Florence, Birth-Place of the Renaissance

Florence has one of the most remarkable legacies of any city. An artistic and philosophical melting-pot, it gave the world the renaissance.

Florence, Birth-Place of the Renaissance

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

The Renaissance, the 'Re-birth', was a great flowering of knowledge. Artists, writers, thinkers and rulers diverted their gaze from static church dogma, and looked once more to the greats of antiquity. The poets, philosphers and sculptors of classical Greece and Rome came once more to the fore (hence 're-birth'). Mythological scenes appeared in paintings, humanistic thinking checked papal power, columns of all three classical orders started to decorate architecture, the Medici Venus was held up as the epitome of beauty and grace.

Some historians date the birth of the renaissance to one place, and one date - 1401, and the public competition to design the new east doors of Florence's Baptistery. Ghiberti's shallow reliefs wowed the judges, and continue to wow tourists to this day. However, this was just part of a process. In the 14th century Giotto had won plaudits for breaking away from the stylized Byzantine iconography then prevalent. Was he then the father of the Renaissance? Well, take a look at the flood-damaged crucifix in Santa Croce, the work of his master Cimabue. This clearly shows some of the elements that Giotto made his own. You cannot put a date on the birth of the renaissance, as it was more a gradual filtering of ideas into the public consciousness than any great sudden earthquake.

You are on slightly safer ground in locating its birth in Florence however. True, interest did arise at roughly the same time throughout Europe, but it was in Florence that they found their fruition. Wealthy bankers provided patronage to the philosophers; rich merchant guilds commissioned works of art for their churches; the Medici, Florence's foremost family, sponsored academic discussions. The wealth of Florence brought together the greatest artists of the day - Cimabue and Giotto, Ghiberti and Brunellesci, Donatello and Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. And the wealth of Florence bought up the greatest art of yesterday - Greek treatises, Roman statuary, the booty of wars.

The glories of Florence date from these remarkable times. Even today it is Brunelleschi's dome, Giotto's campanile and the Palazzo Vecchio tower designed by Arnolfo di Cambio that soar above the skyline. All you would want to see in Florence date from the 14th-16th centuries.

The collections of the Medici now form the basis of two museums - the Uffizi (principally painting) and the Bargello (sculpture). The list of famous names and titles is dizzying. The Piazza della Signoria outside the Palazzo Vecchio likewise displays some wonderful works for free viewing (in contrast, the Accademia that holds Michelangelo's 'David' is overpriced and eminently missable in my view).

The interior of the Duomo is surprisingly bare; the same cannot be said of Santa Croce. This Franciscan basilica is packed with art and history. Another charming church is San Miniato across the river - the views from here are THE classic ones of Florence. Other great views can be gained by climbing either the campanile or dome of the duomo - ensure you do climb one of them! ${QuickSuggestions} The sheer amount of things to see and do in Florence can be wearying. If you are not into art, this is maybe not the destination for you.

Otherwise, the Uffizi is a must-see. Botticelli's 'Primavera' and 'Birth of Venus' are the two most famous work, but highlights of the collection range from Giotto to Uccello, Fra Lippi to Leonardo da Vinci, Durer to Holbein, Michelangelo, Titian to Tintoretto, Caravaggio and Canaletto. But your ticket in advance the day before you want to visit to cut down on the atrocious queues that develop here. I would certainly rate the Michelangelos and Donatellos in the Bargello over the few works in the Accademia. You can see a perfectly good copy of 'David' in its original place in the Piazza del Signoria.

Most people in Florence speak English. That is because most people in Florence are American. Those who can't speak English tend to be Chinese or Japanese, and they're in trouble because they don't speak Italian either. Three times over four days I was approached and asked for directions - I must look like a local! The crush of tourists is worst on the axis from the Piazza del Duomo down to the Ponte Vecchio, via the Piazza della Signoria and Uffizi. It is eminently rewarding to purposefully head out away from that axis. It is not far to Santa Croce, but the lively Piazza here was by far my favourite in town (just beating the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata near the Accademia). The Oltarno also has fewer crowds, except around the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens (€10? Just to enter the gardens? You're joking, right?). But elsewhere the Oltarno district is quiet and peaceful. If you do one thing in Florence, do make time to climb up the wooded hillside to San Miniato al Monte - a charming little church, and a breath-taking vista over the town. Or if you really want to escape the hordes, head out of town. It is 80 minutes by train to Pisa, and you can see the sights in three hours. San Gimignano is a famously pretty little place. And Florence's historic rival Siena is stunning, preserved in aspic and yet missing all of Florence's crowds. In many ways I was unable to relax until I hit Siena.

In terms of day-to-day living, Florence can be very expensive. There are many cheap lunchtime set menus, often of no great quality. Going a la carte will get you a much higher calbre of scran, but you pay correspondingly more for it. I will link to a further journal detailing my gustatory experiences in Florence... Buon appetito! ${BestWay} Florence does not have a Metro system - not that you'd need one. The 15th century core of the city is fairly small, and even the walk from, say, Santa Croce to Santa Maria Novella should take you no more than 30 minutes. From the Duomo to the Ponte Vecchio it is less than 10 minutes. Much of the city centre is pedestrianised - though the traffic around the Piazza del Duomo and along the Lungarno can be irksome. Tour buses make stops at Piazzale Michelangelo, though I think the walk out through the city gates is actually part of the charm of getting up there.

Florence has its own international airport, served by the larger carriers such as Alitalia and British Airways. However, I think most Europeans these days will probably be flying in to Pisa, which houses budget airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet. Terravision coaches connect directly with Ryanair flights and will ferry you from the airport to Florence and vice versa. Pisa itself is only 80 minutes by train from Florence, and hence makes a good half-day out. In fact many trains from Florence actually run all the way to Pisa Airport.

Like all Italian trainstations, Florence's Stazione Centrale S. M. Novella (don't get off at one of the suburban stations!) is easy to use, with automated ticket machines in English. Just ensure you get your ticket stamped in one of the yellow machines before you board the train.

