Of sights, sounds and Stendhal Syndrome
If it should ever transpire that you attend a trade show as a reporter in a glamorous European city you have never visited before, do you think you would be glued to the show for all the twenty-four hours it runs?
If you answer ‘yes’, then you are a far better person than I, because in my time in Florence, wild horses couldn’t keep me away from the rest of it. Between olfactory fatigue, pretention and amped-up sales pitches, I could only bear it all for so long.
The very first thing I did upon arriving early Thursday evening was to get spectacularly lost…
Lost and Found
I had arranged to meet with a dear friend downtown in the lobby of her hotel, and after asking at my hotel and being equipped with a city map (that hangs on my wall today), I thought…How hard could it be? I dumped my suitcase, changed my shoes and flew downtown with all the ardent fervor of the Newly Arrived. Only to find Centro Storico was quite a bit more convoluted than even I imagined. Somewhere in the twists and turns (phone calls from my friend asking ‘Where are you?’), I rounded a corner and was not prepared for what I found…
No travelogue I could have read, no photo gallery I saw could have prepared me for the Duomo. It had all the visual impact of a kick in the consciousness, because suddenly, it was just…there! (and less than two minutes away from my friend’s hotel, as it happened). There are no words. And this is just the exterior…
The good news was, thanks to her hotel’s concierge directing me down the right street, my friend and I did find each other. We celebrated with bear hugs, conversation and Prosecco. The better news was, thanks to that first frantic Thursday night, I mapped out Florence in my head and never got lost again.
A Small World
Friday morning was an exercise in serendipity. Around the corner from my hotel and on the way to Stazione Leopolda, I discovered that great Italian institution, the pasticcheria. A combination bakery, café, sandwich shop and cakeoholic paradise, they were almost as common as gelato artigianale. I ventured in, swooned at the display cases, and haltingly made my selection in my execrable Italian. The elder gentleman behind the counter rightly determined I was a tourist, switched to English and discovered a) I was Danish and b) it just so happened that his cousin Claudio ran my favorite Italian restaurant in Copenhagen, where I had been a regular for years. From that moment on, Angelo fed me breakfast and cappuccino every morning with Florentine élan and calories. Don’t get me started on those crema alla mandorle-filled croissants. They were Petrarch poetry in pastry.
In Honor Of My Art
Those twisting, narrow streets are stuffed to the brim with antiques dealers, bookshops and touristy bric-à-brac you can find much cheaper on the Piazza San Lorenzo. But look only slightly further, and you will find many versions of that uniquely Italian expression: “In onore della mi’ arte”. Artisanal craftsmanship of the highest order, in other words, arguing that even such utilitarian objects as The Perfect Handbag can be just as much a statement of artistry as any perfume, whatever anyone might argue to the contrary. The Florentine aesthetic – as opposed to, say, the French – is one of supremely delineated moderation. Not only that, those shops will allow you to peruse their wares to your heart’s content even when you’re blatantly unable to afford it (yet) and treat you as an honored customer as you do. While I can appreciate Italian designers as much as anyone, my own inclinations tend toward those artisans who are so flawless, they don’t need international brand recognition to be perfect.
The Celebrated Stendhal Syndrome
The story goes that the French writer Stendhal was so overcome by the beauty of Florence, he suffered a fit of nervous exhaustion and had to leave town. Even today, there are stories circulating of tourists suffering a surfeit of aesthetic overload and heart palpitations amidst the glories of the Uffizi. While I already knew I wouldn’t be able to do the Uffizi any justice whatsoever in a few stolen hours, I also knew this time, I would have to pass on those glories. And tried not to think too much about those Botticellis…
Which is not at all the same as saying that beauty didn’t ambush me all the same. For it was everywhere and both old and new, and like all beauty that sears itself into memory, it found me at nearly every twist and turn.
Florence is an immensely proud city and always has been. Proud of its history, proud of its reputation, proud of the beauty its inhabitants pull from the aether and magnanimously pass on to a hungry world. If ever a statue somehow embodied all that pride, it would be Neptune (from the Fountain of Neptune by Bartolomeo Ammannati) on the Piazza della Signoria. Hundreds of miles from any ocean, he looks toward the Uffizi with Cosimo I de Medici’s famous visage, as if to say…
As I drank in Palazzo Vecchio, the piazza, the constant ebb and flow of humanity, the horse carriages waiting for customers and conversations in many languages, random facts floated to the surface of my brain. This peaceful scene was once the very heartbeat of the Florentine republic, and is still the city’s heart today. History, reputations, collaborations, assassinations, assignations, ideas, concepts – everything began here. One famous Renaissance Rebel With A Cause even ended his life here.
