Florence: the ideal destination for an art or history lover

The author shares her experience of visiting Florence, the city of infinite beauty and history, where she discovered a new story in every place she visited

Piazzale Michelangelo [Michelangelo Square]

When a city spreads out a feast for the senses, rich in layers of history, infused with stories of intrigue and passion, of creative genius and worldly wants, then one can do wonderfully well without the little luxuries of life.

This was something I learnt on my holiday in Florence. I decided to spend every penny I could to ensure that I visited every church, monument, gallery and museum worth visiting in this mesmerising city, even if it meant cutting down on hotel expenses and fine dining experiences.

As luck would have it, the Hotel Ester, bang opposite the Terminali [railway station], offered us a room at a very comfortable price and belied our fears of what the one star it bore as its rating could translate into.

The room was small but well equipped, the beds were wooden, and something about the place made me imagine that in some earlier time, it must have been home to young novice nuns. A premise that was either completely fanciful, or indeed reflected by the colours and decor of the tiny hotel, whatever it was, it went perfectly with the mood the city induced.

Through the four days I spent in this city of infinite beauty and history, I was entranced. With every turn up an alley or by-road, I discovered a new treasure, a new story, a new adventure.

I was, after all, walking the very roads that great poets and artists, powerful kings and thinkers had once walked upon. The Medicis, among who were rulers, popes and great patrons of the arts; Savonarola the fundamentalist friar whose extreme views first swayed the hearts of men to committing heinous crimes in the name of Christianity, but led him to his own death at the stake; Machiavelli, the great statesman thinker who wrote The Prince that is still a politician’s crutch when the law needs to be bent to his advantage; and Michelangelo the artist, whose perfectly proportioned David is the pride of Florence… was there a lack of reasons to linger on and imbibe the aura the city imparted?

As you walk around, secrets reveal themselves with amazing regularity. An early painting by Michelangelo, almost unnoticed on a church wall, Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Fountain of Neptune, a masterpiece of marble sculpture at the terminus of a still functioning Roman aqueduct, a Benvenuto Cellini creation or a Titian or a Raphael painting, the vaulting corridors of the Uffizi gallery… it was as if the wonders would never cease.

Florence needs a month at least to be understood, explored and assimilated. Maybe then, the eye will not turn greedily from one offering to another, hoping to catch it all before time runs out.

But if you find that you have too little time on your hand, as I did… then here are a few must sees when you visit Florence.

Detail of gates of paradise at the Florence Baptistery »

ready-to-get-2Michelangelo stated that these doors were fit to be the ‘Gates of Paradise’ and Giorgio Vasari described them as “undeniably perfect in every way.” The workmanship is almost perfect, with perfect proportions and the exact mimicking of human movement that is characteristic of the Renaissance artists.

View while crossing a bridge across the river Arno »

ready-to-get-3The River Arno almost divides Florence. The pretty bridges that span it are perfect spots for selfies and allow for more objective views of the city in all its infinite glory. Temperamental by nature, the Arno has often flooded Florence and has once even succeeded in destroying many priceless works of art, much of which still await restoration. Steps have however been taken to prevent such occurrences and the river is believed to be tamed to a large extent.

Ponte vecchio exterior view »

ready-to-get-4Like in Venice, this bridge is built in the style favoured during the medieval ages. Made entirely of stone with arches that hold it up, this beautiful structure also has shops on either side of the walkway that urge pedestrians to stop as they walk across the Arno.

Jewellery shops on the ponte vecchio »

ready-to-get-5Florentine jewellery has a distinct style of its own, marked by delicate gold-work, coral and precious stones. Drop-earrings, necklaces that cluster round the throat and delicate bracelets can be bought at some of the boutique outlets that sell heritage replicas in semiprecious formats. Of course, I fell prey to the temptation.

Palazzo Vecchio’s Arnolfo Tower »

ready-to-get-6Almost anywhere I turned, I could clearly see this tower—Florence’s tallest structure. At 95 metres it literally towers over the city. Strangely too, it is one of the oldest parts of the building. It was built in the 13th and 14th centuries to form the main building for government.

Replica of David at Piazzale Michelangelo »

ready-to-get-7Though I stood for quite a while admiring this replica of the original that had once stood at this exact spot, I did brave the long, long queues to see the original statue shaped by Michelangelo’s hands, which is now inside the Galleria dell’Accademia. The replica gives a good idea of the grace and power of the original and has the added virtue of the free standing space that allows it to be seen in the way the sculptor meant it to be seen… standing tall against the Italian sky. The bronze cast of David in Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence is flanked by casts of the reclining figures in the Medici Chapel.

The front of the Duomo »

ready-to-get-8The great Dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore [Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower] is to Florence what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. The Dome can be seen towering over the city from any height, and is a not just a work of art, but a marvel of architecture. The cathedral was started in 1296 but the dome itself would only be completed almost 200 years later.

The cathedral complex, located in Piazza del Duomo, includes the Baptistery and Giotto’s Campanile, all of which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of Italy’s largest churches, the Dome remains the largest brick dome ever constructed.

Interior of The Gothic church of Santa Maria Novella »

ready-to-get-10If I had not asked about this church, I might have missed its awe inspiring beauty. The interior is completely different, resembling those of the Cistercian Gothic churches. Wide bays and high vaulting ceilings mark it out as do some of the exquisite art that nestles within. The Duccio’s Maestà [1285], known as the ‘Rucellai Madonna’ also belonged here, but now is safely in the Uffizi.

The interior of dome at the duomo is not as famous as the Sistine, but it is as engrossing. Painted by Vasari and Zuccaro, the interior depicts scenes from the Last Judgement and contains some of the largest paintings on Earth. Sadly, there was no way to compare the two to see how differently Michelangelo and these two great artists had interpreted the themes, or to compare styles. Maybe next time I will carry a colour print out of the Sistine version and take a longer, better look.

ready-to-get-9aDoor detail at entrance of Duomo »

A detailed appreciation of the Duomo can take up an entire day. The doors are works of art and have stories about them that can be heard from the locals. I, unfortunately, rushed through taking but an hour to inspect and marvel over the amazing work inside and outside this witness to Italian history and art.

  • Pics: Shiv Saran

This travelogue was first published in the March 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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