It is now nearly a week since I returned from my Swiss/Italian holiday which took me to Zurich, Venice and, ultimately, the truly supreme Italian Renaissance city of Florence. It is a difficult place to shake off and my brain is still crowded with images from this most evocative and culturally rich urban paradise.
My camera tended to come out on turbulent stormy days when the odd Italian thunder storm repainted those usually cloudlessly blue skies but, even though, there was more than enough sunshine, heat and fun for a temperate climate Englishman abroad, those thundery skies managed to sum up a profundity that lurks here for anyone susceptible to the overwhelming quantity of some of the Western World’s greatest works of art.
Nothing more impressive, of course, or symbolic of this place than the cathedral’s elegantly proportioned and architecturally pioneering dome by just one of Florence’s many geniuses, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). It comes out at you from every angle, at the bottom of streets when you turn almost every corner and it is the model for every ecclesiastic dome that followed.
It is most at home with, well this is Florence folks, the bell tower designed by Italian Renaissance art’s great and earliest inspiration, Giotto (1266-1337) – it was a sobering thought, and one easy to get immune to, that everywhere you go in Florence, you are walking with giants.
You don’t need to know who did what but will know from your very first visit that this is a very special place indeed.
Florence is a city of great architecture but is is also a city of statues.
The Rape of the Sabine Woman by Giambologna (1529-1608) with its dramatically upward surging pyramid of bodies is just one of the fine statues that are crammed into the famous Piazza Della Signoria, Florence’s main square.
Giambologna intended it to be a composition of three figures but no one told the pigeon who sits comfortably preening itself unaware that it is perched on a Sixteenth Century kneecap.
Just a few feet away, Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 1571) waves the slaughtered Medusa’s head at the copy of Michelangelo’s David that stands at the entrance of the Fourteenth Century home of the Medici family, the Palazzo Vecchio. The original statue of David is now stored away at a special gallery which is maybe the city’s greatest treasure of all.
Michelangelo may reign supreme but Benvenuto Cellini was pretty good too. There are plenty more of his works scattered with almost over-confident casualness in the city’s museums and churches.
Walking through the Piazza Della Signoria everyday, through smaller crowds than those I had encountered in Venice’s San Marco square, I felt that everyone here was imbued with art but that is just me going all romantic about the place. Florence is not a big city, it has a small town atmosphere which mixes potently with its history as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. The art must have rubbed off on the people because they are exposed to it every day.
Here, on the steps of the Uffizi art gallery, the odd angel going home with his suitcase doesn’t even warrant a look…
…and any would-be clown can apply his make-up in public without causing any concern. He was going to entertain the long queues waiting to get into the Uffizi gallery – luckily I pre-booked my ticket, as you should, and got into the gallery in just a couple of minutes. Whilst I am thinking of the Uffizi, did I mention, Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519)?
His Annunciation, the angel Gabriel telling the Virgin Mary some pretty earth-shattering news in a landscape that all visitors to Tuscany will recognise.
and there’s Giotto’s radically realistic, for its time, Madonna and Child where the angels have to jostle for a good look in a space defined by light. As you walk through the early Renaissance rooms at the Uffizi you can see the gradual secularisation of the Holy Family take place in front of you.
By the time you reach the works of Botticelli’s pupil, Filippino Lippi (1457 – 1504), the Virgin has become a shy but already ripe Tuscan beauty at ease with her boisterous son.
Michelangelo, of course was made of sterner stuff and he is represented in the Uffizi by his most famous painting where the Madonna is no Florentine lass but a monumental and rather formidable woman with the cares of the World on her shoulders. Is Joseph passing the Messiah to her or is she pushing him back? Whatever is going on here, it is a difficult and more complex world than that inhabited by the langourous nudes that are slouching around behind their backs.
When it comes to Virgins, I think we would all have much more fun with the sort of girls that Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510) created in maybe the most sensational works in the gallery, The Birth of Venus and The Allegory of Spring where love is definitely in the air.
There are too many paintings to take in on one visit so I was flagging after Michelangelo and wondering whether to go for tea when I came across Titian (1488 – 1576) and his least virgin-like of subjects, the Urbino Venus….she, unlike the Botticelli Venus, was most definitely not born yesterday.
It is an amazing place the Uffizi and it is well beyond my powers to guide you through it but go there everyone must – that is an order.
When you feel that you have been exposed to genius enough for one day, you can slip out into a Florentine backstreet for coffee and then more coffee and then more. Who needs art, I thought, when the next cafe espresso arrived.
Of course the streets of Florence are art in their own right so I spent many happy hours wondering around going nowhere in particular.
Then there are the churches, the Cathedral, Santa Croce, San Marco and this, what I used to think of as just the church by the station until some American friends said that they had been inside and it was truly amazing.
