Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Florence 25.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 11, 2006

 Planning to visit Florence from Monterchi via Arezzo was the only real mistake we made on this trip. We were led to believe that getting from Monterchi to the train station at Arezzo was just a short trip in the car, when in fact it took more like 35 minutes and was generally a nightmare. Driving us into Arezzo for our two trips there was also an imposition on our friends, Tina and Thorolf, because they had to drop us off and collect us. Next time, we shall find a nice hotel in Florence…
The train journey was easy enough, however, and it was only a short walk through the market to the Duomo. It’s an odd feeling to come around the corner from a place full of 21st century tourist junk to one of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in the world. Brunelleschi’s dome is truly enormous (and dominates the entire skyline, as we saw later from Piazza Michelangelo) and the marble facade in white, green and pink marble is exquisite.  After a momentary wait, we had no difficulty in getting a close look at Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, which may only be copies, but are still very beautiful. I do wonder what the omnipresent Japanese tourists make of the religious symbolism in such things as these. They’re probably just as confused as I would be if I tried to make sense of their religion and culture from a guide book…at least with a Christian education, all but the most arcane of the biblical stories are vaguely familiar to us. These ‘Gates of Paradise’ are said to be the first truly Renaissance art, and its the persepctive that makes them so. Somehow the illusion of depth in the panels makes all the images come alive in a way that the flat and often gaudy artworks of earlier periods can never do. What an inspired choice to complete them all in gilded bronze rather than multi-coloured – so much more tasteful!
 Having gawped at the front facade, we went around to the south side and admired Giotto’s Campanile. In panels on the walls, are niches with dear little relief carvings of all sorts of subjects at the different levels of the tower. On the lower (hexagonal) level is the history of mankind, (according to Genesis, that is). There’s the Creation and the Labours of Man, including artisans of all kinds; the liberal arts: Navigation, Social Justice, Agriculture, Art of festivals and architecture (Euclid); and the Arts: Sculpture, Painting, Harmony, Grammar, Logic and Dialectic Philosophy (Plato and Aristotle), Music and Poetry (Orpheus), Geometry and Arithmetic (Euclid – who gets two spots – and Pythagoras).
Up above on the ‘lozenges’ there are allegories – the planets on the west side, virtues on the south, sacraments on the north and my favourites, the liberal arts on the south side: Astronomy, Music, Geometry, Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, and Arithmetic. Most of them are attributed to Andrea Pisano, but of course all the originals are in the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, just around the corner. These carvings are delightful, showing the lives and work of ordinary Florentines in intricate detail, and it’s surprising how little there is about them in the guide books. I liked the artisans best of all.
On the other side of the road there are massive statues of Brunelleschi and Arnolfo di Cambio, who was actually the one in charge of the construction of the cathedral but he doesn’t get as much recognition as Brunelleschi. Beyond the statues there’s the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, and to our astonishment it was queue free and only 6 euros entry fee! There we saw the real doors (but only 8 of the panels, why was that?) and I enjoyed being able to see the panels close enough to dredge up from memory what the scenes represented.
I was intrigued to find Michelangelo’s Pieta on the staircase, utterly unlike the Vatican one, (with just Mary and Jesus, in white marble), but rather a group of four in a sombre light brown marble: Jesus and Mary, and standing behind, Nicodemus, (who helped prepare the body for burial – and whose face might be Michelangelo’s self-portrait), and an unfinished female – was she going to be Mary Magdalene? Apparently Michelangelo didn’t like the quality of the marble so he didn’t finish the sculpture, and it’s true, it’s not as beautiful as the Vatican Pieta.
There were plenty of sculptures by Donatello, some by Lucca, and a lovely group of children playing musical instruments but I forgot to note the artist in my journal. In this gallery there were students sketching, which was nice to see, especially since it wasn’t crowded and everyone there seemed peaceful and respectful.
One of the sculptures was astonishingly modern in style. Desiderio da Sattignano was one of Donatello’s pupils, and his Maddalena is a shaggy, drooping, forlorn figure, with stringy bits of hair like rags hanging from her. It was brilliant, I thought.
