The same but different

"The Fire, Air, Earth & Water did contest
Which was the strongest, noblest and the best,
Who was of greatest use and might’est force..

That Fire should first begin, the rest consent,
The noblest and most active element..

I'le say no more, but this thing add I must
Remember Sons, your mould is of my dust..

Ever in craving from the other three
But thou art bound to me [Water] above the rest,
Who am thy drink, thy blood, thy Sap, and best..

I am the breath of every living soul
Mortals, what one of you that loves not me
abundantly more than my Sisters three?
And though you love
Fire, Earth & Water well
Yet Air beyond all these you know t' excell.."

-- Anne Bradstreet from The Four Elements

Mom & I awoke to another day with ideal weather. As part of our daily routine we descended a floor to the garden terrace of Hotel Della Signoria. The same, friendly, older woman greeted "Buongiorno." She wore the same blue dress, white apron, black sneakers and white nylon socks as days past. The sprightly lady reminded me of the title character in the book Streganonna. Since it was our third day at the hotel she remembered us… more accurately, we probably separated ourselves from the masses by being the only guests to not drink café. Although her gait was not quite erect, she came to the table with the usual bread basket, the usual condiment basket, and the usual urn of arancia rossa juice.

A few months prior Mom & I pre-paid for a guided tour of the Medici palace (comprised of courtyards, chapels, apartments, laboratories, balconies, salons and more) and lunch. We called to confirm -- since the tickets emphasized the importance – but the line continued to ring and ring and ring. Mom inquired at the front desk about an alternate telephone number for the company. The helpful staff member internet searched for the company and dialed a new number. The hotel clerk was prompted to wait for assistance and dutifully did so for an hour! Outraged, Mom told the sweet man to forget it and hang up. She thanked him profusely to which he replied "prego" a.k.a. "you’re welcome."
Without confirmation, we showed at Palazzo Vecchio at our scheduled time but there were no other foreigners hanging around. The staff there had no knowledge of our booking despite our confirmation code. Furthermore, they could not add us to a group until 16:00. Until then, we had free-time and had to redeem our pre-paid lunch on our own without the group.

Mom & I walked about six blocks to the so-called "authentic" (per Expedia’s website) Italian ristorante. However, it was jammed between a hundred other ristorantes near Il Duomo so we both questioned the validity of Expedia’s claim. To start, the waiter asked "rosso" a.k.a. "red" or "bianco" a.k.a. "white?" It was difficult to understand the man’s English so we assumed – once again, like during the tour of Mt. Vesuvius/Pompeii – that we would be served nasty pizza. The menu was predetermined so Mom & I were displeased to have paid money (as part of Expedia’s package) for terrible food we could have found on our own on the main drag.

Anyway, to sample both pizzas I chose red and Mom chose white. Our server returned with bruschetta and again Mom was let down since she does not like raw tomatoes. I was a happy for a different dish because I probably would not have ordered bruschetta off the menu. However, since it was placed here in front of me, I was going to devour it. I coaxed Mom into trying the appetizer and she actually enjoyed the bread and oil.

Surprisingly, our waiter returned with two glasses of wine and two entrée-sized plates. Mom received fettucine with red meat sauce and I received rigatoni with garlic-pesto sauce instead of pizza! We were both puzzled but then it dawned on me that red & white did not refer to the type of pizza, but the type of wine. Jubilantly we took spoonfuls of the other’s plate. Both entrees were delicious but I ended up enjoying Mom’s entrée more and vice-versa. We were sated and expecting to pay using our meal vouchers, when our server returned with two plates of dessert! Now this pre-paid meal was worth its weight in gold.

We weren’t sure what the dessert slice was, but it had the consistency of a pudding. From the first bite I definitely tasted Nutella – which was ubiquitous in Italia. Again, we had no idea what we were eating but we continued. Then I remembered a type of gelato I had seen in our wanderings that was labeled "Pear + Nutella + Mascarpone"… which must have originated from this popular Italian delicacy.

