It was the most difficult travel day of my life. Before I left Denver International Airport on Thursday, I already had a flight delay, a cancellation, and another delay. The United folks booked me on a direct Lufthanza flight from Denver to Frankfurt. When I arrived at the Lufthanza, they told me the flight was canceled and United put me on a flight through Chicago. They assured me my luggage would go with me. I arrived in Florence on Friday evening. My luggage arrived on Sunday.
By the time I got to my hostel, it was nighttime on Friday. I asked the person at the desk where I could get something to eat and they directed me to the nearby central market. After climbing the broken escalator, I found the second floor market where they were serving appetizing local food from open counters. The place was extremely busy and I was too tired to deal with the crush, so I headed back towards the hostel. I ducked into a small pizzeria, where a very nice woman served me a pizza and a beer. She even helped me with a couple of words of Italian. This encouraged my delusion that Italians would be interested in helping me with their language.
On Saturday morning, I wanted to go by the tourist center near the hostel and train station to buy a Firenza pass. This pass provided access to most of the places in Florence and allowed me to bypass the long lines. While I waited for the office to open, I went to a pharmacy to buy some toiletries which were in my lost bag, but they didn't have a comb. Nearby, I discovered the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella which was a beautiful open plaza next to the patterned gothic church. There was a cigarette shop on the plaza, and I asked the shop keeper if he had any combs. I had to pantomime combing my hair until he said the Italian word for comb, pettine. He opened a drawer full of combs and sold me one.
When the Santa Maria Novella church opened, I entered my first renaissance church, which was empty of people. The paintings in the church were overwhelming in scale, depth and color. The human faces were expressive and real. I admired the paintings by Ghirlandaio and particularly, the strenuous movement portrayed by Filippino Lippi. I enjoyed the quiet meditative act of looking at this profound art in such a beautiful, quiet place.
From San Maria Novella, I walked to the Duomo, experiencing the ancient narrow streets for the first time. When I reached the Piazza Duomo, I was dwarfed by the buildings. With the monumental cathedral, campanile bell tower and bapistry, it took me some time to walk around the structures, certainly the most patterned and ornate I had experienced. The enormous scale and grandeur of the buildings overwhelmed me with the high walls towering above me. I found it difficult to get a sense of the whole, because I couldn't see or take a picture of the total complex from the tight piazza around it.
The Duomo is something experienced in parts. I started by climbing the Campanile. The bell tower is 278 feet tall and covered in white, green and pink Tuscan marble. It also is covered by many sculptures with a variety of themes. It was designed by the painter and architect Giotto and completed in 1359. I climbed the 414 stone steps through narrow corridors and around tight spirals. From the top, there were broad views of Florence and of the rest of the Duomo including to the slightly higher great Dome. I was thrilled by my first views across the ancient city with its red-tiled roofs. After descending the stone steps, my legs hurt.
From the Campanile, I made my way through the narrow streets to the Galleria dell'Accademia. It was furnace hot in the sun, so everyone stayed on the shady side where it was comfortable. Walking down a hallway in the Accademia, I spotted the premiere attraction. Michelangelo was the superstar of Renaissance Florence and his David is the ultimate experience. David was originally displayed outside in the Piazza dell Signoria, next to the grand Palazzo Vehicco, the great old palace and town hall of old Florence, and a replica of the statue remains there today. Much of the outdoor art of Florence has been moved indoors for protection. You spot David down the hall under a dome that lets natural light stream down on the masterpiece.
It is hard to understate the impact the statue has on you when you experience it in person. The statue is monumental and radiates strength. Michelangelo managed to fully capture physical perfection. It is not the complete nudity itself that impresses, since the nudity is essential in the portrayal of that perfection. Instead, the image is of a strong man, full of profound confidence. Rennaissance Florentines had a great deal of pride for their independent republic, and David was the symbol of that independent strength. Amazingly, it took Michelangelo just eighteen months to complete this majestic artwork, which became a symbol of the new humanism. Like most people, I was surprised by the power of the work and spent much time admiring it from all angles.
