Forgetting the difference between tourists and statues, human flesh and marble skin.
Imagine a snow globe that is non-translucent. Instead of glass, its rounded walls are terracotta-colored panels of brick shaped into a dome. You will never know what’s inside unless you go in. Overstretching this snow globe from top to bottom on all sides are eight white lines evenly spread, like long gloved arms that hug this orange globular mound. There is nothing flat about it. Instead, fullness in every way.
But instead of setting this snow globe on a table in your home, it is attached to the top of an intricate cathedral that has been here for over 700 years. And at the top of this snow globe is a glowing gold lookout sharpened to its peak with a luminous cross, where you stand behind its circular platform and railing at the very top, overlooking the entire city of Florence with about twenty other travelers. You witness the beauty of Firenze, or “flower,” watching the city blossom as each light in each tiny window flickers on, flickers off.
Now picture this.
The people standing at the top of the snow globe are not here for the city lights to be unveiled like flashing fireflies. Instead of a snow globe they call it Brunelleschi’s dome. Where has their imagination gone? To their iPhones.
A girl stands next to me on the top of the Duomo’s dome wearing her burgundy leather jacket (probably fake but she assumes it’s real) that she bought at the famous and hectic leather market in Florence. She throws her hands in the air, acting carefree as she tosses her hair around in the chaotic wind in order to catch different camera angles. She quickly grips the slender black railing, shouting too loudly, “I’m soooo afraid to heights! Oh my god!” She hands over her iPhone to her best friend, having the friend snap 200 photos before she is satisfied with just one.
“I’m going to get so many likes!” She glances out a couple times at all the little apartments to feel like she’s appreciating the view and doing justice to “whoever that guy was who created this thing . . .”. She climbs back down and continues her day, proud that she will be able to impress people with the Duomo in the background of her photo.
Read that last sentence again. “ . . . the Duomo in the background of her photo.” Huh.
Tourism with a capital T.
Today I glimpsed out my apartment window and saw more tiny humans at the top of the dome, almost like miniature figurines that I could pick up with my own two fingers and plop somewhere else in the house of Florence. They do not belong on the Duomo dome’s head, near the Duomo’s brain, touching the Duomo, taking pictures of the Duomo, or resting their oily sunscreen skin on the Duomo with kids screaming and pigeons flapping. Yes, I, too, am a kind of tourist, here for a semester. I will scramble to the top of the dome soon and bend over backwards for that shot on my phone. But I believe this snow globe structure should still have space, should be able to breathe from all the people walking over its face, flattening its rounded orange and white cheeks. Without trying to be, we are all a part of its facial collapse.
From my view I could go in and snatch the non-transparent snow globe with one hand and shake these people off its gold crown, flinging them into their own sunny-snow paradise which does not include trample-tourism. I could flip the snow globe upside down, upturning the roundness so the single shining gold cross point must balance the entire structure. Would the holiness self-stand? Would these people still be hanging on the railing’s sides if the cross started to snap? Would they dangle from the thin black railing, have their screams echo to the other side of Italy as they suspend in the air, feet kicking?
Certainly. They would cling so hard their bones would be forced to reform in different positions. “Duomo-deformity,” they would call it. A syndrome for being obsessed with overlapping the present with the past. A disease preoccupied with photographing memories instead of using one’s memory.
Florence includes tourism. But you tourists are not Florence.
So when you arrive at your next selfie-sticking stop, Gallerie dell’Accademia, you think You are the one seeing the David. He’s like that uncle you’ve heard about but never gotten to be in the same room with. And now you get to observe your uncle David for the very first time.
Not the case. He’s been here longer, you gullible traveler.
So he’s the one watching you.
You enter the white-walled hallway with carrot-colored floors and you know you are instantly intruding on uncle David’s banquet party. His other unfinished friends, Michelangelo’s men with half-finished abs or women with hair only on one side of their head, turn their eyes towards you when you step closer to David. They wear white togas that elegantly show off their perfect figures. You wear spaghetti sauce-stained shorts, a ripped t-shirt, and sandals with mud that track your footprints down the entire hallway.
