It’s time to move on again, and in packing my bags this morning I feel a rush of excitement.
When I approach the front desk to pay my bill, I tell the clerk how much I’ve enjoyed my visit to Arezzo and the Hotel Continentale. And I mean it truly. In planning my itinerary months ago, I saw my time here as a convenient and inexpensive home base—a way of squeezing a few extra days out of the budget—but it has far exceeded my expectations.
The clerk pauses in his paperwork, looks up, and furrows his brow. “Quiet, quiet, quiet,” he says. “We get in a car and drive to Florence.”
And so it is.
I catch the 8:55 AM train to Florence and arrive at Santa Maria Novella station less than an hour later. After a short cab ride, I find myself back in the welcome arms of the Hotel Davanzati. I first visited Florence in the summer of 2008 and have the warmest possible memories of the place and of family that manages it. This morning, it’s the handsome Tommaso who greets me, and like his father Fabrizio, he is a kind and gracious host. Before long, my things are stowed away in the same charming room, and I have been briefed on the latest trends in local gelato. Grom, it seems, is very much in favor.
As I head out onto the streets and through Piazza della Signoria under a morning sun that already feels scorching hot, I am reminded of all that I love about Florence—the beautiful art and architecture, the enticing aromas wafting out from local cafés, the magnetic pull of museums, the sound of street music around every corner. There is an urban metabolism that pulses with possibility. I feel energized and find myself walking quickly, remembering that I have but a short time here.
I am devoting the day to loose ends, to a list of things I had wanted to do two years ago. There is, it seems, never enough time in Florence.
Because it closes early, my first stop is the Bargello museum, housed in the imposing Palazzo del Popolo, a former barracks and prison. The fortress is impressive in itself. There is an inner courtyard and covered staircase, and the walls are lined with heraldic shields from the 13th and 14th centuries that represent the coats of arms of various city magistrates, known as podestà. Inside, there is furniture and tapestries and some Majolica ware, but the real specialty is sculpture. The Bargello houses Donatello’s bronze statue of David. Completed in the 1440s, it was the first freestanding male nude to be cast since antiquity.
Florence, of course, is better known for a very different David—a more mature and heroic one, carved in marble by Michelangelo. Tourists line up in droves to see it at the Accademia across town, and they stand proudly by a copy of it for pictures in Piazza della Signoria. Here at the Bargello, Donatello’s David seems overlooked, in part because the museum itself is off the beaten path for weary crowds en route to other staples of Florentine history and culture. Even on a busy weekday at the height of tourist season, the museum is nearly empty.
As Mark Twain once wrote in the Innocents Abroad, I like Michelangelo very much, but I do not want him “for breakfast—for luncheon—for dinner—for tea—for supper—for between meals. I like a change occasionally.” As Twain went on to observe, in Florence, Michelangelo “painted everything, designed everything, nearly, and what he did not design he used to site on a favourite stone and look at, and they showed us the stone… Enough, enough! Say no more… I never felt so fervently thankful, so soothed, so tranquil, so filled with a blessed peace, as I did yesterday when I learnt that Michael Angelo was dead.”
Well, if that’s the case, Donatello’s David certainly is a change. He depicts David as a youth, more accurate to the biblical tale, but the pose is jarringly effeminate, with one hand resting on a hip that bends at the knee. The addition of a jaunty hat and Goliath’s winged helmet at his feet, one wing splayed seductively up the back of David’s leg, gives the entire composition a homoerotism that reminds me of the Caravaggios I saw in Rome. I wonder what Twain would have to say about that?
Nearby, I stop in for a bite to eat at Antico Noè, a tiny sandwich shop in an arcaded alley off Piazza San Pier Maggiore. I order the numero otto—pork with pecorino cheese—and watch as a steady stream of college students crowd the doorway. Next, I take Tommaso at his word and pay homage to Grom near Piazza del Duomo, where I get a dish of raspberry and lemon gelato for dessert, and eat it on the steps of the cathedral.
I walk back to Piazza della Signoria and join the security queue to enter the Palazzo Vecchio. This is the local town hall, and its soaring bell tower is nearly as prominent a part of the city skyline as Brunelleschi’s red-tiled dome.
It’s a self-guided tour, but an excellent one given the opulent surroundings. I visit the Salone dei Cinquecento (or, Hall of Five Hundred), where some believe that a long-lost scene of “The Battle of Anghiari” by Da Vinci lies hidden beneath a later fresco by Vasari. I wander next through a series of connected public rooms, where every square inch of the walls and ceilings are covered by Renaissance art, some of which depict scenes of Florence that are wholly recognizable today.
