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Report 881: A Slow Trip to Italy for a Mother and Daughter

By stella from Brooklyn, New York, Fall 2005

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Page 8 of 16: Across the Arno

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The Arno always provides a stunning vista

The following day, Mom was officially tuckered out; she even slept later than normal. I chastised myself for wearing her out the day before. She needed a day in the apartment, napping, puttering about, hanging out on the terrace. On a day like this, I am especially happy to be in an apartment rather than a hotel; I can’t imagine my mother trapped in a tiny hotel room all day. With Mom resting, I would be able to strike out on my own and walk across the Arno. After an early breakfast, I threw on some clothes, my sensible shoes, and off I went. It may have been the best weather yet, sunny with windswept clouds over the Florentine hills.

I wandered through the streets below the Piazza della Signora on the way to the Ponte Vecchio. Just past 9:00 am, the Ponte Vecchio was pleasantly quiet. All of Florence was quiet, in fact; there was a noticeable calm compared to the weekend. One wave of tourists had left and another would move in later.

My first destination, the Chiesa di Santa Felicitá was located in a tiny piazza not far from the bridge. It was dedicated to the 2nd-century martyr St. Felicity, and was the oldest church in Florence. St. Felicity was a Roman widow who was put to death along with her seven sons in the year 165 A.D. There has been a church on this site since the 4th century, and since the 10th century it has had an attached community of Benedictine nuns. In the 15th century, Filippo Brunelleschi, the famed architect of the Duomo, added the Barbadori-Capponi Chapel; if you visit Santa Felicitá along with Santo Spirito and the Duomo, you can see Brunelleschi’s hand at play. In the 16th century, additions were made to accommodate the Vasari Corridor, which runs across the façade, and Santa Felicitá became the parish of the Grand Duchy of Florence. The Grand Ducal balcony hangs just over the Church entrance. The Medici Dukes could leave the Palazzo Vecchio through the Vasari Corridor, pop into the church and their balcony for a quick Mass, and then continue through the Corridor to the Palazzo Pitti, all without being in sight of the citizenry. What is most charming, and perhaps most astounding, is that Santa Felicitá today is still a local and beloved community parish at heart.

If this church even makes it on the radar of most tourists it is surprising; I was there to see the Barbadori-Capponi Chapel, and I was entirely alone. Mass had just ended when I walked up the front steps, where three elderly ladies were chatting about the coming day. Immediately to the right of the entrance was the chapel, behind a wrought-iron gate and shrouded in darkness. To see the works, you must drop a €1 coin into the machine near it, and the artwork is illuminated for viewing. The paintings are by Jacopo Carrucci, also known as Pontormo; possibly with the help of his assistant and pupil, Agnolo di Cosimo Tori, who was known as Bronzino.

The painting and fresco inside the chapel are considered masterpieces of Mannerism: the Annunciation, ca. 1528, and the Deposition from The Cross, ca. 1525-1528. The figures shown taking the body of Christ down from the cross look frightened, heartsick, filled with anguish. The paradox is contained in the vivid colors that were used, brilliant blues, pinks, peachy yellow; they are vibrant in a way that does not jive with the subject matter, which is essentially an illustration of the loss of hope. Art historians have said that such a work reflects the same loss of hope experienced by the Florentines themselves during those years, which saw the failure of the Florentine Republic to resist the rule of the Medici autocracy, the repeated invasion of Italy by foreign armies, and the trauma caused by the Lutheran Reformation.

From the Santa Felicitá, I took Borgo San Jacopo towards the Basilica di Santo Spirito. On the way, I spotted a glorious store filled with beautiful, colorful yarns; I could not resist and had to go in. Beatrice Galli was the sweetest woman; she owns the store along with her husband and knows her knitting well. During my entire visit, she smiled widely at me, exuding the same warmth as the angora piled to the right. May I please stay here forever, knit, and look out the window at the flow of the Arno?

I told her I was a beginning knitter, and that I wanted to make a scarf. She pulled out a skein of gorgeous, fuzzy, multicolored yarn, saying that it was “just the right color for you,” and I was sold; how can one doubt this fine lady? I asked if she has needles, and she did, of course. Out from the back of the store came the most massive set of knitting needles I have ever seen; they are about a foot and a half long and chunkier than those big pieces of sidewalk chalk. I was dumbfounded. But she told me as she demonstrated, in Italy they knit with the needles tucked under their arms. “You can do this, too,” she smiled knowingly. I figured I would give it a try, just for her. She tallied me up and I could not believe how cheap the yarn was. At home, those skeins would cost about $15 a piece. Here, they are three euros each.

I had walked the Borgo San Jacopo on my last visit to Florence; the shops and restaurants seemed friendly and familiar this time. I had missed out on visiting the Basilica di Santo Spirito, so I was excited about seeing it this time around, as I rounded the corner to the its main square. This magnificent church never received a façade, but the interior is simply breathtaking; a masterpiece of early Renaissance design. It was one of the last commissions of Fillipo Brunelleschi. He originally intended on the Piazza surrounding it to face in the opposite direction and run all the way to the Arno, so that arriving vessels would be able to fully take in its splendor. That plan never came to fruition, but the Piazza is still a wonderful public space. It is surrounded by shops and residences, and in the middle is a sweet little park and fountain. Today, there is a small vegetable market set up in the Piazza, and the locals crowded the stalls for produce and flowers.

