how florence broke my heart

I love Florence. From the moment I set foot on her cobblestones, I was infatuated as only a young teenage girl can be. I was only twelve at the time, and my future was still filled with endless possibilities. I could become anything I wanted to be, as long as Florence was waiting for me.

But life happens, doesn’t it?

I ended up becoming a chef, and while I frequently traversed Italy, I was never able to find the right reason to stay. I loved Italian wines and cheeses far more than Italian men, (until now) and Florence and I remained in the “friends with benefits” period of our relationship.

I was pregnant with my baby when her Dad and I decided to spend some time in Italy before she was born. We planned a week in Florence, and then a couple weeks travelling the countryside. We both loved Florence, and he had lived there for a period of time restoring some parts of the British Institute. I was pregnant, so I had a built in excuse to eat anything I wanted, and the Italians don’t look at you sideways if you sip a tiny bit of Barolo while you are with child.(If you are judging here, just stop reading, this story is not for you.)

For those of you who know me well, you know that I am as passionate about Early Renaissance art as I am about food. When we were museum binging, I fell in love with Piero Della Francesca again (there was a first time, but that is another story) and decided to change our entire trip itinerary to follow his life and his frescoes, many of which are still in situ. Hadyn’s father gave in to my whim, I was pregnant after all, and for the next three weeks we chased every painting and every fresco we could find. We called it, “In Search of Piero” and in my head I wanted to write a story about our trip when we got back.

Falling in love with a painter who has been dead for over five hundred years, who does that?

Well, babies and restaurants and a move and a divorce and a marriage (not necessarily in that order) interfered over the next decade with me writing my love story about my long dead Italian boyfriend, but he was always in the back of my mind. Like the love of your life who got away. Then last summer, Michael, my very alive hottie Italian boyfriend and I flew to Florence to meet our friends. I climbed in the plane to go to my favorite city in the world, and the words just began to pour out. By the time we left Italy, I had the outline of a story. A wonderful, fabulous, passionate, amazing love story, which I had to tell so much, I ached with desire to pour it out onto the pages. Over the last year, I have researched and studied and written and read and found out anything I could about Piero and his best friend, Andrea Del Castagno. I didn’t tell anyone, because telling people you are writing a novel is an, “I think I’m all that and a bag of chips” kind of statement.

I really don’t think I’m all that, I promise. In fact, quite the reverse.

I just have this wonderful love story to tell. A story about a quest, a crucible and a journey, and that is why I am here in Italy right now. To retrace the steps of my character, and to be able to fill in the details so the story breathes with life. I can write I am sitting in a piazza at Colle di Val d’Elsa, which is true, but boring. If I tell you that I am sitting in a piazza in the early morning watching a young mother with a beatific smile nurse her child while daintily sipping her espresso, which seems more real? The pigeons coo and peck at her feet. She brushes the rest of her croissant crumbs to them with her free hand, accidentally breaking her child’s clasp on her breast. He squawks his upset. She shushes him and wraps her scarf around his body when she sees me watching. She smiles, but still I interrupted their privacy. I smile back to show my understanding at the transgression, but she looks away.

So that is why I am here in Italy. The tenor of life is so different as to be unimaginable when I sit at home pouring out my heart, my love for this man who has been dead for so long. My Italian is so rusty (and usually just lapses into Spanish) that I am simply observing from the outside. Which brings me back to Florence. When we were here last year, the Early Renaissance room was closed for restoration. I booked a reserved ticket this trip, and prayed to everything that was holy, that it would be open. When I arrived at 8:30 am I was told there was a delay, the museum would not open till ten. What’s a few more hours’ right? I waited till lunchtime for the crowds to die down, and raced to the top floor to find my boys. Piero’s Frederigo de Montefeltro was there but Andrea’s, Uomini Famosa series and the Madonna and Child were not. I had seen them before, but I needed, in a deeply visceral way, to see them again. I asked the closest guard, and she confirmed that they were in the museum but unavailable to the public.

And, quite embarrassingly, I burst into tears.

I cried and cried and cried, going through a whole pack of traveler’s tissue. This dear woman, Elena, who never had it in her job description to comfort bereft middle aged tourists did her very best to find out who I could appeal to for permission to see the paintings. She patted my arm and waited patiently for me to get the words out.

“I’m writing a book..(sob sob) you see, I have to see them. I need to. (sob sob) I’ve waited so long. (sob sob) I’ve worked so hard (sob sob) It’s for the book. I’ve flown here twice.”

Finally, I get through telling her the story and tears dried and nose blown a couple dozen times, she sends me down to the offices of the Director. You have to buzz to get in, and a very disheveled man opens the door, just a crack, very begrudgingly and with obvious annoyance. I ask, in English, if I am in the Directors office. He answers, in Italian, yes, and what do I want. While I understand what he is saying in Italian, I cannot answer in Italian that I am researching Andrea Del Castagno and Piero Della Francesco to write a book. It is completely beyond my linguistic skills at that very emotional moment, and so I answered him in English.

He slammed the door in my face.

I finally found someone who gave me the Director’s email. I wrote to him, begging for entrance. I went back to my flat and my host Diana was vacuuming the hallway as I walked in. She had the misfortune to ask me how the writing was going.

And I burst into tears again. Only this time I didn’t stop. I told her the whole story, all about the book, and why it was so important to see these paintings. She listened to the whole, sad, pathetic tale as I poured out the misadventure. Diana is an expat German who has lived here for twelve years. My raw emotion was more than a little awkward, but bless her, she listened and started emailing and Face booking everyone she knew at the Uffizi, the German Institute and the British Institute. The upshot is, no, I don’t get to see my paintings and Florence broke my heart. II binged on pizza and cheese and Gotham and probably, although I am not admitting this on the internet, cried myself to sleep. I woke up feeling heartsick and with a pimple sprung up on the corner of my mouth overnight.

Some intrepid traveler I am.

So this morning I got into my little tiny rental car and headed out of Florence for Arezzo. I decided to meander my way there, rather than follow a direct route and so I am nursing my broken heart in a little café off the piazza of Colle di Val d’Elsa, smelling the bay laurel hedges when the wind is right, and listening to the fountain water dance it’s way down the cascading path. I am watching a beautiful mother nurse her child and the old man on the corner, with mismatched socks and no teeth, sweep the same dust for an hour.

Ciao Firenze. Ciao cara mia.




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