from Sandy Needham

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Florence Dispatch

>The first time I went to Florence, Italy was in 1967 at age seventeen. Newton and I have dropped in there a couple of times in our travels, but this fall we exchanged our home for seventeen days in a lovely apartment smack dab in the middle of everything. Observation: there are twenty times more tourists in Florence now than in 1967. I don't believe this is an exaggeration.

Statue of Dante Alighieri in front of Santa Croce
And why not droves of tourists? The city - always wealthy - is a repository of finely preserved beauty and genius, which was nurtured and protected long before the Renaissance brought its own new onslaught of genius. Leonardo, Michelangelo and Dante, among many others, walked those streets. Their patrons, the Medici, preferred tunnels and passages between their palaces to avoid death on the streets at the hands of their enemies. Florence was generally at odds with Siena and emperors were generally at odds with popes. The untold, world-changing treasures the Medici commissioned and left to history exist in a small city that is pristine, breathtaking... and very crowded. I understand why the whole world believes this phenomenal trove belongs to everyone.

The question of throngs of tourists is not an easy one, especially for our exchange couple, a retired Florentine professor of physics and his wife from Abruzzo. Fabrizio and Vittoria lived in the apartment in Florence for ten years. They watched their relationship with shop owners weaken, their civic organizations wither, their ability to move about town, increasingly impeded. Newer to the city have been countless busloads of tourists - many from cruises that dock on the coast - and an increase in tour groups from Asia added to the tour groups from everywhere else. All tend to move about the city in clumps. The sidewalks are maybe  two feet wide, and when one steps into the street to pass, the street itself can barely accommodate two small cars passing. Getting stuck behind a tour group in a museum can actually curtail one's chance to see what is exhibited. While this crowding is a fact in Rome, as well, Rome has more space.

>Our apartment was 70 stairs up, but appointed with finely made pieces.

Newton at work

Window lace

Window lace

Stained glass loft bathroom doors
Sauce made with red wine
>Our stay was fantastic, gorgeous, intense and difficult. We found delicious, un-tourist-spoiled food by way of our food guide, Fred Plotkin. Having given away our prior editions of his Italy for the Gourmet Traveler - which has been our bible since 2004 - we decided to buy the latest edition while in New York last summer. The bookseller referred to it as "the brick!" It is heavy. Many have beseeched Fred to offer a digital version, but so far, no go. Newton surgically sliced out the pages pertaining to our destinations this trip: Toscana, Emilia-Romagna and Lazio, then scanned each page for use on our devices and phones. The pay-off was grand!

We also loved the trattoria down the block that Vittoria and Fabrizio recommended, Il Pennello. We knew Fred would approve: mom and pop establishment; consistently delicious food; good house wine; reasonably priced. We became regulars!

At Teatro del Sale
Fred recommended Teatro del Sale, owned by the famous chef, Fabio Picchi, who prides himself on using fresh ingredients from the Sant'Ambrogio Market next door. An old theater was adapted to a dining room with a stage and a large buffet table. Specialties are announced throughout the meal by chefs shouting from the kitchen! Aqua frizzante, red and white wine and espresso are help yourself a-la-spina. After dinner, everyone lines their chairs up for a performance of various art forms. Our night was Spanish guitarists. Fun and delish.

The David copy, in its idealized classical perfection
We decided to avoid the most popular attractions that we had already seen, such as the Academia, which houses Michelangelo's David and is mobbed...though I never tired of passing the copy of the David in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in "our" Piazza della Signoria. 

Palazzo Vecchio and the Neptune Fountain in the Piazza della Signoria, from our apartment window

...and out our window by day, with the crowds lining up

One afternoon near closing time, we could easily stroll into the elaborate courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio without waiting in line. The coat of arms shown with embedded balls is that of the Medici; these appear in most historic buildings in Florence

We also passed frequently in our Piazza this exquisite and graphic sculpture of Perseus holding the head of Medusa, by Cellini. Hermes (Mercury) lent Perseus his winged sandals to fly and Athena lent a special shield. Perseus then slew the sleeping Medusa in the Gorgon's cave. The statue shares a vaulted colonnade with many sculptures in this corner next to the Palazzo Vecchio.

