In his USC hooded sweatshirt, looking like an old American former-football player, Morris blew kisses and threw a two-Euro coin into the hat of the young woman playing guitar and singing Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” He continued through the Piazza della Signora and paused when a middle-aged couple from England asked if he could take their picture. He did so, placing them at the nearby Cellini statue of “Perseus and the Head of Medusa.” Too many people didn’t notice this masterpiece, which he felt far outstripped the nearby copy of Michelangelo’s David. “Just look,” he wanted to say. Art was about seeing.
When Morris walked the cobblestone street onto Florence’s famous bridge, Ponte Vecchio, he had remembered it differently. From the street, the shops built on either side made it appear as if it were just another city street—no view of the Arno River as he’d remembered from forty years earlier. Halfway across, a tiny plaza with a short brown wall opened up the view. He glanced at the yellow, orange, and golden buildings built right up to the river’s edge on both sides, which, wow, just look. It’s the sign he needed. He then heard, “Hey, professor!”
He turned and spotted two young women from his art history class, dressed warmly in January in long dark coats and large white purses around their shoulders. “Hey,” he said back, not knowing their names yet. New to the Kent State University Florence program, he’d been teaching there only a week and was still unboxing. “Incredible view, no?” He pointed to the Arno River and the old buildings on either side.
“Magical,” The taller woman said. “A place for fresh starts.”
He looked at her more closely, saw that her own light hair flowed from under her pink hat and around her blue eyes. Could she read his mind? “You, too?” he said.
“That’s what a semester abroad is about, no?”
The other said, “You’re only teaching this one semester?”
He nodded. “Just a one-semester sabbatical from USC. Maybe I’ll stay longer. Depends what happens, right?”
“You’re sorta like us,” the other said. “Experiencing a new culture, new ideas.”
He shrugged and said, “Taking chances, right? When I was your age, I visited Florence in the summer for a couple days.”
“Just a few days?” said the taller one under the pink hat. She was popsicle.
“A sin,” he said. “I had a great time here and ever since I’ve regretted not staying longer—or even living here.” He smiled, thinking of long-ago Luna Lizza, who had written her name and phone number on a gum wrapper at a discotheque and said her last name was pronounced “’Leetza’ as in ‘pizza.’”
“I wonder,” he said aloud, “if the discotheque I remember is still on the Via Cavour—the big street.” He looked at the other girl, round-faced, sensual in her smile.
“Discos are dead,” the dark-haired one said like an arrow flying off her tongue.
“Ah.” Morris did his best impression of dancing disco, shuffling his feet and pointing a finger in the air. The girls laughed.
After his students left, he sighed. Youth is wasted on them. He had one more place to go before his destination, where he had to expect a dead end. Still, his heart said it’d be great.
With his teaching position came a year’s pass to the Uffizi Galleries, the famous city museum, a three-story U-shaped palace with some of the world’s best Roman and Renaissance art. There was one piece in particular he had to see before taking his classes there. He’d used a slide of it in teaching, but he’d never seen it in person: Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”. He found it in Hall 10/14 on the top floor—a good walk.
There in front of him, with few people present in the morning, stood Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, nude on half of a giant scallop shell. He held his head a second, dizzy, as if a drug had just kicked in. Morris could feel the painting’s wind, the flowers flying, the waves lapping, the modest perfection of Venus herself. She’d been blown to the island shore by the male and female winds, Zephyr and Aura. Venus, born fully in the sea, was there to offer and celebrate true love among human beings. He whispered “Wow.” Perfect.
Morris had often pictured this Venus as embodying Luna Lizza, someone who’d brought him to her apartment near the Uffizi on Via dei Neri for a night of lovemaking he’d always remember. They’d written to each other for a few months until she told him of a new colleague named Andrea, the new goldsmith in the shop where she worked, and Andrea was an artist. Soon Luna told Morris she had to move on with her life. Her English wasn’t that great, he had realized, and he knew he’d probably never learn Italian well. Then he learned Andrea was a man’s name in Italy. Let Andrea have her. But what if Morris had stayed with her? He should have stayed with her. He hadn’t. What if he found her today? She’d be over sixty, no Venus. Still, maybe that spark for each other was still there. Maybe he could live here forever.
