How to Describe Florence: Henry James’ Impressions

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A Small Street in Florence

Italy, especially Florence, has always inspired authors. To prepare myself for my travels to Florence, I browsed the travel notes of several authors and especially enjoyed Henry James’ Italian Hours (available for free on Gutenberg.org). James visited Italy 14 times between 1869 and 1907, and his writing shows deep appreciation for the Italian people, places, and art. Even though the descriptions were interesting and enjoyable to read before I left for Italy, they were more poignant once I actually had seen what James described. I was able to value the beauty of his comparisons and specific details once I was impressed by the same details. I was moved but was not able to describe the impression as effectively as James. Here are some of my favorite views and descriptions (all from the chapters “Florentine Notes”):

“The street is narrow and dusky and filled with misty shadows, and at its opposite end rises the vast bright-coloured side of the Cathedral.”

Via dei Servi

View of the Duomo at the End of Via dei Servi

“…the white walls of Milan must be likened to snow and ice from their base, while those of the Duomo of Florence may be the image of some mighty hillside enameled with blooming flowers.”

Milan

Top of the Cathedral in Milan

 

 

“The place is the great Florentine Valhalla, the final home or memorial harbour of the native illustrious dead, but that consideration of it would take me far.”

Santa Croce Outside

Basilica di Santa Croce

 

 

“…the large, quiet, distributed town-garden, with the vague hum of big grudging boundaries all about it, but with everything worse excluded, being of course the most insolently-pleasant thing in the world…”

Boboli Garden

Giardino di Boboli

 

Boboli2

Boboli Garden with the Pitti Palace and Florence in the Background

 

“And the Medici were great people! But what remains of it all now is a mere tone in the air, a faint sigh in the breeze, a vague expression in things, a passive—or call it rather, perhaps, to be fair, a shyly, pathetically responsive—accessibility to the yearning guess. … Time has devoured the doers and their doings, but there still hangs about some effect of their passage.”

 

 

 

 

 

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The Beauty of Imperfection: Sculptures in Florence

Sure, absolute perfection is astonishing but it is also a little bit boring. Over the last few months, I have seen plenty of “perfect” masterpieces here in Florence, and I have noticed that even though I appreciate perfection, I am much more enthralled by imperfections. This applies especially when it comes to marble sculptures here in Florence. By the way, if you have a low saturation point when it comes to white marble sculptures and/or busts, you will get your fill VERY quickly here. White marble definitely dominates many of the rooms of museums as well as churches and chapels (closely followed by depictions of Mary with gold leaf and bronze statues).

When one thinks of perfection in connection with white marble, Michelangelo’s David most likely comes to mind. And you might wonder, “So what about the David; isn’t he perfect and isn’t he beautiful?!” Yes, the sculpture is absolutely breathtaking ( so much so that it seems odd to use the lifeless pronoun “it” and not the more human “he”). And no, none of the replicas can do the original justice as it seems to be alive with visible tendons and even blood vessels.

Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo’s David in Galleria dell’ Accademia

And even with this sculpture that many would see as the perfect illustration for perfection, it is the imperfections that fascinate me. There are, for example, the mangled toes of his left foot when Piero Cannata struck the statue with a hammer in 1991 (read more about it here).

David's Foot that Was Damaged

David’s Foot that Was Damaged

Also often overlooked but fascinating are the initials MN that are engraved on the right calf. The guide mentioned the story behind it, but I am not clear about the details anymore and online sites do not mention this much.

MM

If you look carefully, you will see the letters “MN” carved into the the right calf of the original David by Michelangelo in Galleria dell’ Accademia

Even though Michelangelo’s David dominates the Galleria dell’ Accademia in Florence, the unfinished pieces by Michelangelo in the same museum are to a certain degree even more intriguing because they are unfinished and thus also not perfect. The opposition of rough and unfinished stone versus the smooth sculpture emerging  creates beauty  and fascination.

Prisoner2

Another unfinished Prisoner by Michelangelo in Galleria dell’ Accademia

Another exhibition in Florence, however, highlights the beauty and draw of imperfections even more. This exhibition is the collection of marble Roman busts in Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Since the busts are mostly from the second century, they are often slightly damaged. Many of them are missing the nose, but I find them even more fascinating because of that. For example, Emperor Caracalla appears more volatile and dangerous because his bust is missing the nose. The profile is rather intriguing without the complete nose.

