This is an extended version of a guest blog I wrote for mytravelintuscany.com – the rest will (eventually!) follow in another blog
See A Painting Finished By An Angel
The Piazza Santissima Annunziata is one of Florence’s most picturesque squares. It was designed by Brunelleschi, who also designed the two main buildings, the Spedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents) and the Bascilica della Santissima Annunziata, the mother church of the Servite order. In the 14th C the Servites commissioned The Annunciation from the Dominican friar and artist Fra Bartolomeo. A master of sfumato, Fra Bartolomeo combined his religious beliefs with a fresh realism and emotional depth, and during his lifetime his paintings decorated churches and monasteries across Florence, Venice and Lucca.
While working on The Annunciation, Fra Bartolomeo struggled to achieve an ethereal beauty for the Virgin’s face. Despairing of ever finishing the painting, legend holds the friar fell asleep, only to awaken and see an angel completing his work.
Touched by this miracle, the fame of the painting rapidly spread. So many thronged to view the miraculous painting that in 1444 the Medici bank-rolled the Bascilica della Santissima Annunziata, designed by Brunelleschi, to replace the original church, founded in 1250.
Time, centuries of exposure and poor restorations have not been kind to The Madonna. Today the miraculous Annunciation rests in a side chapel, usually obscured by oil lamps, candles and votive offerings – many a bride leaves her bouquet here, seeking the blessing of Our Lady.
Although the Virgin has not aged gracefully, the simple piety and faith of a gifted monk cannot be ignored – indeed, such things are the essence of Florence.
Walk Florence’s Medieval Streets
Resplendent under Brunellschi’s cupola, the Duomo remains the quintessential symbol of Florence. Beside her stands the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the city’s oldest and most revered building. Near the Via dello Studio (on the south side of the piazza) is a stone plaque marking where Dante once sat and watched the construction of the Duomo before he was exiled from his beloved city.
In these streets the Mediaeval world remains tangible. The Piazza Duomo still boasts
houses from that time, complete with their coat-of-arms. Donotello’s studios were at No 28 (replaced in the 16th century by the Palazzo Strozzi-Niccoline).
Especially around the Duomo, Florence’s maze of backstreets remain distinctly
mediaeval. Along the Via Santa Margherita stands the 11th C church of the same name, where Dante first saw the woman he immortalised in his poetry. (Beatrice is also buried here, along with other members of the Portinari family.)
One of Florence’s most beautiful streets – the Borgo degli Albizi – runs through what was the heart of the mediaeval town, while the Via de Calzaiuoli was her thoroughfare, linking the rising Duomo to the Palazzo Vecchio. Nearby are Mercato Nuovo. Despite their name, they have been popular since the 11th century.
Some private palaces survive, along with a few towers – or torre, although these were outlawed in 1250 to stop rival families competing in displays of wealth and power. The easiest torre to see are on the the Via delle Terms (named after the Roman baths which once stood here). Simply running my hand along a wooden door was enough to transport me to the past: it was inches thick to protect against the fears of the night or the thrust of a knife from a street skirmish. Near the Ponte Vecchio, the Via dei Neri bends as it follows the shape of the old Roman port; tablets along the length of the road mark the height of both the 1333 and 1966 floods.
Life in mediaeval times was not always so different to our own.
The Chalice Which Stopped The Plague
The Sant Ambrogio takes its name from the Chiesa Sant’Ambrogio. Although a tad understated in comparison to the other churches in the Florence, it is a place founded on legend. Dating back to at least 988 AD, it is one of the city’s oldest churches, and it is believed St Ambrose stayed on this site in 393 AD. A legend says that on 30th December 1230, the parish priest Uguccione found that a chalice which had not been cleaned contained blood rather than wine. The result: a Eucharistic miracle which made the church a place of pilgrimage.
The chapel to the left of the main altar is the Cappella del Miracolo. Here Cosimo
Rosselli’s painting shows a procession carrying this miraculous chalice; the Florentines believed the chalice helped save them from the plague in 1340. Of more interest, however, is the social commentary of the paintings; as always, Rosselli’s works are filled with his contemporaries, and the painter himself can be seen at the extreme left of the painting (wearing, naturally, a black beret).
From here it is but a short walk back towards the Arno, taking in Sante Croce, or perhaps The Horne Museum. Or, the better to clear the mind of a surfeit of artistic wonders, perhaps a gelato as you wander across the Ponte Vecchio, staring at all the gold on display and dreaming of buying a piece of jewellery or two.
Visit An Ancient Herbalist
Despite this surfeit of wonders, Florence’s past still lives. Specialty shops are all over Florence – whether selling books, ceramics or even furniture. The workshops of art restorers line the backstreets near the Uffizi.
Near the Santa Maria Novella, at no. 16 Via della Scala, is the Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Established by Dominican friars in 1221, it is one of the world’s oldest pharmacies. Open the door, and whisked away by intoxicating scents. Perfumes, lotions and remedies are still made to ancient recipes. Other ancient herbalists are to be found near the Piazza della Signoria, at Via Vacchereccia 9r, and Calimala 4r.
Stay In a Convent or Monastery
Convents and monasteries have offered hospitality to travellers for centuries. Simple rooms do not imply austerity: they are often to be found in Renaissance palaces, Medieval walled towns or set amongst olive groves and vineyards. Many hide artistic treasures; a painting by Rubens, or walls adorned by Fra Angelico. In Venice I stayed beside a quiet canal away from the tourist hordes; in Rome, I stayed at the top of the Spanish steps.
In Florence, the Casa Santo Nome di Jesu, is in a 15th C palazzo. I reached my room via a
marble staircase, under a trompe l’oeil ceiling of putti and plaster relief. The window overlooked a large garden filled with kiwi fruit, persimmons, pomegranates, grape vines and wisterias, with trunks as thick as my body. That evening, I sipped prosecco and nibbled some grapes purloined from the garden, all the while listening to a baroque choir (also guests) practicing for an upcoming performance.
Just down from the Duomo is the Sanctuary B&B, also a former 15th C palazzo. The Suore Oblate dell’Assunzione, in the Borgo Pinti, is also ideally located. With more religious orders embracing the computer age, they are becoming easier to find and book online (although my initial English email received a reply in French – I responded in French, and received an answer in English! All part of the adventure.)
So as always when travelling – explore, enjoy, and find the unexpected.