Food is the new Florence

‘Yes,’ said Lucy. ‘They are lovely. Do you know which is the tombstone that is praised in Ruskin?’
[…] ‘I like Giotto,’ she replied. ‘It is so wonderful what they say about his tactile values.’

These famous words are uttered in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, by Lucy Honeychurch in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. When he published it, in 1908, the hopeful middle classes in Britain and the US all dreamed one day of going to Florence, to follow in Lucy’s footsteps. Many would have recognised, with a frisson of delight at their own erudition, that ‘tactile values’ is a quote from Bernard Berenson. And for decades this persisted. Everyone wanted to find out the answers to the same questions that bothered Lucy. And travel publishers brought out guide after guide to help them, earnestly describing fresco cycles, assisting the eager visitor to view with understanding what needed to be viewed and understood.

Today that mould has been broken. Tactile values can go hang. Not that human nature has changed; it cannot. Travellers still dream of going to Florence and they are still anxious to see and to experience. They are as delighted as ever—as thrilled as Lucy was—to get a personalised guided tour and to tell everyone back home.

But not in Santa Croce. The Peruzzi Chapel doesn’t have the glamour it once had. Far better would be if the maitre d’ at Enoteca Pinchiorri, thrice Michelin starred, were to rush forward, usher you to an excellent table, whisk the menu from your hands and offer to concoct a personalised gastro tour, just for you.

So yes, it’s still all about wanting to emulate the heroes of our age and to be admired in our turn as members of some charmed inner circle. Lucy and her culture-hungry counterparts were aping the patrician Grand Tourists of the previous century, who had wanted art and sculpture. Lucy joined them, wanting art and sculpture too. But today our heroes have changed. They are no longer aristocrats and aesthetes with cabinets full of Tuscan bronzes or walls adorned by Renaissance artists with breathtaking brushwork. They are TV chefs with Mediterranean herb gardens and nifty knife work. When we go on holiday, we don’t hang upon the words of Berenson. Few may need to know which was the tombstone admired by Ruskin. People are traversing Italy as much as ever, but with Plotkin, not Ruskin, as their mentor.

Food, after all, is universal. Everyone eats. And now too, unlike 50 years ago, the travelling, vacationing classes do their own cooking and housekeeping. Food is a levelling, absorbing subject. Suddenly, for the mass of travellers, Giotto’s pigments are not half so interesting as Maestro Giorgio’s condiments.

For the Blue Guide Italy Food Companion, a handy guide to help you negotiate any menu (and available in print or as a downloadable app). Fred Plotkin’s Italy for the Gourmet Traveler is published by Kyle.

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