Friday, November 9, 2012

Florence: the Birth of the Renaissance & Mary Poppins

During our week in the lustrous hillsides of Umbria, we decided to leave it for a day trip to the bustling metropolis of Florence or Firenze.  All 14 women woke up roughly at 6am, packed into the Van Dyke (nickname for our van rental) to catch a 7:30am train from Orvieto to Florence.  This was FloJo's first time riding a train in Europe and she was so excited that she fell asleep right away.
We disembarked at the Firenze train station after a 2 1/2 hour ride and met up with our tour guide for the day, Antonia.  Prior to our meeting with Antonia, our hostess Cecilia (who is also a Rick Steve's tour guide) described her collegue as Mary Poppins and we think by the end of the trip most of us agreed with her type casting.  She was an older British woman with her silver hair neatly pulled up in a bun on top of her head.  She held an umbrella at the ready and a large satchel that may have had a floor lamp inside it.  Overall, her demeanor was pleasant like most British ladies we are acquainted with (Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Julie Andrews herself) .  However, you could tell that she could get fiesty when necessary as she shooed away beggars from asking us for money and said "arrivederci signora" in a stern Mary Poppins voice.


Church of Santa Maria Novella
She got us fitted for headphones and then we were off on our tour.  First stop the Piazza Santa Maria Novella and the Church of Santa Maria Novella, which is situated just across the street from the main entrance to the train station.  The lower half of the building is Gothic while the upper part is early Renaissance.  This was not just another European church.  We didn't go inside, but judging from the outside the inside would be just as beautiful.

We continued on our tour through the streets of Florence, careful not to get run over by crazy European drivers and came upon the magnificent Duomo or Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. It was stunning to look at just by it's sheer grandeur and the intricate details noticeable even at a distance.  It's considered one of the largest churches in Italy and took about five hundred years to complete it.  The facade of the Cathedral is a beautiful shade of green, white and pink marble.  Each color is symbolic and stands for hope, faith and charity, respectively.

The most fascinating part of the Cathedral is the dome.  In the early 15th century, a competition was held to design the dome.  Filippo Brunelleschi won the competition with his octagonal design made of concrete and brick and included an inner and outer shell held together by a ring and rib system.  The design didn't require a support system, which proved to be a feat at the time and was the largest dome  until it was superseded by the dome at St. Peter's Basilica in the early 17th century.  

The inside of the dome was just as amazing.  Giorgio Vasari was commissioned by the Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici to complete a fresco depicting the Last Judgment.  After Vasari's death, Federico Zuccari finished the fresco.  The fresco was eerie in the sense that it appeared as though the figures were real and hanging from the "ledge."  What do you think? 

Just outside the entrance of the cathedral, we couldn't help but notice men in tights (sort of like Robin Hood) and dressed up in costumes from a much older time period.  It appeared that they were shooting a movie of some sort.  We wanted to get in on the action, but couldn't get away with it in our "modern" clothing.  It didn't keep us from taking photos though.



 After the Cathedral, we got a little snack at Antonia's favorite gelato place Grom and it proved to be a good choice.  Grom is an Italian specialty gelato chain that now has its first store outside of Italy in NYC.  One of their fans is Katie Couric who fell in love with the product while she was covering the olympics for the Today show.

As we left the shop with our delicious gelatos in hand, we walked through the streets and past different shops ranging from clothing and leather goods to food markets.
City Hall

Our destination was the Piazza della Signoria.  Greeting us at the square was a bronze equestrian statute of Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici.  The Medici was a rich family who gained their wealth through banking and was a political dynasty in Florence from the late 14th century - 18th century.  Just beyond the statue is the Palazzo Vecchio, which is the city hall of Florence and Loggia dei Lanzi, which shelters many notable statues, such as The Rape of Sabine Women and Perseus with the Head of Medusa.  In between these two sites is the Uffizi Gallery, which we will visit later.  Other notable statues that guard the Palazzo Vecchio is a replica of the David and the Fountain of Neptune, who coincidently faces the Tiber River as it makes its run to the ocean.

