Category Archives: Florence

One last thing, or maybe two

We’ve been home for weeks now, but I never posted anything about our first big art day.  We started out right around the corner at the Duomo.  There was a long line to get in, but it moved quickly once they opened.  The line set the tone for Florence:  lots and lots of different nationalities, many of them students, all here for the art.

Here’s the facade, highly decorated as you can see and much more recent than the interior.The Duomo is oddly bare inside because most of its most precious possessions have been moved to the Duomo Museum (q.v.).  I was delighted to find that bandit Sir John Hawkwood, aka Giovanni Acuto (since Italians have no H, W or K in their language), just as Frances Saunders had promised, displayed on one wall just as if he had not changed sides dozens of times and been responsible for lots of Italian deaths during his career as a mercenary. Here is Alison lighting a candle .See the tiled floor?  It would make a great quilt design.I know that Renaissance art is more realistic than Byzantine, but I have a fondness for the stiff draperies and simple outlines of Byzantine art, like this.We left the Duomo and proceeded to the Campanile, which you can climb if you are so inclined.  I was inclined, but the higher I got the more scared I got, despite the fact that it’s made of stone and is perfectly sturdy.  I did get a few pictures of the city before turning around and stumbling back down.  Here are the tiled roofs of Florence, with the mountains in the background.And above, another view of the Duomo’s roof, which is never too far away no matter where you go in Florence.

I climbed about three-quarters of the way up.  See how high??

On to the Museum of the Duomo, filled with amazing sculptures.  We both liked this pastoral scene.On an entirely different note, Donatello’s Habakkuk, an Old Testament prophet.The starkness of this sculpture prepared me for his masterpiece (in my opinion), Mary Magdalene.  I didn’t take a picture of it, but other people did.Her face is haunting.

One more stop, this time at the Baptistery.  Also fairly empty, but gorgeously decorated.  It’s really all about the doors, but I was taken with the mosaic ceiling that tells the story of Jesus, among many others, and includes a terrific Last Judgment scene with a famously horned devil.The doors were usually thronged with tourists, but we did get close up one evening.  Here is Moses receiving the tablets, with angels rejoicing.  This is from the door by Pisano.Time for a rest!  We headed to the Piazza della Repubblica, where we sat down at one of the touristy restaurants right on the piazza.  The waiter was charming, looking out for his “two ladies.”  Corny, but who cares.  We had ribolitta (bread soup) and a glass of wine and shared a pizza with funghi and prosciutto.  Yum.But we weren’t done yet…read on.

David, but first, Savonarola

A slightly relaxed schedule today, with only two stops on the agenda.  But first to the bus station to get our tickets to Siena for tomorrow. It was surprisingly easy and seems straightforward enough.  Then we walked through the back streets to the Museum of San Marco, where the former dormitory of the Dominican monks is now open to the public.  The cloister is quiet, pretty, with a classic cedar of Lebanon (?) and a bell tower in the corner.  The walls all around are painted with frescoes by Fra Angelico, but the picture I liked best  was the Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist looking particularly striking in a sumptuous purple robe over his furry tunic.

Upstairs are the cells of the monks, each decorated (if I can use such a secular term) with scenes designed for prayer and contemplation.  St. Dominic with the tell-tale star over his head figures in many of them.  The cells are small and bare – one wonders if there was even a little bed or if they just slept on the floor.

Then, at the end of the next corridor, are the cells that belonged to the prior, Savonarola, the man who became more and more fanatical, staged the Bonfire of the Vanities where who knows how many great pieces of art were destroyed, briefly ruled Florence and finally was executed. This eerie portrait of him hangs on one wall.
Also on display are his chair, his desk, and a few garments he wore to get closer to God through pain.  I know I see him through 21st century eyes, but he really is a most unpleasant fellow.

