This is an extended version of a guest blog I wrote for mytravelintuscany.com – the rest will (eventually!) follow in another blog
The gypsy didn’t draw breath. Curses both florid and impressive showered down upon me and my descendants – a possibility my guidebook had failed to mention. The gypsy opened my eyes, however, to the fact Florence offers far more than any guidebook can suggest.
Padlock The Duomo
The views are reason enough to climb the Duomo’s 463 stairs. Impressively, many Italian women manage this feat in heels. In unobtrusive corners in the stairwell I found marks left from the medieval builders. Then, on descending, I traversed the inner ceiling at the height of the gods, at times almost a hand’s breadth away from Vasari’s frescos.
The steepest part of climb the Duomo is over the arch. This is the place to find lovelocks – padlocks placed by couples who then throw away the key, so declaring their undying love. Once I saw the padlocks, I discovered many more; one or two on a grille covering a window, on an opening, or an inconspicuous bar. The masses of lovelocks on the Ponte Vecchio are renowned (as they are on the Pont des Arts in Paris, and as frequently removed), yet placing one here, in the heights of the Duomo, felt incredibly personal.
Michelangelo’s First Works
Like his predecessor Leonardo, Michelangelo towers over the world of art. Yet every genius has a beginning. On the Via Ghibellina stands the Casa Buonarroti, a conglomeration of three houses once owned by Michelangelo.
Some of the maestro’s works on display include a slave intended for Julius II’s tomb, a small cartoon of the Madonna and Child, plus numerous paintings and some 250 sketches. The library alone contains over 10,000 volumes, which include many letters by Michelangelo, plus family archives. Amongst the homage to the artist and his times is an eclectic collection of work by his descendants.
The scope of Michelangelo’s genius is hinted in a small marble bas-relief, The Madonna of the Steps, carved between 1490-92 when he was only 15 or 16. Many see the influence of Donatello in this work. At the time Michelangelo lived in the Medici household, where the sculpture garden displayed newly discovered ancient works. This influence can be seen in his Battle of the Centaurs, with the male torso twisted in a muscular tension which became a dominant theme in both his sculpture and paintings. As with his later works, Michelangelo contrasts rough marble with the highly finished sculpture.
Eat Like A Local
The Casa Buonarroti is in the Sant’Ambrogio district, a vibrant area of Florence filled with more locals then tourists. Just east of Michelangelo’s house is the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, a smaller, and far less touristy version of the San Lorenzo food markets. Lunch at one of the tavola calda (a stall selling snacks or meals) is always a bargain, the prices dropping further still in the last hour of trading.
Why not throw caution to the wind and seek out a traditional trippaio (tripe food stand). These offer a range of hot and cold choices, including the traditional lampredotto sandwich, once an inexpensive meal for the working classes. The fourth stomach of the cow is cooked in broth with herbs and tomatoes, thinly sliced then placed on a broth-soaked bun with a choice of accompanying sauces.
A Robe Worn By St Francis
Founded in 1256, the Franciscan Chiesa di Ognissanti was once the parish church of the wealthy Vespucci family. Amerigo, the family’s most famous son, set sail to the New World – twice, in 1499 and 1501 – and proved the land to be a seperate continent and
not an extension of the Indies, as it was then believed. From his detailed notes cartographers drew the first maps of this land and also named the continent after him. (The maps can be seen a few streets away in the Museo di Storiadella Science.)
Like many a Florentine church, the Ognissanti could easily be an art gallery. Paintings by Ghirlandaio adorn the wall (a young Amerigo can be seen in his Madonna della Misericordia, circa 1472). In the refectory is Ghirlando’s Last Supper, which proved such an inspiration for Leonardo. Giotto’s Madonna and Child With Angels resides above the main altar, and a crucifix has recently been attributed to him. There are also works by Botticelli, who is buried in the south transept.
Amidst these wonders, in an unmarked side chapel, are the robes believed by many to be those worn by St Francis when he received the stigmata on Mount Verna in 1225 (distinct from the robes in the Bascilica Sante Croce). They are simply displayed, and easily overlooked, and rarely mentioned in any tourist guide.
The Chiesa di Ognissanti is at Borgo Ognissanti 42, a short stroll from the Ponte Vecchio.
Where Leonardo Tried To Fly
Overlooking Florence is the delightful hill town of Fiesole. Founded by the Etruscans and once a rival to Florence, it became a favourite summer retreat for the likes of the Medici (and now the Prince of Wales). The nearby caves of Maiano were famous for the pietra fiesolana, favoured by many a Medieval and Renaissance sculptor.
A walk through the forest above Fiesole leads to the Monteciceri Hill. A small plaque (notoriously difficult to find, and I swear it moves between visits) marks the spot where Leonardo tried to fly in 1506. A misguided volunteer had some wings strapped to his back before leaping off the edge of the hill. He was lucky to escape with a few broken bones; Leonardo suffered broken pride.
And the gypsy? Perhaps guessing I don’t believe in curses, her flow of expletives came to a colourful end, and she simply wandered away, cornered another tourist, and began again.
The Literary Traveller
Midway through Life’s journey,
I found myself in a dark wood wandering…
What else to read, when in Florence, but Dante’s [easyazon_link identifier=”0679433139″ locale=”US” tag=”aharrison20-20″]Divine Comedy[/easyazon_link]?