The churches (and everything else) of Florence

Grab your carta di citta, my friends, because I can't waste words describing every turn to make! But be assured that finding all the places listed here isn't a problem: Florence is small and easily walkable. Any handy guidebook can give you your bearings.

Florence is a beautiful, beautiful city. It's a wealthy city, and has been for many years. With the rise of the powerful Medici family in the Italian Renaissance, the arts flourished as never before under their patronage. Such wealth and love of art virtually glows everywhere in Florence.

I like wealthy cities: it means beautiful shops, clean streets, and a generally more well-cared-for atmosphere. Where Rome bore down on you with the weight of history, Florence encircles you with the happy breathless welcome of an overgrown village. Florence bustles, but it's not quite metropolitan. Tiny streets crook away beneath facades that have stood stolid for the last five centuries, and you never know where a street might bring you. The house of Michelangelo Buonarroti's childhood or the streets of Dante. . . .

One of the best places to see the art of Florence is in its churches. Deeply religious, the men of the Italian Renaissance found much of their artistic expression in religious subjects, in the decoration of the churches and convents. Like gemstones in a gold necklace, the churches of Florence are numerous and scattered throughout the city, tucked into unexpected corners. Churches have always been a favorite of mine, and I set out to see how many different one I could discover in this Renaissance warren. This is not, by far, a complete listing, but some of my favorites, enough, I hope, to get you started on your own explorations of Florence's gems.

The obvious place to start is with the city's largest and best-known church, the Duomo. Begun in the Renaissance, the exterior is Neo-Gothic (finished, I think, only early this century). It is massive, solid, triple-naved. There are Renaissance elements in the delicate, flat proportions of the thrusting columns that run the height of the fašade between the porticos. It is mostly white, with great inlays of green marble, a lovely mossy shade, delicate details picked out in a gentle rose marble. Tasteful hints of gold gleam from around the enthroned Virgin and behind bas-reliefs of saints. The entire effect is like coloured lace. It is fantastically beautiful, and I adore it. Just watching the change of light on its face throughout the day fascinates me. The Duomo's proper name is a right fitting one, I think: Santa Maria del Fiore - St. Mary of the Flowers.

In the evening, I loved to sit at my window and simply watch the people, taking their passegiata, the stroll. The pace is slower than the frantic scurrying of tourists during the day. The sun lights on the fašade of the Duomo, softening the already rosy hues.

The interior of the Duomo dizzies you with another maze of intricate patterns and colors. The floor is covered by marble mosaics that echo the colors of the fašade, enormous and each unique. Ghiberti's 15th century stained glass windows are gems, and you could strain your neck gazing up at the fresco of The Last Judgement in the dome. The thought of painting the gargantuan work sends shivers down my spine - it's a very long way to the floor.

In front of the Duomo is the octagonal building of the Baptistry. Dante and most of the Medici family were baptized here. It is an utterly fantastic creation. The exterior is similar in style to the Duomo (or, rather, the other way around), two very tall stories high, not including the planar dome, which nearly doubles the height. The interior is an astonishing mismash of cultures: Corinthian capped Roman temple columns, mullioned windows, round Romanesque arches. And then the mosaics! All around the building, just below the second level mullioned arcade, depictions of the saints. Above the altar, in the vaulting, a great wheel of figures surrounding an Agnus Dei. And the dome -- what a marvel! Entirely covered in gorgeous and infinitely glorious pictures, illustrating stories from the Bible. Above the altar, an enormous (perhaps twenty feet tall) figure of Christ. The style and glittering gold background put me instantly in mind of the Byzantine mosaics at Cefal¨: the heavily stylized, flat, and linear style, peculiar to the Byzantine. And the great archaic angels at the top, nearest the light, all looking virtually identical. Oh, the patience and enormity of such a work!

Santissima Annunziata: I stepped into the incredible, darkly gilt opulent Baroque interior of Santissima Annunziata (Church of the Most Sacred Annunciation). A priest's voice echoes in the nave; the air is heavy and thick with incense. My eyes go to the altar, where red-mantled priests stand, an enormous altarpiece looming up behind them, dripping with flowers. The priest's voice begins to chant in monotone, dropping that eerie minor third on the last syllable. The assembled people answer him: "A-men." Communion begins, and, reverent and orderly for perhaps the only time in their lives, the congregation lines up to take in their mouths the wafer.

