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La Dolce Vita (Part 4) Firenze (Florence)


(View of Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo) 


It’s hard to imagine a prettier setting for an historic city than the heart of Tuscany; that’s where you’ll find Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance and the modern world.  So great is the historic influence of Florence that many of its citizens believe the city can’t seem to escape the past to be able to transition into the 21st century….but I’m not into such lofty concepts as I wander these cobble-stoned streets — the same streets that Donatello, Michelangelo, Galileo and da Vinci walked — I’m just visually transported to the fifteenth century as not much seems to have changed.  In my wandering and daydreaming I retain a sense of gratitude to Florence for what it has contributed to modern civilization.  The Renaissance it birthed represents a truly monumental leap from the stifling medieval ages into a vibrant freer world of color, texture, emotions and self-expression.



 (Florence -- Piazza della Repubblica)


A Brief History of Florence


Florence was a military outpost during the days of the Roman empire and became an increasingly important city over the centuries.  This was especially true in the 13th and 14th century when it developed into a major center of manufacturing, trade and banking.  Capitalism was replacing feudalism and the emerging wealthy class (many of them bankers) began investing in art. During the 15th century the most notable art patrons in town were the Medici’s whose gigantic mark on Florence still lingers.  With the growing prosperity and encouragement of their patrons, artists expanded their focus beyond traditional flat two-dimensional religious art (all they were allowed to create during the Dark Ages) into new areas of expression — especially with new colors, a sense of movement and balance, three dimensions, a focus on the human body and its expression.  You can see the birth and legacy of this Renaissance in Florence’s museums, like the Uffizi, Duomo Museum, Accademia and Bargello.  As statues and paintings changed, so did architecture.  During the same period Brunelleschi created the magnificent dome on the city’s cathedral (Duomo) — the first dome built since the Pantheon and one that inspired many more to follow, including the Capitol Dome in Washington D.C.  From Florence the Renaissance headed south and over time Florence’s importance fizzled, though the legacy of these years remain. 



 (View of Florence's Duomo from the Piazzale Michelangelo) 


 There’s a treasure trove of old churches, great streets and alleys and wonderful shops, restaurants and museums to explore. Here’s some of what we did during our visit to Florence which we’d enthusiastically recommend to others:



 (Neptune's fountain -- Piazza della Signoria)


1) Walk through the old city.  The historic core of Florence is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is best explored on foot (It does not lend itself to bus, taxi or car travel).  You’ll find, as we did, that strolling the narrow roads and ancient facades is like going back in time hundreds of years. There are some memorable Piazzas worth visiting, including the Piazza della Signore with it’s wonderful art and historic buildings.  Shop at the market (Mercado Centrale) for some of Florence’s fine leather goods or visit the south shore of the Arno (where most Florentines actually live), hike up the hill for the memorable views of the old city and Tuscany countryside from Piazzale Michelangelo.  The city will be crowded during peak months so its best to travel during shoulder seasons.  Still, it’s Florence so don’t let a crowd discourage you.  Learn how to work around it.



(Ponte Vecchio, Florence) 


2) Explore the area around the Arno River and especially the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge on the river.  The bridge was of such significance that even the Nazis did not destroy it when they blew up the rest of Florence’s bridges.  The bridge is lined by shops on both sides which used to house meat and produce markets but which now sell mostly gold and silver jewelery.  Above these shops is a “secret” passage the Medici’s had built to allow escape to the opposite site of the Arno River if needed.


3) The Uffizi gallery has the finest collection of Italian Renaissance art anywhere and is one of the world’s great art museums. Housed in a former office building, the Uffizi is home to thousands of paintings ranging from medieval times to the modern era, as well as a vast collection of ancient sculptures, miniatures, and tapestries.  Most of the exhibit is on a single U-shaped floor and as you walk from room to room you progress from Medieval art to the Renaissance and beyond.  Enjoy the great paintings of Botticelli, including the brilliant & fresh Birth of Venus’ and Allegory of Spring, two Leonardo da Vinci paintings (‘Annunciation‘ and ‘Adoration of the Magi"), works by Giotto, Raphael, Caravaggio and Titan.  See Michelangelo’s only easel painting, Holy Family. The lines waiting to get in are long so be sure you've reserved your tickets in advance on-line so that you can bypass them.



