Tuesday, September 4, 2007

humanist perspective

If you go to the Galleria Palatina in Florence's Pitti Palace, you'll notice that the many rooms along the very long building all have the doors in the same location. So if you're standing at one end, you can look down through all the doors in all the rooms to the very end. It's an apt Florentine experience, since Florence was the center of Renaissance art, and the Renaissance artists finally figured out perspective.

The seams of Florence are busting with art. I spent more money here on museums than anywhere else so far, and it was all worth it.

The Uffizi

The mothership of Renaissance art is the Uffizi - the Offices, of the Medici. Having cultivated so much greatness, maybe the Medici can be pardoned for having spawned a couple of corrupt popes. Long entrance lines are standard, and reservations are recommended. Since I spaced on making one, and fearing a repeat of my Vatican ordeal, I hoof it down there early on my first Florence morning, hoping to make an in-person reservation for later that day or two days later. And there's hardly a line at all. The gallery isn't even open yet, so I just hop in line, kill time by scribbling in my journal, and one hour later I'm in the door. My bag again goes through an x-ray machine, and this time I hand over my swiss army knife to security.

The Uffizi has been around for centuries, and much of collection has been here for centuries as well. The main hallways are lined with statues, but the true treasure trove is the rooms full of Renaissance masterpieces, including Botticelli's Primavera and The Birth of Venus (or, Venus on the Half Shell). Also Michelangelo, Titian, and Leonardo's Annunciation. One of my favorites was a painting (my notebook was in the bag check, so I couldn't write down the artist and forgot), that had evidently had its bottom section sliced off at some point - a pair of rabbit ears are clearly visible, but the rest of the bunny is missing. I spent three hours inside, which is only enough time to walk through all the rooms and give almost everything a look. But it's only about as much time as I can spend in museums like this; after some point my brain reaches peak saturation and stops absorbing any information.

Exiting the Uffizi, I get a gelato to help plan my next move. Since Italy is so hot, I usually get fruit flavors, since they seem more refreshing than the standard chocolate I would usually go for. On this day I get passion fruit. Tasty!

Pitti Palace

I decide to spend the rest of the afternoon at the enormous Pitti Palace, a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Uffizi over the Ponte Vecchio, the Old Bridge, lined with gold and jewelry shops. If you're a Medici, and need to escape Florence, you can bug out via the enclosed second level that connects to the Uffizi. Since I'm not a Medici, I take the pavement, sliding past the street vendors selling knock-off designer purses.

The Pitti Palace is so big you need to buy separate entrance tickets for its various museums and collections. Tickets in hand, and 20.50 euro lighter, I head first to the Galleria del Costume. I hit every gift shop on my way out trying to find postcards of the swanky outfits they had there, but for some reason fashion isn't deemed postcard-worthy, which is a damn shame. All Italian postcards are of works that everyone already knows about (Three Graces, et al), which is exactly not what I'm looking for. A tailored women's suit from the early 1900s is one of my favorites, but the collection includes items from the 1700s through Vivienne Westwood, an array of handbags and purses, and of course, shoes. I think a requirement of any costume/fashion exhibit is to be able to walk entirely around each piece, which this exhibit does not always allow. I still recommend it, anyway.

The Galleria Moderna has a special exhibit entitled Music on Stage, featuring designs of productions from 70 years of a Florentine music festival. There are a bunch of costumes worn by a bunch of opera legends, including Renata Tebaldi. Design sketches included Derek Jarman's The Rake's Progress, and costume by Jean-Paul Gaultier; moving in for a closer look, I manage to set off some alarm. Perhaps a bead of perspiration was threatening to plop into the case. The exhibit starts in its own room, and then is scattered throughout the Gallery, the walls of which are dripping with paintings. I study the Raphaels, but at this point my eyes are glazing over, and I'm not taking in most of what's there.

A stroll through the Medici apartments shows me how the incredibly wealthy other half lived a few centuries ago. As with the Galleria Borghese, no centimeter of space is left bare; everything is covered, draped, painted, carved, or ornamented. There are a lot of fancy tables featuring very elaborate inlay, but my favorite piece of furniture here is a table with an enormous malachite top. This piece, probably incapable of sustaining any damage from visitors' greasy fingers, was roped off several feet away, while the inlaid table were right there for the touching, if you chose to ignore the signs pleading for you to keep your paws off.

