The Tuscan Life

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The Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, in the center of historic Florence, is the oldest herbalist pharmacy of its kind in the world. It is where Michelangelo, Dante, Da Vinci and Galileo and other giants of the Renaissance came in search of cures for their various ailments. It had once been a monastery, home to Dominican monks who worked the herbal gardens in search of medicinal remedies. The modern world is left outside once you pass through the thick, ornate wooden doors. I have shopped there many times over the years, but had never been allowed access to the basement, the large cold room, thick potted herbal plants lining the walls, where the monks had first plied their magic. Graziella, a dark-haired young woman, smartly dressed in stylish jacket and slacks, dark hair teasing the collar, is the general manager of the pharmacy and proud to share its history.

I was there to pick up details for a novel I had just started to write. Midnight Angels would be set in Florence. It would deal with the discovery of a lost Michelangelo and I needed to know as much about the man as I did about his work, including his herbal habits. I brought along my then-12-year-old cousin Stefano and my wife, Susan, to help fill in any gaps I might overlook. We were halfway through our tour, Graziella pointing out various spots of interest, walking casually alongside Stefano. She would smile each time the boy asked a question, his Italian pitch-perfect. She stopped, nodded her approval when Stefano asked if he could check out the drawings hanging in a corner and watched as he ventured off.

Complementi,” she said to me and Susan. “You have done a remarkable job. I have never heard an American boy speak such perfect Italian. It is truly amazing.” My wife and I exchanged a glance and Stefano turned from the painting he was gazing at, walked up next to her and smiled. “I am not from America,” he said to her in English. “I am from Florence. I am just like you.”

The men and women of Tuscany live as if they were fast frozen in the middle of a Renaissance painting. It is a serene place of beauty locked in a timeless frame; it allows its residents to pursue their modern-world activities while enveloped in a setting established centuries before they were born.

The Renaissance has never left Tuscany. It can be found on any street corner, inside any church, down the halls of many an ancient but preserved palazzo. That exciting and creative period defines the Italians who fill its hills, fuels their characters, gives them strength and is the source of great pride. The Renaissance nurtures their identity. It is as much a part of their daily life as a morning espresso, an early evening passeggiata, e quello primo amore that can never be forgotten.

I have lived and worked in Tuscany during many periods of my life, spending months in the company of friends and relatives fortunate enough to call the region their home. They intermingle quite comfortably with the giants of the past, honored to keep Michelangelo, Dante, Da Vinci, Galileo and Machiavelli as alive and relevant today as they were on those days and nights when they walked the region’s city streets, ready to bring chisel to marble, quill to parchment, paint to canvas, creating works that will outlive us all.

It is impossible not to be aware of the Renaissance in Tuscany. You can see it in Florence, when you turn down Via Girolami for the first time, enter Piazza di Santa Croce and then step into the church that is lined with the tombs of the Renaissance greats, from Michelangelo to Rossini. Or head down Via Ghibellina and find the wooden doors with the number 70 chiseled into the stone side and step into Casa Michelangelo for the first time, the interior kept as it was for The Divine One. Or when you venture across Piazza Ottaviani, directed there by the smiling face of an elderly man in jacket and tie, and see the small two-story home where Dante agonized over the pages of his “Inferno.” It is there on every street in San Gimignano, the small medieval city seemingly untouched by the years. They live as if time-warped in the 13th century, proudly showing the tourists who flock to the hamlet each day a sample of Renaissance life. The restaurants serve cuisine from another era, pasta with wild boar a specialty; the small streets are lined with family-owned shops selling everything from pottery to lamps, all hand-made with the skills passed down through the centuries. In a local butcher, I once made the mistake of ordering prosciutto, thinking the counterman would slice off a kilo or two. Instead, he unhooked a 40-pound slab from above his head and asked, “Tutto aposto, cosi?” I smiled and told him it seemed like more than even I could eat. He shrugged and said, “It will last you the winter.”

It is there in Siena, outside the walls of a medieval church, only two miniature sculptures chiseled by Michelangelo resting in their four slots. “Were the other two stolen during the War?” I asked a woman standing next to me, her dress stylish, her manner cordial and relaxed.

“No,” she said with a slight shake of her head. “His patron did not pay the second half of his commission, so he abandoned the work. Michelangelo may have been an artistic genius, but he was also a businessman. A very good businessman.”

