Germans call the restless longing for travel fernweh. The Swedes refer to the “butterflies” we get in our stomachs in anticipation of a trip, resfeber. Orlando Bartro is no stranger to either feeling. Last year, he treated us to photos from his trip to Italy (https://www.thisawfulawesomelife.com/home/2018/6/14/who-has-stood-beneath-the-parthenons-dome-by-orlando-bartro?rq=Orlando%20Bartro%20Italy ). This year we have photos from his latest trip to Florence, Italy, and Orlando has graciously agreed to a Q&A about his trip and international travel.
1. How long were you in Florence?
Five weeks, a much needed interlude, in which I recovered not only serenity, but my childhood innocence.
2. Many travel guides recommend tourists begin their exploration of Florence at the Piazza del Duomo, one of the main squares of the city, and visit Giotto’s Campanile, the Baptistery of St. John and the Loggia del Bigallo. Did you follow a specific plan?
Many tourists “do” Florence in three days. And indeed, Florence is small enough for a tourist to vibrate with its special feel after only a few days. But Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance, and its concentration of major sites is extensive.
This was my third trip to Florence, and I still haven’t seen a few sites that in almost any other city of the world would be considered “major.”
All of the sites you mention are major sites, even in a city of major sites, and they ought not to be missed; but this is a city where even secondary sites, such as the Pitti Palace, are marvelous.
3. Giotto’s Campanile was not completed before Giotto’s death in 1343. The artist Francesco Talenti finished the project. Can you see a difference in the architecture? Did you climb the 414 steps in the tower to look out over Florence and the Duomo?
Your questions remind me of Stendhal’s visit to Florence in 1817. Stendhal was so overcome by the beauty of the place that he began to hallucinate. He wrote:
“I was in a sort of ecstasy . . . Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty . . . I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations . . . I walked with the fear of falling.”
The concentration of great art in Florence is so extreme that anyone who is at all sensitive to it will understand something of Stendhal’s dizziness. Names such as Francesco Talenti and Alessandro Allori are very secondary, even tertiary, in a city that boasts works by Michelangelo and Giotto and Botticelli and Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci; but it’s the works by the secondary artists that make Florence overwhelming. These “secondary artists” would be the pride of most other cities in the world, and their art is everywhere, filling the city with long-considered artistic detail.
4. The Ponte Vecchio spans the river Arno. While its true origin is unclear, historians date the bridge back to as early as 996. There are also shops built into the sides of the bridge. What were you thinking as you walked across it?
I was thinking of romantic love, due to all the couples who were kissing on it; and I was also remembering the girls I’ve kissed, though on less ancient bridges.
5. Did you visit the Galleria dell’Accademia and see the Statue of David? What other works by Michelangelo did you see? Which is your favorite?
There are three statues of Michelangelo’s David in Florence; two are copies, but even the copies float. The David is amazing because it’s a tall and heavy stone that seems very light, due to the raising of David’s foot, as if he is about to whisk away in a breeze.
But the Michelangelo statue that happened to fixate me the most, probably due to my musings on romance, was Dawn in the Medici Chapel. I would have contemplated the ambiguous character of Dawn for another hour if a guard from the museum hadn’t come to inform me that the museum “has closed, and you’re still here!” In a statue such as Dawn, even the sensual expressiveness of her hand requests fifteen minutes of a viewer’s attention.
6. Did you also visit the museum of musical instruments? If so which instruments interested you most?
Soon after entering the museum of musical instruments, I made my personal acquaintance with the hurdy-gurdy, the bane of Charles Dickens. Street performers in London would stand outside people’s residences, and play the hurdy-gurdy nonstop, until paid to leave.
7. Tell us about the Boboli Gardens.
You asked about one of the most poetical experiences of my life. I walked the 111 acres of the Boboli Gardens for two and a half days, and if I return to Florence, I'll walk them for another three days, at least. The gardens are a maze, full of sudden appearances . . . ponds, statues, clearings, sudden vistas. It’s a disorienting magical world of birdsong and flowers and strange silences. And hidden in the gardens are three grottos, the most unusual constructions that I’ve ever seen outside of a horror film.
8. In addition to visiting the historic landmarks in Florence, what were some of your favorite things to do there?
I walked far into the Florentine countryside, all the way to neighboring Galluzzo and up the mountain to Fiesole, where there's the ruins of a Roman amphitheater and a monastery full of Chinese porcelains.
And here I’d like to recount a surprising adventure. My first novel, Toward Two Words, has sold fewer than two hundred copies, mostly to readers in the United States, but one in New Zealand, two in Australia, two in India, one in Brazil, one in Germany, one in Britain, and two in France. Out of this small group of readers, only a few have contacted me. One who has contacted me is from France. He works for a French publishing company, and he wished to meet me during my vacation in Florence. We agreed to meet, and . . . to make an interesting story more interesting, when he arrived in Florence, he told me that he was no longer working for the publisher. He was, in fact, unemployed, but unashamed to have the free time to travel to Florence on a whim, to meet an American writer. As we talked more, it became obvious that he was the only son of a wealthy French family; and therefore, his days were like those men of leisure in Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. We spent a full day exploring Florence and talking about literature. I have never met anyone as erudite. He has written the beginnings of what could become at least a few novels, and I believe he will be successful in his pursuit of that most tantalizing mistress, the Muse.
In the evenings in the lobby of the hotel, I reread Svevo's Senilità, a great novel that has been one of my favorites for more than a decade. I also wrote 102 handwritten pages of notes for a new novel.
9. Are you planning a novel set in Florence or did you simply draw inspiration from your surroundings?
Tourists arriving at hotels are usually exhausted, but also alert. Their expectations make them more open not only to the world, but to themselves, which give their faces an innocence, as if they are more ready to appear as themselves in this place where their customary ways of behaving might be misunderstand, where their cultural attitudes may not apply, and where they therefore must be more authentic, in the trust that their humanity will communicate through the barriers of language and culture. To enjoy the arrival of these amazing and amazed visitors, I like to sit in a hotel’s lobby, a quiet man on a sofa, reading his book, with a pile of papers beside him, on which he might write a note about a passing nose or wet umbrella, out of which a character will jump like a Jack-in-the-box from the imagination.
* Orlando Bartro is the author of Toward Two Words, a comical & surreal novel about a man who finds yet another woman he never knew, available at Amazon.