A Passage To Florence

Shortly after entering the uffizi Gallery in Florence–former offices of the fabled Medici family, now turned into the foremost museum of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance art in the world–our guide uttered one of those sentences that stops a traveler in his or her tracks.

“When thinking about this city, and more specifically about its artistic inclinations and expression during the 15th century,” Sandra Perrone explained. “Consider this: of the, say, one hundred individuals in world history who managed to change society for the better, I would say that no less than 40 were from Florence.”

Arguably the most magical time in the history of art, the Florentine Renaissance, in embracing the concepts of human beauty celebrated for its own sake–and in often dangerous contradiction of the penitent, nearly dimension-less art of the Middle Ages–not only produced eternal figures like Leonardo da Vinci, Dante, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donatello, but ushered an era of humanism that has altered the value of expression ever since. In revisiting (but in truth hugely expanding upon) the cele- bration of the human form seen in Greek and Roman art, this period was nothing less than a revolution of identity.

They were four principle reasons why such a burst of creativity was possible: an abundance of nearby natural resources (not least the beautiful, autumnal-hued local rock that produces the city’s indelible shade); money, courtesy of the banking and textile trades; a population not wholly in the throes of simply struggling to sur- vive; and as a corollary byproduct of that prosperity-supplied free time, a sudden appreciation of “Beauty” as a concept to be admired in itself, then adopted, in art, architecture, poetry, and prose.

In short, it would be fair to say that without this ancient city, what we think of as worthy of admiration would be markedly different.

The heart and soul of Tuscany, Florence (Firenze in Italian) is a community of 367,000, gently organized on both banks of the Arno River. Established in approximately 80 BC as a retirement com- munity for veteran soldiers of the Roman Empire, it was a city of relatively mod- est import for many centuries, though reached a population high of just under 100,000 before the Black Death struck in the late 1340s and cut down more than half of its citizens. A period of relative wealth and stability was initiated by the unofficial heads of state of the Florentine republic, Cosimo de’Medici and his family in the early 15th century (helped by his position as official banker of the Vatican), and the income-disparity-driven restlessness of the local guild workers in the late 1300s was replaced by a period of relative prosperity and repose…an incubator for the Renaissance.

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There is no place on earth where art and life meet so ineffably, and one doesn’t have to be a student of creativity in order to thrill to that fact. The core downtown area, with the oldest bridge across the Arno, the Ponte Vecchio, as its nucleus, is a study in common marvels. It seems as if every other door, window, and storefront contains sculptural detail- ing that simply takes the breath away, and so an introduction to the city should begin with a walking tour of downtown. And there, unlike most metropolitan centers, 100 awe-inspiring sights can be had in a stroll that would account for no more than 45 minutes. Cobblestoned and often fascinatingly (and if you’re driving, frighteningly) narrow, Florentine streets convey the sensation of a gorgeous maze, one that a typical visitor is only too happy to be lost in.

It’s no mistake that the place makes visitors feel as though they are in some sort of impossibly-sized time capsule/ theme park, as city zoning is ferocious in its limitations (not least the stipulation that just about every rooftop be outfitted with traditional terra-cotta tiles), and it won’t take an extended discussion with locals to produce occasional feelings of frustration about this. Architectural inno- vation, as a matter of practical tourism business survival, is decidedly (and ironically) discouraged.

The downtown area is a blaze of incredible restaurants, some of the finest leather goods retailers on the planet, and multiple high-end fashion stores, along with a number of lower-priced shopping opportunities clustered around the Mercado Centrale near the main train station.

As doctrinaire as it seems, there really are a few things that must be experi- enced, and nearly cannot be avoided. The Florence Cathedral—or Duomo—with its strikingly beautiful, 375-foot-high dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, was completed in 1436, and represents the high watermark of Renaissance architecture. The gorgeously simple half-egg structure stands in contrast to the exuberantly ornate church proper, completed nearly 200 years before the dome was begun— and the two have maintained a fascinating and ongoing point-counterpoint ever since. By all means climb interior steps to the top and thrill to the unparalleled view, but those with a fear of heights will be humbled by the alarmingly low railing around the dome-top cupola.

