Travelling to Florence in search of beauty is a venerable pursuit, much celebrated in literature, especially Edwardian novels and their film adaptations. Consider, most obviously, EM Forster’s A Room with a View. I am late to this game, having spent most of my life concerned with Asia. Florence does not disappoint for beauty.
And yet it is always the human detail that arrests attention and stays in the memory. On the way to Florence I stopped in a cafe not only to sustain the inner man but to take advantage of its Wi-Fi. In a booth I saw a young couple, 30somethings, each studiously absorbed in their separate smartphones. A daughter, four or five, forlornly craved their attention. She did not look a generally unhappy or neglected kid. She tried cradling her father’s head but he, catching up with the vital emails and texts that consume his life, would not look up from his device.
She petitioned her mother for attention, trying to get her to sing along to a little rhyme or ditty, but equally to no effect. She ended up sitting mute and glum, her head resting on papa’s arm. I get it that even the most devoted parent occasionally gets sick of even the most adorable child. Even so …
I didn’t see that sort of thing in Florence, partly because I didn’t see many kids there. It’s not a children’s kind of tourist destination, of course. But you don’t see that many kids in Italy generally. The home of the warmest and most generous family life in Western culture is now, mainly for economic reasons, suffering the lowest birthrate in Europe. That is a pity. The world needs more Italians, not fewer.
Still, the beauty of Florence is ravishing. Staying at the Plaza Lucchesi Hotel, perched on a tiny ridge between the River Arno on one side and the breathtaking Santa Croce church and piazza on the other, you can understand the long seductiveness of Italy, especially for stuffy Brits of a century ago, brought up on emotional restraint and indirection.
As readers of this column may have guessed, I am a Catholic who was brought up surrounded by Catholic art and gothic churches, holy pictures and statues. And yet I found a certain surprising ambivalence in my response to the beauties of Florence. There was something just a little too voluptuous about it all.
Santa Croce is certainly one of the most gorgeous churches you could see. Yet I was a bit surprised to find the tombs of Michelangelo, Dante and Machiavelli inside, and great commemorations of them at side altars. These were all geniuses but they were not saints. Perhaps displaying my own subcultural myopia, I don’t really approve of their veneration in a church. It would be like burying Steven Spielberg in St Mary’s Cathedral. That’s nothing against Spielberg, but nor would it be the right purpose of a church. I felt a grudging but real understanding of how the leaders of the Protestant Reformation might have reacted to all this.
I love it that the most exquisite buildings humanity has created are hundreds of years old and devoted to the glory of God. But the glory of the leaders of the time is a different matter.
Then there is all this insistent nakedness in the statuary of the Renaissance. I understand that the Renaissance celebrated the human form. But it seemed almost grossly indulgent and must have been riotously sensuous at the time. Although most often there is some notionally religious context to these statues, again I can see how they contributed to the Reformation reaction. This is not to disparage Florence at all. Every human being should want to see it at least once.
And when I entered the museum devoted entirely to the works of Michelangelo, particularly the famous statue of David, all my doubts about the beauty of humanity disappeared in one moment. A few metres from the famous David, a tiny child, perhaps one year old, was sitting up, happy as Larry, on the floor. He was waving to his nearby parents and laughing, the sunshine beaming from his face. As a creator, Michelangelo couldn’t hold a candle to God. Greg Sheridan’s accommodation was assisted by the Florence Tourist Authority.