Three Days in Florence

February 17 – Venice to Florence

I arrive at the train station in Venice a couple of hours early, and sit outside on the broad expanse of steps, enjoying the sunset, the 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 compared the train station here to Hogwart’s in the Potter series. I impress myself at 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, facing each other, with a table between, remind me of the BC Ferry. My traveling partners soon arrive, a nice older couple on their way to Rome. I wish I could speak Italian so I could have chatted with them for the next 2.5 hours.

The train stops at every station but the stops are not called out. Even though my stop is over two hours away, I fight to stay awake, fearful of falling asleep and ending up in Rome.

We pass a stop for Bologna, and I dig a map out of my briefcase to figure out where I am. It looks like another half hour, maybe a couple more stops. Finally, knowing we are getting close, I pull on my cap and look with anticipation out the window. The man across the table from me picks up on that. When we come to that stop, he looks at me and smiles, and says “Firenze” and 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 a well planned city, laid out on a grid that looks exactly like the map in my hand. I was struck immediately by it’s size in relation to Venice. And then I was nearly struck by a car — a sudden realization that I am back in a city with motor vehicles.

I find the Hotel Bavaria without any difficulty, and the massive wooden door to the palazzo was still open, so I squeeze through, but the stairwell light went off just as I got there. I tread cautiously to the top of the ancient stone staircase, only to find that 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 promptly escorted in.

The concierge walks me back up the stairs, and through a massive common room lined with shabby furniture that is out of place for the rest of the room, except for 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, are drawn up to the ceiling, all beamed, frescoed. The floor is red, grey and black looks-like-stone tiles. There are three beds, a small writing table and chairs in front of the window, and a wardrobe with a key. The doorways are in alcoves because the interior walls are over a foot thick. This room is as big as my living room and kitchen combined, or the size of a suite in an American hotel.

I then notice the complete absence of anything electrical; no TV, no phone, not even a clock. Just a room in the top of a building, built in about 1568 by Bartolomeo Ammannati, sculptor and architect to the Medici family. This room could not have been more perfect had I built and decorated it myself. I turn on all the lights so I can study the ceiling all night.

I make some notations in my log that I forgot to include while I was still in Venice:

  • Seeing a Chinese bed in an antique store there. Wherever I go, I see Chinese 
  • The ferocity of the crowds in San Marco Square yesterday, and having to crawl out of a circle of photographers on my hands and knees because it was my only path of escape 
  • Marie finding a wine colored tricorner hat that was a perfect match for her coat, and which helped me spot her in a crowd 
  • Finding that the rifle mounted in a glass case in the Basilica was an offering of thanks from a woman for the safe return of her husband from war 
  • The single slits in the concrete every 10 feet or so, that serve as the drainage for the sewer system (rather than the large grates that Seattle has).
  • Watching a workboat as it installed gondola moorings outside of the Cathedral of the Salute, and then realizing how difficult that must be to accomplish from a boat.
  • The garbage boats, specially outfitted with dumpster arms, marveling that the boats don’t tip over.
  • Specialized hand trucks for FedEx and DHL guys to schlep stacks of boxes over the bridges which are actually stairs, not the smooth surface bridges I was expecting, like the ornamental ones in Japanese gardens. 
  • Thinking back on all the specialized tools that had to be developed to accommodate modern life in Venice. And how impassable the city is if you are in a wheelchair, or a walker, or crutches, or have any other issues with mobility.

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. Between 4:30 and 5, a fierce windstorm hits. 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 once a fountain. Pigeons are echoing through the ceiling. The church bells have been ringing hourly since 5 AM. The sun comes up at about 6:45. 

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 ceiling, heavily beamed. Breakfast is yogurt with muesli flakes, sweetened with honey, a hard roll with butter and jam, and thin 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, gathered in La Loggia dei Lanzi, on the Vecchio Square. 

Cellini’s Perseus

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′ or so with wrought iron torch holders. I look up and see 14th century wooden eaves (called corbelling) that were outlawed as an architectural element in the 15th century because they blocked too much sunlight from the street. As I am photographing one of the more ornate ones, I realize that I am looking at a top-floor patio, not glassed in, with framed frescoes on the ceiling. 

A few blocks down, I see a 12th century turret in an alley, nestled between more modern buildings. There are crenelations on a number of buildings dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. I arrive at the massive Duomo Cathedral, and walk around it at least three times, 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, 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.  At the top of the tower, I have a great view of the entire city, as seen through the graceful Gothic archways of this tower. 

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 the Medici Chapel — a low, vaulted ceiling cloister that now serves as a crypt for many of the Medici family. I manage to miss the Library, but I find the Chapel of Princes, a towering, octagonal, domed structure, with niches for each of the six Medici sovereigns.

  • Only two of the niches were ever completed; bronze statues of Ferdinand I and Cosimo, dating from the mid 17th century, 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 of the Medici’s lines the room, and although the floor is significantly less detailed than the one I walked on in the Basilica in Venice, it is nonetheless, quite beautiful.

