FIRENZE, ITALY – winter 2012-13

“Open my heart and you will see,

Graved inside of it, ‘Italy.’ “

–Robert Browning-

Each time I visit Florence, Italy I’m transformed  from a conventional, workaholic American into an impassioned, flamboyant, susceptible creature  – something like young Miss Lucy Honeychurch in E. M. Forster’s “A Room With a View” (see the delightful 1985 Merchant/Ivory movie starring Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands).

A pilgrimage to Florence isn’t just a chance to see the greatest Western art and architecture, to drool at the jewels on the Ponte Vecchio and or to eat the perfect plate of pasta, it’s a chance for all the pleasure points in the brain to fire off until you barely recognize your old, ordinary self. Utopian artists believed that beauty could transform the soul of the viewer and that’s what can happen to you in Florence.

That beauty starts on the extravagant shopping street, Via Tournabuoni. For just an instant, I really wished my fairy Godmother would wave a magic wand to style me in something daring and luscious, created by someone named Pucci, Gucci or  Caputi.

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The Florentines invented the Florin, the gold coin that became the banking currency all over 13th century Europe. You’d need a lot of Florins to buy these shoes whose price tag hovers up around $2,000 – medical attention for your fractured ankle not included.

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A lot of this season’s sparkle is aimed at your feet…

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…or around a graceful neck.

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Angela Caputi’s dazzling plastic jewelry is fit for a Contessa.
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Pucci, smoochi!

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Anything I wanted to buy in Florence cost more than the price of the whole trip. I had to remind myself I wasn’t there for crass 21st century conspicuous consumption –  I was there for lavish 14th and 15th century conspicuous consumption led by those fashionistas, the Medici.

Florence is one big Medici open house. Start at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi (via Camillo Cavour, 3) designed by Michelozzo between 1445-1460 and built for Cosimo de’ Medici who took over the banking business from his Dad in 1434. This palace is a lovely example of  understated elegance compared to what you’ll see next in Florence.  The  display of wealth is hidden inside the elaborate private family chapel where Cosimo commissioned  painter Benozzo Gozzoli (from 1459 to 1461) to fresco all four walls with the story of the procession of the three kings to Bethlehem (the Magi Chapel). And who do the kings bring with them?  The Medici family, of course, plus an impressive array of who’s who in the Renaissance world. Gozzoli even paints himself into the scene.

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There’s great attention to detail in these frescos, such as this falcon disemboweling a hare.

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The eco-friendly live Christmas tree in the courtyard only lights up if you hop on the bicycle and pedal like crazy to generate electricity yourself.

Waldemar bicycle powering the Christmas lights at Palazzo Medici Ricardi

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Like Bernie Madoff, the  Medici became so powerful they ran into trouble with the law and with public opinion. The fanatical priest Savonarola led the popular revolt against them in favor of a Florentine Republic in 1494. Once the Medici were exiled, Savonarola faced his own lethal reckoning for false prophesies and generally stirring things up.  He was tortured, hanged and burned at the stake!

Less than 50 years later the Medici made a come-back.  Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici moved into the huge crenellated fortress/town hall that housed the ruling body of Florence (Palazzo della Signoria). He hired painter and architect Giorgio Vasari to enlarge and redecorate to wretched excess.  The majestic Hall of the 500 is host to massive Vasari murals depicting the triumphant Florentines slaughtering their neighbors in Siena and Pisa.

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There’s plenty of good wholesome fun for the whole family here.

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Ouch!

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In the pre-A.S.P.C.A. days Duke Cosimo kept real lions locked up in the Palazzo so he could stage entertaining maulings for visiting dignitaries, like the Pope.

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Throughout the Palazzo, whether in public rooms or private family rooms, there’s an abundance of glorious, sexy frescos. For a pick and choose tour of these magnificent artworks, go to the new Google Art Project: http://www.googleartproject.com/it/collection/palazzo-vecchio-museum.

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Can you out grow a palace? While living in the Palazzo della Signoria, Duke Cosimo’s beautiful wife Eleonora di Toledo bought Palazzo Pitti across the Arno River in 1549 (Piazza Pitti 1, 50123, Firenze) and immediately hired Vasari to mansionize. The Pitti became known as the New Palace (Palazzo Nuovo) and Palazzo della Signoria, became known as the old palace (Palazzo Vecchio).

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Eleonora’s portrait by Bronzino hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

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View of the Pitti Palace with the elegant adjoining Boboli Gardens.

The palazzo stayed in the family until the last Medici heir died in 1737.  After that it passed on to any Duke of Tuscany who could pay the bills. Eventually in 1919,  King Victor Emmanuel III presented the palace, its enormous collection of art, silver, jewels, porcelains and carriages, to the nation as a gift.

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Pitti Palace.

 Instead of trooping through all 140 gaudy public rooms, head straight to the Palatine Galleries and the Medici art collection.  Find the room where you’re nearly alone with 5 Raphael paintings while everyone else is still standing in line across the river at the Uffizi.

