Guest blog from author Christobel Kent
Florence in spring – particularly after an interminable cold wet English winter – seems a revelation and a blessing. In the Fens the trees are still bare: in Tuscany they’re in full fresh green leaf, and there’s even the promise of lime blossom in the air. It’s been a cool wet spring in Tuscany too, and the Arno is high and fast-flowing but I arrived with the first properly warm day: the tourists are in shorts, although the locals are still wearing their quilted coats. They’ll go on wearing them until May, whatever the temperatures, for fear of ‘catching a chill’, that mysterious and sinister condition that seems particularly to afflict those who live in balmy climates.
I’m regularly asked if I come back here – on average once a month throughout the year – for inspiration and/or research, and I tend to demur, because it feels as though I come for fun, or something like it: I walk and walk and walk the streets, I hardly write, I hardly think. But when I consider it the physical climate of the city is very often the starting point for a novel. It seems much more extreme and lively than English weather, more exuberant: annually more rain, in fact, falls on Florence than on Cambridge (which has near-arid status) but the truth is, it falls all in a week or two, whereas in Cambridge there seems to be a fine mist of drizzle in the air most days.
In Florence I’ve seen downpours so intense that the waters rush down the steep hills that come close to the river to the south, pouring from beneath the great carriage doors of the palaces on the Via dei Bardi and out into the street. There are phenomenal thunderstorms in the summer, circling and crashing the bowl of the city and often providing a backdrop to the fireworks of the city’s saint’s day, San Giovanni in June. And in the long scalding days of summer the heat of the emptying city takes on a personality of its own, brooding and malevolent and often actually dangerous.
Reliant on school holidays for family visits to Florence, we’re often here in August, and adjustments have to be made. The first year we came to our newly acquired tiny attic flat in the Oltrarno was the merciless summer of 2003, and it is largely the experience of simply surviving that particular summer that inspired my new novel. All across Europe fans and airconditioning units sold out: our apartment, packed with bodies (four children, two parents, one gestating foetus) under the eaves soon became intolerable. We would go panting to a suburban swimming pool day after day, wallowing in the tepid greasy waters packed with other unfortunates: coming home in the airconditioned car we would look in disbelief at the temperature gauge as we approached the furnace of the city: before opening the door we’d have to brace ourselves. Thirty-five degrees at ten at night: hotter under the eaves of an ill-insulated apartment. Heavily pregnant, I would run a cold bath and sit in it for what felt like most of the night, emerging to lie on soaked sheets, dry and hot again within minutes.
In August the city empties of all its regular life: bars close, restaurants close, banks and post offices and emergency services operate on a skeleton staff of pallid gasping desperadoes. The elderly and infirm die, and at night the city creeps with unsavoury characters, thieves and drug addicts and alcoholics. Shops and palaces are shuttered up and streets lifeless: those left in the city stay inside in the dark – and the airconditioning, if they’re lucky – and can only be glimpsed hanging out of windows after nightfall, or moving very slowly in search of an open supermarket. To our shame, that summer of 2003, we spent an awful lot of time mooching in the airconditioned aisles of Ikea.
On my latest trip this Florence seemed a world away. This morning, as I set out for one of my favourite, if most poignant rituals of every trip, the dawn march across the city to the station on the first leg of my homeward journey, it was cool and fragrant. I’ve done this walk in all seasons: in the frosty starlit January dark; crossing an Arno in flood during the November rains, the stones of the great streets gleaming with rain; in the bright white July dawn when the only breath of chill is gulped gratefully down.
This morning I walked through the deserted courtyard of the Uffizi at six, crossed the washed cobbles of the Piazza Signoria, still smelling of horse dung from the little carriages that stand there by day. The city is eerily, beautifully empty, the only figures in the landscape the odd security guard still on duty outside a jewellers’, the hotel chambermaids on the way to work, the barmen pulling the shutters of the great bars – Rivoire, Gilli, Paszlowski – half up while they fire up the Gaggia inside. This is Florence at her most lovely, reverted to grandeur, smelling of woodsmoke and horses. The great loggia of the Lanzi stands lofty with its treasure of Giambologna and Cellini and empty of humanity, the swallows wheel and scream overhead, and I come into the final stretch and skirt the striped cloisters of Santa Maria Novella, serenaded by the deafening chatter of starlings in the church’s ancient cypresses.
This is Florence full of secrets and stories, hiding places and drama and other lives I leave behind when I reach the squat bulk of Mussolini’s pride and joy, the brooding, ugly station of Firenze SMN. And as the beautiful Freccia Azzurra train pulls out and the great city of the Renaissance dwindles into its northern suburbs, it never feels like research, it feels more like falling in love.