Today was our Dresden day—unfortunately for me, it started just before 5 am, because I woke up to early and couldn’t go back to sleep. But at least I stayed in bed and rested some more until it was time for a shower and a LOVELY hotel breakfast with all the German accoutrements and (of course) real dishes and real silverware. Afterwards, we set out for our Dresden adventure under glorious blue skies, on the warmest day we’ve had so far (in the 80s by the afternoon). We took the tram from near here to the historic city center of Dresden, and then just started walking around and looking at the mix of old, new, and lovingly restored buildings. I have to admit that the style of most buildings (restored baroque and restored 19th-century neoclassical) doesn’t really rock my socks off, but given that most of the city center of Dresden was destroyed in the famous February 1945 bombing, it is stunning how much they have been able to restore, much of it not right after the war, but over many decades, including the parts that were not even attempted until after reunification. Photos do not do it justice because they don’t show what is old and what is new—typically, very blackened sandstone is old and light beige is old, but some of it has also been sandblasted rather than restored. There is also still quite a bit of construction going on all the time, including major work on the tram tracks.
So even though the individual buildings actually often struck me as ugly, the overall effect of the “ensemble” was impressive, and there is enough green between the sandstone buildings, not to mention the river Elbe with its many bridges bordering downtown, that the “new old town” was actually really fun to walk around in. But I had to laugh about the pompous celebration of Western art along the front of the Academy of the Arts, with the name of famous Western artists, antique and “modern,” inscribed like the whole thing was a gigantic crib note for my art history exam (Praxiteles! Raphael! And then some negligible 19th-century dude named Erwin von Steinbach that they must have thought was the future of German art in 1893–well, he wasn’t).
The famous Frauenkirche is always touted as the most impressive of the restoration—it had been left as rubble, with two large portions standing in the ruins, by the East German government, to be a memorial, but after 1990, a lot of money was raised to identify useable fragments and rebuild the church, supplementing the rest. We didn’t go inside, but the outside is certainly impressive as a recreation. I have vague memories of the two black pillars from my visit in the 1980s, although I don’t remember the rubble. Again, photos don’t do the old or new church justice.
After we had walked around for a bit, just getting our bearings and enjoying the views and the early birds among the tourists, we went to the Zwinger, the former residence of the rulers of Dresden and the surrounding country of Saxony (at some point, they were counts or dukes, later they were kings—I can never keep this quite straight, but as of the 17th century, they ruled from this enormous palace with a large courtyard and ridiculous ornamentation all over the parapets. There is a walk all around the parapets, as well as multiple museums, the earliest of which were instituted in the 1800s, while other buildings began to be used for government purposes. The rulers of Saxony were avid collectors of various things, including paintings and sculpture, and also (because of one early ruler’s avid interest) mathematical and scientific instruments. So we got to go into two different museums in the same building: the Alte Gemäldegalerie, with art from ca. 1500-1800, and the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon, the collection of scientific instruments begun all the way back in the 1580s. Both were a lot of fun, although I think Mark had a better time with the science. More below about the art, but be it noted that I also found the old science intriguing, including various time pieces (pocket sun dials, astrological clocks, you name it), vacuum tubes, models of the solar system, and a calculator designed by Blaise Pascal.
Between our two museum tours, we actually left to find ourselves some food in an outdoor cafe (we had Flammkuchen, which is a super-thin-crust flat bread with a little cheese, ham, and onion on it, and a Caesar salad with some very un-Caesary ingredients), and we watched as a big special event got launched—the annual gay pride parade (in the European tradition, named Christopher Street Day parade, after the June 28 parades in New York and LA that celebrated the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots and then many more). We walked with the parade of many hundreds of people in a festive but also clearly politicized mood as they got their start around 12:30, and later, after our second half of the museum visit, we caught back up with them as they were walking along the Elbe river—they had been marching for 3 hours in the heat already, and many were clearly wilting, but still going strong after some time in the shade. Pretty amazing.
We opted for a gelato and a big bottle of water to cool us off at that point, and then walked across the river on one bridge and took the tram back across another one. We still felt we needed a bit more green space and made our way by tram to the huge city park (Grosser Schlosspark), which is in fact really big (the fairly large zoo comprises perhaps a sixth or eight of it). We basically walked its length on its southern edge, enjoying the shade and the many people who were out and about, and then found ourselves a little hole-in-the-wall Indian place with a couple of outdoor tables near our hotel. We had perfectly decent Chicken Tikka and Tandoori chicken with a huge pile of naan, plus a bottle of water, for 12 Euro. By comparison, our gelato plus a large bottle of mineral water had been 20 Euro!
Then we picked up some snacks in a nearby supermarket and headed back to the hotel. It would have been nice to have more time in the day, and add something like the history museum or the art after 1800 (there’s a whole second museum for that) but that was really all we could handle in a day!
The reason that I opted for the Alte Gemäldegalerie was not just that it had Renaissance paintings of some interest, but that it was the museum George Eliot went to see in 1858, when she stayed in Dresden for six weeks, working on her novel Adam Bede in the mornings and visiting the gallery later in the day, returning again and again to a painting she adored and that I quite dislike—Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (her partner, George Henry Lewes, actually called her „Madonna“ some of the time and had her fascination with this painting in mind when he did that). I really just don’t get it, but she apparently liked really sweet, soft sfumato painting styles in bright colors (although she later distanced herself at least from Guido Reni, who to me is even more cloying than Raphael’s Madonna. But she also mentioned some other paintings as “memorable,” so I tried to pay special attention to the Correggios and the Holbeins that she saw. And I totally get her fascinating with Titian’s Tribute Money (that intense stare of the Pharisee! Wow.) and her praise of the Titian-may-be-Giorgione Venus.
But I also had my own interests and curiosities: I was excited to see my very first Piero di Cosimo painting in person, a Tondo (a round devotional painting for a private setting) of the holy family with John the Baptist and a couple of angels. Not my favorite, but at least it was my first Piero! I had written an art history paper about him last fall and never seen any of his work in a museum. There was also a small part of a chopped-up predella by Fra Angelico that I wasn‘t sure what to make of. I also got to see a newly restored Vermeer (the one of the girl reading a letter), and a second, much cruder and less well-painted one, In the House of the Procuress.
There were also some unexpected surprises: I didn‘t know that the plaster-cast collection of the painter Adolph Mengs, close friend of Winckelmann’s, was at this museum, and those are of some historical interest for me, because plaster casts of ancient statues were so important in the 18th and 19th century and then so many were just ditched. George Eliot saw many antique statues as casts long before she saw the Roman marbles (and basically no Greek originals), and that was the norm for many viewers. There were also a lot of bronze copies of ancient and Renaissance works, but usually not to scale, but much smaller, and I don‘t really know enough to understand what that was about. Why would you want a table-top copy of a large marble or bronze statue in your collection? Why was that prestigious? I‘ll have to find out a bit more about that.
Lastly, there was actually a room dedicated to the uniform frames that many of the paintings used to have in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how this tradition came about, and that is, to me, an important part of museum history. The museum displays do, for the most part, look pretty different from the way they did in the 19th century, when the paintings were hung in three rows and became basically prestigious wall paper. But in some rooms (and in the trompe l’oeuil „curtain“ in front of an empty wall at the end of the second-floor display) you can still see what that would have looked like at the Gemäldegalerie. No wonder Eliot always points out that she can only recall a few of the pieces she’s seen. Without the ability to tell Mark to take a picture of this or that piece, and then writing about them, they’d never stick even now, when there are typically just a few in each room or “cabinet.”
This morning, we had a quick breakfast at our lovely Villa Seraphinum, settled our bills, and took a taxi to the train station to avoid the hassle of getting connecting buses and trams on a Sunday morning. We were booked on a pretty full train to Berlin, so I am really glad that I had gotten extra reservations after initially thinking when I booked our ticket that I wouldn‘t need any. We were actually in a compartment for six, pretty much like sardines, given that everyone had luggage, but we had a really good conversation about traveling, art, and music going, with a woman who lives in Dresden and loved talking about traveling, an older couple from the countryside who were on their way to Norway to take a cruise, and a young man, probably not 20, a classic choir boy (from a youth choir from Fulda, where my dad went to school) who was about to start his training to become a bass-baritone operatic singer, and was excited to tell us about next year’s trip to Florence for a European choir festival. In the spirit of 6 degrees of separation, it turned out that a) he was on his way to Osnabrück to help a former teacher out with a musical program there, and b) that he spent his entire schooling as a kid at the Waldorf school in Loheland, where my aunt Karin got her first job as a weaver in the early 50s, and where she lived until she got married and emigrated to the US in the mid-60s. Crazy. Poor Mark was again mostly excluded from the conversation, because I couldn‘t translate as fast as we were changing topics!
The two hours went really quickly that way, and once we got to Berlin, we found the bus to our hotel right away, and were actually able to do an early check-in and leave our bags in our room. Then we set out, in glorious, sunny weather, to walk to the museum. We took the slightly longer route—our Meininger chain hotel (in the part of Berlin called Moabit) is north of the huge „Central Park“ of Berlin, Tiergarten (the former hunting grounds of the kings of Prussia), and north of the river Spree that runs through Berlin. So we crossed the river into the park and walked through the park with its lovely shade to get to the Gemäldegalerie Berlin, where the state collection’s 1300-1800 paintings are. We took a slight detour, because something was going on on the main road through the park, which turned out to be a huge fair relating to environmental products, from rental e-bikes and the German version of ZIP cars to farm products and reusable coffee cups. The political parties and environmental organizations had stands, and the anti-nuclear-energy people were right across from the nuclear energy booth. We strolled around for a little bit and then finally did make it to the museum. We hadn‘t had lunch yet, so we took advantage of the cafeteria and had quiches and salad before going on our extensive walk through the museum. I feel bad for Mark, because this was already four very intense hours and I told him Florence would be way worse!
But until I got tired myself about 3 hours in, I had a really good time, and I had set it up so we started with the temporary exhibit on Mantegna and Bellini, and then focused on the Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists, to be followed by the Dutch and German baroque, working backwards. So it wasn‘t so terrible that we were out of steam by the time we got to the Dutch and German artists of the late Middle Ages, which I do not care about that much. More below in the AH-TLDR section on the art I saw, but I was really pleased to find a painting by a female Renaissance painter, Sofonisba Anguissola, and discover a self-portrait by another female painter, an 18th century German woman named Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721–1782), who had done an interesting self-portrait while wearing an interesting monocular contraption (presumably to see her subject matter better). But the highlight of the museum visit were the Mantegna-Bellini exhibit and seeing Piero di Cosimo’s Venus, Mars, and Cupid, which I had written about, up close.