One of the statues delicately holds a dying body while you unfold your museum map, bumping into walls and foreign exchange students. Folding back up the map to make perfect creases is almost impossible, and the map soon turns into a paper ball mess with crumple sounds that echo through the entire gallery. The unfinished statues are ready to pounce on you and your naïve touristy ways. They hope to shove you out of the Gallerie dell’Accademia, forcing you to stand on the sidewalk, but soon realize their hands and fingers are not fully carved to finish the job.
You speed-walk down the hall to David to avoid introducing yourself to his non-appreciative friends. The dome surrounding him illuminates the ceiling in bright white while his body is centered in a smooth and slightly golden lightness. He is the speaker of the night, and he turns his attention to observe you from all angles.
Every inch of him has eyes. They’re in his itching feet, his rhythmic muscles, his contrapposto pose, his stone-slinging pouch that could jump out at any moment and hit you in the dead center of your forehead. His crinkled up forehead looks like the middle fold of the newspaper after twenty people have read it in one day. He seems to twitch at every photograph click you take. That left ankle looks you up and down. Hmm, not a good color on you. Even from the back, his back’s got pupils. Each running chord of his spine blinks in fractures, milliseconds so quick you never notice him looking. It is a game of which shoulder-blade is crying first. How long can those rear eyes on his sculpted rear glaze over?
Your uncle David moves more than anyone else in this room, this room that is like a surprise party before the guest arrives, all hushed, all whispers. While your walk turns slower and slower and you lose all feeling in your arms and legs the closer you get to him, David does the opposite; he grows in momentum, pelvis swinging like a pendulum towards you, ready to crack your nasal septum in half with his hip bones. His ear cartilage seems about to unravel with the sound of any footstep approaching, curled hair like thick ivy vines near his jawline reaching out at your body. His lips sense your every move, ready to tell you to “Back it up, buddy” at any moment if you get too close to his squirming toes.
You become marble.
He becomes inappropriate tourist.
He flashes his genitals with a slight smirk and you just stare, stunned. Does he really think this is okay in a public setting? You want to tug on a stranger’s coat to see if he is witnessing the same thing. David seems to hiss at you while you are frozen solid, unable to track down a museum guard.
You feel your skin harden into stone. Each breath is subdued, restrained, as if you are choking on rock dust. While you can’t move a muscle, David runs. He wants to push off, using his feet as pedals spiraling through space. You gawk. He scratches to feel another surface, an inner glow propelling the chance to go, to create, to grow, to conquer. Your limbs don’t work anymore. His toes grip the edge of the platform, ready to sprint off foundation into what no one has done before:
Turn art of a walking man into walking art.
Suddenly, tourism with a capital T becomes uncapitalized. You have become a part of the gallery. David is the human now.
* * *
As a student, I attempted to tear down this capital T again, refusing to be the “You” I reference in my very own writing. I did not want to be a part of this tourist regiment and decided to visit the other side of the city with La Piazza della Signoria, hoping to change my own touristy know-it-all ways. La Piazza della Signoria never appeared “in action” to me. But yesterday, finally, I found the eyes blink last night just like David’s.
Usually when you visit this piazza, you are the marble in a maze, attempting to weave your way between bodies while trying to squint up at statues three times the size of yourself. Claustrophobia is a good way to describe it. Every direction you choose to move in is the wrong direction. You go right, the tourists go right. You walk faster, the tourists walk faster, blocking any form of progress through the square. It is a game of who will make it out alive. You can’t even hear yourself think because the tour guides waving their little red flags are speaking in a gazillion unfamiliar tongues.
When you go anywhere near the Piazza and just want to find a quick sandwich to eat, black-tie waiters bombard you with “Are you hungry?”, “We know you want food!”, “Americana! Come here!” They shove their menus under your nose but you keep walking, you keep walking. Half the time you do not even realize there are statues to begin with. There are walls, walls, walls, and cobblestones, stones, stones because all you can see in the chaos are the sides closing in and the ground pushing you around. What shape is this piazza anyway? A confused square? An uneven rectangle with more than four edges? Your sneaker laces become tangled and your ankles discombobulated as if you are scissor-kicking the air, pedal-walking without balance through the wobbly streets.
