Finding the Silver Lining in Florence

Florence was our least favourite city visited on our European trip last fall. I say that reluctantly because of its fame and hey, it’s Europe and aren’t all European cities supposed to be charming? But when we divulged this opinion to other travellers near the end of our journey, it turns out we weren’t the only ones.

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View of Brunelleschi’s dome and the terracotta roofs from Giotto’s bell tower

After coming from the delightfully colourful Cinque Terre, we found Florence uniformly dull. Brown as far as the eye can see (except for those hills in the distance). And no green space. I suppose it also didn’t help that Paris was our introduction to Europe where patches of green abounded and the Seine was as animated as a grand boulevard. Hardly anyone walked along the Arno, and it seemed more like a ditch than a river in some places.

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Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno River. I do love the light in this photograph though.

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Ground and building blend into each other at Pitti Palace. Also, where are the benches?

Negative comments aside, we did enjoy Florence for its art (and gelato). This is the place to see Renaissance art. I’ll highlight a few works we stared at for awhile.

Michelangelo’s Deposition (or Florentine Pietà)

Florence is a crowded mid-sized city. We noticed the tourists here more than anywhere else on our trip. So when we had almost ten minutes alone with this sculpture in the Duomo Cathedral Museum, it felt nothing short of miraculous. Depicting Jesus’ removal from the cross, Michelangelo’s figures encircle Jesus’ limp body slumping towards earth—the pained Virgin Mary on his left, a mysterious-looking figure above (believed to be Nicodemus), and a very dwarfed Mary Magdalene on Jesus’ right. All four figures look a different direction, in their own worlds with grief, yet your eye tends to circle the group counter-clockwise, starting in the middle with Jesus’ serpentine form. The work is captivating in its gravity, how three figures struggle to support the weight of a dead body. Interesting to note is that Michelangelo is said to have carved his own features into the face of the hooded man. This was his final sculpture, and he never finished it.

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Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Duomo Cathedral formally launched the Renaissance in Italy. They were so popular he was commissioned to create this second set depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The originals are in the Duomo Cathedral Museum. We had great fun studying and guessing, along with another keen tourist, which story each panel depicted. I love how Ghiberti packed so many narrative details into the tiny frames, showing off the new technique of linear perspective developed by Brunelleschi and employed by Masaccio. For example, look at the depth of the space in the bottom left panel, showing Isaac blessing his younger son Jacob.

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A replica of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise on the east doors of the Baptistery

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Ghiberti’s original two sets of bronze doors in the Duomo Cathedral Museum

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The Baptistery with Giotto’s Bell Tower on the right in the background

Michelangelo’s David

He’s situated like the bride at the end of a church aisle. I felt so much expectation walking towards him, and for good reason. Everything about this sculpture is big and invites a full walk-around: What’s that expression in his eyes? Is this before or after the battle with Goliath? How does that sling work? This masterpiece is the reason to go to the Accademia Gallery.

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Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

We saw many Annunciation paintings on our trip. This is one of my favourites because of its simplicity and how the artist, a Dominican friar, situated the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel in a vaulted space very similar to the architecture of the convent he lived in—San Marco. No gilded hall pregnant with symbols, just a bare room emphasizing Mary’s ordinariness. The figures mirror each other in terms of their folded hands and bent torsos, a posture of divine submission. In religious communities, artwork like this aimed to enhance a life of prayer and contemplation for the friars. There’s also something special about seeing artwork in the location it was made for (usually a church or in this case, a convent) and beats the walls of a museum almost anytime.

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This work is the first thing you notice when you enter the dormitory of San Marco

More artwork to come in another post. Have you been to Florence? How did it rank in your books?

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