June 5, 2016. For our wedding anniversary this year, Matthew and I decided to revisit Italy, the country that had hosted our honeymoon 23 years ago. However, this time, we were determined to check off two places that we hadn’t been able to see back then: Florence and the Cinque Terre. As usual, there’s a bizarre backstory to this post.
Just days before our wedding, the Mafia bombed the Uffizi Museum, basically paralyzing the city, which changed our travel plans a bit. Yeah, if you’ve read my Turkey: Terrorism in Taxim Squarepost, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that we have a unique talent for timing our vacations perfectly to coincide with crises. But really, it just goes to show that crap can happen anywhere at any time, and ya just gotta roll with it.
Back then, even though we revised our plans and bypassed Florence to hang out longer in Rome, Venice, and along the Amalfi coast, we still saw a little excitement. On our flight home, our plane was diverted to Milan for “technical problems.” We dismayingly watched as airport staff systematically dismantled the plane, carrying off first the luggage, then the seats, and finally most every other imaginable component on the plane. Turns out, our flight had been the target of a bomb threat.
We eventually re-boarded that same aircraft, and everything turned out just fine. Unless you count the rough landing at Dulles airport, which shook loose the plane’s entire ceiling housing — apparently, it hadn’t been screwed back in place well after the bomb sweep. We sat on the runway, trapped in our seats, until flight attendants could free us from the metal framework and dangling oxygen masks that had showered down upon us during touchdown. Lotsa fun.
But as usual, I digress. Nothing even remotely so dramatic occurred on this trip. Our biggest stressors were trying to make a decision on where to eat, and running ourselves ragged in an attempt to squeeze in every single historic site in Florence in just three days (so as to make the most of our Firenze sightseeing pass). Bad idea. Touring the city this way is like pulling an all-nighter for an Art History exam, or gorging yourself on eye candy. You end up with a headache and fervent wish to never look at another Renaissance painting again.
I thought I’d learned this lesson years ago: Don’t treat a trip as if it’s the only time you’ll ever visit. You’ll go home with a brain crammed full of blurry impressions rather than bright memories, and you’ll feel in desperate need of a vacation from your vacation afterwards. Instead, take time just to wander, soak in the feel of a place, and encounter little surprises along the way. Chat with the locals, watch the morning unfold while sipping coffee in a city square, and imagine what it would have been like to grow up there.
To me, the best souvenir is coming home with a fresh vision of what’s important in life. Sitting still long enough to observe how place and culture affect perspective always leads me to new revelations about ways to realign my priorities and live a more rewarding future. Too bad I didn’t write this post before I went to Florence, to remind myself of why I travel. Instead, I reverted to my usual frenetic, gluttonous self, working to gobble up every experience and horde every historic detail as if a winter famine waited around the next corner. Oh well, live and learn … over and over again.
So now that I’ve finished my little soapbox speech to myself and to you, let’s move on to my favorite memories of Florence’s most famous sites. I should warn you that, just like our visit, this post is bursting at the seams with photos and fun facts — seriously, we took almost 3,000 pictures while in Italy. (I’ve included only a few dozen here, so relax). Still, you might want to grab a cup of espresso and sit down for a spell while you wade through the tales.
Florentine Street Life
Since I mentioned savoring the flavor of a city, I thought I’d start with observations on Florence’s street scene. It’s low-key — not raucous, gritty, and hard-edged like Rome. With its narrow alleyways and ancient “Tower Houses” looming on almost every corner, the place has an intimate, Medieval feel that’s surprising for such a big metropolis. Hazy sunlight filters its way down through breaks in the blockades of timeworn buildings to bathe plazas filled with basking locals and stunned tourists. It’s a city meant for lazy contemplation and appreciation. But enough words, let’s look at the pictures.
Matthew itched to play ding, dong, ditch with the cool doorbells outside of every gorgeous portal.
In the Middle Ages, Florentine nobles built defensive towers that grew to staggering heights until the town council put a limit on the number of stories. Talk about your vertical living — many of these homes had external staircases only, which could be cut away in case of attack. Folks in feuding families on opposite corners would pile out into the streets to do battle. Today, these Tower Houses stand sentry throughout the historic heart of Florence.
Tower houses often come equipped with fanciful rings for tying up your trusty steed.
For more modern folks, motorcycles are the best mode of transportation for Florence’s narrow side streets.
Or, you can navigate Florence’s alleys via adorable little trucks.
Yet another lovely building … and another street gawker. Spending the day watching who’s dawdling down the sidewalk seems like a perfectly acceptable use of time in laid-back Florence.
You never know who you might run into while walking down a Florentine lane.
On a Sunday morning, one creative entrepreneur had set up a mini race-car track next to the historic Hospital of Innocents. We sat there for half an hour watching kids and parents play the old fashioned way, no video screens involved.
