I always feel a rush of joy when I approach Florence. This time, in a late afternoon, as the city lay tinged in violet light, my flight was on final descent into the Amerigo Vespucci Airport. As I discussed in my first book, My Renaissance: A Widow’s Healing Pilgrimage to Tuscany, after my husband’s death in 1994, I went to school in Florence for most of a year. Two successive summer sessions followed, with frequent visits in-between. And, here I was again, joyous at returning to Tuscany for still another summer-school session.
How did I happen to land in Florence in the first place?
Through a work connection, I had met Father Martini, a Jesuit priest, and the dean of an American university in Florence that I would come to attend.
After my husband’s long illness and death, I wanted desperately to reclaim my life. It occurred to me that maybe a change of scene would help; so, I took a chance and called Father Martini in Florence to ask if he might consider letting me, a widow in the middle chapters of her life, audit classes at his university.
To my good fortune, he said yes. The Italian sojourn that ensued was transforming. It revitalized me and gave me material for my first book (My Renaissance: A Widow’s Healing Pilgrimage to Tuscany).
In the My Renaissance book, I describe how I was decades older than the 95 students in the Florence program. Nearly all my classmates were 20 years old; I was 54! That kind of discrepancy proved to be a perfect tonic for me. My classmates were full of joy. They knew little about loss. Their optimism was contagious. I left Florence renewed.
Florence also opened unforgettable new vistas––among them, a continued passion for travel––one that eventually led to this, my second book: 7½ Places of Wonder: Munich, Dubai, Florence, Andalusia, Oxford, Jerusalem, St. Petersburg, and Stockholm.
Through all my subsequent journeys, I’ve become interested in the whole philosophy of travel: Why do we travel? How does it change us? I consider some of these thoughts in 7 ½ Places of Wonder. In simplest terms, I came to believe that travel instructs. It reduces prejudice, instills humor, and reinvigorates body and soul.
In 7 ½ Places of Wonder, I also tell you about my fascination with courage. Where does it come from? Earnest Hemingway defined it as ”grace under pressure,” and Winston Churchill called it “the first of human qualities . . . because it is the quality that guarantees all others.” I do believe that courage is a bedrock. Its presence makes possible the attainment of excellence. In this book I share with you how I was struck by the almost palpable sense of courage in the places of wonder that I portray, each a marvel of realization of what human beings have achieved across the centuries.
From the start I was intrigued with Florence’s extraordinary, early achievements––in commerce, politics and art. What other city produced a Dante, Giotto, da Vinci or Michelangelo? And from its immediate outlying area (Tuscany), what other region produced such a wealth of talent as Petrarch, Botticelli, Galileo Galilei, Amerigo Vespucci, Luca Pacioli, and Puccini? What accounts for that kind of concentrated brilliance?
Scholars have suggested that it was the Tuscan passion for study and hard work. Some have speculated that Tuscany’s capacity for greatness came from its multi-layered history and ensuing diversity. My sense is that all these factors played a role.
One of my favorite Florentine luminaries is Lorenzo de’Medici, a true Renaissance man, and in the eyes of many, the uncrowned ruler of Florence at the height of its glory.
Not only was Lorenzo de’Medici (Il Magnifico) (1449-1492), a statesman, poet, and humanist, he was also an astute diplomat and politician, influencing the Republic of Florence by placing his surrogates on the city council. In addition, he was an enthusiastic supporter of art and literature.
Lorenzo brought into his court the most brilliant artists and thinkers of his day, among them, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Andrea del Verrocchio, and Michelangelo Buonarroti.
In fact, he became a creative contributor in his own right, with poetry his particular passion.
Early on, Lorenzo recognized Michelangelo’s unique talents. He invited the young apprentice to become a student at the Medici sculpture garden, a school of the arts. He brought him to live in the Palazzo Medici as one of his sons, even dining at his table. Michelangelo thrived in that environment until Lorenzo’s death four years later. As a great sculptor, Michelangelo reflected on his artistic gifts, which he cultivated for a time under the aegis of Il Magnifico: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
But Florence is not just about larger-than-life figures; it’s also about everyday pleasures such as the culinary arts, including the cuisine of the aristocracy and affluent merchant classes as well as unpretentious cooking called cucina povera, or simply country/traditional cooking.
Below is a recipe for Tuscany’s most famous soup: ribollita, which is sometimes called a “peasant” dish.
For centuries many on the Italian peninsula knew hardships: droughts, storms, erratic seas, wars, foreign domination, and disease. A cooking teacher of mine once remarked that the basic ingredients found in age-old dishes such as ribollita honor those who suffered and endured. This simple soup made from leftovers must once have constituted the only meal of the day for many poor Tuscans.
The ingredients of my favorite ribollita recipe:
(from Soups, contributing editor: Debra Mayhew; modified by my Florence friends)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots, sliced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and chopped
1 pound cavolo nero (black cabbage), shredded
2 large zucchini, thinly sliced
14-ounce can chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons homemade or store-bought pesto
3-3/4 cups vegetable stock
14-ounce can navy or pinto beans, drained
Salt and ground pepper
At the end:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil,
plus extra for drizzling.
6-8 slices crusty white bread
Parmesan cheese shavings
Heat the oil in a large pan. Add onions, carrots, garlic, celery, and fennel and sauté slowly for 10 minutes. Add the zucchini slices and sauté for 2 minutes longer.
Add the crushed tomatoes, pesto, stock, and beans and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes until all the vegetables are soft. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve, sauté the black cabbage until it wilts. Spoon over the bread in soup bowls and ladle the soup over the cabbage. Drizzle extra olive oil onto the soup and sprinkle Parmesan cheese on top.
Ribollita is typically served with bread. Tuscan bread is usually in the form of an oval golden loaf. The reason it comes without salt is that before 1870, when Italy was a series of cantankerous city-states, Florence acquired its salt from its neighbor, the sea-bound city-state of Pisa. Legend says that Florentines grew so weary of having the gabelliere, the Pisan salt-tax collector, knocking at their door that they decided to fight back by baking their bread without salt.
This custom has persisted. It took me some time to get used to bread without salt, but now after all my interludes there, it just goes with the territory.