Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Stephen Bayley

The Design Museum founder visits the cradle of the Renaissance – and finds it lacking

Stephen Bayley

Image: Brijesh Patel

September 29 2010
Stephen Bayley

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Five forty-five this morning. The ambitiously-named Sala VIP Masaccio at Florence Airport was a fine place to ruminate on personal progress in the 40 years since I first visited the sombre, but magnificent, City of the Flowers. Especially so as I had tortuously wound myself into a weak approximation of comfort in a nasty copy of a Le Corbusier masterpiece armchair.

The lounge was horribly cold, had deafening announcements, offered only mystery German liquor and what I overheard described by a cross American as a “crap dry turkey tramezzino”. The coffee machine was out of water and Simonetta Vespucci with a Croydon facelift behind the desk did not want to fill it. Sometimes you wonder how the Florentines acquired their reputation for gastronomy and style.

Meanwhile, shooting pains in my back were as provocative as Proust dunking. So the little delusions of status gathered around me like a vengeful army, picking and spiking and jeering. We were four hours delayed for “operational reasons”. This, I think, includes a multitude of unpleasant possibilities. Not least another Airbus 319 pilot leaving the ops room screaming that he can’t do it again on such a preposterously short runway.

In 1970 I was a backpacking student with pre-Raphaelite curls camping near the Piazzale Michelangelo. To pay for pizza, I distributed flyers for a dodgy bar owned by a gay Texan dentist. There were three of us on that trip, but we only had a two-man tent. Since one of us was a woman, this provided an amusing rondelay of erotic opportunity… and, let’s be fair, erotic jealousy as well. I stayed for a month, hitched back in three days and when I wrote up my notes on an obscure Donatello, won a prize for travel writing which led me to… the Sala VIP Masaccio in a dawn today as pitilessly black as Savonarola’s cape.

This trip was different. I am a non-executive director of a PR firm which specialises in luxury goods. I normally have as much enthusiasm for the hoo-hah attending press events as I do for a dead rat on a stick, but this one seemed different. An exhibition about Galileo and time sponsored by the client seemed dignified and as it coincided with a wedding anniversary, off we went. No tent this time, but a marmoreal and dark wood room of ecclesiastical proportions with a whimsically Forsterian view of the Arno shaded by billowing nets. (Plus a whiff of drains from the less grand hotel opposite.)

The exhibition was sponsored by Panerai, the historic re-enactment of military kit which has become a roaring success in the luxury watch business. Curiously, Sylvester Stallone had a part in this brand-renaissance, but that’s a story for another day. Luxury watches are a business apart, with a coruscating social and aesthetic dynamic crazily opposite to the austere zeitgeist. And budgets with a nice other-worldliness. I asked someone how this was possible: he did a stupid look and explained 45,000 units a year and none of those units retails at less than £2,500. Do, as he said, the math.

So last night it was the Sala dell ’500 in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, the one decorated by Vasari and of a scale and ambition appropriate to the first Masters of the Universe. This is what you do for entertainment if you have serious money to spend. Never mind the lombatino, lamponi and the cute pappa al pomodoro: the thing that amused me was the murderous waiters with their trays of drinks hanging around Michelangelo’s Genius of Victory as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Which, in Florence, it is. The shadow cast by a gigantic sculpted penis may not be how Richemont wanted the evening remembered, but for me the image is ineradicable.

Back in 1970 I amused myself and learnt rudimentary Italian by remembering notices. A favourite was “E pericoloso sporgersi” which you found on train windows. We have come on a bit since then: eventually on the plane we were again stuck on the taxiway waiting for traffic to clear. “Mantenete la cintura allacciata quando siete seduti” – keep your seat belt fastened when seated – is what I taught myself at midday. I suppose it’s a metaphor of life itself.

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