Two years ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting Florence with my friend, EL James, before the release of my Florentine Series. We have known one another for several years, having met while we were both writing fan fiction. Back in those days, our interactions online would sometimes develop into a story of sorts. When we had the chance to visit Florence together, I recorded what happened. What follows is a co-authored account of our adventure.
I hope you enjoy it.
The Prince of Florence stands on the top of Brunelleschi’s dome as last rays of sunlight fade from the sky. He races over the rooftops to stand on the top of the Loggia dei Lanzi, inspecting the Piazza below. Voices lift from the steps of the Loggia as two authors embrace and begin talking. He inclines his ear in order to eavesdrop on the conversation …
SR: “Hello Miss James, and welcome to Florence. I’ll be your tour guide for the evening. We’ll take a short walk and then maybe hire a carriage to take us to dinner. Do you like sushi?”
EL: ”It’s lovely to see you SR – and in your trademark Argyle socks. Thank you for agreeing to be my guide. And yes, I love sushi.”
SR: ”Excellent. The structure behind us is called the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is an open air monument that includes a few statues. In front of us is the Piazza della Signoria. It’s after sunset here in Florence and the locals are already milling about, enjoying the weather and having a drink in one of the bars before dinner.”
EL: ”It’s stunning. I think I need a minute to admire the view.”
SR: “Certainly. We’re fortunate there’s an orchestra playing to our right in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. I believe they’re playing Verdi. We can see a few couples dancing, lots of tourists sitting on the steps near us, and of course, families with children going for a walk.”
EL: (inhales) “The air is heavy with the scent of cigarette smoke from one of the bars, citrus from the potted lemon trees nearby and …”
SR : (Inhales deeply) “Some kind of perfume you’re wearing that smells exquisite. I’ll try hard not to sniff you – too much.”
EL: (blushing and giggling) It’s called Beyond Paradise by Estée Lauder. And thank you…
SR: (still sniffing) “It really is remarkable. And you look beautiful, by the way. I can’t help but notice those very fine looking shoes …”
EL: (clears throat) “Maybe we should walk.”
SR: (bowing) “Of course. Of course. Allow me to take your arm as we walk down the steps. I wouldn’t want you to turn your ankle in those high heels. I may have to photograph those for the Professor.”
EL: “I’m glad you think the Professor will appreciate these shoes. How is he?”
SR: “The Professor is doing well – considering. There’s a story I need to tell you about him.
“But before I begin, let’s turn the corner and wander over to the Uffizi Gallery so you can see it.”
EL: “Wow. So this is the famous Uffizi Gallery! Can we see inside or is it too late?”
SR: “I’m sorry to say it’s after hours. But I would be honored to give you a tour of the Gallery tomorrow.I know the Director, Dottor Vitali, and I’m sure he’d welcome you.
“Most of the world’s artwork from the Renaissance is housed in Florence and many of the most impressive pieces are here, at the Uffizi. They have Botticelli’s “Primavera” and “Birth of Venus,” along with works by DaVinci and Michelangelo.
EL: “Yes. Let’s go tomorrow. I love Primavera. Such a fascinating painting. I was studying it recently on the Google Art Project. You can zoom right in and see the brush strokes. I’d love to see it in person.”
SR: “It would be a pleasure to show it to you.
“Now we’re standing in the u-shaped courtyard formed by the Uffizi. If you look to your left, you’ll see a statue of Dante. In most representations, Dante looks perturbed.”
EL: “He does! He’s wearing a fine crown of leaves.
SR: “Here at the Uffizi is where the most recent story of the Professor begins. In 2011, the Professor decided to lend his set of Botticelli’s illustrations of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” to the Uffizi, under the supervision of the Director, Dottor Vitali.”
EL: ”I love that the Professor has decided to share his illustrations with the world. But he’s owned them and kept them secret for years. Why did he decide to share them after all this time?”
