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Florence, Light and Dark

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Florence is so deeply rooted in the history of art and politics that it leaves little room for much else. Even the food is steeped in politics. A tax levied on salt in 1540 by Pope Paolo III caused the Tuscans to revolt; they refused to bake bread with salt. They haven’t put salt in their traditional loaf since. Long memories.

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Among the usual tourist spots are the Uffizi, the great museum of art, the Galleria Dell’Accademia, which houses the spectacular David by Michelangelo, San Lorenzo, the church of the Medicis, and the Duomo, the imposing basilica. There’s Via dei Calzaiuoli, the grand, elegant street with high-end shops that connects the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria, the political heart of the city and home to a veritable outdoor sculpture museum. And of course there is the Savoy Hotel, near Piazza della Republica, where they serve the best martinis around (a 007 Vesper Martini, shaken, not stirred, anyone?).

But for me wandering the narrow streets is the real joy. It’s easy to become twisted around in the labyrinth-like passageways and alleys, but there is always something new to see; a new door, a different color of stone or a new church (churches are scattered around Florence like so many Starbucks in other cities).

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There is also a darker side to Florence, something that lurks just beneath the surface. It’s a side that seems to be constantly struggling with the big issues, life, death and mortality. Indeed, with statues of lustful pagan gods, frescos depicting the crucifixion and the agony of the saints, and streets named after Florence resident Dante and his descent into Hell and Purgatory, it’s hard to escape this dark Tuscan underbelly. Neptune’s water horses seem to rise out of dark waters on the Piazza della Signoria at night. Alongside the heroic David are Michelangelo’s Prisoners, figures straining to break free from their marble blocks. Even Florence native C. Collodi, who penned Pinocchio, wrote a much darker serialized tale than Disney would have us believe.

Visiting this past holiday season, I attended a tiny exhibition in a small gallery at the Uffizi devoted to Medusa, a vain beauty who was seduced by a lustful Neptune and transformed by a vengeful Minerva into a monster with writhing, serpent hair, turning all who saw her into stone. Not the traditional Yuletide fare.

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But then, back into the bright sunlight is the food, the glorious food of Tuscany. It’s rich with earthy, simple ingredients. This last trip, I kept to simple fare, sampling, for example, as many variations of ribolitta, the famous Tuscan bread and vegetable soup, as I could find.

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Ribollita, which translates literally to “reboiled” is a satisfying soup — a stew, really — with lots of vegetables, beans and bread cooked and then recooked to deepen the flavor. On a cold winter’s day, I challenge anyone to find a heartier, more comforting soup. Click here for a recipe.

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An hour or so at the Mercato Centrale, the cavernous central market of iron and glass and open ductwork, reveals the heart of Florence cuisine; fresh fish on ice, hams hanging from hooks, wines, breads, olive oil and the many varieties of round rice for risotto (I bought a bag of vialone nano, a “brown rice” version of the traditional risotto rice). Giant wheels of Parmingiano reggiano and its cheaper, less salty cousin (and better for cooking, one chef told me) Grana padano sit along trays of fresh pasta. And there are the pizzas, real pizzas with the thin crust and simple ingredient.

Art and politics. Light and dark. Heaven and Hell. Florence is a city of contrasts, but takes these seeming polar opposites and molds them into a wonderful experience. Make sure to bring some sensible shoes, a map and an appetite.

I’ll meet you on the dark side.

Doug Cushman is a former Redding artist and author who now lives and works in Paris. He was born in Springfield,Ohio,and moved to Connecticut with his family at the age of 15. In high school he created comic books lampooning his teachers, selling them to his classmates for a nickel apiece. Since 1978, he has illustrated and/or written more than 100 books for children and collected a number of honors, including a Reuben Award for Book Illustration from the National Cartoonists Society, New York Times Children’s Books Best Sellers, and the New York Public Library’s Best 100 Books of 2000. He enjoys hiking, kayaking and cooking (and eating!). Learn more at his website, doug-cushman.com

Doug Cushman

Doug Cushman is a former Redding artist/author who now lives and works in Paris. He was born in Springfield, Ohio, and moved to Connecticut with his family at the age of 15. In high school he created comic books lampooning his teachers, selling them to his classmates for a nickel apiece. For more information about his books or to contact him, visit doug-cushman.com.

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