An Italian Travelogue: Florence In Five Days From An Art Afficionado’s POV
By Doug Hall, Contributing Writer, May 23, 2018
A full-frontal assault of sightseeing in Italy’s capital of the Renaissance — Florence.
Not for the faint-hearted and leisurely paced, but my wife and I took on the daunting task of showing her Taiwanese family the greatest hits of the Renaissance in Florence in five days. Taking a deep breath and with the tools of the internet and our travel-hero’s (Rick Steves) current guide editions of Italy, and specifically Florence – we started planning and filling-up our days.
First, here are some general recommendations from a seasoned traveler (my third trip to Florence):
- Walking: Anytime you are in Europe and will be spending the majority of your time walking on uneven and/or broken cobblestone streets, remember to pack a light hiking boot with a slightly stiff insole (your feet will thank you).
- Maps: Getting around with a hand-held map is useful and handy, but you can also download “Maps To Go” or similar iPhone apps that do not depend on a Wi-Fi signal. You can never get lost in the medieval backstreets again, unless of course, you want to. But don’t forget to download before you leave home, as internet connections can be sketchy.
- Firenze Card: Get your Firenze Card the first day of sightseeing and enjoy free entry to all the major sites and museums for 3 consecutive days. At 72 Euros it pays for itself — even if you don’t plan to visit every highlight, it includes a list of minor sites as well.
- Entrance Lines: Expect lines at all major sites in Florence — get the Firenze Card — you are able to access sites via “short-cut” entrances at most venues. The wait to get into the Uffizi Gallery, for example, in the general entrance line on any given day from April to September can take at least an hour; on weekends you’ll wait even longer. With our Firenze Card on a busy Saturday we waited only 15 minutes and were inside the first gallery moments afterward.
- Museum and site hours: Keep in mind, most museums and sites are closed on Mondays, so plan accordingly.
Florence Day 1: With rain soaking the medieval cobblestone streets and showing no signs of letting up, we headed for the Duomo Gothic Cathedral (construction started in 1296, but wasn’t completed until 1436 A.D.) to gape at the gigantic dome — a radical innovation of design by the temperamental Renaissance genius, architect, engineer and artist extraordinaire Filippo Brunelleschi. The line into the Duomo Cathedral starts forming at 8 a.m. and from an entirely personal opinion, the large, vast, mostly empty space inside, and dimly lit – does not justify the wait. I would recommend spending more time gazing at the grand multi-colored marble exterior (a challenge with crowds, but easier to do early in the morning). So, instead we headed for the completely renovated modern interior design of the Duomo Museum, on the the side of Duomo, and got in quickly to enjoy a collection of highlights in sculpture by period giants: Michelangelo, Donatello, original exterior statues from Giotto’s tower, and the exquisite Baptistry Bronze doors, by the rising-star of bronze work Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Ghiberti labored for over 25 years to complete these two doors from 1425 – 1452. Now, a recognized unparalleled masterpiece of manufacturing skill and artistic creation, the paneled religious scenes from the Bible are astounding in low relief, covered with gold leaf, but create the illusion of depth, referred to by Michelangelo as “the Gates of Paradise.” Along the way, we enjoyed an interactive exhibit, a study of the Duomo dome and the engineering challenges including displays of the original Duomo dome models used by Brunelleschi. He would later decide upon a design of a dome inside a dome. Completed in 1436, Brunelleschi’s dome was the wonder of the age, showing off Florence and as stated by Michelangelo, in later design preparation for St. Peter’s in Rome, “I’ll make its sister…bigger, but not better.” Next, ducking into the Baptistry itself, and still avoiding the rain, the intimate and solemn beauty of this quiet space silences you, as you are awed by the glittering gold ceilings and walls reflecting Byzantine mosaics, particularly looking up at the ceiling where you are dwarfed by a mega-sized Christ looking down, solemnly passing “last Judgement.” A moment of reprieve and peace from outside where the group tours and throngs of tourists are massing.
Florence Day 2: A sunny day starts us off at the 270-foot Campanile Bell Tower standing next to the Duomo Cathedral, begun by the fore-runner of painting in the Renaissance, Giotto(c. 1276-1377). Climbing the 400 steps (take a breath) is well worth the reward, offering the single best view of Brunelleschi’s Dome (at eye level) and a full 360-degree view of Florence with its terracotta tiled roofs and the surrounding Tuscan countryside. Breathtaking – save for a sunny blue-sky day.
Back down the tower, and with a quick 15 minute walk back towards the medieval city-state center, the Piazza Della Signoria, and the looming fortress-like government building, the Palazzo Vecchio (1400s), we first stop at the Bargello Museum (next door) originally the town hall (later a prison) built in 1255, but now a museum offering a fascinating and varied collection. On display are rare Christian religious ceremony objects (jewell-encrusted scepters, orbs, and Bishop’s rings), and particularly a gallery dedicated to Michelangelo with five original sculptures (including a sculpted bust of the man himself — notice the nose, broken flat, in a fist fight with a fellow artist).
