10-07-2018 Day 13 A Day with Michelangelo

Who knows why, after such a simple day that we enjoyed yesterday, but neither of us slept well last night.  We finally fell asleep around 2:30 AM and woke at 7, but even those few hours were restless.  We are both grateful for the sofa bed mattress, but still quite tired of being generally uncomfortable.

Sunday morning in Firenze is a wonder of bells, with the calls echoing all through the city and reverberating in all directions. It was a lovely way to begin our day, in spite of the lack of sleep.  Reading our trusty Rick Steve’s Florence guidebook, we decided that this Sunday would be a good day to visit some of the less popular sites in the main part of the city. 

Basilica de Santa Croce from the rear entrance near Scoula del Cuoio

Santa Croce was big on the list, not only for its beautiful facade, but for viewing the tomb of Michelangelo, which he designed for himself. Tucked away in Steve’s book was a little tidbit of information that turned out to be incredibly helpful.  Crossing the river once again, we took the back roads toward the Santa Croce, where we had seen the entrance to Casa Buonarotti, one time home of Michelangelo.

Facade of Santa Croce with sculpture of Dante to the left. The fancy tomb inside the church is merely a memorial and Dante isn’t actually buried here

The Basilica de Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross, is the principal Franciscan church in Florence.  There is a fee to enter this church, and from the main square, the lines are long even on a quiet day.  Just to the south of the church however, is a convent, and tucked away to the rear of the convent is the famous Scuola del Cuoio “School of Leather”.  Rick Steves suggested that one should visit the school, buy entry tickets to Santa Croce there, and enter the church through the back door from the school, no lines. 

Great advice!  Except the church wouldn’t be open until later in the day and we would have to return to the school to buy our tickets and enter.  No problem.  We thoroughly enjoyed visiting the school and reading about their world class leather training.  Even bought a few small leather pieces for presents for our kids and grandkids, and I found a purple wallet as soft as butter. 

Leaving the school, we walked a block or so to enter Casa Buonarotti.  Once again, there was an entry fee.  I never managed to track just how much we spent on entry fees in Florence to see all that we did, but it wasn’t a small amount. 

Although Michelangelo lived in this house as a young man, most of the art was added later by his descendant, Michelangelo the Younger, more than a century later.  We did see a pair of shoes and a walking stick that supposedly belonged to the great sculptor and several paintings of him.  The beautiful frescoes on the ceiling were completed in the 1600’s. 

Two special pieces made the visit worthwhile, both sculpted by Michelangelo when he was only 17 years old.

Madonna della Scala, Madonna of the Stairs reflects a  traditional form of sculpture for the time, with the influence of Donatello and the use “stiaccato” relief which allows a sculptor to create a recessed or relief sculpture carving only millimeters deep.  The illusion of greater depth is created by decreasing the thickness gradually from the foreground to the background.  It is more like a 2D image rather than a 3D sculpture. It stands in sharp contrast to the other relief carved by Michelangelo at Casa Buonarroti.

The Battle of the Centaurs

“The Battle of the Centaurs is a writhing mass of figures three-dimensionally carved into a marble block. The figures are layered in overlapping positions adding to the spatial depth of the work. We can see the artists interest in the massive bulk of the naked male form, a theme that would serve Michelangelo well in future commissions, including his work in the Sistine Chapel.”

Detail of ceiling in Casa Buonarroti

After visiting the leather school and Casa Buonarroti, we still had some time to kill before we could enter Santa Croce due to Sunday mass services being held there.  We decided to walk to the Bargello, a museum we had passed several times on our route to and from the Duomo Piazza.  The Bargello is a small museum, with a few hidden treasures and some obscure art that was nonetheless outstanding.

Michelangelo’s Bacchus is a highlight in this museum

Donatello’s David in bronze is much different than Michelangelo’s David

Dying Adonis by Vincenzo de Rossi was the one that caught our hearts.  Incredible.

We loved the majolica pottery

And the Della Robbia glazed pottery display was dramatic

The city was still fairly quiet as we emerged from the museum to head back toward Santa Croce.  But first we needed sustenance.  We found another little cafe for cappuccino and a pastry, and laughed together about the truly snotty waitress.  She was so harsh and somewhat rude that  it was actually funny.  I guess this happened to us less than we had expected during our Italian visit.

It was around 2 when we meandered back to the rear of the great church, smiling to each other as we looked at the long entry lines.  The shopkeepers smiled as they sold us our entry tickets, remembering that we had made some purchases earlier.  They are very friendly at the Scoula, and directed us to the entrance to the church where there wasn’t a single person in line.

Entering Santa Croce was just a bit overwhelming.  There are sixteen family chapels that compose a large part of the Santa Croce Basilica, considered the largest Franciscan church in the world. Well-to-do families typically had chapels built and decorated in their honor and dedicated to a favorite saint.

