Monday 30th October: Travel Week
Every year week 5 of the Venice course is devoted to going travelling in Italy to see places we’ve read about and the art. Especially as half our course is on Florence, we are encouraged to go there. So on Monday I travelled to Mestre (Venice’s port neighbour, where everyone who is young/can’t afford Venetian house prices lives) to catch a train to Florence. Having found the place where I was staying in the south of the town, or Oltrano, (a palazzo owned by the Waldensian church) I went off to sightsee. I visited the Palazzo Veccio, which was, and still is, the town hall, and has an imposing tower. The original fortress section was enlarged and decorated by Cosimo I de’ Medici in the sixteenth century, with Vasari’s fresco scheme being a visual panegyric of the Medici family, but there are also some earlier paintings in existence. One of the most interesting rooms is the Salle delle Carte, which is decorated with maps showing the known world as it existed in 1563. Each part, including the larger European countries, has its own map. The map of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was most interesting. It had Coventry, and Camarthen, but no Birmingham-then a village. Thanet was depicted as a peninsula However, it did have several of the Cinque Ports, including Hythe, but the most interesting thing was ‘Crimbrt’ which judging by its position was probably Cranbrook, now a small town just down the road from my house, but then an important cloth town. Outside the Palazzo Vecchio is a copy of Michelangeo’s David, which once stood inside the building.
I then walked to Santa Croce, which is the pantheon church of Florence. It has nineteenth century cenotaphs to Dante and Alberti (a humanist), whilst perhaps the most famous monuments are those to Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo, who was probably hidden in the church by the Franciscans until it was safe to bury him publicly in 1737. Having just been writing about him, I also enjoyed seeing the tomb of Bruni. Santa Croce also has two chapels in the south transept frescoed by Giotto, an early Renaissance artist. One shows SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, the other, which has a large altarpiece on the same subject, shows scenes from the life of Saint Francis. Unfortunately the museum was closed for building work so I couldn’t see the original Cimabue crucifix, which was badly damaged in the 4th November 1966 flood. Walking back to my hostel I passed Orsanichele to see the statues erected by the merchant guilds on the façade, including Donatello’s St George. In the evening I met up with my friends who were also now in town for a drink.
Today we went to the market, which principally sells leather and silk products, and did some shopping. Afterwards, we visited the church of San Lorenzo, the oldest church in Florence, although the current building dates from the 1420s. Unfortunately the façade was never completed, but it contains several works by Donatello, including the pulpits. Unfortunately the library, with its eccentric entrance staircase, was shut. In the afternoon we climbed the 463 steps to the cupola of the Duomo or cathedral. The route up goes via the gallery under the dome, giving a close up view of the last judgement fresco and the stained glass windows. It then winds around the dome itself, in a narrow passageway, before a steep set of steps over the very top of the curve (coming down this was the worst bit.) The views from the top are incredible, especially as it was a clear day.
Once we had descended, after a reviving drink we went in the Baptistry, which dates from the sixth or seventh century. It is clad in marble, with a thirteenth century mosaic roof, and contains the tomb of John XXIII, a schismatic pope. However the most famous element of the building are the entrance doors: the south set are by Pisano from 1336, but the north set are by Ghiberti, as are the east ones, known as the ‘Gates of Paradise’ made of gold, and a wonderful example of Renaissance art. (They are also normally surrounded by tour groups.)
We then went inside the Dumo itself. On the north wall there are two fresco momuments to famous condottiere or mercenary soldiers, one of whom is Sir John Hawkwood. There is also a fresco of Dante explaining the Divina Comedia. In the evening we went out for drinks as the bars all seemed to have Halloween offers, possibly because the next day is a public holiday.