The coach station is just to the west of the train station. It is much easier to travel onwards to Siena by bus than by train. The journey takes 80 minutes each way.

The Civic Heart of the Florentine 'Republic'

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

This building, a high, thin, crenellated stone keep topped with an elegant tower (the Torre d’Arnolfo) has had many names over the years. Palazzo del Popolo, Palazzo Priori, Palazzo della Signoria, Palazzo Ducale; it only became known as the Palazzo Vecchio (‘Old Palace’) in 1549 when the Medici decamped to the Palazzo Pitti across the river. It still keeps much of its 15th and 16th decoration, despite its current use as the seat of the town council, and its use for six years as the home of the young Italian state’s Chamber of Deputies and Foreign Ministry.

A visit to the Palazzo Whateveritsnameis is interesting rather than essential. I have to say I did not feel as though I learnt an awful lot about the many and varied forms of government Florence experimented with in the three or four centuries when it was at its peak of power and influence. What you see is but a series of snapshots rather than a narrative.

Entering from the ornately-decorated courtayrd, the first room you reach is the Salon di Cinquecento . This is the home of Da Vinci’s famous ‘lost’ work, the Battle of Anghiari. Frescos of military victories against Pisa and Siena decorate the walls. You can also find Michelangelo’s statue ‘Victory’, the vanquished foe still a little rough around the edges. In one corner there is a dinky little study (the Studiolo) with a secret door which you cannot enter unless you are on a tour. There are also some computer screens that take you through selections of the history, art and architecture of the building.

From here you progress to the Sala di Leone X, chambers devoted to the Medici popes (you can see their coat of arms surmounted by the crossed keys of the Vatican frequently). Most of the rooms are off limits (they are still used as offices), but you can see their thematic twins upstairs. So for instance, above a room devoted to Leo X, you would find another identically-sized room devoted to Jupiter etc. In the Quartiere di Eleonora, the quarters of Eleonor of Toledo, wife of Cosimo I, has ceiling frescos recalling faithful Penelope, dutiful wife of the Greek hero Odysseus and a symbol of uxorial fidelity. She also has her own chapel, decorated by Bronzino.

The Sala di Gualdrada has a frieze depicting civic festivities – religious processions, jousting in Piazza Santa Croce, football matches. There is a statue of ‘Judith and Holofernes’ by Donatello in the Sala dei Gigli. This was used as a fountain by the Medici, and then later erected under the Loggia dei Lanzi following their expulsion from the city with a warning against tyranny – a very graphic one judging by Judith’s upraised sword. Off to one side from this room with its golden fleurs-de-lys on a blue background is a narrow bare room. This is the Chancery, and was used as an office by the secretaries of the council. Among them was Niccolo Macchiavelli, whose name has entered the English language as a byword for nefarious political machinations. Next door is a map-room, its walls lined with charts detailing many and various parts of the world. On a map of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which here stretched down to the Crimea) I could make out the route of my travels over midsummer 2005 – Reval (Talinn), Riga, Memel (Klaipeda), Vilnius. Better yet, on a map of the British Isles, I could just make out a town located between Manchester and Liverpool. I love the fact that the mighty Medici could place Warrington!

The Palazzo Vecchio is open from 9.00am to 7.00pm daily (except for Thursdays and Sundays when it closes at 2.00pm). Entrance is €6.00 (€4.50 for EU students between the ages of 18 & 25, and for those over 65; €2.00 for those 17 or under).
Palazzo Vecchio
Piazza Della Signoria
Florence, Italy, 50122
+39 0552768325

Ars Gratia Artis

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

The endless parade of art that is Florence continues outside the museums in the Piazza della Signoria. This square is like an open-air art gallery. It is as fine a civic diplay as you could ever hope to see. A reproduction of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ stands just outside the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio. The original was set up here to celebrate Florence’s vistory over tyranny (eg the Medici). The original now stands in the Accademia, and costs €6.50 to view. Personally I’d advise you just to stick to viewing its identical simulacrum in situ for free. He is flanked by a copy of Donatello’s ‘Marzocco’, the heraldic lion.

Adjacent to this is the raised Loggia dei Lanzi, or Loggia della Signoria. This was not an ornate colonnade as I’d imagined before my trip; instead it is more like a two-story marquee of stone, like a caravan awning. It used to shelter Medici bodyguards or the city worthies on civic occassions. Today it shelters a set of very nice stuatues. Cellini’s bronze ‘Perseus’ holds aloft Medusa’s severed head. Giambologna clearly liked to experiment with the human (or non-human) form, and his works are truly three-dimensional, meant to be viewed from all directions, each aspect giving a different impression of the work. In ‘Hercules and the Centaur Nessus’ the two protagonists are caught mid-fight, muscles straining, Hercules forcing Nessus back awkwardly over his thigh. Even more spectacular is the spiralling ‘Rape of the Sabine’. An elderly bearded man cowers as a despairing young woman is hoisted aloft by her attacker. Each individual faces a different direction.

Another eye-catching in the Piazza is the large Neptune fountain, chiefly the work of Ammannati. It is a great faux pas to admit to liking the huge doughy Neptune. Florentines habitually refer to it dismissively as ‘Il Biancone’ – ‘the big white thing’. Not far from here a plaque in the piazza pavement marks the spot where stood the pyre upon which the messianic friar Fra Girolamo Savonarola was burned for heresy.
Piazza della Signoria
In Front of the Palazzo Vecchio
Florence, Italy

Do not Miss the World's Foremost Repository of Renaissance Art!

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

The Uffizi is one of the world’s greatest repositaries of art, no question. The jackdaw collection of the Medicis whose offices (‘uffizi’) these were, it is particularly rich on medieval works and is THE place to see the explosion that happened here in Florence, known as the Renaissance. Perspective and realism were signs of renaissance art, vigorous signs of movement, the incorporation of Greek and Roman mythology, breaking away from the static, formal, posed figures so characteristic of Byzantine (and Sienese) iconography.