By the time we left about 4:30, Mark was so worn out that he didn‘t take any additional pictures until we got home, although we went all over the Tiergarten park, even taking a little nap on the grass in the shade. It was beautiful outside, although definitely hot, and so we did spend a lot of time trying to find shade. The park is full of mature trees and windy paths, so that was the perfect environment for the day. But eventually we got hungry and walked back into the Moabit neighborhood and found ourselves some Döner—the Turkish variant of gyros that became the # 1 German fast food many years ago in Berlin. We had them „in style“ at a little rickety outdoor table at a little shop with about three such tables right on the sidewalk, and wrapped up with a surprisingly boring gelato. We headed home to the hotel about 7 pm, full of impressions but out of steam. We hung out in the large lobby/bar area for a while, hoping for it to cool down a little, and to look at our photos. As with Dresden, one day is not enough in Berlin—but we know we‘ll be back.
Too much to talk about! Here are some highlights.
The exhibit on Mantegna and Bellini, who were brothers-in-law and at times rivals, and had pretty similar but not identical styles, especially as Mantegna left for Mantua while Bellini stayed in Padua and then left for Venice, was really impressive because it compared certain works of theirs where they clearly influenced each other or where Bellini copied from Mantegna. Many of the pieces in the exhibit were „art history textbook“ examples, like their two versions of the Agony in the Garden and their two Saint Sebastians (I also saw the Saint Sebastian of the Modern Underwear yesterday in Dresden, and a Rubens variant today). But another pair, the dual version of Presentation of Christ at the Temple, I hadn‘t seen before, and since the two paintings are not normally in the same museum, it was pretty special, and there were a lot of sketches and a few etchings, which are always hard to come by in the original. Not to mention an exhibit on restoration which showed how damaged some of these paintings really are, and how often they have been retouched and painted over. Crazy. But the highlight of the Mantegna portion was really the St. Sebastian, since I had read a long essay by my professor Andrea Bolland about this piece, and she‘d also covered it in lecture, so I really saw things I would otherwise not have seen. She talked about the way a horse pops up in the clouds on the top left, for example, and that was very clearly visible. And I was also amazed at how small the painting is. I had imagined it much bigger, but it was only about 2 feet tall.
Another Piero di Cosimo! Venus, Mars, and Cupid. This one was much more meaningful to me, because I had looked at it in more detail, and it didn‘t have a Christian theme. I am also wondering whether Eliot did in fact see this one on her museum visits in Berlin (she doesn‘t mention it then, and in the Romola, the reference to the big bunny in it could come directly from Vasari; but it is possible, if the painting was already in Berlin in 1856. I have to do a little digging). But I know this painting quite well, and seeing the details close up was very cool. There is a butterfly on Mars‘s leg and a teeny fly (fly size) on his pillow, and I also saw a detail I‘d never noticed before—a piece of Mars‘s discarded armor that is just flying through the air, presumably flung by the little cupids/putti that are playing with the armor. It‘s always hard for me to look at minute details of paintings, but knowing this one so well really made that a possibility.
The women painters and some portraits of women, including one with a crazy complex hairdo by Botticelli, are just always interesting to me. Some look so generic and boilerplate (including ALL the Italian Marys) while others (for example the Rembrandt portrait of the Young Woman at an Open Door) seem so individualizedAlso the representations of women that are clearly meant to be erotic, like the Botticelli Venus and another Venus by Titian, and also a pretty racy Leda with the Swan with the Zeus-Swan right between her legs, not to mention the Cranach women who “wear” diaphanous veils. But to be fair, there was also a pretty sexy Victorious Amor by Caravaggio, even as other male nudes were clearly not meant to be erotic—at least I hope the St. Sebastians with the many arrows is not turning anyone on! And with all of these, I keep trying to figure out how the traveling, museum-going women in the 19th century, with their “proper” upbringing, would have reacted to those. So hard to tell without many comments in guidebooks and even journals.
The vast number of Italian paintings in the collection is really quite impressive. All the greats from Giotto and Gentile to Raphael, and the mannerists including Caravaggio, were well represented, and a bunch of not-so-greats as well (only a handful of baroque and rococo artists and barely anyone from the 18th century except Joshua Reynolds). I had Mark take a bunch of pictures, especially of course of the painters Eliot admired—Ghirlandaio, and above all Raphael. There is no Michelangelo here, but then there are not that many paintings by him, anyway; same with Leonardo. But the Raphael Madonnas (3 more here) are all over the place, and there was a Fra Angelico Last Judgment with a lot of bits of angelic gold.
More interesting, in some respects, was to see some of the Dutch pieces that were like the ones that got the Italians to shift from tempera to oil—there were several Hugh van der Goes pieces and a couple of possible Jan van Eycks, and you can really see the difference between oil and tempera strikingly. So I have a new appreciation for some of the things I already knew “on paper” but couldn’t quite imagine in reality. The same was also true about seeing the two Donatello relief sculptures that they had put in the Mantegna/Bellini exhibit to show how he uses “atmospheric perspective” to produce depth—that was very eye-opening.
I cannot believe how many Rembrandts they had—basically two rooms full. I knew about the massive churning out that happened in Rubens’s shop, but I didn’t think there were that many Rembrandts. I don’t know nearly as much about the Dutch painters as I do about the Italians, so I guess I should find out more, because I do like the way Rembrandt uses light and dark. Although my favorite Dutch painter is still Vermeer, and I am now probably already at the 15% mark of all the extant Vermeers, having seen 3 here in Berlin and Dresden and 3 in Holland. There are so few of them—35, maybe?
Although I was already quite tired, I did look very carefully at the Holbein portraits that were exhibited, thinking of my friend Ashley and all she taught me about Holbein and his portraits. There is one of a merchant with all his tools of the trade that was really interesting, and I had Mark take a picture of that in honor of Ashley’s teachings. 🙂
After a night with not as much sleep as I would have liked, we left an already quite-warm Berlin for a sunny but cooler Rome. The trip itself was uneventful—we had coffee and rolls at a little sidewalk cafe, then took the bus to the airport, which only takes 15 minutes, but we got pretty crowded on the way, and Tegel airport is crowded and full of long lines. There was a hold-up at the security check because the people in front of us had bought a dangerous-looking souvenir that alerted the x-ray machines: a long brass bullet casing with a small decorative knife in it. But we had come extra early and we made it to our gate on time. Rome’s airport was better organized and we found our shuttle bus without a problem. It was about an hour’s ride to the station near our guest house (and this time, “near” really meant 2 minutes), which is this completely charming set-up of many small rooms on the ground floor of a late-19th century apartment building in the residential area just north of the Vatican, which was built in the late 19th-/early 20th century and looks lovely to me with its yellows and beiges and its many roof gardens and balconies.
We have everything we need in our room, including a teeny efficiency kitchen built into the closet. Juan, the “receptionist” who was there to meet us (the whole thing about these guest houses is that they do not have someone on staff all the time, and you have to make arrangements for getting keys etc.) was very nice and gave us a good introduction to how to get place from here, including many warnings about how to not get ripped off and where to not eat because prices double for tourists. He recommended the neighborhood itself for small bites to eat etc., and so we set out to find a sidewalk place, but it was very early (5 pm) and most of the traffic was still just at the cafes. We settled on a place that served pasta but was really just a glorified fast-food stand. So the pasta was marginal, and we need to find a better way to combine eating cheap with making sure we still eat delicious and occasionally even healthy things. We then found a small supermarket (the equivalent of the little SPARs in France and England, here called PAM) and got some yogurt for the morning and some picnic food for later, took it back to our mini fridge, and went for an evening walk through some of the closest touristy parts of Rome.
All we had to do for that was to walk around the Castel Sant’Angelo, the huge pentagonal “fortress of the popes” which actually started out as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Hadrian and is now a small park with a museum in the middle, and cross the Sant’Angelo bridge (with the all-imposing view of St. Peter’s Basicila) into the downtown area. Rather than trying to find anything in particular, I just wanted Mark to get the feel of the many windy streets and little plazas that I had so much fun rambling through before, without trying to keep track of which church was where, what building was built when etc. Just to take things in. That was fun, and we ended up (with a little bit of in-between checking of the google map on our phone) on the Piazza Navona, which is really fun, touristy or not—spacious in the middle of all the narrow streets and teeny plazas, and with the seagulls not really caring that the fountain of the four rivers is a Bernini (I’m not sure the tourists really care either, certainly not by 7 pm when they are tired). There was street music and gelato and there were benches to sit on and people to watch, so we were happy. We took more windy streets to get back home and came out by the Palace of Justice, where the Italian Supreme Court meets, which I tagged (correctly) as a late 19th century attempt to build another neoclassical monster in the style of the Renaissance palaces. But obviously, given that most people don’t have immediate suspicions of fakery (or care), lots of people were milling around looking at the statues and medallions. I was intrigued to learn that its nickname is “the bad palace,” palazzacio, because of initial corruption and foundation issues when it was built.
We took another little detour through the Castel Sant’Angelo to St. Peter’s (taking a perfect linear perspective picture with me in it on the way there), where I gave Mark a mini lecture on the history of St. Peter’s and the colonnade “pincers” that surround the plaza and make it look so imposing. Then we walked back to our apartment, less than 10 minutes from Eastern Vatican walls, and called it a night. Great start to our time in Rome.
This was a VERY full day in Rome. We had a breakfast of yogurt and tea in our room, thanks to the little fridge & electric kettle, and then we set out about 8 am for an extensive walk through downtown, crossing the river by the piazza del Rovere and then heading toward the Pantheon, which actually wasn’t too crowded at before 10 am. I had gotten the tip that churches are much more reliably open before noon, and we did really get into almost every church we wanted to see. I opted to include them all here, so the descriptions here will be long and a little list-y. Even as an art history student, I had the blurring problem and still need to sort quite a bit—everything became one church, especially as so many of them, even the ones that were Renaissance churches, typically got a heavy-duty baroque upgrade, so that everything has sort of an encrustation of ornamental twirlers even on top of originally straight lines.
But we followed the advice of my Renaissance professor on what churches to check out and what to look for in them (for both Renaissance and Baroque), and that was really helpful. The Pantheon was, of course, impressive (I had seen it before), and the idea that the ancient Roman concrete held up so well for almost a couple of thousand years now, is mind-boggling. Walking around the outside of it, mostly brick and a couple of small spots where the marble „veneer“ was still in place (or stuck back into place), we tried to imagine what it would have looked like in Roman days, but failed. But it was certainly fun to see Roman engineering and economy at work with the brick-and-concrete concept with just that marble outside covering to make it look „all marble.“ We also visited the Bernini elephant / obelisk on the little piazza behind the pantheon, and the church right there, S.Maria Sopra Minerva, where Fra Angelico was buried and where we saw Michelangelo‘s Christ the Redeemer.
