A trip to the Renaissance
8/15/12 - 8/19/12 98 °F
Lucky for us it was a holiday on the day of our arrival in Florence. Otherwise we would have received about 300 traffic tickets. Little did we know that there are strict traffic restrictions in the city, and almost the entire "old town" is pedestrian only. The streets are monitored by camera and each time you cross into the pedestrian only zone, your car is captured and you are fined 100 Euros. In fact, if you have to cross into the zone (for example if you have to get to your hotel), you have to "check-in" to a parking garage within 2 hours of crossing the zone. We didn't know this and all the signs are in indecipherable Italian, so we just followed our GPS through the maze of tiny, single lane streets twisting their way through Florence -- I'm sure crossing the pedestrian border umpteen times. We found out after we got to our hotel about these restrictions, but luckily they are not enforced on holidays.
Speaking of hotels, we stayed in an old Italian villa/palace: the Villa Borghese Art Hotel, half of which has been turned into a modern hotel with a strong masculine decor and giant statues in the lobby, and the other half is an art gallery and event space. Quite nice. The small bar inside is manned by Gerardo, a true mixologist who takes great pride in his inventive cocktails, and uses fresh and homemade ingredients, such as flavored salts and sugars. He was very nice, and even gave me a parting gift. I commented on his unique glass storage vessels, where he kept his homemade concoctions, and asked if he knew where I could buy them, when lo and behold, he pulled a boxed set out from under the bar and gave it to me as a gift. Wow! Big tip for Gerardo!
The first decision we had to make upon arrival was whether we were going to leave the next day. Turns out, the next day was Aug. 16, the day of the "Palio" -- the famous horse race in the nearby town of Sienna. We had met an Australian guy in Monaco who told us it was coming up soon, and that it was an event not to be missed. Held only twice a year, in July and August, the Palio is a crazy event. The town of Sienna is divided into 17 neighborhoods, and each year 10 are selected to participate in this race. Everyone (about 60,000 people) squeeze into the central town square. Not a square inch of space is unoccupied, except for the sand track that rings the outside of the square. Everyone is yelling and cheering for their team and waving their colorful neighborhood banners. It's insane energy and adrenaline. The horses line up, with their jockeys riding bareback, and the race begins. Three loops around the track, horses and riders knocking into each other as they careen around the tight corners, some falling off and onto the mattresses they put there to protect them, the crowd pushing in from all sides, and in less than a minute: we have a winner! The winning neighborhood goes berserk and carries the winner's banner back to their neighborhood where they display it proudly all year. Sounds amazing. Sounds crazy. And we happened to be in the neighborhood on the right day! Who knew? But, when we started thinking about the actual logistics - getting out of a city that we had a hard time getting into, the parking, the crowds, the heat - oh my! Sounds crowded. Sounds like a PITA. For a race that lasts a minute? But its not about the race, its about the excitement. What to do? We went back and forth, but figured we didn't come to see the Palio, we came to see Florence. So, we decided to forego the action.
Instead, it was time to step into our time machine and step back in time to about 1350 to 1450. Florence is nothing if not an unparalleled look at The Renaissance. We entered the city with some idea of what the Renaissance was about, but we left truly educated. You can't help but absorb an amazing amount of information. Our 3 full days in Florence included seeing: the Accademia (Michelangelo's "David" and other statues - where Jim got yelled at for taking a "forbidden" picture), the Uffizi Gallery (statues and paintings), the Palazzo Vecchio (old palace filled with art), the Pitti Palace (newer larger palace filled with more art), the Duomo (cathedral with huge dome) and matching Baptistery and Campanile (bell tower), the Duomo Museum, the Bargello (an old prison, now a museum full of art) and the Medici Chapels (more statues).
I'll try to sum up our education and immersion in the Renaissance in a single paragraph...
Prior to the Renaissance, the world (our Western world, at least) hadn't seen art for art's sake for over a thousand years. Since the fall of Rome, only the Church commissioned art, and all art was basically used to teach Bible stories to the illiterate masses, or to glorify God. It was "flat" and static and boring. But at the end of the 14th century, something amazing started happening in the city of Florence, something not seen for a thousand years. A middle class started to appear, and individuals started to commission art. And they wanted art for art's sake, not just for religious devotion. A spirit of humanism was born, and the celebration of the human form began. And the most expressive form of this celebration was in the form of statues. And not just static poses, but expressive forms caught in the middle of movement. Not just a basic suggestion of a human form, but every rippling muscle, strands of hair, and flowing robes. Not just an idealized face, but real human faces... ugly, wrinkled, broken noses and all. Reality caught in stop motion. Paintings and bronze friezes froze reality in 3 dimensions. Not just flat images, but layers upon layers, with backgrounds and foregrounds. Throughout Florence you can see the transition as it happened over time. Famous art and artists abound: Michelangelo, Bernini, Raphael, da Vinci, Brunnelleschi, Donatello, Ghiberti, Botticelli, etc. The influence of the Medici family (the very autocratic Rockefellers of their day) is visible everywhere, and we continued to see their unmistakable coat of arms throughout Italy -- it is a shield with 6 "pills", or round balls, on it, recalling their origins in medicine. In fact, as we continued on our journey through Italy, we would comment on both the appearance of their coat of arms: "Guess who was here?", and on art -- THAT is obviously pre-Renaissance, while THIS must have been done by Della Robia. We were actually starting to become a little more worldly and educated. Remember, I said a little!
In addition to great art, Florence is the home of the greatest Gelato in the world. And while I swore at the outset that I would have gelato at least once each day, I fell short of my goal. I just don't have the metabolism I did on my last visit 25 years ago. Which brings me to another point. We learned why they say don't visit Italy during August. In addition to the heat - considerable, getting up to 104 F - and the crowds - surprisingly not too bad, especially when you get the Florence Card which allows you to bypass long lines at the attractions - there is the fact that many businesses, including many restaurants we searched for and my favorite gelato shop, are closed during August. Oh well, there's always another one around the corner.
One thing we were a little disappointed about was the closing of something we were really looking forward to. About an hour north east of Florence, is the town of Modena, home of Ferrari and Lamborghini. We wanted to tour their factories and museums. But, since it was mid-August, the Lamborghini factory and museum was closed, and you cannot tour the Ferrari factory unless you own a Ferrari. So for only the Ferrari museum, we felt the trip wasn't worth it. I guess we had to leave something for a future trip.
All in all, Florence was grand. Old world art in an old world town. Perhaps a little history might have rubbed off on us, giving us just a hint of Renaissance men. Firenze -- Molto buono!