In 1901, the English novelist E. M. Forster and his mother stayed in the Pensione Simi on the right bank of the River Arno in Florence – a typical Florentine boarding house of the type frequented by Victorian tourists. “It had a cockney landlady”, said the snooty Forster, “who scatters Hs like morsels”. It gave him the idea for a novel, A Room with a View, published six years later.
In the opening scene of A Room with a View, a group of equally snooty mature English spinsters staying in the Pensione Bertolini are having a collective moan: one of them complaining loudly that she asked for a room with a view of the river, but did not get one. As she drones on, a male guest – not of their party – says that his room has a view, and that he would be glad to exchange rooms with her. The snobby complainer lowers her voice, content with something else to moan about: bad enough that, as the man’s accent and attire clearly reveal, he is from a social stratum lower than that of her or her friends, but he has addressed her without being spoken to.
There is still a riverside pensione at 2, Lungarno delle Grazie - not now called Pensione Simi - but we didn’t stay there: we rented an apartment nearby. It was in an ancient building - on the third floor - and the shutters were closed when we went in. We knew from the map that when we opened them we would not see the Arno. Instead, a bible-throw away, was this: Brunelleschi’s dome, waiting there since 1461. Who got the room with the view?