Love Renaissance Art, Markets, Food and Fashion? Florence Has It All

People often ask me what my favorite Italian city is. Although I love them all for their unique aspects, I have to say that Florence is the one that completely captures my heart and soul. 

Florence, Firenze!
Florence, Firenze!

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Florence has its own vocabulary for the eye. It is a city that the Italians call an insieme, an all-of-it-together kind of place. It is the birthplace of the Renaissance and has the best Renaissance art in Europe. Florence is unbeatable for some of the very finest food, fashion, and street markets. Not to mention unrivaled gelato and superlative people watching.

The Mercato Centrale
The Mercato Centrale 

Shopping is a full-time occupation in Florence. Inside the Mercato Centrale (Central Market) you will find everything imaginable. The huge iron and glass covered building is full of enticing food, colorful produce, generous free samples, pasta-making, eateries, meat counters, and gigantic stacks of pulled pork sold in a bun for a pittance. Rub elbows with the locals and visit this elegant Florentine market. Hours are Mon-Sat 7:00-14:00, closed Sun year around.

San Lorenzo Market
San Lorenzo Market

Surrounding the Church of San Lorenzo is Florence’s spacious open-air market. Leather is a popular item, from clothing to purses to boots. Here the prices are soft, so you can use your bargaining skills. Located between the Duomo and train station, the hours are daily from 9:00 to 19:00.

Pantomime Looking Human Statues
Pantomime-Looking Human Statues

There are plenty of these pantomimists around. Actually, they are quite impressive with their ability to stand absolutely still for hours. Kids especially love these guys, and flock around them along with the birds. Occasionally the statue will acknowledge its admirers with a glance and a nod, but don’t count on it.

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Medieval Wall

On the other side of the Arno River and up to the Michelangelo Park  viewpoint, the hilly landscape reveals a long portion of the old medieval wall that encompassed the city at one time. Invaders from all directions found it pretty difficult to scale those walls and penetrate into the city. Florence remained fairly well protected throughout its earlier history. The walk up to Michelangelo Park Viewpoint  is well worth it, and also provides vast views of Florence, giving opportunities for great photo taking. Nighttime is spellbinding.

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San Miniato Church

Behind Michelangelo Park Viewpoint is this classic 12th century Florentine Romanesque church, stately in its green and white marble facade. One of the oldest churches in town, highlights within the church are the glazed terra-cotta panels on the ceiling by Luca delle Robbia, an exquisite Renaissance chapel, and radiantly preserved frescoes in the upstairs sacristy, showing scenes from the life of St. Benedict (painted 1350 by a follower of Giotto.) I loved these paintings, and spent a lot of time in this room. Behind the building outside is the oldest graveyard I have ever seen. It’s full of life-size statues dancing, crying, sporting wings, little children laughing, and so on. I found it very interesting to walk through, but I don’t recommend a night-time stroll.

Florence is very multi-layered, and although I have seen a lot I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are magnificent churches, museums and other historical venues that are Florence’s landmarks and not to be missed. Florence beacons me to return time and again, with each visit an entirely new adventure.

“And it was this…..that beckons us back: not any particular building or painting or statue or piazza or bridge; not even the whole unrivaled array of works of art. It is the city itself–the city understood as a self; as a whole, a miraculously developed design.”

R.W.B. Lewis “The City of Florence.”

 

Forte Belvedere ~ The Ruling Medici Hideout of Renaissance Florence

Timeless Italy Forte Belvedere
I was captivated ~ the moment my eyes rested on this lovely view of the Oltrarno hillside from Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence. In fact, I loved it so much that I made it the header of my blog, Timeless Italy. The sun was setting over the land with gorgeous pastel colors. At first I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. But then I decided to investigate and learn what lay behind this gorgeous “villa.”

What I did find out is that this is so much more than a villa. It is the Forte Belvedere, the famous fortress built in 1590 to protect the ruling Medici family of Renaissance Florence. But as I continued to research, I discovered so much more.

Forte Belvedere, Florence

Shaped like a star, this fortress is equipped with mysterious, medieval passageways. The Medici’s meant business when they had it built. They needed a quick and effective escape from the city that would provide adequate protection from invaders and those who posed a threat to this mega-wealthy banking family.

