A serial memoir by Jean Fogelberg



In July of 1973, Dan was a 21-year-old artist and musician exploring Florence. Making his way slowly through the Museo Palazzo Vecchio with his drawing pad, he stopped in front of paintings and sculptures to make sketches, just as artists throughout the centuries had done before him. The museum closed for an hour in the afternoon, but when a guard came to clear the section Dan was in, he took pity on the engrossed young man and quietly told him he could stay. For a whole hour, Dan had the palazzo to himself. For an art lover and Italian history buff, it was too good to be true. 
    I love that story. I think of Dan wandering the ancient rooms where Cosimo Medici and his wife Eleanora once walked, where 50-year-old Leonardo da Vinci and 29-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti worked on separate murals in the palace’s Council Hall, becoming lifelong enemies.
    Dan’s hour of bliss is all the more remarkable considering the scandal that had rocked the art world less than a year before. In May of 1972, Michelangelo’s sculpture, The Pieta, had been badly damaged by a man wielding a rock hammer at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 
    The Palazzo Vecchio guard must have sensed Dan’s deep reverence for art, beauty, and history, to leave him alone that day. Twenty eight years later, Dan was in Florence again, and he would be walking in his own footsteps.


    We checked into our room at the Hotel Lungarno, and I went to look at the tub while Dan headed straight for the balcony. Opening the glass door, he stepped out and gave a little “Ah!” After a few seconds he called over his shoulder, “Jeanie, come look!” I stepped out next to him and there, towering over the red tile roofs of the city, were the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, and the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as Il Duomo di Firenze (the dome of Florence.) While doing research for our trip, Dan had read Brunelleschi’s Dome, Ross King’s fascinating book about the creation of Il Duomo, and he couldn’t wait to revisit it with a new appreciation.
    Below us flowed the Arno river, and to our right was one of the most famous bridges in the world, the Ponte Vecchio. Crossing the narrowest part of the Arno, the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) was built in 1345, and was the only Florentine bridge to survive the Germans as they retreated from the city in August of 1944 at the end of World War II. It has gone through many changes in 700 years, but fine jewelry shops line both sides of the medieval stone bridge now, and have since 1593.
    After freshening up, we made our way to the Palazzo Vecchio and ate dinner at one of the outdoor trattorias in the square. While Dan was on a mission to get to know Italian wines, I was determined to try every pasta dish they made. We sat at our table until the sun went down, talking about everything: Europe, the upcoming summer tour, the ranch, and how much we missed Buckaroo.

    Dan always regretted his early decision to not tour Europe but, at the same time, he was enjoying feeling like Joni Mitchell’s Free Man in Paris, “unfettered and alive.” No one recognized him, even our fellow American tourists. For that matter, no one mistook me for Bo Derek either, and I had to wonder how much of the hubbub at the Kentucky Derby was due to people's expectation of seeing her there.


    The next morning, we went out in search of art and culture. Unfortunately, every other tourist had the same idea, and they had reservations. The museums were booked solid, with long lines of ticket holders standing at the doors. A lot had changed since Dan had been there before. While searching for a cathedral or museum we could get into, we were seeing a lot of fabulous clothes and shoes, so we shopped. Dan bought me a navy blue linen suit and, on the Ponte Vecchio, a pearl and lapis necklace.
    We were in a housewares shop when I noticed a circular staircase at the back of the room. On the wall next to the stairs was a sign that said, “Mario’s Salon.” “Hey,” I said, pointing. Dan said, “Let’s check it out.” At the top of the stairs was a bright, open space with row of mirrors and chairs down the middle. Mario, a nice-looking man in his fifties, welcomed us in Italian, then English. He was the owner and head stylist and he had an opening in a few hours. Dan looked at me to see what I thought. Unlike the salon in Paris, I liked Mario’s vibe and made a reservation.
    After lunch, Dan dropped me off at the salon and we agreed to meet up later at the hotel. I was nervous as I sat in the chair with my freshly-washed hair so, when Mario asked how much to cut off, I spread my thumb and index finger a few inches apart. He snipped, then turned my chair so I could look and, after a brief hesitation, I motioned for a few more inches. He snipped and turned me again and our eyes met in the mirror. His upturned eyebrows were asking, and recommending, “More?” I took a deep breath and said, “Sí!” He took a little more off and we nodded at each other, then Mario called a young woman over to blow-dry my hair. When she was done it was shiny and smooth and a few inches below my shoulders. Mario declared it “Bellissima!”


    Two days later, we finally got into Il Duomo, and it was magnificent. Dan had enjoyed reading about its creation, but actually standing under the gigantic dome made it all the more incredible. In 1418, Florence's magnificent new cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, had been under construction for more than a century. All it needed was a dome, then it would be finished. Almost everyone believed a dome would be impossible: the base was an uneven octagon with no true center, and the space was so tall the workmen would have no central supports to hold the frame up during construction. Out of desperation, the town fathers announced a competition, asking for models or design ideas for the vaulting of the main dome.
    The design that won had been proposed, not by a carpenter or mason, but by forty-one year old goldsmith and clockmaker Filippo Brunelleschi. Once construction began, he started implementing new techniques, some of which experts still don’t understand.

