I came to Florence already full of it, as most visitors must be. I'd long been fascinated by the site of medieval political power in the coercive, claustrophobic bosom of family life. I had wondered at the strange humans who built European society, and their ideas of justice that were at once more intimately brutal, and more innocent, than ours.
We found the stone circle that marked the spot where the preacher Savoranola, unable to prove the legitimacy of his visions, was burned alive. I took photos of the honeyed front of the Medici residence. We marvelled at the Golden Bridge, peered in the bridge's shop windows at black velvet folds splashed with diamond jewellery. From our vantage point we spotted, incongruously, a small dead shark washed up on the riverbank.
Young life ebulliently made its mark upon centuries of other lives. Florence was strange and bright and complicated, implausibly beautiful, wrought with graffiti, crowded with tourists. It's a place that existed before Christ. It's a roaring city that continues, incredibly, onwards.
So there was glory and gore, but of course, much more. Next to the Basilica di Santa Croce (our 1970s guidebook dismissed this church as 'mediocre') there is a statue of Dante, glaring down upon Florence. His disapproval cloaks the city and is enjoyed by everyone. The statue is engraved 'A Dante Alighieri, L'Italia' – 'To Dante, from Italy'. In the courtyard of the Uffizi Gallery, the riches of the city are displayed, each made of marble, set on his own plinth: the men who made their mark. Galileo, da Vinci, Machiavelli. Men outside the herd.
I was tickled by the wealth of stubbornness – how little loved some had been in their lifetimes, how obstreperously they had stuck to their ideas. The legend of Galileo is that he publicly backtracked on his idea that the earth moved round the sun, capitulating to the Catholic church, but was said to have muttered later, 'Eppur si muove' – 'and yet it moves'. I thought of a man in private communion with his own earth, knowing its true nature. I thought of his fate, to remain alone with his knowing, doubted by all, trapped by time.
These are the stories that make Florence magnetic. The Medicis these days are Netflix fodder, disarmed and picturesque, but Dante remains apart, matchless, deified. I have just begun to read 'The Divine Comedy' (after seeing his thunderous face looking down upon us, I felt I had to), and find his vicious optimism riveting. He grabbed celestial scenery and brought it down into his lowly, bickering Italy, and joined allegorical animals in conversation with Florentine citizens. He lived in politically calamitous times and hoped for better.
I was primed to compare Florence with Glasgow. I came to Dante in a back-to-front way, led to him by one of the modern artists he greatly influenced, Alasdair Gray. Our Renaissance man, a fan and translator of Dante's work. I knew that hell was in Glasgow before I realised it had been found before in Florence. I had read 'Lanark' when I was new to Glasgow and resolutely hated the whole city. Damnable place, full of rain. The novel was the key. It made Glasgow real for me, somehow, through the novel's surreal surprises. It spoke honestly of the city's failures, through exquisitely detailed metaphor (such as the disease of Dragonhide, a numbness and uncontrollable violence affecting the limbs of Glasgow's people). Eventually, for me, it made the city beloved.
Quite far into the book, the character Duncan Thaw suggests to his fellow art student McAlpine why nobody notices how magnificent Glasgow is:
'think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he's already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn't been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or a golf course, some pubs and connecting streets. That's all...Glasgow exists as a music hall song and a few bad novels. That's all we've given the world outside. That's all we've given ourselves.'
A place cannot have a sense of itself unless its citizens can reflect upon it, criticise it, skewer the pomp of the leaders, imagine better, dream upon its foundations. Since reading 'Lanark' I've been searching for more. Recently in my search I came across the poet Kate Tough and her poem 'People Made Glasgow'. In a mere 35 lines (and a few chilling notes to follow) Tough opens up the belly of the beast.
Her fury is focussed, supple, mesmerising. She flips the callow branding, stating the shame of our slave-built city, the guilt and disgrace that runs through the place. You can find it rightfully included in the Scottish Poetry Library's 'Best Scottish Poems' of 2016. She writes of our history and our current malaise: 'The whip's crack / comes a little after / the whip's stroke.' This one line speaks more to me of Glasgow than any amount of maudlin reminiscences of life in the tenements.
The poem brought the reality of the city's history to me. This is no trivial achievement. Duncan Thaw is right. If we want our cities to flourish, let them be used by artists.
Photograph by John Lord