St John’s finger

finger

It might have been in the Bargello, or more likely in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, both in Florence (Italy), that there was (and probably still is) an exhibit that captured my imagination when I was a young child. Amongst a collection of holy relics housed in elaborately crafted silver and glass containers, there was one holy relic that looked a bit like the stub of a discoloured cigar. It was, so the museum label stated, a bone from the index finger of St John the Baptist. Whether it was or was not, this item fascinated me, and even haunted me.

Many years later when I was looking into the story of St Appolonia, the patron saint of dentists, I read that one of the miraculous properties of the body parts of dead saints is their ability to reproduce themselves – a feature that must have been useful for those who used to sell such things. I am glad that I had not known this when I used to stare fascinated at St John’s finger, which I then believed to be exactly what it claimed. That would have spoilt my amazement, which I always felt when I saw that piece of bone in its ornate container.

 

Photo from flickr

Train to Florence

Settebello_power_car

 

Until I was about 17 years old, my parents used to take my sister and I for long trips to Florence and Venice every year. Often, we would fly from London to Milan, and then take a train to Florence. Frequently, our reserved seats were occupied by other passengers, who would only shift elsewhere when we had got the carriage’s conductor to intervene on our behalf.

Here is an extract from my reminiscences of childhood travel in Italy from my book “Charlie Chaplin waved to me“:

“Once we were seated in our reserved seats, we began to enjoy the 3 hour journey to Florence. Within minutes of entering our carriage or compartment, my mother would begin to strike up a conversation with whoever was sitting nearby. My mother and two of her three brothers, one of whom lived in London and the other in Cape Town, were always happy to initiate conversations with complete strangers. Her only sister and other brother were less inclined to do this. Mostly, our fellow passengers were Italian, but once I recall sharing a compartment with an elderly American lady who was considerably older than my parents. After a few minutes of friendly conversation, she revealed that her son was none other but the world-famous violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001), who was born 3 months before my mother.

Occasionally we were lucky enough to travel on a Settebello train. These high speed streamlined electric trains, which plied between Milan and Rome and stopped briefly in Florence, were the pride of Italian State Railways. At each end of the train there was an observation saloon. The driver’s cabins were located above these. When travelling in the front observation cabin, one experienced a driver’s view of the track ahead. As a child who loved trains, sitting in these was a great treat for me. I still gain great enjoyment sitting at the front of trams and trains. One of the attractions of London’s Docklands Light Railway, which weaves its way through London’s former docklands and other reclaimed parts of the East End, is that there are seats at the front of the train where a driver would normally be seated had the train not been automated.

About an hour away from Florence after passing through Bologna, the train entered a long tunnel. Even the fastest trains took almost half an hour to travel through this. Soon after we emerged from it we sped through the town of Prato, and then the suburbs of Florence (Firenze in Italian) began. I knew that after we had passed the marshalling yards at Firenze Rifredi, we would soon be entering the huge terminal, Florence’s Stazione di Santa Maria Novella.

 

Charlie Chaplin waved to me is available from:

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Picture: Front of a Settebello train showing the observation lounge and the driver’s cabin above it. Source: it.wikipedia.org

Nothing changes

Palermo

It is 2018, and I am eating ice cream in Italy after the ladies in my family have just visited a shop selling brassieres.

60 years earlier, aged 6, I was doing the same thing. We used to visit Florence annually during my childhood. Every year, my mother used to buy her bras in Florence at a shop close to an excellent ice cream shop called “Perché no?” (IE Why not?). After every visit to the bra store, I was rewarded with an ice cream.

Now, here in Palermo, the same thing has happened six decades later?

Nothing changes.

Summers in Florence

I hope that this piece will not sound ungrateful, dear reader.

