Seeking the soul of a city: Robyn Young on Florence
Posted on: 08/07/2016 with tags: robyn young, Sons of the Blood, War of the Roses, Tudor
Robyn Young takes us on a research trip through the streets of Florence.
The air is sultry and swarming with insects, the sky simmering with storm, as I step off the plane in Florence’s Peretola Airport, formerly known as Amerigo Vespucci after one of the city’s famous sons – the merchant voyager whose name was given to the newly discovered Americas in 1507.
I’m on a research trip for Court of Wolves, the second novel in my New World Rising series. Much of the action will take place here in Florence: cradle of the Renaissance and home to one of the most powerful families of the era, the Medici. I’ve done a lot of reading already, exploring this former city-state; its political and financial institutions, its markets, churches and palazzos, the great players on its stage: Botticelli and Michelangelo, the Dominican friar, Savonarola, architect of the bonfires of the vanities, and the Republic’s de facto ruler, Lorenzo de’Medici, named il Magnifico and known by contemporaries as the needle of the Italian compass.
But in-depth reading, although vital, cannot fully awake that sense of place that actually standing in a location can so often do. I say often rather than always as over the course of writing seven novels – on the Knights Templar and the crusades, Robert Bruce and the Scottish War of Independence, and now this new series set in late fifteenth century Europe – I have been to some sites that are reluctant to give up anything but modernity: a newly-built housing estate in Falkirk, a stone promontory jutting into the Seine where the last Templar Grand Master was burned at the stake, the petrol-fumed chaos of Cairo.
Of course you can write an accurate and atmospheric scene set in a place you’ve never been too – I’ve read countless novelists who’ve done so and I certainly haven’t travelled to all of the locations that feature in my novels, deadlines, finances and practicalities all playing their parts – but I do think there is something important to be found in the physical world in those early inspiration stages that can help stir the soul of a novel. Our own experience can also remind us of what our characters might be subjected to: the difficulties, discomforts and dangers of travel (obviously much greater in 1485 than 2016), language barriers, cultural differences, and the potential sense of both excitement and alienation that can come in unfamiliar territory.
Florence is a surprise from the moment I arrive. It has always been on my “to visit” list, but I admit with more of a worthy, must-see-all-the-art-before-I-die kind of sentiment, rather than any urgent desire. But both the landscape surrounding it – green Tuscan hills marching high on all sides, spiked with cypress trees – and the city itself – small, but labyrinthine, packed tight with countless palazzos and churches, painted soft russets and ochres, crowded along the banks of the Arno – are more beautiful and far more alluring than I expected.
After settling into an architectural wonder of a loft studio, all bare brick and church-sized windows, on the river, 2km from the centre, I set out to explore, my partner, Lee, in tow with camera, ready to record, while I consult maps and try to find my bearings. We watch the sunset from across the river in the Oltrarno neighbourhood, pointing out landmarks I need to visit: the precipitous bell-tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, former seat of the city’s ruling body, the Signoria, the famous red dome of Santa Maria del Fiore and dozens of other towers and spires puncturing the skyline. Later, we dine on crisp, salty wine from the Alto Adige, truffle pecorino and melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto. (Tasting the place is one of my favourite parts of a research trip).
Next morning – muggy and sullen-skied – we walk into the city along the river, plagued by mosquitoes. My itinerary is jam-packed. First, the Ponte Vecchio, built in the 1340s to replace the earlier stone bridge which had washed away. Once home to butchers and other merchants, the shops that still line it are now filled with jewellery and rows of tiny Davids. I pause in the middle, jostled by a thousand tourists, poked by selfie-sticks, hustled by traders, trying to imagine my main character, Englishman, Jack Wynter, standing here. But all around me is chatter and noise and I can’t feel my way to him yet. I move on, in search of the city’s heart, and find myself in a vast piazza, dwarfed by Santa Maria Novella, whose striking façade is decorated in green and white marble. The sun appears and its heat is sudden and strong. I dip into the cool shade of the cloisters, wind my way round into the colossal basilica, where Giotto’s Crucifix hangs suspended, its gold still gleaming after more than seven hundred years.
