Note: In case you aren't a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio or the greater tri-state area, the title of this post is a reference to a water tower over Florence, Kentucky, a town just across the Ohio River. It once read "Florence Mall" but you're not allowed to advertise on water towers so they changed it to everyone's favorite southern contraction.
Photos of Tuscany in all her Renaissance and terracotta glory. They're also at the end for your viewing pleasure.
Florence. The city of the Medicis. The place that gave birth to re-birth. Home to Michelangelo, Machiavelli, DaVinci, Donatello, Giotto, and Botticelli. We had a lot to see, and our feet were starting to rebel against our perpetual walking. They would just have to deal.
Florence was our first real “Italian” big city. Milan felt slightly German. Verona is pretty small, and Venice is in a class of its own. Being in an Italian city means there’s a constant feeling of being near a boiling point. At any moment the chaos of traffic and shouting might reach a critical point of no return. No one knows what happens when it all boils over, but it could at any moment. This would reach its apogee in Naples, but Florence was a good primer as we hiked with our loaded packs along the narrow sidewalks towards our hostel.
Small knots of Florentines in hip-hugger pants walked ahead, stopping to glance in store windows, blocking the pavement and pedestrian traffic flow. We would dodge around, almost get run down by a Vespa then hop back onto the pavement ahead of the gaggle. Then we would be confronted with a pair of Italians walking next to each other. Josh and I would fall into file on the right. They wouldn’t, leaving an awkward squeeze past each other. Such is Italy.
After finally finding out hostel on the outskirts of town (it came equipped with a pool we never used) we dove into town for dinner. I lead a wandering hike through the old part of town where street names mysteriously changed, and street signs even more mysteriously disappeared. Our destination, a homey Tuscan café, was closed, geschlossen. Remember, this is how I roll in Europe. We were getting desperate for sustenance when a piazza opened in front of us with a brick oven pizza place with really cheap house wine. Exactly what we needed.
The next morning we dove into the art. First the Uffizi Gallery, the home of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, some Giotto, the only surviving easel painting by Michelangelo, and an unfinished Visitation of the Magi by DaVinci (he really liked leaving his art half-finished). Venus was surprisingly expressive in person. The Angry Young Man in me tends to be skeptical of “Masterpieces” but often, without knowing the historical importance of a work, I find myself drawn to the works singled out by people more qualified than I am to judge such things. So maybe they really do speak to some universal definition of beauty. Or maybe I have very average taste.
The museum also had an extensive display of Greek and Roman sculpture that goes largely ignored as the modern public hops from gallery to gallery checking off names like Dürer and Lippi (who’s faces draw you into the action). But these sculptures tipped off the Renaissance. Artists in the early 15th century looked at the realistic muscles and said, “Ya know I could do that,” and saved art from centuries of dour Christs and Madonnas.
After watching the Renaissance blossom in front of us, we needed a snack then moved to the Academia or “The Temple of David.” Apparently in July and August, the entrance lines for the Academia and Uffuzi can stretch for hours because the museum’s capacity is tightly regulated. This is not the case in Early May. After our guide books had warned we would need patience and stamina to finally see Michelangelo’s early masterpiece, we thought we had done something wrong when we strolled up to the security gate. We paid our entry fee (Un-Fun Fact about Italy: There are no discounts for non-EU students. Museums are usually engaging, cheap entertainment, but this price-hike makes Italy a significantly more expensive place to wander.) and there he was.
At the end of a long hall lined by Michelangelo’s Prisoners, the unfinished statues intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II, stood one of the icons of Western Art. He is stunning. First of all, he’s huge. At 17 feet he’s boosted by a pedestal that places him on an epic scale. It’s key to note he was originally going to be stuck on the Florentine Cathedral. Thankfully they decided to keep him on ground level. David is relaxed, gripping a stone and sling. Apparently there’s some debate about the scene with some people arguing Michelangelo captured David immediately after killing Goliath. These people have never looked into his eyes.
His face is calculating, calm, but a little worried. He’s doubting his power, but hasn’t lost faith in himself or God. It’s just a healthy fear on his face. He’s not a god himself and divine intervention might be nice. But he’s also poised for action. Just deciding how to win while searching for confidence. The anatomy of the sculpture is perfect (as far as I can tell). No. It’s beautiful. Josh and I must have stood in awe for forty-five minutes walking around the sculpture trying to ignore the constant “No Photo!” from the guards reprimanding unobservant tourists.