While it ranks up there in the pantheon of the world’s greatest art galleries along with St Petersburg’s Hermitage, London’s National Gallery, and the Louvre of Paris, the Uffizi does not make it easy to visit. The National Gallery is free to enter; automatic ticket machines make visiting the Louvre easy. The Uffizi is characterised by an interminable queue snaking down the colonnades. I was shocked by their backwards approach to the internet. Whereas in, say, Padova you can pay for your tickets on line to be collected once there, and book specific timed slots – with, it has to be said, discounts for being so helpfully organised – the Uffizi offers no such service. There are booking agencies who can do this for you, but they add a surcharge to the price you pay. The best way to avoid the massive queues of people turning up on spec, is to pay a visit to the gallery the day before you attend to visit. There is a separate box office for advance reservations, and while there is still a queue, it is much shorter. Here you reserve a timed slot for entrance – I went for 9:45 the next day, reasoning that the crowds might be thinner earlier in the morning. This costs €13.00, and allows you to bypass the general unticketted queue. I wanted to dump my bag in the cloakroom, but they would not let me. I also wanted to hire an audioguide – however, they require either a passport or a driver’s licence as security. Not having either on me I bought the official guidebook for €10. This has details on a good number of the works of art you will see, though nowhere near all of them. To do that you would have to lug around a tome the size of the Encyclopaedia Britannica! It also accompanies them with pictures, which means that it makes for a handy souvenir too.

Entering, you climb up to the second floor. There are toilets here just before the ticket check. I’d advise you to use them – once your ticket has been checked you cannot retrace your steps through to them, and instead have to follow the corridor all the way around to the far side of the courtyard. Essentially the museum is this one long checkerboard-floored corridor overlooking the courtyard of the Uffizi on three sides. This corridor is lined with statues and portraits but the great works are in the rooms off it. The shorter southern corridor gives great views north up the courtyard to the Palazzo Vecchio and south over the Arno and Oltarno district. The church of San Miniato al Monte can be seen perched in isolation above the greenery. You can also see the zig-zagging tiled roof of the Corridor Vasariano as it tacks down and across the Ponte Vecchio.

There are too many works for me to go into any great detail about what you will see here. I will just alight on what were for me some of the highlights. You start off in the late 13th century, and those who have read more of my writing will know that Giotto is always a favourite of mine. His ‘Ognissanti Madonna’ gazes back shrewdly; her asymmetric throne suggests this work was meant to be viewed from an angle. The amount of religious gilt on display lessons as you get into the 15th century. Uccello’s ‘Battle of San Romano’ is the first famous work – though the image I am familiar with comes from a different panel held in London’s National Gallery. Uccello depicts a battle scene crammed with stormtrooper-like knights fully encased in black armour and the rounded arses of horses.

I had to stop at Fra Filippo Lippi’s ‘Madonna with Child and Two Angels’. A grinning jackanapes of an angel tries to steal attention. However, there is something about the Madonna that held my gaze. This demure blonde-tressed Mary is exquisitely beautiful. The scene is given additional piquancy by the story behind it. The model was a nun, one Lucrezia Buti; she later bore the son of the friar Fra Lippi, a true intermingling of sacred and profane love. (I later bought a painted reproduction of this piece, which even now hangs in my flat). Lippi himself appears in his ‘Coronation of the Virgin’. He looks out at the viewer, looking somewhat bored of the whole thing.

By contrast, Botticelli’s self-portrait crops up in his ‘Adoration of the Magi’.He seems a handsome swine. The same painting features prominent members of the Medici family and their circle as the wise kings and their retinue. Boticelli is responsible for the two most famous works in the entire collection. You know when you are in the right room; the crowds in here are thicker than anywhere else in the gallery. First is his ‘Primavera’. From left to right you see Mercury, the dancing Three Graces, a blindfolded Cupid, Venus, a Gwynneth-Paltrow-esque Flora, and the nymph Chloris being captured by the smurf-blue Zephyrus. Lighter in hue is ‘The Birth Of Venus’. The contemplative and demure Goddess of Beauty sails to the land on a clam shell; an attendant waits to cover her nakednes with a robe. Both are everything you would hope. Further complicated allegory by the same artist occurs in ‘Calumny’.

You then pass a couple of Leonardo da Vinci’s works – note the sfumato blurring of the background scenery. You can still see this effect from any high point in Tuscany. Then you reach the Tribune. This is an original octagonal room in scarlet. The lanterned cupola is patterened with mother-of-pearl discs. The room is most famous for being the home of the classical ‘Medici Venus’ statue, the pride of the collection even back in the days of Cosimo III. Otherwise the walls are thick with family portraits – Bronzino’s ‘Eleonora di Toledo’ in a striking white, black and gold dress is absolutely the best of the bunch.

While there are several works from Germany and the Low Countries, one of the few works to originate in England appears in room 22 – Hans Holbein’s ‘Portrait of Sir Richard Southwell’. Holbein was Henry VIII’s court painter, and this depiction of a chinless worthy in three-quarter profile is astonishingly photographic. Its presence here is due to the Medicis ‘requesting’ it from the Duke of Arundel. Rosso Fiorentino’s ‘Madonna with Child and Saints’ is the ghastly antithesis to the Fra Lippi work I so admired. It even had to be repainted once because his saints resembled devils. Even re-done these saints look like clowns with their big black eyes, or goths with running mascara.

After doubling back into the third corridor I found there was less to engage my attention. Maybe this is because I find the darker 17th and 18th works less appealing, or maybe it was just fatigue setting in – there is an awful lot to see. Even the acid-bright colours of Michelangelo’s ‘Doni Tondo’ did not partiularly grab my attention. Titian’s famous ‘Venus of Urbino’ was on tour in Tokyo during my visit. Tintoretto’s Leda being nuzzled suggestively by the swan is worth an examination (a duck in a cage? Whatever next?). Vasari provides an ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ that helps to bely his hack reputation. I did enjoy the Canalettos (there are more of his Venetian canal scenes on display here than in the city of his birth). But then, I always do.

