Florence II: The Pimping of Venus

This is Part II: containing the Uffizi, Brancacci, Ognissanti, Santa Maria Novella, and San Marco. Part I, with Orsanmichele, San Miniato al Monte, Santa Croce, La Specola and Santa Trinita is here.

Next morning, up very early for the biggie: although we decided it would be more rewarding to focus on Florence’s second-tier sights rather than the world-famous, Champions League superstar names (no David, no Duomo, no Piazza della Signoria) our one exception was to book tickets for the Uffizi. We have booked for 8.15am in the hope of beating the worst of the crowds, but it is of course still pretty crowded. The system seems to place jobs-for-the-boys ahead of slickness; instead of getting a print-your-own PDF ticket, you have to queue with your printed confirmation email at a door opposite the entrance, where staff in four windows are checking the printouts and dispensing the actual tickets that will admit you to the museum. With a cool disregard for the queues forming, once they have served someone they turn away to resume conversation with the vendor in the next window, and generally drag the time out as long as possible before calling the next person in line. Trying to be polite, I do not go to the window until they signal that they are ready, which makes the Chinese men behind me snarl and shove. Oy vey.

The foyer is a chaotic United Nations of airport-style scanner gates and groups milling about wondering whether to use the cloakroom or rent an audioguide, and once you’ve fought your way through it’s a fairly steep climb up two flights of stairs to the paintings, where the first room is of course a bit of a bottleneck. But the collection goes in big on the first room, with three giant Maestà from Cimabue, Duccio and Giotto whose juxtaposition shows Giotto in a very favourable light. Each one is a softening of the hard icons familiar from Orthodox imagery but Giotto’s virgin is so fleshed out (she has breasts!), his crowd scenes and the big throne seeming to fill real, 3D space, and it is all such a departure from Byzantium that he has left his teachers far behind.

In the next room, the painting that I think I liked the best in all of the Uffizi. Martini’s awesome, beautiful Annunication tones down the angel’s customary coat of many colours, and even though it all takes place within an altarpiece the space is charged with drama. The angel’s robe is flapping in the wind as if he had just touched down on land. Mary instinctively moves back and pulls together her robes, as well you might if a winged androgynous thing turned up and told you you were being impregnated by God. She also looks quite pissed off that the angel has interrupted the book she was reading, using a thumb to keep her place; my kind of girl.

We move through the early Renaissance at quite a gallop, although the chronology is somewhat disturbed by rooms 8-15 being shut and the choice paintings distributed throughout the later stages. There’s an Adoration in which the magi have an entourage of several hundred people and animals behind them, which seems less devotional and more an inventory of the bling possessed by Florentine merchants, although one does at least kiss the baby’s foot. Then a panel from Uccello’s triptych of a Florence-Siena battle (another part is in the National Gallery). When I came here in my 20s, after several rooms of Madonna col Bambino, this seemed like the most daring, thrilling piece of art ever because someone had dared to change the subject matter. I think I prefer the religious stuff now, but this is interesting for the staged composition, like a Piero della Francesca battle scene.

The Madonnas with child continue, getting increasingly more human until the Madonna looks like a stoical, tired, and worldly-wise young woman who knows all about men and isn’t going to put up with any more of your nonsense.

An enormous queue of Americans in the corridor turns out to be waiting for a peek at the Venus of Medici and friends, whose room is closed off. The paintings have come back into vogue in recent ages but this ancient Athenian original would have been the most famous piece here in the C18th, when grand tourists tended to come for the sculpture.

You come across some properly weird stuff in the Uffizi. I loved this Bellini, given the title Sacred Allegory because no-one appears to have the foggiest what’s going on in it. People have put forward complex theological hypotheses, but my know-nothing instinct is to see it all as a good joke. File next to Giorgione’s Tempest. There’s a proper scrum around Piero’s iconic, warts-and-all presentation of our old pal the Duke of Urbino, Mrs Urbino and the swamp-surrounded hills of Le Marche.

