Still in Ireland, sitting in this rustic farmhouse with intermittent rain outside and a wind that almost never stops. I’ve lived on the coast for almost half my life, and never been where the wind so rarely paused. I try to get out for a walk once a day, when it looks like it won’t be raining for a while, but I’ve given up waiting for the wind to die down also. Here’s a sample from yesterday; I went out for a walk around the peninsula during a lull, when the wind had dropped by about half:
YouTube doesn’t like all the movement in this video, and is making the whole thing much blurrier than the source. I’ve heard YouTubers mention this in the past; it’s very annoying. ¯\ _(ツ)_/¯
Florida, New York City, LA, SF, Seattle, Split,…. I’ve been in a lot of coastal cities, and never seen a place as reliably windy or weather variable as this. I guess being out on a peninsula in the English Channel, rather than having your back to a continent, is probably what makes the difference. There’s no back-pressure to stop the wind ripping across, unimpeded.
Still… yay, nature!
Meanwhile, across a small bit of sea, the Brits are Brexiting, everyone’s freaking out, both liberal and conservative parties are disintegrating, Scotland may secede, and Ireland is wondering what the hell is going to happen between the south (its own country, not part of the UK, but in the EU) and the north (part of the UK, but voted to Remain in the EU like southern Ireland). In case you’re unclear about the current state of affairs, a chap posted this useful summary on Twitter to explain it:
So, in the words of my Grandfather, oft-repeated in our family, “Never a dull moment.”
On with Florence
You may recall that in my last two posts I tried to cover all my A Room With A View stops, which were the central goal and organizing theme of my time in Florence. What’s left are the things in between those stops, and my overall thoughts about the city, and I shall wrap those up here. There’s a lot to cover, but by the gods I shall finish it!
Starting With Lunch
The Uffizi Museum
So, if you recall from last post (and even if you don’t), the Uffizi Museum occupies the buildings around the Uffizi Gallery, the street with the serious-looking statues which leads from the Piazza della Signoria (where Lucy faints) to the Arno (where George throws her photographs into the water). I don’t mean to imply that everything in Florence must be judged with respect to A Room With A View, but clearly it can be so judged and I believe that I am as well qualified to do so as any person, being simultaneously a Great Fan of the Movie, a World Traveler, and an INTJ — the J is for Judging!
I had seen a long line in front of the Uffizi Museum, on the South side of the Gallery, when I walked by there before, so I took the precaution of booking tickets online the day before, for an 08:15 entry. This, as you may well suppose, diminished the risk of crowds considerably. I arrived close to the front of a short line, showed my confirmation e-mail on my iPhone to a ticket person, and received the printed materials that I would be throwing away a few hours later, easy peasy.
The ground floor has mostly ticketing, lockers, restrooms, and the like, so you immediately head of a set of stairs going straight up 3 floors, filled with little statues and busts that everyone blows by on their way to what surely must be “the good stuff” on the gallery floors. Everyone but me, that is.
I should note that, like much of Florence, the Uffizi was built by the Medici family, who were the centerpiece of Florentine government for generations and contributed massively to the arts and sciences of the Renaissance. The family eventually faded out, leaving a final heiress, Anna Maria Luisa, who bequeathed most of the family’s estate and art to the Tuscan government on the condition that it never be removed from Tuscany. (I don’t know if museum tours count or not.) I think we tend to consider those Italian merchant-rulers as being rather corrupt, like the Borgias, but the Medicis were the real deal. They must have had their jerks also, but they had a lot of sharp folks who cared about getting things done right, and Florence seems to have benefited considerably from their presence.
As I mentioned above, the Uffizi Museum runs around that outdoor street with the statues in it, so it’s basically a long hallway down one side of the street, a short hallway across it on the Arno end, and then a long hallway back along the other side. On three floors. With rooms off of the hallways holding lots of art. So when you come up the stairs to the upper floor and step out into the south-side hallway, you’re greeted with this view of its length:
The portraits along the edge of the ceiling are interesting enough I guess (generic Florentines rendered with varying verisimilitude depending on their era), and the statues are nice, but the real money is in the rooms off the hallway, which are crawling with art.
