I was in the last month of a lengthy trip that had taken me from Seattle to London, Oxford, Edinburgh, York, Paris, and Milan, where I spent New Year's Eve watching fireworks from my pensione room window, as it was way too cold be be outside.
I had planned on spending three weeks in Florence, and when I arrived it had warmed up a bit. This warmth, however, was not to last, and a couple of days into my stay it snowed heavily and then everything froze. I was staying in a small hotel just a block from the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, in a tiny room that reminded me of a monk's cell at San Marco (except, of course, that I had a bed, a desk, and a sink in my room). Since I had nearly three weeks to spend, I didn't worry too much that the trains had stopped running (some of them actually froze to the tracks) and hoped that things would be moving again by the time I headed for Rome.
I was on a pretty tight budget that trip, and that meant that I could only afford to eat one meal a day in a restaurant. Fortunately, I found lots of cheap and tasty things to eat (like pizza and schiacciata, studded with olives and sprinkled with salt) and learned to take breakfast (a cappuccino and "brioche," which was usually actually more of a croissant) standing up in the coffee bar downstairs from my hotel room. I also discovered il Mercato Centrale, the large, covered food market that was blessedly close by. By shopping judiciously, I was able to keep my room stocked with fresh fruit, olives, cheese and nuts. Delicious bread was available at a nearby bakery, always chaotic and fun once I got the hang of how to go about getting served.
Because it was so bitterly cold, during the afternoon closings, when nearly everything shuts down for several hours, I would return to my room to thaw out, wash clothes in the sink, write in my travel journal, and paint. I had with me a cheap, metal watercolor set made by Prang that had eight colors, supplemented with a tube of white gouache. I had purchased a small block of watercolor paper at an art supply store that I encountered while wandering around shivering, and a small roll of artist's masking tape, which doesn't tear paper when you pull it up. I started painting what turned into an entire series of images based in part on what I had seen that day (lots of saints, Madonnas, and patterns everywhere), as well as what I had sitting on my desk: pears, postcards of famous paintings or mosaics, and some luscious dates.
Most of these paintings were extremely small (the one shown here is about 1.5 inches across), but pretty detailed. They have, over the years, been a wonderful souvenir of that trip, and I have not travelled since that I did not take painting supplies with me. Now, all I have to do is look at one of these tiny paintings and I'm right back in Florence for the first time.
There was something about toiling away at these tiny paintings in my monk's cell of a room after a day of seeing staggeringly amazing things, and they remain some of my favorites.
So, how cold was it? Here's a photo of Ammanati's Neptune Fountain encased in ice. Pretty cold.