La Piazza della Signoria could definitely work on its salesmanship. Honestly, you could bottle up the smell and sell a perfume called Piazza Peepee Parfum. I’m not trying to put down the Piazza. It’s actually hilarious. These tourists see the fake David and flock to his left leg like they are seeing God, this falsity making mothers weep more than they did in childbirth. Meanwhile, turn your nose up a notch. Pee.
With all this insanity, you just want to enjoy something. So you focus on the statues in front of the Palazzo della Signoria and Loggia della Signoria, a castle-like government building and outdoor sculpture gallery. You want to believe these statues but something is missing. Even with their painful expressions or looks of awe and triumph, after ten seconds the statues revert back to standing stoically. They do not seem to gallop, to run, or to fight the air. Unlike David, they are simply there. Lifeless.
I wanted more. So last night at 11:37 pm I walked around the Piazza after two glasses of wine. I glanced up. The sky winked back in each star, the blackness covering above like a cool blanket. A violinist was humming away right between the Palazzo and sculpture gallery, searing the air with his music so sweetly and sharply it was like a bumble bee flying right by your ear. Instead of ignoring where I was—the famous Peepee Piazza—I really looked this time. All the statues were looking too. They were listening to the musician just like me, each stone head turned towards the guy playing the instrument. All the statues on his left were looking left. All the statues on his right were looking right. The violinist was exactly in the middle, and the statues were his audience, standing the entire time in a continuous standing ovation.
Neptune was all for it. He had never heard this kind of music before. No harps. No singing. Just bow and string gliding through space like sliced butter. His octopus-like beard seemed to quiver, tentacle-hair moving like fingers towards the musician’s song. Neptune’s beard said it all. The stone hair was reaching out, wanting to grip onto the feeling that the violin sang. His mustache did not close in on his mouth like it usually did but instead parted into two waves for his lips to turn up into a smile. Neptune’s eyes darted back and forth now, the chords haunting his brain. This was clearly new for him. His muscles danced to the quick rhythm, as each carved ab pumped in and out, breathless.
This is what tourism should be. Working for it. “It” being finding yourself in the history and the culture. Realizing that statues like David are watching us. Or gaining that moment of clarity in a crowded square, when we forget the difference between tourists and statues, human flesh and marble skin.
* * *
My favorite gelato in Florence is a complicated name. I don’t even remember what it’s called. The flavor consists of vanilla beans, cinnamon, and honey.
A woman who’s lived here for five years who I thought was thirty but was actually my own age told me to try this gelato. “But it’s such a weird flavor. I don’t know…” I responded hesitantly to her in the gelato shop.
“But you must! It is life changing!” she countered back with enthusiasm. The owner, with his little furry mustache and tired but eager eyes, looked at me expectantly, ready to scoop. His shoulders were hunched but he hopped around on his toes, ready to scoop, ready to scoop. “What would you like?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Can I help you?”
“I’m still deciding.”
“I am ready when you are.”
“Okay I will let you know. Thanks.” I twisted my fingers around each other, nervously pulling my gold rings I bought at Santa Croce off and on, off and on. I paced around on the white tile floor, nerves as rocky as walking on the cobblestones which cover Florence. The woman chimed in again. “It’s the best flavor on earth! Let yourself go.”
Let yourself go.
That is, which way you choose to let yourself go. If you want, be a tourist. Or, allow Florence to humanize you.
At the time of deciding whether I should order that exact gelato or not, I considered myself a tourist. I was a part of the menu for tourists coming to Florence: iPhone in hand for Google maps, blonde hair, blue eyes, twenty years old, wears sweaters when it’s 90 degrees out, wears shorts when it’s 60 degrees out, wears heels on cobblestones, looks up at the Duomo and the David and then bumps into strangers, and almost gets wallet stolen out of her backpack but a cappuccino man saves her. That was a month ago.