About a third of this room is enveloped in scaffolding, a demonstration of the ever popular and ongoing restoration work that continues on these structures. 

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.

  • Started in 1421 by Brunelleschi, the blank stone façade was 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.

The interior of this basilica, 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 here. His bronze pulpit, supported on four marble columns, rivaled the relief work of the Ghiberti doors at the Baptistry. It was also here that I discovered a reliquary of glass fitted with silver, the size of a child’s coffin, and containing the bones of a saint, upon whose skull rested a delicate, scroll worked crown, looking very much like the inspiration for the coronet that was crafted for an SCA friend of mine, except that this crown also included bezels for stones over the scrollwork. 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 presented with a brunch menu, from which I choose a Greek omelet, hash browns, and expresso, which I have learned to drink 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 unfinished works by Michelangelo, and on, very slowly, respectfully, nearly religiously, to the man himself… 

…the magnificent David… 

My photo of David’s back

He’s much whiter and more translucent than I was expecting, standing 17 feet tall under a softly lit dome that was build especially for him. The first thing I notice is how large his hands are, and how out of proportion they are with the rest of his features. My guidebook  attributes this to “the hand of a man with the strength of God.” 

Other out of proportion elements that people pick up on, may be due to the forced perspective that Michelangelo used, as this statue was originally intended for installation on the southern roof of the Duomo. The back of the David, 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 the David and investigate the room behind him. The Salone dell’Ottocento, filled with shelves to the ceiling of marble busts and plaster cast models that were the “final exam” pieces by the students of the Accadamia. My very first thought upon entering the room is the catastrophic loss that would occur if this room suffered an earthquake. The thought of being crushed to death by so many falling marble busts, was secondary to the destruction of so many irreplaceable pieces.

Several pieces by Bertolinni (19th century) catch my eye, so much so that by the time I am all the way through the room, I can pick them out without even reading the placards. An amusing piece of statuary shows 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 the David on my way out. 

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 something on the works of Donatello, but find nothing. 

I walk past gated hotel courtyards, and see one with a piece of installation art in the form of a half scale rhino which appears to be 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. Originally, gold and silk was sold here, it later became the place where people met 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. I do the same, but by now, I have already made the decision to return here.

The Boar Fountain. Rub its snout to guarantee your return to Florence.

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 the panels visited the Seattle Art Museum last year. Upstairs, I find a nice collection of Byzantine vestments, made up of brocade, embellished with random squiggles of gold cording. The visit to this museum was worth my while. 

And now, I am off to the Baptistery, and the great Ghiberti Doors. For photos up to this point, please visit my supplemental blog at Daveno Travels.

The Baptistery

The Baptistery of San Giovanni is the oldest building in the Duomo complex, sitting near the Duomo Cathedral and the Giotti Tower (aka the Campanile). The Baptistery is one of the oldest buildings in Florence, and an excellent example of Florentine Romanesque architecture, borrowing elements from both Classic and Byzantine styles. 

  • Some think the original Baptistery was a pagan temple converted to Christian use; others believe it was erected on the site of a 3rd century Roman temple built during the reign of Emperor Augustus, who dedicated it to the god Mars after a successful Roman defeat of the Etruscans. Though commissioned in 394, the earliest reference to the building as it now stands dates to 897, though it’s actual founding date is more commonly considered to be 1059, the year it was consecrated by Pope Nicholas II, Bishop of Florence.
  • The Baptistery’s octagonal shape is symbolic of the Christian concept of salvation achieved by baptism, the baptized soul arising on the “8th day after the 7 earthly ones, and the day without end,” a reference to resurrection and life everlasting in the grace of Christ. 
  • Major artistic work began on the interior of the Baptistery in 1202, including the mosaic floor which is described as “a spread of Oriental carpets” leading the devoted to the center baptismal font, marked now only by the outline of where it stood before it was dismantled in 1577. Most of the exterior architectural details were completed by the 14th century, just as restoration on the interior dome mosaics began – work that continued well into the 19th century. 

The Ghiberti Doors — The Gates of Paradise

Although there are a number of sculptures and other elements that should have caught my attention on the exterior of the Baptistery, I was fixated on the bronze doors which were one of two things that topped my list of “must sees” for this city. I was only mildly disappointed that these doors – like many other pieces I would see on this trip – are replicas. 

  • The original Ghiberti doors were installed facing the Cathedral, where they remained for over 500 years before 18th century refurbishing techniques gone awry combined with increasing air pollution, began to corrode the bronze underneath the gilding. The doors were removed during WWII and transported to a safe place outside of Florence, where molds were made from them. They were returned to the Baptistery after the war, but were again removed (a panel at a time starting in 1970) and were replaced with the gilded bronze replicas that you see now, crafted in a workshop in France from the WWII-age molds. 

The original panels, some of which have been restored and are now encased in nitrogen-filled glass cases (the same panels I saw on exhibit in Seattle), are now housed in the Duomo Museum. But the replica doors are no less stunning, and allowed me to see them as they were originally installed, each panel having a specific forced perspective, depending on where it was placed on these tall and massive doors. 