After that, our path and the churches become kind of a blur, but to the best of my memory, after surrounding the Pantheon, we headed in the general direction of the Piazza Navona again, and went briefly into S. Eustachio in Campo Marzio, of which I remember nothing—but we have a photo! Once I spotted the top of S. Ivo alla Sapientia, I knew that’s where we needed to head next, but sadly, we couldn‘t go in. This church has a really cool Baroque design by Borromini, and we could see some of that from the outside in the courtyard, but without going in, it was not nearly as clear how ingenious the design is. But as we walked away from it, we got another glimpse of the lantern atop the cupola from a different angle and saw that it was a fancy spiral. Quite the quirky baroque thing to do. Borromini was really the king of that kind of thing.
Borromini also had some impact on S. Agnese in Agone, one of the two churches on the Piazza Navona, where we headed next, although his rival and enemy Bernini was also involved. That church stood out to me mostly because it was the first I saw where the altarpieces were high-relief carvings (with all the depth effects one could wish for) rather than paintings. It also has a super decorated cupola and is just completely decked out with ornamentation. Baroque is exhausting.
Across from S. Agnese is another church, Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore, which we visited but about which I knew nothing. Wikipedia tells me that it used to be the church of the Spanish community in the Renaissance, but then that changed in the 17th century, and that parts of it were removed to make room for a street. But being in it, I couldn‘t tell it was an „unimportant“ church and I still wonder how one does that. While they don‘t all look the same to me like they used to, I still have the impulse to ask, as with books, how some of the decisions on the canon—on what‘s important and what isn‘t actually get made and also how they change.
As per Andrea Bolland‘s recommendations, we then hit another two churches: the church of the German Catholics in Rome, S. Maria dell‘Anima, a hall church, which I usually associate with simplicity, but which again was endowed with tons of baroque ornamentation. We admired a tomb that showed the fat putti of „the Flemish master of rendering baby flesh“ (as Bolland puts it), Francois Duquesnoy, and then moved on to the actual Renaissance church kitty corner, S. Maria della Pace, with a famous facade and courtyard by not one but two Renaissance architects (Cortona‘s facade, Bramante‘s courtyard), and the Chigi chapel, which has a fresco by Raphael with a Sybil that is supposed to be his answer to Michelangelo‘s Sybils on the Sistine chapel ceiling. The neighboring altar also had these interesting-looking marble sphinxes underneath the marble figures underneath the marble tomb sculptures of a couple. The courtyard presented an interesting twist, because an art installation that covered the whole open sky of the courtyard with clear plastic was being removed by means of hydraulic posts on all four corners. So we watched for a bit while this was happening.
At this point, we needed a break from churches and lunch, so we headed home (our way home ALWAYS includes the incredible „long view“ of St. Peter‘s from the Via della Conciliazione), bought a couple of salads at the PAM store on the way, and had salad, focaccia-style bread, and salami for a very satisfying lunch at home. Mark took a little nap while I read up on my art history of what we‘d just seen (but it doesn‘t seem to all stick), and around 2 pm we set out again.
Our first stop was Rome’s Florentine church, S. Giovanni del Fiorentini, which again has an altar by Borromini, and from the steps of which we looked down (as per Andrea‘s recommendations) one of the very first straight streets of Rome, the via Giulia, created in the early 16th century. We walked the via Giulia (I am, after all, here to experience Renaissance Rome), which leads past several Renaissance palazzos (now often embassies or Italian government buildings, we noticed—typically with soldiers guarding the entrance. At the palazzo Farnese (which we couldn‘t access), we turned towards the Largo di Torre Argentina, because that is where one goes to see cats on Roman ruins. There is actually a cat sanctuary, clearly funded by the cat lovers of Italy, England, and America, where street cats get sterilized (nicked ear and everything) and released (the ones who would not survive in the streets, especially blind cats, get to stay), and that clearly attracts more tourists than the ruins themselves, even as a docent was happy to explain to people what they were seeing below in the ruins.
I hadn‘t realized how very close we were at that point to the Capitoline hill until we were standing right in front of the piazza d‘Aracoeli at the bottom of the stairs that lead up the hill. I spent a half a day here when I was in Rome in 2010, so I knew what to show Mark—so we climbed up, looked down the length of the forum, glanced at the copy of the bronze Marcus Aurelius on Michelangelo‘s plaza, and also visited the church, S. Maria in Ara Coeli (which translates into „the altar of heaven“). Lots of gold and ornament, but I find this church really interesting because of the flat coffered ceiling (I remember seeing it in 2010 and being so confused—how was this even a church? I was trained on German Gothic and Romanesque style, and flat ceilings were not in my register of what a church should be. There was some very cool natural light in this church making certain golden spots glisten, and the extremely worn marble grave stones in the floor were very cool. We did, however, use the back stairs to go in and out, rather than the endless front stairs which we watched some tourists climb.
We then walked by the Teatro Marcello (a „mini coliseum“) and other Roman ruins that show the „underneath“ of the Capitoline Hill, and then made our way onto the Isola Tiberina. I remembered some very yummy gelato there, but we couldn‘t sit down on the island across from the „broken bridge,“ the ponto Rotto (as I had done before), because the area was being set up for a concert, festival, or the like. So we went across and sat on a wall, watching the Tiber from there and then made our way into Trastevere.
I love the even-windier little streets there as I had before, but we also went to S. Maria in Trastevere, which was very cool, because part of it is so old. The Italo-Byzantine mosaics from the 13th century are an unusual sight for Rome, and the huge granite columns were actually recycled (up-cycled?) from a Roman complex (presumably the baths of Caracalle). The campanile is also in medieval style, and even though the facade was „classicized“ later, this church does have a really different feel. We left right as some people were coming in for a 5:30 pm service, and then found ourselves a little cafe with snacks and appetizers and had a „pizza romana“ (which is really a sandwich on a slice of focaccia bread) and some breads and cold cuts. Good but not great—we really do not quite know how to choose good food here.
The last part of our day was then to walk from Trastevere to the Gianicolo park, up the hill to the piazza Garibaldi and then back down the hill toward the Vatican, with gorgeous views of Rome all the way along. It was great to see from a distance what we had seen close up on the other side of the Tiber, and the great surprise (which shouldn‘t have been one) was how silly and undistinguished the Pantheon looks from afar, compared to all the marble and painted stucco everywhere else. Just like a giant shallow clay bowl turned upside down. I assume it was all marble clad or at least plastered (how, though??? Gotta do some research on that) and that the marble was turned into lime in the limekilns of the Middle Ages.
We were home about 7:30 and good and tired after over 12 miles of walking! But we ducked out to buy juice, sparkling and cookies, to finish our day with a nice little dessert date at our rickety dinner table—what a long but great day!
Today was dedicated to going to EVERYTHING Vatican, both expected and unexpected. We spent some time after breakfast getting caught up on journaling and posting photos, and then we set out with the plan of seeing St. Peter‘s Basilica in the morning, then taking an early lunch break, and going to the Vatican museums with our skip-the-line online tickets at the designated time at noon. That didn‘t quite work out—we got to the piazza of St. Peter‘s and realized that every Wednesday when the pope is „home“ he gives a little bulletin at 10 am. So we didn‘t get to go into the cathedral, but instead got to see the pope (VERY far away) telling people about his recent visit to Romania. We didn‘t stay for the many translations (into French, German, English, Spanish, and Portuguese, I believe), but we CAN now say we saw the pope speak.
We then made our way through the phalanx of „official tourist guides“ (aka scammers) who sell people tickets in addition to their Vatican Museum tickets for the „special tour“ of St. Peter‘s (which can of course be visited WITHOUT any tickets) and walked a little bit back into the Prati, the quarter north of the Vatican area where our guest house is, met with a police marching band (undoubtedly parading toward the Vatican in connection with the pope‘s Wednesday update), and eventually found an outdoor cafe where I finally had my first Italian caffe latte, and where we had some croissants and a cookie (instead of lunch) and watched the busy people at the street corners. The architecture in this late 19th century neighborhood is distinctly Roman (with the roof gardens at the top of the apartment buildings, some pseudo-antique features, and beautiful yellows and oranges for stucco colors) but the layout is like that of Paris, so it all felt vaguely familiar. We hung out until about 11, then made our way over to the Vatican and were waved in, with ALL THOSE OTHER PEOPLE, at 11:30. I had been warned about the throng (hence the on-line tickets) but wow, was it crowded. The logistics challenge for this much traffic in a museum is enormous; the solution is basically the Disney approach: give the masses a specific one-directional path with a few possible detours and do extra ingress control at the very crowded areas. It was always a relief to be in a courtyard or one of the rare less traveled places in between phases of choc-a-bloc traffic. The doors were usually a challenge as tour groups and individuals filed through in a never-ending stream. (Well, it ends every day at 6 when the museum closes, I suppose.) The Sistine Chapel was of course the most crowded of all locations, and the constant shouting by guards to be silent and not take pictures (pretty pointless on both counts) made it about the least sacred-feeling religious space I have been to. All that aside, it was breathtaking to see some of the most famous masterpieces of Western art, many of which were surprises because I have typically not memorized where certain works are, and would then be stunned to see a favorite from an art history class—especially among the 100 Vatican highlights that are marked (for the fast track, I suppose) there were of course many old friends.
There is no possibility to give a short account of this visit for an aspiring art historian with an ambition to remember things (this is after all part of my research), so here goes with the long version, which might turn into an even longer version once I go back to add more museum history, which is of course part of what I need to take into account. The Parcours started with the museum of Egyptian and ancient Mesopotamian art, which we only glanced at cursorily—but we were intrigued by a little cuneiform tablet in a “sleeve” that looked for all the world like a smartphone in a case. (Mark thought it looked more like a candy bar with a wrapper.) Then came the collection of all things Etruscan, including the Greek vases from the Etruscan tombs that (as I learned in the museum) were thought to be “Etruscan” until Winckelmann made the connection to Ancient Greece. We now know that virtually all of them were exports from Greece and it’s our great good fortune the Etruscans liked Greek art so much—almost all those beautiful black-figure and red-figure vases in the world’s museums are from those tombs. The Vatican does own some of the all-stars, and we did get to see a super-famous vase of Achilles and Ajax playing at dice, by Ezekias. But they also had the fabulous “home-made” Etruscan bronze art, including the famous Todi Mars, which is really quite beautiful—and also much smaller than I thought, maybe 4 feet tall.
