This blog was originally posted at Amazing Travel Stories

Florence and Milan

The first thing I noticed in Milan were, anomalous to my Americanized eyes, hordes of clean shaved metrosexuals in perfectly tailored Armani jackets and Gucci shoes. If it weren’t for the American men, happily touristing the city in stretched-out t-shirts and Birkenstocks, my gaydar would go completely out of whack. Indeed, both Milan and Florence seem like paeans to boy love. Male nude sculptures are proudly displayed on every city corner and street. Open, unabashed sensuality and homoeroticism permeates both cities like a thin veil of georgette silk, and all of it is set under the auspices of the omnipresent Christian sacred. Religious and erotic imagery intertwine in every church and chapel, dominated by habitual displays of the strength and beauty of the male body. In homage to its Renaissance heritage, David’s penis is a prime tourist commodity, adorning all kinds of China-made souvenirs, from fridge magnets and chef’s aprons to men’s boxers and key chains, sold on every shop stand from Milan to Pisa to Florence.

The entire country is also an homage to beauty, with a laser-sharp and unapologetic focus on aesthetics first and functionality later. Our hotel bathroom is a true work of art, but when taking a shower, the only place to hold a bar of soap, it seems, is between one’s teeth. On the outside, both Milan and Florence are very unassuming—very unimpressive in fact. Dirty, decrepit buildings with graffiti-laden walls, trashed and cracked sidewalks, an obvious shortage of city services, and dated infrastructure overwhelm the very first impression. Most of the public transportation seems like it was last updated sixty years ago, with rusted 1950s-style buses and trams moving slowly along unkempt tracks. None of the stops are marked, so the only way to tell where they are is by the groups of old Italian ladies and African immigrants waiting patiently for the next bus or tram to stop. Trashcans are a rarity, and public toilets reek from a few streets away. In fact, the entire city sewage system is an issue, with smelly water flowing from every gorgeous, perfectly designed faucet. It isn’t until you enter the buildings that you grasp the true beauty of the city, quickly forgetting about the modern sheepishness of its outer forms. A multitude of fine hotels, restaurants, and high-end boutiques casually and coolly flaunt the subtle lines of their furniture, the touchable beauty of their fabrics, the delicate flair of their décor, and the richness and abundance of their artworks and antiques.

But what overwhelms most of all is the breathtaking beauty of the Carrara marble that covers literally every floor, from five-star hotels to dingy snack bars. The many hues of coffee con latte beiges to reds, pinks, whites, blacks, and greens—the natural beauty of Italian marble is what has given the country its foundation, if not its national identity. Whether it forms the cathedrals, the museums, or the floors of boutiques, the marble, with its infinite variety of colors and patterns, has dominated Italian architecture, art, design, and fashion. Only when seeing the marble in all of its forms and colors does one realize its omnipresent power. It’s the Italian marble that makes its monuments, from David to the Pietà. It’s the Italian marble that gives the designer fabrics their rich texture. Gucci’s two signature colors, green and red, must have been influenced by the green and pink marble of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence. Prada’s sharp brown, black, and white combinations can be seen on the floor of Milan Cathedral. The entire fashion industry is, in fact, indebted to Italy’s fine arts. Versace’s signature Medusa adorns every other gilded décor of frames and furniture in Palazzo Pitti, as do the Corinthian leaves and flowers of Versace’s scarves. The stained-glass windows must have influenced the geometry and bright colors of Pucci’s scarves. If you look carefully, you can see the sophistication of Caravaccio’s chiaroscuro and the softness of Rafael’s lines shine through Cavalli’s purses and the cleanly tailored Armani jackets.

Slowly, the beauty of the interiors dawns on the exteriors and you stop noticing the unsightly graffiti on the walls and the cracked sidewalks. And when the setting sun starts shining on the brick-red rooftops, green window shutters, and peach-colored walls of the Florentine buildings, you can’t help but slowly fall in love with this city. Yet, despite its beauty, the busy shops and the waves of tourists streaming back and forth on the main streets, Florence seems like a dead city. One can’t shake off the impression that its glory days have passed and that nothing new has been built or  constructed here since the Renaissance. It is a city at a standstill, unmovable, like a corpse with tourists worming their way through its bloodless veins, ligaments, and muscles. There is something infinitely melancholic in watching this city becoming a skansen. Milan, perhaps because of its clothing industry and nearby Swiss border, seems more vibrant, more alive, more present in the modern world. But not Florence. Like a woman whose beauty has faded with the years, Florence still charms and seduces—however, not with the promise of life, but with the promise of escape from life. And you can’t help but think you’re in the land of the Lotus-Eaters, and that you have to summon all your will and strength to flight its seductive beauty.

