Italy – Florence

Monday 3 September

From San Gimignano we drive to Florence through heavy rain. We are on a secondary road, but it is a highway yet it is narrow and winding as they are in New Zealand. They are not well cambered so the water lies on the road, which is flooded especially in fast lane!  

We approach Florence and peter relies on the satnav to guide us to our hotel which is in the ZTL. We are lost. The satnav  sends us round in circles for an hour. We know where the hotel is, but not how to get to it by car. Peter stops near our hotel and goes on foot to ask how to drive there. Its just as well I have authorisation by email for using the ZTL or we’d have dozens of 100euro fines … Peter is able to park the car 50 metres from the hotel in a disabled park, in the ZTL. Fantastic. 

Anyone want to drive with me and stay in the heart of Florence?

Tuesday 4 September

Our hotel is in the historic centre of Florence, and at one time must have been a very fine residence. Its faded grandeur is charming. The room is enormous! At least the size of two hotel rooms! The wooden furniture is old and worn but beautiful. (And the bathroom is completely accessible!)

It is a block or so from San Lorenzo markets. That’s dangerous! Especially as I am the first customer of the day. It’s early and no one is buying. I like bartering.  I buy a nice leather jacket (very, very soft) for what I think is a good price. Peter has a nice tie from Florence! And more … but not much more …

Is it ironic that the markets surround a church?

I need to use a bathroom so, knowing that most major attractions in Italy have accessible toilets, I ask at the San Lorenzo church. Iam directed to the Crypt … which is closed to the public! Peter comes with me as i wheel a few hundred metres under the church. We see Medici tombstones, marble heraldry and best of all, some fabulous frescoes. It is amazing!

The San Lorenzo church was built in the 300s and is the oldest church in Florence. It was Renovated by the Medici family in the 1400s and used as the family chapel.  The front facade of rough horizontal bricks  was left in its original style and is simple but wonderful to look at. The church is massive, with a long nave and high vault. There are gold stars on a blue background on the romanesque style vaults in the side chapels. The nave ceiling consists of white square boxes framed with gold florets. The Medici  coat of arms, a shield with five red balls and a globe is in the centre. There are striped marble arches above grey marble columns.  A fabulous floor to ceiling fresco is on part of one wall. It paints the Martyrdom of San Lorenzo. The people in it are lifelike. The men in the foreground have rippling muscles, and all the faces wear intense emotional expressions, some of revulsion, some otherwise. Donatello sculpted the pulpits. The old sacristy has a marvellous dome the inside of which is painted with astrological stars in a night sky. 

Next we visit the Medici chapels. The first chapel is a huge marbled, opulent mausoleum. It is the  chapel of princes, and despite visitors having to enter from outside, the chapel is behind the main altar of the church. It has six huge marble Medici sarcophogae. The walls, columns, sarcophagae, floor …  everything, are made of dark solid marble.  Each sarcophagus has a crown on top. The floor has elaborate marble inlay.  Originally there were six bronze statues. Two remain. They are larger than life and impressive.

Even grander is the octagonal domed ceiling. It soars above, high, high, high above. On it are vibrantly painted scenes from the Old and New Testaments. They are gorgeous. I want to keep looking at them, but I’m getting dizzy from looking up. 

The chapel is extraordinary and magnificent, but after a while the dark marble becomes oppressive.

It is the second chapel that I really want to see. It has statues carved by Michaelangelo. Thus chapel is the mausoleum for Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother. Lorenzo provided the catalyst for the Renaissance. He spent much of his time in the company of artists, philosophers and poets. He encouraged and supported great artists of the time – Michaelangelo, Donatello and others. His ideas inspired great works of art, and changed the way people saw the world. 

Lorenzo believed that time rules all men, and the sculptures represent that concept. Above Lorenzo’s is “Dawn and Dusk”, above his brother’s is “Night and “Day”

Each pair is of a reclining man and a woman. Man is dawn, awakening from sleep, and day. Woman is dusk preparing for sleep, and night. They share many of the characteristics of “David”- graceful, strong lines, musculature that suggests both relaxation and tension, and a sense that the marble lives.  I love how Michaelangelo has left parts of the figures emerging from the marble, and has left some parts unformed. Like the Pieta, and David there is a sense of human-ness, even though these sculptures are allegorical.

