Tag Archives: Florence

Let’s Be Unreasonable

Siena was once a Ghibelline stronghold.

When I’m traveling, there’s something strangely amusing to me about the local news.  Maybe it’s because the hot-topic issues in Sydney or Seattle that are being so passionately debated by residents are irrelevant to me.  It doesn’t change my life if the town council votes to knock down the old water tower over by the high school, but there are people who are so vehement about it one way or another that they can be seen on news broadcasts snarling at each other and turning purple.

As soon as the Mayor taps his gavel and says, “The meeting will come to order,” both the Libertarians and the Anarchists consider that a violation of their rights and storm out, scattering furniture as they go.  Because these people aren’t my neighbors, I’m able to look at it as theater.  It is the longest-running play in human history, and might be titled “I Forget Why, But I Hate You.”

There is something about human nature that compels us to take sides, opposing on principle what the other side favors.  You can probably think of many examples — or maybe you can’t, just because I said you can.

For the moment, though, let’s consider the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.  They were two Italian factions that fought each other for centuries during the Middle Ages.  The Guelphs supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines favored the Holy Roman (that is, German) Emperor.

The issue was whether the Italian city-states wanted to be led by a spiritual power or a temporal power.  That philosophical debate lasted for, oh, a few minutes.  Then each side tried to demonstrate the moral superiority of their position by slaughtering their opponents.

Although not yet officially called Ghibellines, that faction began to coalesce around the charismatic Emperor Frederick I, known as Barbarossa (“red beard” in Italian).  While on the 3rd Crusade in 1190, Frederick Barbarossa ignored the old proverb “You can lead a horse to water, but it just might sink.”

In the process he created a new bit of folk wisdom:  “Don’t try to swim when you’re wearing sixty pounds of armor.”  Frederick and his horse both drowned in the swift current of the Saleph River.

Over the next hundred years or so, Italian cities aligned themselves with one faction or the other.  Florence, Bologna and Genoa were predominantly Guelph; Pisa, Siena, Arezzo and Modena were Ghibelline.  They fought incessantly, but the issue of spirtual versus temporal leadership was only one excuse for antagonism.

The rivalries between cities were also fueled by property-holding nobles vs. middle-class merchants.  In 1325, Guelph Bologna and Ghibelline Modena even battled over a bucket stolen from Bologna; 2,000 men died as a result of that provocation.

Eventually the Guelphs prevailed in Italy, but it was only a matter of time before they began fighting among themselves.  In Florence they split into factions known as Black Guelphs and White Guelphs.  The poet Dante was on the wrong side of that division — many other White Guelphs were killed; he was exiled.

It took a while, but cooler heads finally realized the injustice that had been done to Dante.  After a civilized discussion, the city council of Florence rescinded his sentence… in 2008, which was about 700 years after they kicked him out.  Thankfully, that decision did not start another war.

Let’s Go Back

Big Sur, California

Depending where you choose to go, travel can offer the thrill of someplace new, or the contentment of someplace familiar.  My friend David much preferred the latter:  He did a lot of traveling, but most of it was to either Venice or London.

Occasionally he could be cajoled into going elsewhere, but he always wanted to get back to his favorites.  He once told us that he’d stopped counting how many times he had been to Venice after his 27th visit.  So far, I’m still stuck on one.

Unlike David, my inclination is to go somewhere I haven’t been before, since there are so many wonderful places to see.  On the other hand, I’ve been fortunate to have seen many wonderful places already, and I’d love to see some of them again — you, too? 

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have unlimited time and money, so when an opportunity to travel does come along and we ask ourselves “where shall we go?”, we have to pick either a new adventure or an old favorite.  Which, I acknowledge, is a nice problem to have.

Places like Copenhagen and Angkor and the Amazon River remain on my wish list of future adventures, but my wish list for return visits includes…

     •  Paris embraces me; its boulevards and museums and sidewalk cafés reach out affectionately.  Not everyone feels that way about the City of Light, I know, but when I daydream about traveling, this is usually where my mind takes me.

     •  Yellowstone National Park has awe-inspiring sights around almost every bend in the road or trail.  At certain times of the year there are hordes of other tourists around every bend, too, but a well-timed visit can make you sigh deeply at Yellowstone’s majestic beauty.

