You can't keep a girl from Florence away from her home town for a full year so it's time for Elena's Florence Part 2. You can find Part 1 here. We like to visit Florence out of season in the winter when it's not completely swamped with tourists and also because the light is so much better for capturing the atmosphere of the city.
We're not going to describe this walk in detail with step by step directions as in Part 1 because that got a little tedious I think, for both writer and reader, so this article is instead a somewhat random photographic outline of the route we took while seeking out as many of the buchette (wine windows) as we could find on a short winter's day. They will appear in a separate article soon.
South of the Arno
We started our walk in the Oltrarno (or Diladdarno), which is the area immediately south of the river Arno. When Cosimo I moved his Medici household to the nearby Pitti Palace in 1550 this area suddenly became very fashionable for Florence nobility and they built grand houses around Via Maggio and Santo Spirito. Exactly the sort of buildings where you would expect to find those unique wine windows. A few streets further west in San Frediano there also developed a community of skilled artisans producing a range of high quality products.
The Fontana dello Sprone (above) acquired its name because of its situation at the narrow 'point' of two streets that converge there. It's also known as the Fontana del Buontalenti, after the person who designed and sculpted it in 1608 and is located at the end of Via Maggio close to Ponte Santa Trinita.
Piazza Santo Spirito is the heart of the Oltrarno with its coffee bars, small daily market, restaurants and night life. It's not a fancy square with the statues and opulence of central Florence but it has an authentic atmosphere, is frequented by local Florentines and is pleasantly quiet in the winter, without a single person holding a selfie-stick. This is the real Florence for the ordinary people of this city or the true fiorentinità as Elena would say.
At least on our latest visit it seemed remarkably unaffected by nearby Borgo San Frediano having been awarded the title of 'coolest neighborhood in the world' by Lonely Planet a few years ago. Just as well, because that type of thing can ruin a place these days.
The Basilica di Santo Spirito (photo at right) at the end of the piazza was Brunelleschi's last masterpiece and the simplicity of the exterior conceals the treasures within, including a wooden crucifix attributed to a teenage Michelangelo.
There are many boutiques in the Oltrarno with good quality items to buy (no fridge magnets here!) including of course Florence's famous bistecca fiorentina.
If you keep your eyes open on a walk like this you will see expertly fashioned wrought iron on many of the better quality buildings in Florence on both sides of the river. In the example below, the circular rings were typically horse hooks with the top part being a holder for a lantern or torch and there were often decorative elements in between on the more important buildings.
Iron craftsmanship flourished in Florence from the 13th century and the guild of blacksmiths and iron workers was one of the oldest guilds in Florence. People today will pass by these ancient artifacts with nary a glance in their rush to see the Duomo and the more obvious attractions in Florence.
It's difficult to date many of the iron pieces with any certainty but if the rings on buildings are found much higher than 5 feet off the ground then it is more likely they were added in later centuries for decorative purposes rather than for actually tying up horses.
The 500 year old mystery of who actually was the real Mona Lisa (note that in Italian it is spelled Monna from mia donna and at least in Veneto the word 'mona' with just one 'n' isn't exactly polite!) seems to have been finally solved in 2005 when a note scribbled by Agostino Vespucci in 1503 in the margin of an edition of Cicero was discovered. It mentioned the head of Lisa del Giocondo as one of the paintings that da Vinci was working on at that time. It should be said however that for Florentines there was never any mystery that needed solving; they were always certain that the real Mona Lisa was one of their own.
Lisa's maiden name was Gherardini; she was born in 1479 and, until her marriage to the wealthy silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, she lived at the corner of Via Sguazza and Via Maggio opposite the frescoed facade of the house of Bianca Cappello.
After her marriage in 1495 she moved across the river to Via della Stufa where her husband frequented the same church as da Vinci's father Piero, who lived nearby. Piero also worked as a notary on several occasions for Francesco so Leonardo's acceptance of the commission and his dedication to it over the years, when many other of his commissions went unfinished, was probably due to this family connection and sense of responsibility to his father.
The Mona Lisa is also known as La Gioconda, a play on Lisa's married name, and is the main reason why 10 million people visit the Louvre every year, though you only get 30 seconds from a distance of several yards to gaze at the painting through bulletproof glass.
When the Italian Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa in 1911 and brought it back to Italy he was hailed as a patriot and the painting was exhibited all around the country. I have no idea why Italy decided to return this Italian masterpiece to France two years later when it was abundantly clear at that time how much Italian cultural heritage had been stolen by Napoleon a century earlier and how much of it remains in France to this day.
The Louvre was basically founded on stolen art from Italy as Cynthia Saltzman describes in her 2021 book called Plunder. The following quote is from a recent published review of her book:
"Napoleon Bonaparte, one of history’s most prolific art looters, plundered famous works from across Europe to stock the newly created Louvre Museum. In this fascinating tale, art historian Cynthia Saltzman describes how he stole one of Venice’s most important paintings and why, 225 years later, it remains in Paris."