The Tuscan people know their history and are proud to share it with anyone who asks. It can range from the trivial (two patrons at a bar in Lucca set in the middle of a 13th century palazzo arguing over whether Fernet Branca should be considered an alcoholic beverage or a medicinal herb, as the monks who first made it intended) to the impressive (the windows of Florence’s Vasari Corridor, linking the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace, were designed by Michelangelo — except for two large ones facing the Arno River). “Those,” a guard in the Corridor told me, “were put in on orders from Hitler. He wanted to address the people of Florence from the Corridor and there were no windows large enough for such a purpose. It went against the intent of the Corridor. The windows were designed small and round so the Medici family could look down at the activities of the city without being noticed. Even Mussolini argued against building the larger windows. Hitler prevailed and they were open that one time and they will never be opened again.”

My memories of Tuscany are a blend of the past with the present. My favorite restaurant there is Trattoria Pandemonio, which is home to Mama and the best linguini with tomatoes and artichokes I have ever consumed. Mama could have lived and thrived in any period, from the Renaissance to present day. She is a dynamic small woman, full of energy and a happiness that is contagious. She stops by every table, offering a warm smile and an answer to any question, her unlined face glowing in the light of the soft candles centered on every table. She is also fiercely proud of her city. One night, during a relaxing dinner, my late wife mentioned the possibility of taking a side trip to Lucca during our stay. Mama smiled and shrugged. “Why do you want to go there when we have everything you need here?” she said. “Great food, wine, Michelangelo, Dante and gelato.”

“But Lucca is beautiful,” a young man at the table to our left objected, inserting himself into the conversation.

“I agree,” Mama said. “But so is Florence, no? And you don’t have to go anywhere. You are already in a place of beauty. Why waste time looking for something you already have?”

The Tuscans are, in so many ways, like the cities they inhabit—from another time, characters etched in historical settings, of course with the occasional modern adjustment: In Florence, a woman sells jewelry in a store off the Ponte Vecchio, following in the seven-century tradition of the bridge’s jewelry merchants (In Renaissance days the Ponte Vecchio was a meat market, beef, lamb and pork sold from dawn to dusk, the leftover bones, skin and fat tossed into the dark waters of the Arno). Today, she stands out from the rest for the simple reason that she collects license plates from every state in America and even knows the mottos, from the Garden State to Live Free or Die. Then there’s the bartender in Lucca who spends his Sunday afternoons going to and from the small towns that make up Tuscany, determined to pray in every church and taste every wine in the region, a mission made more reasonable given that he is traveling by car and not horse. And finally, the staunchly traditional woman for whom modern Italy, much less Tuscany, simply does not exist. She is a lifelong resident of Siena, with its population of 50,000 divided into 17 sections—each area designated by a multi-colored medieval flag. “I worry my daughter will meet and fall in love with someone from another section of the city, someone whose flag would be different from our own,” she told me as we stood in the center of the square where the legendary Palio is staged. “My family and I would need to give that quite a bit of thought before we allowed such a marriage to go forward.”

“There are worse things than to fall in love with someone from your own town,” I said, not sure if she was serious or jesting.

“That’s true,” she said with a stern nod of her head. “He could be from Florence.”

Now I knew there was no humor in her concern: Florence and Siena have been bitter enemies ever since the first city defeated the second in battle. The fact that this occurred in 1500 does not lessen the rivalry. “I completely understand her thinking,” my cousin, Paolo Murino, told me. “Why should she forget? Because it happened long ago? What is ancient to an American is not to an Italian. America is still a young country. I have a friend there who told me he had bought an old house. It was built in 1880. To an Italian, that might as well be yesterday. My home was built in the 13th century and nothing in it has changed, except for wiring and plumbing.”

If the past lingers on, in the art of the towns and the minds of the people, there are occasions when it blends seamlessly with the modern world. I was in a wine shop in San Gimignano a few summers back, scanning the aisles, sipping from a glass of Brunello. The owner, elderly and, as are most of his Tuscan counterparts, smartly dressed, stood behind a thick wooden counter, watching as I savored the wine and eyed the different blends on sale at amazingly low prices. “Would you like to bring a few bottles back to America with you?” he asked. “E anche qualcosa per vostra moglie? Some olive oil and Balsamic vinegar as well?”

“I would,” I said. “But it would just be such a hassle to pack. Plus I would worry that the bottles would break during the trip over.”

The old man shook his head and smiled and gestured for me to come closer. “It is true that San Gimignano is an ancient city and we keep it that way. It is how we preserve the past and earn our daily wage. But not everything in our town is from another century. I can send you your wine, oil and vinegar. As much of it as you like. And I promise you it will be waiting for you when you arrive home.”

“How can you do that?”

“Fed-Ex,” the old man said. “I will send it by Fed-Ex. I believe even Michelangelo would approve. Dante, on the other hand, would probably frown at the extravagance. But he was never an easy one to please.”

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