The drawing below gives some scope of the area and shows the Forte Belvedere in the upper left surrounded by the star-shaped walls. It is positioned at the edge of the Boboli gardens. The Palazzo Medici is at the bottom center.

Forte Belvedere by Pitti Palace & Boboli gardens

Michelangelo himself engineered the Forte Belvedere’s strategic location and structure. Surprisingly, the architect who designed the Forte Belvedere, Bernardo Buontalenti, also invented gelato in 1565. A man of all trades! He supposedly gave the recipe and refrigeration techniques to Catherine de’ Medici. Lucky lady, and most likely envied among the ladies of Florence.

Galileo completed some of his important discoveries in astronomy here among stunning views of Florence and the surrounding countryside.

But probably the one event most of us relate to today that recently happened here is the wedding of Kayne and Kim Kardashian. Although the Forte Belvedere is not typically available for weddings, the Kardashian’s were convincing with a 300,000 euro rental fee.

I have not yet hiked up to the Forte Belvedere, but on my next visit to Florence it is a must. I’ve been told by others who have, that the views of the city are magical and even more so when enjoyed with a drink from the bar. There are few crowds here which often makes it a better viewing site than the better known Piazzale Michelangelo.

*Forte Belvedere, Via San Leonardo, 1

Have you been to the Forte Belvedere? If so, please share your thoughts below.

Piazzale Michelangelo ~ Florence’s Renaissance Cityscape from Above

Fiery Firenze Sunset
Fiery Firenze Sunset

“Tonight the sun has died like an Emperor…great scarlet arcs of silk…saffron…green…crimson…and the blaze of Venus to remind one of the absolute and the infinite…and along the lower rim of beauty lay the hard harsh line of the hills.”  John Coldstream

I couldn’t wait to watch the sun set over Florence. After a delicious dinner in the Piazza Vecchio, I crossed the Arno River and its shops of precious jewels on to the left bank and followed the road upwards. After about 20 minutes on the Viale dei Colli, which runs through the hills that surround the central area of Oltrarno, I arrived at Piazzale Michelangelo. Extremely popular with tourists and locals alike, it has the best panoramic views of the heart of historic Florence.

Arno River with Three Bridges

The terrace lookout gives an open cityscape that is a beloved postcard photo of the city. The Palazzo Vecchio, Duomo, Baptistry and Bell Tower loom in the background.

In 1869, designer and architect Giuseppe Poggi built the Piazzale Michelangelo while Florence was the capital of Italy. As a result, it was decided the entire city needed a risanamento, a rebirth, which involved heady urban renewal of elegant proportions. Poggi’s most outstanding accomplishment, however, was the Viale dei Colli on the left bank. At eight kilometers long, the tree-lined street winds up the hill of San Miniato, ending at the Piazzale Michelangelo.

Michelangelo-Bronze Copy of the Original at his Piazzale Michelangelo

A bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David stands in the round-about, accompanied by the Four Allegories of the Medici Chapels of S. Lorenzo. The originals are in white marble. It took 9 pairs of oxen to transport the monument up from the city in June of 1873.

Old City Wall as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo

Remains of ancient city walls still surround parts of Florence in a protective embrace. From the Piazzale Michelangelo, this wall with towers runs up the side of a long hill. Begun in 1284 and completed in 1333, it is believed that it was built under the direction of Arnolfo di Cambio. The gates, no longer in existence, were embellished with religious scenes of the Madonna and Saints, standing 35 meters tall.

Most all of Florence’s history is laid out before us on the skyline. As twilight descends on this vibrant renaissance town, golden lights illuminate the stone facades of foremost landmarks. People begin to gather with iPhones and cameras ready to capture the beauty of shifting colors that begin to streak across the evening sky. All grows a bit quiet as the sun, like a golden orb, sinks slowly into the west.

Santa Croce-Gothic Style Franciscan Church with 14th C. Frescoes by Giotto and the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavellli
Santa Croce-Gothic Style Franciscan Church with 14th C. Frescoes by Giotto and the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavellli
Palazzo Vecchio-Heart of Florence's Social and Political Life for Centuries. It was here that girolami Savanarola was Burned at the Stake as a Heretic.
Palazzo Vecchio-heart of Florence’s social and political life for centuries.

