Ever since I watched the lush and romantic film version of E. M Forster ‘s classic tale of Italian adventure and young love, I, like the chaperoned heroine Lucy Honeychurch “longed to wake up in Florence and fling wide the windows and lean out into the sunshine”. I have been lucky enough to visit the splendid city of Florence and succumb to its so aptly described “pernicious charms” a number of times over the years since I first was enamoured with those beautiful words.
Young ladies are no longer chaperoned by maiden aunts and Baedekers have been discarded for smart phone apps and Kindle e-guides, but Florence is a city that still enchants the modern traveler with age-old charms.
My favorite place to start is in the Loggia in the stately Piazza della Signoria. The sculptures that sit underneath curved arches cover centuries of artistic history from the Roman to the Renaissance period. I adore the Giambologna marble, the Abduction of the Sabine Virgins, that’s full of anguish and movement. While I know that the statue of David that stands in front of the impressive Palazzo Vecchio is only a copy and the original is waiting at the nearby Accademia, it never fails to make an impression and I could never be quite sure why.
My next stop, like Lucy, are the prized frescoes of Giotto in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels in the church of Santa Croce. The colors and details dazzle me and I am transported back to what the important Tuscan city of Florence looked like during the early 14th century.
After these appetizers of sculpture and fresco, I am ready to dive into the rich first course that is one of the finest art hotspots in the world: the Uffizi galleries. I begin in the first rooms filled with the works of Giotto, Cimabue, and Duccio taking in the religious scenes and the artists’ different takes on the human form. Saved from the flames of Savonrolas and Bonfire of the Vanities are the enormous canvases of the Birth of Venus and Primavera painted by Botticelli in 1484. These two works never cease to enthrall me with their meditations of earthly love and fantasy paired with religious devotion. The unfinished Adorazione dei Magi by Leonardo da Vinci delights me with its unanswerable riddle. My last must-see no matter the restraints of time and fatigue is the painting of Bacchus by Caravaggio seeking out the hidden self portrait of the artist in the wine goblet.
I know you must see the rock star artworks and galleries with their big names and important pieces, but I also love some of the smaller out of the way spots.
I seek out the quiet spaces across the Arno river or just a few streets away from the bustle of the main Piazzas. I almost always have entire rooms of the Museo Bargello housed in a 13th century palace all to myself. Once a prison, this space now holds sculptural masterpieces some of which were once the personal collection of the Medici family. I begin with a visit to the robust marble sculptures of Giambologna and the winsome Gemito bronze of a young child fisherman. There are also very significant examples of Michelangelo’s early work. The life-sized Bacchus was completed when the artists was only 21 years old — an early testament to his prodigious talent. Seeing all of these up close with my own eyes puts me in a half-dreaming state where I get lost in thought wondering how human hands could be capable of virtually divine feats.
Another favorite museum of mine in Florence is the Palazzo Pitti. The vast Renaissance palace, once the home of an important banker and then controlled by Napoleon, is often host to wonderful temporary exhibitions and has a generous permanent collection of works. It can be hard to choose between the paintings of Titian and Raphael in the Palatine gallery or the porcelain and silver galleries. I often pick the Costume Gallery, which looks out over the green and tranquil Boboli Gardens and marvel at the artistry of Mediaeval and Renaissance seamstresses. Being in this location while gazing at these art pieces gives me a sense of perspective about history and how we who live in the present truly are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.
I afford myself one bit of modern whimsy in this Renaissance jewel of a city. French artist Cletus Abraham surreptitiously adorns street signs with adhesive stickers, transforming the quotidian images of No-entry and T-junctions to a man carrying a plank or a symbol of a crucifix. A visit to his small gallery in the San Niccolo neighborhood is a must on any art lover’s itinerary. Visiting this site is as amusing as it is poignant – something I can’t say for any art location I’ve visited in the area.
Florence offers the timeless allure of Italy in one beautiful city. These are just a few of my favorite highlights. The museums that the city is home to are filled with so many treasures that it would take lifetimes to see them all. Allow yourself time to savor the centuries of history found inside the grand palace walls and in the quiet empty piazzas. Soak in the atmosphere that inspired Michelangelo and Botticelli and brought power to the great Medici family. These are feelings and sensations that are hard to capture anywhere else.
Each visit to Florence fills the fibers of my being with inspiration, awareness and a sense of mystique. It’s really a feeling that’s very hard to explain and it’s unique to Florence and the wonders that it houses. I highly recommend venturing outside of Rome if you’re visiting Italy and exploring its other great attractions for a totally distinct but equally captivating experience.