Finally by the exit is a cafeteria with an external terrace. This terrace is actually the roof of the Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza di Signoria. From here you get a great close-up view of the Palazzo Vecchio.

Touring the Uffizi can be a slog. There are some seats in the main galleries, but they are frequently already occupied – there is not really any such thing as a quiet time to visit. The cushioned benches also seem to be placed just too far away from the paintings for you to get a good view. The paucity of toilet facilities is also an issue. But you do see some of the most ground-breaking and famous works from five centuries. My advice would be to buy your tickets from the box office a day or two in advance, wear comfortable shoes, make sure you are adequately fed and watered before embarking, and bring passport or driver’s licence should you wish to hire an audio guide.
Uffizi Gallery
Piazzale Degli Uffizi, 6
Florence, Italy, 50122
+39 05523885

The Brilliant Bargello

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

At only €4.00, the Bargello is one of the better deals in town. A surprisingly large museum devoted to statuary and objets d’art hived off from the Medici bequest that formed the basis of the Uffizi collection it is certainly much better value than the scanty Accademia. From the exterior it is an unpreposessing fortress of a building. Until 1502 this was the seat of the town’s governing magistrate or Podesta. In George Elliot’s ‘Romola’ the heroine’s kindly godfather is executed here, accused of plotting the return of the Medici. The building served as police headquarters and prison until Florence’s assimilation into the Kingdom of Italy.

The visitor enters into a tall courtyard emblazoned with the coats of arms of generations of magistrates. A wide stone staircase leads up to a loggia. But first double back into the the main ground floor room. Your first sight will be of Giambologna’s ‘Winged Mercury’ sprouting from a man’s mouth. Head left and there are some good works by Michelangelo – a bust of Brutus (a bit political when you recall his cry of ‘sic semper tyrannus’), the charming round Tondo Pitti, and a woozy-looking Bacchus, sculpted when he was just 22. There are a couple more statues of Bacchus here by other sculptors, all looking more-or-less the worse for drink. Look out also for Ammannati’s Leda being well and truly nuzzled by her swan lover.

There are more birds on the loggia. Here you will find an entire aviary of cast birdlife – owls, hens, hawks and a turkey included. It is here that Romola stands torn in the Elliot novel as followers of her mentor Savonarola kill her beloved godfather.

Next door we find not one, but two ‘David’s, both by Donatello, one in marble, one in bronze. The latter lay flat on its back, as the conservation authorities have decided to restore the statue in situ, under the full gaze of the public. It is expected that this delicate work will take until the end of 2008. One and a half metres tall, this David wears boots and a cap, but has tragically forgotten to put on the rest of his clothing. In Donatello’s eyes David is a puckish boy, not the mighty muscular warrior of Michelangelo’s reckoning.

On this floor we also have a collection of Islamic artwork, and a chamber of ivories. Ever parochial, I found myself drawn to a stunning little English quadryptich (?) – four individuals carved from bone in the late 14th century. There is also a rather nice double-sided chess / backgammon board.

On the top floor there are lots of della Robbia ceramics. Don’t like ‘em. They look like the sort of twee excrescences you would find despoiling a late Victorian chapel, all pretty-pretty ‘Ooh, aren’t children sweet’ saccharine-ness. Bleurgh. However, there is also a salon with fantastic (literally!) weaponry – ornate polearms, crested helmets, and nine-barrelled pistols (for when your eight-barrelled pistol just isn’t enough…)

At €4.00, the Bargello is a snip.You see a lot more works by Michelangelo here than you do in the Accademia, and in addition you get works by many other great artists. I find it hard to understand why Donatello’s two Davids are not on the main tourist train, but Michelangelo’s poorly-proportioned version is. Still, it does mean that you avoid the worst of the crowds at the Bargello. Let’s just kep it our little secret shall we?
Museo del Bargello
Via del Proconsolo, 4
Florence, Italy, 50122
+39 0552388606

"Brunelleschi is Magic"

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

The ensemble of the Piazza del Duomo is stunning. It is weird to think that the cathedral’s distinctive frontage was not completed until the 19th century. I found it hard to imagine it without the green banding you see down its length, and which reflects and echoes that on the Baptistery and on the campanile. The main structure of what you see though dates from the original plans (though with some later modifications) by Arnolfo di Cambio; the first stone was laid on this work in 1296. It was designed as a show of one-upmanship against rivals Pisa and Siena. And when completed in the 15th century this church was the largest in Europe, ‘broad enough to cover with its shadow all the peoples of Tuscany’ as the chronicler Villani put it. Yet no church could be large enough to cover the legions of tourists that now swirl around it.

The exterior is a riot of green and white marble, Romanesque in form, but studded with gothic pointed arches, home to a breviary of carved saints. This duomo is dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore – St Mary of the Flower. To my mind the one problem is that Brunelleschi’s miraculous red-tiled dome is so vast, and Giotto’s spindly campanile is so tall, that you cannot really fit them into a photograph. Whereas Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli has wide-open vistas, Florence’s Piazza del Duomo is hemmed close by buildings.

The interior of the duomo is austerely – and somewhat disappointingly – bare. There is a mural by Uccello, the master of perspective, to the English condottiere (mercenary captain) Sir John Hawkwood. You can also get a half-glimpse of Vasari’s 16th century illustration of the Last Judgement under the dome (dancing skeletons etc). There is also a stairway leading down to the remains of the original Santa Reparata cathedral, for which you have to pay. Save money. Go down and to the left to the giftshop. From there you get an idea of what lies down there. You also get to see Brunelleschi’s tomb.