  • The original Baptistery doors were made of wood by Pisano In 1322, who designed 28 panels,  depicting the life of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, and allegorical figures of the Virtues. Pisano utilized a lost wax casting method and, after finishing the bronzes with chase-work and gilding, riveted each panel onto its bronze base, finishing his work in 1336. 
  • In 1401 Arte di Calimala (the Merchant’s Guild) held a competition to choose an artist for a second set of doors. Ghiberti beat out Brunelleschi, who would later become the first great Renaissance architect, and designer of the Duomo. It is hard to imagine the turn of events that would have occurred had Brunelleschi’s talents been consumed by these doors, rather than his domes that have left such a mark on architecture around the globe… 
  • Ghiberti began work on the doors two years later, working them in the same style as Pisano’s doors – biblical figures within a quatrefoil, following the terms set out by the Calimala that the style of the second set of doors, follow the first. Ghiberti’s doors, originally commissioned to replace Pisano’s doors, depict scenes from the life of Christ. Ghiberti installed his work in 1424. 
  • The Guild awarded Ghiberti a commission for a second set of doors the following year. But this second set of doors would be a dramatic departure from the first. Ghiberti’s new work would include 10 panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament in high relief and forced perspective. 

One of my guidebooks equates some of the panels, or at least their placement on the door, to the political events of the time. The Joseph panel, showing distribution of grain and an embrace of forgiveness, is thought by some to be a reference to Cosimo’s return to Florence from exile, with other panels seen as pointing to the union between Greek and Roman churches as ratified by the Council of Florence in 1439.

The process Ghiberti used to make the Gates of Paradise followed those of Pisano, lost wax, chasing, and gilding by dissolving gold in mercury, and committing the panels to the furnace where the mercury vaporized, leaving the gold adhered to the bronze. This method of gilding was highly toxic, even by Renaissance standards, and I cannot imagine that the life span of a foundry worker in Ghiberti’s shop, was a very long or healthy one.

When the doors were finally installed in 1452, Michelangelo is credited with saying that the doors were so beautiful that they were worthy of the “Gates of Paradise”, although others cite the reference simply to the doors being the entry way to baptism. Regardless, the colloquialism remains assigned to Ghiberti’s masterpiece to this day.

Inside the Baptistry… 

Of all the elements that make up this place — the women’s gallery, the baptismal fonts, the marble mosaic “Oriental Carpet” floors, the Roman sarcophagi — the thing that held my attention the longest was the ceiling. This place could make a small fortune by renting gazing cots.

After trying to follow the intricacies of the mosaics in the floor, my eyes drifted up to the glittering gold glass which was the background for what I remember as predominantly blue mosaics, though my books picture it otherwise.

  • The dome, built prior to 1100, was embellished with mosaic during the 13th century and took 75 years to complete the depictions of “The Last Judgement” and other biblical stories. Some of the mosaics were restored in 1481-90, and again between 1898 and 1907, with additions being made to complete some of the scenes. 

I stood for the longest time, as close to the center of the building as I could, turning in a slow spin, just trying to take the thing in. After a few minutes I gave up and sat down on the footrest of a back pew, just staring and trying to imagine the effect it would have had on a person from a much earlier century. 

I finally pick myself back up for a final walk around. The Roman sarcophagi date from the 4th century, with the lid of one carved in 1299 with a sheep (symbol of the Wool Guild) and two versions of the now recognizable Medici arms, under which lies the remains of one of the many Medici family. The other marble tomb, also dating from the 4th century, serves as the resting-place for Bishop Velletri. Along another wall lies the resting-place of Bishop Ranieri, who served as Bishop of Florence for 42 years. The inscription is worthy of note: “a good and just man, wise and pleasing of appearance…” 

I wish I had been able to figure out how to get up to the women’s gallery, to get close up and personal to the 14th century mosaics that cover the walls there, to stand in the alcove with the bottle glass window, and, of course, to get closer to the magnificence of the ceiling. So many reasons to return to Florence.

You will find additional photos of the Baptistry with its’ Ghiberti doors in my other blog at Daveno Travels.

I chance upon Dante’s House, where I buy a florin, and a book on medieval armor for Jim, a friend of mine.

  • 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. 

I return to my hotel room and, foregoing a proper meal for lack of appetite, write postcards, letters and journal entries for the remainder of the night. 

The Bargello Museum 

I skipped breakfast and spent my morning trying to sketch a motif from one of the vestments I saw yesterday. The fierce winds of yesterday have died down, and the first impression I get on the street is of heavy cigarette smoke. There must be a very high per capita of smokers here.

The Bargello is remarkable as much for its architecture as much 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.

Once you get through the courtyard, past the cistern and statuary, up to the balcony where there are more sculptures and bronzes, you enter a room, very much like the Medici Chapel — low and vaulted, but painted lapis blue, and covered with gold painted stars. I kept reminding myself to look at the building as much as the artifacts. 

