Last week, in a spirit of spontaneity that’s entirely uncharacteristic, I went on a last-minute trip to Florence. Work has been very intense this year, and that looks set to continue, so I was in desperate need of sunshine, gelati and the scent of pine, the chatter of cicadas and the quiet grace of frescoed churches. Fortunately I had a marvellous excuse. This summer everyone has been talking about the exhibition on Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, subtitled Diverging Paths of Mannerism, at the Palazzo Strozzi. Not that I needed much of an excuse to return. Florence has been a very important place for me ever since I first went there with my parents at the age of fifteen, my head full of A Room with a View and the Medici, Leonardo and Michelangelo. I managed to get there three more times in my student days, but it’s been eight years since I was last there at the age of twenty-one. It was time to go back.
Although I only had the time to stay for two days – work snapping at my heels again – I’m deeply glad I went. It was hot – never less than about 30°C – but it was a welcome kind of heat: the sort of golden, honeyed warmth that you can feel soaking into your bones and doing you the world of good. If nothing else, I feel more like myself again. In the course of two days I managed to fit in a terrific amount, including the Pontormo and Rosso show and the exhibition on Jacopo Ligozzi at Palazzo Pitti. But I also had the chance to revisit some old friends and, rather excitingly, to venture outside of Florence to make my first visit to one of the Medici villas. Here are just a handful of my highlights (as I said, I was only there two days!).
THE VILLA MEDICEA AT POGGIO A CAIANO
Having studied Pontormo’s pictures at Palazzo Strozzi and his splendid Deposition at Santa Felicità, I decided to complete the set with a visit to the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano. This sleepy little town lies thirty minutes west of Florence, just south of Prato. A bus (bound for Pistoia) runs every half an hour from the CAP office on Largo Fratelli Alinari, and stops right outside the villa itself, so it’s very easy to get to. Once there, you feel a world away from Florence itself, with its hordes of tourists, tour groups and queues. Indeed, I walked around most of the villa by myself, and spent an idyllic few minutes killing time before the 10:30am opening by wandering in the gardens, with potted orange and lemon trees flanking the gravel paths, and the sun beating down among the pines.
Although the villa was originally bought and remodelled by Lorenzo de’ Medici, construction came to a halt when he died in 1492 and it wasn’t completed until Pope Leo X (his son) came to power. Later in the 16th century it became one of the preferred retreats of the Medici Grand Dukes: Francesco I de’ Medici and his wife Bianca Cappello apparently died there within days of each other in 1587. Romantic rumour has it that they were poisoned by his ambitious brother Ferdinando, although in reality it’s more likely that they died of malaria. (I don’t know enough about the later Medici so ended up buying a book on the subject, which I’m looking forward to reading.) Apparently it was one of the first country retreats to discard the defensive fortifications of the medieval period and embrace the concept of the villa as a place of elegant relaxation and calming beauty, and it was decorated to match.
The main draw of the villa nowadays is the salone on the first floor, which runs the depth of the house and was decorated in two phases. First, between 1513 and 1521, Leo X commissioned frescoes from Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio; and then, some fifty years later in 1578-82, Francesco I brought in Alessandro Allori to complete the decorative scheme. I’d come for the vivacious and deservedly famous fresco of Vertumnus and Pomona by Pontormo, which conjures up the lazy informality of a Tuscan summer afternoon. Although that would have been worth the trip in itself, I was delighted to discover the less familiar frescos by Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio. (Wikipedia’s entry on Franciabigio describes his fresco, The Return of Cicero from Exile, as ‘turgid’, which strikes me as rather unfair. Cicero’s face has the individuality of a portrait and the scene combines monumentality and subtle sfumato in a way that I rather liked.)
According to the custodian, the frescoes have all been recently restored, which accounts for their remarkably vivid colouring. The general effect, with the coffered and gilded ceiling painted with the Medici device of the palle, is incredibly impressive. To make things even better, I had the room entirely to myself and was able to wander up and down for as long as I liked.
Admittedly there isn’t much to see at the villa besides the salone, but since the bus costs only €4 for a return trip, and the villa itself was completely free, it’s definitely worth an outing if you have the time, and if you fancy following the Medici off the beaten track.
THE CAPPELLA MEDICI
Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi are very much on the beaten track, but they’re an established favourite of mine. It was rather wonderful to visit the Palazzo for the first time since reading Linda Proud’s Botticelli Trilogy and A Gift for the Magus, and I amused myself by imagining Poliziano, Ficino and Pico della Mirandola walking in the courtyard or in the little garden beyond, with its fountain and statues.
Upstairs I was ravished all over again by The Journey of the Magi, which unfurls around three walls of a room that was even tinier than I remembered, but even more exquisitely beautiful: a true feast for the eyes. The subject was primarily inspired by the Medici family’s self-identification with the Three Magi, but it also commemorated the events of the Council of Florence, held twenty years previously in 1439. This attempt to reconcile Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Christianity was one of the most ambitious of its time, and it had been financially supported in part by Cosimo de’ Medici, which meant that it was an occasion of both civic and dynastic pride. It brought the Florentines face to face with the exoticism of the east – with the Greeks and the Byzantines – and that unfamiliar flavour adds spice to the vividly detailed frescoes which the Medici commissioned to mark the event. (Of course, in the long run the negotiations would come to nothing, but they didn’t know that yet.)
