They say a black and white portrait can capture a person’s soul.
What about a city’s?
Here, I will share with you some of my favorite black and white photos from my favorite city in Italy. Draining the color from such vibrant subject matter may seem a bit like bleeding a butterfly dry. But, ironically, that’s when I feel its pulse the most.
I only spent three days there. We had barely met. But when I think of Italy, I think of Florence. Maybe I just wasn’t there long enough to see its true colors, but I think not.
Because these photos have none and they still make me sigh with longing.
I want to go back.
I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve spoke with several people who have traveled to Italy upon my return to the States, and we’re all in agreement. Florence is our favorite. And if we ever moved to the Bel Paese, that’s where you’d find us.
So what makes this Renaissance town so captivating? There’s no one answer to that. It’s the atmosphere and the art and the food and the river and the history and the architecture and the people and the energy. Its spirit, I guess you could say.
So now, I’m just going to gush a little because I have a massive crush on this place and there’s nothing to be done about it.
The dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, built by Filippo Brunelleschi, was the tallest in the world at its time. Constructed without scaffolding in an impressive feat of architecture, Florence’s crowning jewel took 16 years to complete. Brunelleschi was not an architect, but rather a goldsmith with a fondness for tinkering with gears and things. He had nothing to recommend himself for such an enormous undertaking but an idea and a willingness to try what had never been done before.
Still, he got the job and figured out the rest as he went. He even invented complex crane and pulley systems to heave the building materials hundreds of feet into the air–designs that Leonardo da Vinci poured over in his sketchbooks. Designs so revolutionary that they weren’t matched until the industrial revolution some 400 years later.
It’s that spirit of ingenuity that earned Brunelleschi the honor of being buried in the crypt of the cathedral on which his masterpiece was built–an honor previously accorded to saints alone and very few at that.
It was the beginning of a time when artists would rival angels.
There are 463 steps to the top of the Duomo. Winding steps that, at its steepest points, felt more like climbing a concrete ladder than a staircase. Nothing builds community like a bunch of wheezing strangers squeezing by one another on shoulder-width passage ways while exhaling encouragement with what little breath we have left.
As I cursed my sedentary lifestyle, those descending the stairs assured me that the view from the top was worth it.
The climb felt like an endless spiral; I couldn’t see more than three steps ahead of me. I don’t usually think about walking, I’ve been blessed with two legs that take me where I want to go without having to ask. But towards the top, I was begging them to move. And even when I saw the literal light at the end of the tunnel, I wasn’t consumed by some supernatural second wind like Frodo on Mount Doom. No. I was one step from the top and wondering when the eagles would come to carry me the rest of the way.
I made it, obviously. But 23 never felt so old.
It wasn’t until I was a circling the top of the dome, sympathizing with the elderly and envying the children who raced to the top for kicks and giggles, that I started to forget about my legs again. Not because they weren’t weak and trembling, but because those strangers on the staircase were right. It was worth it.
The top of the Duomo is a beautiful place to catch your breath. And when you do, the affliction of the ascent is obliterated. Forgotten completely. I could have floated up there for all I knew.
The city looked so white. Like Minas Tirith with terracotta roofs.
Too many Lord of the Rings references?
Nah. But it really did sparkle like an imperial city, bouncing blinding sunlight off the white stone buildings. My eyes gladly hurt.
Though the view was dazzling, my favorite part was the changelessness of it all. Minus the Fiats and selfie-sticks, I imagine that what I saw towering above the city was quite similar to what Brunelleschi saw nearly 600 years ago. The orange and white row houses. The bridges over the Arno river. The Medici palace and Giotto’s bell tower.
Italy is so slow to change. It’s like she recognizes there’s no need to rush–she will be remembered.
At the top of the dome and in the streets below, I couldn’t shake the realization that I was seeing what they saw. The Renaissance rebels. The artists who rivaled angels.
I heard a fun story about Galileo the other day while watching the PBS series How We Got to Now. Allegedly, when Galileo was just 19, he discovered a device that could be used to measure time: the pendulum. He made this discovery at a church service during which he used his pulse as a metronome to time the swing of a hanging alter lamp. He noticed that no matter the distance the lamp traveled–short swings or long ones–it took an equal amount of time for the lamp to swing back and forth. He then conducted an experiment that confirmed this observation.
An observation he made as a teenager. During morning mass. After noticing something seemingly insignificant in the rafters.
He was such a nerd.
A nerd that would go on to discover many modern laws of physics from the universal law of acceleration to the mathematics of buoyancy. He built his own telescope and then pointed it toward the night sky, eventually gathering enough evidence to prove Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. He changed the world as we knew it. He was convicted of heresy and sentence to a life of isolated house arrest. He was ordered never to have visitors nor to publish his works outside the country. He didn’t listen.
I guess you could say he was a nerd with an edgy side. Probably owned a leather jacket.
Today, Galileo is known as “The Father of Modern Science.” I’m not sure how many experiments he conducted prior to noticing that alter lamp. Perhaps his pendulum studies were the first. Perhaps not. But, his nerdy, rebellious spirit defines the age.
Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Botticelli, Machiavelli, Dante, Copernicus …
The Renaissance gave birth to some of the most legendary artists, scientists, writers, and philosophers this world has ever known. But, Florence gave birth to the Renaissance.
The word itself, Renaissance, means rebirth. And, I don’t believe there’s a soul in Florence who does not feel that to some extent. It’s not like entering the city limits made me a new person, but walking the streets made me feel like I could be a better one. Like I didn’t have to apologize for being distracted by the swinging alter lamp. Like I should just put my vision into motion and figure out how to build the dome as I go.
Maybe I’m getting a bit carried away. I told you, I’m in love–I can’t be objective about any of this. All I know is that I left Florence far too soon and feeling inspired.
The whole city is a muse. That’s what I love most about it. It wakes you up. Its originality and unashamed artistry are utterly refreshing. It’s ice water when you didn’t know you were thirsty.
So, can a black and white photo capture a city’s soul?
I’ll leave that to you to decide.
But this city has captured mine.
[Photography by Alaynee Fink]
[Statue of David PC: Brian Gibson]
[Arno River PC: Brian Gibson]