My boy Ghirlandaio makes a couple of appearances, showing himself to be no slouch when painting on wood with religious group paintings that are great as ever for people-watching.

The Lippis are decidedly better at depicting beautiful women than they are babies, but as you move through the decades it is notable that Jesus starts to appear as a real baby, unlike the early icons where, as the medieval Twitter memes have it, he looks like a balding little man with a BMW and a six-figure mortgage.

When Perugino, teacher of Raphael, turns up he seems like another leap forward for his colouring; translucent, silky-soft, and vibrant all at once. The serene faces, more angel than human, definitely prefigure his more famous pupil (even if Christ’s levitating pose in this Pietà strikes an incongruous note). My knowledge is incredibly hazy here, but I find myself wondering if it was around this time that the Flemish started adding egg to the paint.

Luca Signorelli seems less serene and more troubled, his cleverly panoramic Crucifixion marked by streams of dripping blood, and the close attention paid to the sinewy muscles of Christ’s torso and limbs perhaps predict the coming of mannerism; in other words, the C16th is upon us and painting is about to go tits up. I don’t know if the gecko about to jump inside the skull has any allegorical significance but it’s quite cute.

A chunk of classical sculptures are next on the menu, to give our eyes a break from old masters; one highlight is a panel from the Augustan Ara Pacis in Rome. My girlfriend has been working on a book about early polychromy and reminds me that all friezes, statues and buildings would have been painted a whole host of very garish colours at the time; we only think of the Greco-Roman look as being bare marble or stone because the paint wore off over the centuries.

There is such a vast rugby scrum in front of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo that I can’t be bothered to wait ten minutes to get up close. This looks like the entrance of mannerism, which is all about rippling bodies and swirling, circular shapes and movements, whatever the subject. Not even I would be dumb enough to dismiss the talents of Michelangelo, but the pose of the Virgin twisting around to pass the baby to her cuckold husband looks a bit convoluted. It is wildly popular, though; almost as many people seem to get a thrill from the sculpture of a hermaphrodite, which presents the rounded buttocks of a sleeping feminine figure, but conceals a surprise on the other side.

The next room is where celebrity Florentine painting reaches its apotheosis, with a collection of Botticelli. On opposite walls are Spring and the Birth of Venus, and I found it harder to ‘unsee’ these quasi-Warholian icons than I did the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Venus, startling as it is, has a heavy load to carry, now that it is seen as the emblem of the Renaissance and humanism and paganism and Florence and the whole kaboodle. It’s like a timeless No. 1 single from the golden age of pop music that everyone knows by heart, that just seemed to come along at the right moment and capture the spirit of the age. Venus herself is long and slender to the point of gangliness, but has obviously become a template for a certain kind of ideal beauty (eg- Ethan Hawke calling Julie Delpy a Botticelli in Before Sunset).

Spring is probably slightly less of an A-list superstar; both are strange, but I feel like Spring contains more to chew over (knowing that Botticelli fell under the spell of Savonarola and was persuaded to burn many of his works, I am always expecting to detect darker undercurrents than I actually do). At the centre of it all, Flora is another rosy Botticelli beauty, but there is so much more going on and all the characters are interacting and catching one another’s eye; the blue bloke molesting the girl, Cupid and Mercury, the Three Graces dancing… even without the figures it would be notably as a miniature encyclopedia of botany.

We move onto the lower floor after this, but the hits keep coming as we encounter the almost-too-perfect loveliness of Raphael. Not that he is all sweetness and light; look what a bruiser Pope Leo X, the little blonde boy in Santa Trinita, grew up to be.

There are plenty of Bronzino portraits of chubby, jolly Medici children, smooth as a baby’s flesh, all of whom appeared to die very young. An American woman who does not know what the camera’s Flash setting is shouts at me for “destroying the paintings” in this room. Titian chips in with his thoughtful portraits of shrewd, wise old men and a marvellous Flora, but one of the pieces I was most looking forward to, his Venus of Urbino, has just been moved to Urbino for a temporary exhibition. Six months earlier, I was in Urbino and she was in Florence; now I am in Florence, she has gone to Urbino. Perhaps it just wasn’t to be.