Even though Florence sort of feels like an oven on this day, I spend some time strolling the Boboli Gardens, to get fresh air if nothing else. The gardens have nice landscaping, but otherwise I find them a little on the dull side. Like the palace, they cover acres of ground, so getting around on horseback would no doubt have improved the experience; sadly, there are no steeds in sight.

Science Museum

A museum to truly tax your brain (in a good way) and stamina is the Museo di Storia della Scienza. Located just behind the Uffizi, but with a miniscule fraction of the visitors, this museum rivals the Uffizi as the best in Florence. The Uffizi is filled with beautiful things, no doubt about that. The Science Museum is filled with beautiful things that do stuff; things that measure, calculate, and reveal. The Renaissance wasn't just about art, it was a fertile time for science as well, and many of the main Renaissance men were both artists and scientists, Visionaries and inventors. Balances, astrolabes, optical instruments to see big things far away and little things up close, surgical instruments, mathematical instruments, Archimedes' screws, compasses, globes, mechanical clocks, chemistry glassware, armillary spheres, quadrants, sextants, and octants. One military compass could snap together to become a dagger - no more being unpleasantly surprised by your enemy while you plot your next strategic move. And, Galileo's middle finger, in the same room with his telescopes. Besides having contributed to the discoveries that laid the foundations of a lot of modern science, the instruments in this collections are works of art in themselves, having been fashioned in the day when craftsmen made things that not only worked well, but looked beautiful. You don't really find that so much these days; I mean, I have a Starrett ruler that I think is actually quite pretty, but some intaglioed curlicues would really dress it up.

When I finally think I can't take in anymore and head out, I find two more special exhibits - thankfully small in scale, or else my higher functions may have shut down. The first highlights the many sundials in Florence. I would never have known that this city had so many; they are hiding in plain sight for anyone who knows what to look for. And the last - bicycles from the late 1800s. Unfortunately, the only information on this was presented in Italian, but it did have the most gorgeous pennyfarthing I've ever seen that needed no words. Most of the parts looked like they were cast from patterns, and it was an exercise in elegant curves. Except for lacking a front tire, it appeared to be in good enough shape to ride. There were maybe only 15-20 bikes total in the exhibit, and I kept circling back to this one, just to stand and gaze. I may have been swaying and drooling a bit.

And again, no postcards. Darn! I had a whole list of people I thought would benefit from a postcard from this museum, and the gift shop failed me.

Inspired by the sundial exhibit, I go to seek out a couple. My mission to Santa Maria Novella is foiled by the facade being covered for restoration. I do find the one on the Ponte Vecchio, which indicates the canonical hours of prayer rather than the hours of the day.

Speaking of bikes, there are a lot of them in Florence. Many people are merrily pedaling along, but there are also racks crammed with bikes, half of which seem abandoned. I mean, when was the last time someone sat on this:


Most people come to the Accademia to see one thing, and one thing only. David. And there he is, furrowed brow and sling, steely eyes looking to Goliath, and not at the mass of reverential tourists gathered at his feet. The information plaque tell us that the moment depicted is after Goliath has taken a stone between the eyes, but I've read elsewhere that the moment is before. Which I think explains better his focused expression, and what appears to be a stone in his right hand. More research is needed.

The statue is so well known, and most of us have seen images of it all our lives, so it's easy to be apathetic about going to view it in person; what are you going to see that you haven't seen before? You see a lot of detail, which is probably what sets David apart from most statues. My appreciation of David isn't so much in his perfect human form, it's that his perfect human form came from one piece of marble. Along the hallway leading to David are Michelangelo's Prisoners, all of which are unfinished and demonstrate work in progress. The forms are all half-emerged from the marble, and still bear marks from the chisels. As lovely as finished statues are, I find the process of making them just as fascinating. Looking at Michelangelo's half-finished work just makes you realize how talented he was to finish a piece that's the caliber of David.

I wish the Accademia had constructed some sort of second tier in order to view David at his upper half. There's a little interactive flyaround video presentation, but it doesn't capture all the detail the naked eye could see. Humanity today is destined to view David from his feet up.