We left the Etruscans behind for the prized collection of classical statues that the popes started to assemble in the early 16th century, and that people have come to see and write rhapsodic poetry and art history about ever since then. The first stop was one of the Roman copies of the Apoxymenos, the “scraper” by Praxiteles, and then what used be the Belvedere statue court, with several pieces still exactly where they were in the 1510s, when the court was built for these new finds from Ancient Rome and the display was first set up. The throngs were super thick, because every tour guide takes his or her group to the Laocoon, which is of course amazing. Its history, including where it was found in the early 1500s, and the most recent discoveries about when the three sculptors that created it actually lived and worked are super fascinating, but I just can’t go into all of that. Whether it’s a Hellenistic original or Roman commission of a copy of that work, but created by Greek sculptors, the expression of pain on Laocoon’s face is amazing. Note to self: I need to read Lessing’s essay on the Laocoon! But there was also the representation of the Nile, and the Apollo Belvedere—just nuts to see all of this. One of the niches (I believe the one that now has an 18th century Perseus with the head of the Medusa by Canova) used to have the Sleeping Ariadne in it in the 16th century, when it was still known as the Cleopatra, above a fountain. And of course this is the statue about which I know more than any other in the Vatican Museum, and which I basically came to see more than any other work, both for my own gratification and as part of my research—it plays a central role in a scene in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, with the heroine of the novel standing by it, but not looking at it, and because of that, I had written a paper on its entire history last semester. So I knew that it was later moved from the courtyard into a room called the Cleopatra Room, and was then moved to where it is now. But the Vatican museum website, which I had consulted several times, didn’t actually spell out where that was, and so I was confused. I wasn’t seeing it, even though I was in the Museo Pio-Clementino, where I knew it was supposed to be. But for the moment, I let it be because I wasn’t 100% sure where it should be, and moved on. So we went past a whole bunch of additional ancient sculpture, including the Belvedere Torso–the “Archaic Torso” of Rilke’s poem! And so many other poems! Michelangelo loved this piece (more long stories) and I can totally see why—the muscles, the twisted body, the idea that posture can speak all on its own—it’s all there. Then through a tapestry-covered corridor and a another one with large map frescoes on the walls—all with sumptuous ceilings and the works. Every pope had to add a few more gems.
Eventually, we ended up with the Renaissance artists—specifically, Raphael’s Stanze (a series of chambers) for Sixtus, of which I again only knew the most famous highlight, namely the School of Philosophy (aka the School of Athens) and of Theology (or the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament)in the Stanza della Segnatura. Mark had to endure my whole mini lecture about Plato and Aristotle at the center (also the vanishing point for the perspectivally rendered buildings) of the School of Athens, and the “hidden” possible portraits of Michelangelo, Raphael himself, and Leonardo-as-Plato. The Parcours should have led by the chapel of Nicholas V, with frescoes by Fra Angelico, but I didn’t see a detour or a pathway that indicated this, so I assume it is closed to the public. Instead we were in for a surprise, because as “filler” in the former rooms of the Borgia popes, some still lavishly decorated, the Vatican opted to display its modern art. I fully expected this to be kitschy Christian art of no particular artistic value, but I was sorely mistaken—and I had ignored that some 20th-century artists were quite religious and/or some curator’s taste overrode possible issues of irreligiosity. So there were a Munch, three Dalis, a very funny Botero with a fat little cardinal in a huge green garden, some Chagall pieces and the designs for Matisse’s chapel in Vence in France. One day, I need to see that chapel. Matisse’s simple line drawings and cutouts blow me away every time. Even an early sketch from Francis Bacon’s Velazquez Pope series was there—that really surprised me.
Then we arrived, with throngs of people including those who used a shortcut to basically see just this one site among all of the thousands of artworks, at the Sistine Chapel, where we were regularly yelled at, as I’ve already mentioned. While I was giving Mark another mini lecture on the two halves of the ceiling frescoes and the difference in time and style between them. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to see this before the restoration, so dark as to be almost not visible, and I really loved the bright colors, trusting the restorers to get it right. Mark shot several forbidden photos from the hip and was never once caught, so I now have several Sybils and even a couple of images from the Last Judgment. I will have to read up on some more of the comments by women writers, but Eliot didn’t like all that masculine muscularity. Generally, Michelangelo was appreciated much more as a sculptor than a painter in the 19th century, and of course, the whole question of whether he was really always a sculptor, even when he painted, and whether that was why these women thought he was “wrong” or whether it has to do with his obviously male models for his figures is something I have to find out more about from guidebooks and the like.
Once we were out of the Sistine Chapel, I knew that “only” several specialized museums were ahead, including the gallery of paintings, and I became worried about where to find “my” Ariadne. I asked several times about her whereabouts and was directed back to the Pio-Clementino, and only the last guide said she was in the Sala d’Animales, and that he was not sure whether she was visible from our path. We went back there and saw that a small group of tourists with a guide was in the Sala, past the ropes, but we could not see the Ariadne. There was a second room that we could see the group wander around in, but neither the left nor right side was visible. At this point, I began to get really upset, partly because I was already pretty tired and partly because I became increasingly sure that this is where the Ariadne was. One of the tourists got close enough to ask; he was a young American and said he had no idea why they were getting this special tour. When Mark showed him the image of the Ariadne on the phone (while I was trying to wipe away my tears and not make a scene), he actually had to walk back and look to see whether the sculpture was in the room he had just come from, that was how much he cared (he gave us a thumbs up, which added to my frustration). When the group returned to the path after an eternity, we asked their guide, who said that no one could get in without a special tour, and she didn‘t know how people got those tours, but that they were $300. That didn‘t exactly make me feel better, and I was getting very weepy but tried to keep my act together. I explained that I had come especially to see the Ariadne, and that I had no idea based on the website that she couldn‘t be seen; what could I do? Actually, I only explained part of it; Mark explained the rest because I was on the verge of losing it, and at the same time, the guide explained to the guard what was going on. The guard listened carefully and told me to hang on while he called his boss. Whoever that boss was actually came and joined us; they discussed more things in Italian, and then told me that the area was off limits but that they would give us TWO MINUTES, and only for her. So Mark and I went through the room with the animal sculptures and into the room where she was, in her niche on the left. I looked as hard as I could in two minutes (which is ridiculous since I can’t really imprint things on my retina) and Mark took 29 photos. I truly have no idea what else was in the room, for example across from the Ariadne, but I was so grateful I got to see her. After all that time I spent learning about her last semester, including the complicated history of her plaster casts and her shifting exhibit space, I would have been heartbroken had I not gotten to see her! But the memory will be about standing there with her, not about what I could actually see in this short time. So I am glad I do have photos from new angles that I didn’t see before.
Once I had recovered (now from tears of joy) we still went to see another gallery of Roman statues, busts, and sarcophagi, including some impressive veristic pieces, including an old woman with a very sunken face. There was also a Nile that looked familiar, with putti/Cupids playing with a crocodile, and a copy of a sculpture I discovered in my Greek sculpture class last spring—Silenus cradling the baby Dionysus. That one reminds me so powerfully of my dad—something in the pose (not to mention the beard!) and the rapt attention to the baby he is holding. And other incredibly famous pieces: two wounded amazons and the Augustus of Primaporta with his cuirass are key. There was also a polychromous version of the Augustus that was interesting to see. Always still hard for me to think of these in color, although I know that was how they were displayed.
Then we wrapped up our visit in the gallery of paintings from the Middle Ages through to the late Renaissance, the Pinacoteca—and again, there was too much! There were several pieces by Giotto, a few Raphaels (as always, more appreciated by Eliot than by me, but while the Madonnas didn‘t rock my socks off, an Ascension of Christ had another Michelangelesque twisted female figure—Raphael trying to do the Sybil-like figura serpentinata, and not quite getting there. There was one lone Bellini to complete the Bellini / Mantegna exhibition, and a couple of Judiths with the head of Holofernes for my collection of women chopping off heads, one by Cristofano Allori and one by Artemisia Gentileschi’s father. I also got to see the deposition by Caravaggio and I made a point of looking at another presumed Eliot favorite, a Madonna by Sassoferato, a baroque artist whom I had never heard of–even more sickly-sweet than Raphael. But then we called it quits—we spent 5 hours in the museum, although we did also take 30 minute break with coffee and cake in the courtyard cafe. That was of course not nearly enough time, but more than many people spend.
For good measure, we went from the Vatican Museums back to St. Peter and lined up to go inside (no entry fee, but metal detectors that cause a fairly fast-moving line to form). We walked around the enormous space, a kind of huge cavern encrusted with gold and with important sculptures everywhere. We dutifully wandered around with hundreds of others, looked at the enormous baldacchino and the statue of the pope with Death under a cloth at the bottom, both by Bernini. And of course at the Pieta by Michelangelo. There would have been so much more to see, but it is just overkill, and of course not really my thing at all. But the Pieta in its remote corner is beautiful, and all that gold was very glittery in the evening sun.
We then went home for a little rest, and I actually took a shower because I had gotten very warm at the museum among all those crowds of people. We barely had time to do a first run-through of the hundreds of photos Mark took today, and then we were off again, meeting our friend Rebecca (grad student in archeology in New York) and her boyfriend Chris (who is also an archeologist and art historian and teaches in the UK) for dinner. It just so happened that she was in Rome at the same time we were (she is leaving for a dig in Sicily this Friday), and he is in Rome this entire academic year, I believe. We had our first truly lovely dinner (pasta and pizza) and a great time talking about art, asking questions about the engineering of the Pantheon etc. and getting lots of advice about Rome, Florence, and good secondary sources for me to look at. We wrapped up the day with TOTALLY FANTASTIC gelato (after a lot of mediocre gelato so far), since Rebecca is a fabulous gelato connoisseur, and then said good bye about 10:30 and finally went home.
THAT WAS A LONG DAY. I still feel I need to extra days to process it.
Sadly, I didn‘t sleep quite enough (Mark did ok, thankfully), but at this point, I think it‘s less menopause than excitement. I just can‘t sleep with all these ideas and things to do in Rome and Florence running through my head. So I thought and wrote and played some spider solitaire in the wee hours of the morning, and then finally got up around 7. We got ourselves packed up and said goodbye to our lovely room—it was perfect in terms of a location, and we were really happy, even though we DID have to shower sitting down because the contraption to hold the shower head didn’t work. Some things you just take as they are. I am glad that we ARE going to be back in Rome at the end of our time in Italy and will have a bit more leeway to explore it a little more.
We took the metro for the first time to get to the Tiburtina train / bus station, and since it was only a little after 8 am when we left, it wasn‘t that crowded yet, and we got there without a hitch. First time we had to use public transportation, since everything was so close by we had been walking everywhere. We were early for our bus and just hung out at the bus station with some coffee and pastries until our Flixbus to Florence arrived. It takes 3 hours, but for E 9.99 each way, that was pretty cool. The fast trains get you there in 1.5 hours, but they are much pricier, and we actually DID get to see the gorgeous landscapes of the northern Campagna, Umbria, and then Tuscany, looking up the hills at little towns, fortifications, and the occasional Roman thing as we drove by poppies blooming in vineyards and wheat fields and by the occasional sandstone or even marble quarry.
