Friday, July 15, 2016

Florence Sparkled Under the Bright Sun of Tuscany

Florence Duomo
After a restless night, trying not to sleep too close to the chasm between the twin beds cobbled together as one Italian-style matrimonial bed, we woke up with more mosquito bites and threw open the window to let the Tuscan sunshine in. From the eighth floor of our hotel, the downtown Florence, with its distinctive Duomo was sparkling like a red jewel against the late spring clear blue sky.

Our love affair with Florence started twenty-two years ago and has brought us back again and again, and every time we have discovered something new.  The capital of Tuscany, the birthplace and cradle of the Renaissance, is truly the crown jewel with magnificent palaces, museums, cultural monuments, art and architecture, a place where the visitor can feel lost in time.
Cupola of the Brunelleschi Duomo, a real jewel
Photo: Wikipedia
Florence, about 39.5 square miles, is always crowded by lovers of art and everything Italian (about 13 million per year), who never stop coming to experience the sights and sounds of history. It started with the “Grand Tour” in the 19th century and has never stopped. It can be hot and humid in the summer and foggy in winter but, if you are lucky like us, a cool spring or a late fall are the best times to visit. The lyrical countryside is most verdant in late spring and early summer.

River Arno from Ponte Vecchio Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The River Arno runs peacefully and muddy today through downtown Florence. You can see bridges crossing the river in the distance and the Florentine hills surrounding the city. In medieval times, wealthy merchants retreated to these hills during hot summers. August is still the favorite vacation month of Italians. It is not a good time to visit though because many businesses are closed and it is really, really hot.

Ponte Vecchio
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Taking the early hotel shuttle in the morning, I stopped first in my favorite silk shop, the Evangelisti, while David was busy searching for a place to have lunch in the vicinity. On a parallel street from the city hall, Palazzo Vecchio, he found the sandwich shop where he had spotted the night before a large crowd of students, a sign that the food was good and inexpensive.

A huge fresh and just-sliced pork sandwich and a prosciutto sandwich later, we ate standing in the narrow shop crowded with smoked ham hocks, bologna, and fragrant salamis hanging from the ceiling; a few miniature wooden chairs designed for Tiny Tim, glass displays overflowing with typical Italian salads, meats, freshly made breads, anemic bulbs, a message board, and bottles of wines from the local and neighboring vintners completed the rustic decor.

There was no empty spot in this miniature eatery. A couple and their beautiful yellow lab were seated right in the front of the store, literally on the edge of the very narrow cobbled sidewalk, on the tiny street designated both pedestrian and “carrabile.” It was a dangerous game of “watch out for cars and scooters” to walk on this street.

Basilica di San Lorenzo exterior
Photo: Wikipedia
Established first by Etruscans, the Florence of today owes its existence to Julius Caesar who built a settlement for his veteran soldiers in 59 B.C. and named it Fluentia because of its location at the confluence of two rivers. Later changed to Florentia (flowering), the settlement was built like an army camp, close to the route between Rome and the north, in the fertile valley of the River Arno. The main streets intersected in what is today’s Piazza della Repubblica, a lively square with street entertainers and a carousel. On a previous trip we had stayed in the four-star hotel in the corner of the Piazza. It was so convenient to walk out the front door and into Renaissance art, architecture, and history.

Carousel in front of Santa Maria della Croce
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2005
The Florentines have had a love-hate relationship with the River Arno which keeps the area fertile but also floods it from time to time and markers give testimony to its fury and flood levels.
Among the many bridges that span the Arno, Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is the most famous. The multitude of shops built on its edges, hanging like fruit and held up by stilts are infamous for its beautiful but expensive jewelry, art, and souvenirs.

Ponte Vecchio
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2004
Butchers occupied these shops at first but Florentines complained bitterly about the stench coming from the River Arno where butchers dumped animal blood and guts into the water, and the butchers were eventually thrown out in 1593 by the Medici Grand Dukes. Gold merchants replaced the butchers as soon as the shops were cleaned.

As nasty and smelly as the Arno must have been back then, it made a full come back today. I saw what appeared to be a beaver swimming below one of the shop windows. I can only imagine what the monthly rent must be to occupy such a tiny and special place – and it was like a miniature shop inside.

Vasari corridor from Palazzo Vecchio to Uffizi
Photo: Wikipedia
The bridge also carries Vasari’s elevated corridor which connects the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti, the Medici residence. The neighboring bridges are Ponte Santa Trinita and Ponte alle Grazie.
The original Ponte Vecchio was built by Etruscans; it was first documented in 996; but the current one was rebuilt in the 14th century. It was the only bridge in Florence that survived WWII undamaged. As the locals tell the story, it survived because of an alleged direct order from Hitler to spare it. Its unusual construction of “segmental arches” reduces span-to-rise ratio and the number of pillars into the riverbed. The back shops that can be seen from upriver were added in the 17th century.

The Hills surrounding Florence
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2004
One of the guides told the story of how the concept of bankruptcy originated here on Ponte Vecchio.  When a banker (money-changer) could not pay his debts, the table on which he conducted business (banco) was destroyed (rotto) by soldiers, thus the practice became to be known as “banco rotto”(broken table), or possibly “banca rotta” (broken bank).

We walked to Ponte Vecchio, ever so careful to avoid the speeding scooters, the tourists, the pick pockets, and the kids balancing precariously large cones of gelato. I took pictures of the vistas and admired the expensive “vitrine” laden with gold jewelry, something that insurers would never allow in fine jewelry shops in the United States. My friend Sevil would have loved window shopping on this bridge.