If we can pull down statues everywhere these days for perceived historical sins or even guilt by association, then we should perhaps consider repatriating irreplaceable cultural heritage obtained by conquest and looting.
The Pitti Palace is one of the most famous buildings in Florence and we're not about to describe here all the museums contained within it but we happened to pass right by it before crossing the Arno on our search for more buchette. It's another example of both the good fortune and the power of the Medici dynasty who acquired it from their enemy, Luca Pitti, 30 years after the beginning of its construction when the Pitti family ruined themselves economically trying to compete with the Medici. After the fall of the Medici it was occupied by all the subsequent rulers of Tuscany and by the King of Italy when Florence was the state capital, from 1865 until Italian unification was finally completed in 1871.
Crossing over the Arno
The Ponte Santa Trinita is the main crossing point from Santo Spirito into the center of Florence and was at least the fourth bridge to be constructed on this site, the previous ones having all been destroyed by floods, so its architect, Bartolomeo Ammannati, came up with a high flat arch design in which the supporting columns were fashioned into more streamlined points in order to deflect raging floodwater. The bridge was completed in 1569 and four ornamental statues representing the different seasons were added in 1608 to celebrate the wedding of Cosimo II.
The bridge was superbly designed and survived intact for centuries until blown up by the retreating Germans during the night of August 3 1944, together with every other ancient bridge in Florence with the exception of the Ponte Vecchio.
All four statues ended up in the Arno along with most of the bridge and for a full 14 years thereafter, while funds were being raised for its reconstruction, Florentines had to cross the Arno here on a British army built Bailey bridge.
Elena's babbo, Arturo, remembers the Bailey bridge very well, probably because he had to make the hazardous night time crossing to get home after a night out in the center of town in his late teens and early twenties; he was already 23 years old by the time the dedication ceremony for the reconstructed bridge took place. As a 9 year old he also remembers the series of massive explosions when these bridges were blown up in 1944. At the end of the war, Elena's grandfather was one of many people who helped in the recovery of all the ancient stones mixed in with the rubble and debris of a war zone.
The statues were all recovered except for the head of the Primavera (spring) statue and the bridge was painstakingly reconstructed as much as possible from the recovered stone, with additional material being sourced by re-opening the original quarry under the Boboli Garden. No detail was spared in re-creating what had been the oldest elliptic arch bridge in the world, including using only those tools that would have been available to the skilled artisans of 400 years earlier to ensure complete authenticity.
The bridge was formally reopened in 1958, still missing the Primavera head, and then three years later a diver found it nearby in the Arno river buried in silt, so finally in 1961 the bridge was fully restored. If you magnify the above photo you will clearly see the line around the statue's neck where it was previously decapitated.
The front of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is where everyone prefers to take photographs and now it has been cleaned the white Carrara marble and the green 'serpentine' Prato marble certainly look very fresh and bright in the sunshine.
But around the back where much of the cleaning work still needs to be done and where there is significantly less space between the Duomo and the neighboring buildings, this magnificent structure can only be viewed by standing close and looking vertically up. It is this view (below right) which I find more atmospheric and more intimidatingly gothic and medieval looking.
The first time I saw the marble statue below I assumed it was of Julius Caesar in recognition of his founding of Florence in 59 B.C. but in fact there doesn't seem to be a statue of him anywhere in this city. This marvelous gleaming work opposite the much grimmer looking Basilica di San Lorenzo, where all the Medici rulers are buried, is not even of a true Medici. He was a warrior by the name of Giovanni delle Bande Nere who achieved his position by virtue of having married one of the granddaughters of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Their union produced a new line of Medici rulers, starting with Cosimo I, after the assassination of Alessandro de' Medici in 1537, who died without a legitimate male heir. Giovanni (known also as Ludovico de' Medici) died of battle wounds at 28 years old after a brief military career as a famous condottiero, mostly spent in the service of the two Medici Popes. Whether deserved or not he certainly got a fine statue, put there by his son Cosimo I.
On our circuitous route towards Santa Croce as we neared Elena's old stomping ground of Florence University, we passed by one of her favorite lunch spots of thirty years ago, the famous Antico Noè panini shop (right photo below). Ten years ago they agreed to let an American open a branch in New York City but only after training his staff here in Florence on how to make their bread and sauces and how to properly construct the panini.
The Palazzo Strozzi was built by another famous Florentine family who made the mistake of choosing to oppose the Medici and, like the Pitti family, the Strozzi also suffered both politically and financially and were exiled in 1434. But they continued to plot and intrigue against the Medici without any success and at some further cost in blood.