    As we tried to imagine medieval workmen placing bricks in a herringbone pattern 350 feet over our heads, we could easily understand why many called Brunelleschi a madman. It took sixteen years to complete the dome, and during that time he proved that he was, in fact, a genius. In the process of inventing systems to lift 70 million pounds of brick and stone into the air, Brunelleschi reinvented architecture and created the largest masonry dome in the world.
        Back on the street, we saw some beautiful jewelry in a store window and went in. There were two chairs in front of a display case of hoop earrings, and we sat down and peered inside. The manager welcomed us and sent a sullen twenty-something salesgirl over. She was pretty, with big waves of thick dark hair and lots of perfectly-applied makeup.

    Mistaking her surly attitude for boredom, or resentment of foreigners, I smiled and pointed to a pair of thin hoops and asked if I could please see those. Her frosty demeanor didn’t change as she pulled the earrings from the case. Dan saw a pair he liked, made of thick, twisted gold and said, “Those are nice, try those on too.” The salesgirl smiled at him and said, “Si, beautiful,” and put them on the glass top. They were surprisingly light and, with Dan’s usual good taste, they looked nice on me. “You like?” Dan asked. “Yes!” I said. 
    The salesgirl looked me right in the eye and said, “Are they for your daughter?” It was such a malicious jab, I was momentarily speechless. Dan sensed the sudden tension but, being “a guy,” he was clueless about what had just transpired. I told her we didn't have children, then I smiled reassuringly at Dan and said, “I love them, thank you.” I kissed him, putting the awkward moment behind us. But later, oh, the post-confrontation fantasies! Here’s my favorite…

    She says, “Are they for your daughter?” Looking stricken, I suddenly burst into tears, crying, “Our daughter is dead! Today was the first day we have felt any happiness since the accident!” My sobs bring the manager, who shouts, “Antonia, you and your wicked tongue! I’ve had enough!” and promptly fires the salesgirl.

    Anyway, I still have the earrings, and my wonderful memories of Florence. And that twenty-something salesgirl is now a forty-something woman, making her way in a world full of pretty young girls with something to prove to themselves.
    That night we dressed up for a fancy restaurant and took photos before heading out, using my camera’s remote shutter release. Then Dan photographed me, standing in front of the balcony, wearing my beautiful new linen suit, pearl and lapis necklace, and the gold earrings. In half of the pictures I’m blurred out, and the Duomo is in focus.


    After breakfast, with only two days left in Florence, Dan said he wanted to wander with his camcorder, and it sounded like he wanted to do it on his own. We'd been together every moment of every day and a little solo time sounded good, so when we went back to our room I called Mario’s and asked if I could have the assistant style my hair again. They said if I came right now, they could fit me in.
    Dan was organizing his camera bag as I hurried out the door, with a promise to look for him later, between the Ponte Vecchio and the hotel. With a fully charged battery in his camcorder, he went to the balcony. As he filmed what he saw, he kept up a running commentary.

Sculling on the River Arno.
It’s a lovely day to explore the charms of Florence.
Brunelleschi’s duomo.
Palazza Vecchio.


   His camera scanned down to the Arno, looking for me to appear on the other side.


    Exiting the hotel, I turned east and walked to the Ponte Vecchio. Crossing over the bridge, I turned west toward Mario’s, walking along the Arno, just opposite our hotel room. 
    In the next scene, Dan has zoomed in on me striding purposefully down the sidewalk. As the camera follows me, Dan resumes his commentary.

There’s a girl on a mission.
These European babes. Wow, huh?
Jean Marie, on the way to Mario’s, to have her hair done.


   Just then, a young guy with light brown hair crosses the street and makes a beeline for me. He says something to me and I pause briefly to answer, then continue walking. He follows, talking, and I keep throwing answers over my shoulder.

Wonder if I’ll ever see her again.

   I pull ahead and it’s just me in the shot now. I toss back a few more brief answers, then I walk on, without looking back again.


    Dan turns off the camera.


    The guy was a cute Australian. He asked me for directions to something and I told him I didn’t know where that was. He asked another question and I said I was just visiting, I didn’t know my way around at all. After a couple more questions, I said I was sorry, but I had an appointment and didn't want to be late. As I pulled further ahead, he shouted, “I wouldn’t mind taking you out!” I shouted back that I had a boyfriend.
    Boyfriend. By now, I realized that I’d been wrong about Dan proposing in Europe. That, combined with the Are they for your daughter? jab, had left my ego feeling a bit fragile. Suddenly, I really appreciated this good-looking guy, with his lovely accent and tenacious flirting, so I looked back one last time and called out, “But, thank you!

    The next twenty minutes of Dan’s video shows cathedrals, crowded courtyards, and statues. Then he’s on the Ponte Vecchio, where crowds of people amble and linger in front of fine jewelry stores. He focuses on a window with “Cappelli” painted in gold lettering, then pans down and zooms in on a big display of diamond rings.

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New chapter coming October 24th

Posted October 17th. 2020 Copyright ©Jean Fogelberg 2020