Benvenuto Cellini Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
To honor the great Florentine sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini, and the fourth century of his birth, the goldsmiths commissioned his bronze bust in 1900. His statue carved and cast by Raffaello Romanelli stands on a fountain in the middle of the Eastern side of the bridge.

There are padlocks on the bridge placed by lovers who throw the key into the river under the illusory belief that their love will be eternal. The warning of a steep fine of 160 euros may have prevented some from attaching padlocks to the bridge. However, mass hysteria founded on foolish superstition, still leaves behind thousands of padlocks that must be removed monthly, padlocks that have caused expensive and extensive damage to the bridge.

Uffizi Photo: Wikipedia
The Uffizi Gallery, with one side facing the river Arno, started as a project by Giorgio Vasari in 1560 at the order of Cosimo di Medici to make room for offices of Florentine magistrates, hence the name “uffizi” (offices) but was not completed until 1581. The magistrates’ offices, the tribunal, and the state archives were combined under one roof, with the eventual intention to display art works from the vast Medici collections. Grand Duke Francesco I, the son of Cosimo I, carried out his plan.

Anna Maria Luisa, the last Medici member, negotiated a Patto di famiglia, which left the art treasures to the public in Florence, forming the first modern museums. The gallery had been opened to visitors by request since the sixteenth century but it opened officially to the public in 1765. The collection was so huge that some of the pieces had been transferred to other museums in Florence.

A car bomb which exploded in Via dei Georgofili in May 1993 severely damaged the Niobe room, classical sculptures, and the neoclassical interior which had been repaired; however the frescoes were damaged beyond repair. It was believed that the Sicilian Mafia was responsible.

Street art in Florence
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Uffizi is so popular that standing in line for a few hours is not unusual. Last time we visited the museum we had to wait about an hour to get our tickets even though we had reservations.

The flood which resulted from a heavy rainstorm in August 2007 affected the Gallery when water leaked through the ceiling and visitors had to be evacuated.  The heavy flood of 1966 damaged many art collections in Florence including the Uffizi and inundated churches like Santa Croce.

In addition to ancient sculptures, the Uffizi collection contains works by Cimabue, Giotto, Sandro Boticelli (Primavera, The Birth of Venus, Adoration of the Magi of 1475), Leonardo da Vinci (The Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi), Albrecht Dürer (Adoration of the Magi), Michelangelo (Doni Tondo), Raphael (Madonna of the Goldfinch), Titian (Flora, Venus of Urbino), Caravaggio (Bacchus, Sacrifice of Isaac, Medusa), and Rembrandt (Self-portrait as a Young Man), just to name a few.

Boticelli's Birth of Venus
I was in awed silence as I paced the marble corridors of history and was lost in beauty, color, form, and genius.

Backtracking from the Ponte Vecchio, we came upon the Mercato del Porcellino (the piglet market) where tourists were busy rubbing a wild boar’s bronze snout for good luck and having pictures of themselves taken with it after throwing a coin in the fountain to make sure they would return to Florence.

Markets were held at this location as early as the eleventh century. The Loggia was added in the mid-1500s during the reign of the Grand Duke Cosimo I to protect vendors from inclement weather. The Fontana del Porcellino (the fountain of the piglet) is a 17th century replica of a Roman statue which was also a copy of an original Greek statue.

Street art  Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
As we got lost on purpose on various narrow and dark cobbled stradas, we encountered phenomenally talented street painters who were using the asphalted pavement to duplicate with so much skill masterpieces from the Uffizi, using only colored chalk and charcoal.

San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapel
Photo: Wikipedia
Running from the Church of San Lorenzo along Via Ariento to Via Nazionale are the San Lorenzo markets.  The Central Market (mercato centrale), a two-level indoor market, sells raw and cooked food, and fruits and vegetables. In typical Italian fashion, food or produce cannot be touched, you must ask the shopkeeper to pick it up for you and place it in a bag.  The outdoor market sells leather goods, clothing and souvenirs which are of cheaper quality and not exactly inexpensive. I remember buying here a pair of sandals for April sixteen years ago.

Interior of Basilica of San Lorenzo
Photo: Wikipedia
The exterior of Basilica di San Lorenzo is a monastically-drab stone that can be easily overlooked when compared to the more lavish marbled-exteriors of many other basilicas I have visited. It is one of the largest churches in Florence, the burial place for famous Medici family members from Cosimo il Vecchio (the Old) to Cosimo III, and for the longest time, the parish church for the Medici family. After three hundred years of being the city’s cathedral, the bishop’s seat was moved to Santa Reparata.

It is believed that the first church at this location was consecrated in 393 A.D. when it stood outside the city walls. As the city grew, the church found itself in the heart of the Central Market.

One of the Medicis, Giovanni di Bicci, offered to replace the 11th century Romanesque rebuilding and hired Filippo Brunelleschi, the most important architect of the first half of the 15th century, to design it.  “The building with his alteration was not completed until after his death.”

The San Lorenzo Church is part of a large monastic complex that contains the Old Sacristy by Burnelleschi with interior decorations and sculpture by Donatello, the Laurentian Library by Michelangelo, the New Sacristy based on Michelangelo’s design, and the Medici Chapels by Matteo Nigetti.

The Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana), built by the Medici Pope, Clement VII, to emphasize the Medici’s scholarship, contains more than 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 early printed books. These manuscripts and books of the famous merchant family formed their private library. Michelangelo planned and built this library in the style called mannerism, with elongated proportion, balance, ideal beauty, and highly stylized poses, often exaggerated.





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