In Florence, along the Arno, the houses are all deep, burnished gold: set off by the ebulliently intense green of the Tuscan hills. The alleyways are narrow: they swarm. The piazzas are perfectly angular: precisely square.
That, says my friend Zani, is the key to Florence. Zani – although he works a tech job – considers himself a sculptor by vocation. And the first thing any sculptor learns, he says, is how to create a perfect square. Like Giambaccio, he describes his hometown as fundamentally “walled”– raising, too, the city’s collective memories of Nazi siege.
It is the stones themselves, Zani says, that foster Florentine culture. The quarries near Rome offer builders marble to work with – “Rome is bright,” he says. It shines. But Florentines built with Tuscan pietra forte: heavy limestone that reflects no light.
He points it out to me as we pass the Palazzo Strozzi, then some disused fortifications, then an old medieval tower. Florence lacks Rome’s chaos, its distinctive light. Instead it is a narrow city, a cloistered city, walled off with dark stone. “But it is dominated stone”: stone that has seen centuries of sculptors and architects, Brunelleschis and Michelozzos, transform raw natural material into something like harmony.
Florence is famous for its craftsmanship, after all: for the triumph of order over chaos, art over nature. The Ferragamo flagship overlooks the Arno; on the Ponte Vecchio, stalls overflow with leather bags, expertly and inexpertly stitched. Around the Pitti Palace, stores sell hand-painted playing cards, oracular tarocchi in exquisite miniature, journals bound in leather, embossed with Botticelli angels.
The Specola Museum of Natural History – just off the Boboli Gardens – houses 34 rooms of taxidermied spiders, lynxes, lions. The last rooms offer glimpses of “Anatomical Venuses” – wax models of beautiful, disemboweled women (their hair, I learn, is human) – who once served to teach doctors and artists alike the way of dominating flesh through understanding.
As we walk on, that sense of domination becomes absolute. There is no street corner that is not perfectly in proportion to so many others; by the Uffizi Museum, Doric columns stretch into identical arches; flanked by symmetrical statues – all artists, long dead. Like the Anatomical Venus, the city is impossibly beautiful, uncanny and unreal. As tour groups flock through the streets, and Piazza della Signori echoes with foreign voices, I wonder what, in this city of artifice, is real.
Want to see the symmetric beauty of Florence with your own eyes? Here's a Truly Wonderful hotel near Boboli Gardens!