The bus arrived early at the bus station near the outskirts (Villa Costanza) and we maneuvered the tram fairly well, although it took us a while to figure out what the actual name of our station was, since the Tram station confusingly does not share the name of the train station Santa Maria Novella where we were supposed to get out (Allemani is the relevant Tram stop). The rest of our way to the apartment was a long long walk (a bus would have been only marginally faster, but as is typical for us, we were too cheap to get a taxi). This gave us a first glimpse of the city, but coming from a very traffic-heavy area at the train station and then walking along bumpy sidewalks with heavy luggage made us not very appreciative—Mark probably even less so than me, because he kept pulling the suitcase, waving aside my offers to take a turn. I was especially annoyed with the cars everywhere, having gotten the impression that more of Florence was low traffic/pedestrian than it is. Even the long walk along the Arno from the modern bridge the Ponte Amerigo Vespucci to the Ponte Santa Trinita, with the other bridges in the background did not cheer us up. But then we walked through the via de Bardi and I was already excited, because that is where Eliot imagines Romola to live (Chapter 5 of Romola), and I was on familiar ground. But we were pretty wiped out by the time we got to 119 via San Niccolò, where our apartment is. We had a bit of a hard time communication via the HomeAway app with the apartment hosts, because there was always such a time lag between our questions and their answers, but eventually, Pamela, who is probably the woman who cleans the apartment (and who in retrospect is probably the owner’s housekeeper as well), came to let us in and give us our keys.
I have to say that the apartment blows me away, even though it is the opposite of a „room with a view“ since its only tiny window looks out into a cavernous courtyard from underneath a sort of loggia with groin vaults overhead and columns supporting it before you even get to the open sky. It’s also a bit of damp. We could be very upset about this, like Lucy Honeychurch and Charlotte Bartlett in A Room with a View. But what we have amply makes up for it: a teeny apartment off a 16th-century courtyard in a building that used to be a minor Florentine palace, undoubtedly depressing in the winter but in the heat of the summer lovely and cool—and dark when it gets light outside around 4 am, since we are nearing midsummer. There are brick arches everywhere and a wooden ceiling with crossbeams. Behind the house, there is a wild little unused back yard with very old steps to nowhere. (It turned out to be basically abut on the bottom end of the Giardino Bardini, the gardens above the Palazzo Bardini-Mozzi, which we visited the following week.) In the apartment, brand new appliances including an induction oven, a half-size dishwasher, and wifi—incongruous but convenient. Every time we walk out, I cannot believe that we step out into a courtyard with columns and groin vaults above our door. I am sure some tourists find the set-up too small or too „run down,“ with the courtyard clearly having some dampness to it and with a few hiccups (I can’t make the espresso machine steam my milk! So our main frustration was not finding some sort of guide or overview with basic instructions for various appliances and oddities like light switches in strange locations. But otherwise, we were ecstatic to be in a historic building. I unpacked and started some laundry, and then we set out on our first exploratory peek at Florence.
We‘ll go over all this ground again multiple times, but our first walk took us out of this area (San Niccolò) across the Ponte Vecchio with its little shops that used to be homes for female hermits. This is a total tourist magnet and was just teeming with many hundreds of the tens of thousands of tourists that come to see Florence in June. On the other side, we walked directly to the Palazzo Vecchio, and took in the space for the first time—the unusual tower, off center and too far up front along the line of crenellations, which I had read so much about. The huge outside piazza with too many statues to focus on, but of course especially the copies of the David, the Hercules and Cacus (which may be the original still, since nobody likes it) and the bronze Perseus by Cellini in the triangle formation that John Shearman writes about. We have to go back and look again, of course, but for now, we went into the Michelozzo courtyard (I am pretty sure the crazy ornamented columns were not his fault) and then ran into some tremendous excitement that we couldn‘t understand.
A huge throng of reporters and photographers started to follow an older man with police escort from the streets into the palazzo. Mark took pictures, of course, but we had not the faintest idea what we were seeing, and asking about us didn‘t get us much farther (only in the evening, with quite a bit of googling, did I finally figure it out and the excitement made SOME sense, given the Italian soccer fandom: the famous soccer club La Fiorentina just changed owners, and an Italian-American billionaire named Rocco Commisso bought it. We apparently witnessed the moment right after the news broke; why that happened at the Palazzo Vecchio, I am not sure (it IS the active town hall, though, so I assume he met with city officials), but the Italians were clearly super excited, while tourists like us were just baffled about a celebrity that didn‘t mean anything to us. 🙂
While we were in this area, I got us reservations to the Uffizi for Saturday morning, and then we walked to Duomo and tried to find out what we had to do about reservations for the Duomo climb, but that can‘t happen until tomorrow. Instead, we walked around the piazza where the baptistery and cathedral are being besieged by tourists, and I had to think about Eliot‘s complaint about the ugly unfinished facade of the Cathedral, which is of course no longer unfinished, but thus also a late 19th-century add-on, stylistically sort-of matched to the campanile with the white, green and red marble, which I can appreciate but in a way, I would have liked to see the non-facade that the Duomo had for most of its life and that people always complained about. Thankfully, a whole bunch of other churches we are seeing are without their facades, so I can still imagine what that looks like.
We then walked to the Piazza della Republicca, a square has a huge late 19th-century neoclassical addition on its West end with coffered barrel vaults that is at least stylistically aligned with the rest of the architecture, and which, to Mark‘s excitement, has an apple store in its left wing. But what I was thinking about, of course, was that the piazza used to be the Mercato Vecchio (hugely important in Romola as a prime early Renaissance „everyday site“ for local color) and even more so, the Roman founding point of Florence, the umbilicus or mundus where the two major EW/NS roads (the cardo and the decumanus) meet and where the Roman-era forum was located. Since the Roman-era origins of Florence have all but disappeared underneath the medieval, Renaissance and then Baroque layers of downtown Florence (outside of the archeological museums and excavation areas and some stuff on the outskirts) this was really interesting to think about.
We then headed back toward the river through a fairly medieval, crooked and windy portion of the downtown, and then made our way back to our own quarter and the nearby supermarket (Conad), which has the expensive deli stuff up front but normally priced things in the back. We took home food for a couple of dinners and breakfasts, and while I put things away and made us a salad, Mark dealt with the slightly damp laundry from the washer+dryer combo (those things really do not do well at drying). We had a lovely salad with a whole-wheat croissant and some cheese and prosciutto, and while I managed to make myself a coffee in the fancy Mio coffee maker, I found out that I couldn’t get the steam to work for my milk and was a little disappointed.
It was almost 8 pm now and we headed back out, following a tip from Rebecca to go up to the piazzale Michelangelo on top of the hill behind our street. Less than 10 minutes from where we are, it is a plaza from which throngs of tourists watch the sunset every night. I didn’t like the crowds, but the view of Florence across the river from up high was spectacular. We walked by San Miniato al Monte, which is a beautiful Romanesque church with the classic black and white decor, like the baptistery, and the Italo-Byzantine image above the door glinted as the low sun hit it. A group was taking photos in Renaissance costumes, while a bride and groom were photographed by their photographer (onlookers pointed out that this was probably a “fake wedding”—apparently Asian tourists stage western weddings in “unforgettable locations” like this and get them professionally photographed, even if they are already married?) Mark later caught a great shot of the bride taking a selfie with San Miniato in the background. Selfies all over! We walked a little further along the road toward the Boboli gardens, but we’ll get more walks there later, so it was just to enjoy the gorgeous views. Eventually, we joined the crowds at the piazzale again and dutifully took sunset photos along with everyone else. The crowds still annoy the crap out of me, and I cannot wait for some early morning times where things are just a little quieter. There will be little of that, I know.
We were home by about 10:30 and spent a couple of hours catching up on blogs and photographs. So much to process all the time. I don’t even know when to do all the thinking I need to do about the difference between spaces today and spaces that 19th-century women travelers would have experienced. So I need to start pacing myself a little more. I am glad we have 7 days here. But there is so much to see and to do. They will be crammed full!
I was up too early again (sigh) but we officially got up around 7:00 and had some yogurt and tea (I made a big old mess trying to make coffee—this fancy Lavazza-Mio espresso maker is just not making friends with me) before we set out to go to the Duomo’s ticket office and get reservations for the Dome climb. The earliest we could get were on Monday, but that was great for us—we have 72-hour tickets that cover basically all of Florence’s museums (the “FirenzeCard,” a pretty slick way of funneling people through and, despite the expense of 85 euro per person, for us definitely worth it), but the dome climb is so popular they give you dates beyond that 3-day window. That’s really tough for people who can’t be in town for that long, but we have plenty of time—and we may even have to get the add-on FirenzeCard extension for another $28 a person for the stuff we just didn’t have time for.
Then we got started on today’s round of museums by looking at the baptistery, which is under restoration and was actually much smaller on the inside than I thought. The Italo-Byzantine stuff on the ceiling was pretty (Eliot thought the enormous Christ was “awful” but I don’t think in the modern sense—more like “filling me with too much awe,”) but I know so little about it—intriguing to find out, though, that we could see some even older floor mosaics through the grates in the floor. I like the shape of the baptistery and the “old-style” black and white coloration, but it’s hard to imagine, given the size of Florence now, that once upon a time every Florentine was baptized there. We went from there to the campanile and climbed its 421 stairs. That was fun, and I think that the stair climbing I was doing at home for exercise last winter and spring when the weather was too crappy to run really paid off. But Mark, who didn’t do that, also held his own! The campanile is beautiful and the view from up there is of course really impressive in all directions, including directly at the cupola, where the other tourists can look across at us from the other high place. What is it about always getting up to the highest point? Mastery? Maximum 360 view? At any rate, it was fun, especially since I am recognizing at least some of the landmarks, if not nearly as many as I should by now. I was certainly excited to see San Marco from there, north of the Duomo in the “Medici hood” of the 15th century, the San Giovanni quarter, where the family had extra much influence, built their first palazzo (now Medici-Ricardo) and San Lorenzo as well as sponsoring a bunch of convents and monasteries, including of course San Marco.
