ITALY 2018 – FLORENCE

Random thoughts and Details of Florence…

First Impressions:

We got into Florence around 2pm. First stop was the hotel where they had upgraded us to a suite. (VERY good start to the vacation.) Then I found out they have memory foam mattresses and pillows which MADE the trip for me. (Best sleep I’ve had in a hotel in forever — seriously. I LOVED this bed!) Whenever we stay in Florence, we are staying at Firenze Hotel Number 9.

The Shopping: 

This was never really going to be a “shopping trip” per se. The trip itself was our Christmas present to each other. But of course there were a few things that we knew we wanted. I had already done some research, knowing the things we wanted to bring home to help remind us of Italy. My first score was a gorgeous pair of peacock blue leather gloves from Modova Gloves on the Ponte Vecchio.

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Then we headed over to Scuola del Cuoio (the school of leather artisans) to buy a handbag and a couple of leather belts. Leon scouted out a wonderful enoteca where he finally found a couple of bottles of limoncello for his bar. The only other thing we really wanted was a cute, little Christmas ornament to remind us of Florence. We finally found one at the Uffizi. (If you don’t do this yet when you travel, you really should. It turns your Christmas tree into a memory tree, reminding you of all the places you’ve been over the years, and of all the fun you’ve had together.) 

The Sights:

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo):

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We toured the church (which doesn’t take long) and lit candles for the boys (as always). It’s very austere and frankly, much more beautiful on the outside than the inside, although the vaulted ceilings and high arches do make the space seem to soar.

The Church of Santa Croce: 

 

This cathedral is MUCH more beautiful. Breathtaking really — Filled with stained glass, high arches and dozens of candles, it makes you feel the magic of faith. And it doesn’t hurt that Michelangelo’s tomb is here as well. I came especially to thank him for his beautiful work and lifelong commitment to the arts.

Gallerie dell’ Accademia di Firenze:

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Well, anyone who knows me knows that I could NEVER come to Florence and not make a pilgrimage to the Accademia, home of the David and the unfinished sculptures of Michelangelo. (Frankly, after this stop, I could have gone home perfectly content.)

First off, the unfinished sculptures. There are six slaves in total but two live at the Louvre; the other four are here at the Accademia. (They were all destined for Pope Julius’ tomb, but never completed.) There is also one unfinished sculpture of Saint Matthew here as well though I don’t think he is nearly as powerful as the slaves. They, for some reason, feel tensed to the point of exhaustion. Stretching and straining to gain their freedom, they are sobering to study.

The thing that is so gorgeous (and heartbreaking) about these unfinished sculptures is how alive they feel. They look as though they were pushing their way out of the marble when they were frozen in place…trapped for eternity. “Exquisite torture” is the phrase that best describes them for me. Exquisite for us, torture for them. I won’t say looking at them makes me happy, but it does my soul good to be with them for a while.

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There is also a bust of Michelangelo by Daniele da Volterra which was actually made from a plaster mold of Michelangelo’s face after death. This “death masque” as it were, is haunting. This bronze is the genius in the flesh — the original thinker who transformed the Fine Art of sculpture. Michelangelo: the master stonecutter, the creator, the genius. Looking at this bust and realizing it was made from a cast of Michelangelo’s face after death makes me incredibly sad and also intimately acquainted with one of my heroes.

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My favorite piece in Florence, of course, is the David. How could it not be? The story behind it is a drama worthy of an opera. And the masterpiece itself is utterly captivating in its intensity. As for the drama though, Michelangelo was rescued by Lorenzo di Medici and raised as one of his own sons. Lorenzo gave him everything his father refused to: respect, love, power, support and opportunity. Michelangelo adored Lorenzo the Magnificent…how could he not?

But Michelangelo hated authority — and those who abuse it.  Lorenzo’s son, Ernesto, was a flat-out mobster, and this is where things began to shift for Michelangelo.

Right after stepping up to head the family, Ernesto called all the heads of all the most powerful families in Italy together for a meeting, and promptly had them all beheaded. The people of Florence began to resent his abuse of power, as did Michelangelo. And the David became a rallying cry for Florence — the little guy who could defeat the “giant” (the Medici family) and drive them out of Florence for good. It worked so well, in fact, that the Medicis were driven out of Florence for a few years. When they returned, Michelangelo feared for his life, going into seclusion, hoping to escape his own beheading. But Ernesto wasn’t all bad. He knew the world needed Michelangelo’s talent, so he sent word that Michelangelo was safe; there would be no retribution. So finally, the master-sculptor was able to come out of hiding. All was, if not forgiven, at least tolerated.

The thing I love more about the David than the story, however brilliant, is the work itself. The block of marble was 19-feet tall, but heavily veined and damaged. Two other sculptors had tried to work with it and failed miserably. Everyone thought it would be impossible to create anything intricate out of such a low-quality piece of marble.

But Michelangelo loved a challenge. He locked himself alone in a courtyard with that hunk of stone and a homemade scaffold — and for three years he tapped away, creating something that no one thought possible…a masterpiece.

Every detail from the veining in his hands, to the texture of the suede sling, to the dimpling of the knees is perfect. The intensity of David’s stare is chilling. And the hands…the hands are enormous, entirely out of proportion, which is, of course, by design. David had to have the hands of a giant-killer. The head is also  out of proportion because to defeat a giant, you must use not only your hands but your head as well.  David is the perfect mixture of humanity and the undying spirit of Florence.

