Tonight will be my fourth night staying in Florence, but I’ve pretty much just written about Rome so far. Now it’s this city’s turn.
After I checked into my hotel in the old, central part of the city, I rested a bit and went out for a walk. I headed first for the river Arno which subdivides the city and walked across the ‘old bridge’ – the Ponte Vecchio. There are shops on both sides of the span, and while they were once the domain of butchers and the like, now it’s jewelry stores (and one necktie and shirt store) that occupy it. It’s like Florence’s version of New York’s 47th Street. If you like bling, this is the place.
The only thing I had planned for the first day was to do something I did not do last time I was here 19 years ago – climb to the top of the cathedral’s dome. I waited until my last day in Florence to do it back in 1990, excpet that the last day was a Sunday and it was not closed. Not to repeat that error, I decided to do it on the very first day.
There are 436 steps to climb to get to the top, or so the sign at the entrance said (and who am I to dispute it?) I’d been climbing the steps at home to get back into shape lately, though without carrying about 20 pounds of camera gear with me. Still, I made it without any difficulty.
After walking up a very tight spiral staircase, one reaches the gallery inside the church. At this point, one is at the base of the dome on the interior, and you’re afforded a great view of the church floor way way down below (through the plastic wall) and of the painted dome ceiling. The walkway, though, is not more than two feet wide (if it’s even that much) so I was barely able to walk it with my camera bag strapped to me.
Then comes the ascent through the dome to the viewing platform on top. When I was up there, a young American fellow said of the beautiful view of Florence, “This is what makes it all worthwhile.” Well, he may have gone up for the view from the outside, but I went up for the view of the inside!
Why? A Chinese friend of mine at my office who loves Italian art and has made the climb up puts it this way: “Every step is history.” When the Duomo (cathedral) was designed by Arnolfo de Cambio in the late 13th/early 14th Century, he designed it with a huge space to be covered with a dome. There was just one problem: nobody knew how to build a dome. The ancient Romans did, but that knowledge was lost in the Dark Ages. Finally, an artist named Filippo Brunelleschi figured out a way to do it using interlocking bricks and designed outer and inner domes so the workman could live up there in between the two.
I spent most of the following day on an inside mission of another variety. I went to the Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s great art museums. I had read that the line to buy tickets can be very long, so I decided to spend an extra 4 euros and buy one in advance the day before. When I got to the museum at 9:15 am – my reserved entry time – there was indeed a very long line of people without tickets. I thought I’d stay there for a few hours, then see another museum in the afternoon, but I didn’t leave until (yikes!) 3:30 pm – over 6 hours later!!!
Why so long? Well, if you’ve been there you’d know. This museum has so many great and famous paintings, that having to chance to see the originals in the paint I was not about to rush through. The galleries start off with gothic/very early Renaissance Christian religious paintings (not my favorite genre, by any means), but when it gets further into the Renaissance it’s one gem after another. Among the highlights – “The Birth of Venus” and “La Primavera” by Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation,” Michelangelo’s round “Holy Family,” “The Venus of Urbino” by Titian, and on and on. There are also works by non-Italians like Rembrandt, Goya, Rubens, Chardin, etc.
Again, it is a joy to be able to see these masterworks in the original paint after looking at them for so long as reproductions. To see the grain of the canvas under the paint. To see the brushstrokes the artist made.
I had only one gripe – and I met some people from the UK who had the same thoughts: Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” is behind a thick pane of protective glass. Unfortunately, given the world we live in, I can understand why the museum wants to protect it’s greatest treasures. That, however, isn’t my complaint. “La Primavera” has the same type of glass in front of it but it doesn’t suffer so much. Why? The “Primavera” is not opposite a wall with large windows, but some idiot decided to put “The Birth of Venus” in just such a spot. When you try to see the painting, you see the reflection of the light coming through the windows behind you instead. Didn’t anybody bother to look at this?
When I left the museum, I was asked to take a few minutes to fill out a survey form. I told the fellow my complaint, and he said that I should write it on the form, so I did. Who knows? Maybe if enough people write this it might change. I’m not betting on it, but hey – you never know.
Yesterday, as I briefly wrote, I went on a day trip to Lucca, a beautiful Tuscan city about an hour and a half from Florence by rail. I was there 19 years ago and it was nice to be back for several hours. The buildings are beautiful, the streets are quiet and life seems to move at a slower pace. One of the highlights was walking to the top of the Torre Guinigi – a medieval building with a tower that has trees on top. It affords a beautiful view of the city and you get shaded by the trees, too.
From up there one can also see the Piazza Anfiteatro. This is an oval shaped piazza that was once an amphitheater in ancient Roman times. People built on top of the ruins over the years and the square still maintains the amphitheater’s oval shape, even though there are no ruins to be seen anymore.
I did have a couple of disappointments in Lucca, though. The first was that I went on a Saturday when there’s a morning flea market, but I couldn’t find it in time. When the people at the tourist office pointed it out to me, it was too late. Missing it wasn’t such a great loss, but I remember coming across it last time and seeing (I think) some old photos for sale that looked interesting.
The other disappointment was the the Casa Puccini museum was closed. Giacomo Puccini, the great opera composer, was born in Lucca and his birth place is now a museum. I went there on my last visit and went to the museum, so I was looking forward to going back, knowing more about his music now than then. At first I thought I missed it because it closed early on Saturday, but at the tourist office I was told that it’s closed indefinitely for some reason.
More disappointment was to follow, however. From Lucca, I took the train to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower. It is still there and it is still leaning, but unfortunately parts of it are covered be scaffolding and a part near the top is wrapped up with some kind of material. In other words, no good photos were to be had. The scaffolding is on the lower half, so I tried to use my telephoto lens to get just the top half, but the wrapping material will probably ruin that, too. Oh well. Sometimes surprises are good, sometimes thery’re bad.
