10/15 Roamin’ the Mediterranean Day Eleven: Florence – Birthplace of the Renaissance

If I had only one word to sum up my experience of Florence, it would be “WOW!” Fortunately however, I have as many words as I want to talk about my adventures through this magnificent city, so here we go…

Florence, or Firenze in Italian, comes from the words “flower” and “blossoming.” There is still something magical about this city rooted deep in the heart of Tuscany, which has maintained its bloom since it blossomed into the beginning of the Renaissance. I was excited to immerse myself into the place that planted the seed for an entire era.

The term Renaissance means “rebirth,” and this era is marked with a reemergence of the Classical era arts, as well as drastic movements in literature, philosophy, religion, science, and politics, bridging the gap between Medieval times and the Modern Era. As the Renaissance is believed by many to have begun in Florence in the 14th Century, it then spread all across Europe by the 16th Century.

This morning the ship docked in Livorno, which isn’t much in itself. Though it is one of the busiest ports in Italy, there really isn’t much to see. The great thing about Livorno is that it is right on the edge of Tuscany, and it provides easy access to numerous destinations a traveler would want to seek. The popular destinations of Lucca, Siena, and Pisa are not far away, and a bit farther down the road is Florence. Though Florence was my destination for this port, I could have gone to Pisa and had one of those touristy pictures done holding up the leaning tower, but because my time was limited I felt Florence would be a more enriching experience (I’ll get a touristy Pisa picture if I ever make it back!).

As we set off from Livorno, the trip to Florence was about an hour and a half drive through Tuscany. Much like states in the US, Italy is split up into different regions, and Florence is the capital of Tuscany. Tuscany is known worldwide for its beautiful landscape with lush rolling hills and vineyards.

There were some nice views of Tuscany on the way to Florence, but as far as the view from the freeway, I can’t really say I was blown away. It was definitely a pretty landscape, and I am sure once you get away from the main freeway and out into the countryside it is mesmerizing, but I didn’t really see anything that screamed to me, “Now this is Tuscany!” I couldn’t really even get a decent picture of the landscape off the bus, both because my camera is gimped and I was sitting on the wrong side of the bus for a good shot of the cool parts.

On the way through the Tuscan countryside we passed by another small village that is well known throughout the world, though many might not know why they know it. This village is the birthplace of a wooden marionette who finally achieved his dream of becoming a real boy. This boy’s name is Pinocchio, and the name of the village is Collodi.

“The Adventures of Pinocchio” was written in Collodi by Carlo Lorenzini, who chose the pen name Carlo Collodi at the time of its first publication in 1883. Though we didn’t have time to stop in Collodi, there was a strong Pinnochio presence all throughout Florence, paying tribute to Collodi’s creation.

When we first entered Florence, it wasn’t a pretty picture. My glorified visual images in my mind were, for the meantime, smashed by graffiti covered walls and trash on the side of the road. It felt like I was back in Naples again. However, once we got into the heart of Florence I could see this flower of the Renaissance in full blossom.
Much like all of these cities constructed during the time of Roman chariots, the streets are very narrow and don’t allow much room for cars. Only a very few Florentine residents are allowed to drive in the old part of the city. After driving around in city in the parts we could to see several amazing statues, we got off the bus to walk into the old part of the city.

Our first stop was the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze (Academy of Fine Arts, Florence), whose gallery holds a plethora of art from the Renaissance period, including several sculptures by Michelangelo, most notably his David. Most everyone knows Michelangelo’s David and has seen numerous pictures of it. Before I saw it I was thinking it was going to be pretty neat, but when we first walked into the room with it sitting at the end of the hall, I was filled with an unexpected sense of shock and awe.

David is a massive work of art, over sixteen feet tall. The absolute intricacy that Michelangelo crafted this piece is amazing, especially considering he was only 26 when he started it, and finished it about three years. The statue depicts the biblical David in the nude as he set forth to battle the giant Goliath. His entire body is perfectly in human proportion except for his hands, which are massive and hold his slingshot and a stone. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but everyone has seen several pictures of it already so no biggie. Pictures absolutely do not do it justice though.

