Last Friday Sarie and I went to Florence (Firenze in Italian) for the day. Or, more accurately, Sarie took a bus to the suburbs for a three-hour lesson with a visiting violin teacher and I went to Florence, for the art. We each got the better end of the deal.
I used to go to the Uffizzi gallery there fairly frequently during the summer of 1984, when I was an art student in a studies abroad program. I’ve been back to the city twice since then on vacation, but now the museum pretty much requires a reservation* so I hadn’t revisited it. And I’d not been to Florence since we moved.
When we arrived in the morning, I decided to walk around before my entry time and perhaps visit the church of S. Croce on the other side of the city center. While reviewing the map, I realized that I could easily get from one major monument to the other by following the main streets, so I put the map away and made myself at home.
Having quickly decided that the line at the church of S. Maria Novella (near the train station) was too long, I struck out for S. Croce by way of the Duomo. Approaching the Duomo from the northwest, you can see its lacy green, pink and white marble from far away, even though the street is crowded with tourists by early May. Once in the piazza, I found a spot that was slightly out-of-the-way but still afforded a full view, snapped my photo, and simply stood admiring the facade for about ten minutes. It was the first time I’d taken it in at leisure, without trying to memorize it for fear of never seeing it again, or having to think about whether the person next to me was bored. There was a spring breeze and I began to be happy that I had made the trip.
From my hidden spot, I moved in closer, burrowing my way into the crowd, and took in the Ghiberti baptistry doors for a while. I listened to talks about the doors in two languages (Spanish and French) and was surprised that I could understand most of each. Perhaps this is because I already knew the sort of things they’d say, or perhaps the guides were really Italians who were speaking slowly, enabling me to separate out the words. I’ve had a favorite Ghiberti door panel (the one above) since high school, so it was nice to see it in person again.
Leaving the Duomo I wandered a bit, down some favorite narrow streets, skirting the Piazza della Signoria where the Uffizzi is, and walking on towards S. Croce. I had to stand in line to enter the church, but having left time to wait, I relaxed and pulled out my George MacDonald book. Since most of the tourists around me were Russians, I wasn’t even distracted.
Once inside S. Croce, I was pleasantly surprised to recognize it from my college trip. Here were the large tombs of Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo, and the somewhat less-beloved Machiavelli. (Later that day I saw a book entitled something like Machiavelli the Misunderstood.) At the front of the basilica, along with scaffolding, were several lovely frescoed side chapels, including one each by Taddeo and Agnolo Gaddi. I particularly liked the fresco which included an approaching ship. Since artists of that period had only partly explored the rules of perspective, the ship almost seems to be flying in from the heavens. After touring the chapels, I walked through the sacristy and then out the side door, where I found the Capella de’ Pazzi, a geometric jewel box of a chapel designed by Brunelleschi. It’s mostly smooth and empty inside, sparely decorated with terra cotta roundels, and separated from the courtyard outside by a mere curtain.
By the time I left the chapel, I needed to move on to the Uffizzi, but I wanted to see the church’s museum as well. So I tried something that seemed like what an Italian might do. I approached the guard, told her (in Italian) that I had a reservation for the Uffizzi, and asked whether it might be possible to come back to see the museum when I was finished. And what do you know? She agreed and signed the back of my ticket.
Despite the reservation, I ended up standing in two lines for a total of thirty minutes to enter the Uffizzi. While in line I got started talking to a French woman who lived just on the other side of the Alps from Cuneo. She spoke bad Italian with a French accent and I spoke bad Italian with an American accent. We must have sounded quite funny! But it was an interesting way to pass the time.
(I’ve just realized that none of the following links to paintings work, but you can follow the Uffizzi link above and search the paintings if you want to know more, or you can wait until I figure out how to fix them!)
