Listen up, folks. I just got back from a week of viewing sacred art in Florence. What did I find in the Times travel Section, but “What’s Doing In Florence?” Are they following me around? Furthermore, the first hotel they recommend is the one where we stayed.
Now, I’m not kidding, this has happened three times in the past year, so be aware that THIS travel writer is “au courant.”
The fact that Florence is a living museum is due to the determination of a woman named Anna Maria Louisa de Medici – the last of her family – who, despite pressures to the contrary, left the privately owned Medici art treasures to the people of Florence and the World. Quoting her directive: “on the express condition that they are to serve both the state, for the benefit of the public, and to arouse the interest of foreigners, and none of it may be removed from the capital and the state of the Grand Duchy.”
Although she did not enjoy a very good reputation, and nothing of her personal self is preserved, you can walk over behind San Lorenzo, and its market on your next visit, on the way around the church to the Medici chapel, and take a look at her statue. It hasn’t been there long, she is kind of an afterthought, but at least Florence has finally made a small gesture of gratitude toward its unsung benefactor. History should be kinder to her.
I extolled her virtues many times during our week’s visit, in fact I prayed for her on the many opportunities I had observing and comparing the glorious frescoes of Florence’s church.
A frenzy of glorious stories told in the subtle colors of Brancacci, or of Giotto, or Cimabue, or Gozzoli, or the crowning glory: The Legend of The True Cross by Piero della Francesca, still swims in my head.
This was a trip to concentrate on art in churches, so as you can imagine, we viewed a huge number of frescoes. Frescoes were in a way the cartoons of their day. However, they rose to a much higher level of artistic competence than what we currently see as cartoons,
When most people could neither read nor write, these marvelous wall paintings told the population stories. Most of these stories were religious in nature, and most had to do with the life of Christ.
Because of the fact that the fresco form lasts much longer than almost anything else, we moderns now have incredibly well preserved examples of the quattrocento and the cinquecentro art of Florence (those wonderfully fluid words mean fourteenth and fifteenth century, respectfully.)
Our small group did indeed stay at the Loggiato dei Serviti Hotel on the Piazza de Santissima Annuziata. (You might as well learn a few Italian words, because otherwise you’ll get lost a lot.) This is one of the most beautiful squares in Florence, designed with classical curved arches by Brunelleschi, the famous architect who also designed the overpowering Duomo, or cathedral of Florence. The Duomo is the center of Florence, and our hotel was within its sight. It’s hard to miss the Duomo, though it is cramped in among a whole lot of other monumental stuff, with no large piazza to stretch your view.
You can get a good list of all the historic and artistically grand places to visit in Florence from any good guidebook. We used the Eyewitness Travel Guide to Florence and Tuscany, which has good maps and lots of pictures, in addition to socio-cultural material, a few hotels, and some good restaurants. Reading ahead of time for a serious traveler should probably include Mary McCarthy’s classic STONES OF FLORENCE.
Our hotel had a huge amount of character, lots of rooms in odd places, charming help, a gracious breakfast room and a convenient location.
Florence is a small city, and easy to walk. The historical center is full of wonderful streets of shops, the piazzas are full of good architecture, but the museums are full of people. So if they are too crowded for you, just walk the streets and shop. Seriously, it is now possible to get reservations to get into the Ufizzi Palace, the Pitti Palace, and the Bargello, to name three blockbusters. Ask you hotel to help. Florentines know they live in a museum, and are most helpful. Great numbers of people speak English, which puts us to shame.
Shopping in Florence, with its tradition of expert craftsmen, is also very serious business, and must not be ignored. Gloves, purses, and other leather goods are big sellers and for good reason. All the Italian designers are here in huge numbers on the Via Tornabuoni, including Ferragamo, Buccellatti, Bulgari, and Armani.
Food in Florence is best interpreted by the myriad of trattoria in the city. Everyone you talk to has a personal favorite. Mine was from a former visit, and we never got to go back there, peccato. All sorts of eating opportunities await the visitor. One of the most memorable is the find a seat at the sidewalk café on the Piazza della Signoria, called Rivoire. There you can sip a cappuccino and watch tourists, drink in Florentine sculpture, peruse buildings of great age and stature, and pretend you are in a movie set, (which you are.)
We walked all over the city, to the point of exhaustion, and then did some more walking. I have decided that this city has so much depth that it will require another chapter to give you my favorites among the experiences I had on this trip and to give just a hint of the grandeur of Florence.
Betsy Shequine is no art expert but learned a couple of semesters’ worth of Art history, despite the frustration of some typical Italian “chiusos.”