Florence I: Red Meat

On our last night in Florence, we decided to splash out by booking a good trattoria and ordering the signature dish of the city; the bistecca alla fiorentina, a huge slab of beefsteak on the bone, cooked very rare. It is expensive, and priced by the kilogram. When we asked for it, the waiter said the smallest piece going that night was 1.2kg. A few minutes later, a mountain of steak was set down before us. Cooked to the brink of charcoal on the outside and scarcely at all on the inside, it was rich, juicy, well-seasoned, full of flavour and quite hard work; they talk about rare meat being pink on the inside but this was the purple of the Fiorentina football shirt. You have to apply some elbow grease to cut through the tendons and chew the meat, yet it is soft and slides gently down the throat. Our tactic was to dive in without abandon in the hope that most of the steak would be eaten by the time the message that we were full got from our stomachs to our brains. The mood of decadence was heightened by the fact that house wine was only sold by the litre, meaning that I put away a bottle of wine at the same time and left the place punchdrunk. The richness and the excess and the struggle to take it all in seemed to sum up the experience of visiting Florence.

Florence is the Tuscan capital, with all that goes with it, and as a place in which to simply hang out I found it less satisfying than Siena. Without wishing to sound like Alan Partridge, they haven’t pedestrianised much of Florence city centre, so instead of strolling the wide cobbled streets carefree, you will spend your time on pavements so narrow that friends and lovers alike need to walk single file, and slow walkers are the cause of continual pedestrian pile-ups. Florence is the tourist ground zero for a region of Italy in which, should you walk into a bar, greet the cashier/barista and order a coffee in Italian, the automatic response will be an English “would you like an americano or an espresso?” and it often feels as if Americans outnumber Italians, with Japanese girls not far behind.

However, as far as art is concerned Florence, beats anywhere I can think of hands down. They were never a military major player and Renaissance art was the conduit for their soft power, sending Leonardo and Michelangelo to Milan and Rome to transmit humanist ideas. I find that a particular art form will capture my imagination for a few years, until I am exhausted with it and get into something else; since the age of 20 I have devoured music, cinema, novels and at the moment I think it’s the fresco cycle. Italian fresco cycles seem to me to be the great novel, or the six-part HBO series, of their age. It was where the creative energy went; they still crackle and fizz with tension. An unfamiliar story is always enjoyable but the most popular ones are repeated so often (Life of the Virgin, Passion of the Christ) that it becomes the singer not the song; each painter steps forward to give his own unique interpretation of a standard, like a dozen singers covering ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’.

We arrive on the 70 minute non-stop bus from Siena, which zooms across more lovely views before hitting the edge of the city and depositing us in a daze outside Santa Maria Novella station. Sitting in a valley basin instead of on a hilltop, Florence is always 3C warmer than Siena in the forecasts and you can feel it right away. After hanging out in towns like San Gimignano, we feel like people from Kansas that have just stepped off the greyhound in Times Square, and standing around here without our bearings seems equivalent to wearing a sandwich board reading ‘Take Me For A Ride’, so with a vague idea of where our flat is we rush off down Via Nazionale, and immediately feel like prize chumps dragging our wheelie suitcase along those narrow pavements. We stop at a busy bakery to buy a white pizza-ish thing with aubergine and cheese sauce as we wait for check-in time. The streets have the same slightly off smell that we noticed in Pisa, presumably from the drains after a very dry summer.

Our flat is on Via degli Alfani, one of the arterial west-to-east streets that sits between the Duomo and Accademia. It takes a while to find because of Florence’s unique street numbering scheme. Although not as fiendish as Venice’s, under which my home address would be something like ‘75810 Lewisham’, it gives blue numbers to residencies and red numbers to shops and businesses, reds and blues having no mutual relevance (hence restaurants will have the house number ‘73R’, for 73 Red, and the blue ones will be of no help to you in finding it). After we’ve tried all the buzzers and had angry tenants stick their heads out the window, a car pulls up and a heavily pregnant redhead jumps out to show us inside. The flat really needed modernising but it was very cheap, and it all feels a bit New York; separate kitchen, sitting area, bedroom and bathroom are carved out of a small space with ingenuity. Over the next few days, although we get sick of having to cut through the Leicester Square chaos of Piazza Duomo every time we go out, it is quite an audacious thrill to have Brunelleschi’s masterpiece act as the backdrop to your quotidian life.