That was where we headed next, and as one of the spaces I have already studied and that I will be working on further for my masters’ thesis, I was especially excited. It is also a bit more of a specialized taste to look at Fra Angelico’s work, so while we were not alone, this was not a museum with the usual masses. It was, however, as beautiful as I expected and more so. The building was designed by Michelozzo, with two cloisters downstairs and simple monk’s cells upstairs, but also a library where the monks once illuminated manuscripts, and which has those beautiful well-proportioned arches and columns accented with pietra serena (a dark sandstone) that I love so much. And the frescoes that decorate the walls of many cells and some of the public areas—over 50 of them total—are by Fra Angelico and his workshop. I researched them and their 19th century reception pretty intensely last spring, because they a) became super popular starting in the Romantic period as people were discovering late medieval and early Renaissance sacred art as noteworthy and beautiful. This continued into the Victorian era, and Ruskin in particular went completely apeshit over Fra Angelico when he first discovered his art in the 1840s (later, he cooled down a little, but he was just raving about Fra Angelico’s angels and their wings, especially about the angels on the frame of the Tabernacle of the Linenweavers (Mark took pictures of the whole line-up of those angels for me). The hitch was that while Ruskin could see the frescoes at San Marco, women couldn’t see any but the ones in the cloister and the chapterhouse, where there is a huge crucifixion with saints and church fathers. George Eliot went and sent George Henry Lewes, her significant other, to see what she couldn’t, and then she built descriptions of paintings she couldn’t see into her novel Romola. That’s super exciting to me (I’ve already written a conference paper and a seminar paper about this) and seeing the frescoes as well as many altar pieces by Fra Angelico at San Marco was amazing. The most famous of the frescoes are the huge chapterhouse Crucifixion (which Eliot did see) and the big Annunciation in the hallway upstairs (which she didn’t) but I like the little frescoes in the cells as well (many of them are done by the workshop and repeat the same few motifs over and over for the contemplation of monks, novices, and visitors that stayed in those cells). The chapterhouse Crucifixion has been pretty recently restored and is beautiful.
Many non-fresco paintings by Fra Angelico were also gathered here from elsewhere in Florence when the monastery became a museum in the 1860s, and when women were finally able to go see the works, and those were interesting to compare to the frescoes—even though they are tempera and not oil, they are much more detailed and the simplicity of the faces in the frescoes is traded for much more facial expression. Not to mention the fact that there is so much gold. Ruskin, Eliot, and also Anna Jameson saw a number of these altarpieces etc. elsewhere, because some were in the Uffizi in the 1800s, and others still in situ in various churches. It’s nice to have them all in one place instead.
Again, I was surprised to discover some of the “extras”—in this case, some older frescoes that can be seen through the floor, in areas that must have been part of the ground floor and were covered up, and also the fact that the monk’s cells were open at the top to the rafters above. I am not sure that was always that way, but our apartment is actually set up the same way. I’d also forgotten of the beautiful Last Supper fresco with Cat by Ghirlandaio that’s there. And then, on the way out, we were suddenly in an area that was full of old carved stones from buildings that had been demolished, without any further documentation, as well as a room of fresco fragments from all over the place, which even had a decorated wood ceiling that was taken from some other building and preserved at San Marco. We also took a quick look at the church itself, which was very much baroqued-up after Fra Angelico’s time, with only one piece by him left (another Annunciation) and didn’t do much for me. But it did have an interesting fresco by ??? with an illusionistically interesting leg sticking out between two doors. Amazing stuff everywhere, and a will to preserve a lot of it that I do appreciate but that also makes Florence overwhelming. Every square inch is history.
We, however, needed at least a little break from all that history and art, and just had a simple bistro thing (sort of a cross between a pizza and a pizza romana) across from San Marco, and then walked the 200 feet or so to the former convent of Sant’Appolonia, where a quiet bunch of nuns lived for centuries with gorgeous frescoes in their refectory and didn’t really think much of it. While San Marco was at least sort-of known and visited because Vasari wrote about Fra Angelico, these were not really discovered by the world until the early 19th century, when the convent was decommissioned. But now the beautifully restored Last Supper by Andrea Castagno is a famous fresco that predates Leonardo’s by about 50 years. It was impressive to see; quite large and with an interesting investment in making the perspective work right with people seated in the space, so they looked up from below at Christ and his disciples (with Judas on the other side of the table from everyone else, just in case we miss the names underneath).
Since we were already in the “Medici neighborhood” we went across the (new/19th century) indoor/outdoor marketplace near San Lorenzo (super touristy) and into all the different parts of San Lorenzo that can be toured. The church itself, along with the old sacristy, by Brunelleschi, the library with its crazy staircase (both by Michelangelo), and the New Sacristy, also by Michelangelo (along with the horrible Baroque Chapel of the Princes), and the crypt with some relics and treasures. Like San Marco, San Lorenzo is a sacred building complex commissioned by Cosimo de Medici in the first half of the 15th century, but with much more Medici stuff and an all-star team of artists and architects involved. I have to say that my favorite part were not the two famous sacristies/side chapels (the old and the new) and not even the library, but the church itself. The design is really simple classicizing designs, all lines and very much about long rather than high, all white offset with the pietra serena I love so much, and without all that curvy decorative overload of the baroque. The way later cupola painting is actually complete overload and jars badly with that design. The other works of art are just almost stand-alone, rather than integrated into an elaborate decorative / framing structure. I don’t know why I like this so much and can’t make friends with the late Renaissance and the Baroque drive to decorate everything with gold and swirlies, but in architecture, the Renaissance is just a clear preference for me.
The highlights in San Lorenzo for paintings were the Bronzino fresco of a Martyrdom of St. Lawrence with the huge muscled Michelangelo-esque man in the corner and an Annunciation by Filippo Lippi. On the way to the New Sacristy, Mark found a fun statue of a beheaded guy with the alien from Alien sticking out the gullet, but of course the big-deal statues were the Michelangelo pieces in the New Sacristy, in particular the Night with her interesting posture and her weird boobs. In the crypt, we actually started to get a bit silly, because the treasure of San Lorenzo so many ridiculously sumptuous reliquary shrines, including two that looked for all the world like steampunk microwaves that toasted their saintly contents a bit too long.
We were pretty much done with our art viewing at this point, but for good measure, we looked into Orsanmichele to see the CRAZY tabernacle by Andrea Orcagna made for the Daddi Madonna after the Black Plague hit Florence. I also showed Mark one of the columns where you can still see the grain shoot from when the church was a granary. Then we walked home and took a well-deserved nap. We had dinner at the apartment about 6:30 (pasta and salad; I am really making this work for us), and then we headed back out for an evening walk on OUR side of the Arno. We had fun discovering tons of the old family towers from the Middle Ages, all converted into apartments of once sort or another. We also walked by several churches we know we need to return to, including S. Maria del Carmine (with the Brancacci chapel), and another couple of city gates with parts of the wall on the west end of the old town with the last wall ring that was built. We turned back by the pseudo-gate called the Rondinello right by the Arno, and then made our way back via the Pitti Palace and through winding streets past a good gelateria, while also trying to look out for parts of the old passage that connected the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti in the 16th century. I have to admit that I didn‘t realize until Mark pointed it out to me that you see the traces of it above you, on the second or higher floors of various buildings and churches and also along the Ponte Vecchio. By the time we got home, it was already quite dark and we were ready to wrap up the day with showers and a last look at the day‘s photos. We are being busy tourists!
Today was split into two halves: The Uffizi museum in the morning and the Palazzo Vecchio with a few add-ons in the afternoon.
We got up bright and early to get to the Uffizi by our reserved time, 8:30 am. Since it only opens at 8:15, we had a few quiet moments in some of the rooms, but otherwise, it was obviously quite busy and packed (hence the skip-the-line reservations with the FirenzeCard). While it’s not as vast as the multiple Vatican Museums, it is of course the next-largest thing, certainly from Roman times to the late Renaissance and a little bit into the Baroque, and has issued its own list of top 100 works, like the Vatican—a rivalry that has been going on for a long time. The Medici were of course not only huge patrons and commissioners of art work, but also fanatic and all-encompassing collectors, and so this is a totally overwhelming collection (plus, one of many). And like the Vatican museums, the modern Uffizi today is a mix of displays that were always there and always displayed in a certain way, and others that are very modern in terms of curation and presentation.
First off, there are “Roman statues” by the mile in the main U-shaped second floor. These tend to have many, many Renaissance and baroque fixes, and often no good documentation to tell the non-expert what was really Roman, which is the problem with the pieces found in the Renaissance. The most famous of these are an all-star list, though: The Niobids, an entire statue group found in Rome, in their own crazy overdecorated “Niobe room” (I would really like to know how much of them is „real“); a Sleeping Hermaphrodite (which can only be seen from the front, a ridiculous decision because the whole point of this sculpture is that you see it from the back and think it is a female, and then get a surprise as you walk to the front and see both breasts and a penis); the Venus di Medici, which is in another crazy overdone round room done up in red velvet, looking askance at the crouching Knife-Sharpener while some other Roman dudes wrestle on the other side of her. There was also another copy of the Silenus with baby Dionysus that looks SO much like my dad and always makes me happy!
There is also one sculpture fragment actually believed to be a Greek original from 2nd C BCE—the head of the Dying Alexander—a real rarity here and of course anywhere when it comes to Hellenistic sculptures.
As far as the high Renaissance goes, the biggest hits were displayed in special rooms off to the side. The Leonardo da Vinci room was pretty amazing—there are so few completed paintings by him, but the Uffizi has the Annunciation, which is so different from Fra Angelico’s, as well as two other paintings, one completed only partly Leonardo’s, and the other the incomplete Adoration of the Magi. Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo is the prize piece in the Raphael/Michelangelo room—always fascinating to me that 19th c. Comments tend to be negative because the Virgin Mary is so masculine and the phalanx of naked guys in the background seems completely out of context. Still, I really like parts of that composition, and the crazy frame with the heads sticking out.
Raphael is represented—what I remember is the Madonna of the Goldfinch (Eliot, huge Raphael fan that she was, mentions seeing it in the Uffizi), as well as his beautiful portraits of Agnolo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi, which we could also see from the back (where they have random mythological paintings by an unknown artist). It was nice to see these in a couple of very nicely lit, newly done rooms off to the side, rather than in the massively decorated Medicean settings of the original Uffizi decor. It helped that we had beat the crowd to those rooms and had it relatively quiet there.
Beyond these gold-star pieces, some of my favorite discoveries / re-discoveries were: Piero di Cosimo‘s Liberation of Andromeda with its absolutely adorable monster is here (Reminder for Clash of the Titan fans: IT WAS NEVER A KRAKEN!). I also found another great monster (a dog?) in the Hugo Van der Goes altarpiece that ended up in Florence in 1483 and radically changed the way the Florentines painted once they studied the oil-painting technique he and the other Northern painters were using.
Mark was excited to see the original „Venus on the Half-Shell“ by Botticelli, because that is of course a painting that shows up everywhere all the time, but I was glad to also see an Annunciation by him close up, just because it is so different from the one by Fra Angelico a generation earlier. There were of course also a handful of other Fra Angelicos, and also the famous Cimabue and Giotto altarpieces of the Madonna and child that I kept getting confused when I studied for my Renaissance exam—so similar to the untrained eye! These used to be at the Accademia dell’Arte in the 19th century, which is where George Eliot saw them. Now at the Uffizi, they are across from each other in a room to themselves, while the countless other altarpieces that look basically the same with the gold, the un-babyish baby, and the virgin with her tilted head continue for many rooms. It was just a best-hits of super-early Renaissance goldleaf and intense angry stares, but these really don’t get me excited.
