Sunday, 1 September 2013

Elegant Florence

Lovely Florence, cultured and elegant, full to the brim with artworks of global significance, peaceful and residential. First, a geographical and historical context for what I experienced: Florence  is the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany and of the province of Florence.

 Situated on the Arno River, it is the most populous city in Tuscany, with approximately 370,000 inhabitants, expanding to over 1.5 million in the metropolitan area. It was known as accommodating the most powerful Italian bankers.
Florentines financed the development of industry all over Europe, from Britain to Bruges, to Lyon, to Hungary. They financed the English kings during the Hundred Years War. They financed the papacy, including the construction of the papal palace in Avignon and the reconstruction of St. Peters and the Vatican when the papacy returned to Rome.

 During this time, the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola had become prior of the San Marco monastery in 1490. Known for penetential sermons and stirring up trouble  He blamed the exile of the Medicis as the work of God, punishing them for their decadence. He seized the opportunity to carry through political reforms leading to a more democratic rule. But when Savonarola publicly accused Pope Alexander VI (Roderigo Borgia) of corruption, he was banned from speaking in public. When he broke this ban, he was excommunicated. The Florentines, tired of his extreme teachings, turned against him and arrested him. He was convicted as a heretic and burned at the stake on the Piazza della Signoria on 23 May 1498.

The emblem on the corner of this building is Medici showing a pope's 'tiara' at the top. This family contributed two popes.

The Medici's who governed Florence for a couple of hundred years changed the world. Forget all the art for which they paid. They taught first the other Italians how to conduct state-craft, and then they taught the rest of the Europeans. Catherine de Medici (1519-1589), married Henry II of France. After he died, Catherine ruled France as regent for her young sons. She brought the Renaissance into France, introducing the chateaux of the Loire and even the fork. Her children included three kings of France, Francis II (ruled 1559-1560), Charles IX (ruled 1560-1574) and Henry III (ruled 1574-1589). Her children-in-law included a fourth king of France, Henry IV (ruled 1589-1610), plus Elizabeth of Hapsburg, Philip II of Spain (of Armada fame), and Mary Queen of Scots.

Florence is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance. It has some of the most important museums and art galleries in the world. How best to see all this? Well you can't on a short stay of less than 2 days, which is all we had but we had a good go at cramming in as much as we could. Our first glimpse of Florence was from the Piazzale Michelangelo.

Piazzale Michelangelo (Michelangelo square) plaza on a hilltop offers a great view of the city (go there by bus) or climb the stairs and paths from the Lungarno della Zecca.It's centred by a group of bronze figures cast from the original sculptures by Michelangelo (David etc). The day was hazy so the panorama was a bit muted. It had a calmnest and affluence missing in Rome.

Santa Croce Basilica is the largest Franciscan church in the world and contains the monumental tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante (cenotaph only), and many other notables in addition to artistic decorations. There is also great artwork in the church. This is a must do. Work was begun on the church in 1294 but it wasn't consecrated until 1443. Since that time there has been a bit of remodelling but the beauty remains. Donatello and Machiavelli are recognised. There are sixteen chapels, many of them decorated with frescoes by Giotto and his pupils. It's worth noting that you CAN take photos in here, unlike many Italian churches though bare shoulders are frowned on.

In 1966, the Arno River flooded much of Florence, including Santa Croce. The water entered the church bringing mud, pollution and heating oil. The damage to buildings and art treasures was severe, taking several decades to put right.
Piazza Signoria has lots of cafes surrounding the plaza, but what makes Piazza Signoria special is the abundance of statues. The statues represent antique renaissance art including a copy of Michael Angelo’s David. There's also the Neptune fountain shown here. Just along from Neptune is a bronze of Cosimo I de Medici on horseback (1594). This square is surrounded by old palaces.
 Ponte Vecchio the oldest and most famous bridge over the Arno; the only Florentine bridge to survive WW2. The Ponte Vecchio is lined with shops, traditionally mostly jewellers since the days of the Medici and during high season you can hardly find space to stand. Although it's famous it's best viewed from a distance and doesn't contain shops suitable for most tourists.

Uffizi Gallery is one of the most famous fine art museums with collections of Renaissance paintings and sculptures from classical antiquity. Included is The Birth of Venus by Sandro Boticelli.It didn't impress me. Its colours are not vivid. In fact by this time I was pretty blase standing in front of a da Vinci or Botticelli, or Lippi or Raphael.

In the 16th century, during the Renaissance, Florence was the hometown of political writer and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, whose ideas on how rulers should govern the land, detailed in The Prince (some say modelled on Cesare Borgia), spread across European courts and enjoyed enduring popularity for centuries. These principles became known as Machiavellianism. 

The spiritual focus of the city is the Cathedral and Piazza of Santa Maria del Fiore, with Giotto's campanile on one side and the Baptistry of St John in front, with the Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
We didn't step inside the great Cathedral, no time. The campanile or bell tower is impressive and you can go up in it if you want to.

Palazzo Vecchio is another must see. It was begun in 1294 and intended as a palace-fortress. The clock mechanism dates from 1667. Near the doorway are marble statues to hold chains. There's also a copy of Michelangelo's David.
It is the Florence Town Hall and is one of the most significant public places in Italy. It's chocka with art commissioned by the Medicis, apartments and a magnificent meeting room of murals by Giorgio Vasari  - the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundreds) - the hall which used to display the now lost Renaissance masterpiece Battaglia di Anghiari, by Leonardo da Vinci.

This is a treasure-trove of the best art, most impressive rooms and in such a great condition (for the most part. We did not see Donatello's Judith in bronze which has been restored but there's literally floor to ceiling beauty everywhere.

Next stop Venice.


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