My appetite is beginning to flag by the time we reach a congested side-room full of Leonardos, but it is interesting to see what everyone does with their Annunciation; Leo tones down the exotic plumage of the angel and gives us a fantasy backdrop of water and mountain peaks, perhaps inspired by a trip to the Great Lakes while he was working in Milan? Better than the ‘Leonardo’s War Machines’ museums that are scattered throughout Tuscany, I’m sure.

I should make the effort to attend the National Gallery show on Caravaggio and his followers before it shuts, because the painting is obviously important and his life sounds fascinating, but in the great museums he always seems to be the bridesmaid for me; by the time he arrives to herald the baroque, my brain is usually saturated and although I can see that it’s good, I never feel that it fully clicks with me.

Happily the paintings that have stayed with me as the annoyances have faded from memory, but I do recall the Uffizi being quite stuffed to the gill with Americans, Chinese, and Japanese tour groups, even if you do enter at 8am. All of them are quite pushy, the Japanese have better manners but tend to move around in shoals of 30. If their guide gathers them around a painting you would like to study, you end up having to wait in the hall for a few minutes. From the snatches of conversation I heard amongst the Americans, it is clearly the one destination in Florence that people who do not like art go to because they’ve heard they should; and how they moan! At least they get good views of the world outside.

After a quick lunch of leftover orecchiette, we cross back over to the Oltrarno; passing the Palazzo Strozzi, which has been covered in migrant dinghies by the irritating Ai Weiwei. As if we hadn’t had enough art, our destination is the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine church. The chapel, miraculously, is the only part of the interior that was not destroyed by a fire in the late C18th, or by the rococo makeover that the rest of the church was given. Its frescoes are amongst the greatest in Florence, and therefore in the world. Michelangelo studied the chapel to learn the rudiments of painting, and there is a story about a rival painter breaking his nose on the steps of Carmine.

The cycle was begun by Masolino and his pupil Masaccio in the 1420s, and completed in the 1470s by Filippino Lippi, who managed a respectful mimicry of the earlier style. The frescoes show scenes from the life of St Peter, a piece of pro-Roman propaganda connected to the return of the Popes from Avignon and the end of the Antipope schism.

It is slightly weird to see, in its context, the one very famous piece from this chapel that has been shown on TV countless times; Masaccio’s expulsion of Adam and Eve. It is a small slender panel, almost a pilaster, at the entrance to the chapel. The palpable drama of the piece is Giotto plus; the faces, contorted with agony, could fit into a Francis Bacon. Adam’s hands cover his eyes, Eve’s cover her sexy bits. The tension is amplified by the dense composition; they lean forwards slightly and hovering right at their shoulders is an angel, with a heavy sword and the nervous look of a member of staff hoping that these troublemakers leave the premises and don’t come back. Across the chapel, Masolino’s placid depiction of Adam, Eve and the serpent in paradise makes the expulsion seem all the more charged. He had to leave increasing amounts of the work to his assistant as he was continually called away by his job of court painter to the King of Hungary; Budapest’s gain was also Florence’s.

As for St Peter, he gets up to all sorts and appears stern, aloof and rather full of himself at all times. The first panel after the Expulsion is a disquieting three-in-one narrative where the tax collector asks Jesus for tribute, who directs Peter to find some coins in the mouth of a fish, after which Peter makes the payment.

In other scenes, Peter makes an uncharitable man drop dead, brings a boy back to life from a pile of bones, preaches, baptises and disputes theology in front of Emperor Nero (looking a bit more stocky and manly than the effeminate, chubby mummy’s boy of the popular imagination). The shivering figures who fold their arms whilst waiting for baptism carry an echo of the stricken Adam & Eve.