The Accademia isn't as extensive as the Uffizi, but still has its fair share of Renaissance eye candy. I'm getting a little Bible-storied out, so I'm not taking in too many of the religious works (unless there's something gory going on). I always enjoy looking at musical instruments, and there are two exhibits of these. One is the permanent collection. In addition to a horde of Stradivariuses, it also has an odd pianoguitar, which looks like a mandolin with a little keyboard placed below the bridge. Apparently this was fashioned for ladies, so they wouldn't damage the beauty of their fingertips by plucking the strings. You hear that, all you lady guitar players? According to 17th century (or was it 18th? I really need to start writing stuff down) aesthetics, you're sullied. Well, at least your fingertips are. And did you know that the wife of Louis XV played a mean hurdy-gurdy? She probably got invited to all the best parties. There's also a special exhibition of remarkable instruments - guitars and harpsichords made from marble, zoomorphic instruments, elaborate painting, carving and inlay.


As with many towns, one of the signature buildings of Florence is its cathedral, with its red dome, the Duomo. The cathedral was built before the technology and know-how existed to raise the dome, which Filippo Brunelleschi finally managed to do in the 15th century. Word is he took a chunk from the dome of Rome's Pantheon to study it, and there is indeed a chunk of the Pantheon dome missing.

The exterior of the cathedral is green and white marble. I was sort of expecting just the standard grey stone, so got a good surprise when I came across it. I like how the cathedral is sort of crammed into its location; there's a plaza in front of it, but the back end comes almost up to the street, and right across from it, it's business as usual with shops. Florence has lots of narrow streets, which makes it good for walking; one side is generally in the shade.

For a close to bird's eye view of Florence, you can climb either the Duomo or the Campanile right next to it. Advised that the Campanile lines were shorter, I chose that one. It's slightly shorter than the Duomo, but 414 steps later, you get to see the Duomo at eye level. I need a few minutes to acclimate to the height, and step slowly with a hand against the building. Why all the red rooftops? I don't know, but want to find out.

wifi. finally!

Hostel Archi Rossi can only be described as funky. The walls are covered in murals of famous paintings, and less famous scribblings from the guests that have passed through over the years. The have a webcam in the lobby, so at any time on their website, you can watch a Florentine hostel lobby and see who's passing through. And, they have wifi, which is how I finally updated this blog through Naples. Unfortunately, they also have a dearth of electrical outlets, so I'm either running down my battery in the lobby, or charging up in the mess hall. I did spend part of one evening sitting the hallway in front of my room, but since it was a major thoroughfare, was pretty much in everyone's way. I finally found a sort of solution in the laundry room; one outlet, weak wireless signal, dryer for a desk. But I could also safeguard my four pairs of underwear while they were line-drying. The hostel is full of noisy American twenty-somethings, but also has a nice garden with shade and grass. Plus you get to watch sparrows invade the mess hall in the morning, to be subsequently chased out by an old Italian lady. But they kept coming back.

Should you enjoy fine leather products, you should plan a trip to Florence. At the end of my city perambulations, I unexpectedly came across the School of Leather at the back of Santa Croce church. Not exactly where I'd expect to find a leather school, but they have a showroom, goods for sale, and you can check out their workshops. Since I was en route to the train station, I had only enough time for a cursory swing through, but got to see students stamping initials, forming bags, and sewing bag handles, all at tables strewn with tools. It was heartening to see old fashioned craftsmanship alive and well.

Florence highlights the one issue I've encountered with this extended trip of mine, and that is that I didn't have enough time to get fully informed before I started. I know it's unrealistic to know everything about a city and thousands of works of art, but I do wish I could approach all these places with a better arsenal of knowledge, to really be able to appreciate all the things I'm seeing. I hope I'll see them again some day. Referring to guidebooks only helps so much, and generally when I find an internet connection, I need to spend time plotting out my next moves, rather than researching art and history. Of the few cities I've seen so far, I want to spend more time here; I didn't get in nearly enough time to do my favorite new city activity, which is just to walk the streets without worrying about where I'm going.

On my last night in Florence I went out in the evening for a stroll and a gelato (mixed fruit with chocolate). I sat on one of the bridges, looking at the Ponte Vecchio and full moon reflected in the River Arno. It was real pretty. Too bad I didn't have my camera. You'll just have to come see it for yourself.

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