Florence- the Jewel of Tuscany
Florence, the capital city of Tuscany, was our family's last stop in Italy, and it was by far the cleanest city we visited. Although I feel like Rome was more exciting visually with all of its oversized Ancient monuments and fountains, Florence was refined and elegant with understated Renaissance beauty and culture, much of it contained inside the doors of museums like the Uffizi and homes like the Medici family's, who were a powerful political group of rulers.
The streets were quiet and you didn't have to be on guard as much to avoid cars and motorcycles speeding by you, like in Rome. We had our best pizza in Florence, and everything was a little more formal at the restaurants there with a Northern Italian feel. In Rome, I had felt like an Italian grandmother was going to come out of the kitchen any moment saying, "Mangi, mangi, mangi!!!" (Italian for "Eat, eat, eat!!"). It was as gregarious as Florence was refined.
Enjoy the highlights with me as we stroll through the cobblestone streets of two wonderful days we spent in this magical city. First stop, the Uffizi Museum, chock full of all the paintings and sculptures our daughter, Chloie, had studied the last year in her Art History class at University of Kansas. It was thrilling for her to see the actual works she had to memorize in detail, and we were thrilled to have our own free tour guide!
At the end of our week in Italy, our family talked about which work of art was each of our favorites, and I have decided my favorite painting is the Doni Tondo. Still in its original frame, the painting is in the form of a tondo, meaning in Italian, "round," and frequently associated during the Renaissance with domestic ideas. The Virgin Mary is draped in blue, as in most paintings of the era, and it is noted that the Michelangelo did more shadowing on the blue fabric, causing it be more realistic and detailed than past paintings of these three dimensional depictions. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, is commonly included in Florentine works depicting the Madonna and Child; he can be seen in the middle ground of the painting.
Another showstopper at the Uffizi was a triptych (painting on three panels side by side), the Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco. This was a magnificently huge piece on the wall at the museum; it was commissioned for a high altar in a monastery in Florence. Earlier than the Michelangelo painting above, this style of painting was an era of flat two-dimensional figures. The emphasis was the gold and how expensive the piece looked as opposed to how realistic the painting was.
The painting that spoke the most to Chloie was La Primavera (Spring) by Botticelli. It is a celebration of love, peace and prosperity, and there are 138 different species of plants represented. Depicting a group of figures from classical mythology in a garden, this has been described as one of the most controversial and popular paintings in Western art. Most agree it is an allegory based on the lush growth of Spring. Venus presides over the garden which shows an orange grove (a Medici family symbol) and the Three Graces are seen to her right.
After leaving the Uffizi, it was a perfect time to taste the flavors of the city, and after days of eating pasta sometimes two times a day, we were elated to find a restaurant with a delicious looking green salad. It was mixed greens with marinated onions and fresh tomatoes on top of a huge slice of crusty bread. Others at the table enjoyed freshly made pizza with pesto, fresh mozzarella, basil and Greek olives. We want to try to re-create this one at home, though the crust will be hard to duplicate. And of course, what is a day in Italy without gelato? We noticed the gelato here was especially beautiful in the display cases with actual fruits, nuts and chocolate topping the mounds of the colorful creamy dessert.
Perhaps the most iconic structure in Florence is what everyone there calls the "Duomo," Italian for cathedral. This "Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower" is the main cathedral of Florence, in Italian, Duomo di Firenze. Construction began on this striking building in 1296 in Gothic style and was completed by 1436, with the dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. It is the largest brick dome ever constructed. This is a central landmark of the city and one of Italy's largest churches.
Not far from the Duomo, is one of the homes of the Medici Family, who ruled Florentine political life for three centuries. The Medici palaces are an enduring symbol of Tuscany's most famous family, one that shaped the city of Florence. The palace we visited is the most modest, the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. It was built by Cosimo the Elder, the first of the Medici to gain notable political status in Florence. The highlights are the palace's internal courtyard and the Magi Chapel, a frescoed room by Benozzo Gozzoli.
