Visit: 21st-22nd November 2015
From one Historic Centre in Portugal to another in Italy, Florence was the final World Heritage Site for me in what has been a fruitful year. 2015 saw:
- 34 new WHSs visited
- including 17 new sub-sites
- 3 repeats (City of Bath, Town of Bamberg and Cologne Cathedral)
- 13 countries (in two of which I saw no WHSs)
- and even a whole trip to Ireland that ended without getting to our intended point of interest, Skellig Michael.
Florence is in some ways the classic WHS: world-famous, of unquestionable cultural value and yet still very much a living city. Its airport is not especially well connected, so most fly to Pisa 42 miles away and get a coach to Florence. Since I like to vary my airports and had flown to Pisa last year to see its Piazza del Duomo, I booked flights from the inconveniently-located (for us) London City, which meant a stay in the local Ibis the night before.
We arrived into Peretola airport in the rain and caught a bus to the town centre. We had only one night there, and there is a lot to do in the birthplace of the Renaissance, so after dropping our bags off we headed straight out to get some food at the city’s central market.
It is a large covered market with stands selling all manner of fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses. It reminded me of the food market I visited with Ross and Louise in Valencia. The colours are wonderful, and some of the vendors offer hot food to eat there and then, which is what we did.
The first artistic site I was interested in seeing was the Palazzo Medici Riccardi – its courtyard pictured below.This grim defensive house (on the outside at least!) belonged to that famous banking family and rulers of Florence, the Medici, before transferring into the hands of the Riccardi family some years later. Probably its most notable element is the private Magi Chapel within, its walls frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli.
Also of note within the miniature palace is the ceiling painting from the 1680s by Luca Giordano. A work of the Baroque, the extensive preparatory paintings for this ceiling are on display in the National Gallery in London (on the lower level, beyond the café). Knowing that we would be able to go and see the completed project in Florence, Natalie and I had visited the National Gallery a few weeks earlier to see how the canvases compared to the palace. The ceiling depicts mythological allegories of various positive character traits, such as fortitude, justice and prudence. The modelli that now hang in London were considered worthy enough to be on display in the palazzo itself until at least 1822.
Not far from the Palazzo Medici Riccardi is the Galleria dell’Accademia – home to one of the most famous works in all of art. At the end of a long room flanked by unfinished sculptures stands the 17 ft-high Statue of David.
I haven’t seen Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, but I am told that it can be very disappointing because of its small size relative to the enormous crowds taking constant flash photographs. David does not have this problem – its size ensures that it stands out – quite literally – from the crowd, and it is not encased in bulletproof glass. It really is a thing of beauty, and to think that you are looking at something that one of mankind’s foremost geniuses carved from Carrara marble with his own hand is quite something.
I mentioned above the unfinished sculptures, and I think these are also worth considering as some of the museum’s most important pieces. Michelangelo was a man who always took on more than he could handle. He would accept commissions but often move onto something new before completing what he had started. These particular unfinished works were destined to become part of one of the grandest artistic projects ever conceived of. Pope Julius II was an enlightened man, a sophisticated patron of some of the most important figures of the Renaissance. But he was also an egotist, which is why he commissioned Michelangelo to build for him an enormous tomb adorned with dozens of sculptures. Michelangelo was known to be the fastest sculptor of his time, able to “knock off more chips of a very hard marble in a quarter of an hour than three young stone carvers could have done in three or four”. Yet the tomb design was so grand that even he was never going to be able to finish it. These incomplete blocks that history has handed down to us grant an insight into the great artist’s method, and there is definite beauty in seeing a figure emerging from the marble like this.
As we exited the Accademia the light was fading and we walked toward the city’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore. The dome, designed by Renaissance master architect Filippo Brunelleschi, is still the largest of its kind in the world. At the time it would have been revolutionary.
Opposite the cathedral is the baptistry with its gilded bronze doors by Ghiberti. The 20 three-dimensional panels on the so-called ‘Gates of Paradise’ depict episodes from the life of Christ in great detail.
That evening we went back to our hotel, uncharacteristically skipped dinner and slept for over twelve hours. It seems foolish, given that we were on such a short break there, but we had been up since 5am.
The next morning the weather was much nicer – a clear blue November sky greeted the day. There is an excellent viewpoint to the southeast of the city walls, and after a coffee we walked up the hill to take in the Arno valley vista.
Down on the river in the picture above you can make out a bridge. That is the famous Ponte Vecchio, which for some reason is covered in jewellery shops. On the north side of the Vecchio is Florence’s most famous museum, the Uffizi.
‘Uffizi’ simply means offices in Italian, for that was the original purpose of the building when in 1560 it was begun by architect, artist and most notably art historian Giorgio Vasari. Since then it has been transformed into the repository of works by all of the great Florentine and Renaissance artists, including most famously Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera.
Whilst I appreciate Botticelli, I didn’t find his paintings as impressive as others there, such as Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac or various pieces by Titian (one of my favourite artists). It probably helped that it was November, but the gallery was not at all crowded and we had to endure no queues on the way in. My advice if you go to Florence in low season is not to bother paying a ticket website the exorbitant commission it will charge you in order to pre-book for the major museums.
I wasn’t always into art. In fact it is something I’ve gotten into only in the past two years or so, after watching the 1969 TV series Civilisation with Kenneth Clark. My neighbour Jeremy recommended a book earlier this year by E.H. Gombrich called The Story of Art, and I am still working my way through it. I took it with me to Florence in order that it might guide our visit in some way, and as you can see I was often looking things up in it.
Florence really has two World Heritage Sites. The Historic Centre was the main subject of our trip, but the other is known as ‘Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany’, and consists of 14 different sub-sites, mostly in the vicinity of Florence. The most central of these is the Boboli Gardens, which sits in the grounds of the well-known Pitti Palace. Designed as a pleasure garden, it resembled in some ways the garden of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, with water features and neatly organised paths and hedgerows. We stood for a while and watched a heron catch a fish in an ornamental pool.
Included in our gardens ticket was entry to the Silver Museum in the Pitti Palace – though not, unfortunately, the Palatine Gallery. Nevertheless I was impressed with the Baroque ceilings, such as this one by Giovanni Mannozzi that is painted to give the effect of a view into the Heavens. Note that it is not just the circle in the centre that is a painting – all of the apparent architectural embellishments around it are simply 2D representations of a 3D world. The ability to produce that effect I find a very impressive skill.
We had time for one more sight before heading back to the airport for the flight home. Located near to our hotel, the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella is the oldest of the great churches of Florence, consecrated in 1420. Inside hangs an early Crucifix by Giotto, who was really the first great artist connected with the Renaissance.
More impressive, to my mind, is the so-called Spanish Chapel, with its 14th century fresco cycle depicting the Passion of Christ on one side and personification of the Liberal Arts and Virtues on the other. Unfortunately the main work that I had been led by Gombrich to expect in the Basilica was out for restoration: The Holy Trinity by Masaccio (a nickname which means ‘clumsy Thomas’) was painted in the early 15th century and is one of the first works to demonstrate a knowledge of the laws of perspective – ie. vanishing points constructed in a precise manner.
There are many other treasures in Florence that we were unable to fit in. As I find myself saying so often, a return trip is in order. With Florence I think I am certain to be true to my word, since I do very much want to see Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel (the ‘first’ Renaissance building) the Bargello museum and the Palatine Gallery, as well as the 12 other villas and gardens in and around the city that make up the Medici villas World Heritage Site.