My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marks the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos. This is the second leg of my first intercontinental trip in February 2009.
I arrive at the train station in Venice a couple of hours early, and sit outside on the broad expanse of stone steps, enjoying the sunset, with church bells filling the chilling air, the sky variegating from grey at the horizon, to rose, to robin-egg blue. I sit outside as long as I can, before heading inside to find my train…
Marie compares the train station here to Hogwart’s in the Harry Potter series. I pat myself on the back for figuring out the timetable and which platform to board the train from. I board, and find my window seat, but it will be dark soon so I won’t be able to see much. The seats are bench seats that face each other, with a table between, much like BC and Seattle ferries. A nice older couple sit down on the other side of the table from me, and through various means I learn that they are on their way to Rome. I pointed to my guidebook for Florence, to let them know of my destination. I wish I could speak Italian. It would have been really great to have been able to carry on a conversation.
The train stops at every station but the stops are not called out. I fight to stay awake, fearful of falling asleep and missing my stop. We pass a stop for Bologna, and I dig out a map to figure out where I am. It looks like another half hour. Finally, knowing we are getting close, I pull on my cap and peer out the window in anticipation. The man across the table from me picks up on that. When we come to my stop, he looks at me and smiles, and points to the sign on the train platform and says “Firenze”. I look back at him, and smile, and say “I know.”
I’m so happy to be here that I wake right up…
Unlike Venice, Florence is laid out on a grid that looks exactly like the map in my hand. I am struck immediately by it’s size in relation to Venice. And then I am nearly struck by a car — a sudden realization that I’m back in a city that pedestrians share with motor vehicles.
I find the Hotel Bavaria without any difficulty, and see that the massive wooden door to the palazzo is slightly ajar. The hotel is housed in a palace built in about 1568 by Bartolomeo Ammannati, sculptor and architect to the Medici family.
I squeeze through the door, but the light clicks off just as I get to the base of a well worn stone staircase. I tread cautiously to the top but I can’t read a damn thing in the pitch black. Back down the stairs I go, nearly missing a step, finding a handrail that isn’t actually attached to the wall, and back outside to the door buzzer. The lights come on, and I am met by the concierge, who walks me back up the stairs. We cross a very large common room with shabby modern furniture along the walls, and past a heavy, dark wood dining table that will seat about eight people.
She takes me to a door, unlocks it, and turns to me to tell me that I have a really big room…
The room is everything I had hoped it would be. My eyes drift up to the ceiling that is beamed and frescoed and about 20 feet above my head. The floor is red, grey and black stone tiles. There are three beds, a small writing table and chairs in front of the window, and a wardrobe with a key. The doorway feels like an alcove because the interior walls are over a foot thick. This room would be marketed (and priced) as a suite in an American hotel. 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…
A Logia, the Duomo and a Medici Palace
It’s 4:15 AM and I am wide-awake. I stay in bed, continuing to study the ceiling and the rest of the room. Heavy wooden doors are fitted with modern locks. There’s a niche in the stucco wall, with a stone basin built into it; I wonder if it was originally a fountain. Between 4:30 and 5 AM, a fierce windstorm hits. Pigeons are echoing through the ceiling. The church bells start to ring hourly. The sun comes up at about 6:45. It’s time to get up.
The bathroom has a bidet, toilet, pedestal sink, and shower all in the same room, without any separate enclosure for the shower. The shower water falls coarsely, like a waterfall. If I were a man I would have opened the shutters for a view to the outside while I bathed.
Breakfast is served in what must have been a pantry/storage area, with a low and heavily beamed ceiling. Breakfast is yogurt with muesli flakes, sweetened with honey, a hard roll with butter and jam, and very weak coffee. Back in my room, I bundle up because everyone who came into the breakfast room was wearing a parka. I’m off 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, many of whom felt their work to be the extension of God’s work, and who would become global legends in their own right. A city touched by the revival of Greek and Roman classicism. Within my first few minutes of walking around the city, I nearly toss my itinerary into the nearest trash can.
