Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Florence to Pisa – Day 42 – Thursday

Somehow, I forgot to allow time to go to Pisa, so I had to squeeze it into one of my three full days in Florence.  This made for three very full days because Florence has more to see than any other city except maybe Rome and, having shelled out 50 Euros for a Florence card, I didn’t want to miss anything.  I didn’t make it to the Bargello for the 8:15 opening, but I did make it by 8:45.

The Bargello Courtyard
Fountain Grouping
The 13th (?) century Bargello has been a lot of things over the centuries, including a prison and a police station.  Today, it houses a super sculpture museum.  It is unfortunate that photos were not allowed in the sculpture gallery.  The Bargello houses Donatello’s beautiful David, at the time of its execution, the first male nude to have been sculpted in 1,000 years.  Despite its innovation, I found it much more pleasing that Michelangelo’s, although not nearly as imposing.  The gallery also houses a number of cruder Michelangelos and other delights.  Upstairs, are rooms of Medici treasures.  The shady courtyard houses assorted displaced statues and the arcade ceilings are colorfully frescoed.  It is amazing what passes for a minor museum in Florence.  People who travel by tour bus really miss out on a lot.  

Santa Croce Cloister
Unlike the rest of Tuscany, Florence is blessedly level.  The art of stone paving is alive and well in Florence and the streets are very smooth for Italy.  The city is populated by numerous annoying American students studying abroad and complaining about their privileged lives.  It is a city of bicycles, which are even more hazardous than scooters because they barrel unapologetically through pedestrian plazas and crowded shopping streets.  Unlike other cities in Tuscany, Florence has made an effort to be handicapped accessible.  A person in a wheelchair could get to most of the major sights without a cab if he or she were staying in a central hotel.  Rome has made some effort at the major sights, but the streets are impossible.  Florence is level, has fairly smooth streets and offers many car free plazas and pedestrian malls.
Galileo's Tomb

Michelangelo's Tomb
Original Statue of Liberty
 Like most churches, Santa Croce was not covered by the Florence card and I was somewhat irritated to have to shell out six Euros for the entry fee.  It was, however, another “minor” sight that turned out to be a treasure.  While only a (large) neighborhood church, it was dignified by being Michelangelo’s neighborhood church.  Today, it is a sort of pantheon of famous Florentines.  Dante, Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini and Marconi are all entombed there.  The 14th century church is no slouch, either.  It is light and airy and features paintings by Giotto and other 14th century luminaries and a domed chapel designed by Brunelleschi on the lower level.  Pio Fedi’s Liberty stands in the back, obviously the model for the larger statue in New York that came later.  There are also a few Donatello’s scattered about.

Just around the corner is the Casa Buonarotti, where Michelangelo and his descendents lived.  There is very little of Michelangelo’s work on display, but there is a collection of art collected by his descendents and some models and drawings.  The house itself is large and interesting.  One room is a sort of chapel dedicated to the great man, constructed by his descendants.  It was interesting to see the “kitchen sink” hidden in a cupboard and the raised privy.  I bet my combination toilet/shower at Fiorella’s started out as one of those.

Leaving Michelangelo’s neighborhood, I hoofed it back to the train station and just managed to catch the 12:28 train to Pisa.  Pisa is about an hour north and west from Florence, also on the Arno, not far from the coast.  I elected to walk a mile or two through the town to the Field of Miracles where the tower is located.  The area around the train station was heavily bombed during World War II and so is newer, more open and still unfinished looking.  Most tourists arrive by tour bus and head directly to the tower, so the rest of the town, while somewhat touristy, is uncrowded and surprisingly indifferent to providing directional cues.

Pisa Town Hall
The Arno at Pisa
I walked across the modern Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II with its underground parking garage and up the pedestrian main drag to the bridge over the Arno.  The Arno doesn’t look much different in Pisa than it does in Florence, but the buildings lining its banks are not as grand.  Pisa is built on a sandy delta, which accounts for the tendency of its buildings to shift and lean.  Once across the river, I had entered old Pisa.  I strolled through a series of plazas and arcaded shopping streets, got lost, discovered the Church of Santa Caterina, sweltered under the hot sun and eventually arrived at Piazza dei Cavalieri.  The palace on this square was the seat of Pisa’s independent government until Florence conquered Pisa in 1500 and received a Medici ruler.  Today, the buildings are part of the University of Pisa.  Pisa is a university town.  Of its 100,000 inhabitants, 45,000 are university students.

