what kind of city is florence?

florence is the kind of city that sells postcards / and plastic david statues near the checkout lanes in the grocery store / the kind of city where every leather shop is named after a great artist / and every hotel has a botticelli ceiling fresco / florence is the kind of city where art looms high above like the duomo’s dome / and grows out of the cobblestoned cracks / the kind of city where you have to blink twice / not because of the jet-lag / but because you have studied these churches these piazze these streets before but only / in books / and here you are touching these pages of history / made solid stone / it feels almost holy / like praying in san miniato and hearing the gregorian chants echo in perfect harmony / like having ghiberti’s gilded gold doors right in front of you / a mere piece of clear glass separating you from the gates to paradise / like standing in front of michelangelo’s last pieta and tracing the curve of jesus’ body / the grief on nicodemusslash-michelangelo’s hooded face like a grand question / what use is art? / asks perhaps the most famous artist in the world / what use is art? / asks the traveler-student who nevertheless / cannot stop herself from delighting in a city brimming with it / florence is the kind of city everyone in the english-speaking humanities world seems to know / the kind you feel a bit self-conscious of when you check into the city on facebook because florence is for those / who can afford to feast their eyes in the galleria dell’academia and the uffizi / for those who can afford vineyards and the stars above them / who can afford to walk wherever they like and keep warm in the winter / florence is for the flourishing / or at least the idea of florence as a kind of european city / the renaissance city / is for the privileged / and you know from studying art history / it is beautiful (whatever that means) / even if there are cities rising from deserts and cities built on islands and cities in tropical rainforests that are just as / beautiful / but florence is the kind of city that makes everyone jealous / where a small secret part of you is compelled to worship what you see / a litany in your head that goes / city of michelangelo / city of da vinci / city of brunelleschi / city of botticelli / city of donatello / city of giotto / city of masaccio / city of vasari / city of ghiberti / city of cimabue / yes / something very like / worship / walking the via ricasoli like the faithful going down the nave of a church for communion / and you know part of this wide-eyed wonder is conditioned / from centuries of european domination / from learning to speak english and not tagalog or hokkien / from being able to distinguish romanesque and gothic architecture but / knowing next to nothing of south east asian art / from visiting the kitsch ‘european’ fantasy area of disneyland as a child / and dreaming of castles on clouds / but part of this wonder comes too from your catholic self / which took on the name scholastica out of her own volition / who can murmur the our father even if it is said here in italian / whose eyes grow wet when she sees a magnificent painting of the virgin mary her mother in christ / you did not realise before how this self could feel so strongly / how much like home a church in a country you have never been to before could seem / and you let this wonder touch you completely without doubting its origins / you walk around florence / both for the first time / and for the thousandth time / you have seen so many pictures of these places / that now these are places of pictures / you are learning how cities could foster art and be art / how cities could create the theater and be the theater / as mumford might say / hearing it daily in the toll of the church bells / like an announcement to the audience-citizens that the show is about to begin / and in the gurgling of the piazza fountain where people of all kinds pass / like water flowing down the arno / florence is the kind of city that makes you feel undeservedly blessed / like hesitantly unwrapping a too-expensive gift / the kind of city that makes you wonder how you ended up here / starting a new year in an apartment blocks away from the real statue of david / when your grandparents have never been to europe / so when you unpack your luggage, sit in the kitchenette and feel the chill night air blowing in / you think this is the kind of city where you will try to write poetry to make sense of it / this city where rich black truffle oil and slabs of tuscan ham line hearty schicchiata bread / where you feel full in so many ways / how does that bible verse go / my cup runneth over / how to reconcile this heaven of art with the hell you read of in dante’s inferno / of corrupt florentines and popes who abused their office / how to see past the peeling paint / to demolished jewish quarters and feuding noblemen and the scorched poor and their burned-down houses / (would it be worse for man if he was not a citizen while he lived on earth?) / how to force yourself to look away from the baptistery and consider the gypsy woman who begs for a few euros / the nigerian men selling flashlights on bridges / is this the height of civilisation / (what use is art?) / florence is the kind of city that inspires you to crave monumental definitions of yourself and the cities you carry with you in your memory / city of singapore / city of manila / city of abu dhabi / city inside you

Artwork by Botticelli “The Birth of Venus”

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