A good example of the St Peter-as-rock-star motif is the panel where the sick are healed by being within his shadow as he walks past, not appearing to see that they are there or the miraculous effect his shadow is having. Eyes fixed straight ahead, he might as well be Diana Ross, wearing dark glasses in the back of a chauffeured limo.

But it’s the hangers-on who can be just as interesting; sleeping guardsmen, drowsy attendants. During the crucial debate in front of Nero, the courtiers look terribly bored and in the scene of Peter’s crucifixion, most of the spectators seem quite indifferent.

The painters and their mates make appearances. Watching the crucifixion is Lippi himself, whilst the man staring out at you is none other than Sandro Botticelli. In an another panel Masaccio and Brunelleschi stand next to Peter enthroned; Masaccio had himself touching Peter, and a censorious Lippi painted out the impudent arm.

Even when the person depicted is lost to the history books, you again get the feeling you are looking at real people. Some of them are marvellous; but some are so poor that one wonders if they were drawn in during a botched C19th restoration- the two below are from the same panel.

There’s still a little time before the churches shut for the evening, so after the Brancacci we cross the river and visit Ognissanti, which is free and unticketed. This was as far west as we went in Florence, and west of the centre looked even more exclusive and luxurious; the piazza had the rare sight of a Brussels-style art nouveau building.

One wonders if this church being free entry actually puts people off, as it had very few visitors, and yet the contents were excellent. There’s a huge Giotto crucifix in that brilliant blue of his, and a Ghirlandaio of the Virgin holding out her skirts to protect the local Vespucci family; included in the group are Amerigo, then working for the family in Seville, who gave his name to a continent, and the tight-lipped blonde to the right is Simonetta, believed to have been Botticelli’s model for The Birth of Venus.

Botticelli is buried here, and he and Ghirlandaio also provide twin works of St Augustine and St Jerome, facing each other across the nave. They complement each other well. Botticelli’s saint is dreamy and dramatic, thinking of the heavens and the life to come; Ghirlandaio’s is earthbound, fixing his gaze upon the viewer, and writing at a desk cluttered with the instruments of a scholar. It is funny to think of the scores of people fighting to see the Botticellis in the Uffizi as you have this all to yourself.

In the evening we return the Oltrarno, which seemed to have lots of interesting bars around Carmine, and have a few spritzes in a friendly bookshop/café where young folk are setting up a gig, and find ourself beset by friendship-bracelet sellers. Their methods vary from showing the wares up front, and insisting when waved away, “You don’t understand, they’re not for sale, this is my gift to you. Now give me some money”, to engaging you in chat, asking a couple of questions about where you’re from, and when the conversation runs out of steam apologetically trying to drop their tat onto your table. After strolling along Via Spirito Santo we end up at the riverside bar Zoe, which is very clubby and trashy with lots of German teenagers and waitresses that act like hostesses. We are hopelessly out of place but the €9 cocktails become €10 if you partake of the aperitivo buffet, which is enormous and includes whole legs of chicken.

On day four, we succumb to a lie in and don’t get up and out until lunchtime, when we walk east past Santa Croce to visit the Sant’ Ambrogio food market. The Mercato Centrale is said to be more of a tourist affair these days, but this one appears to be resisting gentrification as well as Dalston’s Ridley Road. The fish and meat counters have incredible wares, and we end up buying a selection of fennel, artichokes and so on from the Florentine cockneys on the veg stalls outside, plus a bag of fresh mozzarella balls from one of the dairy counters. There are lots of Africans roaming the market trying to sell tissues; one wonders if they are quickly moved on from the tourist hot-spots in the centre. The clientele out here seem more working class, but are still friendly and polite.

A great big salad later, it’s off to Santa Maria Novella; the cathedral, not the central train station that takes its name. Santa Croce is the Franciscan base in the city, and this is the Dominican headquarters. It costs a few euros less than Santa Croce, which is also a celebrity burial spot, but I thought SMN better in terms of paintings (and its beautifully ornate facade, a Renaissance original, looking onto a beautiful piazza).