Don’t miss Donatello’s bronze sculpture “David” (1440 A.D.), the highest statement of Renaissance bronze-work at the time and considered the first complete standing bronze figure since the fall of Rome. With its suggestive and feminine pose, Donatello’s sumptuous “boy” David created a ruling class reaction as “obscene” that was quelled by the most powerful man and art patron Cosimo Medici, who placed it in his courtyard for all to see. Also, the Ghiberti and Brunelleschi Baptistry Door competition panel entries depicting the “Sacrifice of Isaac.”
Off to the Accademia for the most well-known, admired, photographed and copied renaissance sculpture of all time, “David” (1501-1504) by Michelangelo. “David” towers above you in graceful contemplative pose, sizing-up his enemy, Goliath. At 17 feet, in white marble, you are instantly awed by the power and physique – as well as seeing the highest accomplishment in marbled sculptured art that mankind has ever produced. Other unfinished sculptured figures by Michelangelo line the corridor that leads to “David,” but you will be excused if you join the rush to feast your eyes at the foot of this masterpiece by this then 26-year-old sculptor and genius.
Florence Day 3: Planning to avoid the infamous crowds to enter the Uffizi Gallery, we had our Firenze Card and cut through to the “skip the line” queue and waited maybe 15 minutes before getting inside this glorious museum. The Uffizi’s collection of pre-Renaissance, Renaissance to Baroque painting collection is the largest single collection of top-drawer Renaissance painting in Europe (or anywhere else on the planet for that matter). To describe the Uffizi as a collection of paintings is a bit like just calling Mount Everest a mountain. You will be challenged to complete this tour in 2 – 3 hours as you move from the medieval period (1200’s – 1300’s), including highlights by painters Duccio, Cimabue and Giotto, to early Renaissance (mid-1400s), including Lippi, Piero della Francesca and Antonio del Pollaiolo and finally, as the rush of crowds will suggest, the favorites and the blossoming of the Renaissance with Botticelli’s paintings leading the way to a rare Da Vinci and many of Raphael’s most famous works.
Don’t miss a break at the Uffizi café, corner of top floor, with its beautiful patio with views of the Bargello, and Palazzo Vecchio towers and hills beyond Florence, and taste a sumptuous dessert or pastry with choices of freshly ground cappuccino, expresso and Americano coffee – all served one way – strong. After Uffizi, we enjoyed lunch at a recommended trattoria — stay away from restaurants that are packed with tourists and close to popular venues. Instead, use your nose and dining research guides for the yet-to-be-discovered local restaurants – well worth the added leg-work. My pasta was home-made and delicious with a divine bolognaise meat sauce.
Walking back to the Piazza della Signoria, we stand in front of the medieval Palazzo Vecchio and its 300-foot spire, the original seat of government building with the Medici family holding the reins, under Giovanni (1360-1429) and son Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464). Having made their fortune in banking at the rise of the mercantile class, they held controlling power politically with a family dynasty of government leaders of Florence and two popes and were very significant patrons of the arts. We viewed the lavish apartments of Cosimo and the Grand Hall – a 13,000 square foot hall lined with huge frescoes. In exile several times during their dynasty and confronting assassination attempts, the Medici family always found its way back to power. The Medici “force” is with you in this building.
Off to the Medici-Riccardi palace (1444 A.D.) at dusk, with streets less busy and the sun low in the sky, we welcomed the cool courtyard entrance to the Medici Palace, beyond the fortress rusticated exterior walls, that protected the family in times of war and political upheaval. As patrons of the arts, they were unequaled in collections and maintaining the very best artists (Michelangelo lived as an adopted son and teenage boy in the palace, and Da Vinci played lute at Medici parties while Botticelli studied the classical sculpture that dotted their gardens). In the upstairs chapel, the painting “The Journey of the Magi” restates their power as they place themselves as the three wise men before Christ and Mary. Not a subtle message, but instead a reminder to all of Florence as to where the authority rests as secured even at a religious level (again, there would be two Popes from this dynasty as well). Finally, for us, dinner and a meat-lovers speciality, Bistecca alla Florentina (a thick, tenderloin T-bone filet that is served rare and serves two — or more!). A delicious way to close a day including a choice bottle of Chianti Classico. Molto bene!
Florence Day 4: Prior to the established Renaissance painting and a revolution in technique (use of perspective, application of light and dark affects, individual figure recognition and some creative license), as seen in Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael and others, there were the two pre-Renaissance mold-breakers in painting, Giotto and Masaccio. Giotto (1266-1337), who was discovered as a boy by the established artist Cimabue (see Uffizi for Cimabue’s best work) was found drawing his sheep as he tended them in a field – so remarkable were these untrained renderings that Cimabue “adopted” him and Giotto became an apprentice in Cimabue’s studio. Now, considered the father of the Renaissance, as he established personal faces and emotion to the figures of the frescoes he painted (see on a side trip his exquisite and ground-breaking frescoes in the Chapel of St. Francis of Assisi or the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua). But you can still sample some of his work in Florence at the Uffizi, the Chapels in the church of Santa Croce, and even in the tiny chapel room in the Bargello.
