Sometimes life presents us with a moment when things for an instant all fit together and we are granted what we wish for. Usually we recognize these moments only after they have passed. Rarely do they make themselves as unambiguous as one that was made for me several years ago on a cool Florentine afternoon, when an old man approached me and intoned, “Now is an important moment.”
It was my first trip to Italy, and I had chosen to go in December to avoid the tourist crush of spring, summer and fall. As well, I had chosen to go alone, leaving myself free to follow my whims. My only companion: the gentle heft of a volume by E.M. Forster.
There’s something about entering a city for the first time through the pages of a book. The experience becomes magnified--each vista, each winding street, each sound and scent overlaid with a mantle of significance. From reading “A Room With a View,” I had begun to know Florence long before I set foot in Italy. So it was with that heightened sense of place that I stepped out of my room onto the Florentine streets.
The winter light fell white and misty gray, like the light in a dream. I heeded the admonition of Eleanor Lavish, Forster’s free-thinking romance novelist, to leave the Baedeker shut and the map behind and let the city take me where it would. As I moved through the serpentine streets, trying not to find my way out of the labyrinth but rather to follow it, I began to understand what Camus meant when he called Florence “one of the only places in Europe where I understood that underneath my revolt, a consent was lying dormant.” My only agenda: to find the Piazza della Signoria, where Forster’s young heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, fainted into the arms of George Emerson, that odd young man destined to become her husband.
The 13th century piazza was the locale of medieval public functions. . To one side is the Loggia dei Lanzi, an open gallery whose high arches frame a collection of monumental sculpture. The most prominent have names as violent as their appearance--the Rape of the Sabine, the Abduction of Polyxena. Capping them all is Perseus, holding Medusa’s severed head. It’s a cluster of symbols that any feminist can read without an interpreter. The sight was the final sensory assault that would shatter Lucy’s delicate constitution after she witnessed a stabbing in the piazza. She swooned, and when she awoke, with George hovering above her, her life had changed, though for a while she would deny it.
I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but I too wished to be changed forever by Florence. Not by meeting my George Emerson; rather, I sought to merge with another kind of lover, every bit as compelling: the city, whose essence I imagined existing most perfectly in the Piazza della Signoria.
But my wandering in the labyrinthine streets that first day seemed to bring me no closer to the piazza. I walked down to the Arno to get my bearings. Ahead was the jumbled perfection of the Ponte Vecchio, its nestled buildings in myriad sizes, shapes and hues of gold reflected in the fast-moving water below. After a while, I pulled out a sketch pad and began to draw.
The old man was at my elbow before I sensed he was near.
“Come, come,” he said, bending toward me, his faded eyes peering from beneath a black cap.
Absorbed in my sketch, I smiled politely and kept drawing.
He gave my shoulder an insistent shake.
“No, no, you must come!” he persisted in heavily accented English. Then he spoke a word I didn’t understand, “ Perseo ,” and repeated it, “ Perseo ,” adding, “now is an important moment.”
I looked at him. A snowy mustache, perfectly trimmed. White hair curling at each temple. A man who had been handsome once, probably flirtatious in the way Italian men are famous for. Perhaps even now he was testing the powers of his charm.
“Perseo ,” he said again, his eyebrows raised in encouragement. He pointed to the crowd I hadn’t noticed across the street, clustered in a courtyard. I recognized the building from pictures in the guidebook I’d left behind: the Uffizi Gallery. Just beyond that courtyard, I knew, stood the Piazza della Signoria and the loggia with its dramatic statues. My mapless wanderings had brought me to my destination after all.
I am not proud of what I did next, or, rather, didn’t do. I wish I could say that I responded immediately to the old man because his urgency moved me. I didn’t. I hesitated, kept sketching, while silently debating what to do. I was curious; what did he want to show me? But I didn’t want to appear naive, like some too-eager tourist. What kind of fool goes off to who-knows-where with a strange man?
I bent into my drawing, and the old man walked away, shaking his head.
The paradox of being a woman traveling alone is that in choosing the freedom to be spontaneous, you’re restricted to some degree by the need to be self-protective. Wariness is a good and life-preserving instinct. Yet as I continued sketching the Ponte Vecchio, I saw the old man’s face, felt his well-meant gesture. I heard his gravelly voice and decided it was the voice of a man who had laughed often and loudly, wept freely, whiled away nights with friends, smoking black tobacco on front-door stoops. Exactly the kind of Italian, infused with life force, that Forster describes.
The drawing I had been so busy with suddenly looked banal. I felt foolish, regretted my hyper-tuned defensive radar. I was no better off than Lucy Honeychurch, prim in her buttoned-up coat, observing the sites of Florence while rigidly resisting its sumptuous embrace.
I dropped the sketch unfinished into my bag and headed for the Uffizi. And then it dawned on me: Perseo , Perseus.
The king of Seriphus, so the myth goes, sent Perseus to destroy Medusa, who was so hideous, with dragon-scale skin and a head growing venomous snakes instead of hair, that any mortal who looked at her was turned to stone. Perseus borrowed the beautiful Minerva’s shield and bold Mercury’s winged shoes. He approached Medusa and cut her head from her body by looking at her reflection in the shield. His gruesome task complete, Perseus flew away with the head, which Minerva attached to her shield.
In that moment, walking toward the Uffizi, I knew I wished to be more like Medusa than Lucy--sensual, primal and (her demise at the hand of Perseus aside) fearless. Willing to drop my armor even without an arsenal of hissing snakes.
In the crowd, I looked for the man’s black cap but couldn’t pick it out. Everyone was looking up, necks craned, and I did too. It was then that I saw the greened-bronze statue of Perseus floating heavenward, but not on winged shoes. An enormous crane suspended the statue in the air, inching it slowly toward a doorway in the Uffizi.
A woman beside me said that Perseus was going in for restoration and would be out of public view for perhaps a decade. No longer would Benvenuto Cellini’s Renaissance masterpiece stand in the loggia, sending delicate women like Lucy Honeychurch into a swoon.
With each movement of the crane, the crowd alternately gasped at the threat of the sculpture crashing down and applauded its progress. I studied the reality of this long-imagined Perseus, both elegant and gruesome: his graceful torso, the curve of his thigh. A jagged sword in his right hand, his left holding high Medusa’s severed head, haloed with snakes.
For an hour I stood with the crowd, mesmerized by the sculpture’s slow, pendulum-like swing. Only Italians would do this, I thought, turn out by the hundreds to watch this transition in the life of an artwork. Suddenly I felt a kind of kinship with those around me--teenagers and mothers with babies and old men in black caps--all manner of Florentines turned out for the spectacle of Cellini’s creation going in for rehab. All of us sharing a perspective on Perseus few had ever seen, perhaps not even his maker, from the bottom looking up.
At the same time, I was reminded of a more encompassing view of life that I had almost forgotten, what had drawn me to Florence in the first place: Forster’s interpretation of the Italian philosophy that life is something to take part in, not stand apart from, and his portrait of outsiders who dare to join in. I had been willing to leave the Baedeker behind, yet I had almost let my cautious internal guide keep me from the city of my imagination.
Today when I come upon my half-finished sketch of the Ponte Vecchio, I think of my own Perseo, the old gentleman who cast a spell that turned my head and showed me the fleeting significance of a single moment, something Forster might have given his Lucy, had she been open to it.