Why is Brunelleschi so feted? Well, to quote the epitaph from Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘If you seek his monument, look around you’. The nave is only half the story. As tall again is the immense red mitre of the dome. Octagonal, segmented like an orange, shaped like an egg standing on end (on of Brunelleschi’s favourite tricks), this dome is as huge as a hill. It is Florence’s crowning symbol and its glory, and can be seen to its best vantage from the uplands around the city or – for greater detail – from the top of the campanile. It is still the highest peak in Florence’s city-scape.And it is impossible. The space it had to span was so vast, contemporaries denied any dome could roof it. When Filippo Brunelleschi avowed that not only could the octagonal sanctuary be domed, but then proposed to be the first to not use a wooden supporting frame, his rivals scoffed. And yet, sixteen years later, the dome was completed; allegedly its construction still cannot be satisfactorily explained by today’s architects. The lantern at the top was another piece of Brunelleschi brilliance; again he proved wrong the nay-sayers who doubted this vast canopy could support another structure.

Nowadays the dome also supports sightseers. From 8.30 to 6.20 entry costs €6.00. Claustrophobes and acrophobes avoid, but anyone else I would encourage to pay a visit. You enter from the north side of the nave – you will be able to spot the queue. Aim for the start of the day, or the end to get a shorter wait. 463 stairs lead up – oddly the ascent was not too arduous, and even I didn’t get out of puff. You get a break half-way up. A balcony leads you around the interior of the dome, at the top of the octagonal drum. It is only from here that you are able to see all of Vasari’s Last Judgement. The man is a hack. The devilish tortures he depicts are just prurience – particularly the one poor soul who is getting a flaming torch rammed up his fundament. Still, even the dizzying vertigo you might gain from craning up at the scene is preferable to considering how high above the marble pavement this flimsy narrow walkway projects!

It was the tail end of the day when I went up, 5.45. In March this proved to be exactly the right time to pay a visit. Normally the 180 degree views over Florence are worth the entrance fee alone. At 91m, this is the highest point you can reach in the city – taller than the Palazzo Vecchio’s tower (which is closed to the public anyway), taller (just) than the campanile. To the south is the Palazzo Vecchio, to the south-east Santa Croce, to the north-west the dome of San Lorenzo. But to the west…To the west the sun sank orange, tinting the buildings with its amber light. The change in illumination brought a completely different aspect to the scene from when I had gazed from the top of the campanile that morning – plus half the diorama was not swallowed up by the duomo itself. As the sun dropped behind the rumpled western hills the campanile looked like a rocket to the stars, limned in fire. Along with my fellow tourists I stood in awe-struck silence. The theatre of the moment was really special.

Descending, I saw a spot of remarkably erudite graffiti on a wall: ‘Brunelleschi is Magic’. Indeed.

Even if there is only the slimmest possibility of you revisiting that moment as the sun flared in its dying moments, I would urge you to climb the 463 steps to the dome; hell, I’d be right behind you, pushing you up the tight passages. An ascent of either dome or campanile should be compulsary. In comparison to the vantage point offered up there and the busy green and white of the exterior, the interior is a real let down. Still, at least it is free to enter the duomo.

One last thing. Pay homage to the man himself. On the southern side of the Piazza there is a marvellous seated statue of Filippo Brunelleschi, squinting up at the dome he designed. It is a wonderful humanistic sculpture, and makes this architectural genius seem a pleasant old duffer.
Santa Maria del Fiore & Baptistery (Il Duomo)
Piazza Del Duomo
Florence, Italy, 50122
+39 055294514

Florence from on High

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

A reflection of duomo and baptistery, the thin and spindly campanile is lovely. A puzzle of white arches, green banding and red lozenges, it is a wonderful symmetrical upended cuboid. Work was commenced on this bell-tower by the artist Giotto, better known for his frescoes.

You can climb the campanile between 8.30 and 6.20 daily. I arrived fairly early in the morning, only some 45 minutes after it had opened, which meant that the usual queues were not in evidence. I paid my €6.00 and started to climb. The stairs here are considerably steeper than those up to the cathedral’s dome, and they are tiring. Reaching the viewpoint I gratefully filled my lungs. My first thought was ‘Great views – but it’s not half as tall as it looks’. Well, it wouldn’t be. I was only on the first stage – there were three more to go. From each stage the views became more and more ridiculously fine. This really seemed to be a ladder up to the heavens. And then, at last, you are at the very top walkway. From here, 85m up in the air, you are almost at the same level as those up at the lantern of the dome. I tried waving to them. No one waved back. The views of the rust-red dome from here are really first class. Beneath it the duomo’s marble shone in the morning light. The views through 270 degrees of Florence are wonderful (the duomo occupies a quarter of the panorama), from Santa Croce in the east, south to the Palazzo Vecchio, the Baptistery to the west, and then down into the courtyard ofSan Lorenzo to the north. To look down to the Baptistery you really have to crane your neck , you are that high. One interesting aspect of the skyline was that even though the light picked out the buildings of Florence in great detail, the hillsides in the distance were hazy, softening into the background in a pretty green-grey blur. This is the ‘sfumato’ you can see in Florentine art – check out the pale landscape to the rear of the Mona Lisa.

A climb up either the campanile or duomo dome should be compulsary when visiting Florence. They are both open the same hours, they both charge the same fee (€6), and there is not much to choose between them in terms of queues it seems. While the dome offers a full 360 degree panorama, the campanile has the advantage of giving you the best view in town of the dome itself.
Campanile di Giotto
Piazza Duomo
Florence, Italy, 50122

Paradise in the Piazza del Duomo

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

The Piazza del Duomo presents a harmonious ensemble, all green and white marble. Yet it is with the Baptistery of San Giovanni that this fashion originated. The Campanile’s green banding was designed to match that of the Baptistery; the octagonal dome of the duomo was designed to reflect the octagonal form of the Baptistery. This is the oldest building in the Piazza. Indeed, it is the oldest religious building in Florence.

€3.00 to enter is well-worth the outlay. Inside golden bands of Byzantine-style mosaics ring the dome, with a Last Judgement over the ‘apse’. Hell here is depicted with a central squatting Satan. Like the Lucifer I had seen that morning at Pisa’s Camposanto, this Devil was green – where on earth did the red demons of our iconography come from? There is a superb mosaic pavement featuting the signs of the zodiac roped off to allow you to view it. Originally the Baptistery held a huge octagonal submersion font. One thing that does remain here is the tomb of the antipope John XXIII, one of three competing claimants for the papal throne in the Great Schism.