 

Even the Riaccardi Athlete beguiles because of its imperfections. At first glance, it seems to depict an idealized and perfect human, but a closer look reveals not only amazing details such as the hint of teeth behind slightly parted lips (it seems that marble is actually flesh that could move at any moment) but also little nicks and faults.

 

Close-up Athlete

Close-up of the Bust of a Young Athlete in Palazzo Medici Riccardi

If you are in Florence, do not forget to check out the slight imperfections of David in the Accademia (see this website for more details) and do not overlook the marble Roman busts in Palazzo Medici Riccardi – even though this palazzo is more famous for its Chapel of Magi (see this website for more details on the palazzo).

Pigeons in Italy: Entertainment, Menace, and Food

In my Italian language course, I learned the word for pigeon on a field trip to the food market in Florence. We were asked to write down all the names of fruits, vegetables, fish, and meats that we saw at the market. And there they were next to the chickens and ducks – several plucked pigeons otherwise still completely intact with feet and opened beaks (I am not including a photo). The Italian word for pigeon is “piccione” in case you are wondering. You may come across it on a Tuscan traditional menu.

Pigeons have fascinated and entertained me ever since I have come to Italy as they are everywhere and seem to annoy and destroy based on the many signs as well as spikes and nets to keep pigeons off buildings and art work. The efforts are not always successful as pigeons have recently closed down a part of the Uffizi in Florence because of a tick infestation that was believed to have been brought in by pigeons (see the article here). And they can still be found on ledges, overhangs, and more importantly statues.

Pigeon

A Pigeon at the Entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

 

Pigeons on Statue

Pigeons on the Statues of the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence

Sometimes it is difficult to get a picture without a pigeon on the sculpture since they are not really fazed by people. They also feel comfortable flying or wandering through open doors and windows to hang out in indoor cafes and restaurants.

Pigeon Sign

A Sign Warning of Pigeons in an Interior Room in a Hotel in Venice

However, pigeons also seem to be appreciated. Even though I was told it is illegal to feed the pigeons on the Piazza San Marco in Venice, I still saw plenty of tourists attracting the birds with seeds and taking the obligatory photo of themselves with pigeons on their shoulders, head, and arms in the famous square. Artists also pay attention to pigeons. This street art about a pigeon in Venice made me smile:

Street Art Pigeon

Street Art of a Pigeon Wearing a Mask in Venice

But pigeons are also the subject of more traditional art forms:

I am not sure why pigeons seem to have such a bad reputation in towns. Are they really the only birds that create havoc in cities? After all, seagulls dominate the landscape in the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum in Rome and herons can be found in the Giardino di Boboli in the city center of Florence:

Pigeons in Italy come in a variety of shapes (missing foot, broken wing, missing eye for example) and colors (pigeon blue, steel grey, cream white, cappuccino brown, and white-and-brown “cow pattern”).

Venice Pigeons

Pigeons Resting on a Streetlight in Venice

I watch them while I wait in lines to get into a museum or for a friend to show up for a dinner date. And over the last few days I have watched a couple of pigeons trying to decide whether to nest in a spot on the glass roof of my apartment where I can here the clicking of their peaks against the glass as soon as the sun rises. So pigeons have been a little menace and plenty of entertainment but not yet food for me.

Angels’ Wings: Details in Paintings in Florence

I cannot even attempt to count how many depictions of the Virgin Mary I have seen over the last few weeks here in Florence. I have a tendency to enter any open church to see what is inside, and yes there is most likely a depiction of Mary or two or five or twenty depictions. The same applies to nearly any of the major museums in Florence. So it is tough for me to still get as excited about a portrayal of Mary as the importance of the art piece or the talent of the artist really deserves.Many of the depictions also seem to become very similar after viewing a few (at least for me) – a lot of golden halos and background.

Another Mary

Another Depiction of Mary and Child in the Uffizi

Lippi Angel

“Martelli Annunciation” by Filippo Lippi in Basilica di San Lorenzo

It is thus easy to start to quickly glance at these pieces and consider them as just another version of a similar piece. However, I have realized that I can still get excited about seeing another depiction of Mary when I start focusing and comparing details. One of the details that stands out to me are the angels’ wings. I am fascinated by the variety in color and the unexpected (at least for me) color combination.