Lunch was in a little hole in the wall described as a family place, and indeed it was.  We chose pasta from the list on the wall after looking at our neighbors’ plates and declaring them good, and they were.  We followed (in backwards order) with mixed prosciutto, etc.  The Signora (Mama) served the food, while the boys took the orders and ladled it out.  I was too shy to photograph the place in action, but here’s a look at the menu board and the fiascos of wine.
Alison had an adventure when she asked the Signora for the bathroom. Pulling a key off a high hook, she gestured to Alison to follow her out of the restaurant and through a doorway, up a flight of stairs to a tiny door.  “Poco, poco,” she explained.  Ducking her head, Alison entered what looked like a storage closet only to find  the bathroom hidden behind a screen.  Rightly assuming that if she locked the door she’d never get out again, she successfully concluded her interlude, finding her way back down and back into the restaurant.  Grazie, Signora!Part Two of our day was the Accademia, which loomed as large logistically as the Uffizi but proved to be easy.  There’s not really a lot to see there, but what you see is enough to reduce a strong man (or woman) to tears.
David is all over Florence  – every tourist shop sells aprons adorned with his genitals, there are tiny reproductions of him, as well as postcards, posters and more tchotchkes than you can imagine.  By the end of a day or two in Florence, you feel you’ve already seen him, and he’s just a cliche.  Even the David copy in the Piazza  is just a bit ho-hum.

But turn the corner in the Accademia and see the real statue at the end of the corridor, under a dome built just for him, all seventeen feet of him, and you’re left speechless.  So I won’t say any more except that sometimes an artistic masterpiece will live up to or exceed your expectations, and this is one of those times.Dinner on our last night was at Coquinarius, which Alison had luckily booked, since people were being turned away right and left.  More goose carpaccio, then pici for me and “roastbeef” for her, both absolutely delicious.  When we left, the nice, energetic young man (owner?) ran out of the restaurant to find us and bid us farewell.  I guess it’s true that if you visit a restaurant at least twice you’re considered a regular.  We ended with GROM gelato and wended our way home through the crowds.  Just a few more views of the Duomo at night, and then to bed.

Only the strong survive

Today we visited the Bargello, the former prison that is now home to three floors of sculptures, along with majolicas and assorted other beauties.  The courtyard is lovely and plastered with an assortment of things that have been lying around Florence for the last few centuries – you know, some river gods, most of a fountain, a couple of lions, and so forth.
As usual, we followed Rick Steves through the museum.  He really hits the spot for first-time visitors who want to be sure to see the highlights.  For us, that included Donatello’s saucy David clad only in boots and cap, and an array of sculpted birds that I foolishly neglected to capture.  But I did admire the veining on this marble leg.
Then it was only about 10:00, and we had nothing scheduled until the Uffizi at 2:00.  Perfect time for a wander!  So wander we did, first to the Ponte Vecchio, looking swell in the morning light, with the Arno clearly feeling the effects of a hot summer.  A quick stop for coffee on the other side, the Oltr’arno, then more of a wander past the Pitti Palace and down a little street to a linen shop with beautiful tea towels.  We realized that we were close to a garden shop I had hoped to visit – good seeds, otherwise an odd mishmash of cat food, baskets, and pasta – and to the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine.
I was excited to visit the church because of the Brancacci Chapel  and its frescoes by Masaccio, Masolini and Lippi.  The “Expulsion from Paradise” shows such intense human emotion in such a small space, while “The Fall” wickedly portrays the same human face on Eve and on the snake that entwines the tree she’s holding on to.  They did not disappoint.  They are both high up on the wall and not very big, but quite wonderful.  A great treat, especially because we had thought we wouldn’t have time to fit this into the itinerary.
We finished up our wander with lunch in the Piazza Santa Croce.  A beautiful waiter with the curliest eyelashes I have ever seen served us melon with prosciutto and then a beautiful salad of hard boiled eggs, little shrimp, perfectly fresh tomatoes, and tender greens.  (The picture is lousy because I didn’t want to be arrested for voyeurism and had to be discreet.)

Back over the Ponte Vecchio with renewed strength to tackle the Uffizi Galleries.  Preparing for this is like preparing for battle.  First you book your tickets online.  Then they email you the voucher.  Then you come to the gallery at least 10 minutes ahead of your appointed time to redeem the voucher for tickets, making sure you’re in the correct queue.  Then you stand in yet another line to enter the gallery, where you go through security.  Finally, after you have tucked away your ticket, you climb four long flights of stairs to the gallery, where the final test is to find your ticket again so that the ticket taker can tear off the top.  Whew!
But your work has only begun. Now you are launched on your journey through some of the most amazing work of the Italian Renaissance, and it’s not for the weak.  Gorgeous altarpieces by Giotto, annunciations by just about everyone including Leonardo, Madonnas and children, usually with that wild boy John the Baptist, a whole room of Botticellis including the famous ones you’ve seen forever, and the Venus of Urbino by Titian that Mark Twain found so disturbingly erotic.
It’s an astonishing collection, and we had all we could do to see the highlights, determinedly averting our eyes  from anything extraneous lest we curl up and die before we’re done.  A brief rest on the terrace (our views from our room are actually better!) and then exit through the gift shop.  We limped home very slowly and yet again had to lie down and prop our feet on the headboard.

