When going through cities
Go, I advise you
In a stately manner
Head slightly bowed
It’s not urbane
To move without restraint
And don’t stare at the height
Of every house you pass.
Guard against moving
Like a man from the country;
Don’t squirm like an eel,
Through the streets and people.
Brunetto Latini, II Tesoretto, ca 1260
I would call this putting on a ‘city face’, especially if you are a traveler, a stranger in a strange city. But that takes some doing in Florence, a city that is in several respects like a museum and an art gallery turned inside-out. After all, this is the city that reputedly is responsible for the genesis of “Stendhal’s Syndrome,” the swooning sensation induced by being in the presence of great art. (“Mommy, why is that man lying in the street in front of the Ghiberti doors?”)
This contrasts somewhat with an image I retain from one of my first visits to Florence. Late one humid Summer evening I had emerged from one of the small restaurants in the narrow streets that communicate with the Piazza della Signoria. A few meters ahead of me was a well-dressed young Italian couple, he with elegant sport jacked draped cape-fashion on his shoulders, she in a clingy summer dress and wearing heels from the trendy via Tournabouni that only a Fiorentina would risk in the scarcely lighted, cobbled streets. They walked along, she with her arm languidly around his neck over his shoulder until he stopped, said something in Italian and then stepped over to the wall of a building and proceeded to piss on it as though it were avespasienne. She meanwhile looked off, insouciantly, then lit a cigarette for him after his shake-off and zip-up. They proceeded as before; if it is possible to urinate in public—cortesemente (in a stately manner)—this guy had achieved it (or would the proper term befontanamente?).
When we travel to foreign cities—geographically or through history or literature— we all have the tendency to be selective, to filter out that which does not arrest our interest, and to magnify that which does. I noticed this as a tour guide for over 25 years; there were people who would walk right on by something I thought was of immense significance and historical importance, usually they were heading for some shopping opportunity. But, hey, chacun a son gout, right?
The same selectivity usually shows up when he is given free rein to write about some favored place. One expects a literary type to tease out the locations, haunts and the figures that scribbled in or about them. David Leavitt does that with Florence. His is a very Room With a View take on the place. His main focus is the literary Brits. The Brits did sort of turn Florence into their place in the sun, and perhaps a slight escape from the up-tight conventions of their island,* but I was unsure why the author subtitled his book “a delicate case.” There never seemed to e anything particularly “delicate” about Florence, my first image being those of the stones in the wall of the formidable Palazzo Medici-Ricciardi. A good reading of the heyday of the Renaissance (say, John Addington Symonds) does not render a conclusion of a prissy town, in fact a treacherous place of murders and awful fates (Savanarola). Moreover, the town has withstood sieges by both political forces and the forces of nature.**
Could the answer be that this book turns out to be one that would have been better titled Florence, a city that gay Brits loved to congregate in. Leavitt lets the reader know early that he is gay, with unambiguous references, but no more, to his companion, Mark. OK, certainly no problem with that. There is also a reference to Florence being a “manly town.” OK, with that, too, I myself have written about the genders of cities, or rather how others have gendered them.***
But soon enough Florence begins sounding like a 1960s bathhouse in North Beach. Chapter 3 leads of with “Florence’s reputation as a sodomitical hotbed goes way back.” Leavitt does not mean Michelangelo and his the Renaissance; he means the eighteenth century, when the literary Brits started showing up in numbers, most of them, or at least those who earn the attention of the author, being gay. While there are numerous books that address Florence’s place of importance in the Renaissance and in art and architecture, little of it plays more than a set piece in this account of the city mainly in 19th and early 20th centuries. One exception is Michelangelo’s David, although the author leaves little need for suspicion as to its attraction. But while this book departs from the conventional treatments of Florence, it also exposes the limitations of the genre of gay-themed (it could be Black-themed, or any perspective that is skewed by the reliance on memoirs and other literature of the gay set. Chiefly, that failing is the devolution into a recitation of who was having a “forbidden friendship” with whom, or was a “walker” for some elderly dame or lesbian, or who sought the company of boys, etc.
At times, too, it focuses on the bitchiness (the author says so himself) of the gay community and, as well, that tendency to drop the names of those we might recognize, like Berenson, Acton and Ronald Firbank. This is where it can get insufferably precious: “American to the core,as well a slightly famous in my own right [emphasis mine], I arrived in Florence not knowing who Principessa Giorgina Corsini was, much less worrying how to wangle a lunch invitation out of her.” Now wouldn’t you like to be the waiter eavesdropping on that lunch. Yet later, in perhaps an act of self-exemption, he writes, in describing attendees at the funeral of John Pope-Hennessey there were “. . . several young (and not so young) exemplars of that species of Italian homosexual whose chief ambition seems to be to endear himself to the titled.”
This is where you are given to recall that when someone says, “this is not about me,” it is.
© 2010, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.30.2010)
*I addressed this subject at more length in “The Romantic Travel Movie — Italian Style,” JOURNAL OF VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 22, No. 1, Jan-Feb 2009, Pp. 52 – 63
**See DCJ Archives, 2. 1: A Devilish Month 11.08.2003
***Clapp, The City, A Dictionary of Quotable Thought on Cities and Urban Life (Rutgers, CUPR, 1984), Introduction.