Sunday, February 27, 2011



Firenze lies in the hills of the Arno (River) Valley, a


       Perhaps nowhere else on earth has the right ingredients of nature, timing, ruling powers and artisans come together so well as to create such a beautiful, interesting and livable city. Firenze's red-tiled roofs set off the towering example of Romanesque and Renaissance architectural confections. It was the birthplace of the Renaissance--man's break away from the Middle Ages into an age of intellectual thought and humanism.

In my search for mio appartimento, I had taken a few opportunities to see some of the famous sights of Firenze. But now, my exploration began in earnest. I loved walking in Firenze. An interesting view, an exciting adventure or a peaceful respite awaits one at every turn.

While browsing in an English language bookstore, I had found a copy of “The Agony and the Ecstasy”. But this time as I read through this book of Michelangelo Buonarroti's life and work, I would go see each sculpture, painting or architectural masterpiece as it was discussed! Unlike the movie, which dwelt only on his time in Rome, this book gives an account of his entire life. So, when his first two sculptures that were done for the most famous Medici: Lorenzo “Il Magnifico” “Madonna of the Steps” and “Battle of the Centaurs” were described in the book, I went to see them!  I was able to continue to do this almost chronologically throughout his life in both Firenze and Rome. It was like

Battle of the Centaurs

Another main event was exploring restaurants (ristoranti) and cafes (trattorie).  For me, eating out is one of the most pleasurable of activities. I especially enjoy dining 'al fresco'.  In fact, I relish it! I had first learned how wonderful sidewalk cafes were on my first trip to Europe, where it's a tradition to sit outside and eat or just drink coffee and watch the passers-by. Most of Europe's weather is well suited to this pleasure. Italians make such frequent use of these outdoor ristoranti and trattorie that they have become a social extension. If one buys even so much as an espresso, one has the table--or more typically, part of it--for as long as one wishes, without being rushed. (Washington D.C., my home, was just beginning to get sidewalk cafes in the late 1970s; Oklahoma City, where I grew up, is generally too hot for them,)

Firenze is famous for its excellent Tuscan cuisine and Chianti wines.  Minestrone is a well-known Tuscan soup. Florentine steak, as well as tripe and dishes made with white beans, are also well known. Since Italians invented ice cream, it's only fitting that what some believe is the finest gelato store in the world is in Firenze—at the Vivoli. The ubiquitous pasta has several Tuscan sauces that are special, such as rich basil and tomato sauce, a special four-cheese sauce, and of course, anything al florentine is with spinach (spinaci).
My favorite treats became Vitella al Limone (egg-battered veal cooked with lemon and butter); Florentine pizza (thicker and meatier than in America); Insalata Caprese (A delicious salad consisting simply of sliced tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, topped with olive oil and fresh basil. That's right, buffalo! When Naples entered into a diplomatic relationship with the Saracens in the 9th Century, the Saracens brought with them the water buffalo--which to this day are kept in the Neapolitan region of Italy.); 
Insalata Caprese
Paglio e Fieno ('straw' and 'hay'--white and green (spinach) pasta with a rich cream sauce, bits of ham and peas), my fragile con vino rosso; Chianti Classico--the best of the local wines not generally imported to America--and, of course, espresso and gelato.

At the straw and souvenir market, called the New Market because it replaced an older market-place in 1551, there is a famous and popular fountain, Il Porcellino (little wild boar. It is said that if a visitor rubs his snout; he will return to Firenze. I rubbed it in 1971, and I rubbed it soon after arriving to ensure my return again. Its brass snout has been rubbed to a bright sheen.

While walking up my street one day, I noticed that one of the Palazzi had an ornate, free-standing sign out on the sidewalk; advertising an estate sale. Curious about the building, I climbed to the third floor to find both an interesting old home and a phenomenal assortment of 18th and 19th Century artifacts. I was looking around when I realized that there were many beautiful Oriental rugs. I got interested in checking them out, because recently I had been looking for a larger one for my dining room in Washington, D.C. Then I found it: It was a beautiful, multiple reds with black tracery Afghan that was the perfect colors and size, about 9 X 11. After some deliberation at the Rivoire, I decided to go for it.

The rugs were not scheduled to come up for auction for three days. I went every day though, because I had never bid on anything before and more importantly, the entire proceedings were in Italiano!  Oh-oh. I quickie realized that I had better learn numbers in Italian and big ones as they were speaking in the millions! I looked through my trusty Berlitz “Italian for Travelers” and discovered a concise page of numbers. I practiced for two days listening to the numbers and learning to simultaneously (well almost) translate them--but only in Lira you understand, not Dollars. (Although by then, that conversion had already become a somewhat second sense.) On the day of the rug auction, I got very excited. When the rug came up for sale, I could feel my heart racing. The bidding rapidly got into the long numbers.  When it was still in my acceptable range, I signaled the auctioneer. An old Italian woman then raised the bid; I raised mine. Then two more bidding rounds and it became mine for only unmilionenovamilaquattromillequattrocento (1,094,400 Lira, or 684 Dollars). I carried it home, lugged it up those stairs, placed it in the middle of the furniture group and viola:


While wandering around Firenze, I noticed stain marks high up on many of the buildings. Also, there were little dated signs placed at various heights on the side of several buildings. I soon discovered that they denoted the date and height of the various floods Firenze has suffered throughout the centuries. In November of 1966, the Arno overflowed its banks to the highest point in recorded history and severely damaged her buildings and many works of art. This disaster brought together people from all over the world to help restore Firenze. Some works were lost forever, but many have been restored to better condition than before. Thank goodness the Uffizi's galleries begin on the piano second, just high enough to have been safe. Other places weren't so lucky. Unfortunately, it seems that precautions still have not been taken to protect against future floods.