ARY 36 HW 60s

When I was a child and in my early teens, my parents, who were art-lovers, took my sister and I to Florence every summer. As a child, I failed to appreciate what a treat these visits were. At the end of the summer when school recommenced, my friend N and I would compare notes about our holidays. N visited Llandudno in North Wales every summer with his parents. He would relate how they had climbed the Great Orme, travelled on a special tramway, and stayed at a marvellous hotel overlooking the sea. What was I able to tell N? Well, nothing that I believed would rival the exciting things that N had experienced. What, for example, was the Uffizi art gallery in Florence when compared with the Great Orme in Llandudno? I mention the Uffizi in particular, because our annual visits to this treasure house of art filled me with despair. I wrote of this place in my book “Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me” (available from Amazon and Bookdepository.com) as follows:

The aforementioned Uffizi was another of the places that we often visited in the morning. I used to dread having to walk through its seemingly endless series of inter-connected galleries filled with masterpieces. The only thing that sustained me during this ordeal was the promise of an ice-cream afterwards or the promise of the opportunity to buy a paper cone filled with corn to feed the pigeons in the Piazza Signoria outside the gallery.

One of the first pictures that we always used to stop and admire was the Portinari Triptych painted by the Flemish painter Hugo Van der Goes in about 1475. That was during the time when the Florentine merchant Portinari, who commissioned it, was living in Bruges in the building which became the hotel in which we often stayed. My father, who is fascinated by the iconography of Renaissance art, explained to us the meanings of everything in this beautiful picture. My very young sister absorbed this information so well that year after year she could explain to us, and also to other tourists, who gathered around to listen to her, the reasons that particular things were depicted in it. For example, she could relate why there were a certain number of lilies in the vase near the bottom of the central picture; and why there was a barely visible devil’s horn at its top left, just above the horn of a cow grazing in the holy manger. This horn only became apparent after the picture was cleaned in the early 1960s.

The museums and my late mother’s seemingly endless visits to the dress-maker and countless shoe shops added to my lack of enjoyment of Florence. However, it was not all gloom and doom. The food we ate was lovely and there were some cultural sights which I enjoyed. And, Florence did hold some mysteries, one of which was solved between two successive annual visits. Let me quote from my book again:

The River Arno flows through Florence. It is traversed by a number of bridges, the most famous of which is the Ponte Vecchio. This is covered, like the mediaeval London Bridge used to be, with buildings and shops. The most interesting feature of this old bridge was the‘secret’ corridor that ran along its buildings just beneath their roofs. This, so my father often told us, linked the Uffizi on one side of the Arno with the Palazzo Pitti on the other side, the Oltrarno. Thispassageway, which must be about almost half a mile in length, allowed Florence’s rulers to move between these important buildingsunobserved by the public. It was closed to the public when we used to visit the city.

When the Germans retreated at the end of WW2, they demolished all of the bridges across the Arno except the Ponte Vecchio. They decided that as its carriage way was far too narrow to accommodate military vehicles and large troop movements, it could not have been used by the Allied armies chasing them. My father said it was a tragedy that this bridge was saved whereas its neighbour a few yards downstream was demolished. This bridge, the Ponte Santa Trìnita, was a masterpiece designed by the renaissance artist Bartolomeo Ammanati (1511-1592). His Fountain of Neptune is an important and much photographed landmark in the centre of Florence.

When we first visited Florence, the bridge, which was painstakingly reconstructed after the war from the fragments found scattered about under the waters of the Arno, had two statues at each of its ends. Three of these were complete, but one of them was missing its head. This was the only bit of the bridge that had not been recovered. One summer, when we were visiting the city, my father pointed at the bridge and asked us if we noticed anything different about it. We discovered that the missing head had been found, and was back in its rightful place; the bridge was complete again. This must have been in 1962, as the head was only recovered late in 1961.

Most people reading this blog article, will probably think that I was so lucky to have visited Florence so often, and they would be justified. However, to a young boy as I was, I could not appreciate it properly. Now, many years later, I realise that my exposure to the arts at such a tender age was a great gift bestowed by my parents, even if it meant that I never saw the Great Orme.

Olives growing near Portobello Road

Florence (Italy) 1960s and London 2018

 

In the 1960s, my parents, both art-lovers, used to take my sister and me on annual trips to Florence in Italy.