Once inside, however, I was all business. I started by comparing the gold-leafed Madonnas of Cimabue to those of Duccio and Giotto to see if I noticed anything new, then stopped to gape for a while at the elegant Simone Martini Madonna shrinking uncomfortably from Gabriel’s words. I noted a surprisingly moving Deposition from the Cross by the relatively unknown Giottino, walked through the Botticelli room (beautiful, but too much the same), and listened to a guide telling the usual story that Verocchio never painted again after the apprentice Leonardo one-upped him with an angel in the Baptism of Christ. (Taking a fresh look for myself, I decided that Leonardo had probably only painted the angel on the left, as the one on the right has a few serious drawing problems. Yes, I’m opinionated.)
In one of the late 16th century rooms there was a fabulous Correggio Madonna which I had never noticed before, but I was so extremely tired by this time, and the rooms so stuffy, that instead of staying to look any longer I walked in a trance to the café and ordered a caffè macchiato. After sitting for a few minutes on one of the benches, I steadied myself for round two, which included a Veronese with Xerxes extending his scepter to Queen Esther, the round Michelangelo of the Holy Family, and several striking paintings by Titian, but a lot of these rooms were closed for renovation.
I wandered downstairs still in an exploratory mode, thinking I’d return for a review after a quick look. By right away I noticed a section labelled (almost desultorily) “Foreign painters” and followed the signs up some stairs. There I discovered a whole wing full of some of my favorite painters: In the Spanish room there were Goya, Ribera and Velasquez. In the French rooms I discovered the Chardin shuttlecock girl and the boy playing cards. Then I stood for a while puzzling over a Boucher painting of St. John the Baptist and the Christ child. It was practically iridescent in its pink and blue elegance, but what was he thinking when he made the locust-eater and the Lion of Judah into cream-puff babies? In the Dutch rooms I discovered several lovely Van Dyck paintings and Rubens’s lovely portrait, which I have sketched more than once, of his first wife Isabella Brandt. There also were two Rembrandt self portraits, but I’m pretty sure only one was genuine. (By age sixty or so, Rembrandt would have known how to place his own eyes.)
By this time the coffee had kicked in and I was happy about having discovered several new paintings by Andrea del Sarto, when I was suddenly transported back to childhood by a small painting of the sacrifice of Isaac that I remembered from a book of Bible stories. I had completely forgotten about it. I knew every inch of the painting, however, remembered being horribly fascinated with how the teenage Isaac’s glassy eyes rolled heavenwards as his father prepared to slay him. But perhaps this painting was at least less frightening than Caravaggio’s much younger, blatantly terrified and screaming Isaac. And the Caravaggio was in turn was only two paintings away from Artesemia Gentileschi’s gory Judith and the Head of Holofernes, much admired now for being proto-feminist.
After this violent interlude I found myself ending the tour with Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch. I’d spent many hours as a child staring at this one too, so much so that when I saw a European goldfinch for the first time this year, I knew it immediately. And as usual, the real painting looked much brighter and clearer, with purer blues.**
Upon walking back out into the street from the museum after three-and-a-half hours of looking, I reluctantly acknowledged that I couldn’t return to S. Croce after all and instead met Sarie back by S. Maria Novella, where we had a snack. After days of rain in Torino, the Tuscan skies were clear and the late afternoon sun slanted golden on the spring fields. To cap off the day, we saw parachutists jumping out of a plane near Bologna.
It sometimes seems as though we moved to Italy only to hit the season of our lives during which it was hardest to properly enjoy being in a great vacation spot. Friday reminded me that this wasn’t always the case. I was very glad I had taken the opportunity to go.
*By the way, if you ever decide to reserve tickets, I recommend going directly to the Uffizzi website instead of one of the tourist ones. It’s considerably cheaper. And also, no matter how hot it is, I recommend dressing nicely in Florence.
**The reproductions I’m linking to in this post unfortunately rarely convey the original color or luminosity of oil painting, and the photo of the Raphael Madonna of the Goldfinch in particular must be even browner than the one in my old coffee table book!