TCO Guide to Florence
by Marla Norman, Publisher
Walk the streets of Florence and imagine life in the mid-1500’s, when three of the world’s greatest artists – Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael – competed with each other to not only produce works of exceptional beauty, but to irrevocably transform art with new techniques and innovations that still amaze today.
It was a rebirth – a Renaissance – a time when a confluence of harmonious elements produced the perfect setting for an art revolution the world continues to celebrate. Historians argue over the causes and results, but all agree that Florence was the site – the birthplace of the Renaissance.
No surprise then that Florence has become one of the top destinations – if not a required pilgrimage – for all art lovers. So in between the hundreds of street hawkers selling “selfie sticks” and the hordes of tourists using them to pose at the Ponte Vecchio and Gallleria dell’Accademia, you’ll find exquisite statues, architecture and even a few authentic trattorias. Keep our Guide handy for ways to make the most of your time in Florence.
A FLORENTINE PERSPECTIVE
Florentines homesick for their city say they are experiencing nostalgia del cupolone – “missing the dome.” The city’s most distinctive architectural feature is the instantly recognizable Duomo – Cattedrale di Santa Maria and its gravity-defying dome.
Start your tour at Filippo Brunelleschi’s engineering marvel. Completed in 1436, the structure continues to serve as an architectural model. You’re actually looking at two domes – an interior dome interconnected with the exterior to support the massive weight of bricks used in the construction. As you admire Brunelleschi’s handiwork, you’ll also notice the distinctive exterior decoration. Currently under restoration, the Duomo walls are being painstakingly cleaned. Major sections have been restored, with decades of grim removed.
Inside the Duomo are several large frescoes, including a rather grisly Last Judgment begun by Giorgio Vasari (1511–74) and completed by Federico Zuccaro (1575-79). Visitors are also allowed to climb to the top of the Dome (463 steps). The view is well worth the effort, but you may want to save your legs for the nearby Campanile – the freestanding bell tower on the Piazza del Duomo. Designed by Giotto, the tower is 84.7 meters/277.9 feet. At 414 steps, the tower is a somewhat shorter climb than the Duomo and affords panoramic views of the city and the great Dome itself.
Also in the Piazza del Duomo is one of the oldest buildings in Florence – the Battistero (Baptistery). Recent archeological studies date the foundations of the structure back to the 1st century AD. But it’s the magnificent sculpted bronze doors from the 15th century that are the primary attraction, in particular Lorenzo Ghilberti’s east doors, known as The Gates of Paradise. At age 21, young Ghilberti famously won a competition to design the doors, beating out other artistic luminaries including Brunelleschi and Donatello. It took another 21 years for Ghilberti to complete his masterpiece: 28 intricately detailed panels.
For more information about opening times, tickets and historical detail for the Duomo, Campanile and Battistero see: http://operaduomo.firenze.it/en
MEET THE MEDICI
Stroll south of the Duomo and you’ll quickly arrive at Piazza della Signoria. Even if you’ve never visited Florence, you’ll instantly recognize the statues arranged around the Piazza. A copy of Michelangelo’s renown David can be admired, as well as Donatello’s lion of Florence, Marzocco, and his Judith and Holfernes.
Dominating the the square is a mammoth sculpture of Grand Duke Cosimo I on horseback. Cosimo I was best known for founding the Uffizi art museum and was one of the more prominent of the many Medici who ruled Florence from the 15th through the 18th centuries. The Medici family bank was the largest in Europe during the 15th century, and the family used their financial connections to further an ambitious political agenda which produced four Catholic Popes and two French queens.
Now, although the family has been gone for hundreds of years, their influence continues to dominate Florence through the many palaces and art treasures they collected. Tour the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace), which has served as Florence’s City Hall since 1299. As you look around the incredibly opulent Sala dei Cinquecento (Room of the Five Hundred – named for the 500-member Great Council) visualize the many generations of Medici who met and oversaw conferences there.
