DAY 5 in Florence, Italy:
I loved loved loved today.
Did You know that nearly a third of the world’s art treasures reside in Florence (according to UNESCO)? That in 1339, Florence became the first city in all of Europe with paved streets? And that Pinocchio came from Florence? Le Avventure di Pinocchio (The Adventures of Pinocchio) was published between 1881 and 1883 by Carlo Lorenzini (pen-name Collodi), a Florentine by birth.
Okay where shall I begin….
Today started off insane.
A lack of clarity in our itinerary led us to think that we had booked a 9am entry slot into the Uffizi Gallery, but because we couldn’t find our entrance tickets and had no internet access, we couldn’t check to be sure. We walked as quickly and as calmly as we could, only to realise about halfway to the museum (after ‘stealing’ a restaurant’s wifi access) that we had in fact not booked anything because of the high booking fees. Our lucky stars must have been shining that day because Miriam came across a man who offered her (and effectively, me) a ticket to cut the 500-metre queue and receive a tour of the entire gallery (with a really sassy Italian tour guide)! So we took it!
Here were some of my takeaways:
In 1560, Cosimo I de’ Medici, aka. Cosimo the Great and first Grand Duke of Tuscany, called upon his favourite artist, Giorgio Vasari, to design the grandiose Uffizi (which in Italian means “offices”) to house the administrative and judiciary offices of Florence.
In 1581, Francesco I de’ Medici, Cosimo’s son, set up a private Gallery (for statues and other precious objects) in the octagonal room called Tribuna. The collections of the Medici family became vaster and vaster, continually enriched by every member of the Medici dynasty until the family died out in the 18th century.
The Family Pact, signed by Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the last of the Medici dynasty, ensured that all the Medici’s art and treasures collected over nearly three centuries remained in Florence, so that “they would remain as decoration for the State, for the utility of the Public and to attract the curiosity of Foreigners”. In particular, she declared that the Uffizi Gallery was a “public and inalienable public good”, paving the way for its great wealth of art to be shared with all.
Today, the Uffizi has become one of the most visited and popular museums of the world.
Similarly to Miriam, my two favourite paintings were Allegory of Spring and The Birth of Venus (featured above) by Sandro Botticelli.
Allegory of Spring (aka. La Primavera)
It is a masterpiece of the early Renaissance and arguably the most popular artistic representation of Spring. On the right, Zephyrus (the blue-faced young man), the west wind, pursues a nymph named Chloris. Upon successfully reaching her, Chloris transforms into the Spring goddess, Flora (indicated by the flowers coming out of her mouth). Flora scatters the flowers over the world (nature was flower-less — oh the blasphemy! — before Flora began scattering them), symbolising springtime and fertility. In the middle, the Roman goddess, Venus, represents the “Humanitas” (the goodwill/ benevolence), who protects men. Above her is her son, cupid, blindfolded as he shoots his arrows of love towards the Three Graces. On the left, the Three Graces (who represent the feminine virtues of Chastity, Beauty, and Love; the pearls on their heads symbolise purity) dance, and Mercury dissipates the clouds of winter with his staff for Spring to come.
Fun fact: There are more than 300 types of flowers in this piece of artwork!
The Birth of Venus
The Birth of Venus is one of the most heralded works of the Renaissance and a lasting symbol of feminine, grace and beauty. The theme comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a very important oeuvre of the Latin literature. The alluring Venus, the goddess of Love, is portrayed naked on a shell on the seashore. On her left, Zephyr, the God of the west wind, gently blows her to shore. The figure carried by Zephyr is meant to be either an Aura (nymphs of the wind) or Chloris, a nymph associated with Spring and blossoming flowers. On Venus’ right, one of the Horae, goddesses of the seasons, is ready with a cape to clothe the shy body of the newborn deity.
There is a theory that posits that this particular scene was based on a Homeric hymn published in Florence by Demetrios Chalkokondyles that reads:
“Of august gold-wreathed and beautiful
Aphrodite I shall sing to whose domain
belong the battlements of all sea-loved
Cyprus where, blown by the moist breath
of Zephyros, she was carried over the
waves of the resounding sea on soft foam.
The gold-filleted Horae happily welcomed
her and clothed her with heavenly raiment.”
Fun fact: Something that makes this work unique? The special use of expensive alabaster powder makes the colours even brighter and timeless.
Our Italian lady guide shared heaps of interesting information about everything that revolved around the Uffizi Gallery – the Medici family and their beautiful (and might I add, really expensive) treasures.
She said two things that stuck with me the most:
“I love Botticelli, but only in winter, when it’s not so crowded.”
“I would marry Marie Medici’s husband, King Henry IV of France.
But our kingdom would collapse.
We would smile all day long and no one would rule the kingdom.”
I couldn’t have imagined going through the entire museum without her bank of facts (and effortless humour). Definitely worth every
It was drizzling when we walked out onto the Florentine streets, and of course, as it was in Spain (selfie sticks! jewellery pieces! water!), we were approached by dozens of street vendors, but this time to sell ponchos and umbrellas. Instead, we went ahead with our plans of picking up our ponchos from our hostel and getting lunch somewhere along the way. We dropped by a really colourful fruit shop which pulled us in with their really cheap green figs (while picking some out, we were stopped in our tracks by a “No self-service!” lady, who ended up picking them for us).
Fast forward a little, we arrived at Santa Maria Novella Square a little before 2pm, sure yet unsure about whether we really were at the free walking tour’s starting point (we were confused — which side was of the back Santa Maria Church?) because there wasn’t anyone else there! I googled our free tour (thank You free city wifi!) and realised that it would only start in 3.5 hours. Uh, so… yes, that day’s itinerary wasn’t really well updated.
