Without even knowing it, I went to Florence to find enlightenment. My search didn’t conform to the cliché—a quest into the mountains to find a guru—but maybe it wasn’t that different, either. As I walked through the city’s tight alleys and over its famous bridges, simply taking in the beauty and history of the city, something suddenly occurred to me—the idea that I needed to change the way I was thinking about this magnificent place. I wondered if I could shake my suspicion that Florence was just a reliquary, the attic of the Renaissance, a kind of museum filled with tourists and touts.
But true enlightenment starts when you admit you were wrong.
Florence isn’t simply historical, it’s also still engaged in the project the city became famous for centuries ago. It’s still in the civilization creation business. For example, it boasts a strikingly modern—and controversial—new opera house (it’s one of the cities that lays claim to being the birthplace of opera), has a slew of vegetarian restaurants and hosts a vital core of creative artisans. These range from skilled masters who still produce world-class leather goods to new artists making new statements—even one who believes that watches don’t need to tell time, but more about that later.
Florence has a glorious past, of course. You can’t avoid it. Just the view from the romantic, sun-dappled hills down into the city is postcard-perfect, a vista unchanged for the past 400 years, and something that feels eternal. In my mind’s eye, I can see Brunelleschi’s dome dominating the center of the tightly packed city, two banks of grand piazzas and terra-cotta roofs, and the dirt-brown Arno—a view seen by millions who have come here over the centuries, and who fall hard for the city’s beauty. But what struck me most was its vibrant, contemporary feel. There’s no escaping its heritage of craft, art and history, of course, but anywhere you go, you notice the creative passion Florentines have for redefining civilization again.
When skies are never the limit. One afternoon, on my way up a hill just south of the Arno and en route to a photo exhibit at one of Florence’s innumerable museums, I came across a plaque on a handsome, slightly eccentric, Tuscan row house. Despite my weak Italian, I pieced together the story; it was Galileo’s house (one of them, at least—he lived in several across the city). Its top floor served as his observatory, where, as best as I could make out from the sign, he looked up to the heavens and charted a different future for us.
This house signified progress, a new way of looking not only at the world, but at the much larger universe as well. I realized that this was the wellspring of so many things—the place where space exploration started, the source of the Big Bang theory, the birthplace of relativity—or, more accurately, ground zero for the inspiration for all kinds of innovations and advancements that were all started when a single man began to study the stars, and realized that we revolved around one, and not the other way around.
In some ways, you might say, it housed the Renaissance. It showed that humankind can think big and dream bigger. The sky, to Galileo, was not the limit.
Perhaps that’s a bit grand. Yet, seemingly on every corner, there are reminders that new rules were being made in the arts, in the sciences, in the craft of seeing things anew. For a little perspective on the scope and depth of the Florentine Renaissance, note that Michelangelo died three days after Galileo was born, making Florence the epicenter of generations of genius and discovery.
Modern, with ancient presence. I was conscious of a single fact, though; I didn’t want to just revel in the past glories of Florence—I wanted to get a sense of its beating heart, how it lives in the modern age. And Grace Joh showed me how.
Leading me up a flight of stairs just behind a typical Italian stand-up espresso cafe, Joh, an Orange County-born Academic Chair of the J School of Journalism, Communication and Publishing at the Florence University of the Arts, keyed in a few digits, opened a door, and we were standing in the middle of a classroom. “This was once one of Michelangelo’s studios,” she said. There were old, stone walls, bright white plastic chairs and an overhead projector. While I tried to visualize what the master made in this studio, I certainly could see what people did there these days—learn and create.
Joh is an advocate of a living, breathing Florence. Once I got past the sense of the deep, historical significance of the room, she told me about FUA and its mission.
“I wondered if I could shake my suspicion that Florence was just a
reliquary, the attic of the Renaissance.”
reliquary, the attic of the Renaissance.”
“Most people do stop at [Florence’s] history,” she said. “We think that this history should propel us to go to a new future. That’s why we’re here, to learn by doing. To remake the artistic and commercial community of Florence and reclaim its creativity as ours.”
One of the lessons, Joh said, was taken from Brunelleschi, the architect of the dome of the Duomo. She explained that he wanted to overturn the old, closed, guild system and open up the arts and creative craftsmanship to anyone with the talent.
“The ‘doing’ is elevated above the process—it’s a soulful power, it’s the kind of cultural integration we are aiming for,” she said.
Time is what you make of it. Over the course of a few days with Joh and a few of her colleagues, I went to the opening of photographer David Weiss’ exhibit featuring boxing champion Leonard Bundu, a dinner sponsored by Kinfolk, a “slow food” group promoting the use and preservation of family recipes (I quite enjoyed a dish of stewed octopus) with long dinner conversations, and was able to get a closer look at the locals’ lives.
It was during this time that I noticed a man named Lorenzo Brini, a local designer, who was wearing an elegant, austere-looking wooden watch. I thought the watch face—also made of wood—was on a hinge and would reveal the time if flipped up or something. For some reason, I was a bit hesitant to ask, since people were enjoying their wine, their food and the Tuscan night. But he noticed me looking at it and offered me a chance to examine it more closely.
It was so light, it clearly had no clockworks, and there was nothing digitized about it. I gave a quizzical look—one I’m sure he’d seen before (and one that I now get for mine), and he smiled a little. “Choose your time,” he said.
In his heavily Italian-inflected English, Brini gave me the overview of his company, Nullame, which crafts by hand these non-watches from sustainable woods and found materials and sells them online (www.nullame.com). As fashion accessories, they are sweet, and rarely fail to start a conversation, but, as a philosophical statement, they might even be more important.
They are a stylized way of making time your own. In this modern cacophony of smartphones, deadlines and constant connectivity, it feels as if time is a constraint, something that rules us. And, maybe, to some extent, it is.
It struck me as ironic that, in Florence, a painted piece of olive tree with a black leather strap could hold the secret to the enlightenment I wondered about. Did it still exist in this modern version of this brilliant city? In this artisanal instrument that could control time and inspire a new way of thinking, I found my answer. Yes, enlightenment is still alive and well in Florence.