We enter via a side cloister again, to find a church that is not that busy and a bare nave denuded of pews. There is a fancy tomb for a Patriarch of Constantinople (after whose fall a lot of refugees from the extremely literate Byzantine society ended up in Florence, helping the Renaissance to flower), and a Brunelleschi pulpit constructed around a central pillar, from which the Dominicans would launch their anti-Galileo aggression. Once again, a huge Giotto crucifix hangs prominently.

The frescoes are in the chapels and around the chancel. Filippino Lippi’s Fillipo Strozzi chapel was painted after he had witnessed excavations of ancient buildings like Nero’s Domus Aurea in Rome, and his frescoes that reflecting the fantastical architecture had seen have an almost sci-fi quality. The colours are lurid, with half the figures in robes of Buddhist orange, a mix of races and odd oriental-looking headdresses. Everything has a rude energy, the unfamiliar subject matter (a Life of St Philip) amplifying the sense that we are looking at something quite alien.

The main panel shows Philip entering a temple to Mars and banishing a dragon, to the ire of the pagan priests and centurions. In the upper panel, the latent violence reaches its obvious conclusion as the Romans hoist up Philip’s crucifix.

Behind the central altar are enormous fresco cycles which the banking Tornabuoni family, led by the uncle of Lorenzo the Magnificent, commissioned from Ghirlandaio. These are simply stuffed with representations of the family in question and various painters, Ghirlandaio himself included, and Savonarola hated them; it is clear that Florence is celebrating itself, not the Christian church. The birth scenes come across as nice, still Vermeerish interiors and glimpses into the typical well-to-do Florentine homes of the time.

The subject matter does follow the proper, play-it-safe subjects of the Virgin and John the Baptist, but it is resolutely urban with perspective-heavy city views. A classical triumphal arch even upstages the Massacre of the Innocents.

The violent subject matter, when seen after the rather wild Lippi stuff, seems to have been toned down and drained of blood. As the Baptist’s head is delivered to Herod’s feast, the king and his courtiers’ only reaction is the gently disappointed look of a job interview panel when the interviewee’s mind goes blank.

Brunelleschi’s muscular crucifixion sculpture is apparently a riposte to the Santa Croce Donatello he so disliked, and there is a good story about Donatello being called in to see the finished product as he passed Brunelleschi’s studio, and dropping a basket of eggs to the floor at his awestruck first sight of the piece.

Significantly earlier, and not in the best condition everywhere, is the Tomasso Strozzi chapel (1350), with Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso appearing between a Last Judgement in which Dante makes an appearance. The altarpiece, showing Dominican favourite Thomas Aquinas on an equal footing with St Peter, is by Orcagna and the frescoes by his brother, Nardo di Cione.

Passing out of the main church takes us to the Chiostro Verde, named after Uccello’s green-tinted frescoes that have been moved into the refectory as they are restored. The most famous of these is his Great Flood, which is quite incomprehensible. I am only able to half-decipher it with the help of my guide book; we are supposed to be seeing Noah’s ship before and after the flood, with the detritus in between. It looks like the cover of a very bloated rock album from the 1970s.

Just as I am thinking that Santa Maria Novella has given us our money’s worth, we find the Spanish Chapel off the cloister, in which the painting (here by Andrea di Firenze, in 1367) manages to scale new heights. This is a quite astonishing room, and really contains more than one can take in. The wall facing you has a huge fresco of the Passion of Christ story, the wall to the left shows feminine representations of the Virtues, figures from the OT or antiquity sitting at their feet, all beneath Thomas Aquinas and all enthroned, whilst the wall to the right has a Triumph of the Church, in which a cast of thousands making a circuitous route towards Christ enthroned at the top, past such sights as an attempt to imagine Florence Duomo around a century before it was finished.

