I haven’t been to Florence, and today I am feeling it keenly. This longing for Florence is a regular occurrence that usually coincides with the end of the semester. When I teach Western Civilization I (and I’m always teaching it), I end the semester with a couple of lectures on the Renaissance. We discuss Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Few cities can boast that they nurtured so much genius.
But my fascination with Florence actually has little to do with all that genius. I dreamed of standing beside the Arno long before I’d ever heard of Petrarch. When I was teenager, I saw the Merchant Ivory film adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel, A Room with a View. It instantly became my favorite movie.
The cast is brilliant in every way. Helena Bonham-Carter plays, Lucy, the confused young Edwardian heroine, while Julian Sands and Daniel Day-Lewis compete for her affections. Daniel Day-Lewis’s comic portrayal of the snobbish Cecil Vyse is especially delightful. The supporting cast features Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot. Smith and Elliot both received Oscar nods for their efforts. In my opinion, however, the city of Florence is the movie’s true star.
The cinematography is breathtaking, perfectly capturing the beauty of both the city’s architecture and the Tuscan countryside. The fountains shimmer, the Arno rushes, and the Dome of Florence’s cathedral looms over it all. Though crossing a piazza or ducking down a narrow alley with Maggie Smith is enjoyable in its own way, it leaves me a bit unsatisfied. I want to feel the paving stones and smell the alley. I dream of standing by the Arno and watching my postcards rush away in the river’s current. I want to visit the churches and museums, tagging along behind someone else’s tour. I want to stand on a hillside surrounded by grain and have my life transfigured. As Judi Dench’s character says of Lucy, “Transfigured by Italy! And why shouldn’t she be transfigured? It happened to the Goths!” Transfiguration just seems to be the kind of thing that one experiences in Florence.
A Room with a View was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three. It fared even better at the British Academy Film Awards. I highly recommend the movie, though I know that it will not suit everyone’s tastes. I have watched it dozens of times over the last twenty years, and I have read E. M. Forster’s novel a number of times as well. The story has become so much a part of me that I probably can’t actually think about it objectively anymore.
Though I hear Florence calling during this time of year, I know that if I went I would probably be disappointed. The Florence that I wish to visit does not actually exist at the moment. I want to visit Florence at the turn of the twentieth century; I want E. M. Forster’s Italy. E. M. Forster’s Italy was a country that was simultaneously young and old. Though its culture was the bedrock of western civilization, the Italian state had only been unified a generation before. Now Italy is old and tired. Twenty-first-century Italy has crippling debt, injurious unemployment, and an aging population.
I’d still go if I had the chance. Maybe I could forget about Europe’s sickness as I wandered the Uffizi, and maybe I could imagine a more optimistic age. An age that didn’t know that two world wars and economic turmoil were on the way. Maybe I could lose myself in history. Maybe. In the meantime I’ll watch my favorite movie again because it is that time of year.