As you might imagine, antique shops line several streets in Florence. Here are some vintage wine bottles worthy of any collector….
But if you’re into more modern chiantis, wine stores abound on every corner.
About that gelato I mentioned earlier. Check this out: Bernardo Delle Girandole earned his apt nickname of “Buonotalenti” (good talent) because, like any decent Renaissance man, he was an architect, painter, sculptor, set designer, mathematician, mechanic, military engineer … and of course, concoctor of his own gelato flavor. (Seriously, he invented the recipe for this crema in the 16th century — it’s incredible; you have to try it when in Florence.)
And I can’t leave the topic of Florence’s street life without mentioning the emphasis on fashion. I read long ago that the average Italian spends 50% of his or her income on a well-curated wardrobe. Most Florentines seemed to adhere to this practice, and I spotted a fair amount of high-end labels strolling the sidewalks. But I was thrilled to see how many shoes, hats, purses, and pieces of jewelry were still handmade by artisans rather than purchased as ready to wear. Watching a cobbler crafting a shoe from scratch could easily occupy an entire afternoon, if you’re so inclined.
Corner-side Couture. Like any good Italian, the woman on the left is dressed in head-to-to Gucci — including kangaroo-fur-lined slippers.
Of course, I had to check out the latest offerings at an Italian icon. But alas, my budget didn’t stretch that far.
Some of the menswear had that characteristically flamboyant Italian flair, which was a bit outside of Matthew’s comfort zone. But we could still appreciate the artistry involved in assembling the outfits.
These two men are true cobblers, fashioning hand-made shoes custom fit for their clients.
This is Matthew’s kind of candy store.
The Ferragamo Museum fed my shoe addiction.
Ferragamo’s shoe “lasts” (forms) for famous people surprised me — Marilyn Monroe’s feet weren’t so dainty.
The Duomo, Baptistry, & Tower
With their pink-, green-, and white- marble color scheme, these buildings stand out like stacks of petit-fours set in a buffet of Tuscan-yellow pastries. Wandering beneath Brunelleschi’s Dome is like looking at a Dante’s Inferno-themed Fabergé egg turned inside out. And gazing at Ghiberti’s bronze doors makes you feel as if you’ve been living your life in 2-D, and someone has just handed you 3-D glasses. We found ourselves drawn back to the cathedral square over and over again, trying to capture its beauty in every conceivable light. And we heard one lady say, “This is my tenth visit here, and I never get sick of staring. It calms my spirit, like visual valium.”
Construction on Florence’s Duomo (meaning “cathedral”) began in the 1296. Officially known as the Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore, it has the third longest nave (153 meters / 502 feet) in Christendom. I’d hate to have to walk that distance as a bride. Wonder how many girls passed out before they made it to the altar?
Architect Arnolfo di Cambio had designed a buttress-free dome that would span the center of the building’s cruciform plan. But he didn’t have the engineering skills to build it. The church sat with a hole in its ceiling for two hundred years, until Fillippo Brunelleschi solved the problem with an octagonal dome held in place by horizontal chains that acted like barrel hoops.
Can you tell how geeked out Matthew’s inner architect is to see Brunellechi’s work? The dome measures 114.5 meters (375 feet) high — it’s the first to beat Hagia Sophia’s enormous dome in height (55.6 m / 182 ft), which was built 1,000 years earlier. Brunelleschi’s is still the largest brick masonry dome in the world.
And if you thought Matthew was thrilled to see the dome from the outside, just imagine how he felt walking through it. A staircase sandwiched between the dome’s inner and outer shell lets you see how Brunelleschi built his masterpiece. Skeletal stone ribs provide the octagonal shape and transfer the weight of the bricks, which are locked in place via a herringbone pattern. Matthew kept running his hands over the brick and saying, “Imagine, Brunelleschi himself probably touched these walls.” (Yeah, as well as billions of tourists — time for a little hand sanitizer.)
See what I mean about the dome’s interior looking like an ornate Fabergé egg? Giorgio Vasari designed these frescoes of the Last Judgment (1572-9), which were painted mostly by his student Frederico Zuccari. I always have to laugh at how much time and territory is devoted to depicting inventive visions of Hell’s tortures. The bottom of the fresco features grotesque demons whose principle interests seem to be flaying people alive and sticking flaming poles up their butts. In contrast, Heaven looks pretty boring, with everyone basically sitting around looking down upon the show in Hell, like spectators at a gladiatorial event.
About 463 stairs bring you to the top of the dome, where you can gaze down upon Florence. The Duomo’s campanile (bell tower) seen here was designed by famous Renaissance painter Giotto, who oversaw the work and was assisted by another famous sculptor / architect, Andrea Pisano.