In addition the the chapels filled with art, and the beautiful crypts on the floors, it is the tombs that make Santa Croce so thrilling. The list of the famous artists and scientists of the Renaissance that are entombed in this basilica reads like a history of art and science.  Here lies Michelangelo, Michiavelli, Marconi, Galileo, and Rossini. 

We spent a long time wandering through the church, admiring the art and sculpture, until at last we came to the tomb of Michelangelo.  Silly me, somehow this place brought tears to my eyes.  I was looking up and another woman near me looked at me with tears in her eyes as well.  She only spoke Italian, but we laughed and smiled at each other and with hand gestures and eyes we acknowledged that this was somehow an incredible moment for each of us.  I have no idea why, not a clue.  But being here still got to me down deep.


Michelangelo, crazy man, wild artist, genius of sculpture, legendary personality.  It was good to see his work in person and to stand at his tomb and honor him.

We left the church and walked back across the river, reaching our little apartment by 4.  By this time the city was incredibly crowded, and the streets were shoulder to shoulder with tourists.  The big tour buses parked along the Arno River just across from where our apartment is located and we saw them lining up and filling with hordes of people returning from a day in the city center. 

Florence is truly wonderful if you know to get up early before the crowds, find the quiet neighborhoods, go out in the evening when the tour buses have departed.  Also, often short walk to another street will open up space where no one has ventured to go because it isn’t on the main tour walking route. Still, it is very important to get the heck out of downtown before 4pm!

Once again, no fancy dinner out for the two of us.  Are you surprised that Deanna cooked a great supper for us of pasta with veggies, tomatoes, zucchini, and some of Sara’s tomato sauce?  We enjoyed a glass of wine, a bit of chocolate for dessert, and hopefully we will be rested for the next big adventure.

Tomorrow we travel from Florence to the medieval town of Sienna, little over an hour south by bus and a world away from the Renaissance and back into the Middle Ages.  We have a hotel reservation and an idea of where to catch the bus.  Both of us are a bit excited about this one, so hopefully we can sleep tonight.

10-04-2018 Day 10 The Accademia, “The David”, and Visiting the Baptistry

Florence weather on this day: clear and sunny, with a high of 81 Degrees F/27.2 C

One of the great thrills of visiting Europe for many people is seeing Michelangelo’s David in the (stone) flesh at the Accademia Gallery of Florence. I knew it was going to be a thrill for me.  Michelangelo in my opinion is the greatest sculptor that ever lived, and there have been some great ones. 

There are several “David’s” in Florence, and some might choose to skip the crowded gallery and simply view the copy that is placed in the square where the original once stood.  Not me.  Several months before our trip I contacted the Accademia directly online and purchased our “skip the line” tickets for a day early in our visit to Florence.  I decided that since this particular gallery is small enough to be manageable we could do it without a guided tour.  Instead, we used Rick Steve’s Accademia Gallery Tour in the Florence and Tuscany book that was our little bible while visiting the city.

A view of our apartment from the bridge, with Piazza Michelangelo in the upper background

Our entry time was at 10, and the Accademia is about 45 minutes to an hour walking time from the apartment.  We left early enough to walk slowly enjoying the uncrowded streets. We arrived in time to enjoy a cappuccino and a croissant at a nearby cafe before our designated entry. Deanna and I both came to love those morning stops for capuccinno.

Early morning walk through Florence to the Accademia

The main stars of the show at the Accademia are Michelangelo’s David and his sculptures later named “The Prisoners”. There are several exhibits in the museum in addition to these that are lovely but not completely overwhelming.  Visiting all the magnificent museums full of art and all the overpowering architecture in a city like Florence can be a bit much at times.  There is even a syndrome named for this.  It is called Stendahl Syndrome, and can be caused by seeing too much art in Italy. According to Wikipedia, “Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal’s syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place.”

I know that after a few days, in addition to the vertigo, I started getting a neckache from looking up all the time, always up.  There is a lot of tall stuff to look at in Florence.

This morning visit to the Accademia was perfect for us.  I didn’t waste a lot of time initially looking at anything else, heading with single minded purpose to the room containing Michelangelo’s David.  It is probably his most famous sculpture, of many, and not even my favorite.  I love the Pieta that is in the Vatican most of all, but seeing his work in person, for real  and up close is incomparable.

Michelangelo was only 26 when he was commissioned to carve a large scale work for the Duomo.  This particular block of marble had been rejected by other sculptors as too tall, too flawed, and too shallow to be valuable.  Much has been written about whether the sculpture depicts David before or after the kill of the Giant, of the purpose behind the huge outsized left hand, about the changing expression on his face as the statue is viewed from different directions.

We stayed in the David room for quite some time, viewing from many angles, taking our turn up close to get photos.  I was so excited about seeing it and didn’t mind in the least that the gallery was crowded with people, all vying for their position in front of the David.  Some were being silly taking selfies, others posing for photos as I was, and others sitting on the benches along the sidelines contemplating the statue. 

