Searching for the Heart of Florence

In 4. Genius Loci, Florence, The Art of Travel by Sam1 Comment

After I read Rudyard Kipling‘s assertion that “the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it, I paid special attention as I walked home from campus to the scents that crossed my path. I left campus excited to see what Florence had in store for my nose, expecting maybe some coffee, maybe some sort of food, cigarette smoke, and probably some car exhaust. By the time I got home, I was a bit disappointed. I did not necessarily expect some sort of unique Florentine blend of scents to become ingrained in my mind on my walk home, to remind me of Florence forever and always, but I did expect something. Maybe I was not paying enough attention, but to me there was nothing significantly special about the way Florence smells. There was no hint of a smell that I could point my finger at and say “that is what Florence smells like.” It smells like any other city. Maybe I just haven’t been here long enough to really get to know the scent of Florence. Ask me about New York and I can smell the subway from from here, but thus far nothing stands out to me that way here.

When I think about the character of Florence, what makes the city different from others that I’ve visited is the architecture. People visit from all over the world to see the art and architecture of Florence, and this is for a very good reason. The Duomo is such an awe-inspiring structure that it almost looks fake, as if when you go inside you’ll find out it’s just a painted facade. It’s not just how recognizable the building it, it’s the story behind it. The buildings here have a sense of history that bleeds through the city itself. Is the Ponte Vecchio the prettiest bridge in the world? Honestly, I don’t think so. Will you find tourists flocking to it every day anyway? Yes. Does it remain a symbol of Florence? Yes. Because it has character. It’s old, but it’s strong, and it has survived. It has a story, and you can see that in every inch of it.  

The city is beautiful, yes. The Duomo is beautiful, yes. The Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio are part of what gives the city its sense of history. But looking past that, there is another layer of character to the city in the tannish/yellow painted 5 or 6-story buildings that surround these grand structures. These are the buildings that are tightly pressed together with large wooden doorways and rows of windows with the shutters open. The cobblestone streets can be a bit uneven and the sidewalks can be dangerously skinny, but that is just part of the appeal. These streets are not clean-cut visions—the paint is a bit chipped off, the yellow color a bit dirtier than it used to be, and there might be some graffiti. Most of the road is probably taken up by parked vespas or motorcycles, or maybe a couple of small cars. But that just adds to the welcoming charm of the street. It’s not supposed to be new and modern. Florence is a city whose original architecture was made for another lifetime, long before cars and skyscrapers entered the equation. The street might be skinny, but it’s not overwhelming because the buildings aren’t 50 stories high. Instead, they become inviting, enticing you to go for a walk.

I can’t help but compare every city I see to New York, since that is the city I’m most familiar with. New York is a city that gives off modern vibes, where everything is a rush and people are always moving. Florence has a sense of history in its very walls. It’s old and majestic—captivating, but not in an intimidating way. There is no rushing through the city if you want to truly understand it. This is a welcoming place, and it invites you to come and admire everything about it, from the food, to the buildings, to the people.

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(Image: A Typical Florence Street; Source: Sam Sicignano)


  1. Hey Sam! I really enjoyed reading your piece! I too was fascinated in Kipling’s comment about smelling new places and I find it rather interesting that you went out in Florence to try and capture its scent. While for the most part I find it to be literal, another part of me likes to believe that he means it in a figurative way. I feel that he may be simply promoting the idea of discovering new places and embracing all of its unique aspects of culture and life. The degree of detail you describe the buildings and architecture is also really amazing because it just shows how much you have noticed about the city to the point where these characteristics feels familiar to you.

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