At the other end of the Renaissance (so about 1550-1600), the Mannerists are also well-represented, including a beautiful Bronzino portrait of Eleonora of Toledo (the wife of Duke Cosimo di Medici) that my friend Ashley presented on last semester, teaching me about the amazing fabric of her dress and where it came from. The dress is painted with so much loving attention to the detail of the fabric that it becomes more important than the faces of Eleonora and the child who is represented with her. And there was Artemisia Gentileschi’s amazing and violent Judith Beheading Holofernes, about which another tourist, a girl in her early 20s, gave an impromptu lecture for her friends before we geeked out about it together for a little. There was also another painting by her, a St. Catherine thought to be a self-portrait, that I didn’t know about before. Among the Caravaggios, the weird shield-shape head of the Medusa was definitely my favorite. The Venus of Urbino by Titian is here, along with a bunch of other Venuses that are not nearly as interesting, although one turns out to have a hidden cat, so that was fun to see. Speaking of hidden cats, we came across a Leda with the Swan by Tintoretto that turned out to have a secret cat in it, conversing with a duck, and Mark took a great photo of that. Otherwise, he collected a few more Annunciations for me from all across the Renaissance. I am just trying to see how different they are from each other sometimes!
The museum tour ends with a teeny collection of Rembrandts and other Dutch artists, but by that time, I was getting a bit tired AND I was also a bit confused. Again, I was looking for an Ariadne that wasn’t in evidence. So here is the Ongoing Crazy Story of the Search for the Sleeping Ariadne, in this case, the Medici Ariadne/Cleopatra (a “lesser Ariadne” by far, for many reasons, mostly because only a very small part of her is actually Roman, and who has been wandering around various collection). Eliot didn’t ever see her, but I had done research on her and still needed the comparison. I was SURE I knew where she was, based on Uffizi website information. But she was actually moved in January 2018 from her prime-time spot to make room for the Leonardo da Vinci display. So once I found the right guard who could actually tell me this, I thought there was nothing to be done. But the guard sent me on a trail that led me to the office of the Uffizi (a tautology if there ever was one) in a side street, which was, unbelievably, open on a Saturday. I explained to the friendly employee on duty that I was doing research on the Medici Ariadne and did not realize she was not on display. He made a 10-second phone call, and then he walked us across the street back into the first floor of the Uffizi building to an employee-only section and let me into a huge display room, and there she was, right in the center, waiting for the next time they pull her out of storage to display her! The guard sat down and waited, playing on his I-phone until we had seen and photographed her from all angles. I got to go really close up to see the workings of the marble (I could not see the seams between new and old!), and Mark did a beautiful job walking all around her with his camera. We walked out of the Uffizi just STUNNED. I cannot believe my luck.
Once I had gotten over my encounter with the sublime, it was almost 12 noon, and we were both tired and hungry, and basically went to the nearest restaurant even though we were right by the Palazzo Vecchio and everything was tourist traps. But our pizza & salad were good and not crazy-expensive, either, and the restaurant had both shade and misting, which was already badly needed by this time.
After lunch, we tackled the Palazzo Vecchio, which was really overload of what I think of ugly Vasari overkill, but there were also some interesting surprises. The highlight was clearly climbing the tower and looking at the city from above yet again—great views, and also a secret shot with the go-pro straight down unto the plaza. There was a surprise Piero di Cosimo in the museum portion —a Passion of Christ with little monster-demons at the entrance of hell in a scene that I assume is supposed to occur right after the Harrowing of Hell. Otherwise, the museum basically covered the public and sort-of-private Medici rooms and former senators’ rooms before the Medici moved to the Pitti Palace. ]
The rooms in the former halls of the priors were ridiculously overdone by Vasari and his artists and artisans, but I was amazed to discover the chapel of Eleonora of Toledo done by Bronzino, especially a scene of manna raining from heaven where I swear I could see a woman with a sideways glance, checking out the very nice shape of a man in a loincloth with a water jug. In a chapel? Eleonora, really. Many of the other rooms, designed by Vasari, had this weird and intriguing „wallpaper“ decoration in many of the rooms between larger frescoes, which I assume was partially inspired by Fourth-Style Roman wall painting, but I had never seen anything like it and am a bit curious about the style and the artist who did this.
There was also a spot from which we looked directly down into the Hall of the Five Hundred, with its enormous Vasaris, and there was actually a lot of documentation all over the museum about the various traces of the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo that is supposed to be below it still.
The last part we visited was “the underneath” excavation exhibit with the remnants of the Roman theater that was underneath part of the palazzo, with brick arches and broken amphora that have been excavated since the late 19th century. Just fascinating.
We have still not made it to the Cathedral itself, because the lines are always super long and we were too late in the day to still make it, but after a gelato break we did go to the Duomo museum, not expecting to see as much as we did there. Here, there are the REAL Gates of Paradise (we’d seen the copy cast on the doors of the baptistery and also the one at the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas!), as well as the original sculptures from the outside of the cathedral in the context of a reconstruction of the half-done Cathedral facade that went away in the 1550s (I think). Likewise, there are the originals of Andrea Pisano‘s hexagonal reliefs for the Campanile, with the famous „studio of the sculptor“ representation. There was also lots of gold and silver, including the CRAZY silver altar (the „glitter bomb,“ as we immediately called it) with the beheading of St. John the Baptist in whose creation Leonardo presumably had a hand, when he was Verrocchio‘s student. I didn‘t realize that there was a Michelangelo Pieta at this Museum—it is the late, unfinished one with Joseph of Arimithea that George Eliot talks about. The unfinished parts are both haunting and really beautiful—reminded me of Ernst Barlach, and make you realize what it takes to get from blocks of marble to the incredible detail of the musculature that Michelangelo always brought out so well.
When we were done with the Duomo museum, we were definitely done with museums for the day. We did some shopping on the way home, and I made us salad for dinner. The bread we bought was a disappointment (too hard and not salty enough—just not good bread for our taste), but everything else was good. Plus, we compensated by having another round of gelato when we went for an evening walk (we’ve had small gelato portions twice a day since we got here, and keep justifying it because we are getting about 10 miles of walking a day in). Our evening walk led us up the hill from the Ponte Vecchio toward Fort Belvedere through windy and sometimes steep streets; again, every square inch seems to turn out to be important history AND picturesque (like the random house we walked by that had to do with Galilei discovering the moons of Jupiter in 1609). As the night fell, we walked back through another city gate and down to the river and onto the Ponte Vecchio to people-watch, listening to a busker sing in Italian to his guitar, with everyone just hanging out with their selfie sticks. We walked home about 10, and were in bed about 11:30 after much-needed showers.
Today was technically our last day for the Firenzecard, and wow, did we max it out (although we will get the 2-day extension on Tuesday to do some of the additional museums we haven’t seen yet and that I want to get to). We started around 8:30 again and walked around a bit in the eastern part of downtown, even checking out a random convent with fresco remnants on the way, as well as Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, a super baroque convent church with the weirdest veiled (or hairy? hard to tell) statue of Magdalene in it. But otherwise just getting our bearings on the way to the Accademia dell’Arte, where we had reservations for 10 am. Because the David is there, it is very overrun, and of course it was fun to see him in all his glory in the famous cupola, even though I do think there is something absurd about a GIANT David, since he is supposed to be small. But when you have a 17-foot block of marble… I could say a lot about the various placements of the sculpture, but I think I’ll remember without writing it down, because I read so much about the David. (Michelangelo would have liked to see it at the center of the loggia de’Lanzi but he didn’t have any say about this; a committee did and it liked the spot right by the palazzo door.) It’s still hard to imagine anyone ever wanting to hoist it up the cathedral to the side of the cupola. Where it stands now, it is of course just worshipped in the round, but it was fun to see his butt and especially the giant hand hiding the rock he’ll put in the sling.
Besides the David and some of the unfinished pieces by Michelangelo, including the awesome unfinished prisoners (“Awakening Slave” in particular) that were meant for the tomb of pope Julius, the Accademia actually doesn’t have that much to offer—some second-rate baroque, more of the gold altarpieces from the 13th and early 14th centuries, and a large collection of especially detailed plaster casts from the 18th century that were used as material to be copied by the artists-in-training. A lot of the things that George Eliot saw here were later moved to the Uffizi, including the famous Giotto and Cimabue Madonnas, so I was excited to see a painting dated ca. 1860-1870, by an artist named Odoardo Borrani, of the entrance to the plaster-cast room, which shows female visitors in the gallery with the placement in which Eliot would have seen them. I am glad that my focus re: the museum as a space for women to explore in the 19th century is about the Uffizi, because the Accademia doesn’t yield that much, but that painting will be hard not to talk about.
After this relatively short visit, we went back to what I had already “bookmarked” as our next stop on the way to the Accademia—we backtracked to the BEAUTIFUL plaza of the Santissima Annunziata, with arches and slender columns in gray stone (pietra serena) along the front, a design by Michelozzo, but finished by Alberti, which extends to the loggia on the right and to the left (the Ospedale degli Innocenti). Again, just as with the INSIDE of San Lorenzo and the library at San Marco, I just love this style and find it incredibly calming and balanced. The baroque interior, though, was complete overkill (finished in 1664; even the Chapel to the Virgin on left, allegedly by Michelozzo seems to have lots of baroque overlay. So that was not to my liking at all—BUT the two cloisters frescoes with their frescoes!!! Wow. They are by a number of different artists, but some of them are by Andrea del Sarto (like the Madonna on the flight to Egypt in the Cloister of the dead) and also by Pontormo (in the entrance cloister)! Although in varying shape, really quite beautiful, fitting with the architecture really well. There is also some trompe l’oeuil fun with a painted monk looking down into the courtyard from an upper window.
From there, we went to the Casa Buonarotti, which once belonged to Michelangelo, although he didn’t live there (he designed it, and then some of his progeny did. One of the more lavish rooms has a number of ceiling paintings after his design, but executed much later, and I was delighted to find that one, called L’Inclinazione, is by Artemisia Gentileschi. Mark’s comment was that the figure “looks more like a woman” than most he has seen, which makes total sense to me, since many painters never got to work off female models—while Artemisia presumably knew what, for example, boobs look like. ADD The battle of the centaurs and also the early Madonna with the chilled
After the short visit there we went to the nearby apartment / business complex created from the former jail and former-former convent, Le Murate, which is now apparently a pretty hip and cool place, and has some really cool features that combines old and new features. We had a simple but excellent lunch (salad and yummy ravioli in cream sauce with mushrooms and prosciutto) there at a restaurant called “Le Carceri” (The Jail), and then made our way past various family “castles” (the borgo) to Santa Croce, which is mostly just big. It actually feels bigger than the Duomo, partly because people can walk around much more freely and see much more.
