At evening, sitting on this terrace,
When the sun from the west, beyond Pisa, beyond the mountains of Carrara
Departs, and the world is taken by surprise ...
When the tired flower of Florence is in gloom beneath the glowing
Brown hills surrounding ...
When under the arches of the Ponte Vecchio
A green light enters against stream, flush from the west,
Against the current of obscure Arno ...
Look up, and you see things flying
Between the day and the night;
Swallows with spools of dark thread sewing the shadows together.
A circle swoop, and a quick parabola under the bridge arches
Where light pushes through;
A sudden turning upon itself of a thing in the air.
A dip to the water.
And you think:
"The swallows are flying so late!"
Dark air-life looping
Yet missing the pure loop ...
A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight
And serrated wings against the sky,
Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.
The swallows are gone.
At a wavering instant the swallows gave way to bats
By the Ponte Vecchio ...
Bats, and an uneasy creeping in one's scalp
As the bats swoop overhead!
Black piper on an infinitesimal pipe.
Little lumps that fly in air and have voices indefinite, wildly vindictive;
Wings like bits of umbrella.
Creatures that hang themselves up like an old rag, to sleep;
And disgustingly upside down.
Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags
And grinning in their sleep.
In China the bat is symbol for happiness.
Not for me!
Carrara is a city and comune in the Province of Massa and Carrara (Tuscany, Italy), notable for the white or blue-grey marble quarried there. It is on the Carrione River, some 100 kilometres (62 mi) west-northwest of Florence.
marble quarries which are the white markings on the mountains.
View of the Ponte Vecchio from above
The Ponte Vecchio ("Old Bridge", Italian pronunciation: [ˈponte ˈvɛkkjo]) is a Medieval stone closed-spandrel segmental arch bridge over the Arno River, in Florence, Italy, noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common. Butchers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewellers, art dealers and souvenir sellers. The Ponte Vecchio's two neighbouring bridges are the Ponte Santa Trinita and the Ponte alle Grazie.
Tuscany is divided into ten provinces:
Florence, Then and Now
Chris Warde-Jones for The New York Times
HERE'S what you do first in Florence: Complain about the tourists. It's a time-honored tradition and there's no avoiding it — or them, as they squeeze down the narrow streets. They choke the majestic Piazza Signoria; they overwhelm the Uffizi Gallery — so go ahead and get the grumbling over with. Hordes of them! A year-round blight! Why can't they just stay home! Or, if you're like E. M. Forster's “clever” lady novelist in “A Room With a View,” the one who exclaims in dismay over the bovine “Britisher abroad,” admit that you'd like to administer an exam “and turn back every tourist who couldn't pass it.”
The next thing to do in Florence, according to Forster, is throw away your guidebook. Chapter II of “A Room With a View” is called “In Santa Croce With No Baedeker,” and it's a gently comic interlude every honest visitor to that great Franciscan basilica will recognize as a mocking portrait of himself. Or herself, in the case of our young heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, who winds up alone in the vast interior of Santa Croce without her “Handbook to Northern Italy.”
On the way in she noted “the black-and-white facade of surpassing ugliness” (the marble was added in the 19th century — paid for by an Englishman, by the way); now she's rattling around in the vast nave, wondering which of all the tombs was “the one that was really beautiful,” the one most praised by Ruskin. With no cultural authority to tell her what to think, she thinks for herself: “Of course it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold!” And then, just like that, her mood changes: “the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.” We all want to be happy tourists, so here's the question: Is Forster's early 20th-century advice — toss the guidebook aside and let the pernicious Florentine charm seduce you — still viable early in the 21st?
ENJOYING “A Room With a View” is easy. A love story that begins and ends in Florence, with complications in England sandwiched in between, it's short, cheerful and delightfully sly. Besides, there are two excellent and generally faithful film adaptations, the classic 1986 Merchant-Ivory production starring Helena Bonham Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis and a PBS version released just this year with enticing shots of Florence and a weird, unwarranted twist at the end. Once Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson have kissed in a field of violets in the hills above the city (near Fiesole, about which more later), you know (spoiler alert) you're going to hear wedding bells at the end, no matter how many plot twists the crafty author engineers.
Enjoying Florence — a hard, forbidding city (“a city of endurance,” Mary McCarthy called it, “a city of stone”), handsome but not pretty, a challenge even if you could siphon off the tourists and replace them with picturesque Italians energetically engaged in producing local color — enjoying Florence takes more time and more effort. But if you have with you your copy of “A Room With a View,” you'll find it easier to get along. Forster's supple, forgiving irony, his ability to satirize lovingly, combined with his firm but regretful insistence on not confusing art and life, is exactly what you need if you plan to share this intensely urban town with tens of thousands of sightseers for the five or six days it will take you to do just like them and see the sights.