Among my favorites:

  • 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 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 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.
Donatello’s Atys

Dinner, and retracing the day

I have caught myself several times today, wandering, having no idea where I was, yet never feeling lost. I look up, and amazingly I have arrived at my hotel without even meaning to. 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 print my boarding pass, much to his amazement. 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 find the ring I was shopping for, at a shop whose window was full of heavy, silver, Medici-looking men’s rings. 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, and I pay for it and wear it out the door. 

The osteria opens, and I sit down for a full course meal. If I ordered correctly, I anticipate 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. My Italian will never be fluent enough to converse here… 

I record the events of the day. Of crossing 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 at the roof line. Finding Santo Spirito closed, I will have to come back. 

…My onion soup has just arrived, a thick 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 walk past the 19th century Annalena Grotto, where a marble male and female stand in sheltered and eternal embrace. At the entrance to the garden, two Pompeiian villas, one a replica 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 include roses, pines, and medicinals that have not yet broken ground. The water in the fountains is frozen solid. 

…The main course for my dinner has just arrived…four, lovely, plump ravioli, stuffed with spinach and a sublime white cheese, draped with truffle sauce, bite-sized chunks of porticini mushrooms scattered overall, 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 recall the gardens and the olive arbors that stretch the entire length, intersecting with oak arbors running crosswise, dating back to 1620. A break in the arbors draws me up a hill to a secluded path where there’s a stone terraced trough, running the entire length of the road. They are bird troughs, 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, dating back to the 17th century. 

Fountain of the Mostaccini

It is there that I offered coins and prayers for the well-being of friends and family who remain after the calamitous losses of last year, during which ten people within my social circle, and at least as many whom I knew less well, left this world in favor of the next. What an impossible year it was. The last prayer is for myself, to cover all bases for the return flights home.

I had spent about half an hour in the Pitti Palace, mostly in the gift shop looking at catalogs to see what I was missing – shi-shi salons filled with 17th-18th century paintings and textiles. I decide to forgo it this trip, and returned to the gardens. I want to see sunset from the fountain, but I am compelled to leave before sunset in order to return to Santo Spirito. 

…I have finished the ravioli, and 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 rather jarring. 

I had found Santo Spirito Cathedral, after asking a passer by for directions. I sat on the wide expanse of stone stairs, sharing the fading sun with church goers and pigeons, waiting for the doors to open. Once inside, I find this cathedral to be very similar to San Lorenzo, though it feels 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. It is chilly here, and 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. A police car arresting someone,  and my skin prickles as I pass a pair of young men, signaling that it’s time to return to my hotel. 

Photos from my final day in Florence are collected at Daveno Travels.

I need to come back. To visit Venice for a day for Carnivale, and to spend the rest of the week in Florence. Fewer churches next time, more gardens, palaces and museums. 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…

Three Days in Venice

My first international flight takes me to Europe and the heart of Carnivale in Venice,  February 2009.

You never forget your first time …

February 14 – Seattle to Frankfurt

I arrive at SeaTac shortly after noon to board my plane for Venice. It’s my first international flight, and immediately it becomes obvious, waiting at the gate, listening to the loudspeaker blasting out boarding calls for Beijing and Paris. I soon board a plane that is smaller than I had expected. I’m really glad I packed light. The luggage stow-away rack is well above my head, and a stranger offers silent assistance with my carry-on. Thank you…

Take-off is uneventful, and the flight has only the most occasional turbulence, during which I watch the interior of the plane serpentine, as though it were a Viking long ship. It’s a little disconcerting. I reset my watch to Frankfurt time, and read until I can fall sleep.

I get two hours of shut-eye before dinner. I fall right back to sleep afterward. By the time the plane lands, I am very ill. I’m the last passenger on the plane, and  the stewards ask me if they need to call a doctor, which I decline. I Do Not Want to start my vacation from a hospital in Frankfurt!

I get off the plane and make it through the security checkpoint and onto my connecting flight for Venice. Once more on the ground, I realize I left my favorite ring and a couple of other things in Frankfurt customs. I resign myself to the fact that they are remnants of the past, and that I will find a new ring in Venice.

I find the bus stop, and find that some things are universal — crowded, standing room only buses being one of them. This bus is a cross between a city bus and an airport shuttle, apparently serving both purposes, outfitted with luggage racks but making stops about every two blocks. I’m annoyed that I’m starting this trip on a bad stomach. I strip down to a tank top to avoid becoming overheated on a bus that has non-functioning windows. I must be quite the sight, on a bus full of people dressed in parkas. 

At last, I arrive at Piazzala Roma. I had thought a vaporetto would be a larger version of a gondola, but they are actually water buses, like the Vashon ferry.  I find the one headed to “Rialto #1.” It seems to be pointed the wrong direction but I get on.The window glass is imbedded with a dot-matrix pattern that makes me queasy. But I look out the window as much as I can, and marvel at how much water traffic there is on the canal. 

