Art is the soul of Florence
That’s what stayed with me after a spontaneous trip to Italy. Since we work for ourselves, my husband and I take advantage of lulls in our schedule to travel. For our week long trip, we covered a lot of ground — Florence, Rome and Venice. Our first stop was Florence where art is not imported into museums, but is at the very heart of its history and its everyday life.
This city is thought to be the birthplace of the Renaissance. Even now in hindsight, it is one of the most beautiful and interesting cities I have had the pleasure to visit.
Our flight from NYC took us to Milan’s Malpensa airport, and then we took a high-speed train to Florence.
(You can fly into any city in Italy, but we took advantage of a discount from Emirates Airlines. Look out for a two-person deals around Valentine’s Day. This happened in 2014, and in 2015 they also offered a round trip flights for two people for $799! Their “economy” section could just as well be first class in my opinion).
Art & Culture in Florence
This is the city where the Renaissance began in the 14th century. Everything that was inspired by the Italian lifestyle or Roman paganism and funded by the influential Medici family (14-15 c.) or the church so many centuries ago still defines the feel of the city.
We tried to visit some of the important sights in Florence in two days.
Italy is known for having lots of plazas that are closed off to cars for the most part. If you walk along the Arno River there is no shortage of them. There are also several old bridges connecting the city on both sides of the river, the most famous being Ponte Vecchio. This bridge is only open to pedestrians and has a hidden tunnel underneath that was built for the Medici family to cross over. Supposedly the bridge was spared destruction during World War II because Hitler walked over and thought it was beautiful.
Piazza della Signoria is another impressive area, where Palazzo Vecchio sticks out with its tower and Roman statues seem to be everywhere. The Uffizi Gallery has a large collection of Renaissance art, including Michaelangelo’s famous statue of David. One of my favorites was the sculpture of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea (or the Greek’s Poseidon).
Inside the palazzo, the grandness of Salone Dei Cinquecento truly took us by surprise. The giant frescos on the walls, the golden panels on the ceiling and the statues are not something you can forget. My photos definitely don’t do it justice, but if you plan to visit it’s definitely worth the 10 euro ticket. Besides the main hall, there are several floors of rooms filled with art. When the Medici family lived there, the rooms were painted to represent each member with a Roman god. It’s a pretty great concept and a spectacular thing to see.
We also spent a few hours admiring the Florence Cathedral, known officially as Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Italian. It’s easier and common to refer to it as “il Duomo” (the dome). There’s an entrance fee that includes the dome, bell tower and the cathedral.
Hiking up a Cathedral
A note to future visitors: to get up to the top of the dome, you have to climb 436 steps so wear your sneakers and bring a bottle of water. It wasn’t easy but the view was amazing. The dome is painted with Renaissance frescoes. Though much of the art here is religious-themed, you don’t have to be part of the church to enjoy it. I don’t know why, but I was really into the part of the fresco which I now know is “The Last Judgement” (1572-79, Giorgio Vasari). Not knowing much about Biblical stories, I was thinking about Dante’s The Divine Comedy the whole time. In fact, Dante was born in Florence though he was exiled for part of his adult life.
Part of the appeal of the dome, constructed by Filippo Brunelleschi, is that its complicated construction is somewhat mysterious. From its completion in 1446 to today, it is still the largest “brick and mortar” dome ever built. An article in National Geographic from February 2014 said that architects are just figuring out how such a large construction site came together more than 500 years ago.
To this day, we don’t know where he got the inspiration for the double-shell dome, the herringbone brickwork, and the other features that architects through ensuing centuries could only marvel at.
Perhaps the most haunting mystery is the simplest of all: How did Brunelleschi and his masons position each brick, stone beam, and other structural element with such precision inside the vastly complex cathedral—a task that modern architects with their laser levels, GPS positioning devices, and CAD software would still find challenging today? – Tom Mueller, Nat’l Geographic.
After our hike up il duomo, we put off climbing up the famous bell tower. We finally decided to go at sunset, but only got part of the way. I’m sure it’s worth it but I don’t have any regrets. My feet agree.
An Italian Palace
Another major stop is Pitti Palace, and the adjoining the Boboli Gardens. You have to buy a ticket to some of exhibits to get into the gardens. We saw several rooms in the palace and one exhibit of fashion from influential women of the past and present. After everything else we saw, the gardens were a bit disappointing. Everything looked unkept. Maybe it’s because it was technically still winter, or maybe not. The gardens were large and it was hard to tell which paths led to something more than more trees. We relaxed a bit on the benches, but I’m not sure how much of it we actually saw.
We were exhausted at the end of our first day, and even more so at the end of the second. On the third day, we jumped on another train to Rome. Looking back I’d probably take at least another day in Florence. It turned out to be my favorite.
Want more of Italy? Read about the second part of this trip to Rome and Venice.