# of steps walked = # of calories eaten today
I fit in a lot more than I thought I would today, even by my standards, and that says a lot! I am looking forward to a more relaxing Friday in Firenze ahead of a couple of side trips Sarah and I are taking this weekend.
At 8:30 am, I left the house and stopped in for a coffee at a place just a couple of corners away called Caffe degli Artigiani. I enjoyed an espresso (or, as it is called here, simply caffe) and a chocolate croissant as I watched locals scurry up to the counter and guzzle their caffe right there, like a shot, as it is customary here. One guy even forgot to pay, but then he remembered and came right back. What fascinated me is that the shop keeper didn’t stop him, either. Such is the nature of living in a small town where you frequent the same places and everyone knows you. The piazza in front of me was empty sans a few other shop keepers opening up, the air was crisp and the sun was out… It was a beautiful morning in Florence.
I crossed the Ponte Vecchio, and it was just as delightfully empty. Florence’s most famous bridge has long been lined with shops. Originally those were butcher shops that used the river as a handy disposal system. Then, when the Medici built the Vasari corridor over the bridge (connecting the Uffizi, which served as their office, with Pitti Palace, which was their residence), the butcher shops were replaced with the much more elegant gold and silver shops that are still there today.
A statue of Benvenuto Cellini, a master goldsmith of the Renaissance, sits in the middle but is vastly ignored by the tourists who just want to get a good selfie on the bridge.
The Vasari corridor, the elevated enclosed passageway above street level, was constructed in 1565 to give the Medici a private commute over Ponte Vecchio from their Pitti Palace home on the south side of the river to the Palazzo Vecchio on the North side. The Vasari corridor is what gives the bridge its distinctive look. During WWII, when the rest of the bridges in Florence were demolished, the Ponte Vecchio survived, supposedly because Hitler had done an art tour in Florence and ordered the Nazi bombs to stay away from the bridge. On this beautiful morning, Fall was in the air for the first time since I arrived. Last nights’ stormy clouds in the distance were changing colors as the sun rose, making the view from the bridge over the Arno river magical.
Not but 10 minutes later I was at Galleria dell’Academia. It is famous because it houses Michelangelo’s greatest sculpture, David, along with the four unfinished Prisoner statues as well as a Pieta that was initially attributed to him but was more likely his followers’.
Michelangelo was commissioned to create a large-scale statue when he was 26. He chose a biblical subject – the Israelite peasant boy who was the only one to stand up to the barbarians led by a giant called Goliath. Armed only with a sling, David defeats the giant. The statue is 17 feet tall and was originally meant for the roofline of the Duomo, but once complete, it was placed more prominently at the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio instead. It stayed there for over 300 year, weathering the elements. Because the statue was meant to be on a roof way above street level, Michelangelo made the head to be disproportionately larger than the body – that way it would look more natural from below. In the 19th century, David was moved indoors for his own protection and now stands under wonderful dome designed just for him. A copy has been placed at the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio.
David is portrayed looking over his shoulder, presumably at Goliath (as many scholars seem to think). He stands in the classic Renaissance contraposition, with his weight on his right leg. He looks over his shoulder to Goliath, his facial expression not quite so confident as his pose.
On his left hand, we see a crack leftover from his time in front of Palazzo Vecchio, and the toes on his left leg bear damage from when a mad man attacked the statue with a hammer in 1991. David was carved from a single piece of marble – as a matter of fact, that piece had been rejected by others, who thought the piece was too big to do anything with. It is perhaps the most important sculpture ever, and the fact that people come here from all over the world just to see him speaks volumes. I wonder what Michelangelo would think if he knew what a legacy he left to the world?
Down the hall from David, Michelangelo’s four unfinished Prisoners stand. The statues were meant for the tomb of the pope but were never finished. They are in various stages of completion – some barely carved out of the marble, others almost finished. They are fascinating as they give us a glimpse of how Michelangelo worked. While other sculptors created models and traced the marble before starting, Michelangelo worked freehand. Once he started a statue, he worked feverishly until he finished it, impatient to reveal the vision in his mind’s eye. However, Michelangelo did not consider himself a creator; rather, he believed he simply freed the spirit that is already contained within the marble. In essence, that is what the Prisoners in their incomplete form represent, so much so that some believe Michelangelo left them unfinished on purpose.
Getting to see Michelangelo’s sculptural masterpieces after his painting masterpieces in the Vatican made me really appreciate the genius of this man. Both these works and his paintings in the Sistine chapel moved me immensely. If I ever find myself in either Rome in Florence, I would not hesitate to see either of these again. And again and again.
Although the Firenze card had made my entry into the Academia relatively painless, I was ready to go off the beaten path next. Museum San Marco, just one block North of the Academia, is a 15th century monastery that houses some great early Renaissance frescoes by Fra Angelico. His style blended the Medieval religious style and Renaissance realism. Upstairs were 43 monk cells decorated by Fra Angelico and his assistants. Of note was the cell of Savonarola – a charismatic monk who revived the Christian right in Florence, threw out the Medici (although they regained power 20 years later) and turned Florence into a theocracy, until the tide turned again and he was burned to death.
