Halfway through my degree in art history, I finally got to visit the place I have dreamed of visiting since my first set of Renaissance lectures. We timed our visit to Florence so that my 21st birthday fell during our stay there, thanks to my very accommodating and very lax other half. We stayed for three nights in a little boutique hotel, Hotel Canada, just a two minute walk from the Piazza del Duomo and a stone’s throw from countless of the city’s other attractions.
We arrived on Friday afternoon after taking a high speed train from Naples, which also stopped off in Rome, and cost €79 for us both. Although this might seem a little steep, the train was so fast and well air conditioned that for the sake of twenty euros or so I’m glad we chose it. Don’t let that be a template for train prices in Italy, though, as while I write this post I’m on another train from Florence to Venice that cost only €19 for us both, the same is true for our travel from Rome to Naples.
Florence was one of the few cities we had visited on this trip where before visiting I didn’t have an itinerary, or at the very least a rough guide as to what each day would be spent doing. I really wanted to just see what happened when we got there and wander around as much as possible to really get a feel for the city as well as seeing all the incredible buildings and art within them.
That being said, I had read the queues for the Galleria d’Uffizi were sometimes as long as five hours long, so our first port of call was the ticket office to book tickets for the following day. Like so many other places in Europe, our both being under 25 and members of a European Union state meant we got a discount, in this case 50% and so our tickets cost a mere €6.25 each.
The wonderful thing about Florence is, that apart from Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia, everything else to see is on the streets and free and so after booking our tickets we walked through the small piazza created by the confines of the museum itself towards the river. The exterior of Uffizi is lined with niches filled with busts of famous Florentine artists like Leon Battista Alberti, Brunelleschi and Donatello. Once past the gallery, the narrow one way street that runs adjacent to the river was filled with tourists. Locals selling counterfeit bags, electrics and paintings of famous Italian landmarks lined the street nervously; constantly on the lookout for police and soldiers who seemed to be chasing them away and ceasing whatever goods they could only for another seller to take the last one’s spot after they had fled. We headed back towards the Piazza del Duomo through Piazza della Signoria, on one corner of which lies Uffizi, another the Gucci Museo (the Gucci archives and restaurant) and is filled with sculptures, restaurants and an array of fountains. The streets between the two squares are where the majority of the shopping district lies, high end stores stand beside local markets and street sellers. The smell of leather is pretty overwhelming in the shopping parts of Italian cities; but the way the clothes and bags look and feel is incredible; the quality and authenticity was so tangible and in every imaginable colour.
After the cities, Triumphal Arch stands one of the buildings I looked forward to seeing most, Orsanmichele. The building itself could be perceived as incredibly understated, but it is so rich in history that I actually couldn’t believe it was staring me in the face when we stumbled across it. I studied it quite extensively at university and learned that it was originally built as a storehouse, but at the turn of the fifteenth century, it was converted into a church in honour of the city’s craft and trade guilds. During the renovation, its four exterior walls were built with three or four niches in each so that fourteen sculptures could subsequently be erected in them. Afterwards, the guilds – similar to modern day workers unions – of the city sponsored a niche and commissioned a work to be designed in their name. The church became a site for competition between the guilds; the wealthier ones opted for bronze sculptures to show their wealth opposed to stone or marble, whilst multiple sculptures in one niche also was a sign of wealth. My favourite two works at Orsanmichele are so because of the immense talent that was required to create them, what I feel was above and beyond that in the other sculptures. Firstly, is one of the several works of Lorenzo Ghiberti at the site of St John the Baptist in the International Gothic style. The cloth merchants guild commissioned this statue that stands at over two and a half metres tall and was the first work of its magnitude to be created from a single bronze cast – and held that title for several centuries after its creation. The work is almost flawless; something that is relatively unheard of for single cast works, not considering this one’s immense size. My other most admired work is Nanni di Banco’s the Four Crowned Martyrs, a marble work commissioned by the wood and stone workers guild. Even after seeing it in the flesh, it confounds me how this sculpture of four figures could fit in such a confined space whilst still seeming realistic and believable. Perspective plays a huge role in the realistic appearance of the work, and the talent di Banco displayed six centuries ago is still pretty incredible. The building really is emblematic of the religious devotion, and pride of which, of the people of Florence during the Renaissance. Although the original sculptures were no longer on display, I really enjoyed that the building was still displayed as it would have been in 1416. It’s exterior, as many other Florentine buildings, had been carefully and extensively preserved and truly allowed me to imagine the city in its prime. Florence really was the heart of the Renaissance and the cultural revolution that took place there is still so pridefully evident on every street, piazza and corner.