I had Mark take a photo of me with the all the altar gold behind me demonstrating that I was there “with no Baedeker” like Lucy Honeychurch from E.M. Forster’s Room with a View, but that I had an I-phone to orient myself, so that I didn’t have to “walk[ ] about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date.” Instead, I could disdain the bad second-rate baroque and admire the Giottos—although I am not sure which of the gravestones Ruskin singled out for praise, making Lucy trying to find it. I know the novel is beyond my period of study for the M.A., but it is a perfect little sketch of the innocent late Victorian (really Edwardian) lady tourist in Florence, and hilariously right about the way that the educated tourist (like me) is forever anxiously looking for the “right” things to admire, with whatever script for what is “right” in mind. Thus, we dutifully looked at the chapels to the side of the altar with the Giotto frescoes, and at the grave / memorial markers for Machiavelli, Dante, and Galilei (disinterred from the Medici Chapel of the Novices, where Duke Cosimo found a place for him, and buried in Santa Croce 90+ years after his death) but in a way, we found the old marble graveplates that are worn down by hundreds of years of people walking across them. Santa Croce is one of the churches which were majorly affected by the flood of 1966, especially visible on a horribly damaged Cimabue Crucifix, which now hangs REALLY high up. But there are also now restored art works that were damaged even more by the flood in 1966, including a beautiful Bronzino with two very beautiful girls practically hanging over the edge of the painting, which presumably was massively restored since it looks like it was painted yesterday. The Medici Chapel of the Novices was a pleasant surprise, since it was a super simple Michelozzo “modular” design of the kind I like so much, from about 1445
When we were done with Santa Croce, we decided to spend our last allocated museum visit for the day at the Museo Galileo, which is, unsurpringly, a display of the scientific collections of the Medici — fun times for both of us, but especially for Mark, who admired the Armillary Sphere by Antonio Santucci (1588) as “one of the messiest things ever,” not to mention Galileo’s telescopes. Among the strangest things in the collection were the wax and TERRA-COTTA anatomy studies of babies about to be born in some wrong way or other, for obstetric training. Pretty horrifying but very precise. We admired some rare books from Florence’s libraries that would have corresponded to Leonardo’s collection of early print and manuscript books, and then wrapped up by taking an odd “science selfie” in an object obviously designed for the purpose.
Then we headed home, stopped by the grocery store and had lovely salad and bread for dinner, which also gave us a chance to cool down. It was sunny and hot all day, and being in the museums and churches was always a blessing—and so was being in our cool apartment where the sun never shines. We were very excited to find nice fresh bread we liked—basically baguette—and I couldn’t help it and bought a pot of basil—for 1.98, that was an allowable luxury.
After dinner, we went back out and explored the hill behind us (the one that has the Piazzale Michelangelo on it) a bit more, going a little further west, seeing the city walls from afar, as well the walls of the old fort near San Miniato al Monte from close up as we went all the way around this old complex (which is apparently not open on any side!). We finished the day with a lovely gelato on the way back into San Niccolò, and called it a night!
We got up bright and early to be at the Bargello right as it opened, at 8:15. By this time, our 72-hour clock had almost run out on the FirenzeCard, but we were hoping to just get in before it expired. That worked and I have to admit that the Bargello was more impressive than I thought, since there are many additional sculptures that were once outside or otherwise didn’t find any room in the big museums. As the “government building” in the early early 13th century, before the decision to build the Palazzo della Signoria (i.e. the Palazzo Vecchio, which wasn’t “vecchio” = “old” then) and then later the police headquarters of Florence, it looks a lot like a very imposing and strong castle and has always been a public building—now the receptacle of public things from all over Florence. I was most excited to find both of the Donatello Davids there, and really impressed by how close we could get to inspect the bronze David he made for the Medici courtyard, with the feathers from the helmet of Goliath that sensuously creep up David’s leg all the way to his crotch. But there were also two early Michelangelos, and the unfinished tondo relief of the Madonna and child was quite beautiful. I am really intrigued by the unfinished pieces and the way you can see all the different ways he carved the marble (not that everyone else isn’t! But they weren’t into showing workmanship in the Renaissance, so only his incredible fame even while alive made people preserve his half-fine work and his sketches.
But beyond the super famous things, there were so many more things to see, starting with the massive cube of the Bargello itself with its big square courtyard and the upstairs loggia, and the huge sculpture rooms. The collection of little things (watches, locks and keys, earthenware, jewelry, carved ivory…) intrigued Mark as well as me, but I was only truly awed at seeing some very early ivory tablets from the early Christian Era, especially at the detail and precision of the diptych of St. Paul, 5th century AD, with the two ivory panels together only about as large as the size of a regular-size sheet of paper. There was also a micro mosaic of Christ Pantokrator (from the 12th century) with tesserae only about a millimeter on each side. Not to mention the 17th-century Casio e-piano that Mark discovered. 🙂
We then did go for the tourist glutton-for-punishment thing and lined up for the Duomo, behind probably 500 other tourists. Since it is free, priority access doesn’t help at all, but we actually only had to wait in line for less than an hour, and chatted with an interesting (and obviously quite wealthy) young Australian couple with a very quiet 4-year-old. They were touring Italy for a month and then wrapping up with a Disney cruise that would take them to Barcelona. Wow. Actually, that conversation was probably more interesting than the interior of the Duomo itself, which is really just big and at the same time with little too see—a few select works (like the weird Dante portrait and the frescoes pretending to be equestrian statues that I had to learn about in Art History 102, one of them the British mercenary soldier Sir John Hawkwood, by Paolo Uccello) and a lot of roped–off space. The stained-glass windows were really too far off to be clearly visible except to Mark’s camera, and the Last Judgment in the cupola was really not that exciting from so far down below although Mark took an awesome shot of it looking straight up (more about the close-up views later). But luckily, they still let us into the crypt (although our tickets had technically still expired) and that was very cool! There were four different layers of excavation—one Roman, one early Christian, one Romanesque, and then the actual dome crypt from the 1300s. To see all those layers was really fascinating, especially the large swaths of early Christian mosaic floor, and the half-round of the apse of the Romanesque church, S. Reparata, that was torn down once the cathedral went up. There was even a bit of a fresco visible that was “refreshed” and stylistically updated really close to 1300, when the new cathedral was already going up around S. Reparata.
After we were done with our quick tour of the Dome and the Crypt, we found ourselves a little side street cafe where you could get tosta, which is basically a very dry and large panini, and we ate those on the street sitting on little stools in front of the shop, with hungry tourists eyeing our meal rather hungrily. We had just enough time to wander a bit East from the plaza by the dome, and check out a couple of sites from the outside that I wanted to at least see and decide on—the Palazzo Rucellai, which was built before the Palazzo Medici, and has the iconic Renaissance Florentine 3 tiers of huge sandstone blocks, and also Santa Maria Novella, another church with a beautiful Romanesque “zebra stripe façade,” which we’ll return to in a couple of days. Then it was time to line up again, but this time only for a short half hour, because we had reservations for the climb of the Cupola at a fixed time, 1:30 pm—they had to be made over 3 days in advance because there is such demand, but we had done that first thing we came to Florence. It took a bit until the young man who was checking people through the turnstile could get his boss to approve that we could go in, because of course our tickets had, again, technically expired, but in this case, that’s the norm.
We were both very excited about the cupola, because we had read part of Brunelleschi’s Dome, in addition to what I knew from my classes on the Renaissance. With a diameter 144 feet (44 meters) the dome of the cathedral was the largest to be constructed since the Pantheon in Roman times, and without knowledge of how to make Roman-style concrete. When Brunelleschi started it in 1401, no one had the faintest idea how to build a dome that big, and there was quite a bit of guesswork as well as engineering brilliance. When you walk up, you walk up between the inner and the outer shell of the cupola, and although you can’t see much of the engineering secrets, you CAN see the herringbones once you get into the dome. The stairs were fun and Escher-sequel, and then the view from the top. We also got to walk both the balconies inside the cupola, right underneath the fresco, and Mark got a great shot of Cerberus, and of course the view down was awesome, even with the plexiglas we had to peek through. But if I try to imagine what it would have been like to work up there as a bricklayer/mason, on a suspended platform, no scaffolding below, I‘d rather have a railing and plexiglas.
After our Duomo climb, we headed back toward the other side of the river, and weren‘t even quite done with the climbing. We went back to the river, across the Ponte Vecchio, which in honor of a fashion show that is starting here on June 11 had a huge roll of goldleaf-covered “runway” going across it, so that it was literally paved with gold (appropriate for the fashion show, the enormous tourist traffic, and the jewelry stores that famously line the bridge on both sides), and got a few supplies for a later dinner that we dropped off at home. And then we went back up the hill to San Miniato al Monte—really only 10 minutes away—we are so close this area it is almost ridiculous—but it is a climb.
If San Lorenzo was my favorite of the several Renaissance churches with the modular, geometric style and really simple lines of pietra serena (the less baroque overlay, the better), San Miniato is absolutely my favorite of the older, Romanesque churches. We had already admired its placement on the very top of the highest hill of the Oltrarno neighborhood south of the river and its black-and-white marble façade multiple times from near and far on our walks. But now we actually went in, and I was amazed at how gorgeous it was—it’s incredibly simple and just very serene—from the interior black and white and the gorgeous mosaic carpet (all from the 12th and 13th centuries) to the amazing color accents of the roof beams, from the little separate Renaissance altar (designed by Michelozzo) to the Italo-Byzantine Christ Pantokrator mosaic in the half-dome of the apse over a huge presbytery to the frescoes with their many Benedictine monks in white in the sacristy, beautifully restored, it is just amazing. But the biggest surprise came later, when I read up on an unresolved question in one of my guidebooks. Since this was really an early, pre-Renaissance church, I couldn’t figure out why it had these amazing columns supporting the apse that had classical columns complete with “leafy tops” (Corinthian capitals), because as much as I could tell that the altar was a Renaissance addition, it would simply not have been possible to “retrofit” those capitals on weight-bearing columns. Only the Blue Guide made me realize that this is because they were taken from Roman temples of the surrounding area (how they hauled them here, I have no idea). That was mind-boggling to me, especially given that it’s hard to see the faint Roman traces beneath Florence at all anywhere in the city.
After this amazing visit to San Miniato and the minor ‘next-door’ church that is also on the hill, we walked back down to our apartment, stopping at a beautiful little rose garden half-way down. Then I made salad and pasta with pesto for a delicious dinner (I have to say I am really proud of myself for making us these fabulous Italian dinners every night have full-time and overtime tourism, and I have now mastered the LaVazza at least for espresso, although it must be actually defective when it comes to steaming milk, which makes me sad. And then we went out right before 9 pm for one more (marginal) sunset from the Ponte Vecchio and another gelato. We’ve been having gelato twice a day, which is a lot, but we always get the smallest portion (which in a good gelato shop gets us two flavors), and we have been walking an average of 10 miles a day, so I think it’s justifiable.