‘What? You and Katy are bringing your three kids to Italy for three months? Are you nuts?” That was the general reaction to our plan by friends who have traveled with children. The other was, “Eric is gallivanting around Italy” and “eating at fancy restaurants” (obviously, that came from people who don’t have kids).
My wife and I jumped at the chance to live in Florence when I was offered a teaching stint there, even though it was financial folly to bring over the whole family. Escaping the tail end of a grueling winter was enough incentive, but Katy and I knew that we would be in Tuscany long enough to experience day-to-day life — including its difficulties. If we have to be around our wild, screaming children (Eilif is 10, Otto is 8, and Astri is 2), can’t we at least be around beautiful art? “You know that Italy has more masterpieces than any other country, right?” my Italian friend Roberto told me.
“Isn’t ‘masterpiece’ a judgment call?” I replied.
“No, no, these are confirmed masterpieces,” Roberto insisted.
“But can’t each artist have only one ‘masterpiece’ by definition?”
“You don’t understand. You see, where you’ll be, Florence, has the most confirmed masterpieces of any city in Italy; therefore, it is the city with the most masterpieces in the world.”
I could see my semantic argument led nowhere; besides, he’s right that no other city (except maybe Rome) can come close to the sheer volume of first-class Renaissance art. Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini noted that just the basement of the Uffizi stores enough artwork to create major shows in New York City for five years.
Lesson 1: Prepare to envy your children
Our Italian friend Carlo had warned us about signing the kids up for Italian public school: “You will spend all of your time navigating the bureaucracy, getting signatures, and signing documents. By the time you get them into school, it will be time to come home.” Instead we opt for a private art-based school called Kindergarten, even though Eilif is a bit insulted since he’s in fourth grade.
Our boys aren’t so sure this is a good idea and are visibly nervous entering a foreign school, even if they can understand much of the Italian due to their language lessons in Minnesota. The first day, both Eilif’s and Otto’s teachers open their doors and give the boys bear hugs and multiple kisses on the head. They melt with relief at the warm welcome. I soon deduce that all this hugging and kissing could be why lice is so rampant among the students.
The boys are thrilled with the free spirit of the school; no one scolds them if they run in the hall, and everyone seems to like how “vivace” they are. They’re fueled by the frequent Nutella snacks and freshly made, three-course lunches of pizza margherita, fresh mozzarella cheese balls, risotto, prosciutto cotto, etc. “They’re eating far better than we are,” Katy points out.
What’s more, their classes take regular outings to local landmarks. Our kids already missed this year’s trips to the Uffizi and the climb up the cathedral, but Eilif’s class goes to the DaVinci Museum in Florence to see models of Leonardo’s inventions. When that isn’t enough, they take a bus to the town of Vinci to see where the Renaissance master’s revolutionary ideas began.
Otto’s second-grade class has to settle for a daylong trip to Livorno on the Mediterranean, while Eilif informs us his entire fourth-grade class will travel to Turin and then to the steep mountains of Valle d’Aosta near France for two nights. Who in their right mind would take a gaggle of forgetful, know-it-all 10-year-olds to a major city and then to precipitous cliffs?
“That’s just what we do!” the principal tells me. Indeed, nearly all Italian classes beginning in about third grade take major trips around the country.
Lesson 2: The walk to school isn’t all innocence
Each school day, we traverse 2 kilometers across Florence’s historic center to take the kids to school. As we approach the Ponte Santa Trinità, I put on my professor hat and point out to the boys that this is where Dante met his beloved Beatrice. They’re more interested in the tourists who have discovered gelato first thing in the morning.
I point out the fog enveloping the bridge from the River Arno, but this haze instead comes from a gaggle of junior-high kids, all smoking and flirting out of sight of their parents and teachers.
The sun rises and pokes through the arches of the spectacular, precarious Ponte Vecchio, and now I know why we came to Italy. We know spring is here because of the Americans in T-shirts and khaki shorts and the Italians still bundled up in heavy parkas with wool scarves.
I want to show the kids the glories of Italy and open their eyes to the world as we walk through this Renaissance town. I avoid calling attention to the vending machines selling condoms and cigarettes outside the pharmacies, accessible by anyone 24 hours a day.
We rush to reach Giotto’s bell tower by the time it tolls at 8 o’clock. I tell them about architect Filippo Brunelleschi’s incredible feat of finishing the cupola over the cathedral with medieval technology.
