The skyline of Florence, that magical Tuscan city, is dominated by the Duomo of S. Maria del Fiore. The city is both an arrival point for many holidayers in Italy and a pleasant couple of hours drive from Bellaugello Gay Guest House. In centuries gone by artists, and spoken word of the nobility on ‘the grand tour’ were the only record of the majestic cathedral and its domination of the city skyline. Now Instagrammers from all over the world follow the tradition of earlier ‘box browniers’ in snapping this architectural masterpiece. It never ceases to amaze me just how many millions of photos are clicked away every day. Most, I guess, never to be seen again.
Snapped from the Piazza Michelangelo on the far bank of the Arno, the view of Firenze is arguably the classic panorama of all Italian renaissance cityscapes. The cathedral with its terracotta dome dominates. Famous the world over, it encapsulates the romance of an Italian holiday. Florence is a compact city to visit. Although driving is easy, parking a-plenty and traffic rarely a problem, I choose to take the train. I love the journey from Perugia, passing the crystaline waters of Lago Trasimeno before heading northwards past Cortona and Arezzo then dropping down into the Arno valley.
The station of S Maria Novella is a 1930s gem. Designed by Gruppo Toscano led by rationalist architect Giovanni Michelucci, it is, (apart from the loss of the handy left luggage room now tragically replaced by a McDonalds) thankfully virtually intact. The building is still surprisingly well maintained. The clean line architecture, dramatic changes in roof heights, use of glass, expansive murals and a multitude of ribbon-like light fittings engulf one whilst the text of the crisp bronze signs speak of Agatha Christie movies and elegant travel to exotic places. The station has the advantage of being remarkably ‘downtown’ a hop skip and a jump from the main sights.
Please leave the station by the main booking hall entrance that takes you to the piazza. This way you avoid the sight of several further McDonalds that litter the side street next to the station. If you have time cross the piazza and visit the museum of S. Maria Novella, a haven of medieval peace in this bustling city. Since 1920 the Carabinieri used part of the buildings as their school. The school is now being relocated so access is possible to the dramatic large frescoed cloister. The museum often hosts visiting exhibitions, the most recent being on the Botanica of Leonardo, himself born in the nearby town of Vinci.
Walk along narrow pavements competing with the clunk clunk clunk of roller bags interspersed with elegant Florentines, the aroma of real Italian coffee punctuates the air. After only five minutes you catch your first glimpse of the cathedral or ‘Duomo’. This is the third largest church in Europe and no matter how many times I visit it never ceases to amaze me. Yes, I love the baptistry with its colossal Ghiberti bronze doors, but it is the actual dome that draws and stimulates me and I have to climb to the top.
In 1418 The Florentines ran a competition for a design and realisation of a dome to cover what had been for over 100 years an uncompleted open space in their cathedral. The surprise winner was Filippo Brunelleschi and for the next thirty years the city watched his dome rise. I can never imagine the ingenuity of the man. How to raise the largest self-supporting domed structure in the renaissance world, how to source the materials, the craftsmen and to have the utter conviction of his concept. It blows my mind.
As I turn the corner past the Baptistry I head to the Duomo ticket office and purchase my ticket. 18€ these days, I remember when access was free! Walk past the splendid facade to the north of the cathedral where there is a queue. Tickets are timed so the wait is not long. Enter through a side door to the duomo and you are immediately aware of the huge space. How must it have seemed to the ordinary Florentine folk six centuries ago.
Through security and to the climb. 420 steps ahead of me, and no turning back. The first staircase takes one up to the lower gallery walkway below the circular windows that pierce the support for the dome itself.
The climb continues and here I see what really fascinates me, the genius of the construction.
We are walking between the inner and outer domes. Stonework gives way to herringbone brickwork. Not regular, each brick seems to be deliberately designed and shaped for its specific place, it is extrordinary. The higher I climb the steeper it becomes until to reach the lantern instead of continuing to circle the dome the route takes one up across the actual structure.
A porthole view looking down the climb with yet more intricate brickwork. Climb a short metal ladder and I am outside. The views over the city always take my breath away, but it is the architecture of the actual dome that brings me up here. Look just how acute the angle of the dome is as the terracotta tiles lead my gaze to the piazza below.
To do this today would be an achievement, to have done it six centuries ago without electric hoists, cranes, high tech steels and cad is truly remarkable. The stairs leading down pass between the inner and outer shell
before entering the upper gallery which is just below the Vasari frescoes. You are so close, the skilled perspective frescoing is mindblowing.
The way down gives glimpses of some of many many delights of Florence, here I catch a glimpse of the pretty basilica of S. Croce made famous by E M Forster.
Descend a bit more and I catch a glimpse of a large statue of a seated man gazing skyward. This is Filippo Brunelleschi the genius architect. His statue is, I guess, one that 90% of visitors to Florence overlook. He sits in a niche permanently staring up at his creation. Out on the piazza I walk over and reverentially nod to him.
If you are interested to learn more about this great man and the dome buy a copy of Ross King’s delightful little book entitled “Brunelleschi’s Dome”
I pass by Giotto’s erect campanile (more stairs to climb if you wish) and into a wide street with stores overflowing with ginormous gelati. Gelato is famous in this Tuscan city and like selfies with Davide is obbligatory! After five minutes walk I arrive at the Piazza della Signoria, and marvel at Ammannati’s newly restored fountain of Neptune, a celebration of the bringing of fresh water to the city centre. I am heading to an exhibition in the imposing Palazzo Vecchio, stopping only to take a pic of David’s beautifully sculpted rear.
Ok, it is a copy, the real one being in the Academmia, but it is still impressive as are the sculptures in the Loggia dei Lanzi including one of my favourites, Giambologna’s the Rape of the Sabines, the flowing musclature is stunning. I note with a certain stoicism that the sculpture is now popularly renamed as ‘the abduction of a Sabine woman’. Today I post Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze of Perseus with the Head of Medusa.
I am not taking the short road alongside the Uffizzi gallery that runs to the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio, but instead, I turn towards Piazza Italia that huge square bounded by cafés, smart shops and elegant hotels. Everywhere I look there is art and big big names, and now all of a sudden I am in the shopping zone and Umbrian craftsmanship is on show..
Big bucks are required to shop here..
I walk on by and head past the covered market to ‘Le Mènagere’ my favourite lunchtime haunt in the city. Its stark design is filled with flowers, plants, a medley of furniture and assorted bric-a-brac. The restaurant draws beautiful Florentines, and you eat superbly well. Ask in French, the right waiter, and two foamy Kir Royales made with creme de violette magically appear.
Thus ended my historical morning in Florence. In the afternoon I was luxuriously whisked away but that of course, is, a very private story 😉
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