Wednesday 1st November
In the morning first thing we went to the Accademia art gallery. This has several lovely religious paintings, but the highlight is Michelangelo’s David. This is approached through a gallery containing unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo, the Slaves which are very interesting for their display of the process of carving marble. David himself was carved from a flawed block of marble, but was the first large freestanding marble nude since antiquity (one of the art historians gave us an explanation) and the first sculpture to show David both as a grown man rather than a boy, and before killing Goliath. Up close one can see the veins in his hands and the detail of the muscles.
Afterwards I visited the Museo di San Marco, housed in an old monastic cloister and famous as the home of the monk-artist Fra Angelico. Savonarola was prior from 1491, but the 1430s expansion was funded by Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici. In the Ospizio dei Pelligrini (Pilgrim’s hospice) one can see various works by Fra Angelico brought from other churches, and upstairs the frescos that he and his assistants painted in each cell as a devotional aid. However the most famous painting, and my favourite work in Florence, is the Annunciation at the top of the stairs.
After lunch we went to the Uffizi gallery, the main art gallery in Florence. This contains early Renaissance artists such as Giotto and Cimabue, Pierro della Francesa, and Fra’ Fillipo Lippi. It also has an entire room, apart from the Portenari Triptych, devoted to Botticelli: personally I prefer the Primavera to The Birth of Venus, and some of his religious works even more. There are also collections of the Northern Renaissance artists, the Mannerists, the Venetian painters, Titian and Raphael. It also has some later works, including Rubens and Van Dyke. After returning to the restaurant for pudding, I visited Orsanmichele to see inside the church, which contains a huge carved altar dedicated to the Virgin, and some frescos showing the patron saints of the lesser Florentine Guilds. On my way home I then went to Santa Trinitá, whose interior is mainly Gothic, with a side chapel frescoed by Ghirlandaio to show the Life of Saint Francis, which is also a portrayal of contemporary Florence.
Thursday 2nd November
In the morning I visited Santa Maria Novella, near the train station. Unfortunately the façade is under scaffolding, so I couldn’t see it, but the church inside is beautiful. The church was built as a home for the Dominicans, and contains several interesting works of art. Massacio’s Trinity was one of the first pictures to rigourously use classical proportion and perspective, whilst the fourteenth century frescoes in the Cappella Strozzi include a vision of hell and purgatory based on Dante. The most interesting chapel is that in the Tornabuoni chapel behind the high altar. This was painted by Ghirlandaio, depicting episodes from the life of the Virgin and St John the Baptist, and featuring cameos of several members of the family, as well as displays of contemporary costume. The cloister features images from Genesis, whilst the Cappellone degli Spagnuoli, once the convent chapterhouse, later the chapel for Eleanor of Toledo’s retinue, has extensive frescos depicting the triumph of the Dominican order, and through it the Catholic Church.
In the afternoon we took a train to Sienna. The countryside of the Chianti region was lovely, and we even saw a hill town with its many towers. Sienna is also a beautiful place, with a medieval Duomo built from bands of white and black marble, giving it a distinctive appearance. The Duomo also has an extensive pavement with designs in sgraffito marble. It also has a lovely carved pulpit, and some fantastic frescos, showing the life of Pius II, and old manuscripts in the Libreria Piccolomini. Unfortunately as it is now winter, most of the museums shut very early, but we had a walk round the town and some delicious (and very thick) hot chocolate. In the evening we had a ride on the carousel in Florence’s Piazza Reppublica.
In the morning I visited the Bargello gallery, which houses the Florentine museum of sculpture and applied art. It is however an undervisited museum in comparison with the Accademia and Uffizi. The Paazzo del Bargello was once the seat of the Podestà or chief magistrate, and even Machiavelli was brought here under arrest. The courtyard contains coats of arms of many of the Podestà, who had to be knights from outside Florence, and some sculptures that once graced a fountain. The Renaissance sculpture room contains Michelangelo’s Bacchus and Pitti Tondi, as well as a bust of Brutus, created as a coded celebration of the assassination of a tyrannical Medici duke. There are some other wonderful pieces, including an allegory of Florence (a young woman) defeating Pisa (an old man). Upstairs there are a series of bronze birds that once graced the gardens of the Medici villa at Castello, and a collection of pieces by Donatello, including his David in bronze (the first freestanding male nude since antiquity), and St George from Orsanmichele. There are also the Brunelleschi and Ghilberti plaques submitted in the competition to design the Baptistery doors. There are also fantastic collections of medieval carved ivory, and glazed terracotta pots and bowls, a medium also used in the extensive collection of devotional scenes by the della Robbia family. On the top floor there is also a collection of small bronzes, some of which are copied from famous sculptures.
