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    Monday, May 27, 2024

    The river of time

    I liked to throw a wooden stick off the side of a bridge when I was little, then rush to the other side to watch it floating away. I liked how water changed but the river was still the same. I sometimes found a speckled, round stone to splash into the river so I could make a more permanent change to the river bottom.

    I fell in love with an Italian girl during my junior year abroad in Florence, Italy when I was 20 and hadn’t the money to stay for the summer. So I went to every shop between the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza Pitti, asking for a job and pleading my hopeless love story. I even took a train to Lucca because I read about a job looking for someone 190 cm tall (I’m 191). Little did I know the job was for a fashion model and … well … I have a face more for radio than billboards. The guy in charge told me curtly: “Vada via. (Go away.)”

    Undeterred in my search, I met Giuliano Martini, who owned a Cartolleria (stationery shop). He hired me to run his shop while he went traveling. And so during July and August of 1986, I sat in a small shop in Piazza Pitti and sold fancy Florentine stationery, postcards of a naked David by Michelangelo, wooden Pinocchio puppets, and reprints of Botticelli, Fra Angelico, da Vinci, and Masaccio.

    Giuliano and I became friends. Over the years, we wrote letters with pen and ink – he on his beautiful Florentine stationary with one of the fountain pens he (and I) sold, and I wrote back with a a ballpoint and copy-machine paper (He was old school and didn’t email.) Every time I went to Florence, I would stop by the Cartoleria and be greeted with his booming voice and then go for dinner or coffee.

    The last time I went to see him before COVID, he was different. Giuliano had the unmistakable masked facies, shuffling gait, and tremor of someone with Parkinson’s disease. We talked about his diagnosis and I called a few times. Then I didn’t hear any more from him. His phone was disconnected.

    My wife and I (the same girl I described above) were in Italy last week and stopped in Florence. The cartolleria in Piazza Pitti – “my” cartolleria — had changed to 39 Rosso, a lovely new shop owned by Lisa, a bright, cheery woman who sold interesting art objects and artiginal creations. She told me that Giuliano had died. I was, of course, saddened, but also glad that she had resurrected his space, filling it with bright, artistic creations. The store had changed just like the water of the Arno River, but like the river, the essence of the shop remained. Giuliano, I am sure, would have loved it.

    We walked down a side street of Piazza Pitti onto Via dei Velluti, a quiet narrow street. Through the window of the same dusty workshop I probably passed 100 times in 1986 without noticing, I saw an elderly maestro carving something on a work bench. Luigi Mecocci is now 87 year old, a master restorer and wood sculptor. Signor Mecocci was just then restoring an ancient wood statue of a woman — possibly the Madonna. At some point in the last several hundred years, her hands had broken off and he was carving new ones.

    I am a passionate woodworker and he welcomed my questions, spending over an hour showing me his hand positions, carving chisels, sharpening stones and techniques that have not change much over the centuries. S. Mecocci told me that, at 87 years old, he was looking forward to closing his shop at the end of the year. He had a hand injury from a planer accident and could barely use his left hand, and yet he was still quite capable of carving two very graceful hands for the statue he was restoring.

    On my last night in Florence, I stood alone on the bank of the Arno River and looked at the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge), and thought about Giuliano’s Cartolleria, Lisa’s 39 Rosso, and Signor Mecocci’s restored statue — each of them shiny stones settled into the bed of the river of time.

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