The current façade of the church was designed and completed in 1876 by Emilio De Fabris, who sought to create a Gothic theme that would harmonize nicely with Giotto’s bell tower and the Baptistery. Okay, I can’t resist. One last story about the dome: In 1419, the city’s wool-merchant guild held a competition to design it. Two goldsmiths entered; Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. Back in 1401, Ghiberti had won the commission to design the Baptistery doors, but Brunelleschi managed to clinch the dome competition. The two continued to be fierce rivals, with Ghiberti bragging he could do a better job during contruction. At one point, Brunelleschi “called in sick,” allowing Ghiberti to take over the project. Eventually, Ghiberti threw in the towel, and Brunelleschi swaggered back in to save the day.
One of the oldest buildings in Florence, the Baptistery was constructed between 1059 and 1128. It’s done in Florentine Romanesque style, which includes an eight-sided design symbolizing the six days of creation, the seventh day of rest, and the eighth day of re-birth upon completion of the baptismal ceremony.
As I mentioned earlier, in 1401, another of Florence’s merchant guilds held a competition for the Baptistery’s north doors. The guild couldn’t decide between Lorenzo Ghiberti and his rival Filippo Brunelleschi, so both were originally awarded the commission. In a fit of pique, however, Brunelleschi stomped off to continue his studies in Rome, leaving Ghiberti to spend the next 21 years completing the project. All of Ghiberti’s doors now reside in the Bargello Museum; those on the Baptistery are copies.
Ghiberti so impressed the guild with his work on the north doors that he was awarded the commission of the east doors pictured here, which took another 27 years to complete. For this set of portals, Ghiberti used “rilievo schiacciato” (meaning “flattened relief”) — a method invented by Donatello — to create incredible 3-D compositions depicting Old Testament stories. Michelangelo himself was so impressed with Ghiberti’s work that he nicknamed the doors the “Gates of Paradise.”
The Baptistery’s mosaic ceiling, created probably around 1225, features choirs of angels and scenes from the Old and New Testaments. As usual, a huge amount of territory is devoted to the Last Judgement, which shows good Christians jumping up from their tombs on the right side of a gigantic Jesus. On his left side are the damned, depicted with great relish as being roasted in pits, bitten by snakes, flayed alive, and chewed on by hideous beasts. Gotta scare those pagans into converts.
I’ll be honest, visiting the Uffizi is akin to stuffing an entire semester of art history into just a few hours. To help us thread our way through the exhausting experience, we hired Marina, a private guide recommended by our Norwegian friend Vidar. Wise move. Not only did she give us a fantastic overview of the Renaissance itself, but she told us little stories that put the paintings in context and made the artists themselves come to life. When asking her about her training, I was shocked to learn that being a guide in Florence requires completing a year of intense study, possessing the ability to speak three languages fluently, and passing a three-part exam that includes getting asked questions like, “in the Bargello Museum, Salon 2, what’s in the second case on your left as you enter?” Seriously intimidating.
The Toni Dondo, by Michaelangelo, depicts the Holy Family. I particularly love how the young mother Mary confidently reaches for the squirming baby Jesus, who’s too much for the elderly Joseph to handle. Angelo Doni commissioned the painting for his wedding. Tondos, or round paintings, were given to brides upon their marriage in anticipation of childbirth. These paintings usually portray family life and were originally done on huge “birthing platters” that were used to catch the baby during labor.
Botticelli’s famous Venus in the “Birth of Spring” bears the face of Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, mistress to the famous de’ Medici brothers (Guiliano and Lorenzo). Botticelli’s focus on ancient Classic mythology in the depiction of a naked Venus underlines the Renaissance’s focus on humanism and its departure from Christian themes. Interestingly, Botticelli later fell under the spell of Savonarola, a Dominican monk who led a violent four-year campaign to purge Florence of hedonism, which included burning pagan works of art. Botticelli had a nervous breakdown and thereafter painted only dark, religious scenes.
Piero della Francesca, geometrician and master of perspective, painted this pair of portraits. They depict the Duke and Duchess of Urbino — he’s one of the leaders who inspired Machiavelli’s work, Il Principe. The Duke is always portrayed on his “good side;” he had acquired a huge scar and lost an eye in a tournament. Possessing only one eye hampered the Duke’s aim, so he had surgeons carve away the bridge of his nose to improve his field of vision. His wife, who he described as “the delight of my public and private hours,” died at age 25 after the birth of their seventh child. Considered a beauty, she had bleached hair and a plucked hairline to raise her forehead. Her white skin reflects the fact that the portrait was done post mortem.
The “Baptism of Christ” is considered Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest work. He didn’t paint the whole thing; just the angel holding Jesus’s robe, plus a bit of the landscape. Leonardo’s mentor Verrocchio is responsible for much of the scene, but when he saw how well his apprentice had captured the angel, it’s said he put down his brush and never painted again. In truth, the Baptism is Verrocchio’s last-known painting, but he said himself that he far preferred sculpting to painting, so he was probably glad to have someone else to take on these kinds of commissions.