The Rialto Bridge is larger and more impressive than I had imagined. Passing under the massive arch of stone is like passing from night into day. Suddenly there are people everywhere, many in costume, but most in just hats or makeup. My brother Payne, in his historical garb, is waiting at the San Angelo stop, a short walk through aged alleys to the apartment they have rented on Calle Dei Avvocati (Street of Lawyers) for the next two weeks. He unlocks a massive, wooden door. I walk in to the grand foyer of what appears to be 15th century manor house.

Unbelievable! A stone-tiled floor, high vaulted ceiling, a thick, tall wooden door with a half-circle of wrought iron work above it. An old lamp hangs from an ornamental chain. Payne unfortunately does not have a key to unlock the back door, an iron gate which steps down to a landing and onto a small, green-water service canal. We go up a two-person lift to the third floor, where Marie, his wife, arises from a nap, already dressed in her harlequin street gown. I set my luggage down, and look out the window onto a vista filled with terra cotta tiled roofs, stretching out as far as I can see. My room also has a view of terra cotta roof tiles and wooden shuttered windows just across the alley. These views are nearly indescribable.

After a couple of glasses of water and a brief sit down, I change into my Venetian gown, and we set off, winding our way through alleyways and onto San Marco Square, the Grand Central for Carnivale. We turn the corner, and the landscape fills with the domes and towers of the Basilica. It takes my breath away.

The Basilica is not as tall as I imagined, but far more ornate than my camera can capture. We walk up to the facade, and within a few minutes, bells start to toll — first from the short church tower on the left, then from the taller tower on the right. Birds fly in a perfect shade-of-blue sky. The sudden transition to an earlier century is so complete and overwhelming that I stop in my tracks and start to cry. Marie, who has walked ahead with Payne, turns around, and comes back and puts her arm around me. “This is why we try to bring people here”…

It is hard to move quickly, or at times make any progress at all in this crowd. Payne is an extraordinary draw and tourists flock to him like paparazzi. Marie and I wait patiently for crowds to clear. We take two more steps, and stop again. We wander through to an adjoining square, where she gets some photos of Payne and I together, sitting at the feet of a bronze Venetian winged lion, at the foot of the statue Payne calls “the man with no hat”.

We wander through the “Italian Garden” that has been set up at one end of the square. It’s a combination of topiary, a small stage, and a perimeter made up of sheets painted with topiary, but with no attempt at tromp-de-toile. There is a larger than life topiary lion at one end of the garden, with eyes that light up, that is being hosed down by a workman. The entire scene is a juxtaposition of historic buildings, strands of twinkle lights suspended in the alleys, and large, modern light-sculptures in the “garden”. We find the Bridge of Sighs, completely boxed in with bright blue banners announcing restoration work, making it look more like a two dimensional billboard than an architectural structure.

At the end of the Doge’s Palace, we watch the sky fade from blue to pink, to deeper blue as the sun sets over the lagoon. Venus is clear and bright under a clear, cold sky. The setting sun hits the front of the Basilica, catching the gold mosaic tiles and turning them to fire. Drums start. And into the Italian Garden, careen three silver dragons — half man-on-stilts, half animatron-puppet — with heads extending 12 feet into the air on articulated serpentine necks, tails that look like a single, man-made feather, extending up another eight feet behind them, dancing in a choreographed drill… playing with the crowd… playing with each other… moving through the garden, and then out into the square for the next two hours.

We find our way to Caffe Florian, a baroque salon in operation since 1720, a favorite haunt of Goethe, Casanova (possibly because it was the only coffee house to admit women), and later, Lord Byron, Proust and Dickens. It is filled with costumed revelers, looking very much the part of 17th-18th century lords and courtesans. We are shown to a small table in one of the ornate and crowded salons, and order hot chocolate, which arrives as rich as though it were a Hershey Bar melted into a delicate, porcelain cup. The windows looking out are filled with people looking in, and it is hard to tell which side of the glass is the more active fish bowl. A man in white Carnivale attire, accompanied by a man in black (dressed like Mozart’s father in Amadeus), start hand signaling somewhat obscenely through the glass with a man sitting near us, and flirting with the man’s wife. Hysterical!

More walking over a myriad of small bridges, past an ornate church which none of us recognize, down a dead end, and back onto a plaza which turns out to be Campo Stefano. Vendors in street booths are selling Carnivale regalia. I buy a black tricorner hat, the traditional headwear of Carnivale. It’s wool, and warmer than the costume piece I brought with me. Dinner is at an osteria near the apartment. I eat half of what I order.

Back at the apartment. I stitch a black and gold veil to the back of my new hat. Marie says it needs a pin. I add that to tomorrow’s shopping list, along with writing paper, a mask, and a train ticket to Florence.

For photos from the day, please visit my supplemental blog at Daveno Travels.

