“The principal task of civilization is to defend us against nature”, wrote Sigmund Freud. Today, it is nature that needs defending against civilization.
From its conceptions it’s [civilization] been a conceited and dishonest term. The connotations of civilization include moral decency and it suggests that nature in general and wilderness in particular lack that quality. Urbandidad in Spanish means politeness, inextricably linking what is urban with good behaviour and courtesy. The word courtesy itself, from the court, at the heart of the city, expressed a similar idea and to be courteous is to be at the very least civil, of course, and we’re back to civis… Civilization has also connoted culture and the fine arts, and its use suggests that people of the land are culturally inferior. The word is frequently used by dominant societies to pretend that only their kind of civilization is worthy of the name…
In the Western tradition, not only civilisation but culture too is frequently used as an opposite to nature – wild lands are uncultivated and the people of the land are supposedly uncultured. Denis Cosgrove, professor of human geography, writes, “Both classical and biblical traditions placed the city at the highest point in the hierarchy of imaginative environments built upon wilderness.” Culture was decreed to be the opposite of nature and found in the city. Interestingly, though, the roots of the word culture and inextricably tied to nature, through the idea of cultivation.’
This morning we jump back on the 33 and make our way to Bologna Centrale. Today we’re meeting up with great friends in Florence, which is a short journey away on the new but expensive fast train. (By expensive, I mean much, much more than the very reasonably-priced trains that we have so far taken in Hungary, Austria and Italy.) I haven’t been to Florence in 16 years but just thinking about the place evokes the wonder of Ghiberti’s ‘Door of Paradise’, the ice-cool sweetness of my first Amaretto (bought for me by an Italian boy, no less), and throwing up aforementioned Amaretto in a hostel bin.
The children are fizzing with the thrill of catching up with their buddies over gelato. I can’t wait to see my wonderful friend, Sally, a curator, art history whizz and coffee-lover; and where better to meet than in the foreground of a Tuscan masterpiece.
The journey takes half an hour through countryside, but mainly through tunnels. This is a shame because the little bits of green I do see are rather lovely. On the flip side, Roo is quite contented being plunged into darkness because there is nothing more fun at two-and-a-half than the contrast between light and dark, and the feeling of your ears gently popping in between. I suppose he is introducing himself to the idea of Chiaroscuro.
We pull into Florence and its fantastically stylish station. Designed by the Gruppo Toscano and built in the early 1930s after approval by Mussolini, Stazione di Santa Maria Novella is one of the best examples of Italian modernism. It replaced the forlorn Maria Antonia Station designed by the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which was one of his only architectural works. Yet again it is also another site depicting great loss, as a plaque on Platform 8 reminds us of the Jews who were deported to the camps from these very tracks not so long ago.
We push through the bent-necked crowds staring up at the departure boards – we are late – and leave the station to join a never-ending swarm of deeply annoying tourists who traverse the streets of the Medici’s ochre-coloured folly like a flock of painfully-slow sheep in matching caps. I exacerbate as each hatted, shuffling figure stops every three seconds to bleet at the street sellers who flog fake Raybans from fold-away tables.
We rush past the Duomo, bypass the Uffizi, and whizz through avenues of wounded half-dressed stone heroes, until we finally reach our friends who have managed to find the only Melbourne-style coffee shop in Italy. (And I would expect nothing less from Australian coffee aficionados!) In between sipping espressinos and running in-and-out of the cafe to stop the children being run over by troops of tour groups whilst they engage in a game of pavement Ring-o-Roses, we feast on each other’s recent life stories and plan our day together.
After a short walk, we start at the Piazza Della Republica where the children rush to ride one of the exquisitely-painted wooden horses on the gilded antique Picci carousel. They gallop round and round in the midday sun to the jolly Neapolitan tunes piping out of a speaker, whilst a parent gently holds them in place. We are surprised by the not-extortianate price of such a lovely ride in such a popular place, when cruddier rides in other towns have been mind-boggling dear. This is especially helpful seeing as we are on a strict daily budget – which has been surprisingly easy to stick to in Italy so far – and predicted blowing it all on dinner and museum entry fees in Florence.
