Our neighbor loves Italy and was delighted to know that we were going to be visiting one of her favorite destinations (in February, before the virus, thank you). She describes Milan, where we stopped over for 2 days in October 2018, as a city with some beautiful buildings and one especially well known artwork, da Vinci’s The Last Supper. On the other hand, she assured us that in Florence we would be treated to buildings that stand out as masterpieces themselves on every corner and sumptuous works of art on display inside each one of them. Wow, that was some recommendation and we did our best to plan out an itinerary that would prove her right. This seemed like a perfect winter vacation where we could spend hours inside art galleries and museums and hope that the chilly outdoor temperatures would encourage some of the 13 million tourists to come back at a warmer time of year.
We bought the Florence Museum Pass (the Firenze Card, details below) for convenience but with 78 places to choose from, we had to find a way to organize our wanderings. A walking map from the Planetware website did exactly that by providing 3 self-guided tours that fan out across the city from the central Piazza Duomo which happens to house the Cathedral, our first stop. Begun in 1296 the huge Duomo can be seen for miles because of its sheer immensity and its white marble walls covered with geometric red and green designs. On the same square, competing in height with the cathedral’s dome but not grandeur is Giotto’s campanile, added in the mid 1300’s as the bell tower to summon worshipers. Instead of climbing the tower’s 414 steps upward, we took 41 steps across that same plaza to the Battistero di San Giovanni.
The Baptistry of St, John is probably best known for its entrance doors, christened by Michelangelo as the Gates of Paradise since he felt their beauty were worthy of heaven. These bronze works of art weigh 3 tons, stand 5 m. (17 ft.) tall and were finished in 1452 by Florentine goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti. What we saw hanging on the building was a replica to withstand the elements while we had to go inside the Duomo museum to view them behind glass.
We crossed the Piazza della Signoria that could itself be classed as an outdoor sculpture museum and stepped right into what several guidebooks called “one of the top art museums in the world,” the Uffizi Palace and Gallery. Our required reservation allowed us the chance to admire the 14th to 16th century masterpieces without feeling rushed or too crowded. It was here that we saw Botticelii’s “Birth of Venus” and “Baptism of Christ” by da Vinci.
A covered walkway called the Corrido Vasariano that allowed the Medicis to walk between palaces and even over the river without coming into contact with the public directed our eyes to the Ponte Vecchio. The bridge dates from at least 996 and merchants, notably goldsmiths, still use the small shops above the Arno river to display their handiwork. It reminded us of the Rialto Bridge we traversed in Venice.
Up to this point we had seen multiple galleries filled with sumptuous art but I was anxious to get to the Palazzo Pitti where I’d read that at least in the Royal Apartments, works by artists such as Raphael and Rubins were on display as decorations in the rooms, exactly as they had been designed for entertaining rather than being on show. When the royal residents tired of their art filled interior they could step out of the palace and directly into the Boboli Gardens filled with fountains, statues, manicured beds, and a grotto. It served as inspiration for palace gardens all over Europe including those at Versailles. One corner of Boboli is protected by Fort Belvedere, built in the late 1500s more as a show of wealth and power than for protection.
The next morning we had a 9:00 AM reservation at the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the one work of art that has a reputation as big as its physical size: Michelangelo’s David. Standing on a 1.8 m (6 ft.) pedestal it soars another 4.8 m (16 ft.) to dominate the purpose built room where it was brought in 1873 having been outdoors with the pigeons since first being displayed in 1504. Lining the walls of that same immense room we saw the sculptor’s unfinished “Prisoners” where it really did look as if he was in the process of freeing the characters from their stone enclosures.
When you are the ruling family of Florence during the 15th century you are of course going to commission the best talent of the era to design your church, fill it with art, and eventually construct your tombs. The Medici achieved that by hiring architect Filippo Brunelleschi to construct the Basilica di San Lorenzo, decorating it with works by Donatello and Lippi, and having Michelangelo create their final resting places.
Just across from the main railway station is the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella where construction began in 1246. The numerous chapels inside are dedicated to (and therefore paid for by) wealthy Renaissance families who chose well-known artists to paint frescoes on many of the walls. Some of the names we recognized from works in museums around town included Masaccio, Giotto, and Lippi, plus a marble pulpit by Brunelleschi whose fame we knew from the Medici Basilica de San Lorenzo. Attached to the church is a pharmacy, said to be the world’s oldest since records show that monks began working there with herbal medications in 1221 with a retail shop opening in 1612.
The Basilica Santa Croce was built around the same time as the Duomo and even resembles its look from the outside but is filled with art and houses tombs of famous Florence residents. In the nave we recognized names such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Rossini, and Machiavelli.
A 3-minute walk from there found us at the national museum of Bargello, in a medieval castle, known for its Renaissance sculpture. In fact, one online guide said, “The four Michelangelo masterpieces alone are reason enough” to go there. In addition to Michelangelo’s Baccus we also saw Donatello’s David, and one room devoted to the Florentine specialties of enamel and gold work.
Although our museum pass could have been extended for an additional 2 days, we felt that being immersed in 3 days of art was just right for this visit. Even with that we didn’t get close to seeing all 78 museums and historic sites included with the card but we were far from disappointed. That just leaves us dozens more places to see when we return to Florence.
Firenze card price comparison: https://www.artviva.com/firenze-card-what-you-need-to-know-to-visit-florence-2019/
Planetware Florence: https://www.planetware.com/tourist-attractions-/florence-i-to-f.htm
Guidebooks by Rick Steves: Florence & Tuscany (includes interior maps of several museums) and Europe 101 (History and Art for the Traveler)