The Basilica did not disappoint; it was magnificent. It is spectacularly huge, composed of 40 semicircular chapels that form a sort of T-shape. In the center is a row of 35 massive greystone columns, leading to the beautiful center canopy over the altar. In each of the small chapels there is a painting or sculpture; the most noteworthy is Lippi’s Madonna col Bambino e Santi (Madonna with Child and Saints). The columns looked like a greystone forest; I wandered among them for at least a half-hour, and I still did not take it all in.

I had planned on a few more stops, but the Basilica overwhelmed me. I crossed back over the Arno using the Ponte Santa Trinita, and made my way back towards Santa Croce, doing a bit of shopping on the way. I could not wait to get back to the apartment and take a nap, and maybe do some knitting! The afternoon nap thing was really starting to grow on me.

Somehow, I found myself in the Piazza dei Cimatori, and there it was – the Antica Lampredotto Fiorentina truck. Time for a tripe sandwich! This was about 10 times better than a hot dog stand; you can stand there at the little bar in front of the truck and eat your sandwich and drink a tiny glass of Chianti with it. There are also porchetta sandwiches offered, but I asked for a drippy Panino di Trippa Fiorentina, and proceeded to make a mess of myself in front of incredibly handsome Italian men. There is no easy way to eat a tripe sandwich, you must dig in and struggle in vain to control the wide swath of rich, red sauce that gets on your cheeks and chin. I cannot imagine the chic, skinny, perfectly groomed Italian women in stilettos eating tripe sandwiches on the street; if they do, they must do it with style. I simply stood there and tried very hard not to snort in public.

Back at Santa Croce, I sat on one of the stone benches in the Piazza for a few moments before going upstairs. It was early afternoon, and the tour groups were piling in, one after another. It was amazing to watch three or four of them enter the Piazza from different corners simultaneously; about 150 people filed past me in differing configurations. Thank goodness the Piazza was large enough to absorb them and still not seem full. I cannot imagine being here in the summer, at the height of tourist season. In fact, I cannot understand why anyone would want to take one of those large group tours in the first place, following around someone holding an umbrella above their heads and speaking into a microphone. All you need to come to Italy is a good map, a comfy pair of shoes, and some guidebooks. On that thought, I headed upstairs. Time for that nap.

Inside, I found my mother rested and ready for a walk; my nap was not to be. An hour later (the transition from a good idea to actually heading out the door is a bit longer with a senior), we head out to find my favorite chocolate shop, Vestri, on Borgo degli Albizi. This is a fantastic place to pick up chocolate treats to take back to family and friends, and we both stocked up. The handsome young man behind the counter also gave us some samples of the handmade chocolates the store offers; one truffle filled with a basil-scented cream was simply heavenly. Though I was dying to have some of Vestri’s incredible chocolate gelato (the gelato flavored with orange is fantastic), I decided that we should have a treat at I Dolci di Patrizio Corsi, which offers some of the best pastry in Firenze and is located just a few doors away from Vestri. The choices at the pasticceria were many and tempting; we both had a tough time choosing. I sampled a mini apple tartlet, and Mom enjoyed a brioche filled with chocolate, both were perfect.

We wound our way back towards Santa Croce through streets Mom had not yet seen, window-shopping all the way. Walking with Mom is slow and sweet; by now I had grown accustomed to her pace and no longer felt the anxiety about time that plagued me the first day or so. This trip included what she could handle and nothing more, and I was content for it to be exactly that.

I had begged Mom for one more dinner out that night, with the promise that I would cook a feast the following night. I decided our last restaurant meal would be at Osteria de’Benci. It is a very popular spot with Florentines; we were lucky to go early and get a table at 7:30, by 8:15 it was packed. They have a terrific menu there, plenty of good choices, traditional Tuscan fare with unusal twists. We started out with Bruschetta con Fagiolini – impossibly tender white beans on top of toasted bread with garlic. You are presented with an oil can to douse it all with good, green olive oil; this course disappeared in seconds, and I wished for a moment we could make an entire meal of seconds and thirds. Mom moved on with some riso – rice, not quite as wet as risotto, but very soft, with zucchini, saffron and herbs, really flavorful.

I had Spaghettini al Ubriacano, or drunken spaghetti. It is cooked in red wine with whole cloves of garlic. The spaghetti was cooked perfectly al dente, the color scarlet purple, and it was served simply coated in olive oil, flavored with the garlic and some pepper – no cheese to disrupt the flavor of the wine. This dish was just fantastic, one of the best pasta dishes I have ever tasted. We both decided on Chianina beef for our secondi: I had a Bistecca alla Fiorentina, and Mom had cubes of Chianina beef and artichokes, simmered in wine, lemon and olive oil. Both choices were tender and succulent. We finished with some Cantuccini di Prato with some excellent Vin Santo to dip them in. Our waiter was great fun, young and handsome, doting on my mother the entire time. When he found out I was from New York, he told me about his friend who owns a terrific restaurant on the Lower East Side that I have already been to, which led to us exchanging business cards; I promised to drop in on his friend again very soon. It is exhilarating to make connections like this when traveling; the world seems really quite small.

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