A Walk in Florence
There's nothing awkward about being a tourist in this Italian city. Henry James knew it, and more than a century later I'm following in his footsteps.
In the street below my window the crowds flow on, an unending stream from the Duomo to the Uffizi and back again. They shoal for gelato, they pause in the shops that seem (but don’t) to sell every Chianti known to man, they look at leather and shirts and even at the statues in the niches of Orsanmichele. There’s an occasional bicycle or man in a suit, but otherwise almost everyone on the pedestrianized Via Calzauoli in Florence this morning is a tourist. There are groups of middle-aged Japanese, though not so many as one might expect, and of course a lot of Americans, the men given away by their shorts, even though it’s only April. Yet most of the people below me are, curiously enough, Italian, who turn out to be great tourists in their own country — retirees, flocks of teenagers on school trips, packaged parties of all kinds who, though they do without the baseball caps and water bottles of my own countryfolk, don’t seem to have much more of an idea about just what it is they’re seeing.
I’ve come to give a lecture on America’s Florence, on the 19th century colony of expatriates that clustered on the hill of Bellosguardo, a mile south of the Arno, with a particular focus on Henry James, who not only set some of his work in Florence but wrote a lot of it here as well. He began his first novel, Roderick Hudson, in a flat on Piazza Santa Maria Novello; the building’s ground floor now contains a gelateria, with what I’m told is housing for an NYU study abroad program on the floors above. He wrote “The Aspern Papers” in a villa on Bellosguardo itself. And The Portrait of a Lady got its start in a hotel overlooking the Ponte Vecchio, with a view across the river to a line of half-ruined old houses that he described as “battered and befouled… cracked and disjointed,” but so different from the brownstones of his Manhattan childhood as to “create their own standard of felicity.” Today they look felicitous enough on their own, some of the city’s most expensively rehabbed property.
I turn away from my hotel window and head out into the day. My path takes me across the river and then up the rise that leads to the Pitti Palace — once the home of the city’s Medici dukes, and now its #2 museum. But it’s also the nearest entry to the Boboli Gardens, a kind of Central Park without softball or merry-go-rounds, a formal arrangement of cypresses and gravel walks, of fountains and terraces and lanes cut like tunnels through the overhanging greenery. I had been there a few years before, in winter, when my daughter spent an hour stalking the garden’s many cats, and we had paused for a view of the Appenines and their snowy rim. My way was quicker now, and at mid-morning the Boboli was almost empty as I worked my way down to its far end, by the old Porta Romana: the gate that had marked, for James, the start of the climb up Bellosguardo.
Still, no walk is quite without incident. In a rose garden near my exit I met an elderly woman, elegant in crocheted silk, walking with a cane and the aid of a companion — a maid, a nurse — in hijab. Florentines have an eye for foreigners, and they’ll usually speak to you in English before bothering to discover whether or not you can handle their own language. Not that I can. Yet that day my own dark trousers and linen shirt must have covered a multitude of sins, for the signora asked me a question in Italian, and seemed surprised when I mumbled out one of the few phrases I know. “Non parlo Italiano.” “But where are you from?” her companion asked me, in English now, and when I told her she pointed to herself and said, with a trace of nervous laughter, “Iraq.” It was the week’s most confusing moment — I couldn’t think of how to respond, and so all I said, with a laughter more nervous, was “Scusi.”
Florence lost its city walls in the second half of the 19th century, but many of its gates remain, and so like James himself I passed through the Porta Romana, now pierced by four lines of traffic. But I wasn’t heading for Rome, and after a few minutes I left the main road and began to climb a little street without a sidewalk. Here the city’s fabric loosened. There were spaces between the buildings now, though the walls that lined my way were almost continuous. Small green lizards ran along them at shoulder height, moving in and out of the vines with which those walls were planted; and through heavy gates there was an occasional view of a villa, of mustard-colored buildings set back in a garden of umbrella pines and olives. As the road climbed, the villas got larger, and security more elaborate. A sign at every gate warned me about dogs; barbed wire ran above the concealing walls, and the tops of the walls themselves were a bristle of broken glass.
“If you’re an aching alien,” James wrote in an 1877 essay, “half the talk is about villas. This one has a story; that one has another,” and by now many of those stories have an American twist. James Fenimore Cooper spent some time behind these roadside walls, and in 1858 Hawthorne rented the Torre di Montauto on top of Bellosguardo. For $28 a month he got a place “big enough to quarter a regiment,” a place that is now chopped into apartments, an Italianate gated community. Later, he used that tower as a setting in The Marble Faun, though in the process he also relocated it — he wanted the sense of romantic isolation that would make it seem a suitable home for a murderer, and on the page he moved it up into the mountains.