Tasting Tuscany

Today was our Context Market Tour. We had a great cup of coffee at ChiaroScuro and met Luca, our informative guide, and a couple from California, she a cook and caterer and he something in business, both small and dark and at ease. Luca, a native Florentine, led us through back streets past the Duomo, through more back streets, pointing out recommended restaurants and wine shops like the one at left, to the Central Market, a covered market filled with butchers, fishmongers, dried fruit sellers, and sandwich stands.

As he led us through the market, Luca was full of information about the Slow Food movement, the correct way to cook and eat a Florentine steak (rare, rare, rare!), why some Italians eat horseflesh (it helps with endemic anemia, its rich red color indicating a high iron content),

and the importance of eating while sitting down with your feet under the table and never alone if you can help it. Entertaining, though not much room for questions.

We made our way past the lompredetto stand (tripe sandwiches) and through the market to the stand of the Conti family where we were made welcome at a tiny table with tiny stools. Here a smiling woman, one of the family, had us try tiny sips of five different balsamic vinegars, four kinds of olive oil (one with such a bite that I coughed and coughed), bits of cheese with fruit and honey, bread with arugula pesto,white peaches with balsamic vinegar, sun-dried cherry tomatoes and other delicacies too numerous to count.

All were accompanied by Luca’s store of information on the current truffle season (too dry), the grape harvest (in full swing now), and on and on.  Meanwhile, the bites were so delicious. I was enchanted with the biscotti and vin santo and ended up buying a bottle, plus some sea salt with truffles and a tiny jar of acacia honey.

After we parted ways, Alison and I headed straight for the lampredetto stand,with the other couple right behind us. This is a Florentine specialty that is, in fact, tripe.  The raw thing displayed at one of the butcher stands was interesting rather than appetizing, but it’s all part of the experience. I suppose, after all, that there are some people who don’t like scrapple…

Here’s the sandwich maker.  He took a hard roll, removed the innards, chopped up the cooked tripe and slammed it inside.  I nodded yes to the sauces, one green and one red.

I enjoyed my sandwich, even if the spicy sauces did make me cough, plus a small tumbler of rough red wine.  I am happy for the experience and don’t need to eat tripe again any time soon.

Thanks, Context, for another great tour!

Hanging in the piazza

We live just steps from the piazza where the Duomo, the Campanile and the Baptistery dominate the space, and your mind.  This is the heart of Florence, filled with gorgeous art and centuries of history.

We’ve walked through at all times of day, and gazed at the buildings from our bedroom, and I just can’t stop taking pictures.  Here are just a few, on a day of lowering clouds, in the late afternoon, and at mezzogiorno on a sunny day.

A hard coming they had of it…

Not that our journey was Biblical, but it was filled with trials and tribulations. Dulles to Munich was easy peasy, though the sleeping pills left us gaga – we probably should have taken them earlier. We made our way to our connecting flight to Florence, piled into the plane and then were told that one of the engines had died so we would need to change planes. Luckily, there was another plane, so we were able to climb aboard within the hour. Soared out of the German rain into the blue sky over Tuscany, only to run into a tail wind that meant we couldn’t land. David Leavitt had warned me of this, but had I paid attention? Of course not. The wind made the journey very bumpy, to say the least. There were a few collective gasps as we bumped up and down through the skies, and the woman behind us was still clutching the airsickness bag when we landed. However, we could not even land in Pisa nearby, the usual drill when it’s too windy in Florence, but had to go to Bologna. Of course, I’ve always wanted to see Bologna…Then a bus lumbered to Florence about an hour and a half away, spewing us out at the airport, from which we grabbed a taxi and finally found ourselves at Residenze Giotta.

Rick Stevse has steered us right. It’s just around the corner from the Duomo, with a spectacular view of same from our window. That means the tolling bells woke us up at 7 am this morning, but we had to get going anyway, and it sounded beautiful. We tidied up and on the recommendation of Silvia at the B&B we made our way to Marione’s for dinner. Full of Americans but the food was good – cheese plate with walnuts and honey, then risotto with seafood for me and lamb cutlets for Alison. Stumbled home over the cobblestone streets and so to bed.