After a sit down to recover from the journey, we head out to look at some Florence, starting with Orsanmichele. The Orsanmichele, a condensation of ‘St Michael in the garden’, is several stories high and one of the more prominent buildings on the city’s skyline. It looks far more like a fortress/palazzo than a church and has a very atypical backstory, having over the centuries been a monastery’s allotment garden, a proper church, a grain store, a trading hall, and again a church with upper stories for emergency grain storage.

In the late C14th the exterior received 14 niches for sculptures, with the city’s trade guilds providing one each. The guilds dragged their heels for years, until threatened that they would lose their niche to a rival if it was not filled by the end of the year, which brought on an impromptu sculpture competition in which each tried to outdo the others by commissioning heavyweights like Donatello, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi and Verocchio. The statues on show now are replicas, with the originals in the upper floor museum; the guide books say it is free and open daily, but it never was at any time that we tried our luck. The copies are amiable enough, with some interesting juxtapositions, and it’s interesting to see a few group pieces; a bronze of Doubting Thomas poking Christ’s wounds by Verocchio and Nanni di Banco’s quartet of martyrs stood out.

The dark interior is dominated by a very fancy tabernacle by Orcagna, built to house an old Madonna col Bambino that was no doubt an object of great devotion.

After finding a supermarket we spend the early evening heading out to San Miniato al Monte, the monastery basilica church across the Arno river that looks down on Florence from its perch. You can spot it on the hilltop as you cross Ponte delle Grazie, but it’s quite a hike to get up there. A ridiculous amount of people have had the same idea, but thankfully few of them get past Piazzale Michelangelo, the car park/viewpoint that you find three-quarters of the way up. San Miniato himself, in the saintly tradition, carried his head up here after being decapitated by the underrated Emperor Decius.

The masses are not to be blamed for wanting to watch the sun set behind Florence. It’s a very good feeling to see Palazzo Vecchio, Brunelleschi’s Dome, Ponte Vecchio, San Lorenzo and all the surrounding hills spread out before you like a charcuterie platter, and to know that for the next five days your biggest problem will be deciding which important masterpieces to leave out.

San Miniato is C11th, and its smooth facade is emblematic of the Florentine style; the Duomo and Santa Croce are plastered with Victorian marble, but this is the pure form of which they are offering a only debased imitation. It is Romanesque but you seem to see the Renaissance already in the harmony of its form. The lovely mosaic of a seated Christ is the size of a postage stamp, allowing you to take in all of the facade’s components without anything being drowned out.

On the inside, this very old church has suffered vastly less interference from the following centuries than is customary, and as such has kept a strikingly atmospheric feel. Lanky, slender pillars and Romanesque arches support a timber roof. The teal-on-white motif of diamonds and squares continues in the upper walls, leading to another lavish tabernacle, and behind, an upper level with a large mosaic apse surrounded by more Arabicé geometry, carved little Romanesque men and animals, and a lower level crypt, each accessed by flights of stairs at either side. The Byzantine mosaic is quite something, cramming a large Christ Pantocrator and his throne, the Virgin, San Miniato, the avatars of the four evangelists and a menagerie of various birds into a relatively small space. You need a €2 coin to illuminate the mosaics for five minutes, but as the church is free entry it would be churlish to object.

I’m just taking a furtive peek at Aretino’s Life of St Benedict cycle in the sacristy -they say there’s an entrance fee but no-one is around to take it- when a gaggle of monks burst through a door and rush down to the crypt for evening mass, so we take our place in front. I’m glad we did as it was an old-school experience, all in Latin and almost all sung. One of the monks looks 100 years old if he’s a day, and has to be held by the hand as he gingerly steps up to the lectern for his piece. The master of ceremonies is adept at singing and waltzes through the mass as if he were flipping burgers; with a gawping and impious horde of tourists for a congregation, he must feel as if he actually is.

By the time mass has concluded the sun is properly beginning to sink, and the facade of San Miniato has a warm orange tint. Despite the crowds and the tat sellers and the ubiquitous email harvesters begging tourists to sign their “petition against drugs”, we are breathing quite rarified air up here. At the flat we have a quiet night in with a bottle of Vermentino and the best melanzane alla parmigiana I can muster from a rather rudimentary oven.

