TRAVEL with pat and lew

* Florence – Oct 2007

Posted by Lew Weinstein on October 26, 2007

Collioure to Florence – Mon, Oct 8

Our 7-stage transportation odyssey from Collioure to Florence is less stressful than we have anticipated. This is mainly due to the fact that we have the right luggage: 2 large “spinner” suitcases, 2 carryons, one a roller which holds the other, plus a camera bag and pocketbook. Last year we really struggled with less mobile luggage.

Still, the trip is not easy … train from Collioure to Perpignan (20 minutes), train from Perpignan to Girona in Spain (1.5 hours), shuttle bus from Girona gare to airport (20 minutes), Ryanair to Rome (1 hour 10 minutes in the air), bus from Ciampino airport to Termini train station in Rome (30 minutes), train from Rome to Florence (1.5 hours), taxi from train station to the Hotel Casci (5 minutes). We left our apartment in Collioure at 7:00 am and arrived at the Casci at 8:30 pm.  We check in, and go right to sleep.

Travel Note: on the train were two couples who had come on the train from Venice to Rome, missing their stop in Florence, and were heading back. We made sure they got off in Florence this time.

The Hotel Casci is next door to the Palazzo Medici, my main research destination in Florence. It’s 5 minutes to Piazza del Duomo, another 5 to Piazza della Signoria, another 10 to Ponte Vecchio – Perfect! Our room is spacious and clean, with a reproduction of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus over the bed. We’re on an inner courtyard which is perfectly quiet at night. There is some construction going on during the day, but we’re not usually there at those times.

The Casci is family run, and everyone is very friendly and helpful. They always followup to ask if our restaurants, opera, etc, were ok, gathering information for future guests. Breakfast is included, with plenty of rolls, coffee, cake, cereal. I try café au lait and stick with it for the week. We think the 150 euros a night is a good value.

Tue, Oct 9 – Mon, Oct 15

We used National Geographic and Frommer’s Florence/Tuscany guidebooks, and they were excellent, so our comments will be mostly limited to our personal impressions.

The Piazza del Duomo is utterly stunning, with the enormous 12th-15th century Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore), Baptistery, and Campanile in immediate proximity to each other. Brunelleschi’s dome, Giotto’s bell tower, Ghiberti’s doors, all just as they were in 1478 (the year my new novel begins in Florence).

Piazza della Signoria is equally impressive, with the massive government palace, the Palazzo Vecchio, and Loggia della Signoria taking two sides of the irregular shaped square, and large palazzos most of the rest. The Uffizi Gallery, originally a 16th century office building, is connected to the Palazzo Vecchio (government center) which it served.

The Palazzo Medici is a major location in the new novel I’m working on. We enter through the massive gates on Via Vavour (Via Larga in 1478) and enter the courtyard, which is the site of an early-scene football kick around between Lorenzo de Medici and his brother Giuliano. I’ve drafted the scene, and now it comes to life. I imagine Donatello’s David, long since removed, in the center of the courtyard, hear Lorenzo laugh as he kicks the ball through an upper floor window at the crowd the brothers have attracted.

The Palazzo Medici today is not what it was in the 15th century, since it was expanded by the Riccardi family in the 17th century. Along the front façade, there are now 17 windows, of which only 10 existed in 1478. The original palace was roughly square, with stables and other working areas where the Riccardi addition now sits. The addition to the façade is done so well that it is impossible (for me) to see any line of demarcation. Of course, it’s been 300 or so years since the addition, so the weathering has had time to blend.

I spent a lot of time figuring out the interior dimensions and rooms as they would have existed in 1478, returning to the Casci to draw possible floor plans, and then back to the palace to check my plans, running back and forth between the floors until I’m satisfied.

Jewish Florence. About a month before we went to Florence, I emailed Templo Israelitico (synagogue), asking about 15th century synagogues. Signora Lionella Viterbo responded, told me there were no synagogues as such in 1500, and suggested I take the tour being given in conjunction with a conference on Ethiopian Jews.

The tour guide (Giovanna) led us to many sites, some of which had residual evidence of the small (75-100 persons in 1500) Jewish presence, and others which could suggest what the streets and buildings looked like then. I used a digital dictating machine to take notes as we walked, and to record some of the guide’s comments. These notes were later transferred to my computer as small audio files.

At the end of the tour, I introduced myself to Giovanna, explained my purpose, and we exchanged cards. She said to call while we were still in Florence, which we did, inviting her to dinner on Saturday night.

The Monastery of San Marco, now a museum, is as sumptuous a monastery as you’re ever likely to see. It was fully renovated by Cosimo de Medici in the mid 1450s, in return for papal forgiveness for all of his sins, mainly usury. The Dominicans complained about living in such splendor, with a priceless Fra Angelica fresco in each cell, but the bargain had been made with Prior (later Archbishop and still later Saint) Antonino, and they suffered through it.

On the first level are two quiet and elegant courtyards, for the monks to walk in and meditate, decorated with marvelous frescoes, as well as a VIP dining room (now the gift shop) and the less elegant room where the monks took their meals.

Cosimo had his private two room cell at one end of the second floor cells, which he used as a retreat. San Marco is just a five minute walk from the Palazzo Medici, perhaps longer if, as Cosimo did, you suffer from the gout.

Giroloma Savonorola, ultimately a mortal enemy of the Medici and their successor as ruler of Florence (until he was himself burned at the stake by the Borgia Pope Alexander), occupied a three room cell when he became Prior of San Marco. His cell is as far as possible from Cosimo’s, although Cosimo was long dead when Savonorola moved in.

