WKND Travel: Love letters from Florence

Anjaly Thomas/Dubai
Filed on June 3, 2021

The romantic accounts equal in fame to the Dome of Brunelleschi and are a tad more intriguing

I’d put down Florence as the Cradle of Renaissance, a paradise of art, but little did I know that every pillar, street, or monument in Tuscany’s capital stands witness to great love stories, many that got lost in time.

The unusual ones survived. The history of Florence can be unravelled in three ways — through the genius of great artists, power struggles and through passion and betrayals of common people and lords. I was on the lookout for the third.

I decided against a Vespa-tour, opting instead to explore on my own. I had the luxury of time.

For the love of Bull Horns

My first stop was the religious heart of Florence: the Piazza El Duomo, where the Florence Cathedral (and famous Brunelleschi’s Dome), the Baptistery with the sparkling Porta del Paradiso and the magnificent Giotto’s Bell Tower are located. This very place, magnificent as it is, had been the epicentre of famous love stories and betrayals.

History has it that when Brunelleschi was constructing the famous Santa Maria del Fiore dome in the 14th century, many artisans were romantically involved with local women. But one carpenter’s involvement with a married seamstress left a permanent mark on the cathedral. The woman, believed to be living at the beginning of Via dei Servi Street, would look out the window to observe the building work. The besotted carpenter began an affair. The husband was forced to seek legal action to end the relationship. The jilted lover then carved a bull’s head with large horns in marble and placed it on the wall of the cathedral (over the Porta Delle Mandorle, which provides access to the dome). The horns were pointed towards the husband’s shop.

Interestingly, in Italy a man or woman whose spouse is cheating on them is known as “having horns”.

Next, I took myself to the medieval quarter (near Torre della Castagna), where, surrounded by huddled houses along narrow streets without sidewalks, a slice of history presented itself. This was the birthplace of Dante Alighieri (1265), poet and father of Italian language whose statues dot the city. The house he was believed to live in is now a museum.

After this, I came to the place of Beatrice, Dante’s muse. Dante claimed to have met her at the age of nine (and fell in love). However, keeping up with the custom at the time, Dante married Gemma of the Donati family at the age of 12. He swears to have seen Beatrice again after he turned 18 and occasionally exchanged greetings with her. But such was his love for Beatrice that she became the inspiration for his sonnet Vita Nuova and later Divine Comedy.

Beatrice was interred at the church (Santa Margherita de Cerchi) Dante was married in. Dante was, of course, exiled.

As I rested my heels with a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream in a café named Dante, I wondered what else would I discover in this city of painful, dizzying, everlasting love.

The history of Ponte Vecchio

Day 2 saw me on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge as I dove deeper into Florence’s romantic past.

To the history buff, Ponte Vecchio is a stone arch bridge over River Arno (constructed in wood in 996 and rebuilt by Taddeo Gaddi in 1345) and one of the most unique sights in Florence. The original inhabitants of the bridge included tanners and butchers, but that ended in 1593 when Duke Ferdinand directed only goldsmiths and jewellers to operate on Ponte Vecchio. That trend continues today.

Ponte Vecchio is said to be the birthplace of the concept of bankruptcy but despite its unpleasant history, is one of the most evocative and romantic spots in Florence. The Florentines believe that in 1215, young Buondelmonte dei’ Buondelmonte refused to honour a promise to marry a girl from his family’s rival clan, the Amidei, and declared love for another woman. Insulted by this, the Amidei and their kinsmen ambushed him on Ponte Vecchio Bridge as he rode, smashed him over the head, slit his veins and left him to bleed to death in the street.

Centuries later, in 1900, to mark the fourth century of the birth of Benvenuto Cellini (famous for the statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa), a bronze bust was commissioned, and it stands in the middle of a fountain on the bridge where lovers have taken to placing locks as proof of their love.

From England to Florence — with love

A short walk from Ponte Vecchio brought me to Casa Guidi (near Pitti Palace), the residence of English poets Robert and Elisabeth Barrett Browning, who in 1847, having escaped Elisabeth’s father in England, made Florence their home. Theirs is a love story not clandestine, but a story of passion that flourished in this city. Robert Browning, a dashing and ambitious young man, fell in love with the older and invalid poetess Elisabeth through her verses and following a 20-month long courtship, most of which Elisabeth spent in a sick room, the two ran away from England and arrived in Florence where they spent 15 years together. Happily.

It was at Via Maggio that I spotted the decorated façade of Palazzo di Bianca Cappello — but only learnt of its significance later.

Love Stories from the Medici House

I retraced my steps across Ponte Vecchio and arrived at the Piazzale degli Uffizi to know the story of Simonetta Vespucci (born in 1469), icon of the Renaissance beauty. Her beauty was of such renown she soon became the model of Sandro Botticelli’s masterpieces — Venus and Primavera and was desired by lords and noblemen, poets and artists alike — including Giuliano de’ Medici (grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici) who fell madly in love with her.

However, some love stories, like that of Simonetta, are lost to time and only reconstructed through imagination. There is no evidence to support that Giuliano and Simonetta were in love or had an affair, or if Botticelli was in love with her — but in the end, he asked Medici to be buried next to her in the Church of Ognissanti.

Hands down, the greatest of Florentine love stories is that of Francesco I de Medici and Bianca Cappello, but like all Florentine stories of love ended sordidly.

The story goes that in the year 1563, Bianca (descendant of a famous Venetian family) fell in love with Florentine Pietro Bonaventura, ran away to Florence and married him. But during a reception, she met Francesco de Medici. The two fell in love instantly, although Francesco already had a wife, Giovanna. Bianca left her husband and took up residence at Palazzo di Bianca Capello (across the river). Soon, Giovanna died mysteriously, the lovers got married and Bianca became wife of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Eight happy years later, while on a rest at Poggio a Caiano villa, the couple developed an illness. Francesco died 10 days later, and on the 11th day, Bianca followed him to the grave.

Even today, their deaths remain a mystery and no evidence has been provided for suspected arsenic poisoning.

I wandered past outsized monuments and museums looking for something — a fresco or a secret carving or a statue, before finally arriving at Piazza della Signoria. This is where the monumental Neptune’s fountain, the copy of Michelangelo’s David and the Loggia dei Lanzi statue is located.

Being at Piazza della Signoria, the hotspot of political revolution of Florence, was like immersing in the history of Medici Family which rose to power in the 13th century with Cosimo de Medici changing the course of Florentine history and turning it into the Cradle of Renaissance. Here, I was taken in by the stories of their romance, marriages, betrayal and deceit over centuries.

In the evening, I headed to Piazzale Michelangelo, a place favoured by lovers, my head full of stories. Here, I had come a full circle.

There was love all around in Florence. Something from Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed came to mind.

The heart tells me that we will meet again soon. Of course, the heart, who listens to him, always has something to say about what will be. But what does the heart know? Just a little bit of what has already happened.