Having decided not to see David – The Husband felt that it was good enough to have been amazed by the replica at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and that queuing at the Accademia with small children during the hottest part of the day would desecrate both that memory and the experience of seeing the real deal here – we follow the throng over the Arno river, and make our way across the Ponte Vecchio. We pass by terraces of sparkling shop windows hawking gold and diamonds to flush tourists wanting a piece of the city.
Unfortunately – and as much as I am adoring our company – the more we walk, the more I begin to feel a deep physical rejection (a bit like that time I drank Amaretto) to the place I once thought, and was informed, was the most beautiful in the world. Aside from the river, I notice that there is nothing moving, growing, swaying in Florence, other than the sea of tourists vacillating from shop to church, and from church to shop. There are no trees, no plants, no pithy hanging baskets. It is impossible to crunch a golden leaf or pluck a flower pushing through a paving stone. Mio Dio, there isn’t even a patch of grass covered in dog shit! (Although the answer could be found in the Florentine handbag, from where one will occasionally peek a pair of Pekinese ears.) There are definitely no children.
In contrast to the wild and variegated Hungarian countryside, and the rich aliveness of Bologna, Florence feels profoundly flat – as if it were a painstakingly-painted Hollywood backdrop waiting to reveal its real self any moment. It is a place caught in its own reflection, trapped by vanity, chiseled to perfection and beckoning adoration. Of course, I realise, it is also a place that was moulded during a time when the Church and ruling classes viewed cities as the pinnacle of ‘civilized’ society, and when the notion of ‘civilization’ and being ‘civil’ was deeply antithetical to wilderness, and all the wildness, perceived evil and hanky-panky that went on within.
Thankfully we find ourselves at the entrance to the Pitti Palace – the seat of the Medicis in northern Italy – and the Boboli Gardens, which I have been hankering to revisit as it was one of my favourite spots in Florence as a teenage traveller. The children are peckish and so we sit down at the Palace cafe for an unfortunate sandwich that is so expensive and void of personality that it doesn’t deserve another mention.
The Gardens themselves though are magical, and make up a cultivated landscape of green that is so vivid against the siennas and burnt umbers of the city’s veneer of cooked earth (terra cotta) that it is almost blinding. The contrast offers as much respite to the eye as to the body under the shade of cypress trees cultivated on grassy verges around the Fountain of Neptune, as well as being a pleasant place to walk and admire the various classical and contemporary sculptures.
The children seem happiest here too, running up and down the banks of grass and plopping stones of gravel into the fountain, seemingly earless to the barking warden. We observe lichen on the bark of trees, find tens of four-leaf clover, throw the tennis ball that I faithfully keep in my bag at all times, and just have fun. We stay here for some time catching up with our friends, talking intensely about life as we always do, and I find myself relaxing in the nature.
As the sun sets over the Arno, we stroll to the Oltroarno area and to the beautiful Piazza Santo Spirito, where we gaze admiringly at Brunelleschi’s last breathtaking masterpiece, the Basilica of Santo Spirito. The square is popular with locals and is the centre of the artisan quarter, although we have missed the market-traders. We eat delicious ice cream, drink more coffee, and run it off around the fountain dodging dog shit and broken glass. It feels good to be in a place that feels lived in. Then, as night falls, the local drunks take over their patch, and we head to dinner at Trattoria Borgo Antico.
Also favoured by Florentines, Borgo Antico is a lively restaurant serving fresh pasta and pizza with a free glass of Prosecco, which is a total winner in my book. The Husband and all four children have good pizza, the other couple have linguine with clams and tagliatelle with ragu of venison, which they proclaim is excellent, and I indulge in the special of a homemade pasta of some shape-or-other with prawns in a pistachio butter. It is divine.
Our train back to Bologna leaves at 9pm, and so it is already time to say goodbye. We all walk back through the city together and finally stop to part as if with great ease we too have turned into another frieze of stone figurines in the romantic production that is Florence. And then I realise why people fall in love with this place: human nature is as much a part of nature as the plants and soil that the architects of Florence stamped out, and it is even more alive here because it is the only living thing in this Tuscan masterpiece.