I watched a little boy, no more than about four, who kept leaping about unabashedly. He was quiet, but he would stand in the middle of the aisle, fingers in his mouth, the puddle of sunlight making a nimbus about his golden hair, uncomprehending of these seriously intent grown-ups.

Santissima Annunziata forms one side of a mostly traffic-less piazza, the other two sides being Renaissance facades with lots of broad steps, a good place to pause and take a rest, catch up on guidebook reading, or eat lunch.

Santa Trinita: Why are the little, humble churches always forgotten? It need not be enormous and vainglorious in order to inspire. Little, simple things hold their own beauty. Santa Trinita is like that. Humbly thick, mustily medieval, the side naves are covered by half-erased, half-forgotten frescos. Above the plain altar, a delicate mullioned arch, filled with stained glass depicting six saints in simple and elegant primary colors. In the left aisle, in one of the tiny chapels, there rests a gorgeous late medieval/early Renaissance Crowning of the Madonna altarpiece. With its gilt background, bright colors, and delicate details, it's a gem within itself, like a work of Murano millefiori glass. The entire right apse is a glorious fresco of the works of St. Francis, elegant in their careful Renaissance composition, attention to perspective and modeling, muted colors.

Oh yes, the great churches are great indeed, but overawesome. This kind of church belongs to its people, an act of quiet and earnest piety.

Santi Apostoli: Another gem, another honest parish church. Even smaller, more humble, older. Romanesque, bare brown stonework, painted or inlaid wooden roof. The dimness if comforting, appropriate. Only the tiny, narrow windows way up near the roof admit any light into the nave. The central nave's pillars and their arches are of a black marble.

Outside, in the tiny, wonderfully named Piazza del Limbo, you can tell this church has been here for many a century: from the two open sides, it is necessary to have several steps leading down into the actual piazza. The funniest thing is the doors of the building directly facing the church: automatic plate-glass of a four-star hotel.

Convento di San Marco: For a small entrance fee, you can rest your senses from the city noise in this peaceful convent that feels like time forgot. Under the gentle Renaissance arcades, I could easily imagine the Dominican monks of five hundred years ago going about their daily lives, when their number included the heretical Savonarola and painter Fra Angelico. Fra Angelico's masterful fresco of the Annunciation takes the last gasp of breath from you at the top of a long flight of stairs. It was much larger than I'd expected, but much more beautiful. It's so very light and graceful, the mysteriousness of the event glowing in Mary's delicate, precise features. All the cells that line the corridor have their own individual frescos by the same master, some strangely surreal and abstract for an artist of the 15th century.

Santa Croce: It's moments like these that makes the trip all worthwhile for lovers of the Florentine arts. For here I stand before the vast marble tombs of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Dante Alegierhi, and a feeling of wonder touches me. These incredible men walked these very streets, when these churches were shining bright and new. They watched the creation of Florence, unaware yet of its importance, the weight of its history.

All of Florence is like this, allowing you to touch the past, feel the minds of the men who shaped history with their own hands.

What about the museums?

If you've not gotten a good case of Stendhalismo yet from the churches alone, there are, of course, the great art museums of Florence.

I'm not sure the Palazzo Vecchio was worth the large entrance fee. The frescos were neat, but nothing remarkable. What was it with 15th century Florentines' desire to cover everything with art? It's absolutely astonishing. The entire city is like this: everything beautiful, everything a work of art, everything covered within an inch of its life with paint and decoration. Nothing was built purely functional, it seems; it all must have some element of beauty.

