We sailed into Livorno under a blazing Mediterranean sun. Sailing these waters is like sailing into the past – long stretches of barren coastline, little villages marked with their groves of olives and grapes, the sails of small boats dotting the water. Livorno is apparently the second largest shipping port in Tuscany – but a port where no work seems to get done.
The area here has been occupied since Neolithic times, with pieces of copper, ceramics and carved bones found in nearby caves. The Romans named the cove here Liburna, in reference to a ship used by their Navy. The town has been owned by Pisa, Milan, Genoa and Florence. Under the Medici the port expanded, and two Medici fortresses still dominate the port: the Fortezza Nuovo and the Fortezza Vecchia (Cosmio I had a palace built within the Fortress Vecchia). By the end of the 17th C had become a major trading port. (On a side note, the Italian Communist Party was founded here in 1921.)
A bus took us to the centre of town, stopping at the Comune di Livorno (or Town Hall). Already the day was hot, and the queues outside the Tourist Information ridiculously long; many would-be explorers sat in the few spots in the shade, fanning themselves with guide-books and maps. So, we simply wandered, as gently as the heat allowed.
The narrow Via del Porticcolo beckoned, which leads to the Via Borra, and so to the area of Livorno called either Little Venice or New Venice (Venice Nuovo). The Via Borra traverses a small island, lined with the houses of the nobility and important merchant families of the 17th and 18th C. It runs across the Ponte di Marmo, a delightful bridge with marble parapets and covered
with inscriptions left by Livornese boatmen for their loved ones.
Little Venice was designed by Medici architects in an effort to create the prefect city. The canals once linked the trading warehouses with the ships of the port. Most of the buildings date from the same time, giving a uniformity to design rarely seen in an Italian town. Wider than the canals of Venice, they are now filled with fishing boats and little outboards. Many of the streets are small winding lanes and, like Venice, it’s a great place to wander with no destination in mind, other than a morning coffee.
Where the Via Borra becomes the Via San Marco stands the Chiesa Santa Caterina. Like many Tuscan churches it has a façade of rough stone, but the octagonal façade is quite unusual. Founded by the Dominicans in 1720, it was not mentioned in any guide-books, but as the door stood open we went in. What an amazing find! A few hours away by bus is Florence, packed with tourists; we were the only people in the empty church. To one side, unmarked, I found a Coronation of the Virgin, once attributed to the School of Giotto but now considered to be by Vasari. Originally published in 1550, Vasari’s The Lives of The Artists, remains essential reading for anyone interested in this period of art. Often called the father of art history, he was the first to use the term Renaissance in print.
I had never seen a painting by Vasari before. (He also designed the Vasari corridor in Florence, as well as the loggia of the Uffizi, which opens onto the Arno. Not until coming home did I learn he was responsible for some of the frescoes adorning the cupola of Florence’s Duomo, as well as those on the walls in part of the Palazzo Vecchio.) The Chiesa Santa Caterina was empty, light and spacious, with side chapels opening off the central corridor. Being empty, there is plenty of room to step back and admire the detailing and the numerous trompe l’oil used to give depth.
There are so many hidden gems in these ports, and despite the crowds flagging and waiting for the bus to take them back to port, the main sights are virtually empty. A day trip to Florence would be spent mostly in a bus or a queue; Florence can’t be seen in that way. Here we got to wander at our leisure and see something new, and unexpected.
Continuing along the Scali del Pontino and Scali delle Cantine led us out of Little Venice and to the Piazza della Repubblica. Not far, along the Via Buontalenti is the Mercato Centrale. In the heat of the day, they were too far away to walk, but as we headed back towards the centre of town we came across some local markets, full of colour. We bought some cherries and tiny plums, which we ate back on board with a glass of local prosecco, which was redolent of apple.
From the Piazza della Republica the Via Grande runs past the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi. At first it seemed quite soulless after the Chiesa Santa Caterina. (The Piazza
Grande was once one of Europe’s largest and most impressive town squares, until the Palazzo Grande was unceremoniously erected in the middle.) This is mainly because the Duomo was completely destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943, and reconstruction was not completed until 1952. Hidden in a corner I found is a small The Suffering of Christ by Fra Angelico.
Afterwards, the Via Grande and the streets running back to the port-bus proved perfect, I found, for shopping amongst the arcades. A perfect way to end the day.
The Literary Traveller.
After discovering the Chiesa Santa Caterina, what else but Vasari’s Lives of the Artists? Published in 1550 and dedicated to Cosimo I, it is and arguably the first art history. The work is full of observation and anecdotes, some true, some delightfully apocryphal. The book begins with Cimabue and Giotto to culminate with Michelangelo, and deals with the evolution of art in this period. The first person to use the Word Renaissance in print, Vasari remains one of the most important primary and secondary sources on the art, and the techniques, of this period.
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