The Accademia contained other great works of art including a number of sculptures by Michelangelo. From the Accademia, I walked to the San Lorenzo church which was the parrish chapel of the Medici family. The highlight of this visit was the chapel with the tombs of the great Medici's from the renaissance designed by Michelangelo and adorned by his wonderful sculptures depicting Night, Day, Dawn and Dusk. Several of these figures are aligned or twisted in positions of muscular distortion portraying great energy. These tombs are set in a room of classical order and simplicity, while in contrast, the large octagonal room housing the tombs of later Medici's is impressive and full of multi-colored stone and bright paintings but is somewhat gaudy compared with the older, Michelangelo room.
In the Michelangelo Room, I discovered the tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his murdered younger brother, Giuliano. On Sunday, April 26, 1478, a growing conspiracy against the increasing political power of the Medici family erupted in violence at the great Duomo Cathedral beneath the relatively new Brunelleschi dome. Near the entry Giuliano was murdered, while near the High Alter, Lorenzo and his friends successfully fended off the attack with their swords. Lorenzo escaped with only a minor wound. Later the conspirators were caught and hanged. An archbishop who helped lead the conspiracy was hanged in his robes out a window of the Palazzo della Signoria, now the Palazzo Vecchio. Lorenzo commissioned a fresco to be painted by Botticelli on the side of the Palazzo of the conspirators with nooses around their necks. Later, the painting was destroyed as a part of the eventual peace treaty with Pope Sixtus IV who had backed the conspiracy.
Lorenzo was educated in the classics and in the new humanist philosophy and arts that had been so strongly supported by his grandfather Cosimo. Lorenzo was an intellectual and a poet and like the rest of his humanist circle was attracted to the philosophy of Plato. At the same time, like most intellectuals and artists of the high Renaissance, Lorenzo remained deeply religious. The Medici family held the leading banking house in Europe and this was the source of their wealth and power. However, Lorenzo showed little interest in learning the banking trade. Instead, he was interested in ruling Florence and making it the center of a new cultural awakening. He ruled by ensuring that his supporters were appointed to the key government councils. While he effectively dealt with matters of state, including the continuing relations and rivalries with the other Italian city states and with the pope, Lorenzo was at the same time deeply involved in philosophy, literature and the arts. Lorenzo had a practice of bringing promising young artists to live in the Palazzo Medici. It is amazing to believe that at different times, he may have had Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo at his dinner table, along with his collection of poets and philosophers.
From San Lorenzo, I walked by the Duomo and through the Piazza della Signoria to the Bargello. The Bargello is a old town hall and prison, which now serves as a museum housing famous sculptures including Mercury by Giambologna, David by Donatello and Bacchus by Michelangelo.
I next walked to the lovely Piazza di Santa Croce, like the other great piazzas, it was surrounded by multi-story historic buildings and anchored by a lovely grand building, in this case by the ornate, gothic Santa Croce church. Inside the complex, I visited the domed Cappela de'Pazzi chapel, designed in the classical manner by Brunelleschi who also designed the Duomo, the dominant dome on Florence's great cathedral. I admired the orderly geometry and color patterns of that place.
I walked to the Piazza dell Signoria, which was another well designed Piazza which once served as a center of civic life. This great piazza was anchored by the Palazzo Vecchio, the large brick City Hall with its tall clock tower. I toured the palace which was full of art, including Victory by Michelangelo. The large Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred) with its enormous paintings of the historic battle victories of Florence particularly impressed me.
In the evening, I finished my first full day in Florence with the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo, near the Duomo, which contain the originals of much of the exterior art from the Duomo. It includes the original Gates of Paradise doors from the Baptistery. The doors were created by Ghiberti after winning a competitiion in 1401. It took him 21 years to finish the cast bronze door which are sculptured to display scenes from the life of Christ. They are considered great early Renaissance art because of their use of perspective and life-like depictions. I was particularly impressed by Donatello's wooden sculpture, Penitent Magdalene, which images a haggard and gaunt Mary Magdalene. The sculpture radiates a deep and soulful spirituality.
