I absolutely walk on the smooth flags of Florence for the mere pleasure of walking, and lie in its atmosphere for the mere pleasure of living. I hardly think there can be a place in the world where life is more delicious for its own simple sake than here.
—The Business of Reflection: Hawthorne in His Notebooks (2009)
Have you ever felt a need to be somewhere that is so powerful that it’s like an ache to be with a beloved? Nathaniel Hawthorne’s description of Florence evokes such a yearning. It is no mystery why so many great non-Italian authors and poets—E.M. Forster, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Browning, to mention only a few—lived and wrote in Florence for a time. Yearning happens not only to great authors and certainly isn’t confined to Florence.
Sociologist Fred Davis likens yearning to nostalgia (Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia, 1979): “It is not ordinary memory; it is a particular form of recollection distinguished from others by a ‘special past’ which it possesses…” When Mark Twain wrote “the Creator made Italy by designs from Michelangelo” (The Innocents Abroad, 1869) and when Ralph Waldo Emerson recollected “when I walk up the piazza of Santa Croce I feel as if it were not a Florentine nor an European church but a church built by and for the human race” (The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1964), there could be no doubt that the special past of the Renaissance served to help elevate their experiences while in Florence.
The special past that fuels our yearning for Florence doesn’t necessarily have to be civilization-altering events like the Renaissance. It can be personal. My family and I lived in Florence for four months in 2013 when I led a study abroad program with Elon University through Accademia Europea di Firenze. That experience changed our lives. Our youngest son, 13 at the time, came of age there. He attended Italian class, explored Florence independently, became good friends with a leather vendor in San Lorenzo, ordered gnocchi in Italian at La Buchetta restaurant where they always remembered our names, shopped for fruit at Mauro Frutta on via dei Cerchi and was welcomed with a big smile and extra scoop from Sergio at Perchè No Gelateria. I reconnected with my older adult children when they visited. It’s etched in my memory when my daughter’s boyfriend (now husband) and I sat down over a glass of Chianti and a spritz at Robiglio and he told me of his intentions to ask her to marry him. I remember the satisfaction my wife and future daughter-in-law felt when they successfully ordered a 20-pound Thanksgiving tacchino at Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio and managed to cook it in an Italian oven meant for half that size. I will never forget sitting and crying in Chiesa di Santa Margherita in Santa Maria dei Ricci on the night that I learned that my brother had died, as the organ music enveloped me and echoed out to via del Corso. Feeling connected to my Italian roots was a daily occurrence as everyone pronounced my surname correctly (a rarity in the United States) and immediately knew that I was of Sicilian heritage, or when a shop owner greeted me with “Buongiorno Lorenzo.” Everyone has their own special past connection for the place or time for which they yearn.
Common experiences also nurture our yearning: standing at a bar ordering a caffé, savoring a lavish menu of antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni and dolci at our favorite restaurants, being entranced by the sunset on the Ponte Vecchio to the sounds of the street musician, feeling the rhythm of the rowers on our walks along the Arno on desolate mornings before the throngs of tourists arrived, always sensing the presence of the Duomo and the bells from Giotto’s campanile, embracing the iconic views from piazzale Michelangelo and, of course, being immersed in the beauty of the ubiquitous art and genius loci of the Renaissance. We are infused daily with Italian values about the centrality of family and the importance of the dinner table; the urgency of human association expressed freely in an embrace; religion as a way of life, not as dogma; working to live, rather than living to work; hearing Italian spoken so purely in the city where Dante elevated it to high art; and operatic interactions over seemingly inconsequential matters, like which gelato is the best.
Perhaps Mark Twain said it best: “To see the sun sink down, drowned on his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of color that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature, and make a sympathetic one drunk with ecstasy.” (Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1, Reader’s Edition, 2012)
For me, it’s simply Non vedo l’ora di tornare a Firenze.