Friday, 10 July 2015

Our Italian Adventure: Part Uno - Frolicking in Firenze

    Rolling pastures and sun-scorched greenery greeted the eye as the train rushed headlong into the heart of Tuscany. It wasn't long before we arrived at the Santa Maria Novella station in Firenze (Florence), Italy. Thanks to the ingenuity of the wife, our home for the next week was situated right smack between the train station and the historic heart of the city; from here we will venture forth on this new adventure.
View from our balcony.

Florentine Art, History, & Culture

    After a night of much needed rest, we were up early and all ready for what was to be a crash course in European art history. First stop, the Uffizi Gallery. This museum showcases the art collected by the then powerful House of Medici. From here we can trace the evolution of art, from the Middle ages, followed by the Renaissance, the Baroque, Neo-classical stage, and finally the art that we have closer to the modern day (such as the that of the impressionist movement). We were taught how to differentiate art from the Middle Ages from that of the Renaissance.
An example of a sculpture from the Middle Ages: Very stylized, expressionless, poised as if taking a formal photo, restricted within it's niche.
Now contrast the above with another sculpture on the same facade of the same building. Renaissance: fluidity of movement, harking back to classical Greek and Roman statues, partly outside it's niche - drawing the viewer into the work.
Michelangelo's Holy Family: an example of late Renaissance art attempting to "explode" into the Baroque.
Entrance to the Vasari Corridor
The tour culminated with us transiting through the Vasari Corridor. This "secret" passage starts behind an unmarked door and runs across the Ponte Vacchio, connecting the Uffizi Museum to the Palazzo Pitti, on the opposite bank of the Arno River. This corridor allowed us to travel above the heads of the crowd below. More importantly, this corridor houses the largest gallery of self-portraits in the world. Masters from the Middle Ages all the way to the more recent impressionists.
Vasari Corridor
Looking down on unsuspecting people on the Ponte Vacchio
    If you do go for this tour, try to end it before reaching the Palazzo Pitti. This allows you free access to the Boboli Gardens behind the palace. Such was what we did. Although the guide books extol the Boboli Gardens as the inspiration for other European gardens such as the one at Versailles, we found it a tad disappointing.
View from the top of the Boboli Gardens, city in the distance.
    The main attraction of Florence is arguably its Duomo and the surrounding architecture. This complex consists of the cathedral at the center, surrounded by the bell tower, baptistery and other religious buildings. There's no point climbing both the bell tower and the Duomo's cupola as the viewers are almost identical. Our first stop was the bell tower as we didn't want to squeeze with other tourists that were expected to flood the area later in the day. Another tip for would be travellers; visit the Baptistery first if the queue to the main cathedral is too long.
Climbing Giotto's Bell Tower, up the 414 steps
View from halfway up the tower
     Besides the Uffizi Gallery, another place art aficionados should not miss is the Academia. What I appreciate about the Florentine art museums is the conciseness with which the works are displayed. The Academia is no different. It only takes a couple of hours to take in all the art. I totally agree with Shakespere that a "surfeit of the sweetest things, the greatest loathing to the stomach brings". We bought reserved tickets a few days before. Don't be fooled. Even with reserved tickets, we still had to join a queue. Albeit, the queue was the shorter one.
Michelangelo's David
    It is here that we admired the original Michelangelo's David; in all 4m of unclothed glory (do not confuse it with the pretender standing in Piazza Vacchio, outside the Palazzo). "Amazing" doesn't start to describe this incredible piece of Renaissance work. Every muscle, sinew, vein and hair is described as realistically as marble allows. Unlike other classical sculptures, Michelangelo did not over-emphasize the subject's musculature. You can almost imagine David's marble skin being sheer, soft and malleable. The wife was so taken by this piece that my state of fitness might now forever be compared to that of an inanimate stylized sculpture.
    On a different note, there is a lesson we can learn. David was formed from a slab of marble abandoned in a church yard. Yet this forlon piece of stone, when placed in the hands of the master craftsman, was transformed into a masterpiece that is enjoyed by thousands, for centuries to come. If we are willing to surrender ourselves to the Lord, I believe He can make us into something beautiful too.
    Another work of note that can be found here is the second of Michelangelo's three Pietas. The Palestrina Pieta seems unfinished and indeed it stands along with other unfinished Michelangelo sculptures. (Note: although attributed to Michelangelo, no one is certain of its origin or the sculptor)

Food, Glorious Food

    The "bang bang" of metal against bone and wood will assail your ears when you enter any Florentine restaurant worth its salt. These places sound as much a butcher shop as eateries. The reason for this is of course the Bistecca Florentina - Florentine Beefsteak. This monster of a T-bone steak is usually served medium rare (emphasis on rare), in portions of at least 1kg.
The wifey's favourite dessert at La Sostanza
Roast chicken and traditional white beans
    Florence is littered with many small restaurants. As a rule of thumb, we'd not enter one that provides "menu touristico". We're here for the local and authentic. Drop by into one of these quaint shops and you might be surprised to find that it actually is an award-winning establishment that even the locals patronise.
Florentine Tripe - yes a whole pot of tripe. Definitely a Must-try.

Oooo look at that
   We had wanted to try this restaurant that was recommended by the Hotel, Mama Chinta (or something like that). But it was closed when we got there. No worries, just hop into the next restaurant down down the road. Boy did we find a treasure trove. The place: Osteria Del Cinghiale Bianco. This osteria is located across the river from the main tourist sites. Cross the Ponte S. Tranita, right of Ponte Vacchio (if you face the river with your back to the Uffizi). Excellent food at super afforable prices. Where can you find shaved truffle on buffalo cheese, porcini tagliatelle and dessert at less than 50 Euros?

The Green Rom of the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy
    One place that defies categorisation, yet must be mentioned, is the ancient Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy, the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella. Originally part of the cloister compound of the Santa Maria Novella church, the entrance is now found along Via della Scala (no. 16), around the left corner of the Grand Hotel Minerva. Established by the Dominican friars of the church in 1221, the pharmacy became famous for its salves, fragrances and skincare products. Today the pharmacy is in private hands. Even with the advent of modern methods, each batch of products is still hand-made and supervised according to age old recipes and artisanal methods.

    From Florence, we took day-trips out to the surrounding Tuscan countryside. But's that's another story for another time...

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