The anxiety of being in a city like Florence is that in one week you know your way around. Usually people’s anxiety comes from not knowing something, the unexpected, and the foreign. But for me, it is the feeling that I am beginning to understand everything. It is an anxiety that is more electrifying than unnerving. I now see statues as David, not David. They are like long-lost relatives that are intimidating but still lovable. I hear Neptune’s muscles echoing back in rhythm to street music being plucked away on a violin, a thumping heartbeat through rock.
I forgot to tell you one thing. In the gelato shop, one day the owner spoke to me when I was deciding whether or not to try that flavor the woman recommended so wholeheartedly. He said with his furry dancing mustache, “The vanilla beans are for foundation. The cinnamon for a kick. And the honey to hold it all together like glue.” He smiled. His crooked teeth poked out as he handed me my overflowing gelato cup with vanilla beans, cinnamon, and honey. The flavor was as simple as that. Yet, it was one of the most intense and complicated combinations I have ever tasted.
I now realize that this is Brunelleschi’s dome. This is his snow globe when you, a tourist, choose to become a human exploring Florence.
The dome is part vanilla bean: its foundation is full of all those narrow steps and dark passages you have to climb. With each stone stair you step up on, each rounded corner you turn to go upwards, you are mounting its core.
Then comes the cinnamon. There is suddenly that kick that pushes you to keep ascending, no matter how hard those 463 steps are with your sandals that keep sliding, no matter how hard you must work mentally and physically to not turn around.
And lastly, the honey, which is the golden lookout on top—the thing that glues together the top of the dome. Once you are up there, on top of the whole city that now looks itty-bitty, you know that the top of this snow globe is what makes people across the world come to Florence. You finally hear the cling cling of hammers from the past, hear the sizzle sizzle of men’s blood boiling inside these dimly lit halls. You hear the grunting from the last day of completion, shouts of joy and tools being flung into walls once everyone realizes that “the struggle is over!”.
You have done the work to find the core and reach the peak.
You have tasted the flavors of 1463.
So . . . I’m doing it. I’m retracting what I said about flinging tourists off the top of the snow globe. They can stay as long as they want. Florence has taught me to stretch and re-stretch. There is not one answer, one way of looking at things. These people, these tourists, these obnoxious travelers (myself included) climb the Duomo’s dome to understand its purpose and to add to its verb of “doing” and “being” instead of “sitting” and “staring blindly.”
This terracotta-colored snow globe has a center that nobody witnesses unless they are inside it themselves. Various children, grandparents, students from all over the world, and honeymooners are climbing the snow globe’s winding staircase every day. The inside is chaotic, like snow globe glitter, as wallets fall down the stairs, toddlers jump two steps at a time, and shouts circulate inside the dimly-lit dome, eventually rounding back to their speakers’ mouths.
Each bald man climbing to the top is a sparkling speck in the disorder. Each water bottle drip on rectangular stone is a droplet of confetti catapulting around the snow globe’s center. It is one big Italian masterpiece being jumbled with a “New York City” visor here, and a “I Love Mickey Mouse” baby onesie over there.
But without these crazy, swirling pieces of human glitter going up and down, round and round, the snow globe wouldn’t be a snow globe. Without the tourists lingering inside, the Duomo’s dome wouldn’t be the same dome we know today, whether for the best or not.
Perhaps this is what all artists of Florence wanted, including Michelangelo and Brunelleschi—to pull the movement out of simplicity. An orange snowglobe that can withstand even the heaviest people on top, the ones with burdens and inner demons and low spirits who climb to find themselves. A globe that can push even the simplest of travelers to find a greater meaning in the upwards motion closer to the clouds still being dribbled by paintbrushes.
So I ask, do you choose to notice the pee or the honey?
If you have heard these structures and statues sigh, been shaken inside the snow globe, been touched by the flavors of Florentine foundation built by tired hands and humming minds from history, you are no longer a selfie-flashing tourist.
You are one step closer in doing what Brunelleschi desired all along: allow the Duomo to build you. You are one step closer in doing what Michelangelo and La Piazza della Signoria aimed for: allow non-human objects to teach you how to be human.
You have journeyed into the past, unbecoming to become.
Amanda spent four months in Florence, Italy