The Palazzo Vecchio & Ponte Vecchio
My biggest impression of the Palazzo Vecchio is that the Medici family had waaaay too much money and power. And as with many nouveau riche families, this translated into “more is better,” leading to some questionable tastes in décor. Beneath the roof of this fortress, cum town hall, cum personal palace, cum museum, you’ll find gobs of inlaid furniture, gilded interiors, and first-rate works by second-tier artists. Climb to the top of the Palazzo’s tower, and you’ll see that the Medici also cornered the market on peaceful views of the city and the Ponte Vecchio — an unbelievably atmospheric Medieval bridge saved at the last minute by a German diplomat who begged Hitler to spare it. It’s a pity that Michelangelo’s nearby bridge didn’t get a similar letter of reprieve.
Having taken over the Palazzo Vecchio and ousted the Medici family, “Mad Monk” Savonarola commissioned the construction of the enormous Salone dei Cinquecento to hold a “Grand Council.” Four years later, Savonarola was dead, and the Medici were back in power. Eventually, Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici decided unwisely to enlarge the hall, which resulted in the loss of partially completed masterpieces by the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Today, expansive frescoes done in the 16th century by Giorgio Vasari and his apprentices portray victorious battles of Florence over Pisa and Siena.
The magnificent view from the Palazzo Vecchio shows Sante Croce Church, the Arno River, and the Tuscan hills in the background.
Clusters of apartments and jewelery shops cling like barnacles to the beautiful Ponte Vecchio. German Consul Gerhard Wolf not only intervened to protect the bridge and prevent many other works of Italian art from being carted off to Berlin, but he also saved several political prisoners and Jews from the Holocaust.
Originally a meat market, the Ponte Vecchio was converted into a kind of “jewelers’ row” during the Medici era. You can see it’s still a popular spot for shoppers today.
Check out the gorgeous antique and modern jewelry that can be purchased at equally pretty prices.
Ponte Santa Trìnita is the oldest elliptic arch bridge in the world. These arches mimic those found in Micheangelo’s Medici Chapels, which is why some art historians believe that Michelangelo aided architect Bartolomeo Ammannati in the design of this bridge. The Nazis blew it up on August 3, 1944, scattering pieces far and wide. Most were recovered from the Arno River, so what you see today is a reconstruction made from the original stones.
Four ornamental sculptures representing the four seasons were added to the Ponte Santa Trinita in 1608 to celebrate Cosimo II de’ Medici’s wedding. After the German bombing, the head of Spring was lost. American soldiers aiding the city during its reconstruction put an advertisement in the paper offering a sizable reward for the return of the head. It worked, and today Spring bears only a seam around her neck to remind her of her temporary beheading.
Museum of San Marco
Once a 15th-century monastery, the museum is basically a shrine to Fra Angelico — the painter, not the liqueur. When we entered the courtyard, two teenage boys approached us and asked if we’d like a free guided tour. Paolo and Raphael explained that they were completing part of their high school finals, which require graduates to research a historic site, then volunteer as guides for several hours a week. Pretty impressive curriculum, I’d say. The two were absolutely adorable, taking turns telling tales, passing their notes back and forth, and consulting each other for the correct English translations of artistic and religious terms. Highlights not only included Fra Angelico’s contemplative and sometimes surprisingly surrealistic works, but also a look into the life of the Dominican “Mad Monk,” Girolamo Savonarola, who endured a four-year reign of terror over Florence before being executed.
Fra Angelico painted more than fifty works in San Marco. Each monk’s cell typically hosted one contemplative painting.
The paintings often focus on such themes of the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, etc. The same motifs are repeated in several cells, with slight tweaks to the visuals.
Check out this Fra Angelico painting, which looks like something Dali would’ve done. It’s meant to show the mocking that Jesus endured by the soldiers while waiting for his crucifixion. You can see he’s being spat on, beaten, etc.
A frothing zealot, “Mad Monk” Savonarola managed to oust the hedonist Medici family and conduct “bonfires of the vanities,” which included burning books, paintings and anything else that smacked of paganism. Doesn’t he look like the guy from the Assassin’s Creed video game?
Cosimo de’ Medici sponsored Fra Angelico and was the patron of San Marco, so he got his own private quarters. Later, the Mad Monk Savonarola was imprisoned in a nearby cell before being burned at the stake. Also found within his cell was a hair-shirt and vest, design to inflict pain as a type of atonement. Basically, he was into masochism.
Okay, I could go on and on with the other 20 sites we visited, but I fear I’ve already overloaded you enough as it is, so Arrivederci — tomorrow we head to Cinque Terre!