When we got back to the Piazza del Duomo I was, once again, left speechless by the incredible architectural feat that is Florence Cathedral. It took an unbelievable five centuries to complete the immensely detailed exterior and the double shell dome designed and built by machinery designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the early fifteenth century was a turning point in architecture and engineering. No matter how many times we walked around it, there were details I hadn’t seen before. The bell tower is equally as impressive in terms of exterior detail and the relatively small Baptistry that stands in front of it boasts solid bronze doors designed by Ghiberti. I have never been so in awe of a building in my life, or for that matter of a place. We had dinner that evening at a restaurant facing the Duomo and came across an Irish Pub just across from the hotel – convenient for our 1am curfew.
The next morning we went to Uffizi and I got to see my beloved Botticelli once again. Two of his most popular works, Primavera and the Birth of Venus, hang in Uffizi as well as a plethora of other works I couldn’t wait to see. The interior of the gallery was palatial in terms of both size and design. Luxuriant gold leaf trim framed hand painted designs on the ceilings and walls that were in themselves were works of art. It was flooded with light thanks to the vast sheets of glass that dominated the interior walls, consequently allowing views of the piazza below as well as the river and Piazzale Michelangelo. Although I preferred the intimacy of the Borghese in Rome, the extensive collection of masterworks at Uffizi unquestionably comes up trumps. Afterwards, we did some birthday shopping and more exploring of the smaller streets, then went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. I got a surprise birthday cake and candles from Paul followed by a meal on the Piazza della Signoria with steak and wine and roses. It was so special to share such a huge milestone birthday with him in such an extraordinary place.
We left crossing over to the other side of the city until our last day. We crossed the river over the iconic Ponte Vecchio which was bursting at the seams with jewellers, tourists and gelaterias. On the other side of the bridge, it was comparatively peaceful; we could stop and admire buildings without being hurried along by crowds. It differed drastically from the opposite side which was so richly infused with artistic history. This side appeared to be far more domesticated, more untouched by tourism and more of an insight into the life of modern day Florentines, and the palette of buildings was much more varied with oranges and blues and pinks instead of the subdued yellows of the city centre. We walked towards the Piazzale Michelangelo which stands high above the rest of the city. When we reached the top, the views were so incredible I could barely believe it; a panoramic view of the city flanked by the rolling Tuscan hills. We discovered a manmade beach at one end of the river that afterwards could be seen cutting through the city and trickling off in the distance, the crowds invisible below the concentration of terracotta roofs. The dome of the cathedral towered over the skyline, allowing us to make sense of it. Other places we hadn’t yet visited, like Brunelleschi’s Basilica of Santa Croce, stood out to us and marked our plans for the rest of the day. There were a few small restaurants atop the hill so we stopped and had a glass of wine while enjoying the glorious views. When we descended we walked across the Ponte alle Grazie in order to explore a new part of the city. We navigated ourselves to Piazza di Santa Croce and from there back to the Duomo. On the way we crossed another building by Brunelleschi that I had studied, but admittedly entirely forgot about, the Ospedale degli Innocenti.
Florence was, for me, like stepping into a time warp. There were parts of it that reminded me of the small side streets in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona; yellow walls and gothic embellishments on the upper parts of buildings and bare stone on the lower. In some places, frescos could be faintly seen on the outside of homes, particularly in the buildings surrounding the Duomo and the cobble streets and pavements compliment this historical feel so well. My favourite thing about Florence is that it is so concentrated and that unlike a lot of other places we’ve visited not only in Italy but across the world, there’s no need to jump on a subway or train or bus to see anything. The proximity of the sights and the fact that walking to each of them in itself is sightseeing makes it a wonderfully relaxing place to visit. I really enjoyed not feeling pressured to be outside every waking minute of the day because it was so unbelievably hot it was wonderful to be able to go lie down for a few hours to hide from the best and not feel guilty or anxious about missing anything. The way we stumbled across so many sights that we had both intended and not intended to see was magical. I may be entirely biased, but Florence was, without doubt, the best place we visited in Italy. Although there were an immense amount of tourists there I didn’t feel, like I did in Rome, that it detracted from the experience at all. An incredibly beautiful city with so much to see and do, I really am so glad we got to go.