The picture that E.M.Forster paints of 19th-century Florence is irresistibly alluring and slightly repellant at the same time. His characters fall head-over-heels under its thrall, find romance and adventure and yet are only too conscious of its danger and its potential for perdition. Florence is Paradise and Inferno; it is after all the city of Dante.
Forster in ‘A Room with a View’ encapsulates this contradiction in the scene where his heroine audaciously takes to the streets unaccompanied and gets embroiled in a terrifying scene culminating in the horrid and violent death of a beautiful young man. Some of the most glorious achievements of Western Culture are to be seen in Florence. Yet it is the city where Savaranola was burnt at the stake for preaching austerity, where the Medici disembowelled their enemies before hanging them from the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio and where the Black Death stalked the streets for the best part of three hundred years. Orson Welles’s ‘cuckoo-clock’ diatribe also comes to mind.
After nightfall on a January evening, you might well find yourself completely alone in the narrow streets around the Ponte Vecchio. Alone, that is, except for the company of the shades of Florence past, including Lucy from ‘Room with a View’. It is a wonderful time to be in the city. You might even fool yourself that you are not in the most tourist-oriented city in Europe. The museums are empty; even the legendary queues outside the Uffizi are conspicuous by their absence.