Saturday, February 05, 2005

Exploring the Fifth Element (5/17/02)

I spent some time exploring Florence last evening after I finished sending off that last post, and although I had no particular agenda, it was time well-spent. I stopped at the Piazza della Repubblica for about 15 minutes, which I spent sitting at a table and drinking in the atmosphere without doing anything else. Then I walked around to some of the principal attractions of this endlessly-fascinating city: the Duomo, the Baptistery, and a church called the Badia, the site of one of the most fortunate events in the literary history of the world: it was here, in about the year 1274, that Dante Alighieri had his fateful encounter with Beatrice Portinari. (Beatrice appears to have paid him little heed, either at that time or thereafter; and in our modern era, I wonder if Dante would have been prosecuted for stalking. In any event, I, for one, am grateful that this meeting happened the way it did, and for the consequences of it.)

Now I'm going to write this and send it off, run a few errands, and go back to the Dei Mori to pick up my wife, whom I will then treat to lunch at some trattoria. Other than visting the Dante house and museum -- they are located about 10 yards from the Dei Mori -- I have nothing specific planned for the day. Yet somehow I know it will be well-spent, and that we will have a great time.

One momentous event took place during last evening's meanderings that I think is worth passing along. I sampled gelato for the first time. That word is usually translated as ice cream, but in fact it may be said that ice cream is to gelato as Rocinante is to Secretariat. The stuff was divine; I can't describe it any other way. A friend who had served a mission in Italy told me recently that he does not like ice cream but loves gelato, and now I understand what he meant. (I should note that I speak as one who loves both.) I want Sheila to have some, but she cannot eat sugar. (I wonder if Dante makes any reference to gelato in the Comedy. If not, that was a terrible oversight on his part.)

Between the Piazza Pitti and the Ponte Vecchio, I had one of the most bizarre encounters I have ever had with another human being. In the interest of time, I won't go into it here, but when I get back, remember to ask me about the man from whom I tried to buy a rose for my wife. For the moment it may suffice to say that I suspect this fellow had a very high IQ, but that it had, at least for the moment, been suppressed by his liberal consumption of an adult beverage.

Now that we are beginning to settle in to the place, I find it very easy to understand why Florence has always been such a magnet for the literati. Hawthorne, Melville, Edith Wharton, Stendhal, Mark Twain, the Brownings, dozens of others -- all spent lengthy periods of time in Florence, and all loved it. (I am pretty sure that Mark Twain wrote Pudd'nhead Wilson here.) Something in the very atmosphere of this place inspires creativity and intellectual activity, and we have met some very interesting people after being here for less than 24 hours. (Even that guy with the rose was interesting, and as I noted, was obviously quite intelligent, and doubtless more so when he was sober.) Last week a brother-in-law told me of a vision Hugh Nibley had supposedly had, of being in heaven and visiting a library which contained all the great works of not only this, but all other worlds; one only had to pick a book off the shelf in order to absorb its content instantly. Whether the vision is true, I like that idea; and whenever I think about it now, it reminds me of Florence.

This morning I got into a rather lengthy discussion -- in Italian of course; and about Dante, of course -- with the manager of the Dei Mori. (Among other things, I asked him how old Dante and Beatrice were when they met, and he said he didn't know the exact age, only that they were "piccoli." I am pretty sure they were both nine at the time.) One of the guests who overheard the conversation and knew the language asked me where I had learned to speak Italian so well, and seemed quite surprised that I not only had taught it to myself, but that this was the first full day of my very first visit to Italy. I felt quite flattered by the remark, and I might add that I appreciate the fact that hardly anyone here has thus far tried to speak to me in English. If they do, I just say "preferisco parlare in italiano," because the way to mastery of a language is by immersion in it, and with respect to Italian, this is the first opportunity I have ever had for that.

BTW, the subject line of this message may be puzzling to some of you, so I suppose I should explain it. Pope Boniface VIII, who reigned from 1295 to 1313, was despised by Dante -- for some pretty good reasons, according to what I have read in my history. [N.B. -- Boniface actually died in 1303, but I am leaving this error in place because it is referred to in a later post.](Dante obviously had a gift for words, and he had some choice ones for Boniface, at least some of which are immortalized in the Divine Comedy.) Anyway, balanced against all the evil that he wrought, Boniface did make one pronouncement for which I believe he should be gratefully remembered by all subsequent generations, and which I perhaps appreciate more than most because it sounds like something I would have said. The ancients believed that the earth and everything in it were composed of four elements: namely, earth, air, fire, and water. To this list, Boniface wanted to add a fifth: he believed Florence itself should likewise be considered one of the elements.

I am going to run for the moment, but only because I need to look for other things to write about. I hope my e-mail musings are not boring any of you, but if they are, just delete them from your in-boxes and get on with your day. But unfortunately or otherwise, I love to travel and gab about the experience afterward, and this modern wonder gives me a very convenient forum for doing that. (If I could trade places with anyone who ever lived, I don't know who that would be, but Lowell Thomas would be placed very high on my list of candidates.) But I hope my e-mails will generate a desire to visit Florence among those of you who are not yet fortunate enough to have been here, and nostalgia and a longing to return among those of you who have been so privileged. I plan on sending dispatches like this one every day we are here.

Ciao -- for the moment, anyway.



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