The Doges Palace

At 5:30 AM, the upstairs neighbor wakes up and turns on their lights, which reflect back off the brick and wood-shuttered windows of the building across the alley from my room. At 6:15, a broom hits the pavement, shooing a soda can down the street. A crescent moon hangs above the terra cotta tile rooftops. At 7 AM, church bells begin. Marie is up, and offers to go for a walk with me.

We set out at 7:30, and snap shots of the sunrise as it hits the buildings. It’s a really pleasant walk. Marie points out rooftop gardens on several of the buildings. There are no plantings at street level. I find the place to buy my train ticket. Marie buys blood oranges from a fruit stall, croissants from a baker who did not speak English, and I have my first Italian expresso “at the bar” to save on the 3 euro table charge. This coffee is dramatically different from anything I could hope to get at Starbucks.

After breakfast, I change into my Venetian gown, determined to dress in historical costume for the duration of my stay here. My tricorner hat, though not historically accurate to the cut of my gown, is teh-cute nonetheless, and I am very glad I bought it yesterday. We set out to find favorite shops, which takes the majority of the morning. We are lost much of the time, but see some pretty incredible ancient buildings and very narrow alleys with iron bridges crossing the narrow side canals. Even being lost, it is a good morning.

The other couple that is staying with us announce their arrival on Marie’s cell phone, so Payne and Marie leave to go meet them, and I am left to my own devices. I go to the Doge’s Palace. 

  • Palazzo Ducale, originally built in the 800’s as a fortress that enclosed both the personal residence of the Doge (the Duke who governed early Venice) and the first church in San Marco, but most of what now exists dates from the 1300’s. It became the seat of Venetian government in subsequent centuries and is an excellent example of Venetian Gothic architecture. Again as with much of Venice, art and details that you look at are reconstructed from original pieces. In the case of this palace, pieces that were destroyed in several fires between 976 and 1577. 

The first thing I see is an ornately carved black gondola with an enclosed box over the seat, apparently to provide both shelter and privacy to the Doge on his excursions on the canal. I then check my bag, which was unfortunate, as I didn’t think to take my camera out first, nor did it occur to me to go back to retrieve it. DOH!!!

The sheer amount of sculpture in the courtyard outside of the Doge’s apartments is remarkable, and I wandered for quite a while. The most impressive section of the courtyard is the Foscari Arch, dating from the late 15th century, topped with gothic towers and ornamented with statuary symbolizing the arts, the work of masters of the Lombard School.

One of the next things I observed on the balcony was a lion face relief on the wall, with a mail slot for a mouth, above a carved placard that read “Denontie Secrete Inmaterie Distato.” It was the receiving box for secret notes from citizens, turning in other citizens for transgressions, although the local magistrates rarely took action on these accusations. There would be a few other, less ornate boxes throughout this building.

I enter the palace via the Scala d’Oro…the Golden Staircase, named after the 24-carat gold leaf adorning the arched, stucco ceiling, built by command of Doge Gritti during the mid-1500’s. At the top of the staircase began the Doge’s apartments, both public rooms, and later, private ones. There are no furnishings because each doge was expected to provide his own, and upon his death the furnishings were returned to his heirs.

The first room, a reception chamber, was filled with maps (the originals dated to the late 15th century), and two 6-foot globes in pedestals (dating to the 18th century), meant to underscore the importance of Venice as a world power. The fireplace here is wrapped in scaffolding.

It was at about the Corner Room, or perhaps the Ritratti, that I entered, oblivious to other people, as my neck was craned back in order to keep my eyes on the ceiling. I heard someone inhale sharply, and looked down to see an Italian couple, wide-eyed, looking back at me. “My god”, the man says, “when you walked into the room in your costume, we were just transported…  Thank you!” I told him I was equally transported, being able to walk around in these buildings in period costume. I offered a humble “Grazie” before they left. What an experience that was, for all three of us.

The next floor houses the chambers of government. Incredibly lavish, every single surface of every room is ornamented with paint, gold, and fresco. My favorites were the Sala del Senato (the Senate Room), and the immense Sala del Maggior Consiglio (the Legislature Room, shown here). It measures 175′ x 80′, feels to be the size of a football field, and remains the largest room in all of Europe unsupported by columns. My least favorite room was the Quarantie (the Tribunals of Forty) where justice was meted out. This room had a distinctly different smell than the rest of the rooms, and was one of the last rooms that an accused person would stand in before crossing over the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) which links the courtrooms to the prisons on the other side of a canal.

The Armory displays a variety of weaponry dating back to the 14th century. Fully armored horses stand in a corner, behind glass. Two sets of tournament armor dating from 1490, and a child’s or dwarf’s armor recovered from a battlefield in 1515. The obligatory array of swords, a pair of exquisite Turkish recurve bows, 17th century guns, and an ornate bronze canon whose barrel could only facilitate shot the size of something halfway between a golf and a tennis ball.

