Brancacci, Uffizi, aperitivo – see, I speak Italian!
Today is not my day to ride on buses. I got on the wrong one going from my AirBnB in Rome to the train station – luckily I realized it in time. And in Florence, I got on the right bus but missed my stop. Luckily, stops here are close together so neither one of these were too big of a faux pas, but it’s still pretty stressful!
I caught the express train from the Roma Termini station to the Florence Santa Maria Novella station. The train goes about 250 km/h (155 mph), and it takes only 1.5 hours to cover the 277 km (172 mi) between Rome and Florence. The train was nice and clean and seats are assigned, so there isn’t too much bickering trying to get on. I did have a moment of concern when I got to the train station and looked at the information board, only to see that my train had not been assigned a platform yet with about 35 minutes till departure. I guess I am used to airplane travel, where this would be a huge cause for concern. 🙂 A friendly Trenitalia agent explained trains get a platform about 20 min prior to departure. While hanging out by the board for my platform number to show up, I saw an Italian nun approach the board and vehemently explain this same thing to a pair of Japanese tourists… in Italian. They seemed completely clueless but nodded agreeably nonetheless. I saw them look for the platform of the same train I was on, so I approached them, spoke in English (which they didn’t seem to speak, either) and showed them my train pass to signal that I am on the same train and I can help them. The nun looked at me in relief, nodded and went on. The whole scene made me chuckle. Poor nun… she was trying to be helpful but she was getting nowhere at all.
The train ride was pretty but not all that exciting. The rolling hills of the Italian countryside sped by, or was it the train that was speeding – I really couldn’t tell, the ride was that smooth. I used the time to read up on the Florence section of the Rick Steves’ guidebook. Upon arrival in Firenze, I headed straight for the Tourist Information (TI) office across the square, where I armed myself with the Firenze card. For the next 3 days, I’ll get free admission to just about all must-see spots in the city along with skip-the-line privileges, free transit and free city-wide wifi for a flat 72 EUR. It seems pricey until you add up all the things you’d want to see and figure in the value of not waiting in line, especially at the Uffizi and Academia, where reservations fill up a month in advance (even the Vatican museum reservation system doesn’t fill up that quickly). I caught the bus to Sarah’s side of town – the south side of the Arno river, or Oltrarno. It wasn’t far from the station at all but with luggage in tow, I figured I’d same myself some time and energy… until I missed my stop. Oh well… you win some, you lose some.
Sarah met me at her AirBnB place during the break from her Italian language school, then rushed back to class which was exactly…2 blocks away. As jam-packed with sights as it is, Firenze is small and very manageable – a welcome reprieve for my feet after 3 days in Rome, where I had been averaging 30,000 steps a day. While Sarah was in school, I went over all the info I’d received at the TI and jotted down a rough plan for the next 3 days based on the opening and closing times of things… and then it started raining, which threw a wrench in my plan to see Pitti Palace and its Bobolini gardens. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do instead yet but at any rate, lunch was already overdue!
As soon as Sarah got off school, we went to Gusta Pizza – the neighborhood pizza place that Sarah lauded as the best one in town. Indeed, it was delicious, and the two glasses of wine we had with it added to the experience. At the end of our meal, we took what was left of our wine and we strolled towards our next destination with it in hand (the place serves both the food and drinks in plasticware). One of things I miss the most about Europe is how alcohol consumption is such a non-issue. You grow up with it around you, everyone enjoys it in moderation at social gatherings (or if they get tipsy, they’re happy tipsy – I didn’t really see binge drinking until I came to the US) and so it’s really not a big deal to have it out in the open. Also, you can walk everywhere, so driving under the influence is the least of your worries.
Anyway, the vino lasted all the way to our next destination – the Brancacci Chapel. Its famous for its Renaissance frescoes of Masaccio (one of the early Renaissance pioneers of perspective in paintings), Masolino and Lippi. The 20-minute film in English about the frescoes was not playing, so I paid for the video guide, which described in detail each of the 12 frescoes. A couple of them show the temptation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent expulsion from the garden of Eden, while the rest focused on the life of Peter.
My favorite ones were the ones of Peter performing miracles such as healing a cripple and raising the son of Theophilus, and especially the Disputation with Simon Magus.