The Crucifixion is one of those in which as much attention is given to those gambling, fighting &c. with their back turned to the supposed action. A demonic homonculus sits on the cross of one of the thieves, tormenting him, while three others hover above holding a big red bowl (no idea). The Virtues sit within Gothic niches like a 70s game show panel, each paired with a relevant Great Man. The legend shows some of these to be seriously obscure; Law and Justinian seem an obvious match, ditto Rhetoric and Cicero, but Music and Tubalcain? Dialectics and Pietro Ispano, anyone?

The most astonishing of the three, however, is that Triumph of the Church which condenses so much action and content. Some people pass through an archway to get on the path to righteousness, some are led astray by the mortal sins of music and dance.

In the bottom corner, coloured demons fume and fulminate as Christ descends into Limbo for the Harrowing of Hell, an angry blue chap trapped under the door he has apparently just kicked in, and reaches out to a large group of haloed types.

Sitting in front of the pink ‘artist’s impression’ of the unbuilt Duomo are Pope, Emperor, Bishops and other sources of temporal power, whilst the standing crowd includes such celebrity faces as Cimabue, Giotto, Bocaccio, Petrarch and Dante, with Bocaccio looking oddly like Christopher Walken. There is much to digest.

It’s quite late by the time we manage to tear ourselves away. Florence’s top rated gelateria, Dei Neri, is tragically shut for their post-summer holiday so we resort to Perché No, where I try coffee and an interesting jasmine. Cutting though Piazza Duomo, we see a Communist march making for the piazza which is stopped at Palazzo Medici, and gets out the flares/smoke bombs. Far fewer riot police than the average Millwall game, but still quite a lot of ‘em. In the evening we meet an ex-colleague-plus-partner of mine, who happen to be visiting at the same time as us, for drinks at their hotel and dinner at a trattoria favoured by the railway workers of SMN, and lots of interesting chat. Their hotel, just by the river, is on Piazza del Limbo, where unbaptised babies were formerly buried. For anyone with an interest in Florence, Venice, churches, art, film or literature Jeff’s website is not to be missed.

On day five, we wake up to rain. Over a midmorning coffee & pastry, we decide to stick to the immediate vicinity and stroll a few blocks north to the San Marco monastery. This was Savonarola’s base and bastion in Florence, and also home to the great Fra Angelico, whose paintings are everywhere; most notably inside each of the forty-odd individual cells of the monks. Since the whole thing was built with Medici money, it is an irony that it ended up being the power base of the people who drove the Medici rulers into temporary exile. The weather being what it is, a lot of people appear to have had the same idea.

We enter into a cloister, off which the main room collects a lot of Fra Angelico’s altarpieces and miniatures. His style is famous for being beautiful, uncomplicated in its devotion, and generally sweet and tender, so it’s quite surprising to see his lovely little butter-wouldn’t-melt figures carry out such acts of violence.

Elsewhere on the ground floor there are a few rooms of frescoes by other artists, until you reach the chapterhouse with a large Fra Angelico crucifixion (I think he is better at miniatures), and the San Marco bell. They rang this bell to summon aid when Savonarola, who had for a time ruled the city, was arrested and it was seen as an anti-Medici symbol long afterwards.

In the refectory, now a gift shop, there is a Last Supper by Ghirlandaio, who seems to have real knack for popping up everywhere. The grave subject matter seems undercut to say the least by flippant, smiling touches like the kitten staring out and the flock of flying ducks glimpsed above the fruit trees.

As great as his faces always are, Ghirlandaio chiefly seems interested in the Last Supper as a showcase for his excellent tablecloths, cherries, loaves and tumblers of wine. He is nothing if not urbane; there’s something Netherlandish about it all.

The last few rooms of the ground floor, where guests would have been housed, now house capitals, columns and other architectural bric-a-brac that was salvaged from Florence’s brief spell as capital city of the new Italy, when several old streets were demolished to make room for C19th set pieces like the wider boulevards and Piazza della Repubblica.

