italy 10: renaissance florence and medieval siena

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The grand Duomo and bell tower (© Casa Editrice Bonechi)

Florence, Firenze

Firenze, the ‘lily’, the ‘city that blooms’ was named by Julius Caesar who used it as a camp. With the fall of the Roman empire the city too, however, fell into decline. It was only after the 13th and 14th Centuries when wealthy important landowner families started moving in that Florence bloomed again. The most important and powerful of these was the Medici family. Under their patronage, Italy reached its second great pinnacle of achievement. The first glorious achievements in language, art and knowledge had centred around Rome. But it was Florence that was the site for the revival of classical ideals in the Middle Ages. It was here that masters like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello produced their finest works.

Florence was a self-governing republic with its own coinage. Science, literature and art flourished within its walls. The Medici family, initially farmers and later bankers, gave the Church two cardinals, one Pope and one Medici member even became a queen. Lawrence the Magnificent called great artists to Florence to decorate its churches and palaces. Under Medici rule, the state treasury and the family’s personal treasury were used as one. On the darker side, they abolished civil rights and even carried out torture.

Brunelleschi and Donatello, both from Florence were the founders of the Renaissance. Dante, the greatest of all Italian writers came from this city. Macchiavelli, the father of political science and exponent of political opportunism “the end justifies the means”, was also a Florentine. Florentines took the ideas of the Renaissance to its height and put Italy in the centre of the cultural and artistic world. From 1865 to 1870 Florence was the capital of Italy. Today, it is the centre for fashion and creative ideas in the country.

Tragedy first struck Florence in 1944: During the World War all the bridges on the Arno river were destroyed except for one, Ponte Vecchio. The city’s most recognisable bridge, it is home to a large coterie of jewellers and gold and silver dealers whose shops have been in business since 1593. Built in 1345, it has three arches and is characterised by small houses lining both sides of the bridge. Tragedy struck the city once again in 1966 when the embankments of the river burst. The whole historical centre was buried under 20 feet of water and grime. 600,000 tonnes of river water covered it. Two million books were destroyed. Water seeping into the prisons forced the inmates to be set free. People came from all over the world to save the city, including the flower children from the United States.

Florence is now a Mecca of art and educational institutions. Various international universities carry out student programmes in the city through which its students study art, history, architecture and language. Florence is also famous for its leather, gold, and crafts which go back to the Middle Ages. Florentines work with kid leather instead of lamb leather. The former is more soft and smooth, its products lasting a lifetime. Gold is a popular gift between Italians. Sold by weight, goldsmiths here only work in 18 carat. Eighty percent of the gold market in the world is sent to Italy to be worked on.

As a city, Florence can be surprisingly forbidding at first glance. Its architecture is predominantly Early Renaissance and retains many of the implacable, fortress-like features of pre-Renaissance palazzi, whose facades were mostly meant to keep intruders out rather than to invite sightseers in. With the exception of a very few buildings, the classical dignity of the High Renaissance and the exuberant invention of the Baroque are not to be found here. The typical Florentine exterior gives nothing away, as if obsessively guarding secret treasures within.

The Battistero, in green and white marble is one of the finest examples of the Italian Romanesque style. Its highlight is Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise comprising 10 panels with scenes from the Old Testament. The grand Duomo and bell tower facing it are richly decorated in white, green and pink marble and sculptured figures. Brunelleschi’s revolutionary double eight-sided dome, painted on the inside with scenes of the Last Judgement, is synonymous with everything that is magnificent about Florence; its graceful, towering elegance is one of the high-points of human engineering. Designed by Giotto (1266-1337), the bell tower’s original sculptures are in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The 414-step climb to the top is less strenuous than that to the Duomo’s cupola.

Santa Croce is Florence’s artistic pantheon and is renowned not just for its art collection, a series of breathtaking frescoes by Giotto but also for its tombs; here are the graves of Michelangelo, Galileo, Macchiavelli, Ghiberti, and Rossini, the famous composer, as well as that of Dante, which, however, lies empty. The poet is buried in Ravenna. Each grave is innovatively decorated with sculptures rich in meaning and symbolism.

In the Piazza della Signoria the Renaissance comes to life. An open air museum, the square is dominated by the Palazzo Vecchio, the palace-fortress residence of the Medicis, and symbolises all the grace, refinement and power of this epoch. To the right is the Loggia dei Lanzi which houses a collection of important sculptures, namely Cellini’s Perseus, Hercules and the Centaur by Giambologna, Ajax with Patroclus, a Hellenistic sculpture and the marble version of the Rape of the Sabine Woman, amongst others. An equestrian statue by Giambologna in the centre of the square represents Cosimo I de Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany. In front of the Palazzo stands the Neptune fountain by Ammannati and a copy of Michelangelo’s David at the exact spot where the original had stood for many years before it was moved to the Academy. Piazzale Michelangelo, just outside the historical city with another copy of Michelangelo’s David, has the most breathtaking views of the city and hills around it.

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Primavera by Sandro Botticelli (© The Uffizi)
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David by Michelangelo (© Galleria dell’Accademia)

The most magnificent museums in Florence are undoubtedly the Uffizi galleries and the Academy. The former is Italy’s premier art gallery. Initially a Medici palace, it now houses the most extensive and finest collection of art in the country, with masterpieces from every period. Of special mention would be Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera (Allegory to Spring) and Birth of Venus, Michelangelo’s Holy Family in a circular frame, The Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano, Madonna by Giotto illustrating his innovative style, Annunciation by Simone Martini, Leonardo’s Annunciation, and Rembrandt’s self-portrait.