Siena

Located in between Florence and Rome, Siena looks like any other Italian town on a hill: widely spread chestnut-colored rooftops subtly peek from the dark green Tuscany foliage, as if spellbound by the steadfast shadow of its hovering bell tower. For years now, Siena has been competing with Florence for the title of most beautiful Tuscan city, losing the battle, if one is to judge by the number of tourists and souvenir shops. But if Florence is like one of the jewelry stores on its Ponte Vecchio, filled with a plethora of expertly polished fine diamonds, Siena is the one 5-carat rarity that’s displayed only once in a while for a selected few.

Going up the hill, one feels like a young lover gazing wondrously at the slowly unveiling secrets of his mistress’s sumptuous body: Siena’s steep, narrow streets, with the cobblestone pavement, red-brick rowhouses with the small, shaded windows, and hidden arched passageways, framed by the mind-boggling perspective of the Mediterranean landscape with the wide, luminous fields of olive trees, grapevines, and sunflowers, emerge piecemeal from behind the half-gone city walls once meant to guard the besieged. Sienna gave its name to the warm reddish-brown clay pigment that’s been mined near the city and that eventually became an essential element of European paintings. If it were any other color, perhaps Siena’s corroding walls would not have their breathtaking, touching splendor. They would have been a mere pile of ruins, too decrepit to keep and too ancient to demolish.

Wandering around Siena, one slowly loses oneself among sounds and smells, hypnotically drawn in by the aroma of freshly baked bread, the soft scent of red begonias growing in the windowsills above the streets, and the subtle fragrance of perfumes casually breezing in from the small, high-end boutiques hidden away in nooks of Siena’s brick houses. My whipped, workaholic mind, accustomed to the self-imposed regime of the American rat race, dutifully resists this assault of the senses. Each day, the layers of my eremitic existence slowly peel off, reminding me of the nerve endings that, long ago, I used to have: the cool touch of white cotton sheets, the ripped, earthy texture of red Chianti, the sweet, anxious melody of “Musetta’s Waltz.” Built with the sweat of the past generations, Siena is a city in a state of permanent respite, enjoying its heritage, the bounty of its sun-drenched soil, and the mining treasures of its mountains. Is this the source of the legendary Catholic guilt? After all, who can lead that kind of life and not feel at least a little bit guilty.

Rome

In Florence, in the main assembly room of Palazzo Vecchio, the Salone dei Cinquecento, a dignified statue of Pope Leo X gazes lazily upon four life-size figures of nude male youths, glancing shyly from the wall across the room. Two rows of oversized white marble sculptures with pairs of perfectly proportioned male nudes warped in contorted and tacitly sexual combat guard the sidelines of the assembly room. Works of Vincenzo de’ Rossi and Michelangelo, the sculptures “Labors of Hercules” and “Genius of Victory,” are strapping, brazen, and subtly sado-masochistic. Was Salone dei Cinquecento the liberal Florence’s naughty jab at the implicit homoeroticism of the papal order, or is it an earnest homage to papal power, aimed to flatter the Pope by tactful acknowledgement of his tastes?

Like Milan and Florence, Rome relishes male nudity, but unlike in Florence, where the young male body dominates the public aesthetics, in Rome, it is the mature male body that reigns over the piazzas and museums. Gone are the smirking pouts and swaggerly glances, replaced by hirsute cheekbones and furrowed foreheads. Perhaps nowhere is the transition more apparent that at Rome’s Piazza Navona, where three fountains, one of them Bernini’s, are adorned with wreaths of male nudes in all their middle-aged glory. There is a quiet, dignified sense of power and strength emanating from these older male bodies. Through their ideally proportioned musculature and calm, stoic wisdom of years, they are centered both externally and internally. The men from Piazza Navona know the limits of both their bodies and their minds. They relish the former and measure the latter. Yet, there is also something else behind their stony white faces and fixed, blank stares: the cryptic, barely perceivable, brute, ruthless impudence of feral male energy.

Rome’s architecture is like its men. Gone are the joyous flair and whimsy of Florence’s doorknobs, gone are the delicate, sophisticated lines of Milan’s windows. The monochrome palette of Roman rowhouses cuts across the winding Tiber River like a batch of swords ferociously tossed into the midst of the battle. This is not Tuscany. The Roman houses are solid, heavy, tall, and thick. Their lines are decisive, their geometry sharp and unapologetic. This city of the she-wolf is shrouded in power, esteem, and glory of the past empire. It is only in Rome that one is finally able to comprehend the origins of Italian fascism. In Milan and Florence, it was unfathomable. But the raw ambition and severity of the Roman buildings shamelessly bares their formidable past. There is something horrifying in realizing just how much blood sifted through the streets of this once imperial city; how much human misery was silently witnessed by the cold, towering walls of its rowhouses.

