bright and effulgent moon. I looked at the speeding landscape, gaping at the smiling moon and weaving narratives that her face inspired me to.
Italy was a dream. I remember having joked so many times to known people of not returning ever, if I am thrown on its shores. And here was I headed for Florence, Firenze, our penultimate destination, before we take our flight back to Kolkata from Rome. Italy, to me was Leonardo and Michelangelo, Venice and Florence. And I had heard so much about the Uffizi Gallery, and it were so many times that I dreamt of being in front of Michelangelo’s David or within the Sistine Chapel. Our arrival in Florence was delayed by a half-hour. Souvik and I were worried of being late for our morning plans; it was the Galleria degli Uffizi that we wanted to visit that day and the tickets were not yet booked!
We hauled our cases along dark grey-stoned roads and pavements, uneven, old and cobbled. Even the roads underlined the age of the city. Possibly founded by Julius Caesar in 59 BC, Florence was, once, amongst the richest cities of the province of Tuscany. It had once boasted of its own flag and coat of Arms. Ruled by the family of the Medicis, the city was also one of the greatest centres of the European Renaissance, proliferating art and architecture through the practice of patronage. The House of the Medicis were patrons to Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Vasari, Dante, Petrarch and many others. Modern day Florence was a quaint mixture of the old and the new. We alighted from the railway station at Firenzia Santa Lucia. The buildings around the area were tall and solid with hardly any balconies. The lanes were narrow. There were a few hurried walkers, at that hour of the day, hastening to work or some such errand. The weather was cool with a slight breeze blowing. We navigated through the google pathways and reached our stay – a small, unobtrusive door of the homestay the ‘Nuova Italia’ and in greeted us a charming lady who would be known to us as Daniella. It was her home, a three storied house, run and offered by her family: her husband, daughters and sister. Within the narrow contours of the hotel, we found a steep staircase, lined by prints of Picasso and colourful posters. The ground floor landing carefully nurtured a comfortable chair, a table and a cosy book shelf. Tired and unwashed as we were, we headed for our rooms on the second floor. It was a tough haul but there was no other alternative! The rooms were cosy, with an attached bath doing wonders for the space and amenities it offered, with an extra cot snugly fitted in for us. We headed for the outdoors as soon as we were ready. I was armed with my camera and back pack.
Daniella offered wonderful breakfast with handmade coffee, warm croissants, butter, jam, cheese, yogurts and fresh fruits. It was ethereal, but on the first day we also headed for the Marcato Centrale or the food mart, which was close by. En route we passed a line of shops stocked with leather accessories all lined up with bags and belts and jackets. They suddenly reminded me of Gariahat in Kolkata. The Marcato was stinky with fresh meat shops and raw vegetables, and soon we made our way upstairs to the first floor where there were all shops lined up. Not all were functioning at that hour: it must have been around 10 in the morning. We settled for coffee and sandwiches and some such confectionery. It warmed us. This was to be our food haunt in Florence, affordable and varied, well suited to us and the boys.
We made our way towards the Uffizi. As we took stride, I was conscious of narrow pathways lined by buildings and shops. The old stone buildings alternated with the newer ones. I was conscious of walking the roads which once, perhaps were walked by the great Medicis and Ghiberti, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto or even Raphael. I was at the end of our queue as always, free to do my own tracking and photographing and musing on the identity of the buildings. The crowds increased as we neared the Piazza for Cathedral del Fiore or the Duomo, the Campanile and the Baptistery. The crowds were actually enormous and we doubted whether we could make it anywhere! Hundreds had gathered at the entrance to the Duomo. We moved forwards and before long we reached the Piazza della Signoria leading to the Uffizi. There was renovation work going on in several places throughout the Piazza and in many parts of Florence. The Neptune Fountain was being renovated, there was a giant scaffold near the entrance to Uffizi; there were scaffolds on the Cathedral as well.
Uffizi is a long rectangular u-shaped corridor like structure overlooking the Arno on the southern side of the city. The dignity of the galleria was amply echoed in the stately shades of grey in which it was adorned. As one looked into the entrances, one again saw the morale dampening crowds – could we enter into the Gallery? Souvik volunteered to wait in the long queue. Anju and Chirag walked down the aisle to have a look at the street painters making caricature sketches and before long, I saw Chirag posing in front of a cheerful artist. Soham was bored and shuttled between all of us. One more art gallery would surely blow the top of his head! But still!! I found myself exploring the neighbourhood.