An impressively tall bell tower hovers over the palace. The tower predates the Palazzo by several decades, which is supposedly why it is noticeably off-center. The Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola, was held in this same tower, which occasionally served as a prison. In 1497, Savonarola’s fervent preaching against secular art and corruption resulted in the notorious Bonfires of the Vanities, a period when Florentines, influenced by the monk, burned thousands of books, furniture, paintings and other art objects. Climb the 94 meter/308 foot tower and look down on the Piazza della Signoria, where Savonarola first lit his bonfires and then was later himself hanged and burned – he’d become a serious thorn in the side of the Medici and Pope Alexander VI.
These days, happily, the square hosts musical presentations, holiday parades and thousands of tourists who admire Florentine works of art that haven’t perished in bonfires or political upheavals. Indeed, adjacent to the Piazza della Signoria is one of the world’s most cherished art museums, Galleria degli Uffizi – home to paintings by Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian and Caravaggio, to name just a few of the prestigious artists. See more on the gallery in this issue: A Walk through the Uffizi. For tickets and additional information for the Palazzo Vecchio see http://museicivicifiorentini.comune.fi.it/en/index.html
THE SLING SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
At the top of any tourist’s list for Florence is the Galleria dell’Accademia, where Michelangelo’s spectacular David is enshrined. Be sure to book a ticket in advance at http://www.gallerieaccademia.org/?lang=en and skip the horrifically long lines of art-lovers waiting to enter the museum.
Michelangelo spent two years sculpting his David, which originally stood in the Piazza della Signoria. You can see a replica of the original in the Piazza now. But, don’t miss out on the great artist’s master work. Striking as the copy is, the original is even more spectacular. The finely detailed marble is so unbelievably lifelike you expect to hear the statue heave a great sigh before lobbing the stone. David’s countenance is calm, but his eyes are ferociously intent and muscles tense. The statue is heroic in size as well, standing at 4.34 meters/14.2 feet.
Also noteworthy at the Accademia are Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves, intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II. The four statues: Awakening Slave, Young Slave, Bearded Slave and Atlas illustrate the skill required to carve life-like figures from stone. Scholars also believe Michelangelo left the pieces unfinished to show the “struggle of man to free his spirit from matter.”
ALONG THE ARNO
The six picturesque bridges that cross the Arno and connect one side of Florence to the other are as iconic to the city’s identity as the Duomo and Uffizi. The most famous of the bridges is, of course, the Ponte Vecchio. New visitors to Florence may be surprised at the inelegant, almost homely state of the bridge. Covered with houses and shops, the Ponte Vecchio was originally built in 1345. The bridge’s first tenants were butchers, who conveniently tossed offal and other bits into the Arno running below them. Eventually, the stench grew so strong that city officials called on grocers and other merchants to replace the butchers.
Later, Cosimo I built a secret passageway linking his Palazzo Pitti to his offices in the Uffizi. Known as the Vasari Corridor, the passage ran along the top of the buildings perched on the Vecchio. Cosimo’s son, Ferdinand, also used the passage, but decided that grocery stores were not quite upscale enough for an aristocratic walkway, so jewelry stores were built to replace the humble markets. You can join hundreds of other tourists gawking at gold and “precious” stones in the shops on the Ponte Vecchio. Or, wait until just before sunset when crowds have thinned and you can actually stroll Florence’s only pedestrian bridge.
A WELL-PLACED ENOTECA
Take a much-deserved break from touring at the Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina. Situated at the southern end of the Ponte Vecchio and directly across from the Palazzo Pitti, the Enoteca is an oasis in a sea of mediocre trattorias and pizza places. The small restaurant/wine bar serves an outstanding selection of top-flight wines by the bottle or glass: Chianti Classico Riserva, Brunello de Montalcino, Barolo, Verdicchio and Vermentino.