SR: “That is a very good question. His wife, Julianne, persuaded him that such works of beauty should be shared. The Vatican and the Staatliche Museum in Berlin have many of the original Botticelli illustrations but some of them have been lost. Gabriel’s set of copies are complete. So he owns images that haven’t been seen since the 16th century, when Botticelli completed them. Unfortunately, this is where the story takes a dark turn …”
At this point, SR looks around the courtyard nervously.
EL : “Oh, I’m all ears. What happened?”
SR: (whispering) ”I just need to be sure no one is eavesdropping. I have information that hasn’t been made public and I’m worried someone may be listening. But it appears the coast is clear, so I can tell you.
“Unfortunately, for Gabriel and Julia, the illustrations were stolen right out of the Uffizi in May of 2013.”
EL: “Oh No! That’s terrible!!!!”
SR: ”Take note of where we are standing, in the centre of the U, with the gallery on three sides. At the time of the robbery, this entire area was cordoned off and swarming with Italian police and Interpol agents. It was the biggest robbery in Uffizi history.”
EL: “Have the illustrations been recovered? Were the thieves ever found?”
SR peers around once more, paying special attention to roof of the Uffizi.
A mysterious figure, dressed in black, stares down at them from a convenient vantage point, absolutely invisible to the people below.
SR: “This is where the story gets interesting. When the police investigated the robbery, they noticed that the Uffizi’s security systems were still enabled. They hadn’t been switched off and they hadn’t been tripped. They weren’t any fingerprints found in the exhibition hall in which the illustrations were displayed and there weren’t any signs of forced entry in the building. One evening, the illustrations simply disappeared. But whomever stole them left behind a note, written in Latin: “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.”
EL: “That’s chilling! And such a mystery… and such a shame. I would have loved to have seen them!”
At this point, SR isn’t listening but seems intent on staring at an obscure shadow situated on the roof.
EL: “What is it?” (EL follows SR’s gaze)
SR: ”Don’t be alarmed, but I’m getting the impression someone may be watching us. I think we’d better head back to the Piazza and wend our way toward dinner. Are you all right to walk across the cobblestones or should we hire a carriage?”
An appreciative look is directed at EL’s shoes.
EL: “It’s such a beautiful evening. I’d love to walk, with your help of course.
And you’re right, I have the feeling we’re being watched. Is that ridiculous?”
SR: “Caution is never ridiculous in Florence after sunset. Let me escort you back to the Piazza. We’ll melt into the crowds and walk toward the Ponte Vecchio. But we must be careful. The very buildings have ears.”
EL: (whispers) “Tell me more about the Professor. I’ve missed him.”
They walk back to the Piazza under the watchful eyes of the creature on the roof.
SR: “Unfortunately for the Professor, his illustrations have not been recovered. It’s been over a year since the robbery and the thieves haven’t been found. Gabriel put a lot of time and money into the investigation initially, but there came a point when he stopped.
EL: ”Why did he stop? His wife must feel awful if she persuaded him to show the illustrations. Poor Julia.”
SR: “Precisely. She took the news very hard and was very upset about it, as was Gabriel. Given the attachment they both had to the illustrations – illustrations, I should emphasize, that were of Dante and Beatrice, one might wonder why they stopped their support of the investigation.”
“The Italian police and Interpol are still in search of the illustrations. But there has been no sign of them – even on the black market. Certainly, the police don’t appear to have any suspects. At least, none that they have made public. So why would Gabriel suddenly wash his hands of it? I have a theory.”
SR looks around carefully as they exit the Piazza and begin walking toward the street that leads to the Ponte Vecchio.
EL: (thoroughly intrigued) “I’d love to hear your theory.”
SR: (whispering) “Florence changes after dark.”
EL: “A shiver just ran up my spine. How so?”
SR: (smiling bravely) I can’t promise to best anyone who accosts us, Miss James, but I shall die trying. Certainly, I can shout loudly for help – in multiple languages.”
EL: “I have killer heels on. You’re in safe hands… um… feet!”