My day in Florence drew to a close in the most dreamlike manner. Despite lengthy strolls through museums and dinner on the Piazza Vecchio with delicious wine, my most vivid memory is of Firenze’s dazzling rays of amber sunlight stretched out over the city in waves of crystal beauty. Breathtaking beauty….the kind that travels straight to the heart and soul, and leaves you longing for more.

Hilltop Villa

The Twilight Shift

Good Night , Florence....Buona Notte Firenze!
Good Night , Florence….Buonanotte Firenze!

Engaging Orvieto, Born of a Troubled Past

Orvieto stands on top of tufa rock
Orvieto stands on top of tufa rock 1,000 feet above the valley floor

Italian hill towns capture my imagination and quicken my pulse. Whenever I catch a glimpse of one, I’m reminded of my childhood fairytale books. Filled with pictures of enchanted castles and medieval villages, they rise mysteriously toward the clouds on faraway hilltops.

Orvieto is definitely one of those. Sprawled out on a massive bed of cavernous tufa rock high above the valley floor, it is a vision to behold. The sweeping landscape is dotted with cypress trees and well-groomed vineyards. Less that 90 minutes north of Rome, the old walled city is rich in medieval charm and is nearly traffic-free.

Orvieto
A medieval street in Orvieto

I love to linger and soak up the surroundings at different times of the day. Dusk is always my favorite. The winding cobbled streets and outdoor cafes take on a romantic ambience as candle light flickers off the stone walls. Trattorias disperse delicious aromas of roast meat and savory sauces. Idyllic.

But don’t let the serenity fool you. From it’s very beginnings, Orvieto has known a troubled past.

Let’s take a quick peek into those bygone years…

It all began with the Etruscans ~

What began as an Etruscan settlement (Velzna) in the 9th century BC, became Roman property after an arduous two-year siege in the third century BC. The Etruscans were ingenious and crafty, and had carved out a large network of tunnels and wells within the expanse of penetrable tufa rock below their feet. The position of the walled citadel increased the difficulty of an invasion, making it nearly impossible for the Romans to take the city.

Orvieto Challenged by the Middle Ages ~

During the early middle ages, Orvieto became prosperous under a developed, well-organized political system and urban structure. This all changed when, sadly, the plague infected the city of 8,000.

“At Orvieto the plague began in May 1348. Some 500 died in a very short space of time, many of them suddenly; the shops remained closed, and business and work was at a standstill. Here it ran its usual five months’ course, and finished in September, when many families were found to have become extinct.” (G. Gigli, Diario Sanese).

Constant fighting among highly ranked noble families also weakened the city. Orvieto was no longer a free municipality and governing city-state, but became a mere shadow of its past. Poverty ridden and sickly, the populace limped along despite pestilence and increasing economic uncertainty.

Orvieto
Orvieto is full of charming nooks and corners

Fire, Brimstone and the Last Judgement ~

The city’s greatest artistic treasures give a strong indication of the political and religious turmoil experienced by the populace. Apocalyptic delirium was inspired by the half-crazed Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola. Luca Signorelli’s paintings in the Orvieto Cathedral chapel reflect the effects of Savonarola’s sermons, resulting in a growing religious anxiety.

Orvieto Cathedral
Approaching the Orvieto Cathedral

A terrifying Renaissance Apocalypse, a series of frescos by Signorelli painted between 1499 and 1504, fills a chapel in the Orvieto Cathedral. In the midst of the city’s post-plague devastation, it must have been natural for such a painter to envision the full depth of human depravity.

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Luca Signorelli’s fresco of The Damned in the San Brizio Chapel of the Orvieto Cathedral

Signorelli’s frescos had a huge impact on his contemporaries, including Michelangelo, who studied them before he created his own masterpieces on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the Last Judgement on its far wall.

Orvieto Cathedral
Almost there!

A Cathedral Hides a Precious Relic ~

Prior to the plague’s devastation, Pope Urban IV took up residence in Orvieto due to the civil unrest in Rome. It was he who commissioned the Cathedral to begin construction in 1290 as a resting place for the holy relic named the Corporal of Bolsena. This relic is the result of a Eucharistic miracle at Bolsena.

As the story goes, it was in 1263 that a traveling Bohemian priest, burdened by doubts concerning his faith, stopped at the tomb of St. Christina in Bolsena to take communion. As he held the host, red drops of blood dripped from it onto the linen. Immediately, his faith was strengthened and the stained linen relic came to be housed inside a small chapel within the Cathedral.