There are also free leaflets in the Baptistery that go into details about all the buildings of the Piazza – it is hence useful to visit Baptistery before the duomo and campanile. This leaflet also gives a panel by panel breakdown of the North, South and Eaast doors of the Baptistery. The southern doors are the earliest, Pisano’s depictions of the life of St John the Baptist. The northern doors, by Ghiberti show the life of Christ. But it is the eastern doors, facing towards the cathedral, that are Ghiberti’s famed ‘Gates of Paradise’. The golden doors have quite remarkable 3D effects. Good luck trying to get an uninterrupted view of them. I shuffled forward through the crowd, camera ready. Just as I got to the front a barred gate rose to block the view! However, those in situ today are reproductions – the originals are housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, on the eastern flank of the square.
Baptistry (Of Saint John)
Piazza Duomo
Florence, Italy

The Duomo's Treasures

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

If you are unable to get a good look at Ghiberti’s Gates Of Paradise due to the ever-present crush of tourists, you can see the original panels – and not the 20th century copies that now take their place – in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The Museo is located on the eastern flank of the Piazza del Duomo and is housed in the very building where Michelangelo carved his famous ‘David’. Of that artist’s work, here you can see his ‘Pieta’. This is a sculpted group of figures, centred on the body of Christ brought down from the cross and his mother’s grief. Michelangelo found fault with it obviously, and he attacked it in an artistic tantrum. Jesus’ leg is still missing, although a later sculptor repaired most of the damage and added a shiny Mary Magdalene in total contrast to the rough and unfinished faces of JC and the Virgin Mary. The fourth figure, Nicodemus, was completed by Michelangelo – mainly because the aging artist designed it as a self-portrait for his own tomb.

If Michelangelo’s self-depiction is that of a wise bearded old man, Donatello’s is ghastly. His ‘Habakkuk’ is gaunt, with a drawn skull-like head. His carved wooden ‘Mary Magdalene’ is equally horrific – a bereft, shell-shocked figure clad but in rags and tatters. It is a study in uncomprehending loss. Yet he can display his lighter side. He and Lucca Della Robbia were tasked to create two choir lofts. Della Robbia stuck to the brief, and his choir loft has musical scenes. Donatello’s instead features a riot of cherubs on a ‘last day of school’ spree. Sorry Don, but here I prefer Rob’s.

But as I mentioned, the chief attractions are six of the original eight brazen panels from the Baptistery’s Gates of Paradise. These are great works whose shallow reliefs give the impression of incredible depth – perspective was actually a relatively new phenomenon in art of that time.

The entrance fee is €6.00 and it is open 9.30 until 7.30. Notably it is open a lot later than most other attractions in Florence, which all seem to shut up shop by 5.30 or 6. Yet even at this time I did not find it busy at all. A visit is in no way essential; it is however very interesting, and you do get to see some spectaular works.
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Piazza Duomo
Florence, Italy, 50122

Florence's Pantheon

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

Santa Croce is my man. This Franciscan basilica is located in a low-lying district formerly home to lower-class artisans to the east of the other attractions of Florence. Yet a visit is highly recommended. The piazza out front (constructed to hold overflow from church services) is a lovely old thing, full of life. It is here that the games of Calcio Storico (a kind of medieval football match) take place in summer. With sparser crowds than the Piazza del Duomo, Piazza Santa Croce wins the prize for best square in town. (It’s only serious rival is Piazza della Santissima Annunziata; spotlit at night, its daytime aspect is spoiled by wheely-bins and tramps). The church has a distinctive frontage, icing-white, with green inserts like the cathedral, again a 19th century gloss. But it does work! A statue of Dante also stands here. Like most depictions I’ve seen of the poet, he looks well and truly hacked off about something (Exile? Never marrying Beatrice? The fact that Florence is quick to jump on his coat-tails now but did not recognise his talent in life?).

Entrance is via the north portico and costs €5.00. I would also recommend hiring an audioguide from the stand; it is only €3.00, and is packed with information. It comes with a keyed map – there are 83 snippets. Helpfully, the map also tells you in advice how long each segment is, and which are the most important. Listening only to the latter will cut the running time down to nearer 40 minutes than the full three and a half hours!

Inside restoration of the vast echoing space is ongoing, but you can access most of the points of interest. Start by taking a seat in the pews and gazing around at the immensity. On the counter-façade you can see the statue that inspired Lady Liberty. Used as a sort of pantheon of great Florentines, you can view tombs for the heretical Galileo, Michelangelo (who made it quite clear that he wanted to be buried in Rome), that man of impeccably nuanced reputation Macchiavelli, and the composer Rossini. There is an empty tomb for Dante – the damned Ravennese refuse to return him to the city which exiled him. There is also an interesting pulpit. Ground-space was sold off at a hefty premium for tombs, and so the pulpit is clamped to a supporting column, and is actually accessed through a passage cut through the column.

The top of the church is home to a necklace of chapels, dedicated to the greater glory of the very wealthiest families in medieval Florence. Taddeo Gaddi was responsible for most of the frescoes in the Baroncelli chapel, but Giotto is the man in the Peruzzi and Bardi chapels, to the right of the high altar. The expressions of loss on Giotto’s monks as they mourn the loss of the (clean-shaven) St Francis is tangible, as is the anger of his father higher up. The altarpiece shows further scenes from the life of St Francis and is a much earlier work by another artist, very Byzantine and posed. Here the saint has a beard. By the time of Giotto the Franciscan order had decided that beards smacked of depravity – hence, hey presto, the saint was now depicted smooth-cheeked.