Then a walk over the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1602 but named in the 19th century because it was the last view of Venice a prisoner would have before being committed to a cell for the rest of his life, looking out onto the lagoon through two small glass-with-iron-grate windows. The staircase leading to the prison cells was oppressive, and I was glad that it wasn’t more crowded when I was there. These rooms, considered by standards of the day to be more humane than most, would have still driven me to the brink of insanity had I had to stay in them for more than a few hours. Low, arched ceilings, over nothing more than a bench, originally lined with wood planking, and windowless save for the iron grate across the front. It was interesting to note that these cells continued to be used as an active prison up into the 1930’s.

I find the gift shop/museum store, but it’s woefully inadequate, a problem that would be pervasive throughout my stay here. I am incensed at the lack of photos of the Armory in the museum catalog. The triptychs and icons in the apartments aren’t in the guide either, which is really unfortunate since I wanted to learn more about the one that showed Mary in 13th century garb, crucified, as men in armor fainted away at the foot of her cross.

After a few more rooms, I arrive back out on the second story balcony. I retrieve my camera and find the top of the Scala dei Gigante, (Gigantic Staircase) which was the ceremonial approach to the palace and the place where the Doge was crowned. It is flanked on either side by statues of Mars and Neptune, installed in the mid-16th century. As I stand in that spot, I start to laugh. The butts of both Mars and Neptune are at eye-level — mooning the Doge during some of his most important ceremonies.  It brings me to wonder if the placement of these two statues was politically motivated, and then I start laughing again as it is the last visage I have of this place.

I set out to buy a train ticket, with the intention of returning here to see the Basilica. I am lost for almost two hours before I start asking for directions, every 3 blocks, until I finally find the ticketing office I had seen this morning. I buy a ticket for a 6:30 departure tomorrow night, and head back to the Basilica.

What a maze this place is! I weave my way back to the square, only to find the queue in front of the Basilica is really long and full of tourist groups. I decide to shop for a new ring instead. But women’s fingers here are excruciatingly tiny and my hopes of finding a ring with a florin in it, or in fact any ring that will fit, begins to diminish. I decide I will look for one in Florence.

I return to the Basilica, but now it is 4 PM, which doesn’t leave me enough time to do it justice. So I head back to the apartment. Two hours later, I’m still walking around in circles. No matter which direction I leave San Marco Square, I always end up back here. I try to use a pay phones to call Payne and Marie but cannot figure out how to make them work. Even Italians are coming up to me, asking for help. It’s now dark, and I’m pretty certain Payne and Marie have started to worry. I am determined to figure this out.

I set out again, with my map, certain I have it oriented properly. I look up to see a wedding couple in front of me, and a really cool bank of gondolas as tourists start to book their evening cruises. I go over this bridge, that bridge, and yet another, and turn the corner, and… unbelievably… I am back in San Marco Square! Good God! I haven’t decided if I should laugh, or cry…

Another hour has passed, and the costumes have now come out. I walk around, deciding that since I’m here anyway, I should soak up the ambiance of a second night of Carnivale. I watch two costumed girls engaged in a confetti fight as their parents look on, smiling and snapping photos. I make my way back to a pay phone to try again, and get pelted in the face by a little girl throwing confetti. A piece catches an edge in my eye. Great. Now I am lost, -and- blind.

It is now completely dark. One more attempt to leave the square fails, and I suddenly remember that the vaporetto will take me directly back to San Angelo. I make my way to the dock at San Marco, and hop on board a boat that has just arrived, and realize that I am now seeing the rest of the Grand Canal. How Cool Is This! I stand on the bow for a better view. A gondola takes off, loaded with passengers, its hull completely studded with white twinkle lights. The cathedral dome on the other side of the Grand Canal is illuminated and beautiful. I realize this is the only way I would have found the Accadamia, had I planned on going there. I watch a couple get the famous 30 euro per person fine for failing to buy a vaporetto ticket.

I get off, and try a couple of times to locate the Avvocati, before going back to a hotel near the San Angelo stop. “It’s just across the bridge to your left” the concierge says. Bridge? I don’t even remember a bridge. I arrive home at 7 PM, three hours after I intended to. In retrospect, we realize that we should have made a back up plan. “If you are not here by xyz, we will meet you a designated place in San Marco Square at 7 PM,” says Payne. Yup, that would have been a good plan to have in place. They are impressed that I thought to take the vaporetto back home, and we all have a good laugh about my complete inability to navigate Venice on my own. Payne suggests sending a postcard to my boss, asking, “Have you heard from Heather, last seen in San Marco Square on Monday? Please advise…”

  • Travel tip: I later learn that a lot of people get lost here, even the locals…so if you are planning a trip here, book an additional day or two so you factor in that time-loss. 

It is decided that I am not allowed out on my own for the rest of my stay here. Tomorrow morning, Marie and I will tour the Basilica, (the only other must-see thing on my list aside from the Doge’s Palace) and then additional shopping will probably ensue. I am still looking for writing papers and the elusive ring.

For photos from this second day in Venice, please visit my supplemental blog at Daveno Travels.

