Friday, May 15, 2009

May 4


Today and tomorrow will be “culture” days. Today, it will be the religious.

The first thing we did was take the opportunity to catch up on some badly needed sleep. The combination of jet lag with standing for as long as we did had worn everyone out. We woke up at about 1100 and took our time to get going.

The first thing we needed was groceries for lunch. Kevin and I went to the Supermercato up on Via Guelfa to get some supplies: some meats, cheese, buns and fruit.

We left the apartment at about 1300 and headed for the Duomo – by way of the Mercato San Lorenzo – the collection of street vendors and stalls in the vicinity of the cathedral San Lorenzo. As with last year, there were scarves, leather goods, T-shirts.

We were roughly following the “Renaissance Walk” described by Rick Steves in his “Florence and Tuscany 2009” book. The Duomo is the centre of Florence and the square in front of it is the start of the walk. More precisely, we start at the eastern doors to the Baptistry – the building facing the front of the Duomo.

The Baptistry itself dates from the 11th century and is Florence’s oldest building. We had the option of paying €3 to enter, but chose instead to spend a bit more time in the Duomo itself. We did spend time looking at the two main sets of doors on the building. The doors on the north side (the entrance to the building) were commissioned in 1401 by way of a competition. Some say that it was this competition that ignited the Renaissance. A young (25 year old) artist named Lorenzo Ghiberti was selected; beating out many other well known artists. One of the artists (Filippo Brunelleschi) later went on to design the dome that crowned the Duomo itself. Nearly 25 years later, Ghiiberti was again commissioned to create the Baptistry’s east doors. It was these doors that introduced a whole new dimension to the art of the day – depth and perspective. It is said that Michelangelo himself believed these doors to be fit to serve as the gates of heaven themselves. The doors currently in place are copies; the originals are safely displayed in the Duomo Museum.

We turned from the Baptistry and headed into the Duomo. The crowd was sparse since it was after lunch; it seems that most tourists want to get their sightseeing taken care of early in the day. The church itself is rather austere inside. All of the great works of art have been removed too the Duomo museum. Still, it is a very impressive space to enter. The church itself is Gothic and was built “unfinished”; that is, the church was built with a hole for a dome that the original builders lacked the skill to fabricate. Nonetheless, they knew that the time would come when someone would have the knowledge and skill to complete the project.

That someone turned out to be Filippo Brunelleschi. After failing to win the commission to create the Baptistry doors, Brunelleschi travelled to Rome where he studied the Parthenon and other Roman architecture. It was there that he developed the knowledge that enabled him to complete the work of those craftsmen of the Middle Ages. The dome took 14 years to complete and was – at the time – the largest dome built since the Parthenon. It remained the largest free-standing dome in the world until the construction of the Houston Astrodome. The Duomo served as the inspiration for domes the world over; Michelangelo studied Brunelleschi’s dome when he was designing St. Peter’s Basilica.

The interior of the dome is decorated with Giorgio Vasari’s “Last Judgment”. In it, the dead rise from their graves at the base of the dome, upwards to a multilevel heaven where Christ decides their fate. I didn’t notice them least year, but it appears as though several long cracks (top to bottom) have appeared in the ceiling of the dome. It will be a shame if more damage occurs to the church.

Kevin began to feel the weight of 2,000 years of Christianity closing in on him. He and talked a bit about the art itself and the role of the pre-Renaissance church as patron of art.

From the Duomo, we headed south towards the Arno River making a slight jog to the west to pass by the Piazza della Repubblica. We showed Penny and Kevin the location of the Penzione Pendini – our hotel from last year.

We continued a bit south and then turned west on via Vacchereccia. Just before we entered the Piazza Signoria, we went over the things we would be seeing there.

The Piazza Signoria is in a part of the city that was once a Roman encampment. The grid arrangement of streets is what makes it recognizable as Roman. The piazza is ringed with buildings – on two sides, restaurants and shops; on the east side the Palazzo Vecchio and on the south by a statue-filled loggia.

The Palazzo Vecchio was the Medici family’s palatial city hall and the political centre of Florence. In front of the palace is a replica of “David”. The statue was originally commissioned – in 1501 – to stand along the southern roofline of the Duomo, but during the sculpting, it was decided to place it at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio. After it was completed, the statue was placed in a cart and dragged to the palazzo and it stood there until 1873 when it was moved to the Accademia to protect it from further weathering. In 1527, the left arm of the original statue was accidentally knocked off by a bench thrown from one of the palace’s windows.To the right of the palace is the Loggia dei Lanzi; filled with statues. At the rear of the loggia (the north wall of the western arm of the Ufizzi gallery) are a series of Roman statues. At the front of the loggia are more statues. The two most important are “Perseus” by Cellini and “The Rape of the Sabines” by Giambologna.

Art carries powerful messages – and the general populace was well familiar with the metaphorical language used in art. Statues such as these were no exception; they too carried powerful political messages that were clearly understood by the people. These pieces were positioned for political effect. Their message? Don’t mess with the Medici family … and if you do, these are examples of the types of things that will happen to you.