FLORENCE 1

Olives growing near Portobello Rd, Sept 2018

Seeing some olives growing near Portobello Road in London reminded me of these trips. Here is what I wrote in my book, “Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me”, which is about travels I made during my childhood:

The Oltrarno is the part of Florence on the left bank of the River Arno. It contains major sights such as the Pitti Palace, the Boboli Gardens, the Piazzale Michelangelo, the Belvedere Fortress, and the churches of S Spirito and S Maria degli Carmine. Almost every afternoon included a visit to the Oltrarno. This was made for sartorial rather than cultural reasons. My mother’s dress maker, whose name I can no longer recall, had a small shop near to S Spirito. Maybe, there is a Freudian reason for my amnesia; the visits to his shop filled me with dread. My mother had dresses made in Florence. As I have already hinted, she was a stickler for perfection. The long-suffering dress-maker in the Oltrarno must have valued her custom to have been able to put up with the unending visits we made in order to allow my mother to try the latest version of the garments that he was preparing for her. My father and us two children had to sit in the small narrow shop looking at tatty, well-thumbed magazines full of pictures of dresses whilst my mother and the tailor spent much of the afternoon dealing with the latest stage in the fabrication of her dresses. Our visits to this shop were often prefaced with my mother saying that of course we did need not wait for her there, but we knew better. Our absence would not have been well-regarded.

FLORENCE 60s ARY Sminiato

Adam Yamey at San Miniato, Florence, in the early 1960s

Florence was, and still is, famous for its leather work. My mother was particularly keen on one aspect of this craft: footwear. She liked good shoes, but many of them did not fit her wide feet. So, we tramped around Florence, entering many of its shoe shops and waiting patiently (or impatiently in my case) for her to try on numerous pairs of shoes. Almost all of them were unsuitable for her to wear. One shop whose name still fills me with some dread was that of Salvatore Ferragamo on the Via Tornabuoni. The fact that I remember this high-class shoe store is a testimony to the amount of time that we spent there. As was usual, if any of us showed any signs of impatience, she would tell us that we need not wait for her, but we knew that this was not what she really felt …

FLORENCE 4

San Miniato, Florence. Pic by Adam Yamey in early 1960s

… Florence was not, as you may be beginning to imagine, one long round of paintings, sculptures, shoes, dresses, and brassieres. Many afternoons ended with a trip up to the Piazzale Michelangelo. This panoramic platform or terrace, which is really more of a large open space with one side overlooking the hills sloping down to the River Arno, provides a magnificent view of the city. It is a readymade vantage point for postcard makers and other photographers. A little behind the Piazzale a series of staircases flanked by pine trees leads up to a church with a wonderful black and white marble façade. This is S Miniato al Monte and was our main destination when going up into the hills. This peaceful sanctuary high above the bustling city is undoubtedly a great example of unadulterated 13th century Romanesque architecture.

FLORENCE 3

Cemetery of San Miniato, Florence. Pic by Adam Yamey in early 1960s

After admiring this church, we did not return to the city centre by bus, which is how we arrived. Instead, we walked. We used to descend from the raised terrace in front of S Miniato al Monte and start walking away from the Arno along the level Viale Galileo, which follows a gently sinuous contour along the left side of the river valley. After almost a mile, we would then turn right onto the narrower Via S Leonardo. This road descends gradually, passing the walled gardens of well-separated villas. The branches of olive trees in these gardens overhung the road.

FLORENCE 2

Olives growing near Portobello Rd, Sept 2018

Every year, my mother used to break off a small twig bearing greyish green olive leaves and several, usually unripe, olives. She would take it back to London to remind herself of the great pleasure that she derived from being in Florence.”

I remember finding a sprig of desiccated young olives and dried leaves amongst her possessions long after her early death in 1980.

 

Adam Yamey’s book “CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVES TO ME” is a collection of tales of journeys made during the author’s childhood.

In paperback, click: HERE, please

For Kindle version, click: HERE, please