Forster reminds us that though Florence is a capital of art (is it ever!), it's not just an overcrowded museum. When Lucy leans out of her window in the Pensione Bertolini and gazes out across the Arno at the marble churches on the hill opposite, and watches with dreamy curiosity as the world trips by, the author notes approvingly, with his usual mild irony, “Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveler who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.” He's not suggesting that you ignore Giotto or the magnificence of the city's turbulent history, but that the hours spent soaking up the dazzling Florentine sunshine with no cultural agenda may be valuable after all.
When Forster himself first came to Florence in October of 1901, he stayed as Lucy did in a pensione on the Lungarno delle Grazie, with a view over the Arno to the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte and the dark hills beyond. He was on a grand tour, traveling with his mother, and was a dutiful sightseer. He wrote to a friend back home, “the orthodox Baedeker-bestarred Italy — which is all I have yet seen — delights me so much that I can well afford to leave Italian Italy for another time.” He was back the following year, at the same pensione, and by the time he'd finished “A Room With a View,” he'd struck a happy balance.
In and around the Basilica di Santa Croce is everything that's delightful and appalling about Florence today. The neo-Gothic facade is still ugly, the long square in front of it dusty, bland, pigeon-infested and lousy with tourists. The interior is still cavernous, austere and chilly, impressive but somehow dispiriting. Even if you've ditched your guidebook, you're reminded at every step of the city's vast cultural riches: here are the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo and Lorenzo Ghiberti, whose bronze baptistery doors opposite the Duomo were so perfect, according to Michelangelo, they could have been the gates of paradise; here are the memorials to Dante and Machiavelli. Crowds are waiting to get into the small, high-ceilinged chapels to the right of the high altar — that's where you can admire the tactile values of Giotto, whose early 14th-century frescoes grace the walls. Just outside the basilica in the main cloister is the Pazzi Chapel, a perfectly proportioned Renaissance gem designed by the great Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi (who gave the Duomo its dome). The chapel, its white walls decorated with glazed terra-cotta medallions by Luca della Robbia (one of young Lucy's favorite artists), looks best when it's empty, filled to its noble height with nothing but chalky light from the lantern and the oculi in the dome. In other words, if a tour guide and his flock are in there, wait till they've gone.
The nature of those tours has changed dramatically since Forster's day. In 1901 — and until very recently, in fact — the tour guide pronounced on art and architecture in a booming or piercing voice, mostly in English but possibly also in German or French, while his flock huddled close to catch the echoing words of wisdom. In “A Room With a View,” Forster had fun with the solemn pronouncements of the Rev. Cuthbert Eager, who steered an “earnest congregation” around Santa Croce, lecturing all the while on the fervor of medievalism (“Observe how Giotto is ... untroubled by the snares of anatomy and perspective”). Today, technology has shushed the tour guide: he or she whispers into a microphone, which broadcasts the lecture soundlessly, piping the flow of factoids into the earphones of the audience, who can now stray a little (and there are more languages represented: Spanish, Greek, Polish, Russian). Some familiar props remain — the retractable antenna with a ribbon tied at the tip, a rallying sign for the group as it migrates from one artistic treasure to the next — but the new quiet is disconcerting, as though these clumps of tourists with headphones and wireless receivers hung around their necks were part of some sinister silent conspiracy.
IF you stroll a few dozen yards past the Pazzi Chapel, you'll find yourself in a second cloister, also designed by Brunelleschi, in 1446, the last year of his life. It's a place of great beauty and calm, usually deserted, and you don't need to know a thing about it to fall in love. The simple, elegant two-story cloister with its slender columns shelters you from the rigors and confusions of Florence and gives you instead the tranquil harmony of the Renaissance without pomp or grandeur, washed by bright Tuscan sun. I like to imagine, though Forster doesn't suggest it, that Lucy loitered here without her Baedeker, and that's why she began to be happy. At the very least, a quiet moment in the cloisters will give you strength to confront the multitudes and the immortal works of art remaining on your list.
And so will loitering over lunch. And dinner. One eats very well in Florence, and in general the simpler the restaurant, the better the food. If you can visit one church and one museum before lunch and one more church or another museum after lunch (whatever you do, don't miss the wealth of paintings piled higgledy-piggledy in the Palatine Gallery of the Palazzo Pitti), and then take a nap (Tuscan wine is cheap and abundant), and then stroll to dinner, perhaps along the Via de' Tornabuoni, under the looming, illuminated facades of great, stern palazzos, and stroll some more after dinner when the crowds have thinned and Florence seems gentler and the multicolor Duomo seems less garish but just as huge and astonishing — you'll find that after a few days of this routine, all your complaints will be forgotten, replaced with amazement and gratitude.
