by Vincent Zandri
The first time I came to Florence it was for love. At least, being in love was the plan since I was on my honeymoon with my first wife. This is back in the late 1980s when I harbored the insane idea that getting married right out of college would be the fun thing to do. Barely in our twenties (I couldn’t even grow a beard yet), we returned Stateside from the honeymoon to no money, mounting bills, and misery. I was a young writer looking for his start which no one would give me, or so it seemed at the time, and it didn’t take too long for my wife and I to realize our major mistake. She went her way and I packed up my bags and went straight on to writing school.
The second time I came to Florence with a woman I “loved” was in the late 1990s. It was a crazy time for me then since I was trying to find out how many different ways I could piss away a $250K advance from Delacorte Press for the publication of my first big book, The Innocent (formerly titled, As Catch Can). Despite my partying like a rock star (and even playing drums in my editor’s band, Straw Dogs), the book would go on to sell a ton of copies over three editions. But the marriage, alas, would not fare so well. As much as I loved my second wife, she could not compete with the love I had for words and the nomadic writing life. We split up, but I never stopped loving her.
The third time “love” brought me to Florence was in the late 2010s. This time the love interest was an artist and art professor from New York. It was her first time in the Renaissance city and I recall leading her by the hand down the narrow Via Faenza all the way to where the Via Zannetti ends at the Via De’ Cerretani and the Piazza Del Duomo. I asked her to close her eyes while we inched our way out into the piazza. When I told her to open them, the first thing she saw was the marvelous white and green marble of the massive cathedral. I thought she would pass out from shock. In any case, she cried real tears over the experience. I must admit, I too became choked up at her come-to-Jesus reaction. Three months later she broke off the relationship without warning.
So when it comes to Florence and love, I guess you could say I’m three and out. Or, in the words of my publicist, I’ve come to expect the unexpected.
I haven’t always come here for love however. I’ve been coming to Florence for a number of years now to work. Initially, it seemed like a good place to base myself back when I was writing for RT, and some other global news and trade outlets. I might travel on assignment to West Africa or Moscow, and then instead of heading back to the States and locking myself in my one bedroom apartment, I found it much nicer to work out of romantic Florence. Unlike my love life, Florence always seemed to work like a lucky charm for me when it came to my writing.
I recall just three years ago, I was here working on some stories for RT when I got word that the then Governor of New York declared that the Empire State was going to go bankrupt in just two week’s time. It was late in the day and I’d already started on a cold beer when I quickly pitched the story to my editor out in Gorky Park. She approved it, giving me just a couple hours to research and write it. Somehow I managed to deliver the piece in just under an hour and half. That night it was the lead story in Eastern Europe. Dumb luck? Or did Florence have something to do with it?
After that experience as a freelance journalist, I kept coming back to Florence for longer and longer stays. This time as a novelist. Since 2008 I’ve managed to write at least three novels here. These include my two “Florence” thrillers, Blue Moonlight (Yes, there’s a rooftop chase scene atop the Duomo) and The Shroud Key (The main character is a writer/adventurer who lives in New York and Florence and who’s always in trouble with the ladies … Go figure!). Presently I’m here completing the first drafts of two new novels. Moonlight Weeps and a new stand-alone, The Breakup. I’ve been here only a week, but thus far, I’m ahead of schedule.
If I had to put my finger on it, I really couldn’t tell you why Florence works for me as a writer. My life here isn’t all that much different from my life back in New York. I get up, make the coffee, sit down at the computer and, in the words of Papa Hemingway, “bite on the nail.” Towards noon I’ll get in a run and/or a visit to the gym. Then I’ll write until maybe five o’clock at which time I’ll head to a favorite local watering hole for a beer or two. My adopted local tavern in Florence is the Fiddler’s Elbow in the Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Like they do when I walk into my favorite bar in New York, the barflies will welcome me with a “Hey Vin!” On occasion someone will ask me if I won the war of words today. I’ll usually respond with, “I’ve won the battle, but never the war.”
So then, why do I keep coming here, year after year? Is it the coffee, the food, the wine, the way the rain-soaked stones in Piazza Della Repubblica glisten from the bright lights that shine down on them from the revolving carousel? Maybe it’s never being sick of walking past the Florence Cathedral and seeing the larger than life stone chiseled faces of Cambio and Brunelleschi, the former looking dejected in his failure to engineer a proper dome for the structure, the latter looking upwards at his crowning achievement. Perhaps it’s the way the mighty Arno makes you feel when you walk along its banks, the heavy brown-silted water making its way towards Pisa and eventually, the sea. Or maybe it’s simply the art. For Florence is a living museum. It’s all about the art.
Sure, Florence isn’t without its faults. It’s full of mosquitoes and drunks who walk the streets in the middle of the night wailing indiscernible words to no one in particular. There are hordes of tourists especially in the summer and early fall months. It’s certainly not the cheapest place in Italy. All I know is that every time I come here, I can depend upon something good happening to my career. Two years ago I spent the much of the summer here with my son, Harrison, who is now also a writer. During our stay I got a call from my agent. He’d landed me a seven book deal with Thomas & Mercer along with a very nice advance. And just a day after I landed here last week, he sent me an email telling me he’s working on a possible movie deal for my standalone literary thriller, The Remains.
So the luck continues, but not the love. Or perhaps I’m wrong about that.
You might recall the second wife I mentioned just a few paragraphs ago. The one I left but whom I still loved? She’s coming to see me for the holidays. Turns out, we’re giving our love another try. Or, in the context of this thread, we’re rewriting our story together. A small part of that story will once again take place in Florence. It’s true that this ancient city of art and inspiration will always be my writing muse. The one place I can count on for providing me with strings of sentences, paragraphs, and polished pages. But it will never take the place of finding true love. True love is where the heart is. It knows no bounds, no limits, no geography. It certainly can’t be pointed to on a map or discovered in a travel magazine. Love just is.
This time, I’m not letting go. But then, you never know. This is Florence after all.
Vincent Zandri is the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author of the Everything Burns, The Remains, and the Chase Baker series. He’s also a freelance photo-journalist and solo traveler who divides his time between New York and Florence. To more go to www.vincentzandri.com