In this distinguished Welsh writer's mind, Florence is the quintessential center of art, history and civilization

Published October 21, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

this is the time of year, in the mellow of the fall, when wise travelers go to Florence; but I don't need to make the journey myself because I see the city two or three times a month, whenever I drive out of England to my home in Wales.

It happens when I cross the low hills of the Herefordshire border, and find before me a sheltered green bowl of meadowland, perfectly proportioned around the little river Cynon. In a trice, Florence appears there, like a hologram. Across the stream an ancient covered bridge swarms with people. A great dome rises above the fields, with a campanile beside it, and there are lines of palaces along the riverbanks, and clumps of dark poplars, and squares with statues in them. Everything is bustle and color, smoke curling from medieval chimneys, echoing cries of hawkers and boatmen, strains of monkly chanting. All too soon the road leaves the valley and the lovely illusion is gone. Twelve miles to Rhayader, says the signpost.

The truth is that to me Florence is more than just a city: It is the idea of a city. No place on earth offers me an image more concentrated and more exact -- the look of it, its history, its style and reputation all bundled into one intoxicating fancy. I think of Florence not as a municipality, with the usual problems of sewage, traffic and petty crime, infighting among city councilors and shady practices concerning planning permissions. Those citizens I see swarming over my mirage-bridge are artists and poets every one -- or if not, master craftsmen, philosophers or cultivated merchants of ancient lineage. Princes live in those insubstantial palaces, and masterpieces adorn all their drawing rooms. Magnificent prelates preach beneath that dome. Immemorial bells sound from the campanile. If there is crime, it is gorgeous crime, all daggers and secret poisons. If there are squabbles about civic development, they concern the best place to erect a figure by some genius sculptor, or a dispute over who is to carve the baptistery doors.

In short, I am dreaming as I drive, and all my notions of Florence are misty and golden, like that transient vision on the road to Rhayader.

Misty, yet decidedly precise. I have always particularly admired buildings that look as though you could pick them up, so functionally compact do they seem, so absolute. The Palace of Westminster strikes me as one such structure, also the Doge's Palace in Venice and the Chrysler skyscraper in Manhattan. So it is with my conceptual Florence. It is like a model for me, everything complete and compact and crystal clear.

It is of course true that when we think of most cities in the world we think only of their centers, disregarding the sprawling suburbs all around. New York is just Manhattan to most of us, give or take a bit of Brooklyn; how many people include Crouch End in their mental image of London, or see Parramatta behind the Sydney Harbour Bridge? My feelings about Florence, though, are different. It is not that I wilfully ignore its suburbs; it is that in my mind's eye, it has no suburbs, has no ring roads or railway sidings or supermarkets, but is simply a shapely medieval cluster of buildings glorious with art and history beside its river.

This is not all mere romanticism. Florence really is snugly couched, like my holographic version of it, between low and gentle hills upon the River Arno in Tuscany. Generations of artists have painted it from the high ground around and given the impression that it is a small, idyllic settlement clustered around the covered Ponte Vecchio, surveyed by the grand dome and campanile of the Cathedral, and by the castellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. Generally, the painters bind their views with blue hills, so that the city seems to lie there serenely in a contoured embrace, waiting for you to touch it, or stroke it -- or pick it up. Even the oldest depictions of Florence indulge this fancy. The earliest realistic picture of them all, engraved in the late 15th century, is actually enclosed within an engraved chain, complete with engraved padlock, as if to demonstrate the levitable nature of the place.

So my vision of Florence owes much to the artists, who have always made it seem a privileged enclave, separate from everywhere else. But it derives too from my first genuine, wide-awake experience of the city, at the end of the Second World War. My introduction to Florence was a helter-skelter, free-wheeling ride into town, more or less out of control down the hill of Fiesole, in an armored scout-car whose engine had given up; and no impression could have been more lasting than the blissful sensation, as we skidded at last into the venerable downtown streets, that we had arrived at some blessed haven of consolation.