Unless of course you stray into the Piazza Signoria, where the replica of Michelangelo's giant David attracts a sizable contingent of art lovers with camera phones night and day. This is where Lucy wanders one evening, unaccompanied:
“ ‘Nothing ever happens to me,' she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow; the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and his fountain plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein dwelt many a deity, shadowy but immortal, looking forth upon the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality — the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real. An older person at such an hour and in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.”
And then something does happen to her: two Italians quarrel, one stabs the other in the chest, and Lucy, who sees the blood come trickling out of the fatally wounded man's mouth, swoons — into the arms of George Emerson, as luck would have it.
Nothing so dramatic is likely to occur to the 21st-century visitor. But if it does, head for Fiesole, the little hill town no more than a few miles from the Piazza Signoria. Along with the far reaches of the Boboli Gardens, this is the city's escape hatch, a chance to breathe deeply and see some greenery, plant life being notably absent from the historic center. Forster sends his contingent to Fiesole by horse and carriage (it's nearby that Lucy and George first kiss); now it's a 15-minute ride on a boxy orange municipal bus. But once you've arrived you realize that the chief virtue of this modest town, aside from the fresh air, is the panoramic view of the Arno Valley and the extraordinary, maddening city you've just left, its Duomo vast and proud even at this distance. And the wisdom of the structure of “A Room With a View” is suddenly as clear as the bright Tuscan sky: you will return to Florence, and next time it will be a honeymoon.
BEAUTY, STONES AND HANGING HAMS
There are no nonstop flights from New York to Florence. A number of airlines offer daily flights with connections through various European capitals; of those, the easiest is Alitalia, which offers several daily flights via Rome for about $650. The small Florence airport is only a few miles from the city; a bus service runs to the train station in the center of town and there are taxis, too. Once you have reached Florence, everything is within easy walking distance except Fiesole, which can be reached by taxi or bus.
WHERE TO STAY
If you are staying in the center of Florence, what you want is an oasis, and despite the tacky name, Hotel Monna Lisa (Borgo Pinti, 27; 39-055-2479751; www.hotelmonnalisaflorence.com) provides exactly that. A converted 14th-century palazzo five minutes by foot from the Duomo, it's handsomely decorated and blessedly calm. A double room will currently cost you 125 euros ($160 at $1.28 to the euro).
If you must have a room with a view, go to Fiesole. Pensione Bencistà (Via Benedetto da Maiano, 4; 39-055-59163; www.bencista.com) is shambolic and charming — and affordable, at about 185 euros for a double room with breakfast and dinner included.
Also in Fiesole is the Villa San Michele (Via Doccia, 4, Fiesole; 39-055-59451; www.villasanmichele.com), which will bankrupt you — it's around 850 euros for a double room, but you will be coddled and cosseted in a gorgeous setting.
WHERE TO EAT
Meals are important in Florence, not just because the food is so good, but also because the rest of the time you're on your feet. Lunch for two, with wine of course, should cost you about 60 euros; dinner, with more wine, about 100 euros.
For lunch, especially Sunday lunch, Il Latini (Via de Palchetti, 6/r; 39-055-210916; www.illatini.com) is a must. Don't bother with a menu (the waiters don't like to give them out, and anyway they know better than you what's good). Help yourself to the big bottle of red wine you'll find at your table. Admire the hundreds of hams hanging overhead. Eat!
Quiet, relatively tourist-free, pleasantly traditional and equally delicious is Del Fagioli (Corso Tintori, 47/r; 39-055-244285), just a few blocks from Santa Croce.
If you want a little atmosphere at night and you're willing to pay a premium for the buzz and the funky décor, try Trattoria Garga (Via del Moro, 48/r; 39-055-2398898; www.garga.it).
And if you're in Fiesole at night and don't want to engage in the enforced sociability of the pensione, Trattoria i' Polpa (Piazza Mino, 21/22; 39-055-59485) is cozy and friendly and inexpensive.
WHAT TO READ
Fifty years after the publication of “A Room With a View,” E. M. Forster wrote a short essay in The New York Times Book Review called “A View Without a Room,” in which he speculated on the fate of the characters in his novel — not quite dessert, more like a tasty petit four. It has been printed as an afterward in the Penguin Modern Classics edition of “A Room With a View.”
P. N. Furbank's massive two-volume biography of Forster was first published three decades ago; now available in a one-volume Faber paperback, it's still the best account of a long, remarkable life.
If you want a critic's perspective on “A Room With a View,” see the chapter on it in Lionel Trilling's excellent “E. M. Forster: A Study,” first published in 1943 but available in paperback from New Directions.