Visiting this home of such dominant family in the history of Florence was an absolute thrill for our family. It was refreshing to see where people actually lived during the Renaissance time instead of wandering through a gallery and seeing paintings of them. Cosimo the Elder chose a relatively modest architectural design after having refused another designer's plan that was too grand for his taste. The family would go on to build much more elaborate and huge palaces, but this one is special because of its elegant, livable and yet breathtaking rooms.
We sat for a bit in this grand hall inside the Medici home and marveled at the ceiling as well as the painted mirrors around the room, something unusual and more personal that you wouldn't see in the museums. It appeared that government meetings are currently held in this space as well as other rooms in the home as we noticed audiovisual equipment and current day chairs.
The family's own chapel, called the Magi Chapel, is a small frescoed room with scenes of the Magi traveling to Jerusalem to deliver their gifts to the baby Jesus. The artist, Benozzo Gozzoli, following a Renaissance trend, put his patron in the scene. Cosimo the Elder is the one dressed in black on the horse.
In 1659, the palace was sold to the Riccardi family and extensive renovations and enlargements were made, all to fit the baroque style they preferred. The furnishings that are seen in the home now date back to the 19th Century.
I didn't think we could get any more inspired but as the day ended, we made our way to see "The David" by Michelangelo at the Accademia Gallery. I had a mission to accomplish on this one. You see, when I was on a high school trip to Europe, our stay in Florence was poorly arranged on a day when all the museums were closed. We were not able to see the actual David statue, but we saw a disappointing bronze copy outside in a courtyard somewhere. Decades later I am still bitter about it. Our family was tired of meeting time schedules, but I insisted that we rush to our 5:15 reservation to enter the gallery.
Let me tell you, The David does not disappoint! I guess I am a certified Michelangelo groupie, because not only was his Doni Tondo my favorite painting of the trip, but The David was hands down my favorite sculpture. Noted by some as the greatest masterpiece ever created by mankind, it was created between 1501 and 1504. It is a 14-foot marble statue depicting the Biblical hero David, with the sling he used to defeat Goliath seen over his shoulder. Originally commissioned by the Opera del Duomo for the Cathedral of Florence, it was meant to be one of a series of large statues to be positioned in the niches of the cathedral’s tribunes, way up at about 80 meters from the ground.
Michelangelo was only 26 years old in 1501, but he was already the most famous and best paid artist in his days. He accepted the challenge with enthusiasm to sculpt a large scale David and worked constantly for over two years to create one of his most breathtaking masterpieces of gleaming white marble. The minute you walk in the long high-ceiling room where The David resides, your breath is taken away. As you come closer, you realize the size of the head and hands are oversized as the statue was meant to be viewed from a good distance below and far from its niche in the cathedral. The statue never made it into the planned destination in the cathedral due to imperfection in a block of marble which may not have been stable enough to support the massive piece of art.
Although the artisan district of Florence is mostly closed on the weekend, we couldn't resist making our way over the Ponte Vecchio bridge to see what we could see. This famous bridge is a medieval stone arch bridge over the Arno River, in Florence, Italy, noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common. We were lucky that there were a few artisans perched with their paintings displayed and a few shops greeted us with open doors.
Florence's artisan culture is a rich one, based on centuries of traditions and skills and apprentices learning from the masters of their craft. Even today, the city's artisans are still active and as proud as ever of their work, many still working in the most traditional of ways, while others have modernised their crafts to suit contemporary ways. A walk through some of Florence's artisan quarters is an inspiring way to experience how the Renaissance backbone of the city's culture has influenced today's artists and artisans.
Chloie and our son, Nelson wandered off and found a print-making artisan shop that struck their curiosity. They brought the rest of the family to see it and what they had decided to purchase. The store was full of impressive prints of historic maps of Florence and the world, some in black and white and some with color. There was a sweet older Italian lady running the shop, who reminded me of the pictures I have seen of my husband's Italian grandmother. She looked straight out of another century and someone who probably was getting ready to roll out homemade pasta for dinner. The print making equipment was sitting in the shop, looking recently used with paint sitting around, ready for creation of the next work of art. This was a walk back in time to an era gone by and one from which America could learn many lessons.
Firenze! We will miss you!