Saturday, July 16, 2016

Florence Sparkled Under the Bright Sun of Tuscany, Part II

Not far from Ponte Vecchio, on the south side of the river Arno, is a stark, Renaissance building, Palazzo Pitti, a huge complex of 32,000 square meters, divided into many galleries with paintings, plates, statues, jewelry, furniture, and other luxurious possessions of the Medici family.

Sitting on a hill overlooking Florence, Pitti Palace is administered by Polo Museale Florentino, an institution responsible for twenty museums, including the Uffizi Gallery, and 250,000 works of art.

The original part of the building was started in 1458 by a Florentine banker named Luca Pitti. The Medicis bought it a century later as the residence for the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Napoleon used the palace as a power base in the late 18th century, and, in 1919, King Victor Emannuel III donated it with its entire contents to the Italian people and thus it became a museum.

The main gallery of the palace is the Palatine Gallery with over 500 Renaissance paintings by Raphael, Titian, Perugino, Peter Paul Rubens, Correggio, and Pietro da Cortona. This gallery follows into the opulent 14-room royal apartments, and is thus displayed as the private collection would have appeared then, not in chronological order or by a particular style or school.

Eleonora of Toledo
Portrait by Bronzino
Photo: Wikipedia
The last descendant of Luca Pitti, Buonaccorso Pitti, sold the palace in 1549 to Eleonora of Toledo, the wife of Cosimo I. At that time, Cosimo hired Giorgio Vasari to enlarge the palace to more than double the space and to build the famous Vasari Corridor, an above-ground walkway from Palazzo Vecchio, his old palace and the seat of government, through Uffizi, above Ponte Vecchio, and finally to Palazzo Pitti. It was an easy escape route for the Grand Duke.

Boboli Gardens façade
Photo: Wikipedia
Behind the Pitti Palace the sprawling Boboli Gardens overlooks Florence with a breathtaking view. An array of 16th through 18th century statues and Roman antiquities on wide graveled-avenues, fountains, grottos, nympheums, and garden temples, cover the vast gardens.

The name Boboli is a corruption of “Bogoli,” the name of the family from whom the land was purchased for these gardens. The garden is lavish by any standards and it was built solely for the enjoyment of the immediate Medici family members. According to the guide, no parties or entertainment were took place in the expansive gardens.

Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo I laid out the Boboli Garden. Construction of first stage began under Niccolo Tribolo, who died in 1550, leaving the work to Bartolomeo Ammanati, with contributions by Giogio Vasari (laid out the grottos), and Bernardo Buontalenti (sculptures).

Knowing how difficult is to maintain and water even a small garden, it was even more amazing to find out that everything in this garden of 111 acres is watered by a conduit that brings water from the river Arno and is fed into an elaborate irrigation system.

The Large Grotto underwent restoration in 2015; the statues on display are examples of mannerist sculpture and architecture.  Stalactites, luxuriant vegetation, and waterworks decorate the grotto.

Giotto's Bell in Piazza del Duomo
Photo: Wikipedia
The focal point in Florence is Piazza del Duomo, one of the most visited places in Europe and in the world, the location of the Florence Cathedral, with Brunelleschi famous Cupola, Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower), and the Baptistery. Walking from the train station, it is impossible to have an open space view of all the works as buildings crowd around the small plaza. All of a sudden, this massive construction comes into view once you reach the end of the street.

Baptistery with the Gates of Paradise
Photo: Wikipedia
Built on the ruins of a Roman wall and guard tower, the Florence Baptistery (Baptistery of Saint John) is the oldest known building in Florence, erected between 1059 and 1128, with a status of a minor basilica, a place where, until the end of the nineteenth century, all Catholic Florentines were baptized, including famous Italians like the poet Dante and famous Renaissance men and women, including Medici family members.

The baptistery stands both in Piazza del Duomo and Piazza San Giovanni, across from Florence Cathedral and the Campanile di Giotto. The sandstone, colored marble, and white Carrara marble building, shaped like an octagon, has three sets of bronze doors decorated with relief sculptures and Biblical scenes.

Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise
Photo: Wikipedia
The south doors were made by Andrea Pisano, and the north and east doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti.  These east doors made of gilded bronze were named by Michelangelo the Gates of Paradise. Lorenzo Ghiberti, who worked on them for 21 years, carved his own face on the right side, a self-portrait signature piece for eternity. Twenty panels depict the life of Christ from the New Testament. Eight lower panels depict four evangelists and the Church Fathers, Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory, and Saint Augustine. The door frame has gilded busts of prophets and sibyls.

Ghiberti's self-portrait on the Gates of Paradise
Photo: Wikipedia
Giotto’s campanile (bell tower) stands adjacent to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Baptistery of Saint John.  The free-standing tower was built in Florentine Gothic architecture, with “polychrome marble encrustations” and rich sculpted decorations. Giotto’s Bell Tower has 414 very narrow and slippery marble steps which I climbed years ago, giving the daring climber a breathtaking view of Florence.

Duomo at night
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
When Giotto died in 1337, he had only built the lower floor, richly decorated with geometric patterns, hexagonal panels of white marble from Carrara, green marble from Prato, and reddish marble from Siena and bas-reliefs. A century later, Lucca della Robbia built five more panels.  Seven panels were chosen because the number seven has a Biblical meaning of human perfectibility. Giotto was succeeded by Andrea Pisano, who added two more levels, then by Francesco Talenti who built the top three levels and thus completed the tower in 1359. Talenti did not build the original spire designed by Giotto, thus lowering the original design height  from the 400 ft. to 277.9 ft. Nobody knows exactly which is the decorative work of Giotto and which belongs to Pisano. The work came to a halt during the vicious Black Death.

Duomo complex
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The largest medieval building in Europe is Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (St. Mary of the Flowers) at almost 502 ft. in length and 381 ft. in height.  Began in 1296, Il Duomo di Firenze, as the Italians call it, was completed structurally in 1436 with a dome planned by Filippo Brunelleschi. The façade of the basilica, with an elaborate 19th century Gothic Revival style by Emilio De Fabris, is adorned by multi-colored marble panels in shades of green and pink, and white.  The cathedral is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Florence.

Brunelleschi’s dome is the largest masonry dome in the world. And  he topped it with a lantern which he did not have time to finish before his death but his friend, Michelozzo did in 1461. In 1469 Verrocchio crowned the conical roof with a gilt copper ball and cross, containing holy relics. Brunelleschi’s dome and lantern is thus 375 ft. tall. The copper ball was struck by lightning on July 17, 1600 and the copper ball fell to the ground. Two years later it was replaced by an even larger ball.

The copper ball was cast in the workshop of sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio. One his young apprentices was none other than Leonardo da Vinci who was allegedly fascinated by Verrocchio’s machines that were used to hoist the ball to the top and young Leonardo made sketches of them.

As ornate as the exterior is, the Gothic interior of the church is disappointingly vast and empty. Perhaps it is so bare to make the point that a religious life must be austere and simple. Decorations were lost over time and some were moved to museums. On the other hand, the vast interior can accommodate lots of worshippers at one time. 

The interior art honors locals who contributed funds to its construction and repairs. There are 44 stained glass windows, quite a large number for that time period.  The first bishop of Florence, Saint Zenobius, is honored with a silver shrine that contains an urn with his relics. Saint Zenobius performed the miracle of reviving a dead child. The dome is covered with frescoes completed by different painters who used different methods and techniques. Brunelleschi had wanted gold mosaics that would have reflected more light through the lantern but he died and his idea died with him.

The crypt contains vaults where bishops were buried over the centuries. Among the archeological are the ruins of Roman houses, of early Christian pavement, and remains of the former cathedral,  Santa Reparata, with the tomb of Conrad II (c. 990-June 4, 1039), Holy Roman Emperor, and his wife.  There is a part of the crypt that is open to the public in which Brunelleschi’s simple and humble tomb is located, an expression of the esteem in which Florentines held the architect who helped build their place of worship. The cathedral is really his masterpiece and the crowning of his life.

