Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Instant Expert’s Guide to a Foreign City (Florence Edition)

Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now, we're in Florence.

Florentine drivers are as bad as South American drivers, but they are more phlegmatic about the situation.  The narrow streets are not EVER going to be wide enough for the traffic, so the lunatic in front of you dancing his Fiat across the cobbles on two wheels can be given the finger in a relatively relaxed fashion.  You’re not stopping, he’s not going to ram you, and you can call down the imprecations of God and Man in a purely philosophical and speculative sense.  Neither of you will take it personally.

Old Florence is a tourist town. There’s no getting around it.  Florence is the fount and fountain of one of the great advancements of western philosophy – the Renaissance.  This city is where all the good stuff happened – it is a city of FIRSTS.   Here Brunelleschi built the first great free-standing dome since the Romans, here Donatello re-discovered the lost art of bronze casting and sculpted his David and Goliath.  Renaissance architecture began here in Florence, when Bruneleschi built the Ospedale degli Innocenti in the Piazza Due Fontane, beginning a movement that would span all of Europe and return here to be at last overturned, when Michelangelo grew up and designed a façade for the church of San Lorenzo, and a staircase for the library next door.  There are splendid things on every street corner, and the best way to explore (in my opinion, and I am never short of opinions) is go out and get yourself thoroughly lost.

Start in the Piazza Due Fontane.  Close your eyes and turn around three times, then open your eyes and orient yourself toward the façade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti.

The Ospedale was an orphanage commissioned by the Arte de Seta (Silk Guild) in 1419.  The commission was given to an architect named Filippo Bruneleschi.  Brneleschi is widely regarded as the true father (or instigator) of renaissance archutectire, and the Ospedale degli Inocento was one of the very first buildings that he designed in the trendy new style.  It was (and is) certainly the best known.  Admire the regularly spaced columns with their classical capitals. The Ospedale is built of simple geometrical volumes, piled one atop each other in individual, disconnected units, which isn’t quite how the Romans did it, but the new style certainly looked pretty.

Turn right and walk down the Via dei Servi until you come to the Piazza del Duomo.  Admire the splendid bronze doors of the baptistery (another bronze-casting first) and spend some time admiring the big fat Victorian façade on the Duomo.

The outside of the Duomo looks like nothing else anywhere – with the exception of the chocolate-box frontage of Santa Croce.  The two facades were perpetrated at the same time at the same persons, but while Santa Croce is JUST petite enough to look like a victorian valentine, and rather cute, thereby, the Duomo is so enormously large that is looks like nothing as much as a carved and buttressed marzipan mountain.

The Florence Duomo has survived several facades over its long life (the blue and white pinstriped version, like a vast stone petit-four layer cake was a good look)   The current – and hopefully authoritative - version dates to the 1880s.  It is splendid and terrible pink flamingos all over the place and I adore it without reservation.

Reserve your admiration for the marble façade – the inside is a barn, and has horrible acoustics, to boot.  I’m terrified of heights, but if you aren’t, the climb to the top of the dome is very much worth the time and entry fee.  Mr Tabubil enjoyed it enormously.

Disapproving Madonna disapproves of your uncritical approval.

Continue down the Via Calzaiuoli in the direction of the River Arno, until you come to the Piazza della Republica.   This pizazza was the site of the original pre-roman settlement here, and it has remained variously prominent and notorious ever since.  Used as a market and gathering space for more than two thousand years, by the 19th century it had become the site of Florence’s Jewish ghetto, which made it, in Italian eyes, a natural choice  for “reclaimation” by the state to create a grand piazza to celebrate the founding of the Italian Nation in 1856–  from which occasion dates the monumental arch on the west side of the Piazza.

I love this Piazza.  Although right in the tourist heart of the city, it is still very much a civic space.  Fairs pass through; families sit there in the evening, and at night there is.   While Telecom Italia couldn’t seem to pipe phone connectivity into my little apartment on the other side of the river, I was usually able get a phone line of a sort on my cell phone if I was in the very center of the Piazza Republica, and I spent many half-hours here at all hours of the day and night, listening to people shouting at me through a storm of Telecom Italia static, and hollering back at them through the same.

Continue on down to the river and cross the Ponte Vecchio.  Once all of Florence’s bridges looked like this – cobble-stoned medieval bridges built out on each side with shops and commercial establishments – all of the smelly, water-requiring businesses, like tanning and butchery, that cities like to site far away from the populace.  The Ponte Vecchio is the city’s only remaining medieval bridge ; the others perished as the Germans abandoned the city in WW2 – they dynamited the bridges behind them as they retreated, the Ponte Vecchio surviving only because it was reckoned too  narrow to support an American tank.

Cross the Ponte Vecchio.  Stop in the centre, climb onto on the parapet, tune out the tourists and sit for a while.  
And pretend that there aren't more bloody cherubs everywhere.

A side note –Unlike most of the rest of Europe, the cities of Florence and Rome largely escaped the artistic pillage of the Nazi regime.  Goebbels cared very much for art (if not for much else – people, for instance, he thought worth very little), and recognizing the historical value of these two cities, brokered an agreement with the Allied forces that neither city was to be bombed or looted regardless of how heavy or hostile the fighting.  This agreement actually held throughout the war, even during the German retreat – the only bombardment that Rome received was over the rail-yards, which were reckoned to be sufficiently distant from the historically and artistically significant areas of the city to be legitimate targets.

The far side of the Arno river is the Oltraro (lit. Beyond the Arno)  I used to live on this side of the river.  Tourists cross the river and mostly turn rightup the Via Giucciardini, heading for the Pitti Palace. I turned left,  passed through an archway cut through a building and climbed half-way up the steeply vertical Costa dei Magnoli .  I lived in a small third-floor walk-up flat just before the point on the hill where steeply-vertical became purely vertical and the engines of delivery motorcycles gave up the ghost, delivery men forced to tack back and forth across the narrow street, nursing their rev-counters, and cursing the residents who’d paid for their pizza BEFORE they’d given the address. 

It’s a worth-while climb, if you have muscles like a mountain goat – it’s a straight shot up to the Belvedere, a star fort overlooking the city.  If your legs are less like steel and more like molasses, veer left up the Via Guicciardi when you come off the bridge, and saunter up to the Pitti Palace, because the Pitti Palace is worth a look and saunter.  And a second look – spit-take style.

The Pitti palace was begun in 1458 by an upwardly mobile banker hoping to out-grandiose Florence’s free-spending hard-building ruling family, the Medici. In one of life’s little ironies, Signor Pitti went bankrupt, the Medici bought the palace, moved in, and it became a symbol of THEIR wealth and power for more than 250 years.

It’s been thumbing its nose at Florence ever since.  The Pitti Palace is one of the oddest buildings in Italy. Every time I walk away from it I’m certain that I must have been imagining things – no building could possibly be so impossible, but when I turn back to it and look again, there it is – a vast brooding lump of badly piled stone, rough hewn boulders and piled up sandbags.  It has all the hulking presence of a squat, seven-story toad.  The inside of the Pitti Palace houses a rather nice museum, and the sprawling gardens behind it are a marvelous place to spend a summer afternoon, with a Rococo grotto, and formally geometric promenades, and a cultivated wilderness leading down to a lake.  And you can barely see the palace from most of it.

Or pass on – past the palace, turning right, and lose yourself in alleys and cobbled streets of Oltrarno.  You’ll pass open doorways and see craftsmen carving mirror frames, restoring old furniture, building violins –

It’ll be a GOOD afternoon.

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