One very early Wednesday morning in September 2020 I arrived in Florence, for the first time, from London. I took the tram to the station and after waving goodbye to the handsome tram driver, who had kindly and patiently waited for me at the airport while I struggled with the ticket machine, I proceeded to pull my large case through the old streets from the station to the Oltarno district, where I had booked a room for one month. It was a light-filled room with a view overlooking the Piazza and Palazzo Pitti. My plan was to stay for 4 weeks, to ground myself, plan, explore this famous city and then depart for the country to deepen my Tuscan adventure. I am a photographer, so the idea I arrived with was to photograph the artisans and artists of the region. Tuscany is a place of dreams I felt. I had witnessed it through photographs and movies, the visions of rolling hills and morning hazes to me were an invitation to dream. So, on that September morning my Tuscan adventure began. It was still hot, the beginning of the end of the summer, but after the year that we had all had, it felt like a soft and hopeful new beginning for me. Tourists, many less than normal, had arrived, and looked very much like they were enjoying the city. Water mists cooled hot diners on the crowded piazzas, a feeling of waking from a dream or perhaps falling into one overwhelmed me. I walked around just taking it all in and had my daily view of the sunset from the Ponte Vecchio, only 5 minutes from home.
I quickly gravitated towards the Uffizi and met an artist there who became my first Florentine friend and a feeling of liberation and adventure began to sit with me every day. Of course, the presence of the tourists, even though that year there were many less than normal, was still a lot. But it was the art of course that gave the highest vibration of the city, with the architecture and the history, every day offering a new vision to take it deeper and all that sat alongside the buds of the new art coming to life. The ancient sculptures, the madonnas framed on street corners, the graffiti and the stencil art all offering their voices, sitting side by side. It was an enriching experience and one that I would spend many weeks trying to absorb and still do. So, I started to settle and then was given the honour of being invited to join my Florentine friend and his friends for lunches at their local trattoria in Centro. This was good for my italian as well as for my sense of community and was an important step. The adventure was underway, and I started to feel at home.
The month passed and I extended my time in the Oltrarno to a second month as I wasn't ready to leave, the adventure was just beginning to unfold. Then, towards the end of October the news came that the region and most of Italy was going back into lockdown. I sat on The Loggia of the Palazzo Guadagni, my happy place, where I had grounded myself on those first days after I arrived in the city, watching the sunset. The next day the cafes and bars were closed by 5pm, then soon afterwards they would close all day and there I was locked down in Florence.
I remained there for the next 3 months watching Florence from my room, over the empty piazza, birds flying over the Palazzo to the comforting sound of the bells 6 times every day from the Duomo. I found that it was the most perfect way to hear the bells, just far enough away. So, my 4 weeks in Florence became 6 months and during this time I walked around empty streets, photographing Florence as we may never see it again. Vasari's Corridor sat empty in the afternoon sun and outside the Palazzo Vecchio, Hercules looked over a deserted piazza.
There were armed soldiers guarding all the palazzos but they smiled when I walked by. I spent my birthday and Christmas alone but didn't feel very alone at all, it felt like the city held me and was somehow saying 'its ok,don't worry, you can stay, we will still give you nice sunsets and you won't need to queue at the supermarket.' It was true, I didn't worry or queue at the supermarket and on Christmas day the sunset came as it did most days and the lights of the Christmas tree sparkled with an even deeper sense of magic in that moment. Come the spring, I was finally able to travel out of the city and left Florence heading south on a train, witnessing the beauty of Tuscany passing by one rolling hill after another. I was travelling to Calabria to begin a project about the traditions of Italy, staying there for a few months. But I was soon back in Tuscany to start the restoration work on an old 18th century villa right in the heart of the Chianti region that I had decided would be home. Because there I found a sense of an old story awaiting to ground me whilst at the same time it offered an invitation to tell my own story and in that moment we made a pact, that I would. The dream of Tuscany is very real, the way you see it in the photographs and movies is very much the reality, these views are not filtered, it just happens this way. But asides from the visual beauty, it is also like a precious invitation from a good old friend. When you visit, even if only for a few days or a week, you may be invited to stay longer and many, like me, do. You can leave any time you like of course, but somehow I feel it will never really leave you.