They had a Botticelli room, with the Madonna from above and some others:
There was, obviously, much more art than this, but a man can only photograph so much. (And so can I.) But the walk home yielded other treasures:
The Academy Gallery
The day after the Uffizi Museum, I visited the Academy Gallery, where the Statue of David is kept. I didn’t buy advance tickets this time, but I did leave early and was in the short line when it opened at 8:15am. On the way, I passed this:
Standing in line afforded me the opportunity to see this across the street:
Once inside the Gallery, you get a decent selection of art, though it’s not a huge place.
So, this art is all very inspirational and all, but let’s get to the main event:
The Academy Gallery has several Michelangelo pieces and art in this wing, a wing literally designed around this one statue. David has an interesting history, being basically a giant block of marble intended for another purpose, that a couple of people had had a go at, before it sat untouched for a generation. On the “use it or lose it” principal, the Florentine elders had one more try at finding someone to do something useful with it, and the young Michelangelo made a case for himself being the man for the job. He figured he could turn the mostly undeveloped marble into a David, and completed it after 2 years of work. It used to be out where the replica now is, in Lucy Fainting Plaza, but was moved inside to protect it and had a bunch of repair work done (most of which looks pretty good, though he’s in dire need of a pedicure).
I took a bunch more pictures of it, because you sort of feel like you have to when you’re there. And they’re, surprisingly, all worthy pictures. But I’m not sure that they add anything — certainly nothing you couldn’t get from a Google search — so I’m going to let them go. But it will be nice, in a few years, when I unpack all my stuff in wherever my new home is, to be able to say, “See that refrigerator magnet? I saw the original!” Très cosmopolitan.
The Academy had a large musical instrument exhibit, with accompanying audiovisual presentations on nearby computers. It was surprisingly good.
They also had a room of plaster casts, used as models for making sculptures over the centuries. The sculptor could carve the soft plaster as desired, throw it away and start over cheaply if it went wrong, and then, when they had what they wanted, they’d drive small nails into the plaster and use the nails as reference points in carving marble to match those dimensions.
This room is a reminder that I am not a connoisseur in any respect (with the possible exception of internal consistency in science fiction and fantasy, for which I have high standards). When I first walked into the room, I had no idea whether these were plaster or marble, and it was a little while before I ran into the descriptive information that explained what they were. The subtleties that make it possible to distinguish one rocklike white material from another are quite lost on me. These looked a little dirtier than most, but why they hadn’t been cleaned yet was not immediately apparent to me.
I should note that the Marvel superhero movie Deadpool came out while I was in Florence. I found a movie theater nearby and tried to see it, but during my difficult interaction with the ticket seller I realized at the last moment that the movie was dubbed in Italian, not subtitled! Italy is a large enough market that American blockbusters are often dubbed in Italian, and if there was an English Deadpool to be found in Florence, I did not find it. Quite disappointing, as I was rather looking forward to the movie. But I had hopes to find it again in Split, Croatia, where it would almost certainly not be dubbed for the tiny Croatian-language market.
The Walking Tour of the Arno South Bank
A few days before I left Florence — and two days before my walk out to Fiezole — I did one of the walking tours in my CityWalks app, the Arno South Bank Walk. There were about 17 stops, and the app claimed it would take 3 hours.
So, at a little after 9am I set out from my place (by the tiny roundabout towards the upper left, next to the river), and starting walking along the river bank to get to Stop #1, maybe a 10 minute walk.
Stop #1, San Frediano in Cestello, is a church and a seminary, and the tour app spoke highly of the church’s frescoes (why they need a fancy name for “wall paintings” I don’t know, but “fresco” is it). However, if memory serves, while there were plenty of seminary students wandering the street at that hour, it didn’t look like the church part was currently accessible. So that part was a miss, but feel free to supplement my description with a Google search if you so desire.
On my way to Stop #2, I passed this:
Probably a good time for a public service announcement, just in case the problem is not apparent:
Just past the Not-Really-So-Hidden-As-All-That Pub, the #2 stop in the tour was Dolce Vita, described as “An elegant bar attracting a chic crowd.” There is nothing in that description for me, and I walked past it without doing more than pausing to note that I had done so. (The outside was just a door and a sign, and not worth a photo.)
But just past this was Stop #3, the Santa Maria del Carmine church:
My guide app says that this church’s frescos are among the most influential in the history of Italian art, and it’s easy to see why:
This ceiling was really quite amazing. You see the sculpted mini-domes over the side windows, and the arches across the roof? No, you actually don’t. They’re illusions, all painted on.