Mid-morning on day two and we’re out again; this time to visit Santa Croce, the great Franciscan cathedral in Florence’s east end (note Bernardino’s monogram on the front). This is C13th, albeit with a naff Victorian facade that Brian Sewell memorably compares to Hammersmith shopping centre, and the €8 ticket may reflect the church’s status as an Italian Panthéon-cum-Westminster Abbey, with many eminent nationals either buried here or given memorial sculptures/tablets. As is so often the way with Franciscan churches, the saint’s ideal of taking poverty for a bride are difficult to reconcile with the immense wealth on display; most people come here for the frescoes in the side chapels, all of which were sponsored by the blingiest banking families in town.

The queue is long but it moves swiftly, and the interior is cavernous enough that the streams of visitors disperse quickly and easily. Santa Croce is very much a church of two halves, the nave being big and bare like the churches in Siena. A very good pulpit by Benedetto da Maiano depicts the life of Francis in panels, whilst the walls are an allsorts mixture of plaques dedicated to national heroes and a substantial number of tombs. Galileo, Ghiberti and Machiavelli are in there, the likes of Marconi represent the modern age, Dante has a memorial although he rests in Ravenna, and there’s Vasari’s comically hideous tomb for Michelangelo.

Most of the others are C19th romantic efforts in which dainty weeping girls lean on neo-classical structures, but particularly striking are two tombs to humanist scholars and Florentine chancellors, Bruni and Marsuppini. They signal a sea change; the tomb centres on what look like accurate, life-size portraits of the men at rest, with Mary & Jesus pushed out to the periphery. Marsuppini is said not to have had confession and communion on his deathbed, and one wonders if he actually wanted to be buried in a church.

The top of the church is very much the business end. Working from right to left, we begin with the Castellani chapel, frescoed with the lives of four saints by Agnolo Gaddi. These include some unusual picks; St Nicholas of Bari and St Antonio Abate. Saint Nick rescues lots of sailors and children, as expected, but there are some quite weird and wonderful goings-on in the other panels.

Next up is the Baroncelli chapel, and a Life of the Virgin by Taddeo Gaddi, Agnolo’s dad and Giotto’s star pupil, with some of the first night scenes in painting. It’s charming that the dog watching the sheep looks quite peeved to see an angel summoning his master, whilst the three wise men are summoned by a floating baby that radiates as much light as an alien invasion in a disaster movie.

A corridor leads to the Medici chapel, with a coloured altarpiece of glazed terracotta and some outsized paintings like Bronzino’s oddly carnal Christ in Limbo. Off the corridor is the frescoed sacristy, where most of the focus is on Cimabue’s giant crucifix that was ruined in the terrible life-taking floods of 1966, but I am most taken with the frescos by Taddeo Gaddi and Aretino. As soldiers sleep around the resurrected Christ rising from his tomb, they look just like the Millwall defence giving someone a free header from a corner kick.

Back in the main body of the church, the next items of note are the Peruzzi and Bardi chapels, painted by Giotto but in a maddeningly poor condition today. The restorers have done their best but someone covered them in whitewash in the C18th, and there was a botched attempt at restoration in the C19th. It’s a tragedy because the Scrovegni in Padua shows how great he was, and here you can see enough to know how great these ones were. The Baptist’s head is presented at Herod’s feast, a man is pulled heavenwards by an angel; these would once have been scenes of intense feeling. The figures are still discernible and the composition is perfect, but the colours have washed away and the faces are lost. It’s like coming across and buying a book by your favourite author, then finding out that it is a Sanskrit translation.

The Bardi chapel is in slightly better nick, even though some muppet attached a tomb to the wall over the funeral of St Francis; the faces are still intact here and carry so much of Giotto’s impact. Note the doubting Thomas whose fingers penetrate Francis’ wounds. For once, Francis actually looks astonished and rather frightened to see a tiny, pink-winged Jesus appear above him and use lasers to mark him with the stigmata; as one presumably would be, saint or no saint.

We have worked our way around to the altar by this point, where the chancel frescoes are the work of Agnolo Gaddi and more numerous than one can properly take in.