Their impressive Renaissance building is now used for art exhibitions and the one in the photo below at the time of our visit was part of a exhibition of the work of Jeff Koons, the controversial American purveyor of ridiculously expensive but very banal and shiny pop art.
Nearby in Via Tornabuoni is the medieval Palazzo Spini Ferroni that has been owned by the Salvatore Ferragamo family for the past 84 years and has been mostly off limits to the general public for the entire period. It's a building rich in history and art as well as apparently having 15,000 pairs of shoes in the basement representing a unique historical record of the 100 year Ferragamo shoe design story.
As we continued our hunt for more buchette our penultimate stop was in Piazza Santa Croce, where at the entrance to the piazza there are two signs high up on the wall.
The lower one shows how high the Arno rose during the floods of 1557 and the very small white marker above it (just below the 'Piazza di Santa Croce' sign) shows the crest of the floodwater on November 4th 1966.
It was a devastating flood for Florence with the muddy water reaching twenty feet above the pavements. 100 lives were lost, 14,000 works of art damaged and the tombs of all of Florence's great historical figures submerged. It took 20 years to repair most of the art and even 50 years later restoration was still being carried out.
The Basilica di Santa Croce is the burial place of many of the greatest Italians, or at least those that died in Italy. Galileo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli to name but three are here, but of course not Leonardo da Vinci who died in France and not Dante who died and was buried in Ravenna when still exiled from Florence. Florence would dearly love Dante's remains to be returned to his home town and as well as the statue to him by the Basilica (below), Florence built him a tomb which has lain empty ever since, and probably rightly so given he was exiled by a French prince on politically motivated charges and has yet to receive an unconditional pardon from Florence.
And as the winter sun was starting to fade we made our final stop in the Piazza della Signoria, because where else to finish a walk through Florence? More than anywhere else in the city this is the true focal point of the Florentine Republic and wherever you turn in this piazza you see stunning works of art. Out of all the photographs we took here, the following are our favorites even though none of them properly show the massive and impressive Palazzo Vecchio.
Cellini's masterpiece below of Perseus with the head of Medusa took almost a decade to complete in 1554 and was cast in one complete piece of bronze, an unusually difficult task in those days.
The statue of Hercules below shows him slaying Cacus, who was a fire breathing giant of Roman mythology who terrorized the Aventine hill before the founding of Rome. Cacus and Hercules seem to be mentioned by all the great Italian poets from Ovid to Virgil and even Dante so it's perhaps no great surprise to see them immortalized forever in this piazza.
Michelangelo's David stood here for almost 400 years until 1873 and the 6 tons of solid Carrara marble withstood everything the climate could throw at it before being moved indoors. The outside replica was put here in 1910 and there are now many other replicas around the world though amazingly, a full size marble copy of David with his slingshot over his left shoulder offered as a gift by Florence to mark 3,000 years of Jerusalem's history was declined by that city on account of his nudity after complaints by Orthodox Jews and Muslims.
The citizens of Florence always identified with the biblical David because they felt that their fragile Republic was always under threat by their many enemies in every direction and like David they used intelligence and guile rather than brawn to remain independent for centuries. That may be so, but in building its walls Lucca saw Florence more as Goliath than David and so too did the town of Volterra after it was sacked and plundered by Florentine forces.
The photograph on the right below shows the Fountain of Neptune, created in 1575 by the same architect, Bartolomeo Ammannati, who was responsible for the Ponte Santa Trinita described earlier. The figure of Neptune was carved from a single block of marble and given the face of Cosimo I because it was Cosimo himself who commissioned the statue, though he died the year before its completion.
The rhyming refrain from Florentines when they first saw what they came to refer to as 'Il Biancone' (the big white one) was "Ammannato, Ammannato, quanto marmo t'hai sciupato!" (how much marble you have wasted!). Cosimo I expanded the borders of Florentine power and control and he also spent quite lavishly on Medici family projects with the citizens of Florence having to bear the cost in higher taxes, hence the jibe about wasting marble on a statue with his likeness.
A few steps in front of the fountain is an inscription in the pavement marking the exact spot where the mad monk Savonarola was burned at the stake on May 23rd 1498.
And finally a photograph of an old Alinari image that has been hanging on Elena's father's wall for decades which shows the Piazza della Signoria taken from Piazzale degli Uffizi, around 1890. Only the bystanders have changed and whereas the piazza is now full of tourists throughout the year, back then there were only Florentines going about their business and well-to-do ladies taking a stroll.
This is the Florence that Henry James would recognise as well as Dostoevsky, E.M.Forster (A Room with a View) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Also Queen Victoria, who made three lengthy visits here in 1888, 1893 and 1894 and "was tireless in her sightseeing" according to Christopher Hibbert.
But there is something missing in the photograph - David - and if you look carefully at the extreme right hand side you'll see a vacant plinth because the original went indoors in 1873 and the replica didn't appear here until 1910.