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“Portrait of Agnolo Doni”, 1506, by Raphael.

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Not every male Medici could go into the family banking business; some were forced to join the church and make good there. Pope Leo X (born Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici) spent most of his papacy resisting the Reformation and Martin Luther.  The second Medici Pope, Clement VII (born Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici and a cousin of Pope Leo X) was asleep at the wheel while Charles V sacked Rome. He also let Henry VIII slip through his fingers over that Anne Boleyn affair. However, poor Pope Clement did one thing right, he commissioned Michelangelo to design the Laurentian Library at the Basilica di San Lorenzo in 1523  – a study in exquisite Renaissance harmony (Piazza San Lorenzo no. 9, 50123, Firenze, http://www.bml.firenze.sbn).

Laurentian LIbrary by Michelangelo
The library holds 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 early printed books and holds special exhibitions. It is only open mornings.

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It takes brainpower to unravel the twisted history of the Medici, so it’s important to nourish your brain at restaurant ZEB (via San Miniato #2, Oltrarno, Firenze 50100, 055/2342864 – mangia@zebgastronomia.com)  In this quiet neighborhood on the other side of the Arno, take a seat at what feels like a sushi bar. By 1pm  the chef has brought out dish after dish of fragrant Florentine country-style dishes. Just point to whatever you want.  If you don’t feel like eating what you see ( you must be temporarily unhinged), you can order from a selection of  delicate home-made pastas of the day.

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Eggplant Parmesan, carmelized onions and a mystery green vegetable were satisfyingly tasty.

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Wish I had room for the meatballs.

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The chocolate rum pear cake was succulent and intense.

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While you’re on the Oltrarno side,  it’s a luxury to take a moment at the  Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine (Cappella Brancacci, Piazza del Carmine, Firenze). The church was founded in 1268.  By Duke Cosimo’s time, he and Vasari couldn’t wait to get their hands on this old church to modernize it. Then in 1771 a fire consumed much of the original church. That little bit that was saved from the 15th century is a treasure –  striking frescos by Masaccio and Masolino from 1423 (restored by Filippino Lippi in 1481-1483), depict the story of St. Peter in a touching, human way that still resonates with us more than 500 years later.

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“Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden” is one of my favorite scenes in the fresco cycle.

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Although Galileo was brought to trial in Rome after the last of the 4 Medici Popes had already passed into the next world, Galileo’s brilliant inventions and observations were a product of  the spike in intellectual curiosity nurtured in Medici Florence. The Galileo Museum is a peaceful island in a sea of tourists (Piazza de Guidici, 1). There are no lines here. It’s just between you and Galileo to put the universe right. Cover your eyes when you get to the gruesome reliquary holding a few of Galileo’s chopped off fingers! Stick with the armillary collection, instead!

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 In 1294 the Florentine city council approved the design for a larger, grander church of Santa Maria del Fiore in the center of Florence. 142 years later, a dozen architects from Giotto to Brunelleschi later, and with the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici, the  Duomo, the symbol of Florence,  finally opened for business and for confession in 1436. 

The Duomo in Florence, Italy

Next door to the Duomo is the Museo dell’Opera Di Santa Maria del Fiore (Piazza del Duomo, 9). Here’s where they keep all the masterpieces of carving and metalwork that had to be removed from the Duomo to protect them from the mosh pit of visiting tourists. There’s no snaking lines here, just unobscured views of breathtaking, precious artworks such as this St. John the Baptist silver and enameled altar.

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Ghilberti’s original Old Testament themed Gates of Paradise, once part of the Florence Baptistry, are now safe in here.

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FOR EXTRA CREDIT. If you’ve read way too many Dan Brown novels and you have time to spare,  you could take a short field trip to Vinci, Leonardo’s hometown in the Tuscan countryside (about 35 km west of Florence).

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The first thing you’ll want to do is buy a T-shirt so you can strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger over  your love of  Vitruvian Man.

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There’s a small Leonardo museum (Museo Leonardiano) with 1950’s era models of his inventions: catapults, tanks, spinning bobbins, etc.  Then a few kilometers from Vinci is the house where Leonardo was born. Watch out for Leonardo as a 3D hologram/replicant who miraculously speaks English and explains why he left so many projects unfinished.  He blames it all on his undiagnosed attention deficit disorder.

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A great way to end the day is back at the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, the largest Franciscan church in the world and the final resting place for Michelangelo, Galileo, Ghilberti, Machiavelli and Rossini among others.

Stop by in the early evening when there are less crowds – that means more access to the Giotto frescos, the Bronzino paintings and a gorgeous magic hour moment to contemplate the gracefulness of Brunelleschi’s serene Pazzi chapel in the moonrise.

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Buona notte!

2 thoughts on “FIRENZE, ITALY – winter 2012-13

  1. What a triumph!! Brilliantly described, scrumptiously photographed, Firenze looks even more beautiful and magical than I remember it. I’d like to hop on a plane there right now, Alitalia, a glass of prosecco please!

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