To wander around Florence, the historic city nestled in the Tuscan hills along the banks of the Arno River, is to walk back in time to the birthplace of modern western culture. The Renaissance began here, in the maze of narrow streets lined with the palazzos and monasteries of the old town. Their façades look like stark fortresses. They were, after all, intended to keep invaders at bay. But step through their foreboding, metal studded gates and a world of serene gardens, elegant cloisters and inexhaustible treasures await. Or keep following the cobblestone labyrinth and it will invariably open onto a harmonious piazza dominated by a magnificent church.
Beyond the guidebook musts
The guidebook “musts” have been so often photographed and filmed they seem familiar at first glance. Like millions of other visitors from around the world, I paid them their due years ago on my first visit. Then they became the backdrop of everyday life, convenient landmarks as I set out to discover new personal favorites each time I contrive a reason to find my way back to Tuscany.
Bargello. Built in the mid-thirteen century as the residence of the Podestà, the highest magistrate of the Florence City Council, this small medieval fortress is the oldest public building in Florence. Later turned prison and barracks, it became a national museum in 1865. The Bargello features a spectacular display of glazed terracotta works by the brothers Della Robia, along with works by Michelangelo and other prominent Renaissance sculptors. And it is home to the “first David”. Donatello’s one and a half meter (five foot) bronze of David (circa 1440’s), commissioned by Cosimo the Elder de’ Medici for the courtyard of his own palace and the first known nude statue created since antiquity. It set the stage for another world-class nude David: Michelangelo’s 17 foot (5.20 meter) white Carrara marble masterpiece. In addition to revisiting these favorites, I always enjoy lingering along the open loggia and under the arches of the cloistered courtyard to spend a quiet al fresco moment right in the center of the city.
Museum of San Marco This twelfth century Dominican monastery adjacent to the San Marco church was restored by Cosimo the Elder de’ Medici in 1440, who entrusted the work to his favorite architect Michelozzo. With its elegant cloister and spacious sun-filled library, the building offers a superb example of Renaissance conventual architecture. Of special interest are the perfectly preserved Fra’ Angelico frescoes that decorate the cloister, refectory and the brothers’ cells. Additionally, the library, the first public library in Europe, contains a stunning collection of elaborately illuminated manuscripts, many of them donated by Cosimo himself.
Cloister of the Scalzo. Just one block from the Piazza San Marco on the Via Cavour, tucked away beyond an unassuming Renaissance doorway, this exquisite cloister once led to a chapel that was part of a much larger religious complex owned by the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist. The small rectangular space contains twelve frescoes in chiaroscuro (grayscale) representing the life of Saint John the Baptist. Entry is free and opening hours are limited to a few mornings a week. This cloister appears to be one of the best kept secrets in Florence. I drop in whenever possible and it is not unusual to find I have the place to myself.
Palazzo Medici Riccardi A five-minute walk farther down Via Cavour to the corner of Via de’ Gori, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi is the antithesis of the intimate Scalzo. Designed by Michelozzo in 1444 for the Medici family, it was acquired two centuries later by the Riccardi family who undertook extensive transformations. Mercifully, the grand interior Courtyard of the Columns along with the Cappella di Benozzo Gozzoli (Chapel of the agi) survived with their Renaissance grace untouched. In the courtyard (where the aforementioned Donatello’s David once stood), a broad colonnade runs around the square perimeter of the building, supporting twelve soaring arches surmounted by a festooned frieze. The festoons link twelve medallions featuring the Medici arms alternated with reliefs of mythological subjects. But the jewel of the palace is its exquisite chapel, with its walls entirely frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli. The central theme is the adoration of the Magi. The subjects are said to be portraits of the Medici family, with Cosimo’s son Piero, along with Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos and Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg riding along the Tuscan countryside as the Three Wise Men.
A foodie’s reward
All this roaming around artistic treasures requires sustenance, another commodity in abundance in Florence. Just like generations of Fiorentini before me, I like to start my day with a stop at the classic marble counter of Robiglio for one of their superb espressos. Opened in 1928 in the Via dei Servi, the busy narrow street that links the Piazza della Santissima Annonziata to the rear of the Duomo, this old-fashion pasticceria offers a mind-boggling choice of freshly baked local pastries along with its ambrosial coffees.
After a day of shopping and sightseeing, the two seem to invariably go together in this artistic and fashion-conscious city, I often head for Rivoire on Piazza de la Signoria. Tourists and elegant local ladies alike have been congregating there since 1872 to enjoy a cup of sumptuous hot chocolate, a spectacular view of the Palazzo Vecchio and the jumble of ancient sculptures of the Loggia dei Lanzi across the piazza.
For lunch, high on my list of favorite spots is La Pentola del Oro (Pot of gold) at the corner of Via di Mezzo and Via dei Pepi in the Santa Croce neighborhood. The area that has kept a genuine local feel as few tourists seem to venture too far east of the Piazza Santa Croce. This bustling neighborhood restaurant dishes out excellent traditional Tuscan fare to a lively crowd of mainly local patrons. Some of their recipes are said to hark back to medieval times. My favorite is the Lasagnole (ribbon-shaped noodles) with a walnut, ginger and chestnut honey sauce.
Not far from there, I never miss a chance to visit the San’Ambrogio Market. Open every day until early afternoon, the large covered market is filled with colorful food stalls. It is surrounded by a tented area where merchants offer everything from clothing to cookware, paper goods and sewing, knitting and jewelry-making necessities. And in the heart of the indoor market, the hugely popular Trattoria Rocco is usually surrounded by a line of hungry shoppers waiting expectantly for seats to free up at one of the communal tables. The simple home-cooked food is delicious, the prices are easy, the portions more than generous and the caramelized baked pears irresistible.
Next we’ll cross the Arno for a visit to the artisans’ neighborhood of the Oltrarno. Until then, Ciao!