The Wages of Sin and Enlightenment (in Three Parts): Part Two – Florence

From Venice we travelled on to Florence; here things improved in our relationship.

Our love-making took on a more relaxed tempo. The urgency of the doctor’s ardour seemed to diminish; her drive for sexual excess to grow less insistent. For me it made a welcome change and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking the height of fervour might be passed.

We stopped snapping at each other under the stress of her unreasonable physical demands. The situation grew calmer, and strangely enough it began to feel more fulfilling. We started to go about Florence with increased zest and savoured every moment of being together. Love in the afternoon was dispensed with. We had too many other distractions as we tried to get around all the art galleries and shops for which the city was renowned. Everywhere we went there were artisan craftsmen working in their individual workshops, producing items of jewellery in gold or silver, or leather or decorative glassware.

There was one teacher I had been very keen on when I was at school who would often talk to me about Naples and Florence and their place in history. It had been a dream that I might visit both cities one day, and now the dream was being fulfilled in the case of Florence. What was more, the visit was being made in style, since the doctor had the means to demand the best – I could not believe my good fortune. Here I was in the city where, during the Renaissance, the ruling family of merchant bankers, the Medici, had used their wealth and patronage to make it a centre of art and learning. The Florentines in their day had been pre-eminent in appreciating the importance for humanity of the driving forces of imagination and intellect. The poet Dante was a native of the city, though forced to live some of his life away from it for political reasons. Brunelleschi had invented modern perspective there and designed the great dome of the cathedral. Giotto established a new realism in fresco painting in the church of Santa Croce, Leonardo and Michelangelo came to the city to work. Galileo defined many of the principals of modern science in Florence, under the protecting auspices of the Medici – though ultimately they could not save him from the persecution of the Inquisition and he was forced to recant his confirmation of Copernicus’s theory that the earth moves round the sun.

A catalogue of facts went spilling through my head. I had no way of guessing what an important focus for many of my activities the city would become some thirty years later when I ran a conglomerate dealing with luxury goods and fine textiles. In those days to come I would be visiting Florence on a regular basis, seeking to buy and market the finest of hand-crafted artefacts that their manufacturers could offer. Similarly I could not know, as I stood and admired a handsome Tuscan villa called La Pietra, which looked out over the city from its imposing hillside position, that this too would play a part in my future life. It stood behind its imposing iron gates, beyond a grand approach of stone steps and balustrades, surrounded by a marvellous garden landscape with trees, shrubs and statuary. La Pietra was the home of the Actons, whose familial links with Florence and the rest of Italy went back well over a century. It housed one of the finest collections of art and antiques ever assembled.

The assembling had been done by Arthur Acton, a businessman and speculator, and his American wife Hortense. The old couple still lived in their fifty-four-room palace at the time with their son Harold. In my wildest dreams I never imagined that a day would come when I would be invited there as a guest of Sir Harold Acton, as he later became, and forge with him a friendship that would last for the rest of Sir Harold’s life. Harold was one of the outstanding scholars and raconteurs of his generation, though he did not come in to the freedom of his full inheritance until after the death of his mother at the age of ninety. Right to the end she never trusted him with his own latchkey – but such odd stories awaited discovery a good way along the road ahead.

In the evenings on this first visit to Florence I and the doctor dined in style at fashionable restaurants and sipped vintage Italian wines until late in the evening. I, who was not accustomed to heavy drinking, was always tipsy as we negotiated our way back to our hotel. Generally, once in the room we would hurriedly dispose of our clothes and just collapse on the bed, lying flat out as the night ticked by. Yet, however profoundly asleep I was I would be remorselessly roused to semi-consciousness in the small hours as her roving hands explored my body and its sexual state.

Then, somehow or other, I would find myself manoeuvring to perch on top of her and thump away, unable to tell whether I was groaning in ecstasy or pain.

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