Downstairs there were things from Brunelleschi’s workshop: his tools, pulleys and winches, and lots of models of the Duomo at various stages in its construction up to its latest restoration. I love models like this – it reminded me of the tiny opera sets at the Musee D’Orsay. The Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo is a beaut museum and we really enjoyed it.
After that we had coffee and a pastry at the first (and only) self-service restaurant we were to use in Italy. We weren’t impressed. The waiter tried to charge us twice for the pasta and had to be reminded to bring us our macchiati. It’s around the corner from the Accademia, and isn’t recommended.
Despite our reservations for 12.00 noon, we had to queue till 12.30 to get into the Accademia, but counted ourselves lucky to be getting in at all. Was it worth it? Yes, of course it was. Most of the other artworks are no big deal, but David is magnificent. I know there are lifesize copies all over Florence, but seeing the real thing is worth any amount of queueing.
He’s huge but gorgeous, with massive hands, fingernails and muscles. When he was sculpted in the 16th century, his height – at 17 feet tall – would have made him even more of a giant, than he is to us in the era of 8 foot basketballers. I like the wit behind this kind of artistic irony and double-meaning, the man dwarfed by Goliath in the bible being a giant himself and built like a real muscleman.
We also saw some superb choir books decorated with gold and coloured mosaics so tiny you could only see the separate pieces by looking through the magnifying glasses they had as part of the display. How ever did they do such work?
The Plaster Room was full of casts from the workroom of Bartolini. I found a bust of Franz Lizst but not Byron, although he was there somewhere. Machiavelli was as I imagined him after reading ‘The Prince’ at home before we left – a full size sculpture, wearing C15th century robes and holding a book, and he has a sensitive and compassionate face. He didn’t deserve to have his name become the symbol of political cynicism, not at all. Mind you, I’m not sure how Bartolini did his subject’s features since he lived from 1777-1850…
 After that, we were ready for a restorative lunch. We found a congenial little cafe and had simple pasta and gnocchi although our macciati turned out to be US style … at least the young waiter had the grace to look embarrassed when I scraped off all the milk and chocolate… By sheer good luck we then found a bookshop called Melbooks … and of course we stopped for a browse and found a couple more books to tide me over the next few days… After that we wandered through a beautiful cloistered courtyard, an oasis of peace and quiet, away from the tourists and the smokers, to find the Basilica di San Lorenzo.  The facade of the Basilica is really ordinary (apparently no one has ever been willing to pay to have a facade added) but inside is superb. The Stations of the Cross are huge, fitting perfectly into position in the nave, which leads to a massive dome designed by Buontalenti. It has lovely bright frescoes with God the Father looking positively avuncular among the putti.
There are two impressive pulpits on marble columns depicting scenes from the Passion and the Resurrection by Donatello, and a fantastic huge fresco by Bronzino of the martyrdom of St Lawrence – it’s so full of figures I couldn’t work out what was going on, but I liked it anyway.
In one of the side chapels, we saw our first real relic – the skeleton (complete with crown) lying with only head and feet exposed in a surprisingly small silver casket with a velvet covering. He must only have been about 5 feet tall. I think he was S. Zenobio; I should have written it down, but by then perhaps I was suffering from Stendhal’s Syndrome!
I found myself thinking about how much the nuns and priests of my childhood would have loved the power and magnificence of this church, tucked away behind a really ordinary facade. The main altar is exquisite, with delicate and graceful marble mosaics, beautifully coloured and arranged, and there are so many beautiful paintings of subjects that would have been dear to their hearts.
We wandered about, marvelling at the funerary monuments here too: the entire Medici family (as far as I could tell) and Donatello as well.
When we’d had enough, we set off to the San Lorenzo museum, but couldn’t find the entrance. It was probably just as well because we were really tired by then and it was getting late. We headed for a little piazza and garden in front of the Santa Maria Novella church, after which the railway station is named.
The ride back to Arezzo was fun. We chatted to some friendly students about Australia, and Tim made silly jokes about kangaroos killing people. We practised our Italian, and they practised their English, and for once, our skills were about equal.
A marvellous day.

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