Three Days in Florence – Day 1.5

February 17 – Venice to Florence

Marie compares the train station in Venice to the one in Hogwart’s…

Bench-style seats face each other, with a table between, like the BC Ferry. The train stops at every station but the stops are not called out. Even though my stop is over two hours away, I’m afraid of falling asleep and ending up in Rome…

After 2.5 hours, I arrive. Florence is a well planned city, laid out on a grid that looks exactly like my map. I was struck by how much bigger it is than Venice… and then was very nearly struck by a car… a sudden reminder that I’m back in a city with cars…

I find the Hotel Bavaria, housed in a building built in about 1568 by Bartolomeo Ammannati, sculptor and architect to the Medici family. The concierge escorts me upstairs and through a massive common room, lined with shabby and somewhat anachronistic furniture. She unlocks a wooden door and comments that I have a really big room…

The ceiling is beamed and frescoed, the floor looks to be tiled in stone. There’s three beds, a writing table, a wardrobe with a key. The walls are over a foot thick and the room could probably sleep six people. There’s nothing electrical…no TV, no phone, not even a clock. This room couldn’t be more perfect. I turn on all the lights so I can study the ceiling all night…

The ceiling of my room – frescoes and beams 20′ above my head.

February 18 – A Logia, the Duomo and a Medici Palace

It is 4:15 AM, and I am wide-awake. At 4:30 a fierce windstorm hits. Pigeons are echoing through the ceiling. The church bells have been ringing hourly since 5 AM. The sun comes up at about 6:45 AM.

Time to get up. 

Breakfast is served in what must have been a pantry/storage area, with a very low ceiling, heavily beamed. Breakfast is yogurt with muesli flakes, sweetened with honey, a hard roll with butter and jam, and very weak coffee. Everyone who arrived for breakfast was wearing a parka. I grab mine and head to the Duomo.

Florence. Home of the Renaissance and center of the medieval universe for banking and textile trade. Home of the Medici and the artists they patronized. A city touched by the revival of Greek and Roman classicism. Within five minutes of walking around, I nearly toss my itinerary into the nearest trash can.

The austere beauty of this fortified city place is astounding.  I thought Venice was the most beautiful city I had ever seen, until I touched ground here.  I am in pursuit of architecture and sculpture and am not disappointed. I find several of the sculptures on my list gathered in La Loggia dei Lanzi on the Vecchio Square.

The Loggia, built in the late 14th century, served as a forum for public debate. The Medici family turned it into an outdoor statuary gallery. The bronze Perseus by Cellini; the Rape of the Sabines, in marble, by the Flemish sculptor Giambologna; half dozen original Roman works. Nearby is the Neptune Fountain by Ammanati, installed for one of the Medici weddings.

Cellini’s Perseus, in bronze

The stonework here is roughly hewn, and long expanses of 14th century walls are studded every 20 feet with wrought iron torch holders. Wooden eaves (called corbelling) were built in the 14th century but banned in the 15th because they blocked too much sun from the street.

An example of corbelling – extended eaves which shade the building from excess sun

A 12th century turret in an alley is nestled between more modern buildings. Crenelations on several buildings date back to the 13th and 14th centuries. I arrive at the massive Duomo Cathedral, but never manage to find the entrance to the dome climb.

So I climb the Campanile instead, 414 effortless stone steps. The Campanile, also called the Giotti Tower after its designer, was finished in 1359. It’s a graceful Gothic building faced with green, white and pink marble. It’s walls are as thick as I am tall, with excellent views through the arrow slits.

Back down the 414 steps, and off to the Medici Palace, through a street of vendors that reminds me of the Saturday Market in Portland, but with more manufactured goods and less handcrafted ones.

I find one of the Medici Chapels — a low, vaulted ceiling cloister that now serves as a crypt for members of the Medici family. The Chapel of Princes is a structural opposite – towering, octagonal, domed structure, with niches for each of the six Medici sovereigns, although only two of the niches were ever completed. The altar was finished in 1939 for a visit from Hitler and Mussolini. The crests of each of the Medici’s lines the room. It is quite beautiful.

The Church of San Lorenzo is part of this Medici complex, and the church the Medici prayed in, married in, and buried their dead in for over 300 years. The interior, designed by Brunelleschi at the behest of the Medici, is masterful. It was here that I was introduced to the works of Donatello, who would become my favorite sculptor by the time I left Italy.

I enter the Duomo, said to be the fourth largest cathedral in the world, following St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul’s in London, and Milan Cathedral. Construction began in 1296 and was consecrated 170 years later in 1436. The dome, designed by Brunelleschi, considered to be the avant-gard architect of his day, was the first of its kind, and the model for all Renaissance domes that followed, as well as modern-day domes like the Capitol Building in Washington DC. Its vaulted interior is one of the most important pieces of Gothic architecture in existence.

The dome of the Duomo as seen from the Campanile

My next stop is the Accademia. I walk in to a room of recognizable icons, triptychs and other religious works. I study each one, until I get through about two-thirds of the room, at which point, all paint starts to look the same.

In the center of one of these rooms stands a plaster cast of “Rape of the Sabines”. Many of the statues that I saw earlier today are replicas; the originals have been moved inside to more protective surroundings. But I appreciate the replicas nonetheless, as it allows me to see the works the way the artist originally intended – freshly carved or cast, and free of blemish.

I’m eager to see a certain thing that is housed here, but I restrain myself from running past several unfinished works by Michelangelo, and move, slowly and respectfully, nearly religiously, to the man himself…

He’s more translucent than I was expecting, 17 feet tall and standing under a softly lit dome that was build especially for him. The first thing I notice is how large and out of proportion his hands are, which my guidebook  attributes to “the hand of a man with the strength of God”. His back, with his sling slung over his shoulder and draping down his back, is as detailed as the front. Veins, muscles, carved into stone. He is unbelievably beautiful. I find out later from one of my guidebooks, that he has a very interesting eye detail…

I tear myself away from the David to see what’s in the room behind him. It’s the Salone dell’Ottocento, with floor to 12 foot ceiling shelves, filled with marble busts and plaster cast models that were the “final exam” pieces by the students of the Accadamia. My very first thought was of the catastrophic loss that would occur if there was ever an earthquake here. The thought of being crushed to death by falling marble was secondary to the destruction of so many irreplaceable pieces.

Bertolinni (19th century) has such a specific style that by the time I’m halfway through the room, I can pick out his pieces without reading the placards. An amusing piece of statuary is three children in a tumble, representing Lust, Love and Vice, with Love on top of the dog pile, symbolizing that ‘love conquers all”.

I’m frustrated with museum shops here. I cannot find a catalog for the Accademia, nor a single portfolio for Donatello.

The famous bronze Boar Fountain sits at the edge of the Mercato Nuovo, a 16th century loggia that houses a street market. Gold and silver were originally sold here; later on, people would come here to exchange news about boats coming in and out of Liverno and Pisa. It is said that if you rub the boar’s bronze snout and toss a coin into the fountain, you will return to Florence. By now, I’ve already made that decision.

The Boar Fountain

I stumble across the Duomo Museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore). What a find! It was the workshop for Donatello and Brunelleschi, and where Michelangelo carved the David. Michelangelo’s Pieta resides here, as does the Madonna with Glass Eyes, Donatello’s scary Mary Magdalene, and the original panels from the Ghiberti doors in their nitrogen-filled glass cases. Upstairs there’s a nice collection of Byzantine vestments.

And now, I am off to the Baptistery, and the great Ghiberti Doors… 

This is an excerpt from my original travel journal. The full text, which includes historical notes and travel tips, is housed at AugustPhoenixHats.com.

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