Orvieto Cathedral
The Orvieto Cathedral

The Cathedral’s grey and white striped exterior must have given a glimmer of hope and lifted the spirits of the people. Built very similarly to the Duomo in Siena, it was also a competitive move towards them as Orvieto’s arch-enemy.

The papacy brings prosperity ~

As Orvieto became an important papal province, its economy began to prosper. It grew in popularity with cardinals and popes, who were drawn to an ambrosial sense of peace and security, so contrary to the past few hundred years. Beginning in 1600, urban renewal and profound architectural restoration occurred within the city and have continued to the present.

The town hall has an official symbol that embodies the recent history of Orvieto. It consists of a red cross on a white background, symbolizing the loyalty of the city to the papal party named Guelfi, a black eagle which refers to the Roman domination, a goose which is a reference to the geese who saved the Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill) in Rome, and the lion that symbolizes the loyalty to the papacy of Orvieto.

Symbol of Orvieto
Symbol of Orvieto

Today, Orvieto is bustling with tourists who enjoy the medieval architecture, shopping, abundance of cozy Italian restaurants and some of the best wine in Italy. The ambience changes after dark. Quiet and serene, it is the perfect place for an after dinner stroll through its medieval maze of golden lamp lit streets.

Orvieto Cathedral
Striped Medieval architecture

Orvieto is prosperous and friendly with much to admire. It is the result of a people who endured waves of hardships that threatened to wipe them out. They chose to work toward and embrace hard-won achievements that are visible throughout the city today.

Orvieto restaurant
Restaurant on the Cathedral Piazza

Why Did Michelangelo Put Horns on Moses?

Michelangelo's Moses
Michelangelo’s Moses in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

Considered by Michelangelo to be his finest and most outstanding sculpture, Moses sits inside the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli twisting in displeasure. Intensity emanates from his eyes, his muscles tense and his leg drawn back as if he’s ready to stand up. But the most baffling thing about him are his horns.

Why did Michelangelo put two goat like horns on Moses? Is there some mystical meaning behind them? Did Moses actually have horns and I never knew it? How did this whole misconception, if it is one, get started?

Mystery surrounds this larger than life piece of marble.  As a commission given to Michelangelo in 1515 by Pope Julius II to decorate his tomb, Moses was to be the top centerpiece among 40 statues. Since he would be observed from above, this partly explains why his torso is elongated and dramatic emotion issues forth from his body. Money became short in supply and the tomb was never finished. Could it be that the range of human emotions seen in Moses represents Michelangelo’s own personal turmoil over the tomb he was not allowed to complete?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
In the Old Testament, Moses left his people at the bottom of Mt. Sinai and walked up the mountain. God met him in the form of a burning bush and gave Moses the Ten Commandments. When he came back down to his people, they had made a golden calf, an idol, and worshipped it. Michelangelo effectively captures the rage of disapproval coursing through Moses body.

What about the horns? Scholars believe this was a mistranslation of Hebrew scriptures into Latin by St. Jerome, called the Vulgate. It was the Latin translation of the Bible used at that time. Moses is described as having “rays of the skin of his face.” Jerome translated it to horns from the word keren, which means either radiated or grew horns. 

Horns were a symbol of wisdom and rulership in ancient times. Was Moses a descendent of antediluvian kings, those who reigned before the flood, as some interpreted it?

Michelangelo was not the only artist to put horns on Moses. Several paintings and sculptures from the medieval and renaissance era depict him this way and can still be seen on the streets and in museums.

fresco of horned Moses
Fresco of God giving the Ten Commandments to a horned Moses in St. Andrews Church in Westhall, one of England’s finest medieval paintings (photo credit unknown)

 

Moses statue in Vilnius Cathedral, Lithuania
Moses in Vilnius Cathedral, Lithuania (photo credit http://www.statues.vanderkrogt.net)

 

Well of Moses
Well of Moses, 1395 museum in Dijon (photo credit http://www.wga.hu)

Whatever the reasons, Michelangelo’s Moses is far from the Charlton Heston version in the movie, The Ten Commandments. In the scene where he comes down from the mountain, his hair is streaked in white and his facial expressions mean business. He radiates light, but no horns.