This is part of a continuing series of posts documenting my Italian vacation. This post describes our first day in the Renaissance city of Florence in Tuscany. We had just had an amazing two days in Venice and I was particularly looking forward to the art-filled city of Florence.
We had an early morning train from Venice to Florence & our hotel had been kind enough to give us a breakfast tray in our room the previous night, so that we didn’t travel hungry. We got up much before daybreak and headed to the train station of Venice on the fast Vaporetto and reached much before the train time (as is my habit!) We located our reserved seats and I didn’t have to keep an eagle eye on the luggage racks at the end of the bogies as our luggage fitted comfortably in the luggage racks above our seats ( advantage of travelling light!!)
The train services in Italy are superb and we reached Florence right on time, in just over 2 hours. Getting out of the train station and finding our B &B was easy as we just had to follow the dome of the Cathedral, visible from all over Florence. The B&B booked, Le Stanze del Duomo ( Duomo = Cathedral for the uninitiated!) was just a stones throw away from the cathedral itself. As you approach it the sheer size of the cathedral becomes apparent. It is a huge complex, tightly organised in a square which appears to barely fit it. The baptistery with its famous bronze doors, the cathedral with its statue-filled facade and huge but beautiful dome and the elegantly structured bell tower are fitted into a square that was chock-a-block with people. (Made a mental note to come here early morning before the zoo opens!) We found our B & B and dumped our luggage, loaded the camera and headed out because as usual we were too early for check in time.
I had booked online tickets to the Duomo Complex and reserved timed entries for the Dome climb and the cathedral museum. As 9.30 am was still early by Italian winter standards (reminded me of Goa!) the only structure open was the Cathedral itself. The external facade of the cathedral has been called everything from grandiose to a cathedral wearing pyjamas, and standing below it I could understand where both view points came from. It was a sunny day with beautiful clouds in the sky and it made for some pretty photos.
The inside of the cathedral, as compared to its exterior, is quite bare as compared to the other churches we had seen yet. The reason being that all statues and art that lined the cathedral are now in the Duomo museum. So now, the only striking feature is the huge size and the towering dome. So we didn’t take much time inside, except to marvel at the sheer size. We also went down to the crypt which has excavations of the older churches which have stood at this precise spot since Roman times. It’s interesting to know that ground level has risen up by almost 8 feet in the last millennium in Florence.
The exterior of the Duomo in complete contrast to its bare interior is a riot of statues and murals. The external facade, most of which is recent as compared to its interior, has superb statues which actually look down on the pilgrim passing below them which gives it look alive. Most of the older structures are now safe inside the museum and replaced by replicas. (which look great too!). It prompted me to go back to the hotel and get my telephoto lens just to click close ups of the statues.
After I had used the telephoto lens a lot to justify me lugging it all the way to Italy, we turned our attention to the Baptistery. The Baptistery is a circular / octagonal building free standing from the cathedral. The explanation for having a separate baptistery was that you could only go to church after you were baptised, so these structures were built separate, unlike in recent churches.
The Baptistery has famous bronze doors by Ghiberti another masterpiece of the Renaissance, using almost flat bronze panels to produce a 3D appearance; an art considered revolutionary for the time. The inside of the Baptistery has a baptismal pond and a painted & gilded ceiling which to me looked more impressive than the famous dome of the cathedral. Posting both photos here, you be the judge!!
After seeing the baptistery we had huge slices of average pizza right on the Duomo square, admittedly a very touristy thing to do but the view is worth the few extra euros spent. We were wondering what to do after lunch since it was still not check in time yet. (one of the most annoying things in Europe is the 2 pm check-in time.) We had dome climb reservations at 3 pm but I couldn’t see a line for the climb so I meekly asked the attendant at the dome climb entrance in my broken Indian accented Italian if we could do it now (12.30 pm) and received the affirmative in chaste English and a smile!