Mom & I returned to Palazzo Della Signoria and entered the elaborate vestibule. Much like The Uffizi the walls, parts of the columns, windows, and ceilings were decorated. We met up with our group and cute tour guide who – in my mind – was an Italian version of my American boyfriend. His chin-length, dark curly hair was tousled like Justin’s. He was skinny and rather short. He wore dark green, cargo pants and a plain t-shirt that (I think accidentally) showed his pale skin and hairiness when he lifted his arms. For a millisecond I missed home.
We started our "secret passages of Palazzo Vecchio" tour on the second floor in one of the Medici son’s bedroom. It had one large window and simple furnishings, but – like so many of the rooms in the palace – was interconnected through a hidden stairway in the wall. In a line, each member of the group passed from Francesco’s (pronounced "fron-chess-ko") bedroom into his alchemy-themed studiolo a.k.a. study. The room was windowless and shoebox-shaped with a semi-cylindrical ceiling. The floor was like the same red tile used on Florentines’ roofs, except it was flat instead of convex. Alcoves were built into the walls for displaying statues and busts, but the majority of the walls were covered with wood veneer.

A door was closed behind us the last person and suddenly, all the walls looked anomalous. Where was the entrata a.k.a. entrance to the studiolo? Behind us, instead of a door, were panels portraying The Fall of Icarus & Daedalus and Diamond Mine. The walls and ceiling of the barrel-vaulted room were covered by paintings, making it look seamless. Our guide told us there were actually three doors hidden within the studiolo. Each of the four walls represented one of the four elements: Fire, Air, Earth & Water. Although the canvases in each row all related to the same element, they hinted at the contents hidden behind the paintings in recessed cabinets. For example, one Water picture depicted a mermaid sitting in an oyster. Thus, that cabinet was rumored to have stored a fine string of pearls. Furthering the theme, the Water panels were opposite the wall of Fire panels, and likewise for Air and Earth. Mom said the room reminded her of my newest tattoo: an ambigram for the four elements.
The [original] ceiling was the melting pot for the tetrad and pictorially described how the elements manifested themselves in common lives i.e. the four seasons, the four humors, the four compass rose points – and nowadays – the four houses in Harry Potter novels, the Preferiti a.k.a. favorites in Angels & Demons. The center of the ceiling merged religion with science in Nature Donating a Gem to Prometheus. I was not expecting to see so many Greek deities in the studiolo, especially because the city – and the Medicis – were devout Catholics.

Yet, that’s why I adored the room so much! It – like Francesco – had so many qualities I saw in myself. First, the paintings’ allusions to the items within the hidden cabinets was such a puzzling and captivating idea. Second, Francesco was introverted like me (an only child who can stay in her apartment for days). Third, I applauded Francesco’s boldness to push humanity’s way of thinking further by creating such a heretical room that thoughtfully united the very different fields of religion, science, and art. This feature spoke to me a lot because the majority of my family argues that tattoos are trashy and blasphemous (vis-a-vis 1 Corinthians 6:19 "What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?") Yet, I see tattoos as body art and a media for displaying one’s beliefs and passions. To me I am Leonardo da Vinci & the ink on my skin is my Mona Lisa. Ironically, both of my tattoos are a testament to my Christian faith. Furthermore, the studiolo dealt with a subject constantly on my mind and dear to my heart: the juxtaposition of religion and science. I delve into Greek mythology despite considering myself a Christian. Many times I’ve heard people debate divinity vs. evolution, and while I identify with Christian values I simultaneously side with the scientific research. I have always had a difficult time sifting through my feelings, the physical evidence, my intuition and the dogma regarding this controversial subject… until I read "‘Show me proof there is a God’, you say. I say use your telescopes to look to the heavens, and tell me how there could not be a God! You ask ‘What does God look like?’ I say ‘Where does that question come from?’ The answers are one and the same. Do you not see God in your science? How can you miss Him! You proclaim that even the slightest change in the force of gravity or the weight of an atom would have rendered our universe a lifeless mist rather than our magnificent sea of heavenly bodies, and yet you fail to see God’s hand in this? Is it really so much easier to believe that we simply chose the right card from a deck of billions? Have we become so spiritually bankrupt that we would rather believe in mathematical impossibility than in a power greater than us?" from Angels & Demons.

We had lingered awhile in Franceso Medicis secret lab listening to tales, trying to make sense of the 34 panels, and asking questions to our attractive guide. The day was already hot and the palazzo already stuffy, but I could feel the temperature rise inside the cell from the group’s body heat/breathing. Mom started to feel it too and became claustrophobic.

