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Florence: The Gilded City

We are immersed in art and beauty

View RTW:2011 on bradanddeb's travel map.

Florence, Italy
Feb. 19-28, 2011


On the one hand, it is odd to find a modern sculpture in the Boboli Gardens; on the other hand, this sculpture captures the confidence and independent thinking of the heady times, the Rinascimento, or Renaissance, that started in and spread out from Florence. After the fall of the Roman Empire and a thousand years of dark ages, by the 1400-1600s Florence was a wealthy city (due to textiles, trading, and banking) that could support artists and scholars. There was growing interest in independent thinking, the arts, and knowledge from observation and experimentation. The wealthy Medici family, in particular Lorenzo de' Medici, known as "the Magnificent" because of how he used his great wealth, gave support and protection to artists and scholars. Lorenzo brought them into his household for education and exchange of ideas. Imagine dinner with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo, and the other great minds of the Florentine Renaissance!

For us, traveling in Florence is being immersed in a small world gilded with Renaissance art. We started with Michelangelo's statue of David. Apparently, scholars debate whether the statue depicts David before or after his battle with Goliath. My two cents: it's before the battle. To me his expression is intent and worried (or at least concerned). I think this David is planning his strategy, not reflecting on his success. I wish I had a picture for you, but "no photos" was enforce. I will show you a photo of the fortified palace, Palazzo Vecchio, with its enormous turret, because until 1873, David stood at the entrance (a copy is there today). Can see the copy to the left of the doorway in the photo below? Over the centuries, the Florentines held lots of political rallies in this square, gaining inspiration, no doubt, from the David sculpture. When I think of David out in a public square I can't help but imagine generations of Florentine youth climbing up him. It would be irresistible.

Palazzo Vecchio

Yes, we were immersed in art. We spent a full day at the Uffizi Gallery and another at the Pitti Palace--both filled with art. "Filled" is a completely inadequate term here. The Uffizi, although a relatively small building has, arguably, the greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere. In 1581 Francesco I de' Medici set up a gallery "with pictures, statues, and other previous things" at the Uffizi. At the time Francesco Bocchi described it as " . . . a Gallery so magnificent, so regal, that filled with statues, with noble paintings and extremely precious objects of the highest beauty, it is today truly among the most supremely beautiful sights in the world . . . Where the eye sweeping over so many magnificent things, so different, so rare, so sublime, is overcome by such delight that the soul almost faints." (My italics, I love that phrase.) Brad and I determined that one could spend an entire day, or more, looking at the just painted ceilings! The Uffizi was established to be public, visited by those who ask permission, and so it is considered the oldest museum in Modern Europe. However, apparently it took some time for the museum to realize its public access. The oldest know written request by a visitor dates from 1591. But, in 1597, a Dominican friar wrote that few of the public had seen it, and he himself was not among them.

In the lavish Pitti Palace (bought and stocked with art by the Medicis) we visited about 40-50 rooms with floor-to-ceiling paintings (and painted ceilings), just like the ones pictured below.


Florence is a small city. In the historical section, and well beyond, we walked everywhere. Looking down on the city, the two tallest structures are the Palazzo Vecchio's turret and the dome of the Duomo, the large gothic cathedral encased in green, white, and pink marble. The dome of the Duomo was the first built since ancient Roman times (a competition was held to select the architect who had the knowledge and skill to construct it).

A poignant David-and-Goliathesque moment for me occurred one evening we took a narrow, winding cobblestone road as a short-cut walking down from the foothills back into town. About halfway down the road we were surprised by a small plaque on the side of a house noting that Galileo had conducted his astronomical observations from this house. (Wow!) I imagined the Renaissance scholar studying the planets and stars from this little house, using mathematical calculations to determine that the earth moved around the sun; knowing that to assert this was heresy against the powerful represented by the enormous Duomo in town. (As we know, in 1632, when he was nearly seventy years old, Galileo was brought before a religious tribunal and made to choose between being burned as a heretic or renouncing his writings about the movement of the earth because they contradicted the Bible. He signed the declaration, and lived the rest of this life under house arrest. His students say that although he signed the declaration, while doing so he muttered under his breath: "It does move.")

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Looking down onto Florence, and the Duomo

The Arno river runs through Florence, crossed by the Ponte Vecchio, the famous covered bridge built by the Medicis to travel between the Plazzo Vecchio and Pitti Palace in privacy and security. The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in Florence not destroyed in WW II by the Nazi's as they retreated.

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Here are some scenes from Florence. Although much smaller, in some ways Florence reminded me of Paris in their attention to aesthetics. There is an effort to make everything look, sound, taste, smell . . . beautiful. The first photo is the street of our B&B (near the red sign on the right side) and the second is our room.