Now, as this painting towered in front of him, in a jolt, he realized that Venus looked much more like his ex-wife, Patricia, than Luna. Patricia had had those small, beautiful breasts. He’d met Patricia forty years earlier after his summer sojourn to Europe with a Eurail pass and a backpack. He’d accidentally gotten her pregnant—why hadn’t she used birth control like the few other girls he’d known? She insisted on keeping the baby. Of course, he married her, but his obvious yearning for Luna had become a point of contention and years of arguments, which led to a fight-filled divorce.
He had loved his son, Eric, now in advertising, but they’d become estranged and only communicated fleetingly. Eric blamed him for his mother getting breast cancer and dying. Of course, there was no logic to that. Still, if he had stayed with Luna, his life would have been different, a better path.
He marched from the Uffizi toward his future. He found the Via dei Neri where he remembered it. The five-story buildings on either side of the narrow street were the same—the Italians tore down nothing. A dozen young people stood in a single line at a window for panini sandwiches, which came with the scent of cooked ham and fresh bread. A modern farmacia stood next door. Across the street from that was an open-air butcher shop that had not been there forty years earlier. Still, the narrow door that he remembered was right there. He went up to it and saw a line of eight buzzers for the residents inside. One, to his utter surprise, was labelled “Lizza.”
He pressed that button, and the door buzzed. He pushed the tall, narrow door open. Walking up the concrete steps with a steady echoey huff and puff like the old man he was, he became anxious. His heart hammered. He paused. Should he leave? No. One desires what one desires.
This was everything he had dreamed about. Would she be appalled at how much he’d aged? His hair was still dark. He was in great shape. Would she even remember him? Maybe she’d remember his nose, a strong Roman nose with a downward tip. She’d had a cute celestial beak, slightly turned up.
A door above him opened, and someone above, a man, said, “Pronto?” Was this her husband—perhaps an ancient Andrea? Of course, she had to be married. He still had to see her. Morris would just refer to himself as an old friend.
At the next landing in front of Luna’s open door stood in the shadows a stylish man, gray at the temples, in a blue suit and blue tie, perhaps ready to go to work. He stared at Morris with one eyebrow arching up.
“I’m an old friend of Luna’s,” he said perhaps a bit loudly, but he wanted the man to hear he spoke English.
“She’s not here,” said the man.
“Will she be here later?”
“She no live here. She dead.”
“What? No, oh, I’m so sorry. Was it recent?”
“Two years ago. Some dropped olives. Some stairs. It’s too sad.”
“She slipped on olives?”
“Does it matter? She dead.” The man looked perturbed, then his eyes seemed to flash in recognition.
“What your name?”
“I’m Professor Morris—”
“My mother’s lover?”
“What?” Morris realized the man was about forty.
“Go away,” said the man. “I don’t wanna see you again,” and he stepped inside, closing the door with a scowl and a slam.
Only then did Morris see that the man had looked like Eric, with the same Roman nose.
With a click came the door’s dead bolt.
Tall, thin Rhiannon, with a pink hat, and her roommate, Julia Hernandez, continued on from the Ponte Vecchio, where they’d run into their art history professor. With Julia’s Google Maps directing them, they headed for Florence’s Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as the “Duomo,” for its architectural stunning dome, the largest dome in the world made of brick. If Rhiannon’s excitement for this city were Twinkies, she would be three-hundred pounds.
“It says to take a right, no, now straight,” said Julia, looking at her iPhone and pulling her long dark hair behind her.
“I told you these narrow streets are terrible for Google Maps. I’m using this thing.” Rhiannon found in her purse her paper map that she had picked up from a counselor. “We go straight,” she said. “The Duomo is just off the Via Cavour, by our classrooms. We know where that is.”
While their professor, Morris White, would probably take the class to the Duomo, everyone said the Duomo was the jewel, so may as well start there. After what happened to her in L.A., all this foreignness was great.
Julia, seeing the sign “Via del Corso,” mistaking it for “Cavour,” had them walk down it, into the Piazza della Republica and past the merry-go-round, which they pronounced “cute.” They soon found themselves at the Palazzo Strozzi, where a giant poster announced “Jeff Koons: Shine.” The poster showed a giant rabbit built in stainless steel.
“Whoa,” announced Julia. “A Jeff Koons art exhibition. He’s American—do you know him?”
“I love contemporary art — better than all the religious stuff around here,” said Rhiannon.
“Why’d you come to study here then?”
