The Italy of my imagination exists in perpetual summer. The days are pleasant and uniform; the sun casts long shadows, hour after hour, horizon to horizon, until it dips into the sea and gives way to a gradient twilight; the nights are warm and sort of electric.
I became conscious of this mental summer when I landed in Italy for the first time in mid-January. I met up with my mother, who had arrived a week earlier, and we stayed in functioning monasteries in Venice, Florence, and Assisi.
Italy in Wintertime has its own star quality. The light is different than in my imagined summer, perhaps starker, but no less lovely. There’s a welcome sense of solitude and self-reflection. The residue of warm-weather hedonism lingers, but everyday life is the main event. In Venice, first thing in the morning, men hauling stuff on utilitarian gondolas shout gruff greetings over their engines. Then, in Florence, refined older women in wool overcoats and low heels whisper together in front of beatific paintings of heaven and hell. A barista with tattoos on his hands makes macchiatos without looking away from a soccer match on his cafe’s tiny TV. In Assisi, a nun pauses at the window of her monastery’s chapel, lost in thought, and a couple, ascending a staircase, lifts their child between them. People bend against the wind, holding their hats down. Italy’s beauty in the off-season is comparatively frank. Reputed for its glamour, it shows up bare-faced and still wows.
Crossing a canal in Venice, not far from Casa Cardinal Piazza, the first of the monasteries my mother and I stayed in.
Inside Venice's Gallerie dell’Accademia. The most famous piece in its collection is Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.
Approaching Saint Mark’s Basilica. Tame pigeons flock here in huge numbers. We watched them land on unsuspecting tourists, who found it disgusting, and on students, who found it novel.
Quiet canal homes at sunset.
On the street in Florence.
A room in the enormous Uffizi Gallery. As with the Louvre, an entire day can easily be spent here.
Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as the Duomo. Like Rome's Pantheon, the Duomo is a gravity-defying feat of architecture that was considered impossible before it was done. Unlike the Pantheon, it was designed by a goldsmith.
Sunrise on the Duomo.
The garden at Istituto Suore Oblate, another of the monasteries that doubles as a hotel. It's about a 15-minute walk from the Duomo.
The ceiling in a Medici matriarch’s private apartment at Palazzo Vecchio. The Medicis eventually had a grander palace, Palazzo Pitti, built on the opposite side of the Arno River, flaunting their monopoly on Florentine wealth. The family could move between the two palaces via underground passage.
Buildings near the Arno River.
Inside Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Founded in 1612, it is Florence’s oldest perfumery. Orders are written out on slips, and filled from a dedicated storeroom by employees in crisp lab coats.
On the ascent to Piazzale Michelangelo.
The view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Michelangelo’s "David" at Florence's Galleria dell’Accademia. The museum also exhibits a few of Michelangelo's unfinished sculptures, recovered from his studio after his death. They provide fascinating insight into his process, and sort of validate his whole "The sculpture is already complete within the marble block" thing.
The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi as seen from Istituto Beata Angelina, our final monastery. Assisi is about three hours from Rome by train.
Inside the Basilica of Saint Francis.
On the street in Assisi.
Religious art inside Istituto Beata Angelina. In the mornings and evenings, nuns sing in the chapel on the second floor.
Even in January, the Umbrian countryside is green.