As expected, Florence was not very crowded. Hardly deserted, but certainly not jammed with the crowds that had us running for cover after only a few hours when we were here three years ago. (Read about that trip here.) We’d left the car in Lucca and took the train to the big city, where Paula had, as always, found us an excellent place to stay. In this case it was a former convent a few blocks from the main train station.
The apartment had 20 foot ceilings with a loft bedroom and bath, and the long tall walls were covered with original art. The owner, who met us at the apartment, explained who had done the paintings; some he had done himself, some by his father. He also warned us about the antique furniture—it really wasn’t to be used (there were dressers and closets in the loft bedroom). Oh, and don’t sit in this one special chair, the couch and other chairs were ok, though. He left us to unwind after our hour-and-a-half train ride, and we had a chance to admire the place, and pretend it was ours.
|Our convent cell. Portrait in the center of the far left wall is of our host, done by his father.|
Our Big Event, that first day, was a visit to the Uffizi Gallery, home to… well, an impressive number of masterpieces. It is, in a certain way, home base for the Renaissance, that opening of art and science that occurred in the 15th century, centered in Florence. Uffizi means “office,” and the building that now houses one of the world’s most famous museums was originally built as offices for the Medici family, the rulers of Florence for several generations. (Why do things sound so much better in Italian? Uffizi is so much more satisfying than “offices;” and Giuseppe Verdi… why, who wouldn’t prefer that to the pedestrian Joe Green?)
|Courtyard of the Uffizi|
Anyway, the top floor of this office building was a showcase for the art that the Medici family had accumulated over its very long time in power; and, it still is.
|Upper gallery of the Uffizi, the museum|
|Statues from antiquity, part of the Uffizi collection.|
Rick speaks knowledgeably about art. In the Uffizi he—or his disembodied voice—guided us to several paintings showing the evolution of style. We started with the flat, perspective-less iconography of the late Middle Ages, intended to decorate a church and inform and remind the illiterate faithful.
|Simone Martini, Annunciation with St Margaret and St Ansanus, 1333: everything is flat; it's very iconographic. These aren't real people! (image from Wikipedia)|
We moved through a collection of paintings showing increasing awareness of perspective and depth, culminating with The Annunciation, by 23-year old Leonardo Da Vinci, with its geometric lines and fixed vanishing point. Quite a change in a few years!
|The Annunciation, by Leonardo DaVinci when he was about 20. Far more realistic!|
|Birth of Venus, by Botticelli (aka Venus on the Half Shell), a big hit with the crowd.|
|Before he turned to painting, Botticelli was a goldsmith, and reportedly used gold dust in his paints. Like here, in the hair of Venus.|
Of course, the big draw for paintings was Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Lots of cell phones out, snapping pics of that one! Less popular but no less significant is In the Spring by the same artist. Both of these magnificent paintings illustrate the move away from religious themes, with women being depicted as angels or the Virgin Mary, to more humanistic themes, and the emergence (or re-emergence) of the goddess.
|Springtime, also by Botticelli; another big hit. Rather than religious figures, it depicts classic gods and goddesses, and just plain folks, out enjoying the fine weather.|
This shift in thinking from religious to humanistic was at the core of the Renaissance (which literally means re-birth), and Florence, the epicenter of it all, is saturated with its signs. The streets are full of statues from many eras, and the architecture itself is witness to the huge changes wrought during that expressive period.
|Andrea dei Verracchio did most of this painting, but his student, Leonardo da Vinci, painted the angel on the far left. Let's have a closer look...|
|Another roof-top view of Florence, with Giotto's Bell Tower and Brunelleschi's Dome|
After the magnificent views of the Duomo and Baptistery, my favorite part of the city is Piazza della Signoria, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. Here is where Michelangelo’s David was originally placed (there’s a copy there now), along with a collection of other statues. More impressive to my mind was the realization that it was in this square, this plaza, that the daily lives of the Renaissance-era citizens occurred—including those whose novel ideas in art, finance, business, architecture, and governance still influence us today.
|Palazzo Vecchio, built in the 14th C, just pre-dating the Renaissance.|
|The Loggia dei Lanzi and it's famous statues, part of the Piazza della Signoria. |
|Entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio; note (the copy of) the statue of David on the far left, in it's original location.|
It was also
here, near the end of the 15th Century, that Girolamo Savonarola
started his “bonfire of the vanities,” encouraging the citizens of Florence to
give up their sinful ways, and support a purer, more religious life by surrendering
their earthly possessions and literally burning them in a huge fire. Mirrors,
fine clothes, furniture, books, even paintings were tossed in and consumed. But
Savonarola’s influence was short lived; a few years later he himself succumbed
to the flames in this same square, burned by the Church as a heretic.
|The 14th C. splendor inside the Piazza della Signoria|
The next day we had tickets to the Galleria dell'Accademia, known for its sculptures by Michelangelo, including the incomparable David. I’m not a big fan of statuary myself, but the works here are extraordinary, even to a duffer like me. While the Accademia is small, especially compared to the Uffizi, we did spend some time there studying the statues and trying to understand how such magnificent forms could be created out of an ungainly block of rock. Now, that’s genius!
