Exquisite architecture, extraordinary sculptures in every piazza, and more galleries than a person could see in one lifetime.
To say that Florence is a city dedicated to art is gross understatement.Of course it is also filled with tourists and an infinite number of reproductions of Michelangelo’s David in all sizes and mediums. For me, the challenge was to try and come to the art with a fresh eye, and see if I could find a real city under the excessive tourist trade.
The David must be the most reproduced image in the world. Making the pilgrimage to see it “in the flesh” felt a bit false. A bit touristy, to say the least. Apparently 5 people a year die when they see David. True fact. Knowing this, could the sculpture possibly live up to the hype?
We gasped. Our jaws dropped. We were weak in the knees. Words will not do. Art critic Giorgio Vasari stated in the 16th century that there really wasn’t any point in looking at any other art. He was probably right. Michelangelo was 26 when he began his commission on the sculpture. It took him only two years to complete. I felt as though I could have stayed routed to the spot for at least that long.
Gradually we began to breathe again, and slid away to see other works in the Accademia. There was a show of beautiful sculptures by Lorenzo Bronzino (19th century) that included his exquisite Nymph with Scorpion. But we kept circling back and paying homage and burning the experience of David into our hearts and minds. We needed to be able to withstand the streets immediately outside the gallery, filled with David T-shirts, key chains and mugs.
Our trip to the Uffizi was moving on a more subtle scale, both of us soaking up the perfect Botticellis, every golden hair in perfect harmony with nature. The Uffizi building is in itself a marvel, with glorious painted ceilings, and an art collection developed over four centuries. It has a grand, dusty, jumbled up feeling that is drastically different from a contemporary, antiseptic gallery. It was built in 1581, by Granduca Francisco de’ Medici, son of Cosimo Medici I, and although there have been a few renovations over the years it has not been modernized in the least. It is an intense place. There is just so much there. You could go every day for a year and see something new each time. Tim and I travelled in different directions, at different speeds, and compared notes over afternoon macchiato having only just touched the surface.
The next day was Epiphany, and a chance to connect with Florentines outside of the galleries. Epiphany is an important holiday in Italy. Many businesses are closed and families celebrate the arrival of La Befana. According to legend, the Three Wise Men, when looking for the manger, asked directions of an old woman. They told her where they were going and invited her to come with them, but she said she was busy. A shepherd did the same, but again, she didn’t go. Later that night, when she saw a great light in the sky, she decided to go, bearing gifts that had belonged to her own child, who had died. But she got lost and never found the manger. Now La Befana flies around on her broomstick on the 11th night of Christmas (January 5), bringing gifts to children who have been good and coal to those who have been bad.
We began our Epiphany celebrations on the Piazza Michelangelo, high above the city of Florence. La Befana bought me a glass of Prosecco from a roadside stand to celebrate the day.
Piazza Michelangelo offers an amazing view of the city. You can clearly see the old Roman wall and fortifications delineating the separation between the city and the country.
We walked high above the town, to the old Roman gate of the city, past palaces converted to luxury hotels and vast Italianate gardens.
Well outside the tourist area, we were able to get a good, simple lunch of risotto and a great salad of thin shavings of fennel, orange slices and black Sicilian olives at a neighbourhood café. We headed to the Piazza Pitti for the Epiphany parade.
Being in this section of Florence, on the other side of the river Arno, we felt like we were in an entirely different town. Although there are many galleries that surround Piazza Pitti, we were there to feast our eyes on the “Cavalcade of the Three Kings” and to see Florentines out enjoying a holiday.
The parade participants were just gathering, preparing for the long walk through the city to the Duomo in the centre of Florence.
Various guilds, all in 15thcentury dress, were responsible for sections of the parade.
The Three Kings made their way first, followed by a shepherd and dignitaries on horseback. There were drummers, flag throwers, men at arms, beautiful couples, aging royalty and children – all very serious in their slow studied march through town.
The Piazza Pitti filled with spectators of all ages, on the streets, hanging out of windows, to watch the parade go by. It was a celebration of life, of a proud history, of a very real and very beautiful city.