The Uffizi is a must, with some of the greatest paintings the Renaissance produced. The Galleria dell'Accademia's main draw is Michelangelo's David; the rest of the gallery seems to be full of musty old religious paintings of saints and the like. The Palazzo Pitti is fun for its Baroque opulence and the cluttered collection of random artworks by some well known and some not so well-known artists. The Palazzo Pitti, although not nearly as famed as the Uffizi, was, I think, more interesting. There's more art in it, for one thing - even if some of it is terrible. And that's part of what makes it so interesting. For instance, I'm standing in the Sala d'Iliade (the Room of the Iliad), underneath my favorite fresco so far. It's a depiction of the entire Greek pantheon, and I found it positively hilarious. Compositionally, it's none too stable: all these random figures engaged in various, sometimes frenetic, activity, in a general triangular shape, with Zeus, of course, enthroned at the apex. But right below him is a white-robed, white-bearded old man, with his mantle pulled over his eyes. So your eyes flow from the presumptuously pompous figure of Zeus to this slightly ridiculous old man. I can't think of who he is. (any ideas, anyone?) He is surrounded by the Three Fates, with Lachesis looking coquettishly over her shoulder. Clotho just sits looking pretty, picking daintily at her fibers; I have the distinct feeling that she has no idea what to do with it. Hera leans away from Zeus, leg crossed over, appearing for all the world that she can't stand her husband. Below her, Hades looks positively petulant, refusing to look at the Lord of the Gods. An angry Ares leans at a completely implausible angle; I can't see why he hasn't fallen over. Hermes stands with his back to us, examining his caduceus. A naked man, presumably Prometheus (unbound), sails over Zeus's head, torch in hand. The entire thing is done in highly improbable, bright, unreal colors.

Other treats of Florence

I could leave quite a trail of ink in trying to tell you all the things to see here! But I shall have to be practical and get on with the other wonder of Italy: food.

The Mercato Centrale is housed in a grand glass turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau beast not far from the Duomo. Like any Italian market, there's meat and bread and vegetables and fruit galore here. Frutta e verdure, second floor.

An excellent restaurant for a treat that won't make too much of a dent in your pocket if you get the menu turistico (36,000 Lire) is Ristorante Paoli, right off Via dei Calzaiuoli. The atmosphere is elegant and lovely, and there seem to be more locals than tourists, always a good sign.

Gelato is another prime tourist mover, and every crooked street has its cranny gelateria. Two of my favorite picks are Perche, No?, also off Via dei Calzaiuoli, and Vivoli's, on Via Isola de Stinche, purported to have the best gelato in Florence, if not Italy. That's debatable, but their flavors are quite good, rich and creamy. Due to its immense tourist popularity, head there around 7 in the evening, when everyone else is heading for dinner. And you simply must try the semifreddo at Perche, No? - it's a kind of semifrozen mousse. Delicious.

For a fantastic last evening, grab a picnic dinner and head for Piazzale Michelangelo: It's a loooong hike up, but oh! it's worth it, every step of the way. What a simply glorious view of the city. Up above the Arno River, where it's delightfully quiet and cool breezes blow, a true delight after a hot, muggy day. It's early evening, the sun still far above the horizon, but to that point that sends gentle shadows over everything and casts points of light off the bright spots. The bridges are in sharp relief against the white reflection of the Arno. It's hazy, and the hills quickly fade in the distance. You don't realize how tall the Duomo is (it towers above everything else) - or how close to the ground the rest of the city is.

What a truly magnificent and remarkable place Florence is! Surely there is no other city with its size-to-works-of-art ratio. Everything here is art or is in some way remarkable. A city that displays a glorious testament to our incredible creative abilities.

Tourist tips

Try to avoid succumbing to the "cambio" stations that are littered all along the main touristed areas. They may look like a good deal at first, sporting high exchange rates and in big black letters "NO COMMISSION," but if you read the fine print, they slap on service fees as high as 9.8%. Plan ahead and use a bank to exchange money! Banco di Sicilia offers good rates and little or no commission. But if you must use a change station, shop around and ask how much you'll get before you commit - it could save you a good amount of money.

For the most beautiful hand-marbled papers in Florence, Giulio Giannini e Figlio have their gorgeous little shop right in front of the Palazzo Pitti. They make a lovely selection of leather bookmarks that make fine souvenirs.

For the truly fine paper-crazed, heaven is just around the corner from the Duomo at 5 Via dei Servi, in a tiny shop called Scriptorium. Floor to ceiling hand-bound leather blank books, inks, and pens.

Recommended guide: Eyewitness Travel Guides Italy or Florence is the best, with its highly detailed drawings and information about all the sights.

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Copyright 1998 by Jennifer Tyson