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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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…