Several churches later, Lee and I head north by car to Careggi, where one of my key sites is located: the favourite villa of Cosimo de’Medici, Lorenzo’s grandfather, whose Platonic Academy – a brotherhood of humanist philosophers, artists, poets and other Renaissance glitterati – plays an important role in the series. I’d done as much research on this and other locations as possible before I came, but Florence seems to like to play its cards close to its chest and many websites were either in Italian (my bad for not being able to read it, I know), or else out of date, with phone numbers and emails that went nowhere. It is with frustration, then, but not a huge amount of surprise that I find the villa a building site, high fences and security warnings at all entrances. We stumble through undergrowth until Lee finds iron gates, locked, but we can peer down a long pathway, through overgrown gardens and cracked fountains, to a stately villa. The hills are closer here, fogged with mist rising in the heat. I smell pine and dampness. The grand manor is covered in a steel web of scaffold, but I catch glimpses of the skeleton beneath. Thank God I bought that guidebook to the Medici Villas in the last museum.
Next day, we’re off again. First, the Palazzo Medici, the family’s imposing palace in the city proper. Austere from the outside – a massive rectangular block of beige stone – its interior is made up of cavernous reception rooms that lead endlessly into one another. Much of the decoration and design is later and it is hard to get a sense of how it would have been in Lorenzo’s time – to visualise Donatello’s bronze David standing sentry in the courtyard, imagine the stink of human waste drifting in through the shutters from the filthy tangle of streets beyond, hear the clamour of hooves, shouts, bells. The 15th century Magi Chapel is one of the only parts left unchanged. So tiny only a handful of people are allowed in at a time, it is covered, wall to wall, with Gozzoli’s cycle of frescoes depicting the Journey of the Magi. Look closely and you can find the faces of some of the Medici themselves, the rulers of the Republic – adored by some, hated by others – immortalised, legitimized, in this biblical scene.
I move on to nearby San Lorenzo, heavily endowed by the family, and the Medici Chapel, where many of their line are buried in magnificent tombs. Then; Orsanmichele, church and once the city’s grain-store, the colossal emptiness of the Duomo, Giotto’s soaring Campanile, the kaleidoscopic interior of the Baptistery, gold-encrusted Santissima Annunziata, Palazzo Vecchio and its lofty prison tower where you can fly above the city, buffeted by the wind, Santa Croce, and the football-pitch-sized Piazza della Republica – once the site of the Mercato Vecchio, which would have heaved with people, goods, animals, dirt and plague.
But the buildings are tall and I feel hemmed in, by them and by the crowds. I can’t get a true sense of the city yet, even though it’s small, even though my iPhone tells me I’ve taken 50,000 steps these past few days. Florence’s soul eludes me. Still, I continue, buying armfuls of guidebooks – so handy for when I’m back at my desk – climbing hundreds of stairs in the June heat, descending into chilly marble vaults, peeping over many heads at the awesome beauty of Michelangelo’s David, ducking into sparse friars’ cells, marvelling at the electric blue of powdered lapis lazuli, walking tree-shaded cloisters. I feel the sun burn my scalp, get lost in uneven, cobbled streets, smell horse-dung from carriage rides, drink strong, frothy cappuccinos, forget to have gelato, strain my neck looking from one spectacular bejewelled and frescoed ceiling to another, spend an unforgettable evening with a group of locals, who tell me how close-knit and duty-bound Florentine families still are today – start to feel the vague sense of something, beyond the tourists and traffic – something deeper, beneath the surface.
There’s often a moment, on these trips, when the modern world slips away. When the triple lock of thorough research, imagination and sensory experience clicks into place and you feel yourself standing in the time of your characters. It feels almost magical – as if you’ve crossed over. I always know I’m ready to write the book when I feel it. But it’s almost the end of the trip and I still haven’t had that.
Heavy-hearted, foot-sore, tormented by mosquito bites that have swollen into hideous, pus-filled sacs, I cycle into the city early on our last morning, rattling along bumpy streets, almost empty at this time of day. Along the Arno I ride, to the Ponte Vecchio, now clear of tourists, reflections of its tightly-crammed buildings in the water below. I imagine the blood pooling, scraps thrown to dogs, butchers with slaughter-stained hands chatting to one another, customers starting to appear. I move on and, for the first time this week, I don’t need a map. The labyrinth has been conquered. I cycle the route I’ve been walking, streets – now so familiar – opening before me. I peddle faster, feeling reckless. Feeling local. I stop, pull out my phone, tap furious notes, inspiration spilling out, a stream-of-consciousness. I write about the discordant conversation of bells and, around me, all the bells of Florence begin to ring.
Lee looks over at me – my big grin and feverish typing.
You’re there, aren’t you?
Yes. I’m there.
[For further reading on Florence and the Medici, I can highly recommend, The Ugly Renaissance, Alexander Lee, The Medici, Paul Strathern and A History of Florence, John M. Najemy].