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)

Archive for the ‘Florence 2005’ Category

The Uffizi, Florence, 28.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 30, 2006

Tina and Thorolf had paperwork to sort out with AMEX in Florence, while we had tickets for the Uffizi so we drove into Arezzo and took the train again. It was a crisp and hazy morning, so after we’d gone our separate ways Tim and I took a sight-seeing tour on a bus. Alas, the driver conformed to all those stereotypes about Italian drivers and hurtled through the city at break-neck speed, pausing only at Piazza Michelangelo for us to admire yet another David…

Once inside the Uffizi, however, all was forgiven. What an amazing collection! I loved the pale faces of the Botticelli maidens, the massive statuary (even if it is mostly only Roman copies) and my favourite: the Tribune Room with its mother-of-pearl dome. It is a little unfortunate that this room is arranged so that visitors can only walk around the perimeter of the room with the statuary fenced off in the middle, so it’s not possible to stand there and see the pictures properly, but still, this is where the famous Bronzinos are, and it was a treat to see them. One of my favourite souvenir bookmarks at home is of Eleonora of Toledo, and now at last I could see the whole painting in all its glory, as well as the enchanting portrait of little Bia Medici, gazing solemnly out at the world.


Eleanor of Toledo with her son Giovanni by Bronzino (Source: Wikipedia, Google Art Project)

There were Canalettos too, but not as fine as the ones in the Wallace Collection, and the Caravaggios are very badly lit. As seems to be usual in Italy, the Uffizi gallery guards/guides seem to do very little of either, and are so nonchalant that anyone could deface or damage these beautiful artworks and still they would be absorbed in their mobile phone calls or the fashion magazines they read while on duty. I love Italy and its relaxed attitudes to many things, but their care of world heritage artworks is scandalous.

We had lunch at the Uffizi cafe, where a most officious waitress was kept busy ejecting tourists who didn’t understand the rules about paying extra to have a seat at a table. The view is splendid, right over the roof tops of the city, and it was good to rest our weary feet!

In the afternoon we went to San Croce. The church was full of scaffolding but that didn’t prevent us admiring the monuments of many illustrious men (and one woman, Florence Nightingale). Rossini, Dante, Galileo, Machiavelli and of course Michelangelo are all there, with the most amazing statuary above their tombs, and there are also beautiful frescoes by Giotto.

Within the monastery one can also contemplate the cowl and girdle of S. Francis (maybe), and there is also a school for leatherworkers, with wares for sale. Tim had already bought a rather swish leather jacket in the morning, so we weren’t tempted.

We took the late train back to Arezzo, but were unable to reserve seats and Tim ended up standing for most of the way, impervious to my offers to swap seats. My hero then drove us back to Monterchi in the dark, and a quiet dinner at home.

Next, off to Positano!

Posted in ArtLovers pilgrimage, Europe 2005, Florence 2005, Italy 2005, ScienceLovers pilgrimage | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

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 façade 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 perspective 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 façade, 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 café 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 façade of the Basilica is really ordinary (apparently no one has ever been willing to pay to have a façade 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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