After David, it’s hard to look at anything else with much enthusiasm. It’s unequalled. The other Michelangelo sculptures were powerful as the figures struggled to free themselves from the rock. A massive Pieta (unfinished) and a sculpture of St. Matthew (unclear how we know it’s Matt) were mixed in for some variety. The rest of the museum, an extension of a venerable art school (thus the name Academia) featured some medieval triptychs and a room of plaster models and casts that sculptors use as guides when working in marble and molds when working in bronze. Again, sleeping putti and heroic busts really weren’t doing much for us after David.
More sites. I should note that the museums are not the full or half-day investments of other great museums like the Louvre or the Prado. There was still plenty of time left in the day. So we went to the Cathedral. As in Milan, the exterior was much more engaging than the interior. White, green, and pink marble band the outside and the bell tower which is called Giotto’s tower after the proto-Renaissance artist/architect who dreamed it up.
The most important feature of the cathedral is its dome, the first massive dome constructed in over 1000 years. It inspired every dome since, from St. Peters in Rome to the Capital building in the U.S. (the Florentine dome was in turn inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, so you could argue the Pantheon inspired everything else. Except, no one is really sure how the Romans pulled off the Pantheon, so the well documented assembly of the Florentine dome at least gave technical confidence to all the imitators.)
The underside of the dome features a painting of the Last Judgment that you can’t really see unless you climb the dome.
Josh and I opted to save our pennies for the museum. The Cathedral Museum was a very quite place, but featured some pretty impressive stuff, including the first sculpture we had seen by Donatello (our missing turtle). His crazed Habakkuk raised a ruckus when it was unveiled.
Same goes for his desperate Magdalene.
Michelangelo’s nearly complete Pieta, which he intended for his own funerary monument (unclear why it isn’t over his body now), had its own room where you could approach the figures, looking into Michelangelo’s self-portrait as Joseph of Arimathea.
We still didn’t think we had overdosed on Renaissance art, so we walked over to the massive, octagonal baptistery to see the door that kicked off the Renaissance.
Donatello’s teacher won a public competition for the right to cast the doors which depict realistic figures in balanced ensembles with perspective. It’s hard to imagine how revolutionary these techniques must have been to early Renaissance eyes. We assume all these elements are essential. But these viewers were content to let bodies warp into icons and horizons to be none existent. That ‘s not to say the Gothic work isn’t beautiful. Inside the Baptistry, the ceiling was covered with hundreds of figures illustrated with Byzantine mosaic tiles. We sat in a pew and craned our necks to identify the stores of Joseph (thank you musical theater), John the Baptist, and the different choirs of angels.
And the art went on. We needed to wander to Donatello’s outdoor masterpieces and his contemporary sculptors who were self-confident artists rather than diligent craftsmen. His St. George stands in an alcove, shield in front, hand poised to draw his sword. Looking into George’s eyes you know he’s sizing up his adversary confident he can take the monster, but not quite sure how to do it. Michelangelo grew up with George watching over Florence and David inherited some of George’s poise and expression. Josh and I noticed this. Rick Steves pointed it out, too. We felt ready to teach a seminar on Renaissance art.
Finally we wandered to the old town hall where David once towered over the Florentine councilmen. Now a replica stands in the original spot. Since we couldn’t take a picture with David in the Academia, we wanted to get one on the square with the replica. We carefully selected our photographer. She was carefully framing her own shot, dancing around the square for the perfect David shot in a large floppy pink hat, a kind neighborhood cat-lady on vacation. We asked if she could take our photo. She rattled of a few sentences in French. We nodded and smiled and pointed at the shutter button. She flitted a way, her hat settling into the bounce of her step. The camera turned itself off after a few seconds. She was confused and gesticulated widely. Josh got it started up again. She then took our picture. And another one, chatting the whole time, maybe narrating her adventures. Or cursing out names.
Finally we found food, a massive baked pasta dish at “Yellow Bar,” and a cheap liter of wine to split. After a stop at an Irish Pub where we continued our conversation about art, life, history, and dogs we returned to the hostel, the last ones in after tackling the historical scope of Florence in a single day. We would be the first ones up, too. A leaning tower was waiting for us…
The photo album for your viewing pleasure. Sorry there aren't any pictures of the art, but I understand the need to preserve the works and cash in on post card revenue.