Last time we were in Florence we toured the duomo but did not look closely at the baptistery. I am so glad that we are seeing it now! It is an octagonal building from around 1090. The ceiling is mind-blowing. It is probably the finest example of Byzentine mosaic that i will ever see. Gold, gold gold. It shows scenes from christs life, and in the centre is a huge circular painting of Jesus. The walls are very simple though, with striped marble and simple grey/green shapes on the walls. Even the font is quite simple. The ceiling is the star! 

There are grills in the floor through which can be seen the foundations. 
It is always interesting to see the original construction methods.

The bronze doors are spectacular.  Each door displays relief sculptures showing scenes set in small 30cm squares. The north doors show scenes from christs life, the south doors in the top four squares show scenes from John the Baptist’s life then below them, representations of the virtues. The east doors are called the gates of paradise, and are gold.

We also intend seeing the Palazzo Vecchio this time. We walk through the piazza della signoria which is always busy but which has the most amazing statues, any one of which would be celebrated elsewhere as a work of art in its own right. 

The rooms of the Palazzo Vecchio were painted by Vesari and his workers. We start at the top on the third floor. The art is spectacular! Why did we miss this last year? The first room is the Room of Elements.  The ceiling is painted on wood, the walls are frescoes on plaster. The element, Air, is on the ceiling and features a god being mutilated for sperm to create the gods. Water is represented by Venus, Fire is an ironmongery, a furnace, and Earth is represented by people lazing round in an orchard. There are also paintings of Pluto and mercury. My favourite is Fire. I like how lifelike the figures are, and the attention to every detail. 

The sentiment of each scene is repeated in each of the rooms directly below and dedicated to a Medici. The intention is to associate the Medicis with the gods and to deify them.

On the top floor is also the Hercules room which has scenes of Hercules killing everything, the Juno terrace, a room of Jupiter where the ceiling features Hercules being suckled by a goat, as well as a  Room of Opus and a Room of Ceres.

I think that the real treasure is on the bottom floor, rising two floors -the salone dei cinquecento. 

All the painting has been done by Vesari. The ceiling is best seen from the third floor where it can be seen close up. It is a similar style to that of the ducale palace in Venice, with paintings framed by gold boxing, but much better.

Three gigantic frescoes are on two opposite walls. Vesari is magnificent!I have seen little of his work but this makes me an ardent fan. It is thought that Vesari preserved a Michaelangelo painting underneath part of his frescoe and efforts are underway to uncover this without damaging either master’s work.

Finally we look at the First floor Medici apartments underneath the Elements Room. The first room is that of Leo tenth who commissioned all the painting. His room is under the room of elements and he is represented as a roman ruler. It is highly mythical in Greek and roman style. The second is Lorenzo the magnificent’s as diplomat and philosopher, and his is under the room of opus, mother of jupiter. The third is Cosimo’s and his is under Ceres. The theme of his room is astrological with astrological signs.

The Palazzo Vecchio is fantastic. Every room is a surprise, wonderful, and demonstrates the power and talent of the Renaissance artists and thinkers.

Peter climbs the Vecchio tower at sunset. While he does this I sit on the steps of the della signoria.  It is a warm night, I listen to buskers and enjoy  some great guitar music.

I (slowly) walk all the way back to the hotel with Peter. It’s been a good day.

Wednesday 5 September. 

We walk to the Santa Maria Novella. It’s not far, maybe three blocks, but I’m exhausted from walking yesterday. My legs don’t want to work and my shoulders and arms are on strike. Just as well I had suggested that at some point Peter get the car so we can drive to some attractions! I’m going to need the car soon.

The Santa Maria Novella is a large church that had been built in the 1300s. The exterior is fairly simple with white and dark green alternating marble stripes. On one side, (that turns out to be a wall sheltering a garden alongside the church) are small statues and coats of arms in white marble mounted on the striped exterior. The front has slightly larger statues but is still quite simple. 