The heavy artillery of San Marco is kept on the first floor. As you reach the top of the stairs, you are bowled over almost immediately by the sight of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, probably his best-known and best-loved painting. By this point we have seen so many annunciations, but we can recognise that this one is particularly tender and gentle. The angel and virgin mirror each other by folding their arms in cradling poses; the angel is deferential and careful, the virgin appears wide-eyed and nervous but unflinching. The angel’s wings are dusted with glitter.

In paying for a state-of-the-art monastery, the Medicis stipulated that the library should be open to the public, making this perhaps the world’s first public library (Napoleon having helped himself to the collection, there is not much to see now- other than a few choice manuscripts in display cases). The key humanist thinker Pico della Mirandola was a regular visitor. A plaque marks the spot of Savonarola’s arrest.

Then, the cells; to aid the monks in their private devotion, Fra Angelico painted a small fresco in each. These are almost always of the crucifixion, but there is a bit of variation across the forty. Cosimo Medici liked to stay here sometimes, and some cells are bigger than others.

It is hard to see so many similar paintings all in one run and give them all the appreciation they deserve, but it helps to study the faces which seem to be descendants of Giotto in their emotional sincerity. I come away thinking that his paintings have the cool serenity of Piero della Francesca without the aloofness.

Some of the paintings are quite odd and the strangest is this Magritte-like one, presumably meant to represent the mockery of Christ, in which he is surrounded by disembodied slapping hands and a disembodied spitting head. It may be an established symbol I am unfamiliar with, but it looks to me like surrealism five centuries early.

At the end of the L-shaped row of cells are the rooms of Savonarola himself, kept as a kind of shrine. They contain a marble memorial, a few portraits of the Mad Monk (one of him as San Pietro Martire), the famous painting of his being burnt on Piazza della Signoria, a few items of furniture and relics like his belts and prayer beads. I feel I should respect, if not revere, Savonarola as a John the Baptist for Protestantism, but things like the Bonfire of the Vanities are frightening and repulsive to me. The knowledge that a populist rabble-rouser, who promised people the earth if they turned on the ‘elites’, was quickly found out as a fraud and burnt at the stake is just about the only thing keeping me going in November 2016.

Into the centre for a quick, economic lunch at I Due Fratellini, a hole-in-the-wall place where one brother takes your order/cash and the other makes up sandwiches. They have a menu of around forty panini, all of which are €3 and can come with a small glass of inexpensive Chianti. Within seconds of making my order I have the two panini thrust at me. It’s a very well-oiled procedure, but one which I much prefer to Pret a Manger, and my fresh roll with finocchino and goat’s cheese is very good.

Resting back at the flat, I can hear another demonstration and rising chants of ‘Renzi, Renzi, vaffanculo!’; since it looks like they are days away from getting their wish, I would counsel Italians to be careful what they wish for. Nipping outside to investigate, I find that this time it’s a protest about ‘palazzinari’, the typically musical Italian term for property speculators. The banners translate as ‘People without homes, homes without people, enough!’. For some strange reason, the topic seems terribly familiar to a Londoner. There are more riot police tonight.

In the evening, the aforementioned bistecca at I Brindellone. This Oltrarno trattoria is on the edge of the centre, and in the halfway stage of being gentrified and cannibalised by mass tourism in that Oltrarno way, but it is a very accepting place. The waiters wear Fiorentina purple and the place is full of football and ‘calcio storico’ memorabiblia. We are placed at the end of a table with half a dozen old folks, who interact with us throughout and order a vodka lemon sorbet for my girlfriend when she asks what they are all drinking, and on other tables I can hear locals happily chatting with American tourists next to them. We have the steak with beans and fried courgette flowers, and although I am alarmingly drunk I insist on stopping at Piazza Duomo on the way home to have a Fernet Branca and attempt to break up some of the cow inside me.


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