“I needed to get away.”
“Murder someone?” ask Julia.
“Asshole boyfriend ghosted me. Fuck men. This is art. Let’s swallow it up.”
They bought tickets and strode in, then rented headphones to hear the curator speak in English about Koons and each piece, learning about the concept of “shine.” Much of Koons’ artwork was highly polished, mirroring the viewer. It was about being in the present and connecting the viewer to the art.
Rhiannon walked herself around the large “Metallic Venus,” a nude woman in the last stages of pulling off her robe. It had a highly reflective blue surface, making it a challenge to see the actual form, the breasts, the belly. The curator in her ears said, “Koons aims to bring classical meditations on beauty, sexuality, and innocence into the present with new technical virtuosity.”
Rhiannon wondered if her ex-boyfriend, Bryce, eight years older than she and a resident doctor in anesthesia, could see her naked body for its beauty, sexuality, and innocence?
In another room, she walked around a giant reflective red Valentine’s heart with gold ribbon. What would have Bryce thought of this? He’d been into analyzing love so much. Then again, when at the Broad in Los Angeles and Bryce saw Koon’s statue of Michael Jackson and his monkey, Bubbles, he’d said, “This is art? It’s a joke.”
“Can’t humor be in art?” she’d said.
“I hate contemporary art. Look at that.” He pointed to a giant chair and table in the next room where people walked under it like Lilliputians. “Give me great nudes.”
Then he disappeared, not then, but later. In hindsight, he’d been manipulative all along, quoting over and over the five love languages, which she’d never heard of. He said it was from a book and that “people show and receive love five different ways: in quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. You only have two of them.” He wouldn’t say which two.
One evening when he had popped over unannounced and wanted to go out to dinner, she told him she’d had a hard day and needed to zone out for an hour. She turned on Wheel of Fortune and read about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West on her iPad. Bryce just sat next to her silently, not touching her at all. She liked holding hands. That was a love language, no?
After about fifteen minutes, Bryce had stood and slipped out the door. She assumed it was to get something from his car, but when he hadn’t returned, she called him. He didn’t answer—not then, not for the next few hours, not for the next three days. She called two of his friends to see if they’d heard from him. One had an hour before, but Bryce had not mentioned her at all. She could go over to his dumpy condo at the beach, but fuck him. She had been innocent, unaware of ghosting, until it happened to her.
On day three, he sent her a four-page, single-spaced Microsoft Word file going over everything lacking in her, including not paying enough attention to him and not making love often enough. He was such a poor lover, all she could do was text him to stay away. She never wanted to see him again. He stayed away. All she wanted now was just to soak up Florence.
After the exhibition, she and Julia walked back to their student apartment, which they shared with five other girls for the spring semester.
Their university apartment offered much space. She and Julia shared a high-ceilinged bedroom, as did two other girls, and the remaining three had single rooms. The apartment came with two bathrooms with a sink, toilet, bidet, large step-in shower, and a heated towel rack—standard for Italy.
Their white dining table had room for eight. One girl, an Italian-American, loved cooking and made linguini with truffle cheese that night for everyone. It could have been a scene out of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, where beautiful young people—no old people, no kids—basked in their youth. At the table, Julia said, “Who wants to go dancing tonight? I heard the Space Club is a huge place, fits up to eight hundred people on the dance floor.”
“The Space Electronic Discoteca,” said one girl, “Women get in free on weeknights.”
“A discotheque?” Rhiannon said to Julia, wary. “I thought discos were dead.”
“Since when did dancing die?” said one girl.
“There are about a dozen discos in this small city,” said another.
“Let’s go to Space,” said Julia, taking Rhiannon’s hand.
“I need to study,” said Rhiannon.
“No, you don’t. You want to see this city.”
Pausing, Rhiannon rationalized it as cultural exploration. She agreed to go.
Julia had insisted Rhiannon dress appropriately. They all dressed in slinky, seductive dresses, hit the cobbled streets, and stopped at a bar with outdoor seating, heaters, and filled with young Americans drinking. Four boys nearby raised their shot glasses, and one said, “Down the hatch, and here’s to snatch.” Rhiannon already regretted going. She only ordered Red Bull, not wanting alcohol, but Julia and the others ordered “whatever shots those boys ordered.” The young men overheard, raised their glasses, and shouted, “Yeah!”