The story depicted is the Legend of the True Cross; I’ve seen a few of these, particularly the smashing Piero della Francesca one at Arezzo, but I still find them incomprehensible. The wood from the Tree of Knowledge in Eden is supposed to have passed into the hands of Solomon, and the Queen of Sheba, is then used for Christ’s crucifix, gets buried and is later found by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and the woman who changed history by getting him to make it the Roman Empire’s state religion. Cynics might suggest that Helena got her hands on any old piece of timber and decided to confer political significance upon it. The scenes are certainly full of action, however obscure.

The chapels on the other side of the altar are cordoned off for prayer, but you still have a good view of Donatello’s wooden crucifix. Brunelleschi scolded him for making Jesus look like “a peasant”, but isn’t that the point? He looks handsome, more human than God, and the wounds slightly prefigure the gory sculptures that would soon become the fashion in Spain.

The first long cloister as you leave the main church ends with the Pazzi Chapel, named after the banking family who launched an unsuccessful coup against the Medicis by trying to kill Lorenzo the Magnificent during mass in the Duomo (they got Lorenzo’s brother, but not him), but more readily associated with Brunelleschi, architect of the great Duomo dome and so much else in Florence; this is one of the signature buildings of the Renaissance, light and uplifting. It gives me a bit of a thrill to view it from the same arcade that Kenneth Clark sits under in Civilisation.

It’s a cliché to call this chapel harmonious, but the extreme attention paid to symmetry and the very uncluttered interior gives it a serene, satisfying feel. What else to call it? The Brunelleschi style is round arches with fairly slender pillars or pilasters, often Corinthian, and small roundels for decoration. It’s certainly not Gothic, but nor is it a entirely a retro retread through the Greco-Roman. The walls are cream with a neat grey trim, the light from tall windows sweeps away gargoyles, gloom and melodrama with the clean broom of rationalism.

The first cloister leads to Brunelleschi’s inner cloister, which employs the same organising principles. Even by the usual standards of a cloister there is an immense sense of peace and stillness, perhaps helped by the fact that barely any visitors get this far.

After a morning of great art, we continue eastwards to the not-yet-gentrified Sant’Ambrogio area and have lunch at a proper Neapolitan pizzeria. The decor includes a cheeky Last Supper with Sophia Loren as Jesus and other famous Neapolitans playing the twelve apostles, and the pizzas are better than their London imitators (even if the coperto of €2 per head is a bit much). Having refuelled, we cross the iconic and crowd-heavy Ponte Vecchio and pass the rusticated Palazzo Pitti, home of the latter-day Medicis, in search of La Specola.

My girlfriend did a book last year about the Anatomical Venus, one of whom is kept in this medical museum, and it seemed like a good way to break up the religious art. The experience was a bit like condensing a post-graduate degree into a few weeks, and she tries to summarise the backstory for me; in the C18th, there was an enlightenment Pope who actively promoted science in order to piss off the Medici, whom he thought excessively Catholic (no, really), and one of his things was commissioning anatomically accurate waxworks of our insides. The Anatomical Venus was a beautiful waxwork woman whose torso opened up and whose organs could be taken out and examined; these creatures would tour Europe in fairs, and men would go to ogle their bodies under the cover of education and self-improvement. The waxworks come at the end of a very long zoological display, a C19th attempt to gather up every living thing under the sun, Noah-like, in the hope that God’s plan would become apparent. We see beetles and spiders the size of small dogs, all manner of funny little foxes, owls and birds with ridiculous plumage. Three primates are placed next to an empty booth for ‘Man’, which I suppose the visitor is supposed to stand inside for a photo opportunity. It’s all quite diverting and the only section that makes me feel revulsion or anger is a room of Vittorio Emmanuele’s hunting trophies, where a canvas seat uses two elephant’s ears for its back.

Finally we get to our anatomical waxworks. Of the hundreds in the collection, all but three are made by the serious scientist Clemente Susini, and they are very accurate and quite legitimate. The other three are grand guignol cabinets of horrors made by a Sicilian called Gaetano Zumbo, who was hired by the penultimate Medici ruler, Cosimo III. Tuscany had all gone horribly wrong by this point and Cosimo was a Jesuit-indoctrinated moralist and hypochondriac whose myriad busybody laws suggest a deep anxiety about what people get up to in their spare time. Zumbo’s cabinets show Florence during the plague, with the intention of horrifying/titillating Duke Cosimo. The dying have been tossed on top of the dead, bodies are in varying stages of decomposition, weeping infants cling to the breasts of their dead mothers, and there are some extra-grisly flourishes like rats tugging on the intestines.