Paolo at the Casci made a reservation for us at the Galleria degli Uffizi. It was difficult to find the place to retrieve the reserved ticket, and there’s still a line, but it’s better than an even longer wait if you come without a reservation. The gallery, however, was a disappointment to us. The Botticellis are magnificent, of course, but they’re darker than the reproductions you see and not well lit. After that, it seems like an endless procession of one Madonna and child after another.

We saw two operas in Florence – La Traviata & La Boheme – an unexpected and delightful treat. They were held at St. Marks English Church, with 100% of the proceeds to benefit children in a village in India. The church is contained in an ancient palazzo, with vaulted ceilings and frescoed walls. It’s set up as a theater in the round, with a small stage flanked by seats on three sides and the altar on the other.

Each performance featured four singers and a piano player, with introductions and between acts commentary. The main voices (Violetta and Mimi) were magnificent, and the supporting men were also terrific. Between acts, we met the man who played Alfredo and learned it was his first performance.

Fiesole is an ancient village on a hilltop overlooking Florence. Could anything be more romantic? The Medici Villa at Fiesole is now in private hands (the Martini family, which apparently owns half of Florence) and you have to email to make an appointment. They return the email promptly.

You can walk around the gardens and view the outside of the villa, but cannot go in. Still, I got a good sense of the building and surroundings in which Lorenzo often entertained the scholars of the Plato Academy, which I will describe in my book.

Nearby is a Roman amphitheater, two millennia old, with seating for 3,000. I have written a scene where my lead character, Benjamin Catalan, is taken to this amphitheater by Giuliano de Medici for some serious conversation, and I sat on the steps where I imagined them to have been, seeing what they saw.

The Galleria dell’Academia is most famous for Michelangelo’s David, but my favorites there are the unfinished statues, where you can almost see Michelangelo at work, the figures partially emerging from the stone block.

The Pazzi family was at the center of the 1478 assassination of Giuliano and attempt on Lorenzo. Subsequently, all evidence of the Pazzi family was erased from Florence, the men executed or exiled, the women forbidden to marry. But the city map shows a Palazzo Pazzi, and, lo and behold, it’s really there. It’s an imposing building three story building around a courtyard, although much smaller that the Medici home.

When we arrived, the gate was open. A man said it was private property and we couldn’t enter, but a women overheard my author’s plea and let us in. Then two other women wanted to know all about the book, and were disappointed when I explained that it wasn’t yet written. It was extraordinary and unexpected to stand in that courtyard and imagine Jacopo de Pazzi riding his horse into it, frantic after the failure of the attempt to kill Lorenzo and fleeing for his life (he didn’t make it and died a gory death).

The Capella Brancacci on the other side of the Arno River (Oltrarno) contains the frescoes by Masaccio that changed the entire direction of Renaissance art. Painted early in the 15th century, 70 years or so before Michelangelo, and studied by Michelangelo when he was a child, these are the first examples of both rounded, realistic figures, and perspective, contrasting sharply with the flat paintings which came before. Not much is known of Masaccio, who died at the age of 27, but his work is thrilling to see, especially since you can get very close to it.

The chapel is set in an extraordinary church, the Santa Maria del Carmine, rebuilt after a devastating fire in the 17th century, with soaring vaulting ceilings covered with frescoes. Florence has so many spectacular churches, but this is one of the best. Standing there, looking up, we consider the substantial resources of money and time and artistic talent which led to these extraordinary places of worship.

On Sunday morning, we go to mass in the Duomo. When we travel, we often go to church or synagogue, since Pat is Catholic and I’m Jewish. This mass, however, has special meaning for me since this was the actual setting, on April 28, 1478, for one of the major scenes in the historical novel I am currently writing.

So as Pat follows the mass, my mind’s eye can’t help seeing the assassins take their places, eyes darting, tension mounting, while the unsuspecting Medici brothers nod pleasantly to those around them. The signal for the simultaneous attack on Lorenzo and Giuliano was the raising of the host, which unleashed a violent carnage not ten feet from where we are sitting.

In 1478, the panicked worshippers ran from the cathedral, but five hundred thirty years later, Pat and I sit quietly until the mass is concluded.

At the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, we saw Donatello’s David under restoration. It is lying on its side, on the same second floor space where it is usually displayed, while artists work in full view of museum visitors. A video explains the restoration process.

The church of San Lorenzo, just around the corner from the Palazzo Medici, was the family church of the Medici family in the 15th century. It is plainer than many churches in Florence, without the pomp of the Duomo, but there is a majesty to its simplicity that somehow evokes the similar qualities of Cosimo de Medici, who was instrumental in its restoration. Adjoining the church is the impressive library containing many of the manuscripts collected by the Medici family in the 15th century.

There are many excellent restaurants in Florence. Here are four recommendations: Cammillo on Via Borgo San Jacopo and L’Osteria di Giovanni on Via Del Moro, recommended to us by our friends Barre and Pamela; Trattoria 4 Leoni at Piazza della Passera where we dined with Giovanna, the guide to Jewish Florence, and Trattoria Nella on Via delle Temme, which we wandered into.

Shopping in Florence varies from the most elegant array of designer shops, one after another on so many different streets, to the boisterous bargaining of market stalls near San Lorenzo, in the Piazza della Republicca, and many other locations. Fine Italian leather is available in a huge range of prices. I buy two belts and a wallet. Pat adds to her collection of shawls.

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