Galleria dell’Accademia was specially built to house Michelangelo’s David and the roughly hewn four struggling Slaves, and also includes the Rape of the Sabine Woman (plaster version). To look at the actual statue of David up close is to fully understand and appreciate Michelangelo’s genius as a sculptor—the tense muscles, the concentration of the sculptured eyes as he prepares to aim a stone with his sling at Goliath in the battle against the Philistines, and the perfect profile. The four Slaves, meant for the tomb of Julius II in St. Peter’s in Rome and never finished, is a wonderful case in point of Michelangelo’s belief that the masterpiece is already existent within the marble. The half-finished figures seem to desperately try to break away from the folds of stone enclosing them.

On my second and last evening in Florence I went to Palazzo Borghese, a Renaissance palace that used to be the residence of Paolina Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister, for a typical Tuscan dinner. There was dancing and songs by artists in flowing Medici-era robes, haunting harp and flute music, powder blue ceilings with gold stucco, and loads of champagne. 🙂

Just before leaving Florence, I managed to find a bust of David to take home. Hand-made in alabaster powder by A. Giannelli, a famous Italian artist, and standing on a glass pedestal, the piece captures David’s perfect and noble profile. A piece of Florence. A piece of the Renaissance to stay with me forever.

Siena

With Etruscan beginnings and an important town during Roman times, Siena bloomed during the Middle Ages. A hill-top medieval city with 40,000 inhabitants, it is built at a site where three hills come together and is rich in atmosphere and history. The city is named after sena, son of Remus, one of the founding brothers of Rome. During the Middle Ages, Florence and Siena were very alike and extremely jealous of each other. In 1260 Siena fought one of its greatest battles against the Florentines, capturing 10,000 of its rival’s soldiers and throwing them into jail. The city then proceeded to build its walls and cathedral, celebrating and protecting its victory. However, after 150 years, it fought against Florence once again, only to lose this time. The subsequent plague added to the decline.

One of the patron saints of Italy, St. Catherine came from Siena. Born in 1347, she joined the Dominican order and took it upon herself to stop the war between the religious and political leaders that tore the region. She personally went to Avignon to convince the Popes to come back to Rome. Known to have received the stigmata and seen visions, she died in 1380.

Siena is magical, like time travel. Designed on French lines and built during the reign of Louis XIV, the octagon shaped fort is supported by piled earth behind the brick walls. I entered through the Porto Romano, the old door. Palazzo Pubblico, Piazza del Campo and the Church of San Dominico which houses the relics of St. Catherine comprise the historical city centre dating back to the 13th and 14th Centuries. Giovanni Pisano designed the duomo of the church; it has alternating bands of dark green and white marble, a pattern that is repeated in the columns within. The ceiling is painted a glorious blue and decorated with golden stars in the style prevalent during Romanesque and Gothic times, whilst the floors are decorated with lively and delicate marble panels by 56 various artists and depict mythological figures and scenes from the Old Testament.

The red-bricked Palazzo is Gothic in design with triple bays under supporting arches. Adjacent to it stands the Torre del Mangia, the 100-meter high bell tower. And I must be slightly insane for after visiting the church and having an hour to spare I climbed up the 400 steps right to the top to reach the bell. The horrendously steep steps in the one foot wide circling staircase seemed to go on forever. There are sections in which one has to literally bend double just to pass through. The thick heavy walls pressing down on the sides. But the view on the top. Bellisimo! And all that insanity made perfect sense. The Piazza in front of the Palazzo is shaped like a scallop and paved with bricks. Eight white lines fanning out from the Palazzo divide the square into nine segments representing the nine forms of government which have ruled the city. The square is the venue of the famed Palio race and can seat up to 30,000 people at a time.

Palio

Palio literally means the banner bearing the effigy of the virgin and is painted by local famous artists. It is also the grand prize for a race that is run in Siena since the past 500 years. The city of Siena is divided into 17 contrade or districts. Each district is named after a plant or animal and has its own personal colour. Only 10 districts, chosen by lot, take part in the race which is held on the 2nd of July and 16th of August every year. The city hall provides horses, again chosen by lot, for the districts. Large betting is carried out during the event. The winning prize goes to the jockey. Starting at seven in the evening, the 10 horses run three laps around the Piazza del Campo. There are no rules except that the jockey is not allowed to touch another horse. There is much pageantry before and after the race when the Palio is paraded through the town accompanied with celebrating crowds. And then preparations start once again for the next race to celebrate the next winner.

Back to Rome

My last evening in the capital was spent at one of its finest restaurants situated on the Janiculum hill. Delicious dinner and champagne punctuated by a concert of Italian songs and opera by its very own ‘three tenors’, of which one was in fact an American.

I’d learnt so much in these past two weeks. Lived life so intensely, so deeply. It was incredible. All that history, art, beauty, delicious food, music, and fun. A magical rhapsody indeed. Grazie, Italia. Grazie mille!

Note: My camera got damaged whilst travelling through Greece and Italy. I have, hence, instead used photos from various guides and museum books for my Italy web pages as per the credits.

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