Eilif looks up at the giant red roof, “Papà, were you alive when Brunelleschi built his dome?”
Lesson 3: Invest in art
Since we’re staying three months in Florence, we invest 100 euros in an Amici degli Uffizi card, which is valid for free entrance to all the Florentine state-run museums for a year. We skirt by the lengthy lines with the card — essential for little ones who won’t wait an hour.
I ponder how to keep squirrelly boys from practicing their all-star wrestling moves among the pensive art lovers. It’s strange how boys tackling each other in front of Botticelli paintings unnerves museum guards. Katy wisely outfits the boys with little scavenger-hunt books about the art, so they can earn their gelato.
Some of the artworks are decidedly un-family-friendly. (Try explaining Giambologna’s sculpture “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” which depicts the male founders of Rome stealing women because they needed offspring. Definitely adult material.) Still the boys are fascinated by the story of Giuliano de’ Medici being assassinated in the cathedral while his brother Lorenzo narrowly escaped through a secret passage. And the tale of the priest Girolamo Savonarola’s “bonfire of the vanities,” lit after he convinced Florentines to torch their makeup, jewelry, books — even Botticelli burned his paintings — in Piazza della Signoria.
Sure the nude sculptures are embarrassing for them, and the religious art is tedious, but Caravaggio’s wide-eyed Medusa, a tangle of snakes on her head, and Artemisia Gentileschi’s chiaroscuro of Judith chopping off the head of Holofernes are fantastic. Terrible, yes, but kind of cool, I’m told.
All this blood and gore makes them want to try this for themselves. Perhaps they learn a bit too much from the paintings of Cain and Abel or the history of Romulus and Remus because, like all good brothers, they soon grab sticks and duel. Fortunately, our card gives us unlimited entrance into the Boboli Gardens, but the signs everywhere warn, “È vietato calpestrare le aiuole” (It’s prohibited to walk on the grass).
Lesson 4: Stoplights are merely recommendations
Some of the narrow medieval sidewalks are barely 18 inches wide and cars zip past, as we feel the protruding mirrors nearly clip our elbows. I’m terrified we’ll lose one of the kids to a speeding motorist, but Eilif assures me by the second day, “Don’t worry, papà, I have the Italian roads all figured out.”
Fortunately, signs in the historic center tell us that most streets are pedestrian only. That is, the only vehicles allowed are police cars, firetrucks, ambulances, vigili di finanza (the treasury police), delivery trucks, taxis, local residents, and any scooter that can evade the traffic cops. A Florentine friend tells me, “At least cars don’t go on the sidewalks as they do in Naples.”
I try to teach the boys to obey lights at intersections, but my Italian friend Guido points out that, “red stoplights are recommendations.” He tells me that we Americans like things to be black and white, but nothing works that way in Italy. “Do you want to submit to authority?” It’s a political question. In other words, even if the light is green, our kids need to look out.
While talking with Katy outside a pizzeria, I’m almost nicked by two scooters going the wrong way down a one-way street, zipping within inches of Astri’s stroller.
The owner of Trattoria Nerone shrugs it off, saying, “What can you do? We live in a republic. Sure, the police can take their licenses if they’re caught, but it’s a democracy, so they think they have a right to break the law.”
Pedestrians have really won the battle only in the main tourist spots, where even taxis give up trying to get through phalanxes of French tourists. We have a secret weapon: a cute 2-year-old in a stroller who parts the waters for us. Bring a baby to Florence to sneak through crowds. When she screams going down the narrow alleyways, sometimes store clerks will bring out a little cookie to settle her down.
At the sight of Astri, a little old lady puts her hands to her cheeks, exclaiming “Che meraviglia!” (What a marvel!). Even slick young Italian men in the latest Armani fashions break their stride to take a look.
Astri is haughty, though, and is far more interested in pointing out doggies and other babies. When she sees paintings of the Virgin Mary or posters of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” she exclaims, “Mamma!”
Then a group of Japanese tourists notices our little cherub. Who needs the Palazzo Vecchio with the copy of Michelangelo’s David when a real, live angel is here? They take turns having their photo snapped with her, but she’s not so pleased.
We push through the crowd and she notices the giant David statue and declares, “Papà!” Good girl.
Eric Dregni is a professor of English at Concordia University in St. Paul and dean of the Italian Concordia Language Village, near Hackensack, during the summer. His books include “Never Trust a Thin Cook,” about his travels in Italy.