The “Whys” of Firenze

Yes, that picture up above is middle school Matt, red-faced from climbing the 476 steps to the top of the Duomo in Florence, Italy. Trust me; there’s a reason for the picture. Just keep reading and you’ll understand my “why” (and maybe some of Florence’s “whys” as well).

If I am going to be writing about my preconceived notions of Florence, I would be amiss if I forgot to mention the sheer beauty of this city. Just look at that picture and the view from the top of that cathedral: red-roofed buildings, Renaissance architecture, mountains in the distance; the landscape is phenomenal. But that picture doesn’t even include the Duomo itself. The grandeur of the domed cathedral plus its immaculate design make it one of the greatest feats of architecture I’ve ever witnessed (and considering the colossal dome was built in the 1400s, the term “feat” might even be an understatement). Forbes agrees that Florence boasts some of the greatest architectural history in the world with its gothic style cathedrals and spacious piazzas. Even the city design itself is remarkable. Tony McGuirk, an urban designer, architect, and chairman of the Building Design Partnership in London, notes that “you couldn’t go anywhere else in the world and find a place with such brilliant piazzas.” Even Hitler agreed that Florence possessed some of the most beautiful city designs. For instance, on his retreat, he typically destroyed all bridges behind his troops to impede the following enemy troops. Why, then, is Ponte Vecchio, a bridge from the fourteenth century, still around? Because Hitler, an art fanatic, thought it was that beautiful and that culturally historic.

From my experience, I see Florence as an art lover’s dream; from the renowned Statue of David to the superb architecture to the artesian goods, I don’t even have to wonder why the birthplace of the Renaissance seems to be a top destination for students to study abroad. I don’t think anyone would disagree that Florence isn’t a scene with incredible art, but I was surprised by some of the Florentine art forms I recently discovered online. According to Condé Nast, a travel website, Florence is famous for its creative street art and graffiti on road signs, gutters, garage doors, and other random locations. These modern day masterpieces prove that Florence did not lose its creative and revolutionary style post-Renaissance. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the Uffizi Gallery is home to artwork by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaello, Botticelli, and more. As one of the most visited art museums in the world, I am almost unsurprised that the long lines to get in are almost as famous as the masterpieces inside.

In keeping with the theme of my first blog post, I must reference the Florentine food at least briefly. I remember Florence having some of the best food I have ever tasted—notably the gelato. No, not the “gelato” they sell down the street at your local grocery store. The gelato in Italy is on a whole new level and on a completely different playing field, so I probably won’t do it justice trying to describe it. Needless to say, I’m excited to get the opportunity to try it again. However, Tuscan cuisine also features some strange styles as well. Their bread, in particular, is unsalted, which leaves it quite bland and unappealing, and at first, I fell into that category of tourists who turned their noses. However, their culinary choice to remove the salt actually has a purpose. Upon researching further into the matter, I learned that Tuscan cuisine features a myriad of strong flavors. In order to create the more balanced meal, Tuscan chefs eliminated the salt to actually reduce competition with the bolder flavors on the plate. Before looking into the rationale behind Florentine culinary choices, I pictured Florence as having some of the best and worst of Italian food, but now that I know how to appreciate their dishes, I imagine that preconceived notion will not even come to fruition.

Having been to Florence before, I might have a decent knowledge of some of the buildings, sites, and other big topics. However, one aspect of this city that I hope to expand my knowledge upon is their culture. I’m a self-proclaimed “people person,” so the aspect of Florentine culture that most interests me is their social interactions. In a very general sense, what is actual life like there? More specifically: what would natives consider to be the norms of a social interaction, and why do they have those perspectives? Applying those questions to different elements of everyday living, such as personal space preferences, confidence, voice levels, frankness, and empathy, might illuminate the hazy image of an everyday Florentine lifestyle for me.

Answering that question will take intentional, personal action. I will have to talk to the locals and interact with them on their level, not necessarily as a tourist but rather as a student. Those conversations should be filled with deeper questions and should avoid simply surface level small talk in order to best learn about their lives and customs. Furthermore, “people watching” will probably help as well. Being vigilant of my surroundings at all times will be of unmatched importance. In simple terms, deliberately living with these questions in mind will help strike that wealth of cultural knowledge, and hopefully, by the end of our time in Firenze, I’ll know the answers to those “Whys” of Tuscan living and what it means to be a true Florentine.