The dome climb, is a at first normal ascent up flights of stairs till you reach the actual dome. Once at the top, the mostly one way tightly twisting, never ending series of spiral stairs which are not for the meek-hearted or claustrophobics. What annoyed me more than the effort was the endless graffiti lining the stairs (I thought only we Indians liked desecrating our monuments!) The final ascent is a steep ladder climb which brought us on top of Brunelleschi’s Renaissance monster of a dome. The thing which amazed me was the lack of a grill covering this open balcony at such a height!! It made for amazing photographs of views of all of Florence and even the rolling hills of Tuscany beyond. We spent a long time just sitting and enjoying the view and catching our breath. Then it was time for the camera to get into action and take some really memorable photos.
I particularly enjoyed clicking this photo which looks like a view from the top of a roller coaster with the dome as its track, very satisfying.
We would have sat there all day if we didn’t have such a packed day plan. But there were more places to see and we reluctantly descended the stairs and down to ground level. We then followed the Renaissance walk itinerary prescribed by Rick Steves. The next stop along the charming streets of the medieval old town was the Orsanmichele church. This is an interesting structure as it was a granary which was converted into a church and you can still see the chutes through which the grain was delivered in the church interiors. The exterior has replicas of statues by the usual suspects i.e. Donatello, di Banco, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi. Everywhere you go in Florence there is either the original or replica of a Renaissance masterpiece. What caught my eye at this church was the bejewelled tabernacle which precisely fitted the church in that it just touched the ceiling!
Just a few blocks ahead was another huge piazza (square) which housed the Palazzo Vecchio or the Government hall of the ruling family during the Renaissance, the Medicis. This was where Michelangelo’s David stood originally till it was replaced by a replica after the original statue was damaged in a riot. (We will see the original in the next post on Florence) The square also has a fountain with a statue of Neptune, an open air art gallery and a lot of overpriced cafes. We had no time to go inside the Palazzo Vecchio and we already had reservations for the two best art galleries in Florence, the Uffizi and the Academia so I didn’t want the better half to OD on art so early on in the trip.
Just beyond this square is the famous Uffizi gallery, which was closed today and beyond that is the Arno river and a view of the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge. We ended our walk there, and clicked photos of the historic bridge and wondered if the water is always this dirty!
We then retraced our steps and checked in to our hotel room. (Finally!) After freshening up and giving the legs some rest we set out again for our reservation at the Duomo Museum. The museum has all the original statues that lined the inside and outside of the cathedral and bell tower. It also has the original doors of the baptistery along with all precious metal lined items.It is an interesting collection of work by the usual suspects ( You know them by now!) and an excellent pieta ( Pieta – is a statue of dead Christ taken down from the Christ held by Mary) by Michelangelo which is supposed to be one of his last works.
The Florence Pieta by Michelangelo has a huge back story but what draws one to the sculpture is the realistic angles of a dead Christ over Mary and apparently the self portrait of the artist himself in the bearded man behind Christ. I normally don’t go on and on about a single piece of art, but this sculpture made by a master sculptor who defined the Renaissance, produced countless pieces of priceless art but still doubted his contribution to mankind at the end is a classic.
After sitting with the pieta and reading Michelangelo’s touching poetry about doubting his contribution to mankind & devotion to God for a few minutes we moved out of the museum. It was getting dark by now and the lights had started to come on. So we started our final journey of the day, a bus trip up the surrounding hill to the oldest church of Florence – San Miniato and the viewpoint of Piazzale Michelangelo where stands yet another David replica. (Seriously, he is all over this town!) The church gives a higher viewpoint and a much wider view (featured image) than the famous viewpoint at Piazzale Michelangelo ( Thank you for the tip, Rick Steves!) The lit Florence centre looks beautiful, no other word for it and worth all the effort of taking a bus up. There were very few people at both places and we just sat on the steps and took in the view.
Soon, we boarded the bus back and returned to the B&B, after buying pasta and wine at a gourmet deli for dinner. It had been a long day of sightseeing and the legs needed some rest before we started again tomorrow.
The plan for tomorrow was a trip to the touristy field of miracles at Pisa and a stay at a wonderful walled town of Lucca. But that is topic for another post, another day.
P.S – My apologies for dragging this one far too long, but I couldn’t have done justice to the wonderful sights that we saw if I had curtailed myself.
P.P.S- Also the grammar nazi Shridhar Rao continues to be kind enough to correct my grammar and make the posts a smoother read.