Shelves of select wines accompanied by books about their winemakers and actual samples of the winery terroir line the walls. Staff are knowledgeable about the wine list and Italian wine culture and can offer wine flights to your taste.
Italian specialties are house-made and taste like it. Be sure to try the Ravioli filled with Burrata Cheese in Ragu. Or order the Maltagliati al Ragu con Agnello, large flat pasta with Lamb, Fava Beans and Pecorino – either dish will have you swooning.
The Enoteca is quite small, so be sure to reserve well in advance, as both locals and tourists are drawn to this quality establishment. For more restaurant recommendations, see FOOD QUEST for this issue.
PALAZZO PITTI & BOBOLI GARDENS
Sitting on the south side of the Ponte Vecchio, like a heavily armed fortress – which indeed it was – is Palazzo Pitti. As you stroll the grounds, take a look at the cannons around the estate. Notice that they are are not pointed at the surrounding hills where potential enemies might invade, but rather at the city of Florence itself! Obviously the Medici weren’t taking any chances with their loyal subjects.
The gargantuan palace, which covers 32,000 square meters/344,450 square feet was home to the Medici from the 15th century until the last heir died in 1743. Napoleon briefly used the palazzo during his conquest of Italy.
Now the largest museum complex in Florence, Pitti Palace consists of five major exhibits and the Boboli Gardens. The Palatine Gallery includes an impressive group of paintings from the Medici’s vast collection – the best are in the Uffizi, but the Palatine includes works by Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Correggio, and Rubens.
The Costume Gallery maintains over 6,000 articles of clothing, including items dating from the 16th century. The collection is one of the world’s best and well worth a visit. The Museo degli Argenti (Medici Treasury) displays the Medici family jewels, semi-precious stones and ivory vases. The Gallery of Modern Art presents mostly Italian painting and sculpture dating from the late 18th century to World War I. The Porcelain Museum is located at the top of the Boboli Gardens.
Behind the massive palace are the Boboli Gardens. In their prime, during the 16th-17th centuries, the gardens were the envy of Europe and frequently copied. The use of wide gravel pathways, statuary, fountains and grottos made the Boboli Gardens a prototype for formal garden style. Currently, the gardens are somewhat neglected, however the views of Florence are nothing short of spectacular. Moreover, a leisurely walk to explore the many hidden grottos filled with Renaissance statues is still an unforgettable experience.
Check museum hours of operation and ticket prices here: http://www.sbas.fi.it/english/musei/palazzopitti/
SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
Surrounded as it is by gardens, the Santa Maria Novella always appears tranquil – even as busloads of tourists zoom by. The fact that the church is not on the typical list of top attractions in Florence also helps to preserve the serenity. But don’t let the site’s lack of fame deter you. The Santa Maria Novella is one of the city’s architectural gems.
Begun in the 14th century, Santa Maria Novella wasn’t completed until 100 years later, when Leon Battista Alberti took on the task. To create a transition between the lower floor and his new 2nd story, Alberti employed S-curve scrolls or volutes. His design was groundbreaking and S-curve scrolls began to appear on churches all over Italy.
The interior of the Santa Maria Novella provides more treasures: a 14th century stained-glass rose window above the main entrance; a stained-glass piece by none-other than Filippino Lippi near the altar; Masaccio’s Trinity fresco, with its astoundingly realistic portrayal of Christ; Brunelleschi’s superbly carved wooden crucifix tops off the collection of extraordinary art work. Learn more about the works of art in the church at the web site: http://www.chiesasantamarianovella.it
If you can find the time, spend a few moments one evening at a cafe near the Santa Maria Novella. Sip a glass of good Tuscan wine and enjoy Alberti’s masterpiece. In that undisturbed moment, perhaps you can even contemplate the many artists, writers and inventive powers that gave birth to the Renaissance. With a little luck you’ll take a bit of that creative force home with you — easily the best souvenir you’ll find!