It is beyond me why this place isn’t packed with tourists. I’ve seen some impressive ceilings in Italy, but they’re mostly just paintings of people in the sky. This proto-Escher stuff was amazing. From what I read in the church, an artist named Masolino da Panicale was commissioned to work on the chapel, brought on a 21-year old associate named Masaccio, to help him, and then split for Hungary leaving the kid in charge and resulting in the amazing art we see today. Sadly, Masaccio died a couple of years later, and it was another 60 before somebody else completed the project. While the church writings were a bit vague on exactly who worked on what (and they probably didn’t know for sure), the Wiki on Masaccio says this:
“Despite his brief career, he had a profound influence on other artists. He was one of the first to use linear perspective in his painting, employing techniques such as vanishing point in art for the first time. He also moved away from the International Gothic style and elaborate ornamentation of artists like Gentile da Fabriano to a more naturalistic mode that employed perspective and chiaroscuro for greater realism.”
So, I’m pegging him for that ceiling.
Stop #4 was La Specola, billed as the oldest science museum in Europe. I was sorely tempted to go in, but simply didn’t have the time. “I’ll try to make it back before I leave,” I thought. Ha!
Stop #5 was another church, the Chiesa di San Felice. It’s one of the two oldest churches in the area, and perhaps as a side effect of that age is largely uninteresting. Basically, a box with some faded art. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The Wikipedia page I just linked to will give you an idea; I took no pictures here.
Stop #6 was Casa Guidi, an undistinguished building notable mainly for having been the home to Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It’s now owned by Eton college, and can be booked “when not being used by Eton boys”. (Seems like that would remove the primary appeal of renting the place, but I guess they know their own business.)
And there’s a plaque on the wall outside:
Stop #7 was the Palazzo Pitti, a former Medici home and now large museum, with over 500 Renaissance style paintings. If I didn’t have time for La Specola during my walk, I certainly didn’t have time for this place. Next time I’m in Florence, though: totally going there. Similarly with the Boboli Gardens (Stop #8), which sits behind the Pitti Palace, and is filled with greenery and statues. I’m sure it’s nice, but I had walking to do.
Stops #9 through #13 were the Ponte Vecchio Bridge and a few churches near it, which I’d seen on previous days (and described in previous posts). But Stop #14 was Fort Belvedere, which was right next to the Boboli Gardens (on their other side).
Coming down the hill from the fort is one of the longest stretches remaining of the wall around Florence.
Stop #15 was probably near the bottom of this hill. I say “probably”, because it was another club, called “Zoe”, “A great place to stop before doing a night of clubbing.” So you know that wasn’t happening. “On Friday evenings the dance floor heats up when a live DJ spins tunes to an eager crowd of hip yet unpretentious party goers.” Really? “Hip yet unpretentious”? Not even the reviewer achieves that goal.
But after this was a steep walk up the hill to Stop #16, a place called the Piazzale Michelangelo — Michelangelo Square, a hilltop with an impressive view of Florence, dedicated both to Michelangelo and to selling tchotchkes in his honor.
There wasn’t actually much else up here — it’s quite nice, but it’s just plaza, view, another replica of David, and a couple of restaurants. Here’s some Google Images, if you want them — at a glance, they agree. It’s all about the View.
It was close to 1pm by now, and I was getting rather hungry. There seemed to be two places to eat up here: one was a pricey restaurant, and the other was a not-pricey one with a small outdoor seating area and a nice view. So I took the second choice, asked a staff member that I’d seen bussing a table if I could sit anywhere and she said yes so I did. 25 minutes later, and no further sign of a staff member, and I decided to leave. It’s possible that I was meant to order inside and then it would be brought out to me, but that’s the problem with eating out in foreign cities: nobody explains what everybody knows.
On the way down the hill, I spent a bit of time in a small Japanese garden that I was surprised to find there. It was really very small, and if you’ve been to nearly any other Japanese garden in your life, you’ve seen better. But it was nice nonetheless.