Before leaving the Piazza di San Giovanni where the cathedral is located, visit the Baptistery just a few steps away. An eight-sided structure dedicated to the sacrament of baptism (the numeral 8 is often considered in Catholic circles a figure that evokes the eternal), it is hall- marked by stupefyingly beautiful bronze doors, the sculptures upon which designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti.

Two steps away is another bustling piazza, this one della Signoria, where the ancient government palace of the Medici, the Palazzo Vecchio, resides (along with a copy of Michelangelo’s David; the actual sculpture is in the nearby Accademia Gallery). Your hard-working staff’s favorite place to sit and people watch, the piazza is both enormous and a museum in and of itself. Its Loggia dei Lanzi, an open- air sculpture garden, is directly opposite the Palazzo, with a short pathway to the entrance of the Uffizi Gallery occupying another corner. Flanked by usually lovely though often overpriced cafés, our advice is to consider extra euros here an expense abundantly worth absorbing.

The city depends upon tourism for well more than half of its total economic activity, with museums some of the most critical draws. A good buy is to invest in a 75 euro, three-day pass for all the major museums in the downtown area (more than 20), along with some neighboring institutions in the suburbs (one of our favorites is the Armory Museum, about a 20-minute bike ride from the city center). The pass is good for 72 hours, so keep a reasonable schedule and take in at least two museums a day to make the investment pay off.

Considering Florence an assignment in art history investigation would be a quiet tragedy, though. The place is simply a dreamland for wandering, strolling, holding hands, pondering the eternal, and slowly absorbing a culture that is a respite from the high-style ferociousness of Venice and Milan. Florence residents are typically gorgeously attired, to be sure, but style strutting seems to be of a lesser stripe, and even among non-service locals, people seem to be possessed of a generally sweet spirit. One reason for that disposition is that the city is also gorgeous in its everyday, working-class neighborhoods, to our minds best experienced as one travels southwest along the Via Romana, just past the Pitti Palace. Florence’s remarkable distance-thrift is apparent here as well; not more than 15 minutes past the palace, an urban trekker finds herself entirely removed from the heavily touristed sector, and immersed in small corner cafés, smoke shops, fresh-produce markets, and the other needs of normal people on the go.

All this space-economy helps reduce cab costs (in fact, you may need none at all after your ride from the airport), but be prepared to spend that savings on food. At press time, the euro is strong (worth $1.43), and this hits gourmands particularly hard. Staring at a 13 euro individual pizza, an inclination is to be cheerful, but keep in mind that means $20. That said, Florentine food needs to be experienced without worry. The regional pizza is thin-crusted, delicate, and an adventure in cheese portion understatement; pasta sauces, likewise, are less heavy, certainly less creamy, and significantly more subtle than we are accustomed to thinking when imagining food from the peninsula.

By all means, let the city work its magic gradually, but given that Florence means Tuscany, and Tuscany means wine, make a point of taking a day trip to nearby historic towns like Siena or San Gimignano, journeys which will take you through some of the most spectacular wine country on the planet, most famously Chianti. Beautiful small-to medium-sized viticultural businesses dot the one-hour drive to Siena, including Castalia and Panzano wineries. Just about all of them will offer tours of one kind or another, but we took in a particularly delicious example courtesy of Tenuta Casanova, inside the natural park of Cipresseta Sant’Agnese, in the heart of Chianti. A farm and vineyard of just 77 acres, this brainchild of entrepreneur Silvano and his wife Rita (tenutacasanova.com) only makes its wine (including Chianti Classico and “Super Tuscan”) available to visitors, along with transcendent 30-year-old house balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, truffle oil, and sausages. With a presentation that focuses on the history-infused flavors of the region, Casanova staff feed, wine, and educate visitors in equal measure. Afterwards, watching the sun set over grape rows through a whisper of Chianti haze, the magic of the Italian earth and sky is conveyed anew.