Thursday, 25 September 2008

Beware of the History People

Most of us Florentines (adopted or otherwise) like to think we’re above the city’s charms. We don’t swoon over the Duomo or pant in awe of the Ponte Vecchio. We guffaw at the tourists who pay €3 for a bottle of water and we would rather be seen dead than be caught so much as glancing at the leather jackets in San Lorenzo. History just screams down at us from the city’s crumbling stone work but we block our ears and carry on. Our cynical faces bob into hundreds of tourist snapshots a day because we gave up spending our entire journey to work ducking down politely ages ago. We know we’re walking in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s footsteps but we act like it’s no big deal. Yes, we agree smiling, Florence is such a beautiful city isn’t it. But our heads are full of bus strikes, expensive real estate and the bald truth that wherever you live you simply get up, go to work, do the shopping and forget to buy toilet paper .. , in Florence just like anywhere else.

There are, however, exceptions to this rule of blasé behaviour. There are the History People. The History People are usually native Florentines, generally born and bred within sight of the Duomo (you will know this because they will tell you, regularly). Not only do they know that they are walking in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s footsteps but they know what colour his favourite socks were and how he parted his hair. A History Person feels it’s his or her god given gift to share this information whenever possible. If you make the mistake of asking a History Person why your local supermarket is only open on the first Sunday of the month, then brace yourself. He or she will launch into a lengthy explanation that begins five hundred years ago and probably has to do with some ancient rivalry involving a knight who bit his thumb at his neighbour’s most trustiest steed way back in once-upon-a-time. I happen to know a couple of History People personally and let me tell you, the slightest thing can set them off. I know to avoid all large topics like politics and religion which are always sure to unchain hours of 'but you see, in the fifteen hundreds…’ etc. Unfortunately, even the most banal observation can get them going because ultimately, they love history and believe everyone else should too.

To be honest, there’s so much history here that it can feel slightly overwhelming even without the History People’s running commentaries. They discovered Etruscan remains while digging the underground car park at my local super market, for goodness sake. An old house has recently been uncovered beneath the building site for the new tram line right in front of the train station. You see, when the past has had enough of gazing down on us in the form of ancient weathered gargoyles, it starts popping up from under our very feet. It’s everywhere. I suppose that’ll put the completion date for the tram lines back another 5 years or so. I saw a young guy operating a JCB on the building site who was sweating marbles as he manoeuvred the claw of his digger to scrape away soil from the uncovered brick work. Poor guy.

There's just not enough room in my head for all this history and I’m happy to remain relatively culture-free. I go to the odd exhibition and that does me just fine. The Impressionists at Palazzo Strozzi right now is really very interesting, just don’t ask me for details. I’ve already forgotten it all even though I only went a week ago and despite dutifully listening to an audio guide all the way round.

I believe that history is best taken with a spoon full of sugar. Cappuccino and brioche then museum then a huge lunch at Coquinarius, ice cream at Grom and finally a quick trip to Zara to see what new stuff they have. It’s a wholesome but delicious culture sandwich. The History People are purists and wouldn’t approve, but who cares.

1 comment:

the historian said...

Did you know the airborn element of the D-day landings were cordinated from the room in which I teach at Chichester University.