In May 2010 I traveled to Rome and Florence to research the Medici family for an upcoming fantasy series I’m writing. My stay in Rome was only a week, as I had scant research to do there and wanted to use the time to acclimatize myself to Italy. It was my first time overseas on my own, and my first time to a country where I didn’t speak the language, so I took it easy the first two days, strolling around Roma on my own, buying un caffè latte and impossibly fabulous cake, practicing my tourist phrases (badly) and most importantly, working out that no meal is complete without Limoncello which I developed quite a taste for. By day three I was ready to start researching and did a full day Angels & Demons tour which followed the path of Dan Brown’s novel and also conveniently took me to the churches I was keen to research.
The tour company I went with is no longer operating but this tour traces a similar route. One of my favourite places was Castel Sant’Angelo, where I found this very steampunk looking Archangel Michael (left) and learned about the secret escape route for popes who could run all the way along the top of the wall from the Vatican to hole up in Castel Sant’Angelo (which was well fortified) if anyone invaded. Lot of wars around the time I was researching! The next day was a full day Vatican tour which was as amazing as it was exhausting! My most moving moment was standing in front of Michelangelo’s La Pieta (below). It was so realistic I had a lump in my throat. I’d never imagined a statue could evoke such strong emotion, and at that point I was thinking “This is what you travel half way around the world to see.”
But no. I was there five hundred years later, so I after my tours were finished I did more touristy things. With map in hand I found the Trevi Fountain (left) and the Spanish Steps and lots and lots of Gelato shops along the way. Not the Colosseum. I know, tragic to be so close and not go there, but you could visit Rome a hundred times and not see everything. I didn’t want to confuse myself by stepping outside the era I was researching. The week went quickly and then it was Arrivederci Roma and Buongiorno Firenze as I caught the Eurorail to Florence and arrived at the beautiful convent of Casa Santa Nome Di Gesu. Here are some pictures of the convent: two views from my window, the spartan but very comfortable furnishings and the amazing staircase.
I stayed in Florence for a fortnight and did multiple tours with an exclusive tour agency called Context which advertises and delivers “scholar led walking tours of the world’s cultural capitals”. No more than six people per tour, I did “Florence Evening Introduction”, “Daily life of Renaissance Florentines”, “Arte Firenze”, “Medici: Portrait of a Family”, “Oltrano Artisans”, “The Pitti Palace” and “Science and Humanism”. That accounted for the first four days of my stay, and after that I was ambling about Florence on foot, dodging dog poo which seemed to be everywhere, eating impossibly more gelato and sampling some very fine vegetarian Italian fare at the fabulous back-street family trattorias my tour guides (docents) had introduced me to.
I saw the Duomo (left above) and tried to climb Giotto’s Bell Tower which stands beside it, but as you can see from the next photo the steps were so steep and slippery, with no handrails, that I barely made it up three flights before my fear of heights got the better of me and I had to come back down. I visited the Pitti Palace (once owned by Medici Dukes) with its amazing Boboli Gardens which were full of cats! But the thing that was most amazing to me was that everywhere you went there were artworks just right there, on a wall above you, in a church beside you. Orsanmichel on the right was an example of a building with these amazing sculptures that people were just walking past. As if it was nothing. I can’t imagine living with so much art and being so blithely indifferent to it. But I’ll admit I was star struck.
I was most definitely a Medici groupie, soaking up anything to do with Lorenzo de Medici or any of the artists he showered patronage on. But perhaps the most striking part of my trip was a discovery I made on the day I left the convent to return home. My train didn’t leave until 2pm so I was amusing myself in the convent by reading a history of the building I’d been staying in for a fortnight, and I was surprised to discover that it had only been a convent for a hundred years. Prior to that it had been a private residence, so of course curiosity had me turning pages to see who had owned it during the time I’d been researching, five hundred years before. And will you be surprised to discover, as I was, that while I had been tromping all over Florence for a fortnight, the very building I’d been staying in had been owned by lesser members of the Medici family because of its proximity to the Pitti Palace?
Some things, as my mother is fond of saying, are just meant to be.