After getting our fill of David, and finally leaving that part of the museum, we returned to the gallery we had passed through previously unseen with our eyes only for David.  In this gallery were the unfinished figures of Michelangelo’s Prisoners. Michelangelo believed that as a sculptor he merely revealed the figures that God had already embedded in the marble.  The figures are in various states of completion appearing to simply emerge from the stone as Michelangelo envisioned.

In the same gallery was another later, unfinished Pieta by Michelangelo and a bronze bust of Michelangelo himself, depicting a craggy, wrinkled old man at the age of 89, with the famous broken nose.

On the second floor are the Florentine Paintings, with altarpieces showing saints and Madonnas.  These paintings are from the last part of the Middle Ages, the time after the Great Plague almost destroyed Florence, yet before the Renaissance hit in full force.

As we finished our tour, I wandered back into the nave where The David stood, and tried to imprint on my mind the actuality of seeing this great piece of art up close, in real life.

Emerging into the early afternoon sunlight, we were a short 15 minute walk from the Duomo.  We had planned to spend the next day (Friday)  climbing the Duomo stairs and viewing the interior of the great cathedral.  With a bit of energy left to spend we decided to visit the smaller and older Baptistry this afternoon to simplify tomorrow’s explorations. 

The Baptistry is the smaller octagonal building to the left of the Duomo across the crowded piazza

The Baptistry is Florence’s oldest building, built 1,000 years ago.  It is the soul heart of the Florentines, more so than the Duomo itself which is close by. The difference in the crowds by late afternoon was dramatic. The piazza was teeming with people lining up to see the sights, eating in the cafes, and strolling the square. 

The interior of the great church is rich with ceiling mosaics made of Venetian glass, added to the church in the late 1200’s.  The Last Judgment on the ceiling shows a glimpse of the medieval worldview where life was a preparation for the afterlife. Some of the scenes look like the hells of Dante with demons and monsters.  Dante himself was baptized in the waters in this church.

After leaving the Baptistry we braved the ever growing crowds and stopped at a few shops along the route.  We discovered one of the most amazing arts to be found in Florence.  The images below are created from inlaid colored natural stone.  The smallest start at 350 EU, for a piece about 3×4 inches, and the larger pieces were many thousands of dollars.  I decided against putting out half a years worth of income for the one I loved most but so enjoyed looking at the artistry up close.

Our meandering route led us almost by accident to the Piazza dell Repubblica, which has a long and incredible history.  The statue of Neptune was in a state of disrepair, and as is the case with many displays of outdoor art in Florence was draped in tarps with photos depicting what we would be seeing if it weren’t all covered up.

By this time, in this part of the city, the crowds were truly horrific and we were beginning to show some wear and tear on our bodies as well as our psyches.

Wandering aimlessly to Piazza della Signoria we discovered the fake David (a truly awful rendition of the real thing) adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio, the palatial Town Hall of the Medici.

We spent a bit of time in the Palazzio Vecchio courtyard in the free zone, and skipped the paid tour of the interior.  This was the original home of the Medici’s before they decided that it was too “dated” and moved their residences to the brand new Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno River.

We were both getting very tired and hungry. Wandering in the general direction of the river, we found another take away bakery with fresh, hot pizza slices.  We later decided these were the best pizzas we tasted during our entire time in Italy, but we could never find that little bakery again.

After devouring our pizza, we had another gelato before following the main road along the river back home to the apartment. After napping a bit we settled in the warm sun on the terrace, made some calls to home and tried to decide it if was time to hike up to the Piazza Michelangelo for a traditional sunset view.

Although this gorgeous and quite famous piazza is just blocks from our apartment, the roads leading there are winding and steep, including many steps and stairs and more switchbacks.  I am ashamed to admit that even though we talked about it several times, this evening was our only visit to the famous square overlooking the city.

As with most everything else we had experienced on this day, the square was very crowded.  There is a small cafe but all the chairs were filled, and the open spaces along the walls were filled with people and cameras getting ready to shoot the famous view of the city at sunset.

I am doing this just for fun, and as much for Deanna and for me as anyone else, but if you want to, check out the google map street view of the Piazza.  You can walk all around and see it as we did with LOTS of people waiting for sunset and the view. There is another fake David in the center of the square, a somewhat newer addition to the city of Florence, only created in 1869.

We looked at the bright early evening skies, not a cloud in sight for interest, looked at each other and said, “Nah, Tired, Home”.  It truly was a gorgeous, expansive view of the great city that would no doubt be magnificent on a day with some clouds for interest, or on a day when we would be willing to wait another hour and fight the crowds for a photo. 

We had a perfectly lovely view of the quiet evening sunset from our very own terrace where our dinner consisted of an entire container of fresh green olives, tomatoes, and the last of our yogurts.  Those olives are addictive, and every time we would run out of them we had to buy more.  My goodness, I can taste them right now but have no clue where in the world I would ever find them here at home.  Maybe some things are best saved in the memories of visiting Italy.

Photos from our visit to the Accademia are here

Photos from our visit to the Baptistry and Piazza Michelangelo are here