Santa Croce Wikipedia
I found the Basilica di Santa Croce a most interesting church, smaller but very intriguing. A comfortable walk from the back of the Palazzo Vecchio, it is located in Piazza di Santa Croce, 800 meters south-east from the Duomo. The leather district of Florence with its shops ends in the corner of the piazza.

The minor Basilica of the Holy Cross is the largest Franciscan church in the world with sixteen chapels decorated with frescoes by Giotto and his students. It is said that St. Francis himself funded its construction. It is quite possible; St. Francis was a very rich man who gave up all his riches when he decided to follow God and the road to a simple and austere life.

Tomb in Santa Croce
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
When the site was chosen for the church, it was a marshland outside the city walls. Over time, some of the most famous Italians were buried inside the church, Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Foscolo, Gentile, and Rossini. For this reason, Italians call it the Temple of the Italian Glories.

Santa Croce Interior Courtyard
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2005
The current church was erected to replace the old building and construction began in May 1294, paid for by Florence’s wealthiest residents. Pope Eugene IV consecrated it in 1442. The construction plan represents the Symbol of St. Francis, the Egyptian or Tau cross. There is a convent to the south of the church. Both Brunelleschi and Vasari were involved in the construction and design of the interior.

Santa Croce Façade
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The neo-Gothic marble façade was designed by Niccolo Matas from Ancona and is dated from 1857-1863. I was surprised to see a large Star of David on the 19th century façade which was the work of the Jewish architect Matas. Matas asked to be buried with his peers but, because he was Jewish, he was buried instead under the porch and not within the wall of the church.

Santa Croce Tomb
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2005
A public property since 1866, the entire complex is not just a place of worship but a burial for so many famous Italians and lesser known but moneyed residents. Florence Nightingale, who was born in Florence and named after her birthplace, has a monument dedicated to her memory in the cloister built by Brunelleschi and completed in 1453.

There is a Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce and is housed in the refectory. The former dormitory of the Franciscan monks houses today the Leather School (Scuola del Cuoio) where tourists can watch artisans make purses, wallets, and other leather goods sold adjacent to the shop.

Santa Croce suffered immensely during the Arno River flood of 1966 which affected the entire town of Florence. Mud, detritus, heating oil, and other pollutants entered the church and caused such heavy damage that it took decades to repair. On several visits, I witnessed the repairs to the main floor and to the tombs covering the entire surface. We had to walk on cardboard while the tombs were hidden from sight. I even wondered why rich Florentines would want to be buried in the floor and get trampled on by visitors and worshippers alike. The most famous were actually buried in the walls.

The renovations were finished on this visit and the tombs in the floor were restored to their original glory. It must have been quite smelly in the church when all the dead people had been buried constantly in the floors and the walls.

We left the church after lighting more candles and walked to Leonardo’s leather shop. My students had been fascinated on previous visits by the beautifully embellished book covers and leather goods. On this trip, as a memento, I bought Dave a leather tray embossed with his initials. An apprentice pressed the thin foil of gold onto the rich burgundy leather with an old-looking embossing press.

In the narrow street outside, a group of four Chinese tourists were busy watching their doctor painstakingly free a pigeon that had entangled his legs and claws into numerous thin strands of silk and could no longer fly.  Using tweezers, a nail clipper, and an antibiotic spray, he released the bird after giving him water and a couple of seeds. The bird was a bit confused, walked like a drunk for a bit and then flew away to everyone’s applause who had witnessed the rescue.

From this point we stopped at the Gold Corner, not far from Santa Croce and bought an exquisite Christmas gift. We walked to the famous Gilli café, in operation since 1793. It was a real disappointment! The service was bad, it was noisy, hot, and the sweets were way too sweet but the coffee was divine. Scuderi, on the other hand, a café from the turn of the 20th century, had delicious cookies which we brought back to our hotel. After a Caesar salad with chicken and delicious cookies to boot, we were ready for a restful sleep after covering so much historical hallowed ground in Florence.



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