Giotto Painting Uffizi

Painting of Virgin Mary in the Uffizi (Room 3) by Giotto

Close-Up Uffizi

Close-Up of the Angel’s Wings in the Painting “Ognissanti Madonna” by Giotto

Who knew that angels would have striped wings in vibrant hues of blue, red, and even black. Some painters also include intricate patterns in gold on the individual feathers of the wings. And since Italian museums do allow one to get pretty close to even the most important pieces, it is fascinating to observe the smallest details, and often without the big crowds of the visitors, who focus on the more famous pieces such as Michelangelo’s David or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

Monaco Uffizi

Painting “Incoronazione della Vergine” by Lorenzo Monaco in the Uffizi (1414)

Close-Up Angels Monaco Ufiizi

Close-Up of the Angels in Lorenzo Monaco’s Painting in the Uffizi

Once I started paying attention to the intricate details of the angels’ wings (I am fascinated by the gold swirls in the wings in the painting below), I also noticed additional details such as the elegant folds of a dress and the intricate gold border or the colorful background behind an angel.

Wings Monaco

Close-Up of the Wings in the Triptych “Annunciation and Saints” by Lorenzo Monaco; 1410-1415

Now, when I see a painting of a Virgin (and especially when the theme is the Annunciation), I get excited and look for the wings of the angels to see what color combination and pattern the artist has decided on. With this focus over the last few weeks here in Florence, I have also learned that I especially like the wings painted by Lorenzo Monaco, Lorenzo the Monk. Who would have thought that I have a favorite painter when it comes to angels’ wings!? So if someone ever asks me about my favorite painter of wings, and in particular of angels’ wings, I have a definite and well-researched answer.

Underwhelming: The Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Florence

Wall of Shoes

A Small Section of Wall of Ferragamo Shoes

I have a tendency to wander around without a guidebook or map or clear plan and just be surprised by what I discover. And usually Florence is a wonderful town to approach this way -especially if one has a lot of time. I have found plenty of gems that I would have mostly likely not chosen to visit if I had used a guidebook (sometimes the descriptions are less than exciting for my interests or the guidebook does not mention the items that actually ended up interesting me the most). I usually check the guidebook after I have visited a place to learn more about the details or see what the book highlights.

View from the Palazzo

View towards the Arno from the Museum in the Palazzo Spini Feroni

So I was ready for another pleasant museum visit when I decided to pop into the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Florence on a recent walk. The museum was mentioned as one of four museums connected to fashion in a recent fashion and design lecture I attended. I was hoping for plenty of great shoes, explanations on design and/or shoe making, overview of the history of the brand with plenty of examples, and much more, but the museum was rather underwhelming. A good coffeetable book about the brand or a glance at the brand’s website provides more of all that than the museum.

Close-Up Shoes

Close-Up of Shoes in the Ferragamo Museum

A lot of space of the museum is currently (till April 3) dedicated to the history of the building itself, the  Palazzo Spini Feroni, which actually could be pretty interesting but does not contain much to look at and more to read about the building.The 13th-century palazzo was owned by a succession of several wealthy families, also was a luxury hotel, served  as seat for the Municipality, and was bought by Salvatore Ferragamo in the 20th century. The most memorable part is that the scientist Girolamo Segato had a lab in the palazzo in which he practiced to “petrify” human cadavers (it is not clear how exactly he did that). I actually had more fun browsing the museum’s website, which is very detailed and has photos of all the pieces that stood out to me.

Silk Scarf

Silk Ferragamo Scarf Showing the Palazzo Spini Feroni

I did enjoy the displayed photos showing Ferragamo at work, fashion shoots from the 50s, or Florence being rebuilt after WWII, but there were not enough of them.

Model

Photo from 1958

Ferragamo

Salvatore Ferragamo and One of His Designs in 1956

Destruction of Bridges

Photo Showing the Rebuilding Florence after WWII – Of All the Bridges, Only the Ponte Vecchio Survived the Bombing

Maybe I have become spoilt by the many outstanding museums in Florence hat I have unrealistic expectations because surprisingly the museum has received 4 out of 5 stars on Tripadvisor. And I really like fashion museums and have enjoyed two of them in Florence (see a previous and another previous post). It seems that a lot of the pieces shown in this museum change based on the theme of the temporary exhibition and currently, the focus is not on the shoes but on the building. But I am still wondering whether I have maybe overlooked a whole section of the museum.