The massive amount of work Michelangelo completed is astounding. Though he lived to be almost ninety, most people could not complete a tiny fraction of this work with this sheer quality in a lifetime. Though he was a painter, architect, and sculptor, he always said he wanted to be known for his sculptures above all else. He never married and was obsessively working on projects his entire life, which really shows he was as serious as you could possibly be about his craft when you look at his entire body of work as a whole. It just doesn’t seem possible that one man did all that. He was a genius freak of nature for sure.

After viewing David and several other works by Michelangelo and others, we then moved on to the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Duomo. This cathedral is the third largest in the world behind St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The sheer size of this cathedral dwarfs the rest of the city surrounding it, but the most astounding thing about it is all the intricate carvings and statues adorning the outside of it. The massive red dome for which it is most famous was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi (with the help of Donatello), and is the highest structure in all of Florence, towering over the matching red roofs on almost every building in the city. No building in Florence is allowed to be higher than the Duomo, so it will always be the tallest structure in the city.

To the west of the Duomo is the Baptistry, where many historians pinpoint the art and architecture created here as the actual birthplace of the Renaissance era. It has a set of bronze doors depicting several stories from the bible, called the “Doors of Paradise.” The reason they are called this is because when Michelangelo first saw these doors, which took sculptor and goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti 27 years to complete, he said the doors were worthy to be called the “gates of paradise.” This was quite a compliment to get from Michelangelo because he was a pretty cocky guy and never complimented work by others. The doors I saw were not the actual doors but replicas, because a massive flood damaged the originals in 1966 and they were moved to the Duomo museum.

We then ventured further down into the Piazza della Signoria, which was incredible. This is one of the main places that really struck me in Florence, and when I think about Florence this is the first thing that pops in my head. This was the central square of the original ancient Roman city, which they called Florentia, and that is still evident with several Roman sculptures mixed in with the later Renaissance works.

Because I couldn’t take a picture of Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia, I was hoping to get a picture of the copy, which resides in this piazza. Unfortunately work was being done to restore it, so it was surrounded in a cage of scaffolding. Several amazing sculptures were scattered all around this piazza however, so there were plenty to get pictures of. I’m not going to list them all because they were all impressive, but the ones that really stuck out for me were the bronze equestrian statue of Cosimo I (the first Grand Duke of Tuscany), the Fountain of Neptune, and the statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa.

Perseus was the famed Greek hero who slayed the gorgon Medusa, with the help of the goddess Athena’s shield. He also rescued the princess Andromeda from a sea monster and, according to legend, was the ancestor of the Persian Empire. Neptune was the Roman equivalent to the Greek god Poseidon and was the god of the sea. Neptune did not play as major of a role in Roman mythology as Poseidon did to the Greeks however.

An interesting thing about the Fountain of Neptune is that just in front of it is where the priest Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burned. His name might not ring a bell to most, but his famous Bonfire of the Vanities in this piazza sure might. During the Bonfire of the Vanities he led his followers to a massive burning of books, art, musical instruments, and a number of other items he deemed obscene, as he was a major opponent of the Renaissance movement. After a massive riot against his policies he was excommunicated and charged with a number of crimes, then burned in the very piazza where he burned so many works that are lost to the world forever.

We ventured on down from the Piazza della Signoria to the road passing the Uffizi. This was the place where offices were located for the Florentine judiciary and guilds. It is now a world famous art museum that holds some of the most prized possessions of the Renaissance. Unfortunately, we did not have time to go inside, but lining the walkway of the outside are several statues of important Italians throughout the ages.

Most of these names were familiar to me, as well as most people. As I walked down looking at the statues, a kind of immature but funny thing occurred to me. Here was Leonardo Di Vinci and Michelangelo, then Donatello and Raphael: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Sorry, but I’m sure this ran across many people’s minds who are around the same age as me (growing up with them when they were extremely popular) while we were walking down this street of historic figures. Cowabunga dudes!

In all seriousness though, I was familiar with most of the statues, and there was a bunch of them. Everyone knows Leonardo Di Vinci and the vast multitude of work he has contributed during the Renaissance movement, and really only Michelangelo can hold a candle to his genius body of work. Di Vinci was born just outside of Florence in a small Tuscan town called Vinci. Donatello was an early Renaissance artist and sculptor, and has his own sculpture of David, but it isn’t nearly as famous as Michelangelo’s. Artist and architect Raphael isn’t a Florentine, but is considered to be one of the main influences of the High Renaissance, and is most famous for the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican, which I would be visiting the following day.