The church was freezing, so it was a relief to exit through the southern wall and get out into the baking sun of the cloister. At is easternmost point is the Pazzi chapel, which is acknowledged as a masterpiece. Apparently. To my eyes it seemed cold, clinical, and overly-rigorous.

Back out in the cloister the tour takes you through to the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce. This is an often-charming repository of the order’s works. It holds some chilling plaster angels (like those in the Doctor Who episode ‘Blink’) and a silver and gold reliquary of St Humiliana. There is some stained glass, including one of a saint riding a burning cart. Finally comes the refectory or Cenacolo, named after Gaddi’s ‘Last Supper’ which dominates the far end. The fresco has now been restored – in the horrific floods of 1966 the waters of the Arno rose up to ten feet high in this room. The great crucifix by Giotto’s master Cimabue is also shown here. The damage done to this 13th century processional cross was the most heart-breaking residue of the floods, and it cannot be wholly repaired. In contrast Bronzino’s ‘Christ in Limbo’, depicting Christ marching down from heaven to save souls in purgatory, looks freshly painted. It is displayed in its original state. The demons in the top left were overpainted at the time. It was thought that their presence was not appropriate for an altarpiece. Then in the 19th century the nudity suddenly became an issue and the painting was removed from public gaze.

I found my afternoon out east at Santa Croce a good antidote to the massive crush of tourists that you find on the Duomo – Signoria – Uffizi – Ponte Vecchio axis. Obviously there are still a good many sight-seers here, but their numbers are nowhere near as oppressive. A wander across to the Piazza, even if you decide not to enter the basilica, is well worth it. However, I would argue that a look around the church and its attached museum is a fascinating way to spend an hour. The audioguide really adds a lot to the experience too – though I doubt you will have the stamina to listen to the full three and a half hours! But selective listening does entertain and educate.
Basilica of Santa Croce
Piazza Santa Croce
Florence, Italy, 50122
+39 055244619

Fame Out of all Proportion to its Worth...

Member Rating 1 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

The Galleria dell’Accademia is well on the tourist trail. It houses possibly the most famous sculpture in the world, ‘David’, fashioned by the then 29-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti.

I found that not having pre-booked was not an issue when I visited the Accademia. To be honest, I didn’t think there was an awful lot there for your €6.50. Michelangelo’s ‘David’ is of course the star attraction, a huge block of a man. It towers to the roof of the gallery, over five metres tall. But… and here’s where I can get into trouble… while I can recognise that this massive sculpture is of course a masterpiece, with such well-defined musculature and veinage, I have to say… it really isn’t all that. I sat staring at it, trying to work out what was wrong. David’s head seems all out of proportion. More than that, his hands are truly gigantic. All I ask is, look at his right hand. If he were to straighten his fingers and bend the hand back at the wrist he would be able to touch his own elbow. His thumb is roughly the same size as his, ahem, manhood. (Mind you, from the graffiti inside the toilet cubicle downstairs, some men obviously find that look attractive!)

I actually preferred Michelangelo’s unfinished ‘Prisoners’. These are partially carved blocks of marble, with half-formed figures seemingly clawing their way out. A face here, a shoulder there, here a thigh. It made the whole process of sculpture seem more organic, like each block has a form it wants to attain, and it is up to the artist to release it. Weird – I found the unfinished and discarded works spoke to me more than the acknowledged pinnacle of the sculpter’s art. But then, I’ve always been contrary.

The other rooms in the Galleria contain only plaster models, some Russian icons, and a few ho-hum gothic paintings – nothing to detain you. €6.50 is hence a lot to pay for not very much. And to be honest you can see a perfectly decent copy of David in its origoinal setting outside the Palazzo Vecchio, where the original once stood, for free. What more can be gained by seeing the ‘original’? I don’t know, other than to tick a box. The Prisoners are quite affecting, but on the whole my view is that you miss out on not very much by not paying a visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia.
Galleria dell'Accademia
Via Ricasoli 60
Florence, Italy
055 238 8609

Who Says you Can't Take it with you?

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

The only two places in Florence where I was particularly vexed by queues were the Uffizi, and the entrance to the Cappelle Medicee, or Medici Chapels. Events constantly conspired against me visiting them. I had read in no less than two sources that the chapels were open until 16.50. That’s fairly early, so I didn’t try to visit them on my first two days in Florence. I made for them on my third day, but stopped for lunch first. Well fed and watered I finally reached the plain and otherwise unadorned entrance beside the Basilica of San Lorenzo, only to find that they do not close at 16:50. They close at 13:50. Ten minuted before I reached there (if only I hadn’t stopped for lunch!). So I thought I’d try the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, the library designed by Michelangelo. But that shut at 13:00. And it is closed on Saturdays. So while I could pay a hurried visit to the Cappelle on my last morning in town, I would have to miss the Library.

Arriving at the Capelle at 10:00 the next morning I found that they were indeed open – hurrah! And there was no queue. Instead there was a scrum. People forced their way at random to get to the door. All very disorganised. Anyway, I managed to pay my €4.00 and enter. Inside there is a low vault in grey marble. This has the tombs of the 17th century family set into the floor. Gian Gastone, last of the Medici dukes (and by all accounts an alcoholic introvert who refused to appear in public for the last eight years of his rule), gets pride of place. Of course, his sister Anna Maria Luisa outlived him, but she was a mere woman, and so could not inherit. Instead she bequeathed all the family’s art and books to Florence, and is much loved in the city as a result.

From here you head upstairs, and… wow. From the campanile or San Miniato you can see a red-tiled dome, a smaller cousin to that of the duomo. I presumed that this belonged to the next-door Basilica of San Lorenzo. Oh no. The church does not have anything so grand as a dome. The dome belongs to the Cappella dei Principi, the Chapel of Princes, a huge silo of green and red marble inset with precious stones. It is like stepping into a jewellery box. To be honest, I just wasn’t expecting it. Strangely, there are only a few family members buried here – later generations went for the plainer area downstairs. It is hard to imagine, for example, a British monarch getting away with creating a funerary chapel of such opulence and garishness for themselves. It is brazenly, breath-takingly shameless. It really must have been the moment when the Medici thought to themselves: "Fuck it. We OWN Florence!".