On the other side of the Palazzo is the Fountain of Neptune:

>I thought I'd fight my way in to see one of the big museums again while Newton worked. I had not yet done so when we had a conversation with an American couple at the next table at lunch. They had purchased the three-day passes to most palaces, churches and museums for the sole purpose of avoiding the lines. They were traveling on after lunch and offered us their passes. The Uffizi was still available and just steps from our door, so we hung those tags around our necks and sashéed past the lines for an afternoon in an exceptional museum.

Pan, with a mannered swagger

Post-classical motion and open space
And an actual classical Greek work, Athena

Botticelli's "Birth of Spring" (His famous "Birth of Venus" was on the opposite wall, but you may already know that one; BIG crowd)

Caravaggio's favorite model, here as the slain Medusa

Speaking of genius: the classical elegance and restraint of Leonardo's "Annunciation"

>We could have used remaining pass locations the following day, except we had already bought timed tickets for the train to Pisa. The leaning tower was something I didn't need to see twice, but having talked Newton out of going through Pisa more than once in the past, I surrendered. Pisa is a bit dirty and bedraggled next to Florence, but the weather was beautiful, we saw the damn tower and had a nice lunch. Problem was, our timed return train tickets were for 10:00pm, and there was nothing else to do in the city on a Sunday. We sneaked back on the next train and were lucky to neither have to play dumb nor get fined, as the conductor did not show up in our car.

Leaning Husband in Pisa
There are some beautiful contemporary marble sculptures around Pisa that invite interaction with pedestrians.

>The Bardini Garden, across the Arno in Florence, was less popular with tourists than the Boboli, so we had a very tranquil afternoon hiking, visiting three exhibits in the villa, and crossing the road to Fort Belvedere for even more vistas of the city.

This extraordinary fashion exhibit of Roberto Capucci at the Villa Bardini took my breath away.

Hillside view from Fort Belvedere
A nice late afternoon glass of wine at Fort Belvedere

>It was during our incredible lunch at the Cantinetta dei Verrazzano in Florence, where we had delicious wine and fennochiona (salami made with fennel), that we inquired about the Castello di Verrazzano winery. The instructions were simple: make a reservation for a tour and catch a 40-minute bus there. The ride through the Tuscan hills was as stunning and storybook lovely as always. We got off one stop before the town of Greve-in-Chianti in the specific, strictly regulated Chianti Classico strip that falls between Florence and Sienna. 

The clerk in the Verrazzano shop down on the road told us the winery was a one kilometer hike up the hill. He lied. It was over two kilometers up and up, I had on wedge shoes, and the last stretch before the castello was unpaved, so the cars that passed us (without offering a ride) covered us in dust. We arrived just five minutes late for our tour - huffing and puffing - but then had the most marvelous tour and lunch imaginable! The tract of land is huge. They raise boars and pigs to make their own salamis and prosciuttos.

This medium-sized vineyard produces around 250,000 bottles per year
If the name Verrazzano rings any bells with you..."Saturday Night Fever," for is because Giovanni da Verrazzano, who 'discovered' the bay of New York, was born here in 1485. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island was named for him.

Neighboring castello
These are the white grapes airing out for three additional months in order to concentrate the sugars for the famous dessert wine, Vin Santo. Our tour guide explained that a favorite dessert in Tuscany is the hard almond "biscotti" dipped in Vin Santo.

They also age balsamic vinegar for ten years here in decreasing barrel sizes until it is a concentrate of pure heaven...drizzled on a piece of cheese at lunch, but also popular on vanilla ice cream! It is expensive.

The lunch/wine tasting was out of a dream.
Our wines included two levels of Chianti Classico, an exceptional white, and a "Super Tuscan"...wines that do not adhere to the Classico rules and which mix other grapes with the Sangiovese

Il Duomo di Firenze
>I took my eyeglass prescription I secured in New York last summer to a Florentine optician next to the Duomo and the Baptistry. The lines to enter either were always too long, but I never tired of observing the buildings on my numerous trips to the optician. The Duomo facade, which is too lacy for my tastes, was added in the eighteenth century. I found the medieval Romanesque Baptistry (with some classical Renaissance touches added later) pleasing to the eye. Besides, it offers Ghiberti's gilt bronze bas relief doors from the early fifteenth century on the east side. The next century they were dubbed "The Gates of Paradise" by Michelangelo. Each panel depicts a scene from the Old Testament. 