The four came over, and one introduced himself to Rhiannon and said, “We all go to the NYU campus up the road here.”
“New York University has a campus here?” she said.
“Yeah. The La Pietra Estate—fifty-seven acres with five villas and a huge olive grove. We’ve got classrooms, dormitories, incredible meals. They only drawback is it’s a mile from here.”
She soon tired with all this testosterone and told her friends she’d meet them in the club.
The Space Club could have been from a Hollywood film—warehouse-like with platforms off the balcony, one with a swim-suited woman and another with a shirtless young man in jeans grinding alone. Computer-controlled spotlights on the ceiling moved in synchronization, changing colors, and laser lights blasted off in many directions off a mirrored spinning disco ball while hard-pounding repetitive music enveloped the many undulating bodies on the dance floor. Video screens on the edges offered images of the dancers. Two bars generously poured drinks. A head-phoned DJ with turntables and digital inputs had his own platform slightly above the dance floor.
Rhiannon and her roommates, now boyless, found seating on the balcony up a wide set of stairs. While the place could hold many, only about fifty danced, and just as many sat at the tables. It was just after nine p.m., still early. The women may as well have been fly paper as another group of four American young men buzzed over with extra shots of vodka. Rhiannon turned one young man away.
“Really?” Rhiannon shouted into Julia’s ear.
“Relax. Have fun. Have a shot.”
“I’m going to get a Red Bull.”
She stepped downstairs awkwardly in her heels and ordered at the bar. As she poured the narrow can into a glass of ice, she heard from her right, “Allora. Let me get you a whisky shot for that.” The young Italian man next to her held a Heineken. “I’m Dario,” he said.
“Rhiannon – and I’m only having Red Bull tonight.”
“Rhiannon, like the Fleetwood Mac song?”
“Oh, Christ,” she said. “It’s such an oldie. My grandmother gave me the name. Maybe I’ll change my name to Jane. I wish that song would go away.”
“Believe in me, your name is beautiful.”
“You should try someone else, Dario. I’m not going to stay long.”
“You have a boyfriend?”
“It’s not that. I’m not a dancer.”
“Everyone needs to dance. Life is a dance!”
Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” burst on, and Dario bopped in place for Rhiannon, waving his arms, snapping his fingers. He offered his hand to her. She looked up to the balcony, and Julia peered at her, clapping and gave a thumbs up. Dario saw the roommate, too, and returned a thumbs up. Rhiannon followed him to the floor. Unlike Bryce, who mostly jerked his neck when he danced in place and would barely look at her, Dario never broke his gaze and became as fluid as liquid mercury. He took her one hand. She followed his syncopated style and soon laughed.
At the end of the song, they returned to the bar, her Red Bull still there. He asked her if he could get her a whiskey shot for it.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That was fun, but I better rejoin my friends.” She left him and walked up the stairs with her drink.
On her way up, her roommates except Julia came down the stairs with Italian boys, sexuality dripping from them all. “Sex is life,” thought Rhiannon. Julia was deep in conversation with a young man who raised his glass when he saw her and said, “Allora!” Another Italian. Florentine Italians must feast on all the Americans. She wondered how many women from the program would hook up here and stay. When Julia spotted her, Julia said, “Where’s your guy?”
“I left him. I’m not looking for an Italian boyfriend.”
“Italians are the best,” said Julia’s Italian.
After the next song ended, the familiar strains of a guitar then drums of a Fleetwood Mac song erupted. Steve Nicks sang, “Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night, and wouldn’t you love to love her?”
“No, no, no!” Rhiannon from L.A. shouted. Julia laughed, and the young man said, “What’s the problem?”
“That’s her name, Rhiannon,” pointing to her roommate.
And then in front of Rhiannon stood Dario, holding out his hand. “We must dance to this. This is you,” he shouted, pulling her up.
“What kind of coincidence is this?” said Rhiannon.
“No coincidence. I requested it.”
They floated down the stairs and danced. For the first time in forever, she loved this song. With tears in her eyes, thinking of her late grandmother, she laughed with Dario and simply let go. Afterwards, she drank a few shots with Dario and danced more. Dario breathed her in. She’d never had such attention. At one point, she told Dario she had to go to the bathroom. He nodded. That’s when she ghosted him by just leaving, going back to the apartment alone. She didn’t need complications.
