As for choosing between ancient city rivals, for once, it’s a truce. Florence offers a sense of living on a Renaissance stage-set, counterpointed by the intellectual stimulation of a contemporary city that punches above its weight. The British Institute beguiles with superb history of art courses, the most stimulating cultural programme, and Italian tuition that surpasses expectations. Instead, Siena is Italy’s last surviving city-state, a city with the psychology of a village and the grandeur of a nation. Dante Alighieri is both international yet intimate, a school that feels like family, from its cosy cookery courses to communal meals and spiritual walks in search of apple-cheeked madonnas.
The loveliest cities, especially Florence, may be awash with fellow English-speakers but since classes are conducted entirely in Italian, a motivated student should still make dramatic progress. Socially, strong-minded intermediate students will cultivate more advanced pupils or make a pact to speak only Italian, at least within the confines of the school. At Siena’s Dante Alighieri, Alessandra’s highly motivated advanced class has kept its pact to talk Italian at all times. The students simply fix a nightly rendezvous on Piazza del Campo and welcome whoever turns up, whatever their language ability. At the wine bar, high spirits and high-alcohol Tuscan reds do the rest. Nibbling on olive-slathered crostini, we discuss St Catherine of Siena’s vocation, a bizarre topic which would be beyond most of the group if strictly sober.
But the British Institute accomplishes a comparable feat with coffee alone. Guided by Massimo, the weekly Caffe e Giornali (`coffee and the papers’) session is open to all linguistic levels. Fuelled by Illy coffee, we tackle the local rag and its flood warnings on the Arno, which Massimo contrasts with the dire floods of 1966 and its damage to artworks. To be fair, this is largely an exercise in listening - and in wading well out of our depth. But by the end even the beginners are smiling: after being thrown into the river, they’ve been given a lifeline: a bridge built with new vocabulary. Later, over cocktails at Se-sto, Florence’s most scenic rooftop bar, an English art historian student simply points to views unchanged since the Renaissance: `This is also why I’m here.’
As for Siena, at the end of the course, the students are asked to describe Siena as a sensory experience. For me, it’s autumn so the aromas of roasting chestnuts and mossy mushrooms intermingle with garlicky wood-smoke and sickly-sweet pastries. Instead, in summer, the city sound map is speeding Vespas, the silence of prayer, costumed drummer-boys practising for the Palio, the clink of coffee cups, and old men crooning laments late into the night. But American Allie feels so overwhelmed by the heady aromas from open windows, she wants to shout: `It smells too delicious, let me in’. She also loves `the light beaming through the rose window inside the Duomo’, finally understanding why `the Sienese people feel such immense pride and devotion’ to their home town. She finishes with a flourish that her fellow-students applaud: ` I will carry the feel of this city with me for the rest of my life.’