SR: “You are very brave, Miss James. But I hope it won’t come to that.
“There have always been legends that there are two cities in Florence – the Florence of the day and the Florence of the night. Legends abound as to a secret city that lies underneath this one, populated by strange creatures.”
EL: (holding SR’s arm more tightly) “Creatures?”
SR: “Beings that are – shall we say – not human.”
“Let’s turn left, toward the Ponte Vecchio, which is a charming pedestrian bridge that has shops on it. But instead of going across the River Arno, we’re going to turn right on a side street and head in the direction of a hotel, whose restaurant serves the best sushi in the city. And I shall continue my story on the way.”
EL: “Can we stand for a moment and admire the view? I hope the creatures are not abroad tonight. It’s such a mild evening. It doesn’t seem possible.”
SR: ”You’ll notice that every few steps there is a gelateria. We’ll have to try some after dinner. On this street and on the bridge there are lots of artisans and jewellers.”
EL: “I was looking at the jewellers earlier. And I’d love a lemon gelato.”
SR: “Lemon is my favourite, as well. Although I’d like to introduce you to pink grapefruit. It’s very refreshing. We just have to be sure to stay on the main streets and not venture into any dark alleys.”
EL: “Are you referring to the creatures or street crime in general? Or are the two related?” (EL looks nervously over her shoulder)
SR: ”During the day, Florence is a safe city. Here in the downtown core, even after dark the streets are filled with people, even families with children. But there have been reports of missing people, on occasion, and strange phenomena. For example, there’s an artist named Victoria, who I admire, who claims to have seen a man dressed in black standing at the top of Brunelleschi’s dome, where there is no scaffolding or balcony.”
EL: (Looks in the direction of the Duomo, which isn’t visible from the street because of the distance and the buildings)
“I can’t see anything at the moment,but I do have an uncanny feeling that we’re being watched. All I see are these beautiful, renaissance buildings. So old and brimming with history. (EL shivers) But on reflection it’s easy to imagine there is another, secret side to this wonderful city. A darker side…”
SR: “This was my reaction years and year ago when I first came to Florence. What if there were an underworld society, connected with this one, but the inhabitants only ventured from their caverns after dark?”
EL: “What if…? Maybe we should hurry along to our dinner destination. I’ll walk as fast as my heels will let me.”
SR: “Now that we’re on the side street, we just need to turn left up here and we’ll come to the hotel. This particular hotel is a favourite of Gabriel and Julia’s – they always stay here when they visit the city. Since it’s a lovely evening, I’ll just ask the host to seat us outside on their raised patio. As we turn the corner, you should be able to see it in the distance. It’s lit with candles.”
EL: “Oh it’s beautiful. And so romantic. No wonder the Professor and Julia like this place.”
SR: “Should we sit outside then? Or perhaps my tales of Florence’s underworld have been too much?”
EL: “No, outside would be lovely. It’s such a wonderful evening. Maybe we’ll get a glimpse of this underworld you’re talking about from the safety of the restaurant.”
The host welcomes them enthusiastically and quickly seats them at a comfortable table for two on the patio, underneath a large awning.
SR: “It’s funny you should mention that. After Gabriel’s last stay at this hotel, he quit Florence and washed his hands of the robbery investigation.”
EL: “Really? Why did he do that?”
SR: (Picking up the wine list) “You’re going to need a drink for this story. Let me just order a bottle and ask the server to bring some appetizers. They have deep fried asparagus that’s fantastic. I can also recommend their Philadelphia roll.”
EL: “Wine and tempura asparagus sounds perfect. I can’t wait to hear more.
“For wine, I’d prefer a crisp Gavi di Gavi. Perfect with tempura.”
EL nods at the waiter and shortly thereafter, the wine is served. The two authors toast one another and the city of Florence.
EL: (sipping) “Oh it’s delicious. This wine recently became a favourite while I was in Vancouver.”