That is the trouble with Florence, there is just too much too see so, on this visit, I missed out on the Cathedral and Santa Croce but I did go into the spectacular Romanesque church of Santa Maria Novella which really is just by the station.
By this time of course I had grown quite relaxed about discovering a Giotto Crucifix, a Brunelleschi pulpit and a crib scene by Botticelli even though I was still awe-struck by the spectacular gradually narrowing perspective of the pillared nave which was cunningly devised to make the whole thing look even more impressive. Talking of perspective, there just happened to be on the wall a fresco of the Trinity (1426/7) by Masaccio (1401 – 1428).
It must be handy if you are a Florentine commuter and you have a bit of time before your next train to pop into this church and see one of the very earliest examples of perspective in painting. Masaccio, in a sadly short life, had started a revolution in art.
When I had seen enough revolutionary art for one day, I could return to the lovely little medieval street, the Via Faenza where I was staying and while away some time in one of the unspoiled Tuscan eateries that line this road. The friendly and highly entertaining Trattoria da Guido.
where the staff were as much worth the visit as the excellent Florentine cooking……
and here at the Trattoria Antellesi, you can eat unpretentious but traditional Tuscan cuisine in the friendliest of atmospheres. On one night I was even able to say goodnight to the Antellesi’s proprietor’s daughter as she dosed off in her student room talking on Skype from California.
I have had some memorable meals in these places and hope to return there again one day. Here you really can talk art and food without diminishing one by the other. As T.S. Eliot said: “In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo” – we did that too in this place and planned that, in the morning, it was time for more of the very same, Michelangelo.
After a night of a few too many carafes of red wine, what better than to view, through slightly blurry eyes, Michelangelo’s wine god sculpture Bacchus who lurches precariously and lasciviously on his narrow stand. Apparently, this good-time god was the best endowed of all Michelangelo’s nude male statues but, early in the Sixteenth Century his member was broken off. I suspect jealousy.
This statue, along with more of Michelangelo’s work jostles with a number of wonderfully lithe Cellini statues in the Bargello museum just a short walk from the Uffizi. It is worth every step for these works but the outstanding event of the visit is the truly sensational statue of David (1440/50) by Donatello (c.1386 – 1428).
This is reputedly the first free-standing nude statue to have been made since Roman times and it, like Masaccio’s fresco, began a revolution. When I was last in Florence, this piece was being restored and, as described in an earlier blog, I watched some of the process but now I could see it for the first time as it was meant to be. Strange, provocative and beautiful, the statue describes an ambivalent relationship between the boy David and his giant victim. Finer brains than mine have described the mysterious, or maybe not so mysterious, inter-tangling between the victor’s foot and Goliath’s head and how one of Goliath’s helmet feathers stretches up the length of David’s inside leg. If someone else hadn’t come along a bit later with another David statue then this would surely be the most famous David in the world.
However, just round the corner, at the Academia Museum, that other David statue stands supreme.
If you see no other work of art in your lifetime then you have to visit this gallery. Everyone knows the image, everyone has heard the jokes but, anyone who enters this room where David stands perfectly lit at one end, is wowed. You only have to look at each visitors face as they enter. Michelangelo’s David is art’s true celebrity.
No reproduction captures the full beauty of the marble or the impact that this figure has on its audience. David is a complex of ambiguities and pure perfection at the same time. Michelangelo’s statue shows his innocence but also his experience, he is the boy giant-slayer but also the giant, he has spent his force and yet is still in a state of vulnerable expectation. We already see the loss of innocence that this innocent will find with his victory and we are witnesses to his dawning realization. For all of that and more, we can also just simply marvel at this most beautiful and highly crafted masterpiece.
After Michelangelo, and there is so much of his work in Florence, I felt that I could really not take in any other artist so much of the rest of my visit centred around the Church of San Lorenzo round the corner from my hotel.
Designed by Brunelleschi and, er, Michelangelo, it is my favourite place in Florence.
So it was to San Lorenzo that I used to go every day during my stay in Florence. It was two minutes walk from the hotel down a street lined with the market stall holders setting up their ware under Michelangelo’s Sacristy domes
This was the focal point for my stay…..
…and if there was anywhere in Florence that felt like home it was here on the small piazza that runs along side the church.
I found this space on my first visit to Florence, in January 2008, and thought it was the perfect location for something.
On that cold January day, two and a half years ago, I came here every morning at 7.00 to spend an hour doing my kungfu and taichi practice and, now, after more than a few traumas in my life, I returned here again last week happy that I am still able to do it and more than just still alive.
Kungfu in Michelangelo’s perfect setting, in this most beautiful of cities, was not as incongruous as you may think. It enabled me to root myself somewhere that is very close to my heart.
And then, as with all great holidays, it was time to go home. That threatened rain marked my departure….
but it failed to wash away the beauty of this great city.