Just past the square in the Church of San Sisto.  This old, Romanesque church is obviously from an earlier era than the Renaissance and even Gothic churches I have been visiting recently.  It is heavy, dark, plain and uses salvaged Roman columns with pediments of varying sizes to even out disparities in their heights.  Once I turned into Via Santa Maria, things quickly became more commercialized until I suddenly popped out at the Field of Miracles and beheld the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  It leans alright.  The white marble of the Duomo, Tower, Baptistry and Cemetery contrasts sharply with the green grass of the field and blue of the sky.  The Field of Miracles is a world apart from the earth tones of the surrounding city.

Begun in 1173, the tower began to lean almost from the start.  The tower is eight stories tall and the top four stories angle backward in a futile attempt to correct the lean.  In 1990, the lean became so pronounced that the tower was declared unsafe and closed.  Numerous attempts had been made to stabilize the soil, but they mostly resulted in further leaning.  The tower was finally anchored to the ground with cables and weighted down with 600 tons of lead.  This stopped it from leaning further, but didn’t correct the problem.  Finally, the drilled large holes on the uphill side and sucked out 60 tons of soil.  The tower settled back the necessary six inches and the government was able to remove the cables and weights.  The lean is not, however, the only threat to the tower.  The 180 slender marble columns have been degraded by erosion, dirt, moss and stress from the lean.  One hundred thirty five of them have had to be replaced.  The tower has recently been cleaned and looks in fine form.  I didn’t shell out the 15 Euros to climb to the top, though.

Every tourist on the Field of Miracles seems to be trying to get his or her picture taken “holding up” the tower.  Tourists perched on every stone post like a bunch of carytids.  Having saved my money by not electing to climb the tower, I splurged and bought the ticket that allowed me to visit all of the other sights.  I started with the cemetery.  

Holy Earth

Cemeteries in Italy are not like the ones we are used to in the United States.  They tend to be buildings with remains stacked in vaults or under the floor.  There is often a lot of statuary.  The cemetery at the Field of Miracles is an arcaded quadrangle of white marble with a pretty garden in the center.  The earth in that garden is “holy earth” brought back from Jerusalem’s Mt. Calvary during the crusades.  The dead are buried in the floor.  People are still being planted here on occasion.  Some of the more recent graves had plants and flowers on them.  Prior to World War II, the walls were frescoed with scenes from the bible and allegories depicting Pisa’s often interesting relationship with death.  A plague in 1348 carried off a third of the population.

Cemetery After Bombing

Fresco Substrate
During World War II, an incendiary grenade struck the cemetery and burned the roof, leaving the place a shambles and damaging the frescoes.  For six weeks now, I have been wondering how museums managed to move frescoes their original sites.  I finally got to see a video showing the conservation work following the war.  The frescoes were plastered with layers of cheesecloth, using water-soluble glue.  Woven matting had been hung on the wall before plastering to hold the plaster in place.  This made it possible to peel the frescoes from the wall.  Later, they were affixed to concrete backer board and the supporting cheese cloth soaked off.  The now stabilized frescoes have been returned to the reroofed arcades of the cemetery.

The Duomo in Pisa
Large Mosaic in Duomo
The buildings of the Field of Miracles predate the gothic style and are called Pisa Romanesque.  It is much lighter (and better lighted) than traditional Romanesque architecture and points to things to come.  The interior of the Duomo has a Byzantine flavor with a monumental mosaic of Jesus above the altar.  The 15 foot tall, intricately carved 13th century pulpit is decorated with 400 detailed figures.  I could have spent a long time looking at it if there hadn’t been so much to see.

The baptistery was another unexpected delight.  All of the building on the Field of Miracles lean somewhat and this domed structure is no exception, deviating from vertical by six feet.  In the center is a baptismal fount large enough to immerse adults, as was common at the time it was constructed.  It is the largest baptistery in Italy.  Though simpler than the pulpit in the Duomo, this one is also a masterpiece.  Some say it was the first piece of Renaissance sculpture.  It’s a beauty.  The most precious aspect of the baptistery, however, is its acoustics.  The echo is so long that a person can sing harmony with himself.  A talented security guard demonstrates this every half hour to thunderous applause.  The dome is 50 feet wider than the tower is tall.  It’s a big dome.  There is a gallery up a long flight of stairs, which allows one to look down on the font and singing security guard.  It’s worth the climb for the views alone.

Juliet Costume
The two museums are rather forgettable, but I did enjoy the collection of renaissance costumes and the video about stabilizing the tower.  My feet had had it by the time I had seen everything and I was ready for my late lunch.  I stopped in the nearest café and had a sausage pizza and a glass of Chianti.  The pizza had plenty of cheese and a thicker than usual crust.  There wasn’t much sausage, but it was tasty enough and filling.  I took a more direct route back to the train station and, once again, managed to hop straight on a train.  I got back to Florence about 7:30 and I was tired.

