And other observations during a two-night trip to Florence
Excuse me, but how did this post that I published on Medium.com a few years back not make it onto my blog?! Here it is, regardless. (In case you’re wondering how I figured out about the literal missing link… it’s because in attending a class to prepare for another trip to Italy in May, I started scrolling through my previous posts, and dear old Florence was missing. Not anymore.
My daughter spent three months living in Venice in 2017 as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a small, yet world-renowned modern art museum located on the Grand Canal. Her time there was magical, challenging, beautiful, and life-changing. During her last week in Venice, she and three of her intern friends spent three days in Florence, home to 705,000 residents and located on the Arno River in central Italy. Since her return, we’ve enjoyed many conversations about her time in Italy.
The interview answers are just the two of us talking; see the photo captions for more detailed notes and facts about her trip.Marilyn Yung
How far is Florence from Venice? It’s about a two-hour train ride. We left from the Santa Lucia train station around eight o’clock and got to Florence mid- to late morning.
What did you do first? When we got there, the first thing we did was walk to find our Airbnb. After dropping off our bags, we confirmed exactly what we wanted to do over the next few hours. On the train, we had talked about what we wanted to do. Our goal was to see as much art as possible — obviously, we were in Florence — and there were five or six major things that we knew would require extra planning and waiting in lines for. We had looked up the opening hours of all the museums, cost, and the amount of time to plan for each one. We didn’t give ourselves time to meander.
So what was first on your itinerary? The first thing we went to was the Medici Riccardi Palace. It’s got three levels of distinct architecture (see the caption for photo below). The palace is absolutely huge and nearly impossible to photograph from the outside.
What was next? The Medici Chapel. Absolutely incredible! The exterior is very misleading. It doesn’t look that big on the outside but then you go inside and it’s massive! The inside uses a really dark marble pretty much throughout. The dome is painted in frescoes. There are relics everywhere. The chapel is covered in ornate paintings. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
So after the Medici Chapel, what did you have for lunch? We went to a little cafe that was very good. I decided to try gnocchi for the first time. Gnocchi are soft dumplings made from potatoes. They can be made from other things like flour or cheese, but potato gnocchi are the most popular. I really had no idea whether I would like it or not and it was very good. I followed that up with a lemon and mint gelato, which was amazing.
And then? After that, we went to The Brancacci Chapel. It’s part of Santa Maria del Carmine church. The main purpose to seeing this chapel, other than the architecture, was Masaccio’s paintings called “The Tribute Money” and “The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.” These are discussed in any art history textbook. These two paintings are important because they are some of the first that show one-point perspective used correctly.
The Brancacci is a teeny tiny chapel actually, and it’s weird to think that super-famous paintings are inside a room that’s about the size of someone’s living room. But compared to the Scrovegni Chapel, I would say it’s larger. One chapel within the church is about the size of the total Scrovegni. Also, all of the paintings in the Scrovegni are by Giotto, whereas in the Brancacci, there are works by Masaccio and others. For example, one chapel had paintings from the Baroque era…a totally different time period and style.
What did you see after the Brancacci Chapel? We went to the Palazzo Strozzi to see an exhibition of video installations by Bill Viola. He’s an American artist and the show was called Electric Renaissance. It was kind of nice to see this contemporary art — made by someone from Queens, New York, no less — contrasting with the old. They brought in some Renaissance paintings and placed them near Viola’s work.
So enough contemporary work, right? You’re in Florence after all. What was next on the agenda? A friend had recommended to us that we go to the Museo Nove Cento. It was a big disappointment, however, The curation was poor and by that I mean that there was little direction for visitors inside. We couldn’t tell which direction to start walking. There were many pieces without wall texts, those cards that are mounted next to the painting or whatever the art is that tells you about the artist, the media, the date and such. Sometimes there were way too many works placed on the wall, which would make it hard for a piece to stand on its own with space to contemplate it. None of us was impressed with it at all. And we were starting to get really hungry, so we went back to our Airbnb to relax for a bit before going out for dinner.
Did you find a great Florentine restaurant? Well, actually we found a restaurant called La Petite and of all things, I decided to get a burger and sticks. Sticks was the name they gave to classic French fries. It was all very good. We passed on drinks that night and just had waters.
What was on tap for Saturday? We went to the Uffizi Gallery. This is where the two of Botticelli’s most important pieces are: The Birth of Venus and Primavera. The Uffizi is probably the most revered museum in Florence.
There are also other incredible works by Raphael, Van Der Goes, da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Parmigianino. The Uffizi is seriously a huge museum chock full of art and hands-down the most renowned. It’s a sin to go to Florence and not go there.
After the Uffizi, where did you go? We went to the Convent of San Marco. This is a convent with incredible cell-like living quarters. Inside each cell is a beautiful fresco that’s painted on the wall.
Even though those are interesting to see, the main reason people go to the convent is to see a fresco called the annunciation” by Fra Angelico. It’s amazing. You can find it at the top of the stairs. The convent also has a collection of antique books owned by former residents.
Where did you have lunch on Saturday? After that, we got lunch at a little nondescript café –have no idea what it was called — and then we decided to take a break from art and went shopping at a Cos store on Via Della Spada. I had never been to Cos before and I thought it was the coolest place ever. Several of us tried a few things on and made a few purchases. We also went to Zara, a popular, inexpensive clothing store. The place was absolutely jam- packed. There was a 45-minute wait just to get into the dressing room. So that didn’t last long because we still had to get to the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo’s David.