I came across this shop window display and was instantly stopped in my tracks. Since the photo was shot through glass, it might be hard to distinguish the level of embroidery and beaded detailing, but take my word for it – it was exquisite in such a seemingly simple gown, worn according to the card at a court ball in Lucca in 1802. Who wouldn’t feel fabulous wearing this?
But if velvet and silk are too tame for your inner animale, Florence can supply that, too. I have a dear friend in New York who absolutely adores animal print. I saw this shop window and instantly thought of her. (She would wear it all with flawless aplomb, too!) My own inner Goth/punk sensibilities were also more than a little thrilled.
We humans get so cynical with age. Once upon a time in our childhoods, instant friendships were forged in a manner of seconds and locked eyes across the sandbox. That level of trust seems to get so much harder as we grow older, or else our demands shift and change with our experiences good and bad.
What follows is a (very) true story about social networking and media, common interests that span the globe and yet another manifestation of sheer serendipity.
My fellow perfume writer and dear friend Lucy of Indieperfumes is also, just as yours truly, a great art aficionado. One day on Twitter, she piqued my curiosity about another blogger, this an acute Australian researcher who writes on the Renaissance, Raphael and all things art blog Three Pipe Problem. Over the course of a few months and interaction on Twitter followed by Facebook, we became great friends who have never met. When he read via my Facebook page I was going to Florence, he offered to introduce me to a friend of his, a Venezuelan firebrand named Sandra, who works in Florence as a certified tour guide. Numbers and text messages were exchanged along with my abject gratitude, and on Saturday afternoon, Sandra and I arranged to meet by Giotto’s campanile on the Piazza del Duomo.
It was a case of instant, mutual, lightning-fast friendship. Over the course of lattes at Scudieri and a conversation that never once stopped except for breath, we found we had more common ground than a public park. We’re both extremely enthusiastic and not afraid to show it in public. Sandra was also a lover of perfumes, her favorite being L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Fou d’Absinthe. So naturally, she took me to her own pit of perfumed perdition, a jewelbox store of marvels named Olfattorio, and just like that, I was no longer a niche store virgin. Every single L’Artisan! LeClerc cosmetics! Diptyque candles! All of it combined to equal Heaven On Earth. This is yet another reason I have to become a bestselling writer.
Somewhere between a conversation that spanned the range of art, feminism, motherhood, perfumes, history, food, Florentine quirks, men, love, singlehood, fashion, age and the pathetic state of Literature Real Women Want To Read, she also took me to another shop she loved, this an English apothecary and herbal store, Antica Erboristeria Inglese, which also carried Frèdéric Malle’s Editions de Parfums (so I introduced her to instant love Carnal Flower, because I’m Evil Incarnate), and lo and behold, Serge Lutens’ export line. After nearly three days of New, Strange and Wonderful, between Sandra’s sublime company and the welcoming warm ambience of the non-English speaking shopkeeper and a familiar, much-beloved logo, I suddenly felt… home. The shopkeeper asked me which Lutens’ were my favorites. And wouldn’t let me leave until she gave me samples of all of them. I felt like I had received a bear hug from a favorite uncle, but then again – maybe I had?
Sandra and I said our reluctant goodbyes shortly after, and I meandered towards the Ponte Vecchio to honor a promise I’d made a friend – to throw coins in the Arno and make a wish that we too might meet up in Firenze. I had brought two DK 5-kr pieces expressly for that purpose, but first, there was…Ponte Vecchio, an onslaught of street merchants selling handbag copies and souvenirs and jewelry shops priced waaay out of my solar system if not my entire galaxy. Most of it a lot less exceptional than the exorbitant price tags, but just when you think you’ve sussed out the neighborhood, the very last shop does you in…
As for Sandra – if I thought before I would return to Florence for the Uffizi, the Ferragamo shoe museum or the cakes at Scudieri, never mind that Perfect Handbag (which is all true), now my most pressing reason to return as soon as I can is an instant friend and/or Soul Sister I never, ever want to lose.
Rooms With A View
On Sunday, I duly paid my morning respects at Pitti Fragranze before I decided to let profumi be profumi and meanwhile, there was Florence…
I decided to set out for the Belvedere and the Boboli Gardens, fortified by limoncello gelato and sheer determination.
