Scuola Leonardo DaVinci in Florence, Italy is a school for foreigners. It says so on the brass building plaque burnished on the brick beside the main entrance. As I check in for orientation, I walk through a cloud of students on their break, sucking in nicotine and nursing espresso shots from paper cups — thoroughly embracing the Italian culture. I can’t help but wonder if they teach this in Italian class. Tomorrow I will find out.
After a quick meet-and-greet, I leave the building with Vittoria — my tour guide for the day — assigned by the school. She is dressed in the classic Tuscan attire from the Renaissance as if to add to the immersion experience. Her red velvet skirt floats gracefully over the cobblestones, and I follow closely behind her.
Listen close, she tells me.
The city has a voice. Full lungs release to project the symphonic sound of an urban Italian center. Vocal chords reverberate. The steady hum of diverse dialects mingles with the jingle of a gypsy’s coin and the wispy, windy sound of pigeons’ wings flapping in fright of a child too close. The lips of Firenze articulate the tone. The bells of the Campanile ring ding ding, loudly alerting the residents that their siesta has come to its end. The blaring sound of an ambulanza or polizia racing somewhere through a twisted cobblestone street becomes a familiar melody that plays on and off, day in and day out.
In the year 1296, Florence was a thriving community with great pride, eager to build a glorious cathedral in the heart of the city, to replace their old one. They designed their new cathedral ambitiously — with space for a large dome to sit atop it — however, the riddle of how to actually create the dome remained unsolved.
That is until Filippo Brunelleschi arrived on the scene.
I like to imagine Brunelleschi’s hands. Holding a pencil, sketching a design, sanding down a brick, splashing water on his face after a long day in the dust and sun. I imagine they are a necessary coarseness due to his work in architecture, design and brick laying. They are strong hands, able to lift large slabs of brick and marble; his handshake is firm. His knuckles are uneven humps on camels’ backs, swollen by pressure, and scarred by the materials he moves. It was his intellect that eventually created the solution to solve Florence’s biggest riddle; his tanned, weathered hands brought his creation to life.
Today, Vittoria propels herself into the thrall of tourists standing before Florence’s most prized Cathedral and one of Brunelleschi’s most outstanding achievements. The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is a giant mass of colored marble and ornate designs. The scolding heat emanates from the marble steps we are standing on and Vittoria’s ruched velvet top is darkened and dampened beneath her arms. The sun is at its hottest point and I can feel the beads of sweat drip down the back of my knees.
Vittoria points at particular edifices and recites facts in her thick Italian accent. Still unused to the dialect, I strain my ears to understand. My eyes scan to see the entirety of the building as it spans over three city blocks and covers the whole of the Piazza. I focus on the gothic façade.
Look close, she says.
Ecco tutti colori! The marble stone is a delicate mixture of pastel pink from Maremma, green from Prato, and crisp white from Carrera. The façade wasn’t finished until 1887. Vittoria explains that the alternating colors show rectitude and beauty and enrapture the Florentine principles of art.
On both sides of the grandiose doors are spiraling multi-depth columns, engraved with flowers and decorative details that lead my eyes upwards toward the abundance of sculpted figures and busts of both idols and artists of the Florentine culture. As I continue to gaze upwards Vittoria points me towards Brunelleschi’s magnum opus – The Dome, or il Duomo – a structural masterpiece that is both powerful and aesthetically pleasing. The entirety of the structure sits in the heart of Florence and serves as the crown of this enchanting city.
It is said that Fillipo Brunelleschi was a rather shadowy figure, so secretive that no one has been able to discover the inventions that made his dome possible. The actual construction of the dome took 16 years to complete, but Brunelleschi’s invention was eventually brought to life and now rests forever in the Tuscan skyline. The red herringbone brick is a jarring accent against the soft colors of the rest of the structure. It is topped with a cupola on which you can walk around, if you dare venture the 436 steps to the top. At night, the cupola’s lantern lights the Piazza and surrounding city center.
Vittoria watches me as I take in the building. The dome is recognized as a marvel of the age, and as the body of Florence, it bestows the city its voice.
Listen close, she says.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
Sony RX100 iii Digital Camera: I am, by no means, a great photographer but I do enjoy taking pictures on my travels. This small point-and-shoot digital camera goes everywhere with me and it’s easy to use (even for the non-photographer). Its size is also a bonus because you could easily slip it into your pocket if you needed to.
Rick Steves’ Italian Phrasebook and Dictionary: Whenever I’m traveling to new countries, I like to attempt to speak the language. Not only is it a lot of fun, but it can also go a long way when you need travel directions, help, or advice. Attempting to speak the language — even imperfectly — is also a sign of cultural respect. This is a great phrasebook that can help you get by when traveling in Italy.
HiDay 7 Set Travel Organizer Bag System: I’m one of those people who likes to be hyper-organized when I travel. With these packing cubes and pouches, there is a “right place” for everything, making it not only easy to pack but easy to find exactly what I’m looking for in my suitcase, at any given time.