Then again, in my consciousness -- or sub-consciousness -- Florence occupies its own cultural capsule: detached, separate and unmistakable. Its name triggers a Pavlovian response in me, as in nearly everyone else. Say Florence, and I will cry, "Civilization!" My mind's eye, which has already seen the city stylized physically into that glorious little clump of towers and rooftops beside its single bridge, imagines it populated too by all the geniuses of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Dante hobnobs there with Petrarch and Boccaccio. Raphael chats with Botticelli. There stands Michelangelo, supervising the dragging of his great statue of David into the piazza, inch by inch on greased beams. Brunelleschi is round the corner, watching the construction of his cathedral dome, and Ghiberti inspects his marvelous baptistery doors. Donatello walks over the bridge to supper, Fra Angelico returns to his monastic cell after painting another lovely angel. Leonardo, Uccello, Giotto, Fra Filippo Lippi -- all are there in my Florence, all apparently at the same time, all in harmony. No matter that many of them lived and worked in other cities, too. It is to Florence that reputation has assigned them, and with them throng all their followers down the centuries -- the scholars, the connoisseurs, the dilettantes of the Grand Tour, the international art dealers and the auctioneers and the groups of T-shirted students shepherded awestruck from gallery to gallery.

And what about political history? Florence is always and only a city-state, in my imagination, and its consequence is all embodied in one glittering family of rulers: the Medicis. I can see them clear as life in my imagination, with their bright wide eyes and patrician noses, leaning elegantly against pillars or smiling benevolently from thrones. Did they not make Florence the humanist capital of Europe? Did not Galileo name the moons of Jupiter after them? In my fantasy of Florence I dismiss all its lesser rulers, ignore the old feuds between the political factions of Guelphs and Ghibellines, turn a blind eye to Savonarola, the fanatic who held the Florentines in thrall, pretend that the Florentine Machiavelli never lived. It is the Medicis for me, as it probably is for most of us; and most vividly of all, when I think of Florence, I see Lorenzo de Medici, the lordliest of them all, duke of dukes, scholar, musician, poet, architect and lover. Everything that is civilized and worldly and elegant and splendid boils down in my fantasy to Lorenzo the Magnificent of Florence.

This blend of images, together with many more subliminal ones, gives my idea of Florence a mellow aura. It summons in me sensations deliciously autumnal. Others, I know, have seen the place as emblematic of spring, or harvest time -- "flowers and grapes and olive leaves" was Mendelssohn's metaphor, and Byron wrote of the city's corn, wine, oil and plenty "leaping to laughing life." But mellow is my word for it. Its buildings seem to me matured by time, molded into each others' presences, accustomed to one another; the colors of its great pictures, recalled collectively in my memory, are never lurid or dazzling, but reverently noble; and I always seem to see dim blue wood smoke rising from its elaborate chimneys, casting fragrances of pine or oak all across the city. Surely no vulgar rivalries or sleaze ever disturbed the serenity of this glorious place (say I to myself, as I meander dreamily on to Rhayader) ...

Is it only a dream? Well, Florence has suburbs, and a railway station and cinemas and supermarkets and armies of tourists and rubbish and quarrelsome civic councilors like everywhere else. Eight bridges, not one, cross its river. It was always as much a center of money-making as of art. Its history began long before the Renaissance, in Roman times, and Mussolini called it Firenze facistissima. Its great artists often quarreled. Its rulers, far from being just enlightened art lovers, went in for every kind of political skullduggery. It has not been an independent state since 1737. Lorenzo the Magnificent was extremely ugly. What's more, Florence was never, as I have loved to imagine it, a single bright prodigy burning there beside the Arno, but was only one of several such city-states, frequently rivals. It was not always mellow, by any means, but often very brash.

Only a dream? Yes and no. As a matter of fact, in that Welsh valley where I see my mirage-Florence so vividly, the 13th century English conquerors of Wales did try to create a city. It never came to anything, though, and all that remains of it now is a line of cottages, a church, a country mansion and some grandly named village lanes. No Ponte Vecchio crosses the river Cynon. No Dantes or Verrochios stroll those lanes. No curled magnifico looks down upon his people from the windows of the big house. The real Florence could exist nowhere else than where it is, below the sweet hills of Fiesole, beside the river where the poets sang; but there, to this day, its reality remains dream enough.

By Jan Morris

Salon Travel Contributing Editor Jan Morris has written more than 30 works of travel literature, including "Fifty Years of Europe," "The Matter of Wales," "Hong Kong," "Venice" and "Spain."

MORE FROM Jan Morris

Related Topics ------------------------------------------