We found a spot on the loggia – in front of these statues – and had lunch. There are plenty of pigeons about and we thought it best to have something upon which to sit. Good thing we had thought to bring a flag along.

After lunch and before we left the piazza, we stopped at the marker denoting the spot where Savonarola was hanged and burned (1498). Savonarola was a monk who organized large rallies lit with roaring bonfires. His targets were those living the excesses of the Renaissance and people came from all around to throw their “vanities” (paintings, books) into these bonfires (hence the term “Bonfire of the Vanities”). Encouraged by the pope, the people of Florence eventually turned on Savonarola, captured him and tortured him for two days. Finally, he was executed on this spot.
After lunch, we left the Piazza Signoria at the south end and walked south through the Ufizzi courtyard. The courtyard is lined with statues of great Renaissance figures. Giotto, Donatello, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli and Galileo are all here. It’s a veritable “who’s who” of the Renaissance.

After passing through the Ufizzi courtyard, we came to the Arno River. On our right was the Ponte Vecchio.

Ponte Vecchio literally means “old bridge”. A bridge has crossed this point of the Arno River since the time of the Etruscans. The existing bridge was built in the 14th century by Neri de Fiorvanti. The first occupants of the shops lining the bridge were butchers. The Medici family came to realize that they could extract more rent if they replaced the butchers with gold merchants. The bridge has been lined with gold merchants ever since. In the Second World War, the local German commander was ordered to blow up the bridge; but instead, he rendered the bridge impassable by blowing up buildings at either end. Running along the top of the bridge is an enclosed walkway – used by the Medici family as part of their daily commute between their homes in the Pitti Palace and their offices in the Ufizzi.

We crossed the bridge halfway and then turned back. We got a gelato just north of the bridge, continued north for a bit through narrow, crowded streets lined with shops and turned east towards the Piazza Santa Croce.

The Piazza Santa Croce is the square in front of Santa Croce. Piazza Santa Croce has always been a gathering spot during holidays and festivals. This was evident from the post-May Day cleanup taking place in the square. On November 4, 1966, this piazza was submerged under 15 feet of water owing to a flood of the Arno River. This was the same flood that carried away a great deal of the merchandise from the gold shops on the Ponte Vecchio.

We went round to the side of the church and bought admission. Construction of Santa Croce began in 1295 under the architectural guidance of Arnolfo di Cambio. The design so impressed civic leaders di Cambio was asked to design the Duomo. Construction was completed in 1442 but the façade was only completed in the 1850s.

Inside, the church is very austere. Santa Croce shows typical Gothic design elements; the columns supporting arches are fully exposed – to demonstrate the precision and strength of the builders (and by extension, the church itself). Inside the nave (central) portion of the church, hundreds of people have been buried. There are 276 tombs on the floor alone. Some of the tombs on the floor have been cordoned off to prevent people walking on the carved stones; still others are simply flat markers. As you approach the altar, the number of tombs increases.

The walls also contain tombs and markers. The three most notable are Galileo, Michelangelo and Dante. Galileo defied the teachings of the church by saying that the earth revolved around the sun. For that, he was excommunicated and kept under house arrest til his death in 1642. His remains were only allowed into the church long after his death.

Michelangelo actually has two tombs. The garish one on the right designed by Giorgio Vasari is decorated with figures representing sculpture, architecture and painting. Immediately to the left is a smaller tomb with what appears to be a wooden box. After his death, Michelangelo’s body was stolen and only returned later by a group of Florentines. It’s said that his remains are now in that box.

Further to the left is a memorial to Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). There is no body inside since Dante was exiled from Florence because of his politics. Three statues decorate the memorial – Dante himself in the centre, flanked by a very sad Muse of Poetry (“see what we have lost”) and a triumphant Lady of Florence (“see what we have won”). It was Dante who, through his writings, helped codify a common Italian language (Florentine). And although many different Italian dialects still predominate (making Sicilians unable to understand Venetians), they do have a common – if somewhat more formal – language that they can share.

Also along the walls of Santa Croce are tombs and memorials to Fermi, Marconi and Machiavelli.
We worked our way to the Sacristy to the right of the altar and saw the Tunic of St. Francis of Assisi then back through the cloisters to a museum with many pieces that had been rescued and restored in the aftermath of the 1966 flood. All in all we spent much more time in the cathedral than we had last year and managed to see most parts of the church. But as with last year, many parts of the church are under restoration. The Henry Moore sculpture that I saw in the cloisters area last year has been removed for safekeeping while that restoration is underway.

After Santa Croce, we made our way back northwest towards the San Lorenzo market. Along the way, we stopped at the supermercato to get supplies for tomorrow’s lunch. When we got back to the apartment, it was time for a bit of a rest – a glass of wine – and then back out for supper.
We headed to the Piazza della Repubblica and sat down at one restaurant. But although their meals were reasonably priced, their wine list was rather pricey compared to other restaurants we’ve been in, so we moved on. We caught on to the idea of checking the wine list first – and went through three or four other restaurants before deciding to head back up to the Mercato Centrale area. Eventually, we settled on the place where Marg and I had had lunch last year.

After supper, we headed back to the apartment the long way round; stopping for a gelato along the way.

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