Before Mom experienced a panic attack we left the studiolo via a different, hidden uscita a.k.a. exit. The stairway lead to Grand Duke Cosimo’s master bedroom. From there the group ascended two stories to the raised walkway at the back of the glamorous Salone dei Cinquecento a.k.a. 16th Century Room. I’ve been to the extensive hotels in Las Vegas, Nevada and the Hearst Castle in California, U.S.A. but still had never seen a single room – or painting – so mammoth. The people on the ground looked Lego-sized from my vantage point and put the frescoes’ size into perspective. The ceiling was covered in wall-to-wall, individual portraits in thick, gold coated frames. Although each frame was titled I don’t see how anyone could enjoy the art since it was probably unnoticeable from the ground floor. Front and center on the udienza a.k.a. raised stage a fencing competition was underway. The nostalgic room was the perfect backdrop for the medieval sport.
Afterward, one by one, each person in the group ascended another story, but now we were above the salon. We saw the network of thick, wooden support beams and the roof to the palazzo. The group descended one story again and stowed away to "Bianca’s room". It was dinky and apparently served more as a storage room. Outside, on Bianca’s private balcony that overlooked an interior courtyard, it was quiet (I assumed because no visitors were permitted to this private area of the palazzo). Yet, Bianca’s room had a secret too. Through a tiny, sliding piece of the wall, we were able to peek into the Salone dei Cinquecento and spy on the fencing contestants.

From there, we visited one more area of the palazzo. Two, smooth, green marble columns adorned the doorway to the Stanza della Guardaroba a.k.a. Hall of Geographical Maps. The centerpiece of the room was the mappa mundi a.k.a. map of the world with iridescent, Mother of Pearl inlays. In addition, rows of two large, wood cabinets were stacked. These lined three of the four walls and on the front of each cabinet door was an ancient map. Mom & I studied them carefully. They were in sepia inks and written in calligraphy. I saw former names of countries and it reminded me of the old world. Deep down I secretly hoped to see a map that suggested the Earth was flat. Allegedly, this stanza was meant to be very flashy and a way for Grand Duke Cosimo Medici to impress guests. Our young tour guide bid us farewell and disappeared through one of the cabinets (it actually was a façade and the two stacked cabinets were a life-size door) leaving everyone with the notion that nothing was what it seemed here.
Since Mom & I did not pay for general admission to Palazzo Vecchio we were expected to leave… but you should never give two curious women like us an inch or we’ll take a mile. So, Mom & I watched more of the fencing competition and wandered around for another hour. We passed through the Sala degli Elementi a.k.a. elemental room (not to be confused with Francesco’s studiolo) that was void of furniture and one of the few chapels within the palazzo.
Before calling it a night, Mom came with me on a personal quest. It was great to have a hotel in the heart of Roma and Firenze, but the downfall was all the restaurants were tourist traps and had the same menu. In the States, eggplant parmesan is one of my favorite Italian meals. Since arriving in Italia I had been scouring menus to find this dish that is so common in the U.S.A. One night in Firenze, Mom and I wandered all the streets/alleys in a three blocks radius of the hotel to find eggplant parmesan. Tonight, I continued my mission and finally found a ristorante near the Duomo that served it.

We opted to sit inside to avoid the constant walkers, possible mosquitoes, and Mediterranean heat. I ordered the so-called eggplant parmesan and Mom ordered the whole, roasted chicken with potatoes. I was taken aback when the aubergine a.k.a. eggplant parmesan arrived in a bowl!? There was no breaded vegetable patty similar to the way the meal is prepared in America. Yet, the top must have been baked hot enough because it was crispy.  Although it wasn't the American counterpart it was equally delicious.  To top off the great evening, Mom & I stopped at a different gelateria and split a scoop of Arancia Rossa (the same taste as the juice I downed every morning since arriving in Italia) -- that flavor turned out to be Mom's favorite gelato of the entire trip.


  1. Fascinating! Beautiful! Intriguing! Poetic! Harmonic! I so enjoy your incredibly creative and skilled giftedness for living life with such attentiveness, acuity, curiosity and celebration! I learned so much from this one as with all your writings! Consider yourself love and appreiated, Michelle! In thanksgiving for you, Julia

  2. Hi Julia! Thank you so much for your kind words... not many people comment ;) and for sticking with me through this journey. I wish I could've brought all of you with me! Wasn't that ceiling beautiful!?



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