Simon was a religious figure who was confronted by Peter because he was in essence bribing people for influence. The disputation occurs in front of Roman emperor Nero, who gets tired of listening to this Christian stuff (remember, this is before Christianity was legal) and eventually orders that St. Peter be crucified. You may remember Nero from my visit to St. Peter’s square, which was in fact Nero’s old race track and just a stone’s throw away from where Peter was crucified and buried.
After the chapel, Sarah and I went for an afternoon caffe macchiato (an espresso with a small amount of milk), while I decided what to do next. It was still raining at this point, so ducking into a museum made the most sense, and the one closest to us was the Uffizi. Sarah had already gone to it like 3 times, so she opted for a siesta instead. I crossed Ponte Vecchio and went into the city center of Florence, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The building of Uffizi was begun by Giorgio Vasari in 1560 to accommodate the offices of the Florentine magistrates – hence the name Uffizi, or offices. Over the years, parts of the palace served as a display for the paintings and sculpture collected by the Medici family, and this is how the museum came to be. It opened to the public in 1765 and is now one of the oldest and most famous museums in the world.
My Firenze card served me well and I only waited about 10 minutes at a special entrance for card holders. I lined up my Rick Steves audio guide and went up to the top floor, where most of the paintings in the collection are displayed on a U-shaped floor in chronological order. The museum is undergoing a years-long renovation and some of the pieces in the guide had been moved (and one was out for restoration) but I followed the guidebook’s tips to ask a gallery staff member where it had been moved to, and they pointed me in the right direction.
One of the fascinating things about the chronological order of the paintings is that you can see the evolution from two-dimensional to three-dimensional paintings during the Renaissance. In the Medieval painting, you could clearly see that everything was painted flat, with no depth in the picture at all. In one case, a painting of the Madonna and child had Mary sitting on a chair so askew you almost waited for her to topple.
Another room was dedicated to some fabulous paintings by Boticelli, the most famous of which is The Birth of Venus. Venus is portrayed here in a very innocent way – remember this for when we get to another painting of Venus.
There was a Leonardo da Vinci on display, and also Michelangelo’s Holy Family, the only surviving completed easel painting by the great sculptor.
As a true Renaissance man, Michelangelo really did it all – painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry… One of the most famous statues, Venus de Medici, was in display in a room with an amazing dome.
And towards the end, I got to see Tizian’s Venus – a much more sensual painting, which highlighted the difference between the Florentine Renaissance (the innocent Venus in Boticelli’s painting) and the Venetian Renaissance.
No Italian art galley would be complete without a Caravaggio, and his Medusa was one of my favorites here.
And from different corners of the U-shaped building, I got my first glimpse at some other Florentine landmarks – the Ponte Vecchio bridge and the Duomo.
All in all, I did enjoy the Uffizi a lot but I think the Galleria Borghese is my favorite so far. My mom loves Bernini, I guess I follow in her footsteps.
Sight-seeing for the day was over, and it was time to leave myself in the capable hands of Sarah for a quick walk around town and dinner. We walked by the Duomo, where I literally stared agape in wonder (a thorough visit is in the plan).
We strolled up to the east side of town to Caffe Literario, where we partook in an Italian tradition called aperitivo. This is similar to happy hour, but the idea is to have a drink and some small dishes, which then open up you appetite (aperitivo) for dinner. Now it’s not just any drink you’ll be having… there are some traditional drinks served for aperitivo such as the Americano, the Negroni or the spritz. In the olden days, aperitif in Italy meant it was paired with dingy nuts or olives or potato chips. Nowadays, however, aperitivo has evolved to an elaborate selection of tasty dishes served buffet style. You pay a flat rate for one drink and the food, although etiquette says you should fill up your plate no more than twice per drink. This is not meant to be dinner after all, just a little snack before. At Caffe Literario, we were given a small plate at the bar and, per local custom, we used that same plate to go back for seconds – I hear the collective gasp of all the germaphobes reading this. 🙂
We enjoyed aperitivo at Caffe Literario immensely. The dishes were amazing and I am taking a liking to the spritz, which is a mix of prosecco, a bitter liquer such as campari (all aperitivo drinks include a bitter component – that is what stimulates your appetite, supposedly) and I think a little bit of juice. The ambiance in the caffe was great – we were in a courtyard surrounded by locals and with no cars or parking lots anywhere in the vicinity! Ahhh, bella Firenze!