Dante Alighieri, author of “The Divine Comedy” is one of Renaissance authors on display, as well as Niccolo Machiavelli, author of the political philosophy “The Prince.” I’ve only read “The Inferno” from Dante, and it is a fine work of literature filled with vivid imagery (though I think some take it much too literally). I have read Machiavelli’s “The Prince” as well, and it is an interesting glimpse into his political philosophies of acquiring and governing a principality in the 1500s, as well as his opinions of principalities throughout the world, both during his time and in the past, used as examples.

We then made it down to the river and this was a spectacular view of the medieval Ponte Vecchio bridge and the Arno River. The Ponte Vecchio is lined with shops that were used by butchers and tanners in medieval times, but these shops have now been converted to souvenir shops and jewelry stores. We then turned around and walked back by the Uffizi toward the restaurant we were going to for lunch.

After walking a bit down the Piazzale degli Uffizi, I noticed that two of my friends that came with me on this trip were not with us. We had headsets so the tour guide could talk to us through earpieces, and after I informed her we were missing two people, she spoke through the microphone where we were but they were too far out of range to hear her. Once we got to the restaurant so I would know where it was, I took off looking for them back toward the Arno River. We were given a number to call to the tour company if needed, and they called the number to tell them they had gotten separated, and told them the restaurant where they used the phone. The tour guide then found me by the river, and we set off looking for them.

My friends thought they saw some people in our group going across the Ponte Vecchio in the mob of people, and crossed to the other side of the Arno River trying to find the group. The tour guide and I found them in a restaurant on the other side. This was neat because I got to walk across the Ponte Vecchio and see some more monuments and buildings (and get more pictures) than I would have, though our tour guide was fuming mad.

We then made it back over to the restaurant and had some Florentine lasagna, which was excellent, as well as wine, turkey, and unexpectedly, fries (or chips). We then headed over to the Piazza Santa Croce where we were given some free time for ourselves.

This piazza is huge and full of activity. It is lined with shops and cafes, as well as street performers. Towering over the piazza is the massive Gothic basilica Santa Croce (which means “holy cross”), and in front of the cathedral is a massive monument to Dante. This basilica is highly significant because it holds the tombs of several famous Italians, and has a massive collection of works of art. During our free time my friend Ramon and I (that’s right, Ramon and Roman) ventured into the Santa Croce and spent about an hour inside.

Though not as huge as the Duomo, Santa Croce is a colossal cathedral. Inside are the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo, among others. Galileo, the legendary astronomer, physicist, and mathematician, has been referred to as the “father of modern science.” He was not buried inside Santa Croce at first because of his controversial views that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around, which the church did not agree with. During the last years of his life he was charged with heresy and put under house arrest by the Pope, then ninety-five years after his death, the church finally moved his tomb inside.

Flash was not allowed in Santa Croce, and the lighting was bad, so most of my pictures didn’t turn out very well, but I did get pictures of several of the tombs. Another monument inside Santa Croce holds a particular significance to the US, and it is the memorial to playwright Giovanni Battista Niccolini. This memorial is believed to have been the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty in New York, and it is plain to see why. It looks almost exactly like it, except instead of holding a torch she is holding a broken chain.

After Santa Croce we then headed back to meet up with the group in the piazza and walked back to the bus. Lined along the streets of Florence are street merchants trying to peddle several goods to tourists, and many of these are fake goods like the ones in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. In Italy however, not only is it illegal to sell them, but it is also illegal to buy them. Our tour guide warned us that if any of us were caught buying these items we could be fined a couple thousand Euros, so she strongly advised us not to buy from the street merchants. There are several of street merchants all throughout Florence, but there was a larger concentration of them lined down the street where we were meeting our bus, as well as Gypsies selling silk shawls and jewelry.

Florence was a truly unbelievable experience. Upon leaving Florence you immediately feel much more artistically cultured than when you arrived, like a canvas soaking paint deep into its fibers. The rich historical significance of this Renaissance city sculpted an impression that will stick with me forever.


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