At the base of the hill, actually near that photo of the old wall from earlier, I found the gelato shop that I mentioned in my first Florence post, where I got some great gelato for just around €3.50 (two scoops in a waffle cone). So my walk home was very happy. 🙂
My final notable destination was the Museo Galileo, which sounds unnecessarily rhymey, but there it is. The place owns one of the world’s major collection of antique scientific instruments, and I stopped there, on the Sunday a couple of days before I left, because it’s hard to be a science buff and not stop at “The Galileo Museum”.
It’s housed in an old stone building next to the Arno, with a weird sundial out front that I could not figure out for the life of me.
Inside, is an impressive collection of instruments: the place is pretty much packed to the gills with arcane (and some mundane) devices, in atmospheric lighting:
There was vastly more here than I could hope to include. You can see more cool pictures here (including novelties like wax anatomical cut-aways of pregnant women, if you’re into that sort of thing), or take the museum’s virtual tour, which has much of the multimedia that was present in the museum itself and is well worth the browsing.
Some random pictures
Doing a quick scan of my photo directory for anything useful I might have missed turns up a few things:
I almost missed mentioning THE cathedral of Florence, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers), which has the huge red dome that you see in all of the scenic shots of Florence. (“What, another St Mary’s?” you exclaim. Yup. This is the price you pay for monotheism, kids. A very limited set of holy names to choose from when titling things.) I hit this place up way back on day 2 of my visit:
As usual, I feel slightly guilty for calling that “nothing especially out of the ordinary” given that, if you’d given the job to me, it would be a long series of cat and human stick figures chasing each other around in circles, interspersed with geometric lines. (I’d have made an awesome Muslim religious painter, though.) But, there we are.
All right, that will have to be enough. If there are other amusing photos, I shall let them be absorbed by the gentle mists of time, and forgotten.
So, now we come to the end, at last, of my time in Florence:
Given that it was my primary Italian destination, how did I like it?
Alas, I cannot give it my best rating. A solid C+ is as good as I can do, I’m afraid. Why? Well, as one might expect, several reasons.
- There was very little green. I’ve ended this series with a couple of pictures of a park, but here and some bits near Michelangelo Plaza were about the only public greenery in Florence. You had to get out of the city to get any greenery and that wasn’t super lush (it being a largely Mediterranean climate). So it’s all basically stone pavement and buildings, some of them well decorated but most not. In truth, it’s exactly the Platonic Ideal of the Renaissance city that I grew up knowing about: stone buildings, narrow streets, done. It’s cool to have seen that, neat to have visited, but that sort of thing isn’t my go-to for great places to live. Rome’s a great counter-example to that. I wasn’t expecting as much green as they had there, and little parks and open spaces. It’s no Portland, natch, but more than I expected from an ancient city.
- Even the thing that it’s specializing in — buildings — were pretty drab. You can see in the pictures above, they’re all either grey or very muted, faded sand or salmon pastels. The often-overcast weather didn’t help the impression, but these places were pretty muted even by sunlight, and I found them to be vaguely depressing. Or, maybe not exactly depressing, per se, but they gave you nothing. You had to generate all the energy yourself. Rome, again, provides counter-example. Even back alleys were often colorful, and the whole places seemed vibrant and alive. Florence mostly seemed sterile and dreary.
- The weather was often lousy. This is slightly unfair as a condition to judge the city by, being (a) seasonal/transitional and (b) hardly Florence’s fault. But when we’re talking about how one felt about a place, the weather is going to matter. Maybe coming back in a warmer season would have been better, but I doubt it. I like rough weather, and I’m often cheered by walking about in the cold or rain. Not here, though.
- It seemed like an expensive place to live. Not New York expensive, but not a first choice for someone on a modest budget.
- There weren’t a lot of places to just go and hang out. There was the park near my Airbnb, and Michelangelo Plaza, but to be in central Florence and grab a cup of coffee and sit out someplace decent and read? There wasn’t really a whole lot of that around.
So, in short, while the Tuscany region of Italy may have been a favorite of the English since they started visiting the country (my Roman host Max informed me of this, and said there’s a town there where they don’t even bother printing menus in Italian, just in English), I think my favorite part of it will remain the bits I’ve seen in my favorite movie about the English going there. I’m glad that I went, might even go again someday, but I’m not likely to spend much of my future retirement years there.
And that was Italy. Next installment, I shall be traveling to Split, Croatia, and I’m reasonably confident that I can cover my 3 months in Split and Zagreb in one post. Challenge accepted!