The next day in art history class, Professor Morris White started the session late, walking in as if deep in thought. He announced, “As I mentioned in the first class, the importance of Florence was this was where the Renaissance started, thanks to the city being the center of the European wool and cloth trade. Political power rested with rich merchants, particularly the Medicis, who built churches and then hired artists, who brought images of the Bible to life.”
Rhiannon raised her hand, which seemed to interrupt the professor’s train of thought. “Yes?” he said.
“Before we get much farther, I’m wondering is Florence now just lost in time? Old is everything?”
He seemed baffled. “Some of the best artists of all time, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto, Botticelli, all lived and worked here. There is much to learn about art from—”
“But it’s all old,” said Rhiannon. “What about Jeff Koons, a living artist? He has a show here.”
The professor’s jaw dropped. “Koons gives us what? Banality and kitsch? A giant rabbit that looks like a balloon?”
Rhiannon kept quiet. When he saw she wasn’t going to say anything more, he said, “Today we are going to the Duomo, which, as you know, dominates Florence. Construction started in 1296 with the intention….” He sighed as if thrown off his mission. “…With the intention that it would hold all one thousand Florentines and be the largest cathedral in the world. It holds three hundred. For all its grandeur, it is not baroque inside and has few flourishes. The outside façade was added in the nineteenth century. Anyway, follow me.”
He walked rather fast, so the class had to keep up. Julia came up to Rhiannon quickly. “Why’d you ask that? It angered him.”
“Nothing wrong with my question. Last week, he was friendly. What’s happened to him?” They saw the man hurry ahead, and some of the class had to run.
As they came around the corner, the Duomo, like a vision on a cloud, appeared across the plaza, a huge mostly marble white building with black zebra strips and flourishes of pink, and plenty of statues placed inside arched niches. A colossal arched door with a grand circular rose window above it added much grandeur. A separate, tall belltower stood next to it with the same gorgeous marble.
The professor walked up to the two guards, whispered to them, and pointed to his class, and they were let in. Inside they walked across the polished marble floor that held geometric patterns in black and white. In a large whisper, the professor pointed to the dome at the top, painted not unlike the Sistine Chapel with intricate figures and scenes from the Bible. He said, “When the cathedral was built, there was no dome. No one knew how to build such a big one, nearly 150 feet wide and 180 feet from the ground. Over a hundred years later, along came Filippo Brunelleschi with truly genius engineering, which really started the art of architecture. The dome was started in 1420 and finished in 1436 with over thirty-seven thousand tons of bricks. It’s still holding.” Looking directly at Rhiannon, he said, “Could Jeff Koons do such a thing?”
Then he told a tale of two Medici brothers stabbed in this very church, the assailants encouraged by the pope to kill the Medicis. One brother died.
As they walked back to class, Rhiannon hurried up to him and apologized for asking her question in class. Then she asked, “Have you seen Koons’ show?”
“Whatever for?” he said.
“I got a lot from it. I don’t feel intimidated by his art as I do this,” she said, pointing to the Duomo. “Koons wants people to feel and sense things in looking at his art, which was probably what Renaissance artists wanted, right?”
“Koons said art is about the journey, about becoming. His reflective surfaces want to put you in the here and now.”
“Isn’t that pretentious?”
“Would you call Michelangelo’s statue of David pretentious?”
The professor glanced at her.
She continued, “I love how Koons said that good art gives you a biological excitement for your own future.”
That made him stop right then and there. Julia and the rest of the class walked past them, looking.
“My own future,” White said. “I seemed to have lost my future.”
“Maybe you should see the Koons show. It might remind you that art is about the now, not so much about what Christians in the Renaissance thought about God. Aren’t we God?”
White laughed and looked at her more seriously. “What’s your name again?”
“I know that song. A Welch witch. Is that you?
She shook her head.
“You made my day, young lady,” and he stepped off, not back to the classroom but another direction. She shrugged, then made her way back toward her apartment. When she arrived at her building, a young man in a white coat turned around. Dario. He smiled when he saw her. He held out a small bouquet of flowers. A gift, a love language. She grasped it, touching him, smiling.
“How did you—” She was going to ask how he found her, but Julia must have told him where they lived.
“Look,” he said. “I wanted to see you again. Is that okay?” He held out his hand. She took it, perfect like sculpture, but warm.