Following this I visited the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which includes many items removed from the Cathedral façade, some for redecoration, and more recently some for conservation reasons (including the original panels of the East Baptistery doors), Other items come from design projects that were never completed, including Michelangelo’s Pietà, featuring his self-portrait as Nicodemus. Amongst the collection of statues one can find two carved marble choir lofts and a collection of silverware from the Cathedral.
After lunch I went to the Medici palace. In the ground floor exhibition rooms there was a display about a Roman copy (c. 50-40 BC) of a classical Greek statue (c. 360 BC) of an athlete discovered in the sea off Croatia, and on loan as a thank you to Florence for the assistance given by one of the city’s conservation laboratories in restoring it. It is quite a stunning piece. Upstairs one can visit the small but luxuriously frescoed chapel, painted by Giordano to show the Medici and their allies in the Procession of the Magi, with angels on either side of an altar with an image of the Madonna and Child. Further upstairs one can find the Sala di Luca Giordano, a hall with ornate gold decoration and painted mirrors. Lastly I walked across the Arno to Piazzale Michelangelo, a terrace with fantastic views of the city. En route I passed through the Piazza della Signoria to find the stone marking the spot where Savonarola was executed. As the following day was the 40th anniversary of the Arno flood that wreaked havoc with many rare books and important art works, there was also a display of vintage fire vehicles in the square. Finally I paid a quick visit to San Miniato al Monte, a lovely Romanesque church dedicated to San Minias, an early Florentine Christian and martyr. It has an eleventh-century raised choir, and fresco decoration, although it was hard to see in the fading light.
Saturday 4th November
I returned to Venice and in the afternoon went church visiting in the San Marco area. However first I went and admired the external staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, which looks like a snail shell.
Santo Stefano has had a colourful history, needing to be reconsecrated half a dozen times, but is now a fine church with a wonderful ship’s keel ceiling, and frescoed walls in the same brickwork pattern as the Doge’s Palace. The apse end is actually built on a bridge over a nearby canal. The sacristy includes some nice works of art, including some late Tintoretto’s.
Santa Maria del Giglio, or Santa Maria Zobenigo, has a façade that celebrates the military and diplomatic achievements of the five Barbaro brothers who financed the 1678 rebuilding. It is filled with an extensive collection of art, including the Stations of the Cross by various eighteenth century artists.
San Moisè (St Moses) is near the Piazza San Marco, and acknowledged as the ugliest church in the city, with an elaborate Baroque facade. Inside the altarpiece is a giant carving of Moses on Mount Siani receiving the tablets.
En route through the Piazza I stopped off to have a brief look at a collection of pictures of the 1966 flood, like Florence, forty years ago today. It was interesting and awe-inspiring to see places I know under such deep water. I was also lucky that I was walking through the Piazza at dusk as there was a beautiful sunset, reflected in the gold mosaics of San Marco.
Finally I went to the Scuola di San Giorgio dgeli Schiavoni. This was the meeting place of the city’s Slav confraternity, and is decorated by Carpaccio. The paintings relate to the Dalamtian patron saints SS George, Jerome, and Tryphone, and are full of interesting details, showing a Flemish influence (although the remains of the dragon’s victims are a little gruesome. Upstairs there are a series of votive paintings showing religious images and seventeenth-century brothers of the Scuola.