Originally the church had been divided in two with the priest virtually unseen on one side of the divide, and the congregation on the other side. In the 1500s Vasari was asked to redesign the church. He pulled down the Divide and had his students, who were also working with him on the Palazzo Vecchio at the time, create large paintings on wood. Vasari painted a magnificent frieze. Larger than life figures in the foreground have defined musculature, and their clothing is painted in vivid colours. One figure is wearing a rich red cloak with folds that feel as if you could reach out and touch them and they would be warm and soft!

I had planned on walking the next few blocks to the Orgisanti to see the Orgisanti crucifix, recently restored and back in place after many years.  I am so tired that I can only walk very very very slowly. My head doesn’t feel tired, only my body – frustrating.

Eventually we arrive and my effort and Peter’s patience is rewarded with the organ playing, and not only the crucifix, but a Botticelli and two wonderful Ghilandaio friezes!

The church was built in the 1100s and the crucifix, made about a hundred years later, is thought to have been painted by Ghiotti. Its colours are vivid reds and blues and gold. On each side of the cross are painted a picture, one of Mary and one of John. Above is a picture of the risen Christ.  It’s highly decorative and remarkable for the time in which it was made.

The frescoes are superb. One  Ghirlandaio is in the stye  of Botticelli and the facial expressions, body composition and attention to detail are fabulous. They were both painted in 1450.

The other Ghirlandaio is more traditional for the time but is just as wonderful. The facial expressions! One significant.character looks directly at the viewer

While Peter gets the car I stand by the Arno. A weir controls the water flow.  A lone oarsman approaches then turns  before the weir. The current is so slow that his wake remains for several minutes. It’s peaceful here. If I look up upriver I can see the distinctive yellow windowed walls of the Ponte Vecchio, just one bridge over.

We search for a park as close as possible to the Sante Croce. Eventually we find one a block and a half away. Even though I only have to walk 300 metres, I am struggling to  get my legs to cooperate. I had thought that because I’d walked so far yesterday, I could do it again … Wrong!

When we arrive I am offered a wheelchair. For an absolute first, I ACCEPT! Sante Croce is a very large basilica with cloisters and chapel, built in the thirteenth century.

The church has a Giotti tryptic. It’s a dark painting and difficult to appreciate. Painted in early 1200s it’s not the usual gold framed, gilt laden, flat painting of the time, but Is three dimensional and dark, but the features of each figure are clearly those of a real person.

The Cloister is peaceful with few people. I’ve noticed that they don’t stop to feel the tranquility of these places which is why they are there. They rush from one attraction listed in their guide to the next.

The chapel has a beautiful blue dome above the entrance. Inside it has tall arched windows, and a simple dome above the altar. Around the dome are four blue medallions representing Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

To end the day on the highest possible note we visit the del’Accademia and David. He is beautiful. Nothing can do him justice. No picture, no photo, no words, although Vasari came close when he wrote that “to see David means that you never need see another sculpture. The combination of arms, legs and flesh is perfect” (paraphrased). I hope I can hold in my head the images of his hand, his profile, his torso,  his legs.

Thursday 6 September

This morning we are driving to Lucca for the day. It’s about an hour from Florence and we choose to drive here rather than to Pisa on the recommendations of others and because most travel forums indicate that Lucca is better.

Friday 7 September

Our last day in Florence … We drive to Venice this afternoon to catch a plane tomorrow morning to Istanbul!

We decide to visit the Uffizi. We leave the car parked immediately outside the hotel … In a tow away zone, but the hotel owner assures us that its ok! the hotel is about 1.5km away from the Uffizi, and we walk through the San Lorenzo markets.

We are going to be selective in what we see, revisiting our favourite artists. Lippi, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Titian, Tinteretto, Veronase, Vasari, then on to the “foreign” artists: El Greco, Marelo, Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphael and finally, Caravaggio after going through a temporary exhibit of Gothic Florentine art and sculpture.

I’m exhausted! Overwhelmed! So much many paintings! It makes me want to revisit the Louvre and the Rodin museum. 

We return to the car … Venice is a few hours away


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