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One night Giancarlo, the owner of the Il Cielo B&B recommended that we go see a pharmacy. A pharmacy? "Just go see," he said. "You will like it." He was right. It is a unique functioning pharmacy. The Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, founded by Dominican friars in 1221, may be the fanciest and oldest drug store in the world. The monks used medicinal herbs grown in the monastic gardens to make medications, balms, and pomades for the monks' infirmaries. In 1612 the Grand Duke officially opened the monks' pharmacy to the public. Today the pharmacy, passed down to the Stefani family, uses the ancient traditions of herbal care with natural raw materials and medicinal herbs, most grown in the hills around Florence. Still in its original building, it also includes a small museum of its antique glassware, ceramics, utensils and tools. Hundreds of products are available. We happened to be in need of toothpaste, so are now enjoying the Dentifricio Fior d'Iris.


You are asking us, "what are you eating?" We usually have two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. Sometimes we'll pick up something on-the-road during the day, but that's rare. We often have breakfast at the B&B, and these really vary. Some are simple: coffee, juice, and rolls. We'll supplement this with yogurt and fruit we pick up at a market. As luck would have it, Giancarlo, while studying for the exam to get his architect's license and running a B&B, also likes to bake. In addition to fruit, yogurt, cereal, bread, cheese, homemade jams, juice, cookies, and espresso . . . there was always a special pastry, usually made by Giancarlo. One day it was an apple cake, another a pistachio cake, another a fruit and custard tart. I kid you not, one morning he served us homemade tiramasu . . . for breakfast! How could we refuse?

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Florence gelato store, and choosing a trattoria

Yes, the food in Italy is GREAT. We love the small family-run restaurants, and seek them out. The pasta is fabulous, all of it. We love the grilled vegetables with garlic, spicy peppers, and olive oil. The sauteed spinach with garlic and olive oil is incredible. We have loved all our meals here, we think because of the fresh ingredients, attention to quality, and a cooking style that lets the foods' natural flavors speak for themselves.

We try to get recommendations for out-of-the-way places we would never find on our own. Our first night in Florence Giancarlo recommended a pizzeria that he goes to. We found the street, a narrow alleyway, but walking up and down it couldn't find the pizzeria. Eventually, we found a door with no sign or lights, but with a piece of paper taped to it. The paper said Pizzeria (great!) and listed what appeared to be four menu items (no prices) and it opened at 7:30pm, in a half an hour. Peering through the dark window we could make out a pizza oven and two very small tables. This must be it. A few feet away, standing next to a row of motor scooters parked in the alley a couple stood talking. We asked them if they were waiting for the Pizzeria to open. "Si." Even though it was a cold night we decided to wait, and as we waited more and more people showed up until there were about 25 of us crowding the alleyway, jostling to make room each time a motor scooter tried to drive by. We learned there is a back room, but not many tables and people just wait in the alley until a table becomes available. (Must be some great pizza we thought; there were easily four or five other pizzerias within a two-three-minute walk, with no waiting.) At 7:20 we saw stirrings inside as they lit the pizza oven and at 7:30 they opened and led us past the pizza oven through some narrow hallways to tables in the back. Once seated we imitated those around us and each ordered an individual pizza. I ordered the first on the menu, Brad ordered the second. Pizza is all they serve: thin crust, fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella, and Brad's had anchovies. Eaten with a knife and fork, no fingers. Homemade, fresh ingredients, delicious. Sweet wine and dipping biscotti for dessert. When we left there was a line of people in the alleyway waiting to get in.

We alternate eating out with dinner picnics. Now, because it's cold, we often bring our picnics back to the B&B, our room, or the kitchen, or a lounge, whatever is available. Hopefully we'll have more outside dinner picnics when things warm up. In Italy it is easy and fun to find the local markets with great foods. A typical dinner picnic for us might have some combination of bread, pesto, ham, grilled vegetables, spinach, tomatoes, red bell pepper, cucumber, biscotti, wine. We have found that it is especially easy to get these picnic items, and much more, all over Italy, but also generally easy in Portugal, Spain, and Greece, with some variations. We have a sturdy set of traveling plastic utensils and we've become experts as setting a table with an improvised plastic-bag table cloth and plates made of sections of the paper bag the bread is usually wrapped in. Viola! It's good. Here are some market pictures and one of our picnics.


Ciao, will write more about Italy soon.

Posted by bradanddeb 12:37 Archived in Italy

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Looks/sounds/reads/tastes/feels amazing! My favorite is the back-alley pizza parlor story -- although I really want a pic of the paper sign. :)

Cameron from Stanford Video

by cbill

I loved your post, all of it! and was especially interested in the (Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella). Very cool. Thanks for doing such a great job sharing your travels.

by sgroenendal

I appreciate how you include so much detail. A lot of people just stick up photos. I loved Florence! We had just arrived there from Rome which I found too spread out and overwhelming. Florence was perfect and the taxi's were very reasonable too, compared to Rome. The food was amazing and I hope you went to Il Latini for dinner as it was just perfect! The shopping is amazing too. I definitely stocked up on my lifetimes worth of scarves and shoes.
The Wanderfull Traveler

by murissamaurice

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