I have a 3:45 PM reservation to see a cycle of frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel at the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, but with some time to spare I decide to cross the Ponte Vecchio and do a little shopping along the Oltrarno, stopping at Roberta’s to buy a leather belt for my Dad. Then, I walk up along the river to the Ponte Santa Trinita to admire the statues at each end representing the Four Seasons, which were added in 1680 to celebrate the wedding of Cosimo II de’ Medici. The bridge was a beautiful one, with three graceful elliptic arches, but in the closing days of World War II, it was spitefully bombed by the Germans, along with every other bridge in Florence, save the Ponte Vecchio. The statues collapsed into the Arno, and while the remains were put back on the newly reconstructed bridge after the war, the head of Primavera was missing and long thought stolen by soldiers during the liberation. It wasn’t until 1961 that it was finally found downstream.
I am right on time for my appointment. In the end, despite the restrictions—the need for advance reservations, and a limit of just 15 minutes to view the art—my visit in the Brancacci chapel is well worth the effort, especially given the quality of the multimedia presentation beforehand. Begun by Masolino in the late 14th century, and later finished by Masaccio and Lippi, the frescoes tell the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, as well as other stories from the Bible, including “The Payment of the Tribute Money” from the Gospel according to Matthew.
In the only sour note of the afternoon, a French tour group joins my time slot, and despite the usual admonitions for silence and respect, the guide talks loudly the entire time, instructing those with her to stand in the center of the small space, where they remain for the duration, crowding everyone else out. Afterwards, several of us try to talk to the guard to protest. We’ve had little chance to see the frescoes up close because of the guide’s boorish behavior, but it seems there is nothing he can do.
I decide to duck back to the hotel to change out of my sweaty clothes before dinner and to post a few pictures to Flickr for friends and family back home. When I arrive, Happy Hour is underway at the Davanzati, so I have a glass of prosecco beside me as I connect to the internet on my netbook. This is, apparently, an act of heresy in Italy and it draws a good-natured rebuke from Fabrizio, who reminds me that I am on vacation and that I shouldn’t work so hard. I’m truly not working, but it doesn’t seem worth the explanation. I simply agree and close the lid.
For dinner, I’ve reserved at table at Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco on Borgo San Japoco, where a cute Italian busboy asks if he can introduce himself. I nod and he flirts endlessly, insisting on taking my picture. Eventually, the waiter comes by, frowns, and sends him packing back to the kitchen, to my grave disappointment.
I dine well on some hearty Tuscan fare—white beans with sage, and a plate of Pappardelle al Cinghiale, or wide ribbon noodles with wild boar sauce. Sitting nearby is a couple from Florida, celebrating their 13th wedding anniversary. In eating early, and snapping pictures, and in brimming over with enthusiasm for Italy as we talk, we are—the three of us—the spitting image of the American tourist, although hopefully not as hapless and uncouth as those Twain depicted in his narrative.
The night is still young when I leave my Florida friends. The air is cooling at last, and the change in temperature makes for a pleasant stroll. A classical guitarist from Poland, named Piotr Tomaszewski, is playing on the Ponte Vecchio to an appreciative crowd. After a while, I head up Via Porta Santa Maria, past the duomo, to Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. Designed by Brunelleschi himself, this used to be an orphanage known as the “Hospital of the Innocents.” It’s a low structure with an arched colonnade and above each column is a round terracotta sculpture, or tondo, added by Andrea della Robbia around 1487. The tondi depict infants in swaddling clothes lying on a blue wheel—a wheel which actually existed until the late-19th century, allowing mothers to leave their unwanted children anonymously by rotating them into the hospital interior on the equivalent of a Lazy Susan.
By the time I make my way back to Piazza della Signoria for the third and final time, night has fallen. Floodlights have kicked on and the tower and stonework of the Palazzo Vecchio stand stark against the sapphire sky.
In the Innocents Abroad, Twain wrote that “Florence had pleased us for a while,” before becoming tedious in the effort required to appreciate it. I suppose that it’s possible to come to Florence to relax, to embrace what the Italians call l’arte di non fare niente—the sweetness of doing nothing. Fabrizio, at least, says that it is.
This is a city that wears its past proudly on its sleeve, but I’m sure there are times when the looming presence of the Renaissance imposes a burden on locals and tourists alike, for who among us will ever reach the heights of a Donatello or a Masolino, a Brunelleschi or a Michelangelo? And so we exhaust ourselves in stifling heat, trying to see it all in the time that we have.
What can I say? Florence inspires me—not to do nothing, or even something, but to do everything. If not this time, then the next. And that can be rather sweet, too.