On my first visit to Florence, I spent more time at the outdoor markets than the indoor museums. I was 21 and wanted to bask in the Tuscan sun, shop for “Made in Italy” shoes, and use my student status only for the very must-sees. On my second visit, a day trip during the Cortona Contemporary Music Festival in July 2006, I abhorred the markets but did not have the patience to queue for the museums. It was too hot and crowded.
With my mother, on my third visit to this city of cultural greats, I am discovering a Florence I didn’t know at all. I could sit for hours in the church of San Maria de Ricci and succumb to its powerful organ music.
Each day I stumble upon a hidden treasure, such as the museum of musical instruments in Galleria dell’Academia. Most people go to the Academy to see Michelangelo’s David. I, on the other hand, spent most of my time gazing at Christofiori’s pianoforte and Stradivari’s violins. They are part of a larger collection of precious instruments kept at the Cherubini Conservatory next door.
When I googled for “lecture recital in Florence” I discovered Casa Guidi, home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. To my delight, it was open for visitors on a Friday afternoon.
“How do I love thee, let me count the ways…”
First, I convinced my mother that Casa Guidi was an essential part of our week in Florence.
Second, I arranged our schedule to walk south towards Casa Guidi, to arrive when it opened at 3 pm.
Third, I found the gold button for Casa Guidi on Piazza San Felice 8 and buzzed for an answer.
“If thou must love me, let it be for nought….”
I had recited and swooned in the Sonnets from the Portuguese as a lovesick teenager who read romance novels for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Where did Elizabeth Barrett Browning pen these eternal words of love? How did she live?
The friendly lady who welcomed us to the first floor flat showed us the room where EBB and Robert had worked. She briefly told us the story of how Casa Guidi came to be today. I was delighted to learn that it’s available for rent, through the Landmark Trust which restored it.
I asked if I could take photos and sit on the chairs. I wanted to time travel. I hungered for some inspiration — some part of that poetic license that would bring back my urge to compose again.
I didn’t just admire EBB’s love sonnets, I craved for whatever that caused words to pour out of her. Was it inspiration? Or was it overpowering love?
Once upon a time, I was a slave to my music. I’d suddenly hear or feel a passage that commanded my utmost attention. I would drop everything to sit at my piano to write down the notes before they escaped me. The first draft of each manuscript was holy. Often I felt I was a mere conduit —- that the music existed long before I had known how to transmit it.
Four years of conservatory taught me that composing was craft. You could learn to compose. You could learn to compose better. In the process, I unlearned how to compose. The first draft was no longer holy. And the final draft was never complete.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote 44 sonnets in secret, chronicling the intense love she felt for Robert, before they married. A year after their marriage, they left England for Florence and moved into Casa Guidi.
Does creating a great work require such strong passion? Such strong love?
“I lived for visions for my company instead of men and women, years ago….”
In their bedroom stood a closed Bechstein grand piano. I felt no urge to touch or play it.
Perhaps I really do need some time off, time away from my duo, my piano, my “normal” life. Time to reflect. Time to empty my mind. Time to plant the seeds of tomorrow: how to get my duo to travel to Florence and live in Casa Guidi?