At the other end of a short corridor is the New Sacristy, or Sagrestia Nuova. This pale clinical chapel contains two tombs, both designed by Michelangelo. Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, is depicted as a thoughtful and contemplative figure. In reality he was an unpopular bully. On his sarcophagus lie two allegorical works by Michelangelo, ‘Dawn’ and ‘Dusk’. Giulano, Duke of Nemours, is dressed as a Roman general, clutching a marshal’s baton. In actual fact he was a slothful individual who ruled Florence for less than a year.His sarcophagus bears ‘Day’ and ‘Night’. In both cases, to my eyes the male half of the couple did not look quite finished. Still, they are quite haunting works of great beauty.

I found the Cappelle Medicee the most troublesome site in Florence to visit. Thye seem to have fairly arbitrary opening hours which change at short notice. If you want to visit I receommend that you pop over beforehand just to check what the latest opening hours are. It seems that morning gives you by far the best chance of finding them open.
Cappelle Medicee
Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini
Florence, Italy
+55 294883

A Pleasant Walk and an Amazing View

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on August 10, 2008

I think that if I were to recommend just one thing to any visitor to Florence it would be to pay a visit to the little church of San Miniato al Monte. I care not whether you are in town for a month or a day – go. It contains no great renaissance work of art, it is not architecturally ground-breaking, it has very little historical import. Yet it is a pretty little thing: one guide describes it as ‘the finest of all Tuscan Romanesque basilicas… one of the most beautiful churches in Italy’. Even better, it is from here that you get THE classic view over Florence.

I had originally set off through the tight-packed crowds jamming the Ponte Vecchio. I could soon understand why one friend had said he would go out of his way to ensure he crossed the Arno by any bridge other than the Vecchio. The one bridge spared by the retreating Nazis, it is now ruined by the desperate commercialism of the goldsmiths and the thrombosis-like clots of school trips clogging the way. My destination at first was the Boboli Gardens behind the Palazzo Pitti; I had thought to maybe have a laze in the sun and read my book. However there was one one ticket office open for both palace and gardens, and there was already a sizeable queue even before they shut one of the two cash desks. Plus, entrance to the gardens was a whopping €10.00! Instead I set off for San Miniato earlier than I had intended.

The route along the Arno was through a less-touristed part of the city. The area around the Porta San Miniato was almost village-y. And once through the gate it fell silent. Literally. It was like the walls had cut off all the hubbub of Florence, of the traffic and the tourists. Countryside seemed to suddenly start. It was grassy along the old town walls. Trees shaded the way. There was birdsong. The road wound its way up the hillside but the stepped path cut across the bends. It seemed like only a pleasant minute (but must surely have been longer) that I reached Piazzale Michelangelo. Here the noise started again – tour bus exhausts, camera clicks, a group of Red Indians in full buckskin and head-dress miming along to a recording of Enigma’s ‘Return To Innocence’. Yet the view from the balcony is outstanding. You can frame the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Campanile, and the dome of the Duomo in a single shot. Or you can look down the Arno to see bridge trooping after bridge.

It was slightly more of a struggle to get up to San Miniato itself. You follow Viale Galileo Galilei up past the snack bars and then climb the grand flight of steps up through the cemetary. This brings you up right in front of San Miniato’s white marble and grey-green slate frontage. The colours reflect those on the duomo, campanile, baptistery and Santa Croce. In fact, after the Baptistery this is the oldest religious structure in Florence – as the golden icon-style image inset above the central door suggests.

Inside there are fragments of frescoes along the right-hand wall; on the left there is the tomb of the 25-year-old Cardinal of Portugal who died whilst in Florence. There is a little central chapel, flanked by stairs up to the choir and down to the crypt. I went down first and flashed my torch around. Going up, the choir has a screen and pulpit carved with dragons and bug-eyed men (in what I would have previously have described as an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ style – very Bayeux anyway). From here yu can see the rounded roof of the little chapel, mirroring what looked like barrel-vaulting above. This is an illusion however – the painted roof is actually peaked. There is a sacristy to one side with frescos in vivid colours. You are asked to donate €1.00 for entry, which I did. It is another €1.00 if you want to put the lights on. I didn’t bother.

Outside the church there is a shop to the right selling Benedictine herbal remedies, honeys and jams (€5.00), and spirits (€12.00). Certainly worth a look! To the left there are some benches. I sat and greedily gazed over Florence. The view is even better from here than from Piazzale Michelangelo, though you are unable to see down the Arno. Sitting in the sun, I finally got out my book: ‘Romola’ by George Elliot. The prologue conjures up the ghost of a renaissance Florentine: "Let us suppose that such a Shade has been permitted to revisit the glimpses of the golden morning, and is standing once more on the famous hill of San Miniato, which overlooks Florence from the south…" Elliot listed what few things would have changed in the view in three and a half centuries – the walls and gates torn down, Santa Croce with a scandalous new spire. That is all. But what had changed in the 150 years since Elliot sat in the same spot as I? War damage; but that was repaired. Piazza della Republica was built; but I could barely see it. Maybe the only changes were the cranes in the distance now rivalling the campanile and the glint of cars as they zipped down the Lungarno…

The dinkily pretty little church of San Miniato al Monte, out away from the crowds, would be reason enough to have an enjoyable wander out this way. Yet from here, or from Piazzale Michelangelo, you get an unbeatable picture-postcard view of Florence all the way across to the flanking hills. Piercing the huddle of rooftops were just the towers of Palazzo Vecchio and Campanile, and the red-tiled domes of Duomo and San Lorenzo. This is a view principally unchanged from the day of George Elliot… or from the day of her heroine Romola. It is a timeless vista, and to gaze upon it as the sun started to sink was truly magical.
San Miniato al Monte
Via Monte alle Croci, 34
Florence, Italy, 50125
+39 0552342768


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