An Artsy, Tasty Ramble: Florence For More Than Just A Day

It’s a long journey from San Francisco to Florence. On our last summer trip, it took a fairly uneventful seventeen hours of flying and waiting at airports.

For a month our pied-à-terre was on the Oltrarno, south of the river. About 900 sq. ft. of voluminous dark space with a loft bedroom and two bathrooms, it was the biggest we’d had in Europe. A rarity in the old city center.

Around the steep staircase, the beamed ceiling rose about 24 feet. Firenze is full of fortress-like palazzos. Bringing the outside inside was never a concern of 15th century renaissance men. Keeping their hide was.

Our kitchen was also quite spacious but short on cabinets. We didn’t need them anyway. We meant to stuff ourselves with prosciutto, porchetta, fresh vegetables, and fruits from the San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale. And, of course, the occasional Tuscan sweet. We’d already found a pasticceria that made the most scrumptious little pastries. Miniature babas dripping with rum, little cannolis, and cookies filled with soft luscious marzipan and occasionally covered in pine nuts. Absolutely decadent!

On our first day, we groggily and wearily dragged ourselves through Piazza Signorina to the Duomo. We were here last in March 2002 just after 9/11. Nothing much seemed to have changed except where reconstruction was being done, seemingly a constant at some place or other in old cities.

It was a hot day. As we did in previous visits, we sought refuge in the church. We travel not only for history, culture and gastronomy. We’re also inveterate people watchers. In the Duomo, we noticed a curious thing—people walking around looking ridiculous in stiff blue paper/plastic ponchos. Naturally, we speculated. Quite likely, they were on tour and the harassed travel guide needed to readily spot them. Or maybe, they were visiting some part of the Duomo that the city was trying to protect from human emissions. It was a sweaty day.

Rich, ever observant, said, “No, it’s a morality matter. The poncho wearers are all women. The guards at the entry are screening for exposed flesh, not for terrorists.” Arms were apparently okay to show. But not backs or shoulders. For those, they fitted you in style.

Everyday, we became more aware of Florentine sensibilities. We had some personal encounters with offending. Inside the Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza della Signoria, one of the ”vigilanza” staff approached me. Told me to put my shoe back on. Sitting cross-legged on one of the long stone steps, I had let my slipper fall on the floor. Apparently, unshorn feet were not allowed. I think it had something to do with respect for the giant centuries-old statues.

He told two young Americans sitting near us not to lean on the columns and put their legs up on the steps. Earlier, another vigilanza stopped a smoker from enjoying a cigarette inside the loggia. This, we silently cheered. Italians have become more aware of the effects of pollution on their art treasures. This article tells you a bit more about the Italian obsession with decorum. At first, we were merely amused but apparently transgression could cost you.

Our days had been miserable—hot and humid. But worse than that, they were “buggy.” Those bugs that breed on water (like the Arno river) sucked your blood at night when you could least defend yourself; when you couldn’t take the offensive and squash your blood out of their fat bodies. One day, I woke up with more than 20 bites on my forehead alone. I cut my hair for bangs just to cover them up. After that, we slept with insect repellent on our faces. The bugs won, of course. For months, I sported tiny scars of their nightly feast.

Art—especially renaissance art—is everywhere in Florence. The big galleries are a pain to go to during high tourist season. Summer weather makes it a real struggle to get to them. Then, there are jostling crowds, frantically cramming in a few hours to see a city that requires at least a week to really appreciate. It’s harder for them to tolerate anyone in their way.

Luckily, old Florence is virtually an open gallery. Statues grace piazzas. Churches offer real treasure pleasures. On this visit, we soaked in some faded Giottos and a lusciously painted Bronzino at the Santa Croce. We ogled the convention-breaking (for the 1400s) Massacios at the Capella Brancacci. Small crowds, cool interiors—heaven.

 Bronzino Painting

We saw an exhibit on impressionism. In Florence, a quintessentially renaissance city, impressionism seems incongruous somehow. But this exhibit revealed the working secrets of this art revolution, complete with infrared and x-ray images. How could anyone resist?

No major masterpieces were on display but the exhibit explained the French Academy-approved process:
1. Start with a croquis (drawing),
2. Progress to an esquisse (painted sketch),
3. Follow with an ebauche (underpainting plus a bit more),
4. Paint some more to finish the tableau.

Some of our best experiences were off the beaten tourist track. We dashed into a gallery to get out of the heat and the afternoon turned into a fascinating adventure.

We had a long conversation with the very gracious lady in the gallery. One of the painters they represented was there. He was reviving the technique of wet fresco on canvas-size paintings and gave us a lesson on how to do it.

Italians remain some of the best designers. Another gallery we went into exhibited art decoratif that were colorful, whimsical, and inventive.

Several doors down, Rich took a picture of a nice interior through a glass door. A young man let us in. He spoke no English but delighted in explaining how they published copies of very old Italian books, taking out book after book to show us what he meant. When I showed interest in a book with some old plans of the Duomo, he gave me copies of these—semi-bound and quite possibly extras—printed on special thick paper. It goes without saying that this was one of the best souvenirs—no that’s too banal—the best memento one could take of a place.

At our last gallery, we talked to a globe-trotting artist. He’s Japanese, spoke Italian, and lived in Peking. He came to Italy to work on sculptures in carrara marble.

End an enchanting, uniquely Florentine day such as this with a trip to a latteria where, in addition to cheesses, you can get prosciuto arosto and hot calabrese sausage. Engage the shop owner in a pleasant little talk about your purchases, and your Florentine experience is complete for that day. Generally, Italians we’ve met are pleased when you make an effort to speak even a bit of Italian. Like “Mio marito paghera. (My husband pays.)”

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