April 12, 2011

A Private View

Florence or, as the Italians would say, Firenze has always held a special place in my imagination. Anyone who has read Vasari's Lives of the Artists knows how central this medieval seat of learning and culture is to the history of art. A roll call of the masters who practised there from the 13th to the 17th centuries is very impressive indeed. Giants such as Michelangelo, Donatello, Giotto, Bernini and Botticelli will forever grace this city with their presence. Monuments such as the Baptistery and the Cathedral, not to mention the Cappella dei Principi, pepper the urban landscape and attract millions of tourists from all over the world.

In 2009 I spent some time in December visiting the city and seeing the main sights. I travelled two weeks before Christmas and even though Tuscany was cold, there was no rain and the sun sparkled from time to time. What was fantastic was that I was one of only a small number of tourists enjoying the atmosphere. I visited the main gallery, the Uffizi (above), one bright morning and wandered through the rooms entirely on my own under the laconic gaze of the attendants. Each happily nodding to my acknowledgments. It must be rare indeed for a visitor to have ten minutes alone with Botticelli's Birth of Spring and the Primavera. At the Duomo museum there is Michelangelo's third and final Pieta. Whilst examining this moving depiction, where the artist - a deeply religious man - depicts himself cradling the dead Christ, I was joined on my solitary watch by an elderly English couple. We all agreed that it was very surprising indeed to have one of the world's key masterpieces all to ourselves without having to push through throngs of tourists goggling and guides berating us with whole extracts from Wikipedia! The life size sculpture would have struck it's Renaissance audience by it's spirituality and demonstration of Christ's sacrifice. A 21st century viewer is struck more by the modernism of the Florentine's holding the body himself and by the fact that having decided that the work was not up to his lofty standards he took a chisel to it and sought to destroy it before abandoning the marble. An assistant later tried to complete it. The original passages of Michelangelo's carving stand out in the torso and composition highlighting that even in a failed vision the artist could not be equaled.

Having seen a number of the sculptor's works (such as the famous David, (above) I decided to visit Casa Buonarotti. Here are found a number of his earliest works including the Madonna of the Stairs carved when he was 16 as well as a great unfinished torso. Whilst admiring his work I said hello to one of the room attendants. This guard was a woman of certain years who managed to make her utilitarian uniform appear as a work of haute couture. As her solitary charge she admonished me for arriving in Winter when half the museum was shut and missing it. I agreed it might not have been good from that perspective but that I got to see so many things in comfort and could spend ten minutes in front of each of the master's drawings as a result without being pushed aside by the inexorable swell of tourists hailing from Beijing to Boston. The lady snorted, then let out an exasperated sigh and told me to wait where I was. She then darted off, perilously high heels clicking on the marble, and locked the entrance. Returning to me she ordered me to follow her and then gave me a complete tour of the house through the closed sections and behind the scenes. Amazing and another proof that travelling on your own and taking the time to talk with complete strangers pays off.

Following my once in a lifetime tour I dusted off my guidebook in a swish restaurant on Piazza della Republica and identified all the sculptures by the artist around the city and visited each one (below is his Genius of Victory from the Palazzo Vecchio). There is no place like Firenze!

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