Florence – Day 43 – Friday

This was my last day in Florence and I still had a lot to cover.  Once again, I got up early and arrived at the Accademia before 9:00.  I must have arrived before the tour buses because it was not at all crowded and I was able to get a good look at the David.   I found the David more satisfying than the rest of Michelangelo’s sculpture.  It is monumental and completely finished.  Having originally been intended for the roof of the Florence Duomo, Michelangelo distorted its proportions so that it would appear natural from below.  It never made it to the roof of the Duomo, however, and was instead placed outside the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio.  Seen up close, the head, hands and feet are too large, but the statue is still impressive, if not as perfect as Donatello’s or Bernini’s Davids

The Medici Ricardi Palace was nearby and open on Fridays.  The palace is still used for official functions.  The art was spectacular.  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed.  The Medici occupied the house from its construction on 1444 until 1700 when the Ricardi family took it over.  I found the displays of modern art on the lower level very out of place in the baroque environment.  There were some whimsical plastic statues that could not have looked more alien in that environment if they had been imported from Mars.  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed.  (Although I couldn't resist sneaking this one.)

Verocchio's Cupid
Palazzo Vecchio

I stopped to visit the Palazzo Vecchio on my way across the river to see the Pitti Palace.  The Palazzo Vecchio is a notable building.  The entrance is flanked by Monumental statues.  Today, a copy of Michelangelo’s David stands outside the entrance where the original once stood, David being the symbol of Florence.  In the courtyard is a small, but artistically important fountain featuring Cupid with a dolphin.  This small bronze Cupid by Verrocchio was one of the first statues designed to be equally interesting from any angle.  Its spiral composition was the inspiration for Michelangelo’s later compositions.  The fountain is a copy, but the original is displayed upstairs.
Palazzo Vecchio Interior

The Medici did nothing halfway.   There is a gargantuan salon built to hold (and impress) five hundred guests.  Old Cosimo had no compunctions about having his portrait painted on the ceiling.  Michelangelo’s Victory stands in the hall.  The royal apartments were gorgeously decorated and still contained original furnishings, which distinguished them from most of the other palaces that have been converted to use as museums or public buildings.  On the upper floor was a terrace with a great view of Florence.
The Pitti Palace (Well, 3/4 of it.)

Pitti Courtyard

Pitti Grotto
It had become beastly hot, but I soldiered on across the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace.  This was the most monumental Medici Palace of them all.  It took me four frames to photograph it all.  The outside was rather imposing and austere, but the grounds encompassed the vast Boboli Gardens.  It would be easy to spend an entire day at the Pitti Palace.  There are five separate museums and one could spend half a day exploring and lounging in the gardens.  I elected to skip most of the museums to save my feet, but could not miss the Palatine Gallery, which houses a collection of paintings second only to the Uffizi.  If you have seen photographs of lavish 30’ high rooms hung with paintings from chair rail to ceiling, they were probably taken in this gallery.  The Medici collected art and had a lot of money to throw at the project.  The palace is vast and the collection stretches on and on.  Foreign painters were not discriminated against here and all the famous ones are represented.  Rubens, Titian and Raphael are exceptionally well represented, as well as all the Dutch masters.  The ceilings are lavishly decorated.  These statues are not clever illusions.  The walls are hung with patterned silk.  The furniture and chandeliers are exquisite.   The throne room and rooms where petitioners were kept waiting are especially impressive.  Also worth visiting are the royal apartments where the rulers lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.  These folks knew how to live! 

Boboli Gardens
Boboli Cypress Alley
Boboli Pegasus
It was very warm, but I couldn’t resist exploring the immense gardens.  The Boboli gardens cover both sides of a large hill.  The side facing the palace is very formal, with fountains, stairs and lawns climbing to the top of the hill.  The side of the hill is green lawn with a marble Pegasus for decoration.  The back of the hill is forested, the wild tangle sliced down the middle with a steep alley of cypresses.  Pathways switch back across the face of the hill.  On either side of the cypress alley, bay saplings have been trained into shady tunnels, which were a real boon on a hot day.  I went around the side, walked to the bottom of the hill to see the fountain on an island in the center of a pond, climbed up the tunnel and then   rested at the top and enjoyed the view.  I returned to the palace down the stairways in the formal garden, stopping to take in the great Neptune fountain with its surreal green water.

Tunnel of Bay Trees

Pitti Plaza
My museum hopping done for the day, I was ready for food and a rest.  I succumbed to a tourist special at a café near the palace.  Mixed bruschetta and a glass of Chianti for ten Euros sounded like a good deal until it arrived and I saw that the bruschetta consisted of two small pieces of bread cut in half to make four pieces.  I could have devoured each one in two bites.  Since that meal had been unsatisfying, I consoled myself with gelato.  I ordered some green apple gelato, which was interesting but not destined to become my favorite flavor, and trudged back to my hotel.

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