The austere beauty of this place, with its stone walls and fortifications, is astounding. I thought Venice was the most beautiful city I had ever seen, until arriving here. I am in pursuit of architecture and sculpture and I’m not disappointed. The very first thing I see is not one, but several of the sculptures on my list, grouped together in La Loggia dei Lanzi on Vecchio Square.
The Loggia, built between 1376 and 1382, was originally the place where priors (city guild leaders) were inducted, and later served as a forum for public debate. The Medici family turned it into an outdoor statuary gallery. And what a gallery! The bronze ‘Perseus’ by Cellini, who nearly burned his house down during the casting of it. The Rape of the Sabines, in marble, by the Flemish sculptor Giambologna — the compelling depiction of a Roman soldier tearing a man away from his wife. A half dozen original Roman works. Behind me and to the right, the Neptune Fountain by Ammanati, installed for one of the Medici weddings.
The stonework in the buildings is roughly hewn, and long expanses of 14th century walls are studded every 20 feet or so with wrought iron torch holders that are well above my head. Some (like this dragon) were more rare.
I look up and see 14th century wooden eaves (called corbeling) that were outlawed as an architectural element in the 15th century because they blocked too much sunlight from the street. While shooting one of the more ornate ones, I realize that I’m looking at a top floor patio, not glassed in, with frescoes in gold frames on the ceiling (shown below at right).
A few blocks further down the street, I find a 12th century turret in an alley, nestled between more modern buildings. There are crenelations on several buildings dating to the 13th and 14th centuries.
I arrive at the massive Duomo Cathedral, and walk around it at least three times but never do 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, who started building the tower in 1334. Upon his death in 1337 the work was taken over by Andrea Pisano, who in turn left the work in 1348, to have it taken over by Franceso Talenti, who completed the tower in or about 1359. The result is a well balanced and graceful Gothic building, faced with Carrara marble in green and white, and Maremma marble in pink.
I laid down in one of the stairwell archery slots to measure its depth and to peer through the arrow slot in the 5′ thick wall. The top of the tower affords an excellent view of the entire city, the vistas framed by graceful Gothic arches.
Back down the 414 steps and through a street of vendors, to the Medici Palace. There’s a substantial number of open air markets here that feel like Pike Place Market in Seattle, or Saturday Market in Portland, but with a much broader array of manufactured (not handcraft) goods.
I find one of the Medici Chapels, with its low vaulted ceiling cloister that serves as a crypt for members of the Medici family. The Chapel of Princes is a structural opposite – a towering octagonal structure with a domed ceiling and niches for each of the six Medici sovereigns, although only two of the niches were ever completed. About a third of this room is enveloped in scaffolding, a demonstration of the ongoing restoration work that is needed to maintain these buildings.
The only two niches that were completed display bronze statues of Ferdinand I and Cosimo and date from the mid 17th century. They dominate a room richly colored by granite, jasper, alabaster, lapis lazuli and coral. The altar was finished in 1939 for a visit from Hitler and Mussolini. The crests of each Medici family line the walls of the room. Although the floor is significantly less detailed than the one I walked on in the Basilica in Venice, it is nonetheless 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 of this basilica, designed by Brunelleschi at the behest of the Medici, is masterful.
Started in 1421 by Brunelleschi, the blank stone façade is the result of a contract rescinded by Pope Leo X, a lack of funding that kept Michelangelo from completely covering it with a wooden façade of niches for a series of statuary he had planned. (A model of this defunct project is in the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria de Fiore.) The dome was not completed until 1602.
It is here that I am introduced to the works of Donatello, who would become my favorite sculptor by the time I left Italy. His bronze pulpit, supported on four marble columns, rivals the relief work of the Ghiberti doors at the Baptistry. I discover a reliquary of glass fitted with silver, the size of a child’s coffin, that contains the bones of a saint, upon whose skull resta a delicate crown in scrollwork and set with bezeled stones. I wondered if it was the inspiration for a coronet that was crafted for an SCA friend of mine. And now I can hardly wait to tell her.
