~crumbling candied violet city~

May 11th, 2008

Everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine.
~Henry James

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Florence is a branch of grapes heavy with religious and political history; street after street brash and explosive with testosteroni; it’s a pair of David boxer shorts, unabashedly vampiric to the more-than-willing tourists; yet also an ornate and jewel-encrusted FabergĂ© egg with infinite secret compartments of tattered opulence. The fecundity of the past is everywhere, like nostalgic sulfur.

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There is a decaying biblical fresco or rusted shrine to Mary on every street corner, those buildings without are instead adorned with chipping plaster carvings, such as this one, whose breasted demon is a reoccurring theme around town.

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The people we met were amazingly rude or incredibly warm–both of which are a relief after all the Swiss distant politeness. Marco, our host at the Hotel Dali told us there is an expression to describe our terminally uptight neighbors “You are a Swiss watch!”

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The tourist-vampiring can be disheartening in it’s lack of reverence for anything but the Euro (tho we’ve seen much worse!), but the old Florence can still be found, as well as the people who relish it. We bough a piece of vintage sheet music from a man who then asked us to wait, dug into his secret stash and produced a beautiful piece of handmade paper designed to be a postcard saying, “A gift! You will appreciate this!” We did, the gesture more than anything.

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One secret chamber in the egg is the Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, likely the oldest still-operating pharmacy in the world. Opened in 1612, the Officina Profumo was founded by Dominican monks and still offers oils, balms, and scents made from their original herbal recipes.

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To visit this space is to worship at the church of the nose–the first room you enter was in fact a chapel–albeit one with a slightly different sensibility than mine. Scentually everything was too powdery or ethereal for this nose, which prefers warm, earthy scents like rose and sandalwood.

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But visually my eyes were aflame with the lust of swirly gilt, inlaid marble, stained and warbly glass, frescoed ceilings, carved walnut, and white marble busts of the monks themselves, who stare eyelessly at you.

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Beyond the main chapel is the Sala Verde followed by the Antica Speziera, where one can see the cloister gardens where once grew legendary herbs.

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Another secret sanctuary of a more private kind was discovered poking about where we shouldn’t, on Via S. Egidio. Down a long marble hallway is a statued atrium leading to a nearly wild garden, complete with old horse stable. It was like stepping into another lifetime somehow still ghostly and hovering in the present. It inspired that being in a Cocteau film feeling. We lingered as long as we (as respectful trespassers) could bear in the hushed magic of the place.

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As the day closed with an egg-tempera sunset, I was reminded of what the liberated novelist Eleanor Lavish proclaims in E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness! One comes for life!

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