|Well presented, David is the big draw at the Accademia--but there is more. Note the sculptures along the walls, on the right and left...|
|David studies Goliath, focused, confident: "I can take this guy..."|
|These tortured figures, called the Slaves, were carved by Michelangelo. They are unfinished. Or are they? What's the sculptor trying to convey with these men struggling to emerge?|
|Quite a contrast: the rough-hewn Slaves (aka Prisoners) and the finely-polished David|
|Also in the Accademia: these are apparently the "senior projects" of students who have studied sculpture here.|
|I think I'd love to strike up a conversation with this lady!|
One thing we noted about the streets of Florence: while they were nowhere near as crowded as they had been on our previous visit three years ago, the people we did see all had masks. No, not the highly-decorated ones used at Carnival in Venice, just the ordinary cloth ones we’ve all gotten so sick of. Not everyone wore them in the streets—about ¼ to 1/3 pulled them down around their chin, or carried them on their wrist or arm. But everyone had one. And the museums, and certain larger stores, had doormen (guards!) ensuring the masks were properly worn inside, and that everyone had their temperature checked before entering. This is, after all, Northern Italy, and they haven’t forgotten the very hard lessons from the record number of infections a few months ago.
|What a difference a pandemic makes! May 2017 on the left; June three years later (2020) on the right.|
Most places were open, although business was not always booming. We had dinner one night at a nice restaurant. They had no outdoor area, but we sat in front of large double doors that gave onto the street and the soft evening air… and we were the only ones in the place! It was empty when we arrived, and empty when we left. They may or may not have had more customers that night, but things are not easy for businesses in Italy now!
|View along the Arno.|
|Us, also along the Arno,with Ponte Vecchio behind.|
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Seven hours to Lucca, Italy. That’s how long the drive was. I remember, back in the day, when we could do that before noon, and finish another seven before stopping for the night. But this is now, not then, and now those seven hours would be long. Still, in these COVID-ridden days, a private car seemed a better choice than public transport, especially flying! So we rented a car for a week, and drove.
We equipped ourselves with wipes, and rubber gloves ($0.12USD for a pair at the local pharmacy, now that the panic is over), and spent time with our newly-rented car wiping down door handles, steering wheel, shift lever, and, of course, the touch screen.
The drive was long, and expensive—the high-speed turnpikes here in Europe are not free—but we made it. I had plenty of time to mull over the difference between roads here and in the US during our drive. France has a very extensive, and very well maintained, road network that has been in place for decades—indeed, since well before the advent of the automobile.
|The route--750 km one way. All those little yellow circles on the right show road work (i.e., closed tunnels)!|
While we have very often enjoyed the beauty and tranquility of the French departemental roads, this time it was to be autoroute all the way, with frequent stops to pay the tolls. Still, these roads avoid the traffic mess that always accompanies large cities (here in Europe and elsewhere in the world!), so we were glad to exchange money for the time saved.
The road along the coast near the French-Italian boarder is really a wonder, passing through a very mountainous area. I remember being amazed by this road the first time I passed over it in the early 70s, as it went from bridge to tunnel to bridge to tunnel. Quite an engineering feat!
It still is, but words that come to mind describing the experience of driving it now are pénible, annoying, pain in the exhaust pipe. Particularly now when it seemed half the road was closed for roadwork. Road work? We saw miles of road with one lane blocked by traffic cones with nary a sign of workers nor equipment. And our thoughts were like, With this COVID thing, couldn’t they have finished this by now?
The tunnels, each with two lanes, come in pairs, one east-bound and one west-bound. At least half of these tunnels were closed, with all the traffic diverted into the remaining one, one lane in each direction, and the speed limit set down to 60KPH (35 MPH). At one point Paula joked that since we were only using half the road and going half the speed, we should only pay half the toll.
Come to think of it, she was only half joking!
(these photos are from Google Street View--I was NOT taking pictures while driving!)
The road still goes from bridge to tunnel, but I have a different perspective on that as a driver! Coming out of a dark tunnel, I would quickly drop my sunglasses in place to protect against the bright sun and catch a brief glimpse of steep green hills dotted with picturesque houses before plunging back into the next dark tunnel (flipping up the sunglasses!). And since many of these tunnels are very long and now many carry two-way traffic, it was like driving at night on a busy two-lane road with a constant onslaught of headlights.
But that was the easy part. Then we got to Genoa. Oh my!
Apparently the major traffic bridge collapsed here a year or so ago. Cars were crushed, people killed. That part is all gone now, but there is no replacement for the bridge yet. So the route goes through town, along the sea front and back up into the hills. There was little traffic, fortunately, because the roads were narrow, winding, and steep with hair-pin turns and many huge trucks. Finally, once out of the city, there were more tunnels. Oi vey! Not a drive I want to repeat.
Except, of course, we did, on the way back. Well, I figured, at least we’d get through Genoa while still fresh, instead of after 4 or 5 hours of driving. Yes, but… the road was still a mess. Somewhere past Genoa we were deep in a very long tunnel, at least a kilometre from daylight in each direction, moving in heavy two-way traffic, when we just… stopped. And sat. In the lugubrious darkness lit only by the weird yellow ceiling lights and the head and tail lights of the cars around us. After a very long time—ten or 15 minutes, perhaps—I began to have thoughts of how our desiccated bodies would be found, slumped in the seats, by rescuers coming along three or four weeks hence. Suddenly the van in front of us began to move! We drove in a stately (i.e., slow) but satisfying fashion for another while until, finally, there was a light up above, and we emerged into daylight! And then, plunged into another tunnel.
And soon after that, all signs of congestion were gone, and we were flying along at the usual 110 KPH. Go figure…
By the numbers: We spent $160USD on tolls for the 960-mile round trip, and $103USD on fuel. (Diesel, gazole, is about $5.50 per gallon, but the car got 52MPG; we paid just short of 11 cents US per mile). Renting the car for a week cost $200USD, for a total cost of $460USD and two days of driving…
Lodging was a very reasonable $400 for the week, in these discounted times (not a lot of people traveling these days!)
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What’s coming up in the next blog? Lucca! We spent a couple of nights in this slow-paced but very Italian town. And then, we head back to France to see what's happening in the lavender fields.