Masaccio (1401-1428), following in Giotto’s footsteps, of revolutionary technique in figurative depiction, becomes most well-known for his remarkably expressive frescoes painted on the walls (around 1424-1426) of the Brancacci Chapel in Florence (across the river Arno). The chapel is small and all the more intimate for you as a viewer (approximately only 25 people let in at a time). You can stand up close to view his Biblical narrative from the expulsion of Adam and Eve onward to Christ sequences, on three walls, but notice the humanism in the faces (of grief, regret, belief and saving grace). These are truly human beings with individual expression, a grand departure from the “Madonna and Child” flat icon church altar style with no dimension or depth. Masaccio was was clearly bucking the trend. Reservations are a must, or you will most likely not get in. Call ahead before you depart or once you arrive in Florence.
Onto the Pitti Palace, in the same neighborhood but a different scale altogether, and just a 15-minute walk from the Brancacci Chapel. The Pitti Palace is a grand, rusticated fortress with a stone façade that greets you at the entrance. The Pitti family, comparative in wealth to the Medici (but not as powerful — but who was?) built their “dream home” around 1458. Later purchased by the Medici family, it houses an astonishing collection of top-shelf Renaissance painting by Raphael (this private collection rivals the Uffizi), Botticelli, Lippi and later Baroque period court painters like Titian and varied Roman sculpture. The lavish rooms are show-pieces themselves as the palace was used for extravagant parties and society events important to the position of Pitti and later Medici family. But start with a picnic lunch, gathered from a local take-out trattoria, and sit on the cobblestones in front of this grand structure, joining the many other visitors doing the same thing, and take in the magnificence – and hopefully, the sun.
Once you’ve conquered the Pitti Palace’s lengthy collection indoors, a treat awaits you outdoors. Included in your admission ticket is the Boboli Gardens, a magnificent 16th century Italian garden-style back-drop, that allows you vistas of Florence, back across the Arno River and a delightful stroll through the expansive sections of this 11-acre oasis from the city. With courtyards, fountains and tree-lined walking paths, it’s time to unwind and take a nap in the shade or simply slow the pace down to a casual walk. The perfect late afternoon end to all scheduled events, with just thoughts of where to find your next great Italian meal at dinnertime.
Florence Day 5: Our last day was a Monday but we still had choices. The Santa Maria Croce should not be missed for several reasons. As one of Florence’s biggest and oldest churches, it gives you a glimpse inside the medieval roots of the renaissance. The church is designed by Arnolfi di Cambio (c. 1290), who also did the Duomo Cathedral, and frescoed by Giotto, the proto-Renaissance pioneer. In additions, it is by coincidence the resting place (in an elaborate tomb) of several of the most important and influential artists, scientists, poets and political thinkers of the Renaissance enlightenment: Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante and Machiavelli. After your procession through these tombs of stellar beings, enjoy the frescoes by a variety of artists including Giotto and Gaddi as well as the towering crucifix by Cimabue (before 1288), now damaged by a historic 1966 flood which sent water from the Arno river up 8 feet into the churches nave. For peace of mind and reflection, wander into the cloister and take a break. Before leaving, peek inside the small intimate Pazzi Chapel, designed by Brunelleschi (Duomo dome fame) which captures the Renaissance in miniature.
We took our lunch back on the rooftop of our bed and breakfast, behind the Bargello, and then sought out the famed Medici Chapel, where buried in extravagant tombs of multi-colored marble sculpture (two by Michelangelo), are the final resting place for the members of this all-powerful Florentine family. But more exquisite in its beautifully adorned interior is the connected Basilica of Lorenzo (rebuilt in 1400s), marbled and perfect in balance of all elements of colonnade, arches, nave et al. thanks to Brunelleschi’s eye and design. Donatello’s twin bronze pulpits are masterpieces in design, figurine rendering and casting – perfection with telling narrative. Find your way to the Old Sacristy (designed by Brunelleschi) and the tomb of the most powerful (and wealthiest) and godfather of the Medici, Giovanni (c. 1499-1565).
For dinner we had planned to enjoy a highly recommended pizza trattoria for thin-crust, oven-baked Florentine perfection. On our way we poked our head into the Santa Maria Novella church to quickly take in a fresco with ground-breaking significance, Masaccio’s “Holy Trinity” (c. 1427). He was leading the charge in use of “new” one-point linear perspective. On a cement flat wall your eye is hypnotically taken into the dimensionality of this piece and the space created. Images literally recede back in space, as Christ hangs, crucified, suspended at the front and center of the foreground. At 27 years old, Masaccio had just completed a work, a year before his death, that still stands as the truest single statement of advancement in revolutionizing painting technique.
So much to see, learn and appreciate about this Florentine “hot-bed” of the Renaissance with all its artistic breakthroughs and examples of “pushing the boundaries” in human endeavor. Fortunately, for humanity, the giants of this period in art, architecture, design, thought and poetry have left a record to be admired, challenging all who visit Florence with these achievements. Again, also, a remarkably walkable city, and lots of opportunities to get just get lost in the medieval backstreets and find your perfect cappuccino.
Cover: View of Florence from across the Arno River; photo: Doug Hall / ZEALnyc.