~standing in a sundial~

May 12th, 2008

The Sun, with all the planets revolving around it, and depending on it,
can still ripen a bunch of grapes as though it had nothing else in the Universe to do.

~Galileo Galilei (Heliocentric extraordinaire)

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Florence is known as a city of art–as well it should be–but the underpainting of the city is science, specifically the Medici science of the 1400s, and traces of it are everywhere: from the triangular trinities and precise perspective of the Renaissance paintings, to the incredible architecture, some examples of which–the Uffitzi, Santa Maria di Fiore, the Duomo, La Specola–are scientific instruments in themselves. (click on the links to see how–really! so fabulouso!)

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Florence is a city of sundials big and small, and these buildings (like many of the important buildings of Italy) were designed to focus sunlight through their oculi (holes in roof) on a specific day of the year, such as the equinox or solstice. Learning of the secret functions of these structures gave me the same feeling I had when in my undergrad astronomy class I discovered that starlight is a message from millions of years ago: How have I lived without this knowledge?!

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These buildings are also handy for testing ones fear of highs and/or claustrophibia, should they have campanile towers that prove irresistible, such as the one at the Duomo. The 414 ever-narrowing, winding steps (they warn you as you enter!) that lead to the top of this lovely tower were designed for tiny Italian monks even smaller than the men I tower over in Florence today.

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Presumably they traveled the passageway one or two at a time, not in two opposing streams of full-scale human traffic mashing all parts together in a manner that makes the 8.30 L train seem like heaven. The payoff is the view, a 360 degree expanse of Firenzian light.

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I stood over this grate to prove something to myself (what exactly? 290 feet of looking down without fainting?) and then leapt off as the bell began to ring as we essentially stood inside it. We pressed our fingers to our ears and our backs to the deeply vibrating stone and watched a perfectly coiffed man with those drag queen plucked eyebrows (inexplicably popular with certain straight men of Italy) pretend to be the source of the booming sound, repeatedly kicking his bright silver sneakers into the air.

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We dined thrice at the Trattoria al Trebbio, because it is just our cup: lovely mismatched wooden tables that take over a three-way intersection on a quiet street, charming staff, and fantastic wine list and menu: grilled steak with rosemary and olive oil, spinach flan, very fresh mozzarella di bufala, homemade meatballs, lamb stuffed with artichoke. Plus how could you not return to Via Delle Belle Donne?

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For dessert, we had the Tuscan specialty Vino Santo (Holy Wine) which is nutty and golden and served with biscotti-like dipping cookies. The grapes are hung to partially dry by Galileo’s busy Sun, then these little jewels of concentrated sugar are pressed and fermented in small oak or chestnut barrels (caratelli), which hold a small amount of madre–the thick wine left from the prior year. Delish!

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We strolled along and over the Arno river at all times of day and night, and it was flirty in all kinds of light. The Swifts frolic here, as do the teenaged locals who dangle over the water’s edge and suck face (or gelato) for hours. These same kids lock their padlocks on all available bits of the Ponte Vecchio bridge to bring their young love good luck, just as they do at the scary angel site in Turino (and as Ali’s cousin promised.)

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The Ponte was built in 1345 by Giotto’s student Taddeo Gaddi, and until 1593 it was home to blacksmiths, tanners and butchers who made a racket and dumped their copious garbage into the river. Now there are backend additions to the jewelry shops that line the bridge, jutting out on thin wooden stilts over the water. Very resourceful, no?

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At night the Ponte is covered in tourists and hustlers–confidence game men and sellers of counterfeit handbags. But! each shop has a tiny nearly hidden portal you are meant to peek through, and inside the shop has been set and lit like a stage for your viewing pleasure.

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The lion’s mouth above is one of the more obvious peep holes. Magical!

I am delighted to now have some still time to just write, but Felliniesque tears and all (as Giuseppe Verdi said), You may have the universe if I may have Italy.

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