5th December


On the side of the piazza opposite the cathedral, a man with his legs on back to front is adopting stretching positions on his mat. The tourists gather in clusters here every minute, hundreds of them by the hour, trying to squeeze as much of the cathedral’s vast facade into their viewfinders as they can. The man wears a vest so that his muscular arms and shoulders are very visible, and gleaming Spandex shorts which display the weirdness of his legs to best advantage. You look away and then you look again. You can’t help it. He wants you to look. Perhaps he even has the power to make you look. This is his trade. Is he a contortionist of extraordinary and disturbing skill, or are the legs truly deformed? At any rate, they are how he earns a living.

There is something medieval about him, something that links him to the cathedral gargoyles sticking out tongues and pulling faces at the crowds below. Even as he stretches and bends and straightens on his mat he seems to rebuke, to be making a gesture of contempt in the very face of sophisticated, civilised society. I am the freak that you fear lurks within yourselves. Pay me or suffer the consequences of your own grotesque humanity.

You feel in your pocket but you have no loose change, only paper money, and you are not so moved or ashamed or afraid to reach for your wallet. The man with his legs on back to front pays you no more attention once he sees that expression in your eyes. You were almost nothing to him before, you are nothing now. He turns his head and his body coquettishly to someone more deserving, more susceptible than you.

And this is Florence, the cradle of modernity, the start of it all, the slow crawl up from ignorance and brutal curiosity. This is the city of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Dante, Machiavelli and Vasari, where knowledge and art became steps out of darkness, where truth was sought but not accepted without debate, where the light of reason flooded in.

The man with his legs on back to front is a warning, a reminder.

Reader: Ewan Miller
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Harp: Esther Swift
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