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 on the Duomo began in 1296 and the church was finished and consecrated 170 years later, in 1436. The dome, designed by Brunelleschi, considered to be the avant-garde 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. The cathedral is faced in the same variety of marbles as the Campanile (the facings are actually Neo-Gothic, dating to the 1870’s) and has probably the most ornate exterior of any church I have yet seen, save the Basilica of San Marco. Its vaulted interior is one of the most important pieces of Gothic architecture in existence.
A brisk wind has picked up, and although the day is clear and sunny, it has turned biting cold. I duck into Café Duomo, where I am handed a brunch menu, from which I choose a Greek omelet and hash browns. I have acquired a taste for expresso with just a sprinkling of raw sugar over the foam. Yum!
My next stop is the Accademia. I walk into 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 of icons, stands a plaster cast of “Rape of the Sabines.” Many of the statues that I had seen earlier this morning are replicas; the originals have been moved inside to more protective surroundings. But I appreciate the replicas nonetheless, as it allows me to see these sculptures and bronzes in the manner in which the artist originally intended, freshly carved or cast, and free of blemish…
I am eager to see a singular original work that is housed here, but I restrain myself from running past several roough-hewn works by Michelangelo, and on, very slowly, respectfully, nearly religiously, to the man himself…
…the magnificent David…
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.” Other out-of-proportion elements are due to the forced perspective that Michelangelo used, as David was originally intended for installation on the roof of the Duomo.
David’s 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 tear myself away from David to see what’s in the room behind him. It’s the Salone dell’Ottocento, shelved from floor to 12 foot ceiling, filled with marble busts and plaster cast models that were the “final exam” pieces by the students of the Accadamia. My initial 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”.
Another room of paint contains earlier icons, many pieces by Daddi (13th century) who has a recognizable style, and who becomes my new favorite painter of the medieval period. I make another Mecca-esque circle around David before exiting.
I’m pretty frustrated with museum shops here. The one that holds the greatest promise, I revisit several times, looking for a catalog for the Accademia. I visit a bookstore, looking for anything on the works of Donatello, but find nothing.
I walk past gated hotel courtyards, one has a piece of installation art in the form of a 1/2 scale rhino which might br made from paper-mache. Around the corner, I snap a photo of a line of parked mopeds. The moped is to Florence what the gondola is to Venice…
The famous bronze Boar Fountain sits at the edge of the Mercato Nuovo, a 16th century open air loggia that houses a street market. Gold and silk were originally sold here; it later became the place where people met to exchange news about boats coming in and out of Liverno and Pisa. Legend has it that if you rub the boar’s bronze snout and toss a coin into the fountain, you will return to Florence. I do the same, but by now, I’ve already made that decision.
I stumble across the Duomo Museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore). What a find! It turns out to be the workshop for Donatello and Brunelleschi, and where Michelangelo carved the David. The Pieta resides here, the sculpture and self portrait of Michelangelo as one of the three mourners at Christ’s removal from the Cross, and the piece that Michelangelo had designed for his own tomb. The museum houses the Madonna with Glass Eyes; Donatello’s scary Mary Magdalene, carved from white poplar; a pair of balconies carved by Robiba and Donatello; and the original panels from the Ghiberti doors, which are displayed the same way they were when some of the panels visited the Seattle Art Museum last year. Upstairs, I find a wonderful collection of Byzantine vestments, made up of brocade, embellished with random squiggles of gold cording. The visit to this museum was worth my while in spite of not being able to take any photographs, or finding yet another elusive catalog.
In my aimless wandering, I find Dante’s House, where I buy a florin and a book on medieval armor for my friend Jim.
Florins were originally minted in the Zecca, near the Palazzo Vecchio, of pure 24 carat gold, less than an inch across, weighing 54 grains. The face showed a lily, the Fleur-de-lis, the symbol of Florence. The back showed an image of John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. The florin was first coined in Florence in 1252, became the standard currency throughout medieval Europe, and remained in circulation until the fall of the Republic in 1531.
Now growing dark, I hurry back to my hotel, with so many notes to enter into my daily journal that I completely forget to eat dinner.