Columbia Star

Under the Tuscan Spell—La dolce vita begins in Firenze

Originally published June 17, 2005

We arrived at the Florence airport and were greeted by our guide, Patrizia.

We arrived at the Florence airport and were greeted by our guide, Patrizia.

In his book Too Much Tuscan Sun, Dario Castagno tells of an American couple who traveled to Italy “to visit an art city called Florence, but they couldn’t find it on even the most detailed maps.”

Firenze is Florence, a city of a half–million people famous for enjoying la dolce vita, the rich life of trattorias, museums, galleries, churches, theaters, and villas. Or as my wife, Linda, is apt to say, “Shop, shop, eat, eat, drink, drink, and shop some more.”

Florence is Firenze because when the Romans founded it in 59 BC they named it in honor of the season of flowers (an ancient Latin word somewhat like Firenze) honoring the goddess Flora. It was a planned town on the banks of the Arno River which was navigable to the sea at Pisa, 50 miles away. It had a forum, thermal baths, and a capitol—the usual Roman civic places.

When Rome fell 700 years later, the Lombards, a German tribe with long beards, moved in, threw off their fur cloaks, donned silk togas, and proceeded to woo the women and take over the baths.

La dolce vita survived the onslaught of gruel and beer. The new Florentines began to conquer the surrounding hill towns. Times were good.

The Carolingians, a group of bawdy, prematurely bald Frenchmen fresh from stopping the Muslims at Tours, heard about The Good Life and came to take much needed baths. They never left. Roman, German, and French genes soon merged into a new breed of Florentines who built walls to keep out war and pestilence. This was called the Dark Ages.

By 1300, the merchants of Florence had become so rich from fleecing the passing Crusaders, they started banks to store their money. Then, disregarding the Pope’s usury laws, they lent money and charged interest. They got even richer and built palaces for their families and churches for believers. This started the Renaissance.

One rich family, the Medici, became great philanthropers, paying artists to produce great works which were placed all around the city. Florence, a small city–state in the middle of the Italian boot, became the new Athens, the center of European and Mediterranean culture. La dolce vita reigned supreme once again.

As expected, others wanted in on the act. In 1870, Garibaldi and Cavour gathered all the Italian city–states into one nation. Florence was briefly the first capital until Rome exerted its influence.

The First World War saw new conquerors. Florence bankers charged compound interest as Italy switched sides. During the 1920s many countrymen fled to America. It was a sad day, but the wine and olive oil kept la dolce vita well oiled.

During the Second World War, Italy kept switching sides. German soldiers marched through Florence going south, then returned with the Allies on their tails. Luckily, the combatants agreed not to destroy Florence, each hoping for a little of la dolce vita. The great works of art and history were saved.

When we landed in the Florence airport in late April 2005, the temperature was in the upper 60s and the sweet fragrance of wine and olive oil hung in the air. Our guide, Patrizia, whisked us to the Strozzi Palace Hotel in the middle of the old city.

“Welcome to Italy,” she said. And so it began, our first taste of la dolce vita: Chianti Classico wine, bruschetta (crusty bread pieces slathered with garlic, olive oil, and salt), and crostino (smaller bread pieces topped with chicken liver paté, tomato, basil, mushrooms, mayonnaise, and garlic).

Viva Firenze! Viva la dolce vita!

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