Florence At First Sight

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Last summer, on the 10th of August, we made our first visit to Florence. We drove there without satnav and without a hitch, the roads were clear, no hold-ups and we left the car with a parking attendant in a super-efficient underground car park. It was all going surprisingly smoothly, until we hit the streets and joined the procession of pilgrims to the birthplace of the Renaissance.

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Sometimes it seems that Florence’s beauty and success have conspired against her – with over two million visitors a year, almost everything’s crowded, almost all the time. It’s noisy, and tour groups abound. Despite all this, however, Firenze is irresistible… and the presence of lots of tourists is not a reason to deter you from visiting what is arguably one of the world’s most special cities. Even on cloudy days (and there are gray and rainy days in Florence), “the warm colors many of the buildings are painted – cream, mustard, saffron, butterscotch, egg yolk, zabaglione – give the impression of sun upon them,” as Mark Mitchell has noted in Italian Pleasures.

from The First Time I Saw Florence by Sallie Tisdale, Tuscany & Umbria: The Collected Traveler

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The duomo, the cathedral dedicated to the Madonna of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, fills Piazza del Duomo making a full view of the huge building difficult in the confined space. It produces a memorable effect of massive grandeur, especially when seen from its southern flank, lightened by the colour and pattern of its distinctive marble walls (white from Carrara, green from Prato, red from the Maremma). The famous dome, a masterpiece of the Renaissance, rises to the height of the surrounding hills (from which it is nearly always visible), holding sway over the whole city.

from Blue Guide Tuscany by Alta Macadam

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We probably should’ve gone inside, especially after coming so far, but the queues were huge and I’d read of a quiet little museum hidden away off the beaten track. We just had to work out where it was.

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We came through Piazza della Signoria, by Palazzo Vecchio and Loggia dei Lanzi, and between the two wings of the Uffizi Gallery, over Ponte Vecchio and then along the south side of the River Arno.

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The Museo Stefano Bardini, which stands at the end of the handsome Via de’ Bardi, houses the collection of Stefano Bardini (1836-1922), once the most important art dealer in Italy, whose tireless activity – at a time when Renaissance art was relatively cheap and unfashionable – laid the cornerstone of many important European and American museums. Determined that no visitor to his native city should remain unaware of his success, he bought the former monastery of San Gregorio alla Pace, which at the time was doing service as a hat factory, and converted it into a vast house for himself and his collection. Sculpture, paintings, ceramics, armour, furniture, picture frames, carpets, wooden ceilings, tombstones – Bardini bought it all, and he bequeathed the whole lot to the city. Reopened in 2011 after a protracted restoration, the museum now looks much as it did when Bardini died…

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The Bardini is more like a colossal showroom than a modern museum, with miscellaneous objets d’art strewn all about the place, sometimes arranged thematically, but often following their owner’s personal logic. Many of the items are unlabelled too…

from The Rough Guide to Tuscany & Umbria

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We arrived early and had the place to ourselves. It was our own private treasure house!

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In a room of anonymous Madonnas there were two by Donatello:

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Madonna of the Rope Makers

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Madonna of the Apple

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We left Bardini’s palace of antiquities and crossed back over the Arno just as the rain came down.

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We sheltered in gift shop doorways and beneath the frescoed facade of the Palazzo dell’Antella.

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A statue of Dante watches over Piazza Santa Croce.
Tourists avoid his fearsome gaze by sheltering under umbrellas.

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Santa Croce is the Franciscan church of Florence… The vista in the huge wide Gothic interior is closed by the polygonal sanctuary and the 14th century stained glass in the east windows. The church contains very fine sculptures since for 500 years it has been the custom to erect monuments to notable citizens of Florence here: it is the burial place of the great artists Lorenzo Ghiberti and Michelangelo, the statesman Machiavelli and the scientist Galileo.

from Blue Guide Tuscany by Alta Macadam

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The Descent of Christ into Limbo: Agnolo Bronzino

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The tomb of Michelangelo

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The tomb of Galileo

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Coats of arms of ancient Florentine families on the walls of the the main cloister.

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The second or inner cloister is one of the most peaceful spots in the city.

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Tree of Life: Taddeo Gaddi

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Warrior With Shield: Henry Moore

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Piazza Santa Croce is one of the most attractive and spacious squares in the city, and has been used since the 14th century for tournaments, festivals and public spectacles. Santa Croce… was rebuilt in 1294, possibly by Arnolfo di Cambio. The bare stone front was covered with its neo-Gothic marble facade in 1893.

from Blue Guide Tuscany by Alta Macadam

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The Basilica di Santa Croce

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Around the corner we called in at Vivoli to sample their world famous gelato.

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Piazza del Duomo near the Porta del Paradiso

I was reminded of this picture a week later when I returned to work. The very first thing I saw when I entered our workshop was an antique black and white photograph with almost exactly the same view.

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It must have been taken more than a century earlier, and it had been framed by The Rowley Gallery!

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Col Mercato da Pablo in association with Palazzo Strozzi.

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The Mercato Centrale was designed by Giuseppe Mengoni, architect of Milan’s famous Galleria, and is Europe’s largest covered food hall. Opened in 1874, it received a major overhaul a century later, reopening in 1980 with a new first floor.

from The Rough Guide to Tuscany & Umbria

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This was a great place to end our visit. The food market was closed for the day but upstairs there was a lively space with a bar in the centre surrounded by some excellent stalls serving freshly cooked street food, and all under the watchful gaze of the tattooed twin brother of Michelangelo’s David.

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If you enjoyed this you might also like Another Look At Florence.

Frames of reference
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8 Responses to Florence At First Sight

  1. Bill says:

    Henry Moore’s appearance was unexpected.

    As always, I enjoyed the tour. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  2. Hank Frankel says:

    Moore’s appearance was also wonderfully welcome. Winter is less crowded! Thanks for the photo of Galileo’s tomb.

  3. Paul Finn says:

    Takes me back to October and November last year Chris, when I travelled through Tuscany with Huw Morgan drawing. We stayed between Florence and Siena. It was inspiring to walk in the footsteps of the artists whose work I saw in reproduction at school in Yorkshire, Thank you .

  4. Chiara says:

    It’s always a pleasure reading about people’s experiences of our city.

    I have just published a page about the Loggia dei Lanzi on our website that I hope your readers will enjoy, not least because it has some fabulous photos of the sculptures you can see on display.

    Here is the page
    http://www.fibnb.com/insights/florence/loggia-dei-lanzi-firenze/

    Warm regards

    Chiara

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