BY LAURA ITZKOWITZ
“What are you doing, speaking Roman?” my Tuscan friend and Italian teacher Luisa chided upon meeting me in Rome, where I had moved just a month earlier. Tuscans pride themselves on speaking the purist Italian, Dante’s Italian. Before Italy became a unified country, people spoke regional dialects, which can still be heard in the various accents across the country. Modern Italian is based on the Tuscan dialect, and Tuscans pay homage to the great poets. On one of my numerous visits to Tuscany, Luisa took me to visit Dante’s little church in the narrow via Santa Margherita in Florence, where I saw the dark altar where he kneeled and crossed himself over 700 years ago.
It’s impossible to visit Tuscany without immersing oneself in its illustrious history, which is easily felt throughout the region. During my time as a resident of Rome, I ventured out with Luisa who took me to see several cities and small towns between Florence and Siena. We started in Florence, where I saw copies of Italy’s most famous sculptures on Piazza della Signoria. Michelangelo’s David towers above all who walk past the Palazzo Vecchio, the emblematic town hall that now serves as a museum. The original sculpture resides at the Accademia, along with many other Renaissance works of art. The whole city is sprinkled with relics from the Medicis, from the grandiose Palazzo Pitti to the unassuming Medici Chapels tucked away behind the Basilica di San Lorenzo, where you can see their tombs and descend into the crypt to see the relics of saints.
In Siena, the Piccolomini Library inside the Duomo is filled with illuminated manuscripts, and takes you back to the time when scribes wrote books by hand in thick black ink with colored drawings embossed in gold. If you happen to go in the summer, you’ll see the city center decked out in Medieval flags for the Palio, a twice-yearly horse race around the Piazza del Campo. Each district has its own flag, and fierce rivalries abound. Siena’s residents parade through the streets in Medieval costumes, playing music and waving their colorful banners, ensuring that this tradition lives on.
In Pisa, there’s plenty to see beyond the Leaning Tower and Piazza dei Miracoli. One such attraction is the Scuola Normale Superiore. Established in 1810 under Napoleon, it’s the most prestigious university in all of Italy, built as the sister school to France’s Ã‰cole Normale Supérieure. Even older is the University of Pisa, where Luisa studied, leaving her parents’ home in the small village of Montaione. When I visited Pisa with Luisa, there was a charming outdoor market full of antiques and trinkets, the likes of which are common in Tuscan towns and cities. Though manufacturing has changed, you can still find high quality leather goods and artisan handcrafts throughout Tuscany.
An afternoon in San Gimignano will leave you marveling at the old beige stonework punctuated by deep green foliage and brightly painted ceramics. The historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is unique in the region for its preservation of the many medieval towers flanking the town squares. The gently sloping streets, which can be quite narrow at times, always find a way to surprise you by opening suddenly onto incredible views of the green rolling hills that never cease to amaze.
Simply getting from place to place in Tuscany is an eye-opening experience. The winding, heavily-wooded roads climb the hills and dip into the meadows, making for some breathtaking panoramas. As the sun dapples through the trees, it’s easy to imagine pilgrims and noblemen making their way through these forests during the Middle Ages, on their way to visit churches, like San Lorenzo in Florence or the Duomo in Siena. The reverie continues with Simonetta Vespucci, Botticelli’s ideal Renaissance beauty, as she appears in The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi in Florence, or with the Medici princes as they appear in portraits at Palazzo Pitti. Sometimes, we can allow ourselves to indulge in admiring such Tuscan clichés, if they serve to stimulate our imaginations and make us more observant travelers.
About Laura Itzkowitz
Laura is an editor and regular contributor to Untapped Cities, a web magazine dedicated to helping people rediscover their city. She prides herself on being not only an avid traveler, but also a cultural chameleon, after having lived in Paris and Rome and soaking up the language and customs. She’s currently based in New York City, where she frequently writes about art and cultural events, and translates from both French and Italian. You can follow her at Untapped Cities and on Twitter: @lauraitzkowitz
Featured photo by gregw66