"I will show you the Piazza della Signoria...and then we go and visit Armani..."
The price that my friend Nicola Pavese consented to for showing us around Florence was that he was allowed to cane the plastic at Emporio Armani. And who can blame him? The Italians cannot live without fine shops and judge every other country in Europe on how stylish their shopping streets are. And the set of streets between the stazione and the river are rolling in designer shops. Florence has some of the best shopping in Europe.
But the heart of this area is the gorgeous Piazza della Signoria. The great Palazzo di Signoria, where the Medici family kept an eye on their famous city, dominates the piazza--and the 'Signoria' (the top tier of government) kept a wary eye on them. For the piazza is drama - everything about it is exaggerated and dramatic. Its palazzo is overbearing and domineering, its fountains are extrovert and eye-catching, its buildings are colourful and striking, and its art? Well, its art is some of the best known in the world.
There are plenty of ways to reach it. Most stroll down from the Duomo on Via della Cazoullli past all the gelatarias and leatherware shops. There they will enter the piazza from the northwest corner and see it in its entirety. The medieval buildings on four sides are apricot coloured and they compliment the flagstones underfoot which are dotted with pigeons. In the southern corner are a number of open-air carriages for hire, the whiff of their dung on a hot day will take your breathe away for a different reason. And despite the hordes of tourists dashing to the Uffizi before the queues get too long or posing in front of the statues, there is a sense of palpable history to the Piazza. This was where the 'Bonfire of the Vanities' took place, where the fanatical friar Savaronola whipped the crowd into a frenzy. It was on this piazza back in 1504 that Michelangelo unveiled his David to the city fathers. He was meant to represent plucky little Florence with its battles with the 'goliath', which was then France.
And it is the art which takes your attention in the Piazza della Signoria. The southern side is almost entirely taken up with the loggia, which was built in the 14th century to allow the city fathers to shelter from the sun during civic ceremonies. Now it is covered in fine statuary, and the public is allowed access. I wondered before I arrived how the famous statuary was protected from vandals and drunks rolling home after a night out. The reason became clear as I climbed the steps, there are security guards--if someone gets to close to The Rape of the Sabine Women the carabinieri growl ominously. The statues are impressive; most popular is Cellini's Perseus and Medusa, where a skinny youth in blue marble holds a head covered in snakes. Other impressive statues include Donatello's Mazocco--a lion statue and symbol of the city. And most memorably, Giambologna's Hercules and the Centaur, where Hercules wrestles with a mythological creature with the hindquarters of a horse. I had to giggle when one tourist spotted this and called out loudly, "Hey George! Come and look at this! Some guy is beating up a cow!"
But the big statue has to be Michelangelo's David, or at least the copy, put here when the elements became too much for the original. Unfortunately, it stands right underneath the Palazzo Vecchio, which is currently being renovated and is covered head to toe in scaffolding. I couldn't even get within ten feet of David, and I couldn't manage to view the original in the Accademia. Next to it is the monstrous Neptune fountain. If you like your statues big and brash, it's great! Luckily, I do, so I lapped up the big, butch Neptune, with his club and abdominal muscles standing on a plinth of rearing horses and gushing water. But crush central has to be the southeastern corner, where the 'loggia', 'Uffizi', and entrance to the Palazzo all meet. The Piazzale del Uffizi is the arcade that wraps around the famous art museum and leads to the river. This is where the queues wind for the Uffizi, and it really is a wonderfully dark little courtyard overlooked by pompous statues of Giotto and Da Vinci.
As we were foolishly there on a Monday, and the Uffizi was shut, so I opted for the Palazzo Vecchioinstead. At six euros, this was a good choice, and I was very impressed by what was on display. This was the big one, this was where the Medici's ran their kingdom from--they even had a corridor running from the Palazzo, across the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno. What struck me about the Palazzo Vecchio is how much it doesn't look like a palace from the outside--there is none of the swirling artwork of the Doges Palace in Venice or the statuary of our own Hampton Court. Probably because it was a fortress, people vanished inside to the dungeons and didn't come out, armies attacked it from time to time--political life in renaissance Florence was very tough. So, incidently, is security; in the Cortile, you will have to go through an overworked security guard and ancient metal detector. Beyond that are the courtyards, ticket office, restaurant, and book shop.
Up the stairs is the first of the big set-pieces. The 'Salone de Cinquecento' is over 20 feet high and 50 feet wide. This was the audience chamber of the Medicis, and a dais stands at one end. The ceiling is covered in golden panels, and the walls covered in frescoes showing 'the siege of Florence'. The audio-visual screens dotted around the palazzo were very good--for a few euros, you could learn about the history of the building and the artists who worked here. Then it was up more stairs and dark corridors to the Sala de Carte Geographice, which was covered in maps, etc. Almost every room had a golden ceiling, a priceless statue, or an ornate chapel. Before such treasures became too much, I found myself on the second floor with an open-air loggia overlooking the rooftops of Florence (see photo). As far as the eye could see, the terracotta-tiled roofs of the city stretched, broken only by church domes and campaniles. This is one beautiful city.
But on this visit I was on a timetable and had to return to my friend, who was enjoying the delights of Emporio Armani. He showed us the main shopping street in Florence--the Via Tournoboni. In the Middle Ages, the source of Florence's great wealth was its cloth industry, and modern day Florentines still make the city a mecca for the well-dressed. The street stretched from the river to Santa Maria Maggiore. Housed in the great brown medieval palazzo's were Gucci, Enrico Coveri, Louis Vuitton, and the glittering jewellry of Bulgari. Armani itself was situated next to the Palazzo Strozzi, a massive fortress/palace that once belonged to a powerful Florentine family. While we were there the palazzo had an exhibtion on the artist Botticelli.
Not finished shopping yet? One more thing to buy?
Okay, I'll go and wait on the Piazza del Republica, another massive square in the heart of Florence. This one is more human, and for Florentines rather then tourists. Great arches and offices decorate its east and west sides, and cafes spill out onto the street. But there is a carousel for children, benches for adults, and tabacchis that sell cold drinks.
It's a good place to unwind, put my feet up, soak up the sun, and watch Florentine life mill around me. Take your time, Nic...I'm quite happy here...