On the plus side, I had a couple of good surprises this morning. I got up early to go the the Accademia gallery to see Michelangelo’s famous statue of David. I got there around 8:30 am and nearly walked past it, so nonedescript is the building. I didn’t have an advanced ticket like I had at the Uffizi, and like the Uffizi I expected to see a long line to have to wait on. Instead, there was none. I just walked right in.
The other nice surprise was to find that the Accademia is having a special exhibit of black & white photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, comparing his work and how he used form to that of Michelangelo – Mapplethorpe’s favorite artist, according to what I read. While making my obligatory look through the early religious paintings, I couldn’t get the expectation of seeing David out of my mind. When I entered the Mapplethorpe exhibit, I forgot all about it.
The silver prints (and one platinum) in the exhibit were beautiful, and featured mostly nudes, a lot of men but also of bodybuilder Lisa Lyon and some other women. Thankfully, none of Mapplethorpe’s more extreme images were included – I don’t think Michelangelo used a bull whip in any of his portraits – but the oddest photo was a self portrait of a seated Mapplethorpe holding a cane topped by a miniature skull. It reminded me of none other than Barnabas Collins.
As for Michelangelo’s David – well, what can words say about it. I’d already seen the replica of it in the Piazza della Signoria here in Florence (in the spot where the original used to stand), but it was nothing like seeing the original. It is simply a stunning work of art, and to see the quality Michelangelo gave to the marble is stunning. Taking photos of it is prohibited, but unlike the Sistine Chapel where the guards don’t bother to stop anyone, at the Accademia they do – especially one female guard with long red hair, wearing a short skirt and high heels.
Still, my museum day was just starting. Tomorrow is my final day in Florence, but it’s a Monday, when most museums are closed. So, today was the day to get my art viewing in. Next stop was the sculpture museum, the Bargello. There are actually three statues of David here. The two most interesting are by the great sculptor Donatello. The first one, made in 1408, is a stone sculpture done in an almost gothic style. It could not be more different than the one he made about thirty years later – a bronze sculpture of a nude (very) young man standing with one foot on the head of Goliath. (The text says that it was the very first nude sculpture of the Renaissance.) Like the one by Michelangelo, this one is breathtaking in its own way – and unlike the Michelangelo, you can get within an inch of it if you want.
The other David, by the way, is non-nude bronze by Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher, Verrochio. When I was there, I heard a guide say that it is thought that the model for this David actually was the 14 year old da Vinci. She said that, while people know Leonardo to have been an artistic and scientific genius, few people know that he was also an exeptionally good looking man.
I finished off the afternoon by walking across the Arno to the Pitti Palace to see the paintings by Raphael, among others, there. The Pitti was a palace, so the building is a work of art in and of itself. Still, going there was probably too much. Walking around from place to place most of the day had not left my bad foot hurting so far on this trip, but today, spending a lot of time standing relatively still to look at art work, was just too much. I guess I’ll have to be careful what I do from now on.
Tomorrow I had thought of making a day trip to Siena or Bologna, but I’ll probably stay in town as I need to change money, do some laundry and stuff like that. There are also some things here in town that I want to do, like climb the tower next to the cathedral to get some good photos of the dome. Whatever I do, I will not be setting my alarm clock!
So, now that I’ve run down my day to day activities, here are a few other thoughts.
Hotels: I’m staying at the same place in Florence that I stayed at 19 years ago. Not only that, I’m in the same room! I just felt a little weird about that, like (as Shirley Bassey sang) a little bit of history repeating. I told this to a young woman from Montreal I met on the train back to Florence yesterday, and she said that maybe I’ll meet myself.
Crossing the street: Yes, Italy does have traffic lights, but most street crossings (including some very busy intersections) are at black and white ‘zebra’ crosswalks. This would be fine if it were San Francisco, where people stop to let you go by if you’re six feet from the curb. Here, even if you’re on the curb – or even in the street – cars won’t stop. You have to make the first move and hope that they’ll stop for you. If this weren’t bad enough, I was hit by a car two years ago, so that makes it even worse. So far I have survived, but I also put my hand up to let the drivers know of my intention to cross.
Gypsies: Last time here in Florence, the gypsies tried to rob me twice in one day. I saw lots of them in Rome, too – kids running around, shoving papers in your face to distract you while they go for your valuables. I think that’s one reason why it’s taken me so long to come back. The good news? I haven’t seen any such kids running around. None in Rome – just a couple of older women begging. I mentioned that to the woman at my hotel here, and she said yes, there are a lot less than there used to be, but there are still some around, so she advised caution. So far it has not been a problem – and I hope it will stay that way.
Food: Naturally, I’ve been eating Italian food, but avoiding tomato sauce as it’s not good for my stomach. I have had insalata caprese – mozarella and tomatoes – several times, though. Last night I had a Tuscan type of pasta called pici. It’s like a thick spaghetti. I had it at my photo workshop in another part of Tuscany in 1998, but not since then. All of the Italian people I mentioned it to in New York had never even heard of it, so I guess only Tuscan people know of it and offer it. Tonight, instead of having pasta or pizza again, I had a calzone with ricotta cheese.
Gelato: Ice cream. As I overheard one American woman say, there seems to be a gelateria on every corner. She left out the ones in between the corners. Yes, gelato is everywhere it seems. I think today will be first day in a while I haven’t had any – but then there’s still tomorrow.
Well, that’s it for now. I’ll try to write again from my next destination.
Until next time, be well.