While exploring Firenze, I became intrigued by the enormous door knockers on most of the palazzi--a great variety of sizes and types. I decided to start a photographic essay. Since there are so many, I specialized in those depicting the cat family. (I've always been crazy about cats.  Having Liza, my Abyssinian cat, as a roommate, had made me adore them even more.  Liza is very unique and personable; I missed her.) I photographed lions, panthers and even a few griffins and other mystical felines. Sometimes, when I didn't have my camera with me, I'd have to go back just for a shot of a special gatto.

In my wanderings, I began to appreciate the restorative feature of espresso after a long walk.  I knew how strong espresso was and liked it very much. But sometimes I wanted a brew more like our American coffee. I learned that if you asked for an espresso lungo or a molto lungo, it was more like our coffee. I later found out the name was derived from the fact that if the cup is left under the steam machine for a long time, then more water dilutes the dink.

Another favorite place, besides, of course, the entire Piazza della Signoria, is the Orasanmichele, a 14th Century granary turned into a strange, very vertical, rectangular church. The outside is noted for its famous sculptures. There are masterworks from a two hundred year period (15 to 17C) when the government-controlling guilds commissioned statues of their patron saints including “St. John the Baptist” and “St. Matthew” by Ghiberti; “St. Thomas” and “St. Louis of Toulouse” by Verrocchio; “St. George” by Donatello; “St. Luke” by Giambologna; and several terracottas by Luca della Robbia. The originals are kept at the Palazzo de Bargello.

The Bargello fascinates anyone who stumbles into it; it's not located on the beaten track. A massive medieval fortress (1250-1350), the Bargello is the oldest surviving government building. Today it contains a superb museum of Florentine Renaissance sculpture. If you are a sculpture buff


       A few of the masterpieces are: four Michelangelo's, including his special drunken “Bacchus”, Donatello's “David”, and a colossal bust of “Cosimo I” by Cellini. Giambologna's “Mercury” was a surprise because another version stands in the center of the rotunda of our National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.  Originals from the Orsanmichele are here for protection as is the original of the delightful “Marzocco” by Donatello. I went out and bought a small marble copy of this famous lion for my cat collection. I took it back to the Bargello and compared them.  

It's not an exact copy but pretty good. Some other sculptors represented include: Ammannati, Bandinelli, Verrocchio, Cellini, Ghiberti and Luca della Robbia. There is a furniture collection: You may have heard of a flame-like stitchery pattern called Bargello, well, a single, very old chair was found at this museum with this pattern on the seat, hence its name. Also there is a fine collection of ancient Green and Roman bronze miniatures and a collection of armor.

About six blocks from the Palazzo Vecchio is Santa Croco (1294-1442), the Westminster Abbey of Firenze. 

It had no facade until the 19th Century when an Englishman had a facade constructed because he loved Firenze so! For five hundred years it has been the custom to bury or build monuments to notable Florentine citizens there; it is the burial place of Ghiberti, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo. Michelangelo's tomb is an over-wrought baroque extravaganza. I suspect he's still turning over in his grave. 
On two occasions, I left a flower as an honorarium to him. After my second visit, I stumbled upon a delightful little ristorante just off the Piazza Santa Croce, the Ristorante degli Antoinelli. It's food was delicious, service perfect, and its frescoed walls and ceiling lent an air of majesty. A wall full of double-doors opened into a pretty courtyard containing a bodacious shell-covered wall fountain.

Across the Arno from the main historical district is the Pitti Palace, an enormous palazzo originally built by the Pitti family to try to outdo the Medici. Soon after completion in 1549 however, Cosimo I of the Medici bought it to provide larger and grander living quarters! (The Pitti family had gone bankrupt building it. [Pity the poor Pitti].) It now houses several extensive art collections; Raphael, Rubens, Botticelli, Tintoretto, Filippino Lippi, Caravaggio, Titian and Giorgione. All have major works there. While strolling among the eighty or so rooms, I rounded a corner and saw the original painting of a picture that hung in my family’s home while I was growing up in Oklahoma City. It was Murillo's “Madonna and Child”. It was about two by three feet; ours was four by five inches.  What a surprise! I purchased a postcard and sent it to my Mother, explaining that I had just seen the original.



Anonymous said...

Everything looks great! You had a great time, didn't you?

Don Voth said...

Yes, I DID! It was a dream come true.