C’est la vie! We sat in the warm sun, took out our sort-of veggie ciabatta sandwiches, frantically waved pigeons away, and laughed at ourselves… at the whole situation. 🙂
Miriam and I had some time on our hands, so we headed to the incredibly gorgeous, Gothic-styled Duomo, where we joined a free tour of the dome. The exterior is covered with a decorative mix of pink (which, Andy from Barcelona told us was really pricey!), white and green marble. The interior, by contrast, is pretty stark and plain… but, it d id house beautiful elements. The tour, led by a nervous Italian girl (she kept apologising for her limited English), included introductions to a fresco of a horse that seemed to turn its head and follow us as we walked, a painting by Dante showing hell, heaven and purgatory, and Brunelleschi’s dome that was to be ‘more useful and beautiful, more powerful and honourable’ than any other.
There was a group of 5 young adults on the free dome tour with us, who we thought sounded (we eavesdropped, sorry) and looked (I thought one of them looked like a friend’s sister) like Singaporeans. We had intentions to say “hello” but things didn’t play out as planned. (Remember this group of Singaporeans, though… 🙂 They’ll make another unexpected appearance soon!)
After our adventures in the Dome, we urgently needed the toilet but were certain we’d rather give the public, payment-requiring toilets a miss. We ended up trying our luck at a hotel but a skilled receptionist busted our sneaky plan of pretending to be a guest and gaining entrance to their toilets. Miriam, in her nervous state, accidentally said that we were in room 901 (our hostel room number in Barcelona), failing to remember that this hotel we were in only had 4 floors! 😂 We walked a few units down the street before we entered a seemingly quiet, seemingly empty restaurant and sneaked into their toilet, hoping no one would notice. Unfortunately, we were caught on the way out and had to pay 50 cents each for answering Nature’s call…
We were minutes away from our free tour’s real starting time so we made our way back, but once again, there wasn’t anyone there! We got worried and honestly quite confused at this point.
I still can’t believe what we did next…
- We ran up to someone surrounded by a big group of people, holding a big red umbrella (something Sandeman free tours use to identify themselves in public) with the speed of cheetahs. He was just a man who was bringing his family around Florence, who happened to be carrying a big red umbrella, and who was visibly frightened at the speed we were dashing towards his at.
- We approached another big group of people. This time, they were a group of amused scholars heading to the Santa Maria Novella train station.
Well done, Nat and Miriam.
Calmed down, we finally found our bearings (literally) and joined our booked free tour, which was led by a very entertaining tour guide who said everything matter-of-factly, expressionless… not in a boring way, but in I-don’t-have-to-try-hard-to-be-funny-I-just-am kind of way! He pronounced “minutes” as ‘min-ooots’, stood in front of the Duomo where he said, “You’ll see strange things at the top of the cupola… People” (463 steps and 15€ to the top of the cupola for a close-up of The Last Judgement and a sweeping view of the city!), and introduced the Ponte Vecchio to us by mentioning that “this place is a little famous”.
Some cool things I learned?
Florence attracts over 10 million visitors per year.
Basilica di San Lorenzo is one of the oldest churches of Florence and was the burial place of all the principal members of the Medici family.
The Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery) boasts the world’s largest collection of Renaissance art.
One of the symbols of Florence is the Marzocco, a seated lion with the emblem of Florence resting on its paw. The name derives from Mars, which was the very first symbol of Florentia, and was then replaced by the lion. One little-known curiosity is that live lions were once kept in cages behind Palazzo Comunale, in the street that is still known as Via dei Leoni today.
The right hand of the statue of David (the original found in The Academia, the replica found at the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio) is disproportionately large compared to the body because in the Middle Ages, David was commonly said to be of “manu fortis” – strong of hand.
Besides the replica of David, Piazza de la Signoria is where several statues stand. For instance, Perseus holding Medusa’s head (used to represent Cosimo Medici squashing any form of rebellion in the form of a Florentine republic). Legend has it that the artist took 9 years to make the cast for the statue. After that was done, he realised he hadn’t enough molten bronze for the entire statue — more specifically, to finish up the head of medusa and half of Perseus’ arm! So he raided his kitchen for pots and pans, melted them, and used it to complete the unfinished portions. Although no one can prove that legend, scientists have discovered that the head of Medusa and half of Perseus’ arm are in fact not pure bronze.
Michaelangelo used a piece of marble that no one wanted to carve David. It was set aside as it was thought to be too ugly and fragile to make anything out of it. Something amazing I learned when I read Miriam’s account of this day was that Michaelangelo apparently said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
Florence was severely damaged during World War II by the Germans, who blew up all its bridges except the Ponte Vecchio, which used to be a fish market and is now home to jewelers, as Hitler allegedly declared it too beautiful to destroy. It is the only bridge to have survived WWII. Referring to the other bridges, our guide said, “Those bridges are fake!”
We ended the tour at the Palazzo Pitti, which might I add, was gorgeous as it glowed, basking in the golden rays of the golden hour. We bid our farewells and tipped the tour guide (!) before we headed to a nearby restaurant for round 1 (of many many rounds) of Marinara pizza. There was a misunderstanding — we wanted to have additional spinach, but they gave us mozarella instead… that was awkward, but long story short, we got our Marinara topped with spinach.
The sun was setting and it naturally got cool as we walked back to the hostel, so we fished out raincoats out of our bags, to which I commented, “these raincoats-slash-windbreakers are just about the best thing to use to break wind.”
I didn’t realise the hilarity in what I just said until Miriam burst into giggles. 😅
Today was so wonderful.
Days when I get to learn this much are just so so wonderful.
Ahhh, my heart.