The Gates of Paradise Swing Open
Memories of Florence and Ravenna
By Lynne Santy Tanner
As soon as we got off the train in Ravenna, I felt better.
The sun was brilliant, the streets uncrowded.
The light, the openness of the city, are etched in my memory.
After two weeks in Florence, I felt a great sense of relief, dare I say, even joy.
Our hotel room was spacious and an expanse of light, nicely appointed in neutral tones. It had a pristine white-tiled bathroom, complete with a tub! A luxury denied during the two weeks we'd been in Florence living in that depressing apartment, where I bolted awake at five every morning, then sat on the sofa and watched Mike sleep.
He never complained. It had been my idea to join this "Live Like a Local" study program in Florence. Yet I was the unhappy one. Mike made it work, even the balcony, a slim rectangle of cement with two plastic chairs and a barren view of the backs of other apartments and laundry hung to dry. We sat there every evening with our glasses of wine, pretending we were overlooking the Duomo.
Every morning, Mike led the way to the cafe in Piazza San Jacopino, where he ordered an espresso and pastry. He was the one living like a local. Though he spoke no Italian, he was relaxed and in good spirits. I was a wreck.
We'd come to Ravenna for just one night. As soon as we settled into our hotel, we asked where we could have a light lunch and were given directions to a small restaurant a few blocks away and favored by locals. The restaurant was unexceptional, wooden chairs, coarse table cloths, dark walls—and perfect. We ordered a salad and a ragu with broad pasta noodles. Mike had wine; I sipped mine. The mustachioed owner-waiter-cook was friendly. We lingered.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we caught the bus to the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe, a short ride. The driver let us out a few blocks from the basilica in a downpour that came out of nowhere. Rain-soaked by the time we reached the entrance, there was no way to dampen the majesty of the basilica: the spacious nave, the sense of thinness in the air, and the magnificent mosaics.
We stayed for an hour, walking, looking, saying little. By the time we left, the rain had stopped. On the lush open grass in front of the church was a contemporary installation, bison statues cast in bronze from clay. This herd of bison seemed a strange juxtaposition next to Sant'Apollinare. We were dry by then and enjoyed a stroll through the installation with Mike taking photographs. The air was misty, and I could smell the ocean.
At a postcard stand, we inquired where we could buy bus tickets back to Ravenna. We were told we must go to the tobacconist a short distance away because in Italy that’s where you buy bus tickets. I became anxious once again. I didn't want to walk to a shop. I didn't know where it was. I begged Mike to let us go straight to the stop where we had disembarked earlier. Surely, we could buy tickets on the bus. The sun came out just as we reached the glass shelter, and our bus pulled up. In my broken Italian, I requested, "Per favore. Due biglietti."
"No tickets," the driver shrugged.
We turned to step off the bus, but he stopped us, gesturing to a seat, "No. No. No more tickets. You can't buy. No more. Ma, e permesso. Sit. Sit." And so we did. Like the sun coming out, my mood brightened, and we giggled about our free ride.
"Can’t we stay in Ravenna,” I asked over and over.
Each time I asked, Mike answered, “No.”
The next day, we went back to our bleak apartment in Florence and trudged each day into the center of the city. We wove through her crowded streets, and I held onto Mike as if hanging on for my life, sometimes with only one finger gripped through his belt loop.
It was May, and I kept thinking about my garden back home. It would be in full bloom. As we navigated the streets, I searched for flower vendors—a futile quest. One day, as we pushed our way through the crowd near the Piazza della Signora, I spotted an elegant shop with a vase of peonies in the window.
I ducked in and was greeted by an elegant lady. “Signora. Buon giorno.”
“Buon Giorno,” I replied. “Mi piace le peonies.”
“Beh, questi sono morti.” She pointed to a fresh bundle in a metal bucket at the back of the shop.
“Ah no.” I said. “Non vorrei comprare. Solomente guardare.”
I turned back out onto the street and grasped Mike’s belt. As he pushed on through the crowd, I heard a voice calling, “Signora. Signora.”
I turned to see the shop lady reaching out two gorgeous pink peonies toward me. I took them, and she was gone. I called after her, “Gracie. Gracie mille.”
I was overwhelmed and homesick. Homesick for my garden and gentle May in North Carolina but also for the Florence, where I had once lived as a student, a city I loved long ago.
But Mike kept my feet to the fire, asking each morning, “What’s on the schedule for today?”
I had made a list of early to mid-Renaissance art. In three weeks, we saw everything: the Masaccio frescoes at the Branacci Chapel, his serene Trinity at Santa Maria Novella, and the Fra Angelico’s at San Marco.
We spent time at the Uffuzi, though there was such a mass of people waiting outside, we were unable to enjoy the beauty of Vasari’s courtyard. And inside, with the exception of one newly dedicated to Botticelli’s Spring, the rooms were stale, unchanged since I had first visited years earlier. On the other hand, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo was fresh and open, each work beautifully exhibited.
On one of our visits to this museum, I was seated in front of the Baptistery doors, known as “The Gates of Paradise,” when I noticed a young girl, thirteen or so, dressed in a security guard’s uniform. The child had an intellectual disability, and her mother, a guard, explained that her daughter was allowed to accompany her to work one day a week.
“Chat with her,” her mother invited.
And so I did. I struggled with my Italian, and the girl haltingly answered my questions. We sat there for a lovely long time while Mike studied a model of the Duomo, reading all about Brunelleschi.
This child, like the flower lady, and the bus driver who allowed us to ride free, were angels in the swirling masses and stopped time long enough for the Gates of Paradise to swing open and allow us in.