A marvellous cavalcade winds through a fairy-tale landscape, framed with abstract rocky bluffs and green hills dotted with cypresses and castles. The three kings – golden-haired Balthasar; stern, olive-skinned Melchior; and elderly, white-bearded Caspar – lead a train of followers which gives the impression of being a veritable who’s-who of mid-15th-century Florence. Gozzoli is there in the crowd, staring rather challengingly straight out at the viewer (with his name written on his hat, just in case we risk missing him), and the men clustered about him all have such a lifelike air that they must be portraits. Beyond them, birds dart in the air, huntsmen chase deer and young grooms carry hunting-cats in jewelled collars perched on their saddles. There are even camels.
It’s a glorious example of a sacred subject in a secular context. Gozzoli was confidently breaking with the spirit of his training: while his master, Fra Angelico, had developed a newly austere artistic vocabulary through his religious frescoes at San Marco, Gozzoli transformed the Biblical story into an courtly extravaganza, like a splendid Book of Hours. I was fortunate enough to be there at a quiet time and it’s simply magical: a tantalising glimpse of the world in which the young Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici grew up.
SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
This beautiful Dominican church contains some of the most wonderful 15th-century frescoes in the city. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge Masaccio’s Trinity with its pioneering use of perspective, but my feet always carry me straight to Domenico Ghirlandaio’s stories of the Virgin and St John the Baptist in the Tornabuoni Chapel. Ghirlandaio is a great favourite of mine: he is easy to love. He’s a refined, elegant and urbane painter, and his pictures offer a beguiling snapshot of Renaissance Florence in the 1480s. His sacred scenes take place in a thinly-veiled facsimile of his city, witnessed by polite crowds of well-dressed onlookers who can be identified as Ghirlandaio’s friends, contemporaries and patrons.
Ludovica Tornabuoni, the patron’s daughter, attends The Birth of the Virgin decked out in gold brocade; another member of the family, dressed in pink and gold, advances into the Birth of St John the Baptist. There’s more gold brocade in The Visitation, where Giovanna Albizzi-Tornabuoni elegantly witnesses the Virgin and St Elizabeth greeting one another in the grounds of a Renaissance palace. The angel who appears to Zacharias isn’t even noticed by the little knot of men who are deep in discussion at lower left: Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino and Angelo Poliziano, the dazzling elite of Renaissance humanism.
As if this portrait gallery wasn’t enough, Ghirlandaio also had a playful penchant for self-portraits: in the Tornabuoni Chapel he stands at the right-hand side of Joachim’s Expulsion from the Temple, one hand casually propped on his hip, the other nonchalantly pointing to himself. (He appears in a similar pose, looking rather younger, in the Resurrection of the Boy in the Sassetti Chapel at Santa Trinità; and again as one of the shepherds in the altarpiece of The Adoration of the Shepherds in the same chapel.) I can’t help feeling that Ghirlandaio’s sheer delight in the glories of the natural world – beautiful women, fluttering draperies, architectural vistas – slightly overpowers the religious elements of his paintings; but I don’t mind that at all, and it gives the frescoes a wonderful sense of liveliness.
If you have time for a Ghirlandaio tour, you must go to Santa Trinità as well (I tried this time but got there just after Mass and was chased out as the church was closing), where in the Sassetti Chapel you can find portraits of Lorenzo de’ Medici and his children, who are led into the scene by Poliziano (another must-see for those who’ve read Linda Proud’s Botticelli Trilogy). Don’t miss The Last Supper in the refectory at San Marco; and there’s also an absolutely gorgeous Adoration of the Magi in the Ospedale degli Innocenti, although when I tried to get in there last week I found that the museum is currently closed for renovation.
AND SOME MORE EARTHLY RECOMMENDATIONS…
I stayed at the Albergo Firenze in Piazza Donati, which really is in the most fabulous location. It’s tucked away through a little archway on the Corso, opposite the church of Santa Maria dei Ricci (where there are free concerts of organ music every day at 7pm and 9pm). The Piazza del Duomo is a five minute stroll to the north; the Piazza della Signoria is two minutes away via the side streets; and the Casa di Dante is literally around the corner. The staff are polite and welcoming, and my room was just what I wanted in Florence: a cool red-tiled floor, plain white walls and shutters latched against the blazing sun. For those, like me, who just need somewhere to lay their heads, this is ideal, but it probably won’t suit those who like more self-indulgent travelling: the best that can be said about the breakfast is that it’s functional.
One other problem I faced was that the first floor (and perhaps the second too) seemed to be given over to a residential summer school, and that meant quite a lot of students rushing around shouting and banging doors at rather inconvenient hours of the night. So do beware. But if, like me, location is the most important thing for you, and if you possess a pair of earplugs, this is a pretty fine base.
On two of my three evenings, I went to a little restaurant a couple of streets away from my hotel on the via della Condotta (at number 7-9): Il Cantastorie. As you know, I’m the kind of person who does judge a book by its cover and I also judge restaurants by their names, which seems to be as good a way as any to assess places that you don’t know. I wandered in the first time just because I couldn’t resist a place called ‘the Ballad-Singer’. It turned out that their tagliata di manzo with rocket and parmesan was absolutely divine; and their spaghetti oglio e aglio on my second visit was also very good. It doesn’t have outside tables but the large window had been completely opened, and so eating in the front dining room felt slightly like being in a loggia. As a single traveller, and a girl at that, my most important criterion is feeling comfortable in a restaurant, and this place was welcoming and friendly, but not to the point of making me self-conscious. Indeed, when I went back the following evening they recognised me, gave me the same table near the window and presented me with a glass of grappa at the end, which was nice of them. (Clearly they don’t get many solo freckled girls who spend all evening with their noses in books.)