No such prurience in the works of Susini (well, a bit). There are painstakingly detailed reproductions of everything under the skin, down to each individual vein and nerve ending. The last room focuses on genitals, foetuses and three models of the Venus, one with her lid closed over and two with the internal organs opened up.

I find the Venus disturbing because she has been quite sexualised; she doesn’t look dead, but ready for love, wearing nothing but a pearl necklace and a dreamy expression. Open the chest, however, and all the blood and guts that make us are on display. The attracted/disgusted Male Gaze that ensues is the stuff that has inspired ten thousand slasher movies.

The gardens of La Specola lead straight into the Boboli and no-one is around to check the tickets, not that I would encourage anyone to try and bunk in. The Boboli is a favourite but the parks we saw in Italy generally looked a bit run-down, with lawns yellowing in the excess heat and weeds popping up all over the place; there is at least one domain where the Brits score better.

From the Porta Romana we take a stroll through the Oltrarno; like the rest of old Florence, it is mostly dark and narrow streets in the shadow of tall palazzi, but it does have a different feel to the centre; it is very much like Rome’s Trastevere, in that the pace of life is a little less frenetic on this side of the river. The bars and cafés feel like neighbourhood joints, not frenetic pile-em-high shops serving armies of office workers, tour groups, &c. On our way back we ponder one of Brunelleschi’s last buildings, the Santo Spirito church, which is not open but has an interesting facade, no less elegant for being pancake flat and devoid of pilasters, columns, niches or statues of forbidding saints- perhaps more so for it.

After crossing the Arno we find another church on the corner of posh shopping street Via Tornabuoni that is open, nip inside, and strike gold; Santa Trinita is free entry, and has some fantastic art. There is another lovely Annunication in which Mary gazes up at the baby-transmitting Jesus avatar in the sky and points to herself as if to say “Me? Are you sure you can’t find anyone else?”, and a Life of the Virgin by Monaco (good as this is, I am beginning to feel that I’ve seen quite enough lives of the Virgin), as well as a spooky crypt.

Best, though, is the chapel to the right of the altar, entirely frescoed by Ghirlandaio. It was commissioned by a Medici banker family, the Sassetis, and shows husband and wife kneeling either side of a Ghirlandaio nativity painting, beneath a Life of St. Francis fresco cycle. The panels are legion; Francis takes holy orders, is asked to walk through fire, is robed by the bishop of Assisi after giving away his possessions, preaches to the birds (I think), and brings back to life a little blond boy outside this very church before his own funeral scene wraps things up.

As always, there is much more going on and Ghirlandaio puts in a couple of self-portraits, as if to remind you who you should be worshipping here (he even points at the baby Jesus as if to ask who this upstart thinks he is). As you look at these paintings you get the absolute feeling that real people are looking back at you. These are worldy, swaggering men of substance, and this is why I love Ghirlandaio.

The funeral scene appears to pay tribute to the Santa Croce Giottos, with echoes in the anguished expressions of the mourners and the sceptic poking at Francis’ wounds. When Francis receives his orders, the young blonde waiting out on the stairs is a portrait of the boy who would grow up to become the Medici Pope, Leo X (the one who said “This myth of Christ has served us well”).

We pick up dinner from our nearest supermarket, the Carrefour opposite the Accademia entrance. You can really find yourself thrown which foodstuffs are unaccountably higher in Italy- here, bog-standard tinned anchovies are €3 (perhaps because it’s like doing your shopping in front of the British Museum). We do get a very nice Nero d’Avola to go with our orecchiette, and afterwards I nip outside on my own to try the nearest gelateria, Carabé. They make it Sicilian-style, with milk rather than eggs and cream, and the cheerful chap on duty invites me to try a few flavours before I settle on black grapes and fig ricotta. I eat in the nearest square, the handsome Piazza Annunziata, which is more idiosyncratic Brunelleschi with an equestrian Grand Duke imitating Marcus Aurelius on the Capitol.

Part II to follow imminently

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