Our first stop in Italy was Florence. After we landed in Rome we immediately caught the express train out of town. Apparently even the best hired drivers in Italy drive like mad-men… I found it exciting, but I don’t think my mom appreciates that sort of adrenaline rush.
I have to say that I really like traveling by train. Decent public transportation is something most cities around here could use. The scenery was fantastic. I think I could ride through Tuscany on a fast train past vineyards and castles until my hair turns gray. The first few scenes in a new country are always surreal.
In Florence we stayed in a small hotel just a couple of blocks away from the Duomo. If you don’t know what the Duomo is, then you’ve either never had art history or your course was too easy. The word Duomo is actually a common word for a big church or basilica in Italy, but The Duomo usually refers to the Florence Cathedral Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. The Church is remarkable for a number of reasons and is an important in part because of the Doors of Paradise (check the link) and the large dome of the church itself. The dome of the Duomo is an amazing feat of engineering, it’s size has to be seen to be appreciated. No picture can really capture it’s incredible size. The most unbelievable part is that it was built in the 1400’s. It’s an impressive building to say the least.
Florence is an enchanting city. At night there were musicians in the big piazzas, artists in the street, limited auto traffic, and you could walk just about anywhere you wanted to see in thirty minutes.
Our first night there we walked through the cobbled streets to the sound of cellos and guitars trying to find a restaurant. We wandered in circles until I realized I’d been leading us directly to the wrong place. The lady at the hotel had marked out several restaurants on our little map and I’d been guiding us directly to the wrong one. Repeatedly. Finally I figured out my brain fart and took us to the right street. It was in the nick of time too, we were all starving and I was beginning to doubt my way-finding ability. I can find my way through cities I’ve never been to before as long as I have a halfway decent map. I think its fun, actually. 🙂
Can I just say how amazing real Italian food is? Because it is amazing. Really really really amazing. Oh, and their wine is pretty darn awesome too. And this is coming from a philistine whose exposure to wine has mostly been of the Lembrusco and boxed variety. Given that background it was no wonder why I was blown away! Wine can be quite awesome.
The morning of our first day in Florence we went on a private walking tour through the city. Our first stop? Michaelangelo’s David.
I’ll be the first to admit that when I came around the corner had saw that marble hunk at the end of the hall, tears came to my eyes. There’s just something about certain pieces of art, especially sculpture, that just speak to me. It doesn’t matter that I’ve seen every detail before in pictures, nothing substitutes for the real thing. Lining the hall leading up to the apse built specifically for David are the unfinished sculptures meant for the tomb of a Pope that I’ve heard called the slaves. Unfinished as they are, they are still magnificent. The half finished figures seem to be emerging fully formed from the roughly hewn blocks of marble.
Our tour led us by the Duomo and through the back streets of the city where our guide would stop to point out bits of ancient Roman architecture scattered among the more “modern” buildings. We ended up in the square in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Later that afternoon we walked across the river to the South and up a giant hill to San Miniato al Monte to hear the evening Vespers. The monks there sing them everyday in Gregorian Chant. It was a profoundly moving experience to sit in this ancient Medieval Church. It’s truly awe inspiring to think that there has been monks performing vespers on that site for nearly a thousand years.
Sadly the experience was marred by the tourists. People just don’t have any respect for the churches they visit. There are signs everywhere politely asking for silence, but people just stomp around talking as thought they were in a barn whether or not there is a religious service or not. No class. And no respect for either the places they are visiting or those who are there to worship. Depressing really.
The next day we had the opportunity to visit some of Florence’s amazing artisans. The first stop on our tour was the tiny basement shop of an amazing woodworker. Luigi’s in his seventies and officially retired, but he loves his work so much he continues to carve and gild anyway. In a few quick hits of his chisel Luigi make an awesome swirl of filigree destined for a gilded mirror out of a flat piece of board. He even let us place a piece of gold sheet on a piece he was in the middle of gilding. I’ve always wanted to learn how to gild. I tried once for a project in college, but it didn’t really work out too well. Seeing it first hand was really really cool. Next time maybe I’ll get it to work, even if I use the fake stuff.
Next stop was a paper and book binding shop. The shop had been owned and run by a family for generations and specializes in marbled paper. I’d seen marbled paper before in the lining of old books, but I’d never really though much about it. There are skills in this world we just never think about. The man (I can’t remember his name) who demonstrated the technique for us was easily my parents age and had been marbling paper and binding books all of his life. He lamented about the fact that the younger generation just wasn’t interested in following their parent’s trade. Personally, I think it would be awesome to have a sure trade like that, although I’d probably opt for carving. It’s weird really. Why would you want to sit in an office if you could play with messy dyes all day? Trades are awesome, I hope they come back. I’m considering smithing…
Our last stop was an engraver. His work was beautiful and his subjects ran from shoes to bugs to cityscapes. In the days before photographs pictures in books were engraved using the same technique. First he lined the copper plate with a liquid wax, then he’d lightly scrape a line or figure or whatever into the wax so that the copper underneath was exposed. Then the plate is submerged into an acid that would etch into the exposed copper bits making them deeper. Once the engraving and acid eating was done you can print. Just don’t forget to draw the whole thing backwards or the final image will be flipped the wrong direction. To make a print he took the plate and rubbed ink over it making sure to fill all the groves. Then he wiped off all the extra ink off of the parts that are supposed to remain white. Next the plate was carefully lined up with a piece of paper and run through a heavy duty rolling pin looking machine that transferes the ink from the crevices to the paper. It was really fun to watch and much more difficult than it looks.
Mid-afternoon we had tickets to the Uffizi Gallery which houses the Medici’s personal collection. The Medici’s, if you don’t know the name, were a hugely powerful and wealthy from Florence who funded some of the Renaissance’s greatest artists. The art was fabulous. It’s hard to imagine one family owning all those masterpieces. It’s worth the admission for Birth of Venus by Botticelli and da Vinci’s Annunciation. But my favorites were the ancient statuary from Greek and Rome and of course the Caravaggio’s. I’m a sucker for a Caravaggio.
While we were there we couldn’t resist going to the market. I love markets, foreign or domestic. I’m sure its because my parents love markets too. No matter what city we’re in, if there’s a market, we go. It’s really too bad that they aren’t more common in the states. They’re great, and usually cheap. We were also told that the market was the best place to buy leather. So my dad and I went 50/50 on a leather messenger bag. My first Mercator bag! (Don’t have a picture though.)
I’d go back to Florence in a heartbeat. If you ever get the chance, GO!
On a random side note… I loved the fact Florence’s symbols are the same as my personal heraldry (check the header). The Fleur di Lis and the lion.