Rome offered its American visitors an unmatched historic grandeur; Venice gave them a sense of mystery, even of treachery. But 19th century Florence had something almost cosy about it. It was, in James’ words, a “rounded pearl of cities — cheerful, compact, complete — full of a delicious mixture of beauty and convenience,” and as such it drew a mix of the famous and the well-to-do, the poets like Longfellow whom we no longer read, the collectors like Isabella Stewart Gardner. In an age of sail and steamships, several thousand Americans a year managed to get here; there was an American doctor and an English pharmacist, Protestant churches, and a circulating library where one could get the papers from home. Even Mark Twain came to Florence, and not just to make fun of it in the Innocents Abroad. Late in his life he rented a villa on the north side of the Arno in the vain hope that the climate would be good for his wife’s health; she died here in 1903.
The road leveled out and a man jogged toward me, in Italy an unusual sight. But as he approached I saw that his t-shirt announced his love for New York, and he was carrying a copy of the Herald Tribune; a part of this hill remains American. Then a two-seater Fiat slowed beside me and the driver leaned out to ask for directions in Italian — for who else would walk here alone but a resident? I spread my hands and hunched my shoulders in a gesture of unknowing; though later when I looked at my map I realized that we’d both been smack in the intersection he wanted.
My destination was a place James had described as “a little grassy, empty, rural piazza,” no more, really, than a swelling at the juncture of two roads, and bounded upon one side by a villa with a “long, rather blank-looking…front.” The grass was gone now, which didn’t prevent a little boy from kicking a soccer ball against a gate, but the villa was still there, and still painted a “dull, dark yellow.” In James’ day the place had been called the Villa Castellani, and some expatriate friends of his had kept an apartment there, an apartment he used as the model for Gilbert Osmond’s in The Portrait of a Lady: “…a seat of ease, indeed of luxury, telling of arrangements subtly studied and refinements frankly proclaimed.” And much later the building itself would suffer through several decades of a peculiarly Jamesian fate, and become a finishing school for American girls.
The villa has a modest façade, and it sits directly on the street — no broken glass. I had been here once before, and a caretaker had waved me into the courtyard, where there was a well in one corner, a Vespa in another, and the pavement had been set with the gravestones of pets — “Bubeli, 1913.” I remembered looking, then, at the mailboxes of the dozen flats into which this 15th century building was now divided. A German, a Scandinavian, and then a lot of Italians, among them somebody called Corleone. There had been one English name, a place belonging to “Lawrence of Florence.” In an essay on Siena, James described himself as “peeping up [the] stately staircases” of one historic house after another, and wishing that he might walk up into the drawing room for a view of the life within. So I paused with my finger over Lawrence’s button, wondering who — or what — might appear. In the end, however, I had had no more courage than James himself, and left that bell unrung.
The courtyard today was shut, and the villa’s windows were too high for any peeper, so I waved to the boy with the soccer ball and set off down the hill. It was lunchtime, and the air carried a mingled scent of jasmine and ragù. My road now lay past the Villa Brichieri-Columbi, where James had written “The Aspern Papers,” and then around two sharply banked corners before it once more dropped flat, a mile or so downstream from where my walk had begun. I came out in Piazza Tasso: more soccer balls, and I sat on a bench reading Faulkner until my trattoria opened up. A couple from Turin sat at the next table, and as the meal went on other Italians from elsewhere came in with their guidebooks. A lot of us began with the same thing — a salad of slivered baby artichokes and arugula.
On my last morning — my lecture done, the packing, too — I walked down to the Uffizi to see how bad the line was. Bad enough, and I turned away to lean against the railing of the Neptune fountain in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. It was the very spot where Savonarola had been burned. Michelangelo’s David was in its place on the other side of the Palazzo’s entrance; there was a Hercules, too, and then just a few more feet away the Loggia dei Lanzi, with Cellini’s bronze of Perseus holding up Medusa’s head. See it and turn to stone, to the very stones of the Piazza around me, where so many important things had happened.Yet those things — Savonarola, and the Medici, and even Michelangelo himself — were above all events in the history of Florence. They had had a local importance before they had a European one, and the statuary on display hadn’t been meant for visitors, but rather as a way for this city to display its genius to itself. Rome is different. Rome was made for show. People have been going there to gawk for two thousand years, and there’s nothing awkward about being a tourist there. We are the ones for whom that place is meant. But Florence is not like that. It was built on a different scale, one that I become ever more aware of even in seeing it through an American lens, as though its recent history were but a Jamesian chronicle of one visitor after another. For I could not help feeling, as I joined the pedestrian flow, that our presence — so many stranieri, wherever they are from — was an imposition this small city was never meant to bear. • 22 August 2007
Michael Gorra is a professor of English at Smith College. He is the author of The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany and After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie. His new edition of The Portable Conrad will be out this fall.
Photos by echiner1 (Creative Commons), Stephanie Costa (Creative Commons), bobu (Creative Commons), and wvs (Creative Commons) via Flickr.