A late autumn sun angled in and warmed a young Florentine couple seated opposite each other at a little sidewalk café on Piazza dei Ciompi. As they talked, it was clear that the young woman felt an affection for her companion. So how could he remain hunched over a bowl of rigatoni, elbows firmly planted on the table, and not look up at her? Was he really so lacking in the common graces, or merely unable to remain long in her warm admiration?
The clatterings and smells of the nearby open market continued as the couple conversed, he with his head low over the bowl, she seemingly unperturbed. Their conversation continued thus for a while. Softly, without interruption, she placed her left elbow on the small table, then lowered her arm so she could touch his right hand. Soon they were gently caressing each other’s arms almost in rhythm to the conversation. Presently, he had moved around the corner of the table, sitting now very close to her, their hands meeting under the table, still moving slightly as if to emphasize a word or a phrase.
It was only as they began to gather up their belongings and rise from the table that this little vignette of life took on its full meaning; the young man was totally blind. A chair began to tip as his coat brushed by. A kindly patron quietly and unobtrusively moved it out of the way as the couple stepped onto the sidewalk and into the flow of pedestrians. Arm in arm they walked on up the street; he now switching sides with her, in a gentleman’s position on the curbside of her, and always the two were touching, they were smiling, they were happy.
And then it struck me: what would it be like, blind, Italian, and in Florence? So much of what Italians say is communicated with their hands. Florence itself is the very celebration of the arts and architecture, of sweeping panoramas of a skyline made famous by countless old etchings, fading postcards, and gigabytes of cellphone pixels. What kind of purgatory out of Dante’s imaginings must it be like to be in Florence and be blind to its beauty.
I remained seated at my table, not ten feet from where this little scene had played out. Sipping my glass of the house red wine but not really tasting, I closed my eyes for a moment. Much of what I have not been seeing, not have been sensing here in Florence began to come to me. Bit by bit, the individual sounds and scents from a busy marketplace began to reach my senses: merchants announcing their fresh produce, steel-wheeled carts moving over ancient cobble stones, the scent of frying tomatoes and garlic.
What lies in those courtyards, glimpsed only through a decorative iron gate. What gardens of delight are hidden by that high stone wall, only hinted at by those higher branches, now beginning to shed the autumn-tinged leaves on the sidewalk below?
Florence is far more than just the beauty of its arts and edifices. Florence is a dream, a vision of how life can be, how life is to those who would open and explore what life has to offer, to sense so much that is really here.
There is, in the Piazza della Republica, a remarkable bronze sculpture, this in a city known for its bronzes and marbles. My attention was drawn to it one evening when I saw a lady with a boy, leaning over a tall bronze rectangle, a seeming pedestal awaiting another work of art. The woman was placing the boys hands on various parts of the tectured surface. My curiosity aroused, I waited a few discreet moments after they had left, to exam the source of their interest.
There on the one yard square surface were a cluster of squares, rectangles and rounded shapes. Upon closer examination, it suddenly became clear there was a high bas relief of an aerial view of the Centro Istorico, the historic center of Florence. Each street and building were there as if erected by some master Lilliputan architect. The Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, even a Ponte Vecchio, crossing over the River Arno, now frozen into hardened bronze.
Each major landmark building had a polished bronze highlight, its comapritive brightness in relationship to its prominence of importance to generations past and of present day admirers. But this architectural rating was not made by the makers of this interesting little bronze map, but by the many hands of the blind, gaining a better appreciation of the wonders surrounding them, and all of us.