Speaking of the Medici, to them belonged the next two sites I visited. The first was their palace, which contained a chapel with beautiful frescoes by Benozzo Gonzoli. The former libary, the Galleria, had a fascinating Baroque ceiling, and the rest of the palace was pretty opulent as well.
Not too far from there sits their burial site, which became a state museum. It contains the New Sacristy, the tombs of Medicis and, along with its sculptures, was conceived and designed by Michelangelo. After all, the Medici were the ones who took him in as 13-year old boy and commissioned a lot of his work. There is also the Chapel of the Princes, a monumental family tomb that is the home of more Medici remains.
At this point I had to take a break from all this walking and standing, so I sat down for a Caffe Americano, which is not unlike the American Americano – it’s an espresso made with just a bit more water so you get a slightly less strong version. I enjoyed people watching on the small square by the Medici Chapel while I called my parents (I get free international calls with my Italian SIM card) and contemplated what to do in the hour-and-a half I had left before meeting Sarah for lunch.
I eventually settled on climbing the Campanile – the clock tower of Santa Maria dei Fiore, or, as people call it, the Duomo. The 270-foot free-standing clock tower has a few less steps than the Duomo, it’s a less crowded climb and you get views of the Duomo to boot, so I opted for that over climbing the dome itself. There are intermediate levels with great views where you can also catch your breadth, and although the climb gets progressively narrow as you go up, the views were totally worth it. The 360-view of Florence from up there was nothing short of amazing. Red brick rooftops were all round, sprinkled with a church dome or a clock tower or a church spire here or there. It was absolutely breath-taking.
I met Sarah at Palazzo Vecchio, which we wanted to tour after lunch but found inexplicably closed without explanation. Ah well, we figured we’d figure something else. But first, we had to get lunch at THE spot for that in Florence – All’Antico Vinaio. Ask anyone in the now where to get a good lunch, and they’ll point you here. For 5 EUR, you get one of their classics or you can make your own – but beware, mixing meats (i.e. pork and beef) is blasphemy, said a note on the chalk board. Combine the most delicious freshly-baked focaccia bread, and the best Italian prosciutto and other pork salamis, add in some basic fixings (truffle cream sauce, anyone?) and voila – best sandwich ever! I could not get over the fact that this giant deliciousness cost 5 EUR – that’s like 5.50 USD. THAT IS WHAT WE PAY FOR A SUBWAY SANDWICH!!!! That, my friends, is blasphemy! Mixing meats is a relatively minor sin in comparison. And I’m never ever ever ever buying a Subway sandwich again, ever. Never ever!!!
Since Palazzo Vecchio was closed, Sarah went home to continue practicing her Italian, while I checked out a couple more sites while I sill had energy. Galileo Science Museum was well-rated in my book, and Sarah and I ended up sitting right in front of it to eat our sandwiches on the piazza, so I thought I’d pop in (entry was included with the Firenze card). Firenze hosted many scientific breakthroughs, many of which were documented in the fascinating collection of Renaissance and later clocks, telescopes, maps, globes and various other gadgets. Leave it to the Sicence Museum to be high-tech – here, most galleries had monitors playing video guides explaining how the highlights of the collection worked, with subtitles in both Italian and English. The video guides were very well designed and very informative. I was thrilled to see Galileo’s telescopes here.
Just a few blocks away, Galileo’s tomb stood in Santa Croce church, my last stop for the day. This 14th century church, decorated with centuries of precious arts, holds the tombs of other great Florentines – Michelangelo (this was his childhood church, as he grew up only a few blocks from it), Machiavelli, and Dante, while the main altar features a famours fresco by Giotto called Death Of St. Francis (Giotto also designed the Duomo clock tower).
On my way home to pick up Sarah, I went through Ponte Vecchio again – contrast this picture with the one from the morning. 🙂
Sarah and I finished our day with a trip to Belvedere fort, which is now abandoned but provides amazing views of Florence from the South side of the river looking towards the Duomo and all the other famous sites on the North bank. On our walk to dinner, we saw the most amazing sunset over Ponte Vecchio.
We dined near Santa Croce, on a little square just off the tourist path. We shared a liter of the house white wine while enjoying prosciutto e melone as antipasti and the most amazing pasta with truffle sauce, asparagus and gorgonzola cheese in a pizza dough shell. If pizza and pasta had a love child, this would be it! I finished off the feast with gelato near Sarah’s place – I had yet to try Florentine gelato, so I had to. I just had to. It was an absolutely marvelous meal and the first time on this trip I’ve had 3 proper meals. I was starving – I’ve literally been in motion for 10-11 hours today. My pedometer clocked me in at 31,500 steps (16 miles) and 250 active minutes.
On the walk home, with yet another gorgeous view of Ponte Vecchio, I contemplated all the wonderful things I’d already seen here and all the exciting places yet to be visited. Italy has blown all of my expectations out of the water. I may be biased as a European but this trip may well overtake my 3-week Asia tour and my 10-day Peru trip as the best trip I’ve been on. And I am only on day 4. All the art, the grandeur… my head is spinning from all the masterpieces. Or is it the wine???