SR: “I’d like to hear more about your adventures filming in Vancouver. I’ll have to ply you with gelato in order for you to tell me about the creatures that lurk about in Vancouver’s underworld.”
EL: “There are many, believe me. So tell me why the Professor quit this rather wonderful hotel?”
SR: “This is an exceptional hotel. Impeccable service. Beautiful rooms. Gabriel and Julia always stayed in one of the penthouse suites, which has a terrace. Unfortunately, during their last visit they seem to have had an unwelcome visitor, of the two-legged variety.”
EL: “No!!! That must have been terrifying.
“Are they okay?”
SR: “I believe so. Truthfully, it was difficult to get any information out of Gabriel and I tried on several occasions when I was visiting he and Julia in Boston. She was much more forthcoming. It seems that during their last stay at this hotel, while Julia was asleep, Gabriel woke up to find the door to the terrace wide open. The room was dark. And he sensed – a dark presence.”
EL: “Holy shit!”
SR: “That was my reaction, as well.
“Apparently, Gabriel didn’t see anything, but he certainly felt something.”
At this point, SR pauses thoughtfully and takes a drink.
“In the past, Gabriel has seen things that defied explanation. Based on those events and his description of what happened in the hotel room, Julia thinks he was visited by a ghost.”
EL: ”That’s another shiver up my spine! Having said that – in a city with this much history – there must be many ghosts.”
SR: “Once again, that’s my reaction, as well. In a city as old as Florence, who knows what lurks around the corner?
“I don’t have my glasses on, but if you were to look at the hotel across the street and turn your attention on the roof, it looks as if there may be a dark figure standing there …or maybe it’s an aerial.” (squinting) “I can’t tell.”
EL: “I have excellent long sight.” (stares at the roof of the building) “No, I don’t see anything.
“But I think I need more wine.”
SR: (Refills both glasses) “The morning after Gabriel had his ‘visitation,’ he packed up Julia, and Katherine Picton, who was staying in the hotel room next to them, and demanded they leave Florence. He said he felt the city wasn’t safe – that something was after them. So whatever visited him wasn’t benevolent; it was malignant. And it seemed to take a personal interest in them.”
EL: (Takes a long sip of wine) “That’s scary.”
SR: (Glancing up in the direction of the penthouse) “Gabriel spent the rest of his summer in Umbria and refused to return to Florence. When the director of the Uffizi contacted him about the police investigation of the robbery, Gabriel said he was washing his hands of it.”
EL: “Wow. I hope the police find the illustrations. Such a loss to the world!”
SR: ”Exactly. Ah. Here’s the tempura and the Philadelphia roll. Help yourself, Miss James.”
EL: ”This looks delicious. It’s the perfect antidote to all things dark and supernatural.”
SR: “I certainly hope so. So here is what we know so far: Gabriel acquired his illustrations in secret, but no one really knows where they came from. He lent them to the Uffizi and they were stolen mysteriously and without leaving any evidence of a break in. Subsequently, he experienced some kind of visitation, which caused him to flee the city and abandon the police investigation. And there’s some connection between all of this and this hotel.
(nibbles asparagus thoughtfully)
EL: (Glances with trepidation around the restaurant) “I hope the mystery is solved. I’m sure there must be a rational explanation for everything.” (takes another sip of wine!)
SR: “Even if there isn’t, I can’t give this restaurant up. It serves the best sushi in the city. I don’t care if there are supernatural beings around here. I’m addicted to this restaurant.”
EL: “Mmmm. I don’t blame you.
“Now let me tell you about Vancouver…”
I hope that you are having a very good start to 2017 and that the year will bring you much happiness.
With the release of The Roman on December 6th, my Florentine Series is now complete. It consists of a novella, The Prince, and three novels: The Raven, The Shadow, and The Roman. You can read it in its entirety or listen to the audiobooks.
I’m writing a new book, which is a contemporary romance/suspense novel, set in Paris. I should be able to announce more about it soon.
Thank you for reading and a special thank you to EL James, who created our adventure in Florence with me,