Shoe Forms

Shoe Forms in the Ferragamo Museum for Celebrities

Shoe Form

Shoe Forms for Making Shoes for Michael Jordan

If you are interested in visiting, the museum is on Piazza Santa Trinita 5/R, 50123 Florence and a full-price ticket was 6 Euro. The museum is open from 10 am to 7:30 pm everyday;
except 1 January, 1 May, 15 August and 25 December. For more details, see the excellent website.

Have you been to the museum and do you feel there is something I am overlooking?

Getting Ready for Easter: Shops in Florence

More Eggs in Windows

Window Display in a Interior Design Shop in Florence

It has been obvious for days that Easter is nearly upon us here in Florence: the churches offer more religious ceremonies, the streets are clogged with more and more tourists, and Easter merchandise has dominated the stores. It is impossible to avoid Easter or not notice it in this town. In the States, Easter nearly passes me by with just a few chocolate bunnies and sugary Peeps in the stores.

Here, I am fascinated by the large and colorful Easter chocolate eggs that also usually contain a surprise inside. The shiny foil or colorful fabric wrappings shimmer in the shop windows and in the supermarket aisles. It seems that Easter eggs should not be a realistic egg-size but the bigger the better. Most of the ones I have seen are ten inches taller or even more. The surprises inside can vary from more chocolate truffles to toys and even jewelry.

 

Eggs definitely dominate more than chickens or bunnies here in the Easter food and decor. If it is not in egg shape, the food seems to have to be in dove-shape. “La Colomba” is a dove-shaped sponge cake  (with a lot of imagination I can see a flying dove, but without the name I would have guessed a misshapen four-leave clover). The cakes come with candied orange peel or chocolate or cream filling or no filling  at all.

Surprisingly, I have not seen any lambs or lamb-shaped cakes, which I am used to from Austria. The cakes also come packed with bottles of sweet spumante/sparkling wine, so I am assuming the cake is paired with alcohol and not only with coffee and tea as I would have assumed. The “dove-cake” is very similar in texture and taste to the Italian Christmas cake, panettone or pandoro.

Pigeon Cake

“Dove Cake” with Sweet Spumante Seems to Be a Good Combination

Stores are decorated with spring flowers; Italians have switched from dark blue, black, or green downjackets to light blue, white, and pink short-sleeved downjackets;  I can hear the clop-clop of the hooves of horses pulling tourists in carriages through my street – it is clear that Easter is just around the corner. If you are celebrating Easter, I hope you have a wonderful holiday.

Unexpected Parade on a Saturday Afternoon in Florence

Today was supposed to be a lazy Saturday afternoon with no clear plans for me in Florence – just a day to do some laundry, food shopping, and maybe a walk while the weather was holding. But then I started to hear drums and trumpets outside my window on the Piazza Santa Croce, and a quick look outside showed a large group of musicians and flag bearers in Renaissance costumes and a large gaggle of tourists already swarming the piazza to take pictures and shoot videos. This is what is great about Florence: something exciting and visually stunning is always around the corner even if you do not expect it.

Parade

Parade in front of the Basilica di Santa Croce

Once I joined the group of onlookers on the piazza, I figured out that RAI – Italy’s National Broadcasting Company – was shooting a segment about Florence’s Calcio Storico, also called Historical Soccer (see previous post for more details). The games in summer usually start with a parade of musicians and more in Renaissance costume through town. The matches take place on the Piazza Santa Croce, and one of the calcio teams was actually on hand for the filming as well today. The white team from the Santo Spirito neighborhood of Florence was posing for the TV crew and tourists (especially groups of young women) on the steps leading up to the Basilica di Santa Croce.

Calcio Storico White

The White Team from Santo Spirito

Parade Members

Participants of the Parade Posing in front of the Basilica di Santa Croce

Flag

Flags Thrown into the Air during a Performance

Since filming always takes a while and different shots need to be set up, the participants spent minutes at a time just standing around and unintentionally acting as perfect photo opportunities for tourists. Since this event was unannounced as far as I could figure out, the crowd was still relatively thin, and I had a chance to take plenty of close-ups that I would not be able to take during a parade before a match.

I loved the colorful costumes and flags in front of the white facade of the basilica, and the drums and cheers of the group still followed me as I crossed the river for a walk into the hills overlooking the city center.

Santa Croce

Basilica di Santa Croce and Renaissance Parade