The Basilica of St. Marco

I’m awake at 5:30. It’s bread and jam for breakfast, and packing before we take off sightseeing. Then Marie and I set off to the Basilica. There’s a line, but it moves pretty quickly. We enter, and your eyes are amazingly drawn up to the vaulted, mosaic ceilings. Wow…

  • The Basilica was started in 1063, on the site of the previous church which was destroyed by fire in 976. It was consecrated in 1094 with the reburial of St. Mark, patron saint of the city, who had been buried in the original church in the 9th century. It is said that there are about 2 acres of mosaic covering the surfaces of this church, much of it gold leafed glass tile, dating as far back as the 13th century. The books also go into great detail about the specific iconography of the mosaics, which I will spare you here. 

Marie reminds me to spend half of my time looking at the floor, where incredible mosaics and geometrics meet our every step. The floor is nearly as incredible as the ceiling. I reach down several times to touch the marble, the sardonyx, the lapis. The floor is much smoother than I expected, for it being made up of so many angular cuts of stone.

And then, we enter the Treasury — a depository of treasures brought back to Venice from Constantinople in 1204. An Egyptian vase, 4th century Roman glass, numerous Roman and Byzantine chalices carved from stone and gilded and jeweled, lamps and pails carved from clearest rock-crystal. The piece that made the greatest impression on me was a simple milk-glass plate from China, dating to the 13-14th centuries. I fantasize Marco Polo’s fingerprints being on the edges of it.

I did not choose well when I opted out of going upstairs, which I later realized was the San Marco Museum — the Doge’s banquet hall which now houses tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, and on the balcony, the four bronze horses that you can see from the Square. But by that time I had nearly burned my retinas with the details of this place, and was pretty overwhelmed. I light candles for Dad and Chuck, who both died last year, and then exit the building. 

We stop for lunch. I order a mushroom pizza and café correto (coffee ‘corrected’ with liquor). I stumble with the language barrier again, and experience a bit of culture shock as I am trying to communicate with a Chinese barkeep, in Italian. She brings me two bottles — Jaegarmeister and Jack Daniels. Jack it is. When the coffee arrives, it is half alcohol. I don’t finish it, or the pizza. But I will never eat American pizza again.

We go shopping. The first find of the day, is also the best — a second hand store which looks promising for Payne as he searches for hardware for their house. There, in a glass case along the back wall, I find it. A ring with a gold lion head, a symbol of Venice. I ask the shopkeeper to unlock the case. I try it on, and it slips onto my finger as though it was made for me. My ring, found at last. 

We see more Carnivale costume today, nearly always these people are in pairs, who stroll very slowly, with specific poses and sometimes even specific places to pose in the square. We see stacks of what look like really long benches, which Marie explains are set up as walkways during the aqua alta, the street flooding which, fortunately, we do not experience this trip. A French puppeteer, with his marionettes, his waist-high stage set up on the street, with backgrounds that he rolls in order to change the scenery, and a microphone and earpiece that he wears like body jewelry. 

We visit the Cathedral of the Salute (Santa Maria della Salute) where I light a candle for Mischka, who also died last year. About half the outside of the dome is covered with scaffolding. It is also in sharp contrast to the Basilica, with its grey, unadorned interior, and its dome inset with glass panels, which fills the entire building with that beautiful Venetian light. It was built in 1630 by those thankful few who survived the Black Death that year. Outside the Salute, another very old church, appearing to date to the 10th-11th century, which I photograph in hopes of finding the name of it later. Another Carnivale costume, this one, a single Lioness… 

We head back to the Rialto and cross to the other side. A ride in a gondola has been ousted from our plans due to the cost (100 euro), so we step onto a trajetto instead. This boat is not as ornate as a gondola, but is the same basic shape, and you stand in it instead of sitting. For the cost of a single euro each, we board the “poor man’s gondola” and snap photos of the Rialto from water level at the center of the Grand Canal. So much fun! 

On the other side, past the Guggenheim Museum which is closed today, we see the Palazzo Contarinin deo Bovolo, (the Bovolo Tower), the famous spiral staircase built at the turn of the 16th century. I would never have found it on my own because it’s buried in a labyrinth of narrow alleyways. It’s also closed for restoration work, but we admire it nonetheless, as well as the cisterns and large marble tubs that are in the fenced off garden in front of it. 

We walk back to the square and find the vendor where I bought my hat. He remembers us, although I suspect it was Payne that jogged his memory, rather than me. Then it is back to the apartment, to pick up my luggage, to go to the vaporetto, where I narrowly avoid getting on the one going in the wrong direction. Then, to the train station, where my trip to Florence begins.

For photos from this last day in Venice, please visit my supplemental blog at Daveno Travels.

Another Beginning

After putting my business aside for much of last year to attend to family matters, I returned to find my website of about 6 years in need of updates.  But the more I worked with it, the more broken pieces I found, until finally tiring of wrestling with things that would never cooperate, I decided to move it.

The process will take me several weeks, as my website houses my library of research papers and travel journals in addition to my online store.

So, please bear with me as I transition from “broken there” to “bright and shiny and new here”.