The Uffizi Gallery and the Vasari Corridor:

 

It’s important to get a guided tour of the Uffizi. At the very least get an audio guide and only focus on the second floor. Otherwise you’ll kill yourself with culture. There are over 10,000 major works in the Uffizi and you simply cannot do them all in one day. We had a wonderful tour guide who showed us “the greatest hits” as it were, and it still took two hours. My favorites were the paintings by Leonardo and the giant plate by Michelangelo.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Room at the Uffizi: 

 

There are three really cool pieces that Leonardo had a hand in, one titled The baptism of Christ when he was just an apprentice, working alongside Raphael under their mentor and teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio. In one painting by the mentor, Leonardo painted the angel on the left and Raphael painted the angel on the right. I love that they are “in it” together.

In the second work, Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo has only completed about 80% of the painting, leaving the other figures as ghostly images, yet to be painted in. It’s hauntingly beautiful.

In the third piece, Leonardo’s The Annunciation, Leonardo has depicted the moment that the angel comes to Mary to tell her she is going to be the Virgin Mother to Jesus Christ. Since Leonardo was in the Priory, he didn’t believe this story and so he left two enormous clues telling the viewer that this was not a Virgin birth in his opinion.

The first clue is the large, red bed visible through the doorway to Mary’s right, hinting at the very human way that Leonardo believed Mary was impregnated. The second clue was the large opening to the garden in the background. In most annunciation paintings, there is a garden in the background but it is always walled on all four sides, illustrating that the “garden” was absolutely secluded, impossible for man to enter. In Leonardo’s, there is a nice, big opening. Leonardo loved is symbolism…always.

Now, onto the presentation plate by Michelangelo…

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The story behind that presentation plate is fantastic and utterly Buonorotti. Michelangelo was commissioned to make this huge presentation plate for a rich silk merchant who wanted to give it to his wife (laden with fruit and flowers as was the custom of the time) in honor of his child’s birth. The fee agreed upon was 70 gold coins. However, when Michelangelo showed up with the piece, the merchant tried to haggle him down to 40, saying that the Virgin Mary was far too “buff” and he didn’t feel it was worthy of 70 gold coins. Michelangelo simply picked up the plate and left, without a word. Well, the silk merchant realized his mistake and went to Michelangelo’s house the next day, apologizing profusely, saying that he was a businessman and he was used to haggling over price. (It is what he did for a living, after all.) He handed Michelangelo the 70 gold pieces and said, “I hope you can forgive me, here is your payment in full.” Michelangelo said “Not to worry. All is forgiven. But 70 gold pieces was yesterday’s price. Today’s price is 140.” Needless to say, the merchant paid it.

The People of Florence: 

The staff at the hotel has felt like family from Day 1. Very sweet and helpful…eager to offer advice on the places locals love to eat, the best days and times for shopping and the best tours of the city. Everyone else has been very cordial though I’m not sure I would say warm.

The Food:

Oh my word…the food. Italy is the Motherland of all great food as far as I’m concerned. Food, wine, desserts — It just doesn’t get any better than Italy. We found a few locals’ haunts which we love to do whenever we travel. (We tend to stay away from the tourist traps at all costs.)

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We went to L’Antique Pizzeria da Michele for dinner. For those of you who do not remember, this is the place in Naples that is supposedly the best pizza in the world. It’s the reason in the book Eat, Pray, Love that Elizabeth Gilbert had to buy jeans two sizes bigger than the ones she came to Italy in. They only offer two kinds of pizza: Margarita and Marinara and two calzones. I had the Margarita pizza. Leon had a smoked ham and ricotta calzone and we shared a bottle of Chianti. A perfect evening.

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We were lucky enough to find Ara e Sicilia, a tiny little hole in the wall place with freshly made cannoli to order. They pump the cream in and “build” the cannoli at your request. Well, it made me feel like I’d never had a real cannoli before. Absolute heaven.

But the best spot for food that we discovered was a local haunt outside the city center called  I’Brindellone. Leon, the happy carnivore, ordered the Bistecca Firenze (a t-bone the size of a baseball mitt) and I ordered freshly-made tagliatelle with cream and truffles with a side of sautéed spinach. (I have to admit, I had a moment over the truffle pasta.) As usual, we split a bottle of the House Red and relaxed into a perfect meal. If there is anything Italy does better than pasta, I have no idea what it is.

Funny Stories: 

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At dinner one night, we met a couple of actors from New York who were visiting Italy after finishing a season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The four of us talked non-stop for two hours. I’m sure the locals at the restaurant hated us, but I don’t care. I even relived my glory days at Studio 54 and the Limelight. Very trippy journey down memory lane.

Special Moment of the Day: 

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There is something completely other-worldly — that makes me so proud to be an American. When during the course of our travels to another country, we find a cool, live music club, and all they play all night long is American, classic rock. We heard guitar takes on Prince, AC/DC, Alanis Morissette, Phil Collins, Bob Marley, Bill Withers, and the Eagles. I loved EVERY second. The perfect ending to a perfect day.

Quote of the Day:

Now. I completely understand the movie quote from The Godfather“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Once you’ve tasted one, you would NEVER let one go to waste…even in the aftermath of a murder. 

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