Italy 98 p4

Florence and its Duomo

September 13

I don't remember why we decided to take the Rapido bus back to Florence instead of the train. All I know is that we're not about to repeat the experience. The bus driver seemed to think of his vehicle as a formula 1 car. Let's just say that the four of us spent the trip with our nose in a book or newspaper, in order not to look at the road (especially on curves).

The bus dropped us at the Florence train station (once again), whereas Mounya and I armed with a map walked to the convent where we were awaited: the Francescane Missionare di Maria Santissime Nome di Ges? -- we called it the Carmine (piazza Santa Maria delle Carmine, 05 5-21-38-56). There we were given the key to the apartment we had rented, via dell'Orto 13: we were excited to discover a charming kitchen and wonderful bathroom (Mounya was happy) as well as a large CD player (Karim was happy). On the other hand, the apartment was at the top of a steep flight of stairs (Karim was not so happy.)

We walked back to the station and found a bus that would bring us closer to the apartment (it was over about a kilometer away from the station, we couldn't possibly carry our luggage all that way). The Florence buses are really cute. They look like they fell off a key chain. Most of the cars we saw in this city are proportional to the buses, as you can see in this picture where a car is parked among motorcycles...

Once the luggage were safely stored in the apartment, we went to prowl the streets in search of food. We were starved but unfortunately it was Sunday, and Italians take their holidays very seriously... Luck smiled on us though, and we found an open pizzeria via Frediano, close to the apartment -- from what we had seen, the only open establishment in the city. There was a reason for that. We weren't particularly bright that day, or we would have discovered it at once, but it's not until the cashier started talking in Arabic that we understood that it was an Egyptian pizzeria. When they discovered we were Lebanese they charged us less. Lebanese and Egyptians are on particularly good terms.

September 14

After shopping for groceries we strolled to the Ponte Vecchio, Florence's oldest and most famous bridge. The present bridge was rebuilt in 1345 after the original one was destroyed. The Ponte Vecchio is lined with shops of goldsmith and jewellers, with 3 arches replacing them in its middle. In the 16th century, a corridor was built above the shops, linking the Palazzo Pitti (on the south shore) to the Palazzo Vecchio (on the north shore). It was the only Florentine bridge to survive World War 2; the corridor was damaged when the German blew up the old neighborhoods on both sides of the bridge. Bloody gobshites blew up Bramante's House of Raphael as well!

It's unfortunate that our History of Art and Architecture class covered the Renaissance after our trip to Florence, because we passed by monuments of enormous importance without looking twice. San Lorenzo is the best example: it is the church where Brunelleschi, to put it very simply, invented perspective. Perspective ratios had never been used as essential elements of stylistic consideration before. In other words, everything we know about perspective drawing today is derived from this building. Well, we were shopping for food that morning, and we caught a glimpse of a church the facade of which had never been decorated, very rough-looking. San Lorenzo, said Mounya's guide, so we peeked inside to see if the visit was worth the price of it... and we decided there was nothing interesting about it and proceeded to buy some butter. Don't say it... ARGH!

Somewhere between the north end of the Ponte Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria, in via Corso, is an ice-cream parlour called Festival del Gelato which offers 90 flavors... We were faithful clients during our stay.

See this construction across the Ponte Vecchio? That, is the most astounding church I know. It is the magnificent and incomparable Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo of Firenze.

 Naturally, the Duomo has been surpassed in time, notably by St Peter's in Rome, but SMF can boast a status of pioneer of the Renaissance alongside the great masters who have built and decorated it. For a full idea of the significance of Brunelleschi and SMF in the history of Italian Renaissance architecture, read this article. Here I'll simply mention the Dome's statistics: 463 steps (Brunelleschi had a cafeteria built at the summit so that the workers wouldn't lose time going down for meals), spanning 45m (140 feet), and no book wants to tell me its height. All I know is that it's higher than 85m (255 feet). The cathedral can shelter a crowd of 20,000.

Florence from the lantern, with a close-up of the belltower.

The Palazzo Vecchio and Michelangelo's Adam
September 15

The Palazzo Vecchio stands at the corner of the Piazza della Signoria, facing the Loggia della Signoria - a public expression of the private loggia-feature that existed in every palazzo. It now shelters famous statues among which the Rape of the Sabines; before the Palazzo itself proudly stands Michelangelo's Adam, beside a large fountain populated by classical figures which seem to wryly tolerate the pigeons nesting all over them.

The typology of this palace is a city hall, and this kind of building never existed before the early Renaissance. It may look rather coarse, but that is deliberate. When Italian society developed away from the feudal system, Florence found itself govern by a handful of very important families. Riots were common and necessitated a semi-fortification of these families' houses. Since these were merchant families, they needed to live on top of their work: the ground floors were storehouses for goods, and the palace was both office and warehouse. The Palazzo Vecchio establishes a special architectural type: a fortified appearance from the street, a belltower for warning, ground floor windows that are small and high up for protection, a central court for light and air, and a water well in case of a lasting riot.

The Palazzo is huge and one of the few things I remember clearly is a series of four rooms dedicated to illustrious women respectively from Antiquity, the Old Testament, mythology and Florentine history: the Sabines (for their pacifying role), Esther (who saved her people and became queen), Penelope (for her faithfulness to Ulysses), and Gualdrada (a young Florentine of such virtue that she refused to let emperor Otto IV kiss her, reserving this privilege to her husband). From the roof, we enjoy the elevated view of Santa Maria del Fiori that I showed you earlier.

September 16

In the afternoon we went for a stroll in the Boboli gardens. These wonderful gardens seem to be all about getting lost and running in circles. If these walls had been of bricks instead of hedges, we would be inside a most unbearable, sanity-threatening building. Strange that men tolerate outdoors what would be their nightmare indoors.

At the very back of the gardens, we look upon the Tuscan countryside. Literally! The view creates an amazing feeling of being very far from the city, so serene is the landscape. We and the other visitors are so absorbed by our contemplation that the loud mowing a few feet away from us goes unnoticed.

Gazing out onto the Tuscan countryside
Santa Croce

We went to visit Santa Croce before going home. There are buried (or at least cenotaphed) Dante Aligherio, Machiavelli (who actually looks like a very gentle little man), Rossini, Galileo and Michelangelo, among others. The tombs in themselves are worth the visit, they are so beautifully sculpted. The church also boasts a fragment of the cloth of St Francis of Assisi. This tenuous contact with great men of the past moves me deeply, as it brings down the realisation that we are indeed of the same world.

September 17

The Bargello is a relatively small museum nearby the Piazza della Signoria, but it has extremely interesting pieces, especially works of Donatello.

Santa Maria Novella
September 18

We leave tonight for Paris. We left for last the Gallerie degli Uffizi, but they are so huge, and we are so tired and saturated, that we don't see much of them. Botticcelli's Spring and Birth of Venus stick in my mind, as well as several works by Leonardo da Vinci which I didn't know, and a small Raphael cherub. The rest is a blur, and soon we give up and go have a rest in the garden facing Santa Maria Novella, the last monument to see before returning to the railway station of the same name. Santa Maria Novella evokes another great name of the Early Renaissance: Alberti, as well as his principle of conformità which I explained in the second part of this article. Notice the volutes on the facade: they are inspired from those on the lantern of Brunelleschi's Dome, which became important elements of facade design afterwards. Finally, notice the pilasters framing the corners of the facade, creating an end to the church and making it impossible to change anything in the design: this was in keeping with another famous rule, Alberti's principle of beauty: "Nothing can be added, changed or removed except for the worst".

On those words, let us leave Italy in our night-train, with our masks and luggage, and hope to come back, some day...