In my four days in Florence, I must have, I discovered when I came home, managed to walk a good eight to ten miles a day. There’s an excellent and affordable city bus system – you bought bus tokens at newsstands – but I was much too impatient to wait for a bus when I could walk. Only to nearly kill myself walking the steep back road to the Belvedere, since the view – and the location – were worth it.
The internationally renowned Chinese artist Zhang Huan showed his artwork at the Belvedere and could hardly have found a more auspicious location than Florence – in artwork that celebrated the junction of spirit and matter, in the very city that turned that particular junction into its own celebrated art form. After Pitti Fragranze, it was the perfect antidote to trends and rampant hyper-luxury consumerism. For an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon, serenity returned, and there was nothing else but the rare art of dolce far niente, of breathing, of having every cell and fiber of your being entirely present…in the moment.
Returning some hours later through the Uffizi courtyard and the usual long, long lines of tourists waiting to get in, two street performers played to the waiting crowds from across nearly three thousand years and two cultures, one of them this meticulously decked out character…
Yet the biggest crowd pleaser that afternoon was certainly this exuberant…cherub? Putto? Statue? Whatever the case, his charm and personality had the crowd in his white-gloved hand…
All too soon, Pitti Fragranze was over, it was Monday, and I would be departing in the late afternoon. Yet before I did, I had two things on my agenda – to say goodbye in style on the Piazza Santa Maria Novella – a favorite of American poet Henry Longfellow, and who was I to argue with my favorite Dante translator? – and to make a pilgrimage – there can be no other word – to L’Officina Santa Maria Novella.
I whiled away an hour or so over my latte, trying to phrase my impressions into words – the curse of a writer who can’t experience life without wanting to turn it into art! – and wondering what lay ahead. You see, so far as L’Officina Santa Maria Novella was concerned, I had heard such stories, and they couldn’t possibly be true – could they? Only one way to find out…
Down the Via Della Scala, in through a passageway, and what followed was…well, a retail experience unlike any other I have ever had.
Once through that passageway, you are quite literally… in another world. A Baroque edifice of splendor so stupefying, hardly anyone dared speak above a whisper. Beautiful salla followed beautiful salla… and then.
I. Was. There.
In a large, gray marble room as you enter, an elegant woman behind a perfume bar on your right will hand you samples of their perfumes sprayed on paper sample strips. You can’t simply douse yourself – you have to ask which of these perfumes you would like to try.
On your left, a long, marble countertop with long, crypt-like closed marble shelving behind it, where you are served by more deathly intimidating, elegant shop assistants. There is a list of L’Officina wares by a flower-laden table, even in English. (This is also on my wall now)
One glance at the price list, and it was clear that the only thing I could afford for my loved ones was bath soap (so much for my dreams of Melagrano!) but no matter – if the cherubim didn’t sing when I used it, I would never dare ask for a refund!
So I approached the black-clad, red-headed shop assistant – who eyed me with chilly hauteur – and informed her of my choices. These were transferred via magic,telepathy or computer to a chip card before an imperious hand pointed to the innermost sanctum behind the main room.
More cream-colored walls, more gray marble and very high counters, more occult merchandise hidden behind who knew what Florentine mojo and marble, and I waited my turn, handed the card to yet another Signora Frigidaire and was rewarded this time with my pathetic four bath soaps in a L’Officina bag before departing with my filthy lucre, now with prospects of being slightly less filthy with L’Officina soap!
Goodness! It was all true! Everything I had heard! Then again, it was an experience – and a carnation soap – I’m not likely to forget in a hurry!
I had just enough time to hasten back for a quick pizzetta with Angelo and a hurried goodbye before collecting my suitcase (who had piled on a few pounds in the meantime) and calling a taxi back to Peretola airport.
I can’t get back fast enough.
And reflected – on Pitti Fragranze, on all things Florentine, on the many people I’ve finally met at long last, on the perfumes I’ve smelled and the places I went and the magnificent friend I’ve made, when this forgotten quote by a forgotten British writer popped up in my mind. Fanny Burney had this to say on Italy and on travel:
‘Travelling is the ruin of all happiness! There’s no looking at a building here after seeing Italy.’
All this time later, now the dust has settled and my quotidian life has returned full force, as I look outside on a cool, windy, rainy autumn day – it’s all true.
After seeing Italy, everything… changes!
Note to my readers: Although this final installment of my Florentine Adventures is not strictly speaking perfume related, I thought you might like to live a little vicariously…;-) I’ll be back to more perfumes in a few short days, and would also like to point out that October and part of November have a theme: Gothick! Stay tuned!