There is one thing that Rome shares with Florence and Milan: the same street booths with mini figurines that can be found everywhere else in Italy, with mini Davids, mini Duomos, mini cathedrals, mini Vaticans, and mini Coliseums, smugly tempting with the vision of one’s very own portable mini Las Vegas. Shipped from the same factory somewhere near Beijing or Shanghai, the mini figurines look like an efficient and feisty army of potato bugs, set on invading every city, every street corner, every souvenir stand, cheerfully peddled by both locals and migrants, who no longer even bother peeling off their small gold “made-in-China” labels.

The beautiful panoramic boulevard along the banks of the Tiber River, which in any other capital of the developed nation would be bursting with strollers, bikes, and infatuated couples, in Rome is empty. Discarded drug needles, cigarette butts, condoms, trash, dog poop, last fall’s leaves left to rot blanket the decrepit sidewalks, so cracked by the bulging roots of ancient oak trees that walking through them feels like hurdling. No curb cuts for strollers and wheelchairs. In fact, in the entire city, I have not seen one wheelchair. No wonder; without any curb cuts, cruising through Rome on a wheelchair amidst the streams of its wayward drivers is akin to a kamikaze mission. To make up for its lack of EU standards, Rome offers free admission to everywhere for those wheelchair visitors who are bold or perhaps inane enough to brave the city’s crumbling infrastructure. Why Romans don’t rebel, threading their way patiently on tiny scooters, in high heels, and with numb children trapped in their relentlessly shaking strollers, through the deathtraps of missing cobblestones, movable street tiles, and sinking sewage covers, is anyone’s guess.

Suddenly, I realize that just as the U.S. is imprisoned by the compulsive transiency of its presence and the quixotic tyranny of its future, Italy has became captive to its past. In the U.S., your world disappears with you: every few decades or so, the houses, stores, and churches are demolished, opening up space for new ones to be built, and fuelling the constantly starving capitalist job market. In Italy, every building is historical and therefore untouchable. Nothing can be demolished and replaced. There is no possibility here for urban renewal or gentrification. Except for cosmetic repairs, everything must be left untouched, just the way it was first built centuries ago. Not a single crane rises above the city skyline. Granted, if someone were even willing to spend the necessary billions on a new construction project, most likely, with the first dig, he’d be checkmated by some kind of ruins that would have to be protected, preserved, and shown to tourists, with a shop stand selling the miniature copies of the ruins to accompany it. There is an urban legend circulating among tourists about a Roman guy who foolishly wanted to expand his basement. During the digging, he hit the ruins and shared the news with his neighbors. Soon enough, his basement, his house, and his garden became an archeological site. The man, so the story goes, cursed the day he chose to expand his basement.

St. Peter’s Basilica took one hundred and twenty years to build. Every marble pillar, every carefully chiseled ornament and figure, every painting and fresco is a tribute to that one hundred and twenty years of excruciating effort. But the Basilica’s breathtaking, transcendental splendor was not meant to be a short-term investment. With 15-euro entry fee, the Sistine Chapel is Michelangelo’s amor aeternus, a gift that keeps on giving. Rome’s monuments are its lifeblood and its curse, the cancer that stifles the city and any promise of its triumphant future. Romans tolerate their tourists with almost fatalistic resignation. The tourists are there to spend their money, but the city feels suffocating, taken hostage by the tourists that swarm its every coffee shop and gellateria, bringing easy business and nipping in the bud any will to move forward. They keep coming and coming, demanding to be housed, fed, and souvenired. How much past does a nation need? How much past can it handle? How much past can it sell? How many generations can live off what their ancestors build? Like a cursed treasure, the Italians have been handed the glory of their past, which deprived them of the will and ambition to imagine the glory of the future. If the cycle of development, peak, and decline of an empire is two thousand years, looking at Rome as it is now, a dying ghoul, neglected and burdened with debt, suckling on its past like its two mythical founders, Romulus and Remus suckled the milk of their she-wolf mother, I try to imagine the future of the U.S. . . .

There is nothing to do with all this untouchable, unmovable beauty that crowds Italy’s cities and piazzas, but display it for the rest of the world to come and see, like a proud but dejected peacock displaying its stunning but nonfunctioning tail. After all, China-made mini figurines cannot compete in a global economy of international banking, stocks, steel, and microchips. Not even the fine handcrafted Italian leather, the luxury lines of Italian designers, the fragrant olive oil or Tuscany wine can. What, then, is a tourist to do to save this world that doesn’t know it has been long gone with the Mediterranean breeze? Buy a pair of fine leather gloves and just one more, one more bottle of Chianti . . . ? And perhaps, in exchange, let it make you forget, if only for a while, the vague, precarious promises of the future . . .