It isn’t easy to sum up our trip to Florence in a handful of words – where on earth do you start? This was my first visit to this glorious city and I don’t think I could have had a better – or more exciting – introduction. Impossible to describe everything we saw, learned, listened to, or ate, so here, in no particular order, are just some brief glimpses of our unforgettable time in Florence.
Winter in Florence
We stayed at the Torre Guelfa , a beautifully renovated medieval palazzo little more than a stone’s throw from the Ponte Vecchio. In the mornings, we would climb its ancient tower in the clear early morning light and gazed over the city below, the Duomo absurdly photogenic against the distant hills – so near you felt you could reach out and touch it.
We visited the Palazzo Vecchio, where we saw the ‘Hall of the Five Hundred’ and made our way through a labyrinth of renaissance chambers and passageways. Then there was the Palazzo del Bargello, one of the oldest buildings in Florence, now a museum famous for its sculpture collection but with lots more to see. By a great stroke of luck, I ended up exploring its extensive collection of ceramics in the company of Jacqui Atkin who, as a professional ceramicist herself, turned out to be an amazing tour guide. Nothing like getting the guests to work! In the afternoon we walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce where we saw Giotto’s frescoes and Michelangelo’s tomb. I loved it but some people seemed to sympathise more with Lucy Honeychurch, in A Room with a View, when she and Miss Lavish: “drift into another Piazza, large and dusty, on the farther side of which rose a black-and- white facade of surpassing ugliness. Miss Lavish spoke to it dramatically. It was Santa Croce.”
One of the highlights of the week, for me, was our visit to the Uffizi – what a memorable experience it was. We had the huge advantage of being shown around by our wonderful guide, Helen – a professional artist herself – who was extremely knowledgeable, deeply perceptive and very funny.
She made our visit into a journey through the development of Renaissance art, so that we started by looking at the Roman sarcophagus at the entrance and then gradually came to understand how the artists of the Renaissance were trying to rediscover the classical way of looking at nature, breaking away from the symbolic style imposed by the Church.
One of the final paintings we looked at was Raphael’s Madonna del Cardellino (Madonna of the Goldfinch), painted in around 1505, which shows Mary looking on as the child Jesus reaches out to touch a small bird being cradled by John the Baptist.
If I’d been there on my own, I would have thought it was charming, beautifully painted image, but it took Helen to point out that the bird is a male goldfinch with the distinctive red spot where, according to legend, it got splashed with blood when pulling at the crown of thorns at the crucifixion. So the symbolism of this tender painting showing the beginning of Christ’s life also comes full circle to remind us where it will end. Powerful stuff. I also loved the moment when Helen showed us the breath of fresh air literally blowing through Renaissance art when we came to Leonardo’s Annunciation; we had seen many versions of this scene but Helen showed us how now you can see the breeze running across the canvas – and Mary is holding down the bible she is, by tradition reading – because if she lifts her fingers the pages will lift in the wind and she’ll lose her place.
Another highlight was the tour we took with Nikolaas, our enormously tall Dutch guide, whose love of his adopted city was obvious and infectious. He too took us on a journey, this time through the history of Florence, showing how there was a moment in time when the people of Florence realised that, instead of making their tough medieval fortresses look beautiful by draping them in banners, they should make buildings that were intrinsically beautiful. He took us to see the Magi Chapel in the Palazzo Medici where he knew the attendant and the seven minutes permitted in the small chapel stretched out quite a lot as the attendant was a friend.
It has to be admitted that, much to everyone else’s amusement, I was reduced to tears on a Florentine street corner as Nikolaas told us about Plato’s description of the soul being a charioteer who has two horses, a white one pulling towards heaven, which is barely glimpsed before the black horse of earthly desires pulls it back downwards. All art, Nikolaas told us, was seen as the soul trying to return upwards, to the heavenly home it had once glimpsed and was at the heart of the unifying theory of art which drove the Renaissance. Perhaps it was the way he told it.
Nikolaas also took us to the Palazzo Davanzati, a beautifully restored building from the early 14 th century which encapsulates the transition stage from medieval fortress to Renaissance building and was one of the most lovely places we saw in our time in Florence. The wall paintings were simply stunning, especially in the ‘Parrot’ room, where the tragic love story of the Chastelaine de Vergi is told in pictures running around the walls.
One of my favourite moments of the whole trip was on the day when we visited the Duomo and I walked into the Baptistery of St John for the first time. I had heard of its famous bronze doors but was unprepared for the glorious, golden ceiling – a triumph of Romanesque art. It was honestly tempting just to lie on the floor and stare at it for hours, especially when the sun filtered through and brought the gold mosaic to shimmering life.
See – running out of words and haven’t scratched the surface yet! I’ve not mentioned the wonderful meals we had, the spectacular performance of Gounod’s Faust we saw at the Teatro Comunale, our visit to the Palazzo Pitti and the lovely Boboli Gardens, our decadent cake-eating at the Caffé Paszkowski, the amazing morning exploring the new museum of the treasures of the Cathedral (Galleria dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore), full of stunning works of art, or our trip to the Convent of San Marco with Fra Angelico’s murals (and Savanarola’s habit).
But I do have to mention our visit to the Accademia. One is so familiar with the statue of David that I thought it would be one of those things you have to see but would be either over-familiar or even disappointing in reality. But, my goodness, it is an amazing thing to see in the flesh, as it were. I’m so glad I saw it. And the unfinished statues in the same gallery, which seem to be hauling themselves out of the marble.
In fact, I was meeting David for the second time. On the evening we arrived, I realised just what a great idea it is to visit Florence in January when I went for a stroll before dinner – it was warm enough to walk without a coat yet the streets were calm and free of crowds.
In a few minutes I reached the Piazzo Signoria and realised I was the only person there, just me and David in the moonlight – and a busker playing the flute offstage. Corny, but none the less magical. And Lucy Honeychurch came to love this place too: “She fixed her eyes wistfully on the tower of the palace, which rose out of the lower darkness like a pillar of roughened gold. It seemed no longer a tower, no longer supported by earth, but some unobtainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky.”
What more could you ask for? A trip to one of the world’s most beautiful and historic cities, with good company and excellent food. Only, I suppose, the promise to go back again soon.
To see the sun sink down, drowned on his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of colour that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature and make a sympathetic one drunk with ecstasy