Il Duomo facade

The Baptistry

The Gates of Paradise

There was a contest for the third and final set of doors of the Baptistry which pitted the accomplished artist, engineer and architect of the Duomo, Brunelleschi, against the young Ghiberti, who had already made a previous set of bronze doors. Ghiberti won, though both artists are considered inspiring influences of the early Renaissance. You can see that the quatrefoil framing was eliminated in the final work of art.

Brunelleschi's entry (Bargello Museum)

Ghiberti's entry (Bargello Museum) - both are of Abraham and Isaac

>The true highlight of our stay was lunch at Fabrizio and Vittoria's house, a 20-minute drive into the Tuscan hills, situated on the grounds of another winery. The two of them really outdid themselves serving up the epitome of a Florentine lunch. We started with a visit to Fabrizio's wine cellar, cleverly using these terra cotta bricks to aid further in the temperature control.

He had already told us we would be having Brunello di Montalcino - our favorite Italian wine - of which he has an impressive collection. He opened two bottles: from 2005 and 1998...and a Sardo white.

Florentine beef

While Fabrizio cooked this gigantic slab of bistecca alla fiorentina, we had some incredible Tuscan cheeses and Vittoria's pasta in fresh tomato sauce.

The beef is served with fresh arugula and large shavings of Parmesan cheese. 

We ended with guess what? Vin Santo and delicious almond biscotti to dip!

As the charming and generous Fabrizio and Vittoria were driving us back, we realized we had taken no photos. Everyone jumped out of the car, leaving it in the middle of a narrow road, and we snapped various combinations of ourselves. Newton decided to put his phone camera on timer to include all of us, so he balanced the bottle of Brunello that Fabrizio sent home with us on top of the car and leaned the phone against it. We're all laughing here because we're waiting for the timer click while an unamused driver has arrived who cannot pass. Pressure. I adore this photo!
Newton, Vittoria, Fabrizio and I
>Newton and I walked for miles in Florence. We returned to the quieter far side of the Arno and ate at Fred's recommendation, Trattoria del Carmine in Piazza del Carmine, twice. 

The Basilica di Santo Spirito is an elegant Renaissance church that has not had Baroque overlays of opulence spoiling it's classical purity. Brunelleschi did the original perspective drawings.

We climbed to the Piazzale Michelangelo, featuring a giant copy of the David and spectacular views.

We crossed back over the bridge and went to a rooftop bar at a hotel along the Arno for more vistas.

The warm late afternoon light creates a beautiful sight.
Basilica di Santa Croce

>Other excursions on our side of the river took in the gothic Basilica di Santa Croce, whose Seal of Solomon in the top pediment divulges a mystery brought back from the Crusades. I love to spot such clues in the churches.

An international ceramics fair in the Piazza Santissima Annunziata also gave us a chance to see that Renaissance church with more Baroque elements added later:

Santissima Annunziata

Palazzo Bargello Museum
As Newton and I always say, the time between food and wine has to be filled some way or another until we're hungry again! We loved our visit to the medieval Palazzo Bargello Museum. It is a gorgeous setting for gorgeous art.

This exquisite Renaissance piece is 'Flying Mercury" by Giambologna. Perfection.
Hestia, Goddess of Architecture
"David" by the famous early Renaissance sculptor, Donatello. He studied with Ghiberti and contributed significant influence to the high Renaissance. True, this David does not exude the virility of Michelangelo's later masterpiece.
Donatello's "Dancing Cherub"
Sophisticated art and design did not come to a halt centuries ago in this rarified atmosphere. Just walking the streets - our favorite thing after food and wine - is a constant feast for the eye, from the "buona forma" of the elegantly dressed Italians to shop windows and little treasures that appear on walls:

More from Italy to come.



  1. The pictures alone make it worth the read. Obviously it was a well packed 17 day adventure.



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