•  Moorea is not as well-known as its neighbors Tahiti and Bora Bora, but offers  similarly gorgeous beaches and abundant tropical fish.  It’s a great place to kayak or dive or hike… or just sprawl out and do nothing.

•  Shanghai impressed me with its contrasts:  Parts of the city are ancient, but nearby there are skyscrapers.  Buildings along the Bund evoke 19th-century Europe, but directly across the river is a business district that, after dark, is lit up like Las Vegas.  I have had just a taste of Shanghai, and it made me want more.

•  Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, is an old but elegant city.  As Sally observed when we were there:  “In Rome you wake up to car horns; in Florence you wake up to church bells.”

•  The California Coastline is where I live, so forgive me if this sounds like boosterism. The Pacific coast’s natural beauty stretches for hundreds of miles (and in fairness, to Oregon and Washington, too).  As much as I like going elsewhere, it’s great to come back here.

So… what about you?  Is there some special place you look forward to seeing again?

Geniuses at Rest

Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence

The woman did not seem particularly remorseful about her blunder.  She and her mother were driving around Italy, she told me matter-of-factly, and couldn’t find a highway exit sign for Florence.  They kept driving, missing the city that was the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to some of the world’s finest art.

Apparently it hadn’t occurred to either of them that the Italians are under no obligation to provide signage in English; in their own language, they call the city Firenze.  These American tourists passed many signs along the Autostrade that would have directed them to Firenze, but they were looking for Florence, dammit!  That clueless woman’s experience illustrates one more reason to at least have a glance at a guidebook before you travel.  Even if she had managed to stumble onto Florence, without guidance she probably would have missed one of its treasures.

I knew about the Uffizi Gallery, of course, with its peerless collection of Italian paintings.  The Accademia, where Michelangelo’s David stands, was already on my must-see list as well.  If I hadn’t done some pre-trip research, though, we might have missed Santa Croce (pronounced CRO-chay).  It is a basilica built by the Franciscans in the 14th century that became the Florentine version of the Pantheon in Paris, or Westminster Abbey.  In other words, it is the final resting place of some world-renowned Italians.

Just inside the front door of Santa Croce, on the right aisle, is the tomb of Michelangelo.  Legend has it that he personally selected his burial site, so that when tombs burst open on Judgment Day, the first thing he would see is Brunelleschi’s marvelous Dome.  Unfortunately, what Michelangelo would probably see first is the creepy marble sarcophagus that held his mortal remains — it was designed by Giorgio Vasari, whose work blights churches and museums throughout Italy.

Next to Michelangelo’s tomb is a monument to Dante, although he isn’t actually buried here.  His remains are in Ravenna, but the Florentines had anticipated relocating him to Santa Croce; in the 1500s they even made a generous contribution (bribe) to the Pope to effect the transfer.  Didn’t happen.

A bit farther along the right aisle is the tomb of Niccolò Machiavelli, a diplomat and philosopher of the 16th century.  He is now chiefly remembered for the addition to our language of the adjective Machiavellian, applied to behavior that is unscrupulous and sneaky.  On Judgment Day, he’ll be joining a lot of other politicians.

Closer to the altar is the grave of composer Giachino Rossini, who wrote many operas, including The Barber of Seville, and whose William Tell Overture achieved immortality in the 1950s as the theme for a TV show called The Lone Ranger. It’s also possible to see a Rossini tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris; he was interred there for about a decade before his remains were relocated to Santa Croce in 1887.

The left wall has tombs of a number of Italians who were once famous but aren’t so much anymore.  A notable exception is near the door, opposite Michelangelo:  Galileo is buried there.  As with Rossini, he had also been entombed elsewhere following his death; it was with some reluctance that Catholic authorities allowed the famous heretic a Christian burial at Santa Croce in 1737.

One of these days I hope to get around to posting some notes about the many other splendors of Florence, but in case you’re headed for Italy soon, I wanted to give you a heads-up about Santa Croce.  And if you’re driving, don’t forget — for some reason, the Italians insist on calling it Firenze.