I went back to one of my favourite places last week, the glorious city of Florence in Italy where the architecture, painting and sculpture make this the best place in the World to see the great masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance whilst also having a good time in the restaurants and bars of this friendliest of cities. The Cathedral, one of Florence’s main focal points can be seen from many angles and is often stumbled across when you are just back-doubling down one of the many narrow streets. The dome, designed by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) is an object of real beauty – it was the first such structure built since the Pantheon in Rome built during the time of the Roman Empire. I never tire of gazing at it. When I was there, the promised rain didn’t materialise and, instead, the April sun lit up the architecture and shone from the golden orb that crowns Brunelleschi’s wonder-work.
Brunelleschi was also one of the main architects of another impressive Florentine Church, San Lorenzo the church and burial site of the all-powerful Medici family but Brunelleschi died before he had finished work on it and the build continued to the design of Michelangelo (1475-1564) no less. Michelangelo too, as was often the case, failed to finish his work here and the frontage of the church, even though, he did the design drawings, was never built – leaving modern Florence with the dilemma of whether to complete it now nearly 500 years later. San Lorenzo may be famous for Michelangelo and those Medicis but, for me, it is the place where I do my kungfu practice every morning when I’m in town – often to the thrilling sound of those stirring San Lorenzo bells.
I have been visiting here since 2008 and nobody seems to mind me taking over this small space every morning at around seven o’clock. There is something special about the mix of martial meditation and movement that combines to make the ground beneath your feet sacred somehow – whenever I return here I feel the special relationship that has formed between me and this historically vivid environment.
Luckily for me, the morning commuters and market stall holders are tolerant if sometimes amused and intrigued by my kungfu patterns every morning. One of the young Italian handbag sellers has christened me Signor Karatti and, this year, he welcomed me back like an old friend. I was proud too to receive an encouraging thumbs up from a passing Chinaman. I no longer feel that there’s anything odd about the mix of Chinese martial arts with the fine art of the Italian Renaissance.
By the time that the market is open for business and the great San Lorenzo bell chimes 8.00, I return to my hotel, just round the corner for breakfast.
The Hotel Rex is situated in what might look like an ordinary little Italian street but it is in fact right in the middle of things with excellent restaurants, cafes and bars just across the road and a friendly staff who really do seem to be pleased to see me when I return.
I thought I had sampled all of this street’s wonders but I had somehow missed the prosaically named Fish Restaurant until a friend recommended it – it was an unmissable experience and I shall remember my crab risotto, salmon flambé and creme caramel for a very long time.
Espresso coffee still delights me in Italy but there were also moments after a lot of street wandering when there was nothing quite like that cup of lemon tea in Florence’s busiest square, the Piazza della Signoria, home to the Medici palace, the Palazzo Vecchio, just round the corner from the Uffizi gallery, one of the artistic wonders of the World. It is worth the cover price to sit quietly gazing at this wonderful view.
This bottle of Venetian chardonnay, pleasantly chilled, to be consumed outside on a sunny Italian Spring evening, was the perfect aperitif before moving on to that fish restaurant known as Fish Restaurant.
The reason for my visit, as if I needed a reason, was to meet up with my nephew, Ali, who is lucky enough to be based here for four months as part of his language degree. It was good to see him and to be shown the city from his perspective but it was difficult to hide my growing jealousy. It doesn’t get much better than being a student in Florence.
I was only in Florence for three days and there is more than a lifetime’s worth of art to visit so I decided not to go to the Uffizi this time and, instead I concentrated on the extraordinary riches of Florence’s statues by those supreme masters, Michelangelo and Donatello (1386 – 1466). The city has so much Michelangelo that it can wear it casually on its sleeve.
My hotel was just round the corner from the Medici chapel attached to Michelangelo’s San Lorenzo where he created these moody and disturbing statues, allegorical figures for the four times of the day, for two Medici tombs. A short walk away is the Accademia, home to the World’s most famous statue, Michelangelo’s David – as mysterious as the Mona Lisa and as open to as many different interpretations standing there in the moment before he slings his rock to kill Goliath and by doing so, to leave his youthful innocence behind him.
Also at the Accademia, as if you needed anything else, are the powerful and unfinished statues Michelangelo carved for the tomb of Pope Julius II. These suffering titans, still attached to the rock from which they are carved, stand at the other end of the spectrum from David’s precariously held innocence, here is the suffering of experience, Michelangelo’s King Lear.
It was another short walk to the City’s main sculpture gallery, the Bargello, where you can see several more Michelangelo figures, including his very tipsy Bacchus, the god of wine…
…but, for once, Michelangelo takes second place to another artist because, here in the Bargello, the star attraction is Donatello’s David dating from 1430, seventy-four years earlier than Michelangelo’s David and thought to be the first free standing nude statue since ancient times. Here, as in several other sites around Florence, you can witness the dawn of the artistic phenomenon that was the Italian Renaissance.
Donatello’s David is still very much a boy, albeit a rather feminine one, as compared to Michelangelo’s young man and he is shown in tender triumph, foot placed in victory on Goliath’s severed, and oddly smiling, head. As with the other David, there is much ambiguity here, the piece is about more than just
a Biblical act of combat.
There was time for one more gallery visit before I left, so I chose to go to the Cathedral’s museum to see more statues by Michelangelo and Donatello.
The tragically meditative Pietà, really a “Deposition”, where Michelangelo, in the guise of Nicodemus, not only supports the dead Christ but towers over him, the largest figure, in deep contemplation. It is easy to believe that this was intended by the artist for his own tomb. It was, inevitably, left incomplete and, as with the Julius II sculptures, all the more moving for being a work in progress.
Donatello’s wildly expressionist Penitent Mary Magdalene has stayed in my memory ever since I first saw it in 2008 so I had to see it again before I left Florence. The museum has a Donatello room with a number of other figures intended for the cathedral’s giant tower. Among them is his dramatic Abraham and Isaac where father Abraham pulls back his son’s hair to expose the jugular vein in anticipation of an execution-style slaughter whilst looking fearfully and beseechingly to Heaven.
Florence is full of statues and they are just one of the many reasons why I would like to return there at least once a year.
The clear April light illuminated the architecture to perfection and the promised rain kept away enabling me to ramble freely around this city that is, of course, really an art gallery itself.
There was even time for a very welcome siesta. Arrivederci Florence – until next time.