How was that? Seeing The David was the most amazing thing. I’ve never been stopped in my tracks by something until that moment. It is presented beautifully. You walk down a hall, turn a corner and it’s at the end of a long entry hall.
Sunlight streams in from above. It is majestic. Stunning. The David makes you ask, How did someone create that? Its size is part of the spectacle because I didn’t expect it be that large. The hands on The David are disproportionately large to highlight the importance of his hands in slaying Goliath.
We spent about an hour looking at The David, awestruck, and then suddenly we realized it was just about time for dinner.
Another burger? Very funny. No, even better… Mexican! We went to Tijuana Mexican Bar and Restaurant. Actually, it was excellent. I had the best tequila I’ve ever had there. I also ordered a quesadilla with black beans on the side. It was delicious. That night while we were eating, I had this bittersweet realization that it would be one of the last times I would be out with my friends since my internship would be over in about four days.
So you were sad to be leaving? Yes, I guess… sad to leave Florence the next morning, but then also sad to be leaving Italy. I was ready to go home, but at the same time, not ready at all for my time in Italy to be over. I felt like I was just becoming accustomed to living in Venice. I knew my way around. I could manage the language better that I ever dreamed I’d be able to. I could have stayed another three months, honestly.
What was still on your bucket list for Florence? Well, we still hadn’t been to the Duomo, so we knew the next morning would be when we would go see it. However, we had found out on the way to Florence that tickets were sold out for touring the Brunelleschi dome, so we decided to go up the bell tower — Giotto’s Campanile— nearby instead. So we got up on Sunday and by 10 a.m. we were in line to get tickets to go up.
It was still so soon after the campanile ticket office opened that there wasn’t a line yet. So we decided to go on up. Climbing was tiring and you’re just squished up against the walls, rubbing along bodies — there were already other people coming down — as you climb. We got the pictures of the actual dome … the Duomo from the top of the campanile (see image at top of this article). It was a beautiful moment. Incredibly picture-worthy!
After we got back down to the ground, there was a huge line to go up. It was easily a two-hour wait. We’re glad we got there close to when they opened.
Then we grabbed a sandwich at a spot near the Duomo and we still wanted to go inside the baptistery of St. John and see the Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. As we were eating, we noticed a really long line to get inside, so two of us decided to wait in line while the other two of us went inside the baptistery where the gates are. And then we switched off.
Inside the baptistery, I totally did not expect that it would be completely gold. In art history classes, you usually just study the Gates, which are gold, but the inside of the baptistery is also covered in gold mosaics. The gates show biblical scenes
As for the Duomo, which by the way is part of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, the exterior of the building is spectacular with its green, orange and white marble stone.
The entrance to the museum at the Duomo is underground and that’s also where the original Gates of Paradise are. But for some reason, the museum was closed that day. So, I still haven’t seen the original gates, but I have seen the two copies that exist. One copy is in the baptistery above the museum and the other is at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
So was that the end of your time in Florence? Not quite. After that, we went to go see Santa Maria Novella church because we had passed it coming into Florence, and since we were heading out to leave we thought we should go ahead and see it.
Inside there is Masacchio’s Trinity. It’s very important in that it shows the first official correctly-used one-point perspective. It’s actually just a fresco on the wall. And while the church has so much more to see, seeing Trinity was our priority. I remember wishing I wasn’t so tired and could have enjoyed it more, but we were so exhausted from just going-going-going the previous three days.
Any unexpected surprises? Yes. I know it sounds funny, but seeing the trash being collected was amazing. There are above-ground trash bins with large in-ground canisters below them. These automated trucks came along and a huge arm with a giant magnet on it pivots over and picks up the canisters and empties them into the truck. I thought it was interesting to watch, really.
How was your Airbnb, by the way? It was great. The owner was really helpful. I definitely remember it being very loud there with all the traffic. In Venice, it’s relatively quiet without all the cars and I think I was just used to that. It was a gated apartment. There was a loft with a queen-sized bed and another bedroom with a twin bed. Down below on the main floor there was a nice couch. It also had a full kitchen. Everything was stone and so nothing absorbed any sound.
So, after seeing Santa Maria Novella, it was time to board the train? Yeah, we went back and got our bags, got on an express train and returned home to Venice for a party that evening. We left around 4 o’clock in the afternoon and got back to Venice around 6. Then we took the vaporetto to Guidecca for a party. We all chipped in for some pizzas and then hustled our way out to the party.
How would you sum up Florence? So. Much. Art. Everywhere you look there is something important. Florence is all about the art. Rome has the coliseum. Venice has the water. Florence has the art.
I make no apologies. As a writer and parent, I feel perfectly entitled to take full advantage of my daughter’s 2017 experience in Italy by wringing every possible story from it! Yes, our family did visit her there for a week that year and while we saw so much in that short time, we envied the luxury of time her three-month internship allowed.
We’ll be returning in May 2023 for a two-week trip to Florence, Siena, Venice, and Rome. Become a follower to catch those posts when they publish. Thanks for reading!
Featured Photo Credit: The Duomo of the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore as seen from Giotto’s Campanile in Florence. | Photo: K. Yung