A Day of Renaissance Splendor and Art
06/12/2015 - 06/12/2015 86 °F
A typical Florentine scene...light reflecting off the water and one of the city's bridges
Day 7: Florence and Verona
Our days were winding down, with only two days of sightseeing left. We started off the morning with a quick drive from the spa town of Montecatini, where we'd been staying, into Florence. We began our tour in the Piazza del Duomo. The soaring Gothic front of the Duomo was richly decorated with statues, marble carvings, and brightly-colored mosaics. Popes frowned down on the square which was thronged with visitors, locals, and the occasional truck that honked its way through the crowds, doubtless hoping to annoy some tourists while taking a dubious shortcut through the narrow streets of this Renaissance era city. Our guide collected us together and pointed out the important sights and details. The overwhelming facade is often called Neo-Gothic for its intricate patterns and detail. We then moved across the square to the smaller Baptistry building, whose doors are a masterpiece of bronze scenes from the Bible carved by Lorenzo Ghiberti. It is one of those oddities that what you see in Italy is sometimes a replica. What we were seeing in the square was a replica, and the originals that took Ghiberti 21 years to carve were safely tucked away in a museum. It is an odd feeling, as you wonder, "Should I take a picture or not?"
The Neo-Gothic facade of the Duomo
The guide then had us step off into a corner of the square to get a good look at the Duomo's crowning glory, it's brick dome completed in 1463 by Filipo Brunelleschi, and is the largest brick one in the world. Many thought he was insane for attempting to creat such a large, unsupported space. They were sure it would come crashing down, and that is unique system of an inner dome and outer one would not work. I teach my students a lesson about this achievement of Renaissance engineering, so it was inspiring to see it in person. In this case, Brunelleschi's dome IS the original...not tucked away somewhere like his arch-rival Ghiberti's accomplishment.
Brunelleschi's architectural masterpiece -- the largest brick dome in the world
From there, we walked to the Piazza Della Signoria, which was the heart of Florence during its transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The Palazzo Vecchio dominates the square, with its slender, castle-like bell tower rising from its front. The palace was completed in 1322 and sits in splendor amidst numerous famous works of art and bustling throngs of tourists. Here many of the Renaissance's most famous statues seem almost randomly placed. The Fountain of Neptune draws your eye, celebrating the naval victories of its rulers, the most famous of which were the Medicis -- those renowned patrons of the arts. Almost as an afterthought, you notice there stands Michaelangelo's David, looming aloof and satisfied in its perfection above the crowds. This is a copy, though, as the original reins in honor in the nearby Academia Museum. Many others tucked under the Loggia dei Lanzi are originals, including Jean de Boulogne's Hercules Beating the Centaur Nessus (1599), and his Rape of the Sabine Women (1583) -- which isn't nearly as X-rated as it sounds. Another teacher and I remarked on the Menelaus Supporting the Body of Patroclus, a nearly 2,000 year old "copy" of a Hellenistic era original.
Michaelangelo's David stands aloof above the crowds in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
From there, we walked to the famous Ponte Vecchio, the only Medieval or Renaissance bridge to survive the devastation of WW II. A classic scene is Florence is of its bridges lined up and the glow of Tuscan sunshine reflecting off the water. Once again, there were throngs of tourists here and in all of Florence. Those who know me as a traveler recall that I do my best to visit places when the crowds are at a minimum. I felt bad that my students were getting a look at Florence only during school its most bustling time and not when it was quieter, and they could take their time and contemplate what they were seeing. But that is the nature of a tour. The more sights you can pack in, the more alluring it becomes. Besides, hadn't they tossed a coin in Rome's Trevi Fountain ensuring they will be back to visit Italy at a more leisurely pace? I would like to come back to Florence one day in the off-season, and spend more time savoring the places we only sipped at on our itinerary.
The interior of Santa Croce church
At this point, our group split to utilize the hour and a half free time as they wished. I made sure each group of students was accompanied by an adult. I tagged along with the last group to depart, a half dozen headed to Santa Croce, led by my fellow chaperone, Mr. Barkhurst. I had actually been here briefly on my one visit to Florence, decades ago. It was nice to take my time and pace around the interior of the 13th century church. Many, many famous Italians are buried inside, including Michaelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Ghiberti, and Donatello. The floor of the church is a mosaic of marble tombstones, and nearly everywhere you walk, a famous Italian lies buried beneath your feet. Although the altar and stained glass windows are beautiful, the focus of Santa Croce is on the tombs. All are beautiful in the simplicity or splendor. The vast, dimly-lit interior seemed empty compared to the thronged squares,and was a peaceful breath of fresh air in a frenzied day.
The tomb of Galileo inside Santa Croce
After lunch, we boarded the bus and headed northeast. Four hours away, our destination of Venice awaited. However, one of the other groups on the tour proposed a side trip to Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet. My group sportingly agreed to pay the 20 Euros for the excursion -- even after they had vetoes our earlier suggestion of a walled, hilltop town, San Gimignano. We ended up with about an hour and a half in Shakespeare's setting for his most famous play. Medieval walls and gates still surround parts of the city. It's streets are a colorful blend of Renaissance era palaces, churches, towers, and pretty pastel-colored buildings. After visiting the courtyard reputed to be the home of Juliet, and taking pictures of her balcony, the kids took turns being photographed touching the heart of a bronze statue of Juliet. The history of these sights is dubious, but as with all Shakespeare, it is the feeling that they evoke that is important. Once again, we fragmented for about 45 minutes of free time. The group I chaperoned made an obligatory gelato stop (my favorite flavor -- and a great word to say in Italian -- is Straciatella). After taking pictures in the atmospheric streets, especially if the 2,000 year old Roman amphitheater (the third largest, after the Colosseum), we reboarded the bus for the drive to the Venice area.
The streets of Verona are colorful and historic
It was hard to believe at this point that we had only one day of sightseeing left. My students had been wonderful. All the adults on the trip praised them for their behavior. You could tell they were equally amazed that our time had flown by so fast. Despite all the wonders and beauty we had seen, I assured them that Venice -- La Serenissima -- would be a fitting finale to our trip.
Is this really Juliet's balcony? Like Shakespeare himself, it makes a good story