We continued on our tour next with a visit to the Accademia Gallery to pay homage to the David.  So funny story - we planned to have mimosas on the train ride to Florence so we packed some small bottles of prosecco and OJ.  But as mentioned above, FloJo slept for much of the duration, so we lugged our libations around and decided that Plan B would be to have them at lunch.  Little did we know that the gallery doesn't allow glass into the museum, thus our bottles were confiscated at security.  Luckily we could retrieve them upon exiting the gallery, but still we both thought that this visit to see David better be worth it.
Replica of David in the Piazza della Signoria 
Back to the David. If you don't know the story, David is a legendary hero who reached critical acclaim after his defeat against the giant, Goliath.  He is a historical representation of triumph over the odds, especially when the odds are stacked against you.  FloJo had seen the David before and truth be told Ro didn't know what all the fuss was about.  It wasn't until we turned the corner and saw the David in the distance did it start to sink in.  First of all, he's ginormous standing at 17 ft. in all his glory cut and scuplted from one single piece of marble weighing in at a slender 6 tons.  There is awe just in the mere presence this statue commands.  Then you begin to look more closely at the detail carved into this stone and it becomes obvious this is an incredible piece of art.

We would agree that the David is a marvel with Michelangelo's attention to detail of the human anatomy.  From the front it appears that he is standing at repose and almost in a peaceful and relaxed state.  However, as we circumnavigated the David everything from his face, his posture and the bulging veins in his right hand indicated that he was getting ready to strike with his sling shot drapped over his left shoulder.  It was truly incredible.

Gabi in her cute Florentine hat
After our short visit with the David, we walked back to the Piazza della Signoria and broke for lunch.  We ate at the closet place we could find which turned out to be a cheap self-serve restaurant.  We sat, drank our rescued prosecco, recouped and reflected on the day thus far while we ate our lunch from a tray.  After lunch, we ventured to the nearest street market and did some walk by "window shopping."  The vendors  were mostly selling leather goods and touristy trinkets.  We stopped at one vendor recommended by Antonia and we each bought an Italian scarf (we had to verify because the majority were made in-- you guessed it--China).  We felt so European.

Who's miming who?

Street painter recreating Michelangelo's Holy Family (we would later see in the  Uffizi)

Before we knew it, it was time to regroup and head to the Uffizi Gallery (known as Italy's greatest art gallery), which had once been used to store the Medici's art treasure.  The art was accumulated over the centuries by the Medici and eventually gifted to the Florentine people by Anna Maria Lodovica, the last of the Medici.  

This was  the last stop on our tour. By then we were hot, tired and our feet were screaming from walking all over Florence.  There was a pretty big line we had to wait in.  It was if Mary Poppins had fed us spoonfuls of sugar and we were crashing.  We were a bit overwhelmed once we got into the Uffizi with the hallways and hallways of art that wrapped around two buildings like a giant "U."  


The Birth of Venus (Botticelli)
The Annunciation (Da Vinci) c. 1475
Ponte Vecchio viewed from Uffizi
The art collection boasts early ancient Greek & Roman sculptures, Gothic, Early & High Renaissance and too many busts of Florentines to count.  Antonia pointed out details like the new understanding of renaissance painters to use geometry and perspective to make images appear to have dimension for the first time in history.  Dana later commented how comical it was that Antonia was so fascinated by this technique used by Leonardo da Vinci in his Annunciation painting to make an angel appear to be flying.  Dana was questioning what was truly surreal in the painting--indeed.  One of our favorite pieces in the museum was Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (c1485).


Ro, FloJo and Dana just finished the Uffizi tour
Unfortunately, Antonia's pearls of wisdom were pretty  much lost on this tired crowd.  Most of us lacked the energy to truly appreciate what was before our glazed over eyes.  Amazing artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Raphael were standing between us getting some food and drink and putting our barking feet up.  Our attention was aroused however, when Dana got too close to a picture of a dwarf and set off an alarm.  Was she casing the painting secretly wanting to take it home as a souvenir?
Mother Mary Elizabeth

We were never so happy to see the train station.  We all scurried around to gather some dinner to eat on the train.  A sandwich, Coke and Mc Donald's fries never tasted so good.  Besides FloJo almost getting kicked off the train for putting her feet on the seat, the ride back to Orvieto was uneventful and we all slept like babies once we were safely back in our beds dreaming of our adventures in Florence.


 Life life with flavor and fun!