Early the next morning, I spent time back and Duomo taking pictures of the sculptural details on the exterior of the great cathedral. The building is so large and the details so numerous that you could hardly see all of artistic items. I next was one of the first to enter the Uffizi when it opened. The Uffizi had originally been built as government offices. Later, it was converted to house the Medici collection of art becoming one of the world's great galleries. The Medici family and dynasty sponsored the glories of the Renaissance, produced popes and autocrats and a great queen of France, but by the early 18th century the glories of the family in Florence had nearly disappeared. Anna Maria Luisa was the last of the line who died in Florence in 1742 unmarried and childless. However, in death, she perhaps performed the greatest act of the family. After her death it was found that she had left a will leaving the great Medici collection of art, jewels, libraries and other valuables to the City of Florence where they reside today. The highlights of the gallery are the high renaissance pieces. The great paintings of Botticelli, including Primavera and the Birth of Venus, amazed me. In addition, I admired Uccelo's Battle of San Romano, one of my favorites, with its bright colors, the bold lines of the lances cross horizontally and vertically and its bulbous horses and figures, almost cartoon-like.
From the Uffizi, I walked to the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge built across the River Arno in 1345. It was covered by two buildings with mostly jewelry shops on the first floor. Across the bridge I entered the Oltrarno portion of the old city on the south side of the river, and walked a short distance to the Palazzo Pitti. This palace became the home of the Medici family in 1560 during the rule of the autocratic Duke Cosimo de Medici. Cosimo oversaw the completion of grand gardens next to the palace which are now known as the Boboli Gardens. I passed through the palace and climbed through the rather open and stark gardens up to the highpoint in the Forte di Belvedere, where there were sweeping views of old Florence. There was also a showing of contemporary metal sculptures by Jan Fabre, called Spiritual Guards.
From the Fort, I walked on a back street to the Bardini Gardens which were much more intimate and heavily vegetated than the Boboli Gardens and, like the Fort, had broad views of the city. I left the Bardini Gardens and walked along Via di San Leonardo which was a back lane with stone walls on either side and no sidewalk. This was a residential street with some of the more expensive homes in Florence. As I descended the hill, I spotted a sign on a building which stated that the composer Tchaikovsky had spent time in that particular villa. I continued to Viale Galileo Galilei and descended that road towards the Arno until I found a rough path up to San Mintato al Monte, which was another beautiful church with views back over Florence. I went in the church and sat in the cool, dark interior while they played organ music, enjoying the peaceful serenity of the place. I left when priests began to celebrate mass.
Across the Viale Galileo, I found a pedestrian pathway which descended steeply down into the Oltrarno. I was hungry and just inside the gate through the old city wall, I found a nice restaurant with a garden eating area. It was cool in the garden with a breeze, and I ate pears sprinkled with local cheese and honey, followed by pasta with tomato sauce and chunks of wild boar, which are apparently common in Tuscany. After crossing the Arno, I visited the Galileo Museum, which was full of old scientific instruments including some telescopes and other equipment owned by Galileo. Galileo was born in Pisa and lived for some time in Florence. Galileo has been called the father of science, but he was a man of his times. Galileo's father was a famous Lute player and composer and Galileo was apparently an accomplished Lute player himself. It was not unusual for the intellectuals of the time to embrace all fields of learning, including science, philosophy and the arts. The great renaissance artists, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo, did not separate art from science and spent time studying anatomy, mechanics and architecture.
I spent my last afternoon in Florence by touring the great Duomo Cathedral. First, I climbed to the top of Brunelleschi's dome. The dome was the largest of its time. Brunelleschi studied the Dome of the Pantheon in Rome and used construction methods from that structure, along with others he devised, to build this dome without scaffolding. The dome is the defining skyline feature of Florence and from its top there were more grand views of the city. The ceiling of the dome is covered by Vasari's fresco, Last Judgement, including scenes of the agonies of hell. As we climbed into the dome, we got close to the those paintings which were terrifying. I enjoyed time down in the Cathedral with its classical geometry and fine paintings.
The Piazza del Duomo is one of the largest public spaces in Florence but is experienced as tighter, smaller places because of the Cathedral in the center with its high walls. This Piazza is accessed by narrow streets so that it is almost always a surprise when the enormous buildings suddenly appear. I enjoyed an outdoor dinner in one of the spaces below those walls as the sun set and the lights came on; surely one of the best spots in the world to relax and have a quiet meal.