“The present glory of Florence is its past.”
–A common expression in Florence
After spending an enriching interlude in central and southern Tuscany (mainly Capalbio and La Foce), I returned to Florence to savor its past and present glories for a few more days.
Florence is a walker’s dream, because many streets in the old part are now closed to cars. I must confess that while living in Florence I’ve never been slimmer. It’s the walking from morning until night––even with ample portions of pasta and gelato, that makes this town a dieter’s dream.
As before, I stayed in my favorite Florence “hotel”: the convent, Istituto Oblate dell’Assunzione on Borgo Pinti. From there I can walk or take a bus to just about anywhere. Although in my book, 7 ½ Places of Wonder, I didn’t illustrate my wondrous places with photographs, I do so now in a limited way.
From my “hotel,” it’s just a few blocks to Spedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents), a much acclaimed Florence landmark designed by the father of Renaissance architecture, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). He liked the purity and simplicity of Classical Roman buildings and incorporated that look into the Spedale, his first true Renaissance building.
The Spedale opened in 1444 as Europe’s first orphanage. After its founding early in the fifteenth century, unwanted babies could be abandoned in a basin near the facility’s front portico. In 1660, to provide mothers wishing to give up their children with anonymity, the basin was replaced with a rotating stone wheel upon which unwanted infants could be placed. Mothers could then ring a bell that caused the stone to turn, thus delivering their newborns into caring hands. Today the building is honored for its history of good deeds and signature Brunelleschi design.
From the Spedale, it’s just a few minutes’ walk to the octagonal-shaped Baptistery, the oldest building in Florence, which today is clad in white and green marble. The Baptistery’s most celebrated features are its three sets of bronze doors with relief sculptures depicting biblical scenes. The most sought out are the East Doors (facing the cathedral), designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), and commissioned in 1401 to commemorate Florence’s deliverance from the plague; they were completed in 1452. These sculptures portray Old Testament stories such as the Creation of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, and Cain and Abel. When Michelangelo first saw them, he called them the “Gate of Paradise.” (These panels are copies; the originals are on display in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.)
I’ve only visited the Uffizi with a guide, most often as a part of an art history class. Since the Uffizi receives more than 1.5 million visitors annually, it’s best to visit it by appointment and under some kind of tutelage. A guide or a hotel concierge can facilitate that.
What to see while in the Uffizi? Everything! Time hardly permits that, unless you live in Florence, but for me the “can’t miss” paintings are always those of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), who made his home in Medici-ruled Florence in the late 1400s. Even then he was revered for his art’s elegance, but also for the richness and depth it conveyed. On this particular day in the Uffizi, I was on my own, but I recalled pausing years before in front of the Birth of Venus (1485) with my art history class when our teacher said that this painting is generally thought to be the most celebrated work of art in the entire Uffizi.
Why? a student asked.
“It’s tremendously layered,” our teacher said. She went on to say that it’s possible that Botticelli was inspired by Neoplatonism, then popular in Medici court circles. This philosophy suggested that man’s purpose is to strive for the Divine through beauty and love. “Botticelli could well be attempting to translate this philosophy into art,” she said, as she pointed to examples in the painting of what she saw as grace and perfection.
Just steps from the Uffizi is my favorite Florentine coffee shop: Caffè Rivoire, which overlooks Piazza della Signoria, the most famous square in Florence. At least once on each return visit, I migrate there to rest my weary feet while sipping their acclaimed hot chocolate.
At the close of my day of revisiting favorite sights in Florence, I decided to cross the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), today the pedestrians-only jewelers’ bridge, and since Roman times a strategic River Arno crossing. During the Middle Ages fishmongers, butchers, and leatherworkers plied their trades on this ancient structure, using the Arno as their garbage dump. But Grand Duke Ferdinando I, offended by the ensuing stench and noise, decreed during his sixteenth-century reign that more refined enterprises replace them; hence, the evolution that led to what is now the jewelers’ bridge.