The aisle of Uffizi was lined by statues of stalwarts – Niccolo Machiavelli, Franceso Petrarca, Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo Buonarotti, among others. The southern archway led to the Arno – the fabled Arno of all the great souls! The weather was heating up. Where there was no shade, the sun was actually scorching. I made through the aisle down the square and over to the Duomo. Tall stood the Campanella and I jostled for a nook where I could get the adequate distance for a good look. The streets were far too narrow and crowded for one to be afforded a good look! The Baptistery stood in dignity with its well carved out doorways.
The wait in queue for Uffizi ended after an hour and a half! We entered the hallowed portals, up the first floor, and the second floor, as the maps guided us. One by one, the masters stayed before us. To me they spoke a language very old. I could distinctly hear the voices of some of our professors way back at Jadavpur University. At that time, some paintings were household names. I heard about them in class, saw slides, and then relived those moments at home when I went through my father’s books. Sometimes my father and I had some serious discussions about aesthetics, perspective, and the nuances behind the paintings. And here I was standing in front of the ‘Primavera’, ‘Birth of Venus’, ‘Bacchus’, ‘Venus of Urbino’ and several others. The list was endless. I seemed to be in a treasure house and I passed from one room to another, one corridor into another almost in a trance. I forgot myself and became one with those voices of my past; I identified with those paintings. This has been my experience in all the art museums that I had visited in Europe. I forgot my existence to live in those paintings, its moments and the pages of the books in which I had studied them about. The paintings seemed to have a life of their own and I wanted to belong to that life. I was almost living that life. Reality met history. Many of the paintings were kept behind glass enclosures and some had the lights of the chambers dimmed. I was awed at the silence of the viewers – they viewed the paintings intricately in silent wonder. The discipline of informed minds really amazed me. As we finally exited from the Galleria, I noticed the Uffizi library and wondered what a treasure trouve that must be. There was also the souvenir shop from where I bought a book and a magnet. This was a routine and the joke that I turned into, for visiting almost all souvenir shops.
A brief lunch followed, of pizza and pasta at a roadside ristorante. It was satisfying, especially after the rigours of the well spent morning. The boys, Chirag and Soham, usually chose the menu and most often, not being sure of either the quantity or the taste, we blundered. But these are obvious pitfalls of foreign travels and also the travails of a language trauma. But these are things one learns to live with.
We wanted to see ‘David’ that very afternoon. There was a huge queue in front of the Galleria dell’Accademia, where Michelangelo’s masterpiece was kept. The street was a narrow one and we were queued up on a cobbled pavement, narrow and without shade, in the scorching sun. The heat was almost unbearable and water bottles kept overflowing on the trash cans beside the pavement. The crowds at the entrance kept justifying the online tickets vis-à-vis the offline ones. It was not less than an hour and a half of really ‘patient’ waiting before we could enter. And voila, down the corridor!
The picture of ultimate grace. My overwhelm knew no bounds. I stood stupefied. This was it – memories, anecdotes, stories, studies flashed across my mind. It was all here. In regal splendour.
All through Florence, in all the souvenir shops or in the one-euro shops, there are umpteen David replicas of all shapes and sizes and even colour, there are plaster moulds and fridge magnets. I did not get any of them. For David was stamped on my mind. I shall forever treasure the memory that particular moment afforded me, that unforgettable moment.
Florence is also famous for masks. There was a shop just beside our homestay-hotel that specialised in masks. Of all sizes and all varieties. They were a feast for the eyes. I immediately thought of the masks that Romeo and Juliet wore at their first ball. The shop was gracious enough to gift me a couple of picture post cards of Florentine masks. They surely know how to treat tourists!
We were in Florence for only two nights. We missed seeing many sights, many museums, among which was the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, the Palazzo Vecchio, the interiors of Palazzo Pitti and Michelangelo’s Museum on the other side of the Arno. One needs to be persuaded seriously about Art to view all of these together and one needs time for the wonders to penetrate one’s psyche. I shall wait for a future opportunity to visit these sights once again, in this lifetime.