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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : A Lifelong Love for the City of Florence : THE CITY OF FLORENCE by R.W.B. Lewis ; Farrar, Straus & Giroux $27.50, 342 pages

August 03, 1995|KAREN STABINER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

People like to believe that writing a book is a populist endeavor; how many people do you know who have announced that someday they are going to give up whatever they do for a living and just write a book? I suppose it is true that anyone could do it--but not everyone can do it well, a distinction sometimes lost in an era of instant books and celebrity as-told-to's.

But R.W.B. Lewis has managed to do two things in his well-informed, passionate contemplation of Florence, his part-time home for the past 50 years: He makes the reader fall in love with a city, and reminds us of the cool, simple glory of a beautifully turned phrase.

It took nothing to convince me of the former, since the last time I was in Florence I spent much of the time trying to figure out how I could stay there. I will be forever grateful for the latter. Reading Lewis is like visiting the city he writes about: challenging, amusing, full of subtle detail and somehow deeply reassuring. This is wonderful history--detailed, fluid, and carried along by emotion.

Lewis first came to Florence during World War II, and then visited as frequently as his academic schedule would allow with his wife, Nancy. "Visit" is perhaps the wrong word. They were never tourists. The Lewises from the start realized that the best way to know a city was to live in it--not in a hotel, where layers of service personnel sat between an American couple and city life, but in an apartment. Part of understanding Florence comes from books. Part of it, as Lewis outlines with such obvious pleasure, comes from experience.

He writes of the neighborhood he and his wife lived in in 1957 as though he were describing people, not places; Lewis has an ability to bring to life the architecture of Florence and relate it to the city's personality. "These three palazzi-- rugged Spini, severely graceful Bartolini, festive and ornate Corsini--are as unlike one another as buildings can be," he writes. "Yet looked at from across the river--from where a single glance can take in all three--they appear oddly conscious of one another. They have a living relationship; they stand juxtaposed without jostling, respectful and self-respectful. Much of old Florence, in its private life, is implicit in the pattern they form."

He embraces the diversity, finding in it nothing less than "the energy of life itself." Other Italian cities may be more important in terms of media and politics--Lewis acknowledges that Florence is overshadowed in that regard by Rome, Milan and Turin. But Florence provides him with a different sort of stimulation, an infectious energy. He devotes a late chapter to the Santa Croce neighborhood where he most recently stayed when he was in Florence, introducing the local shopkeepers as though they were significant historical figures. Which of course they are, at least to the author.

I cannot imagine visiting Florence without reading this book. For that matter, I cannot imagine thinking about Italy without reading this book. Those of you who have no intention of going to Italy may as well read it, too.

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