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.
The Bargello Museum
I skip breakfast and spend my morning trying to sketch a motif from one of the vestments I saw at the Duomo Museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore). The fierce winds have died down, and the first thing that hits me on the street is heavy cigarette smoke. Women in parkas and stilettos with cigs extending from bright red lips will be among my most vivid non-artifact memories.
The Bargello is remarkable as much for its architecture as its contents.
Finished in the 14th century, on land that was purchased nearly a century earlier, this palazzo served as the personal residence of the Duke of Calabria (1326), the headquarters of the local magistrates (1502) and a prison (1574). It has been a national museum since 1865 and houses a very nice array of both Italian and Persian artifacts.
I wander through the courtyard, past the cistern and statuary, and up to the balcony where there are more sculptures and life size bronzes of birds. I enter a room that structurally resembles the Medici Chapel — low and vaulted, but painted lapis blue, and covered with gold painted stars. I keep reminding myself to look at the building as much as the artifacts.
Among my favorite items here:
- The circular, folding, parchment fan, dating back to the 9th century. Probably the oldest paper I have seen that was not a book or a manuscript.
- A 6th century ivory tablet of Empress Arianna, in full Byzantine court garb, thought to hail from Constantinople.
- The combs. All three of them. Very large, coarsely toothed on one side, a band of really beautiful relief carving along the center.
- The Islamic Room. The 14th century Venetian-Saracen artworks — trays and boxes made by Islamic artists living in Venice. Carved Syrian Ivory plaques. The three 15th century Damascus steel Persian helmets.
- Juno and the two peacocks, by Ammannati, originally intended as part of a fountain at the Palazzo della Signoria, now installed among several other sculptures in the courtyard.
- The Atys, a bronze depicting a cupid with chaps and a contagious smile, about the size of a 2-year old toddler. I spend the rest of the day looking for a replica to take home for my garden. I settle for finding him in an Italian art book.
Dinner, and retracing the day…
I catch myself several times today just wandering, having no idea where I was going, yet never feeling lost. I look up, and oh look! I’m back at my hotel without even meaning to be. I unload my pockets and pick up my journal and pen. I visit the concierge, who reserves a taxi for me for 4:30 AM but doesn’t understand how to confirm my flight. I sit down at his computer and amaze him with my technical know-how and print my boarding pass. I pay for my room and retrieve my passport, and look for a restaurant.
The first viable osteria I find is not seating for a half hour. I browse store windows and stop in at a shop whose window was full of heavy, silver, Medici-looking men’s rings. The young man brings out a bag of delicate women’s bands which he insists I try on, while I browse the heavy men’s styles instead. I settle on a convex band interrupted by a fleur-de-lis. “The symbol of Florence,” the young man says. Yes it is. The handmade, sterling piece becomes mine with an exchange of cash, and I wear it out the door.
The osteria opens, and I treat myself to a full course meal. If I have ordered correctly, that should consist of onion soup, ravioli, spinach, and white beans, accompanied by a glass of Fonseca. I read my menu choices to the waiter in Italian, and he writes them down. He repeats the order back to me twice before I realize that is what he is doing. I’ll never be fluent enough in Italian to be functional here…
I record the events of my day. I walked over the the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s version of the Rialto, spanning the narrowest part of the Aron River since Roman times. The bridge is covered with goldsmiths occupying the ground floors of buildings that still have crenelations and battlements along the roof lines.
…my onion soup arrives, a dense gravy of pureed onion with a thick piece of toasted bread plopped in the center, mounded with fresh parmesan cheese. American “onion soup” ought to be downright embarrassed…
Back to the day. I wish the Boboli Garden had been my first stop rather than one of my last. I walked past the 19th century Annalena Grotto, where a marble male and female stand in sheltered and eternal embrace.
At the entrance to the garden are replicas of two Pompeiian villas, one a residence, the other a painter’s workshop, with gardens fenced in with lashed bamboo latticework. Red troughs catch water from the eaves on three sides of the courtyard. Plantings here included roses, pines, and medicinals that have not yet broken ground. I tossed a coin into one of the fountains but it bounced off ice.
…the waiter places my main course in front of me – four, lovely, plump ravioli, stuffed with spinach and a sublime white cheese, drizzled with truffle sauce, and a scattering of bite-sized chunks of porticini mushrooms. Fresh parmesan on the side. Absolutely delicious. I look over at the next table, where an English couple are dining. They have ordered, predictably, fish and chips.
I jot a note about the olive arbors that stretch the entire length of the Boboli Gardens, intersecting with oak arbors running crosswise, dating back to 1620. A break in the arbors drew me up a hill to a secluded path where there was a stone terraced trough, running the entire length of the road. They are bird troughs, constructed in an area designed for hunting birds with nets. Each trough ends in a medieval bestiary head which functions as a spitter, letting the rainwater escape through its mouth, into a basin, and down the next trough, to the next spitting head. It is called the Fountain of the Mostaccini, and dates to the 17th century.
I left coins and healing thoughts there for friends and family who survived the calamitous losses of last year, when ten people within my social circle died, and at least as many whom I knew less well, also left this world. What an impossible year it was. The last prayer is for myself, to cover all bases for the return flights home.
I spent about half an hour in the gift shop at the Pitti Palace, looking at catalogs to see what I was missing – shi-shi salons filled with 17th-18th century paintings and textiles. I decide to forgo them this trip, and returned to the gardens. I wanted to see sunset from the fountain, but returning to Santo Spirito proved the greater draw.
…I finish the ravioli just as the next plates arrive. A mound of spinach, sautéed in olive oil and garlic, which I try to polish off but simply can’t. White beans in tomato and sage sauce, a regional specialty, does not impress me as much, but my body screams for protein. Frank Sinatra belts a song out on the radio in English, which is jarring to the ambience.
I had finally found Santo Spirito Cathedral and sat down on the wide stone steps, sharing the fading sun with church goers and pigeons while waiting for the doors to open. Once inside, it felt similar to San Lorenzo except quite a bit larger. I thought Michelangelo was buried here but I cannot find the crypt. The central presbyter is stunning, flanked by 4-foot tall angels, some with black wings. A working knowledge of Latin would be really helpful before I return here, in order to read the plaques. I start to catch a chill. Time to leave.
…the waiter has returned, but I have no room for desert. I finish my wine, and leave as the noisy dinner crowd starts to arrive.
I want to walk around on my last evening here, and I head back towards the Duomo. It is very cold, and a sharp breeze has kicked up. The homeless are out, and I walk through a pack of Jamaicans, their belongings wrapped in bedsheets. Police are making an arrest, and my skin prickles as I pass a pair of young men, signaling a change of plan and a return to my hotel.
I need to come back. To visit Venice for a day for Carnival, and to spend the rest of the week in Florence. I’ll visit fewer churches next time, and more palaces and museums. I’ll spend more time just walking around the city. Another trip to the Baptistry. An entire day at the Boboli Gardens. Or at least the latter half of the day, so I can see the sunset…