( David in the Piazza della Signoria)


4) Accademia — The highlight and main reason for visiting this collection is Michelangelo. It is in this collection you can see the wondrous statue of “David” crafted from a narrow piece of marble (many had though unusable) when Michelangelo was 26.  Standing 17 feet tall and captured in polished white marble as he’s preparing to sling a rock at Goliath, viewing this brilliant statue is one of the highlights of any visit to Florence.  Originally displayed in Piazza della Signoria, it has been moved here for it’s protection. As you walk towards David you will pass Michelangelo’s “Prisoners”, a series of partially completed statues evocative of people trying to escape their marble prison (includes an unfinished Pieta).  The gallery also features some paintings, including a few by Botticelli, and an interesting collection of antique musical instruments...


5) Bargello Museum — Housed in a former prison, this museum has one of the best collection of statues anywhere including the best works by Donatello, several by Michelangelo and some of the Medici collection. Highlights include a nude bronze of “David” as a boy by Donatello — the first nude crafted in a millennium and as such of great historic importance; the bronze of Mercury’ by Giambologna; the Baptistery door contest panels by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi.



 (the Duomo -- Florence)


6) The Duomo (red domed cathedral with colorful Tuscany marble facade) is one of the largest churches in the world. It was the first great dome built in more than a 1000 years, designed and executed by Brunelleschi, and it began the Renaissance in architecture.  Climbing to the top of the Dome or to the top of Giotto’s bell tower (Campaneli) is popular but we never had the time for it on this trip.




(Ghiberti's gloriously detailed doors to the Baptistry)


The Baptistery is a separate structure which predates the Renaissance. You had to be baptized before you could enter the cathedral. The panels (crafted by the brilliant Ghiberti) in the door are wonderfully detailed and were among the first works of art to give the illusion of 3d on a 2d surface.  Michelangelo described them as “the Gates of Paradise”.  The originals are now in the Duomo museum (but excellent detailed copies have taken their place).




7) Duomo Museum, situated immediately behind the cathedral, has a diverse collection of art including many pieces by Donatello and many works of art from the cathedral.  Three of the main highlights are Michelangelo’s last Pieta (featuring a self-portrait of the artist as Nicodemus), Donatello’s haunting wood carving of Mary Magdalene, and Ghiberti’s original “Gates of Paradise” Baptistery doors (which were being refurbished when we were there).  We found our visit here to be well worth the time and money and that the museum is underrated.


"The best part of visiting Florence is that it will exceed your expectations".  A very true statement, P.H.



 For an extended high resolution slide show of Florence, please go to this link.  The slide show is at the bottom of the post.  Click on the right sided icon of the slideshow's toolbar for full screen enlargements.



Images (23)
  • Florence -- Piazza del Duomo: The Baptistry building in the right foreground is the oldest building in Florence (11th century). Many centuries ago you would have to be baptized before you were allowed to enter the Duomo.
  • Florence -- Duomo: Front of the church
  • Florence -- Duomo: Brunelleschi's famous red dome. The first dome built since the Pantheon's, it inspired many to follow including St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and the U.S.Capitol in Washington, D.C.
  • Florence -- Doors of Baptistry: Designed and executed by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Michelangelo called these doors "the Gates of Paradise".
  • Florence -- Doors of Baptistry: A depiction of "Jacob and Esau". Note the three dimensional quality
  • Neptune's fountain -- Piazza della Signoria
  • Florence -- David in the Piazza della Signoria: A copy.  The original is now in the Accademia
  • Hercules and Nessus, by Giambologna
  • Orsansmichele Church -- Donatello's St. George
  • Florence -- Piazza della Repubblica
  • Florence -- Ponte Vecchio
  • Florence -- Crowd and shops on the Ponte Vecchio
  • Florence -- Duomo Museum
  • Duomo Museum -- Michelangelo's Pieta: Crafted by Michelangelo late in his life, Michelangelo includes a self-portrait as the elderly Nicodemus
  • Duomo Museum -- Donatello's Mary Magdalene: Haunting.  Mary Magdalene, a prostitute, is shown as a wasted, scared hull of a woman
  • Florence -- Santa Croce Church: The church has the tombs of many famous Florentines, including Michelangelo and Galileo.
  • Santa Croce church -- Michelangelo's tomb
  • Florence -- Michelangelo steps, Laurentian Library
  • Florence -- Santa Maria Novella Church: Photographed at night, with one of a pair of obilisks seen on the right.
  • Florence -- view from Piazzale Michelangelo
  • Florence -- view from Piazzale Michelangelo
  • Florence -- view from Piazzale Michelangelo: The great Duomo cathedral with it's magnificent dome.
  • Florence -- road car rare: A string of small old sports cars worked their way through the city

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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