Florence By Night

Florence Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore
Florence Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore

An evening in Florence is extremely magical. Everything comes alive, from the medieval architecture to the roving bands of locals and tourists alike. You are never far from eye-catching structures that soar skyward into the dark abyss. Charming cafes and trattorias full of chatting people line the winding cobbled streets. Merry-making is in the air.

Music on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge
Music on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge – ┬áToss in a coin or buy a CD

The Ponte Vecchio, or ‘old bridge,’ was once lined with butcher shops. This is no longer the case, thank goodness. Today it is bedecked with lovely jewelry shops. You need not wander far before you hear the beat and rhythm of a nearby local band, wholeheartedly doing their best to entertain you.

Ponte Vecchio from the bank of the Arno River
Ponte Vecchio with its many shops from the bank of the Arno River

Giorgio Vasari, early sixteenth century architect, was commissioned by the Medici to build a corridor that ran from the Uffizi Gallery to the Medici Palace on the opposite side of the Arno River. Here you can see the corridor continue over the top of the shops with its neat line of square windows.

The Palazzo Vecchio, the old city hall, stands proudly in the piazza
The Palazzo Vecchio, or “old palace,” still operates as the city hall

Medieval and dauntless stands the Palazzo Vecchio, an important landmark of Florence since 1322. Constructed by Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio, the impressive Romanesque-style crenelated fortress is rock-solid. A huge bell at the top of the tower was used to call the citizens to meetings or warn them of fire, flood or enemy attack.

To the right you can see the looming arches of the outdoor “sculpture museum,” called the Loggia dei Lanzi.

Notice below the magnificent display of light and shadow on these figures in the Loggia. They appear very dramatic, especially at night.

Statue in the Loggia dei Lanzi,
Statue in the Loggia dei Lanzi– The Rape of Polyxena by Pio Fedi

Across from the Palazzo Vecchio on the Piazza della Signoria is the Loggia dei Lanzi, built in 1382 and designed by Orcangna. It was named after the Lancers, the bodyguards of Cosimo I who took up lodging on this spot. The Loggia is actually an outdoor museum, with twisting and grasping statues that appear especially spectacular at night-time.

Rape of the Sabine Women
Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna
Menelaus supporting the body of Patroclus
Menelaus supporting the body of Patroclus was discovered in Rome and has gone through some restoration
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Hercules and Cacus by Baccio Bandinelli stands in front of the Palazzo Vecchio
Perseus with the head of Medussa
Perseus with the head of Medussa by Benvenuto Cellini
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The famous Uffizi Gallery

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Cosimo I de’ Medici hired architect Giorgio Vasari to build offices for the Florentine magistrates in 1560. Later, after the fall of the ruling Medici’s, it became a museum officially open to the public in 1765. Today it houses many famous paintings by the masters. Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio lead the parade.

Florence by night is an entirely different world. It is a world of artistic appeal to the senses, of mystery and intrigue. A world revealing shades of a former time.

The Painter and the Peasant Girl: Raphael’s Mysterious Love

Margherita Luti
La Fornarina, the baker’s daughter

Her dark-eyed beauty and peachy hued porcelain skin could turn the head of any man. Margherita Lute, the daughter of a Roman baker, appears to have stolen the heart of Raphael himself. She is depicted in several of his paintings, including the Madonna cycles. But his one masterpiece, La Fornarina, leaves several clues as to his relationship with her. There is no doubt that she was his mistress, but recent discoveries question whether they were betrothed or even secretly married.

La Donna Velata
La Velata–same lady?

The story of Raphael and Margherita is one of the most intriguing and romantic love affairs of all time. It all began one day when Raphael happened to catch sight of her at the outdoor fountain by her house in Trastevere, west of the Tiber River, washing her feet. He was smitten by her dark beauty and graceful ways, and wasted no time in pursuing her. As with Romeo and Juliet, these two lovers each came from an entirely different social status. She, a peasant girl, could not engage in a public display of affection with the unrivaled prestige of Raphael. Yet even under intense and consequential circumstances, they continued to nurture their romance secretly.

Raphael Santi
Raphael Santi

Raphael Santi, born in 1483 in Urbino, was known as the “Prince of Painters.” As a young man of great artistic abilities, his expertise took him straight to the top. He became a master painter at the age of 17. Leonardo da Vinci became a mentor and father figure to him while Raphael was painting in Florence. He was soon commissioned to paint fresco cycles for the Vatican, eventually becoming Pope Julius II’s chief architect in 1514. Some of his well-known fresco’s include The School of Athens, The Triumph of Religion, and The Liberation of St. Peter.

Giorgio Vasari, art historian and author of “The Lives of the Artists,” writes that Raphael could not focus on his painting at the Villa Farnesina when he was separated from her, so it was arranged that she be reunited with him and available to him at all times. The paintings were about love and marriage, and it has been speculated that the friend who commissioned Raphael to paint, Agostino Chigi, may have arranged a secret marriage for them.

The Villa Farnesina is a Renaissance suburban villa in the Via della Lungara, in the district of Trastevere in Rome, central Italy. The villa was built for Agostino Chigi, a rich Sienese banker and the treasurer of Pope Julius II.

Raphael and Margherita by Ingress
Raphael and Margherita 1814 by Ingress

Art restorers have recently discovered a ruby ring on the third finger of her left hand that had been painted over in an attempt to blot it out. Raphael was engaged to another woman of high standing, Maria Bibbiena, but against his will. Consequently, if the truth of the ring became public knowledge, there would have been a scandal. The consequences could easily have bankrupted Raphael and his school of painting as well as losing his commission at the Vatican. Most likely one of his students realized the risk after Raphael’s death and took action by painting over it.

According to the experts, such a ring would be highly improbable on a woman under usual circumstance, even for a courtesan who was heavily bejeweled. Margherita wears a blue ribbon around her arm that has Raphael’s name etched in gold. In the background of the 1520’s portrait are myrtle and quince, symbols of love and marriage. A costly pearl broach hangs from her headpiece that a woman would usually wear only on her wedding day.

Margherita Lute, The Bakers Daughter
La Fornarina, the bakers daughter 1518-20

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

In early 16th century Renaissance Italy a nude model would have been rare to come by, so it’s likely that the couple shared a very close intimacy. In the painting, Margherita is gazing coyly yet affectionately at someone, her mouth forming a soft and knowing smile. She places her hands suggestively over her body, the fingers of one hand pointing toward the blue ribbon on her arm. Sensuality, tenderness and eroticism emanate profusely from her being.

Giorgio Vasari described Margherita as “the woman whom Raphael loved to his death.” When Raphael passed away, his body was placed to rest in the Pantheon in Rome. Sadly, it is Maria Bibbiena, to whom he was publicly engaged, who is buried next to him. Raphael provided enough money for Margherita to live a good life. Yet she chose to join a monastery in Trastevere just a few months after his passing. Like Romeo and Juliet, the untimely death of one cast the other into an eternal retreat.

Raphael immortalized his beloved in dozens of his major works. La Fornarina, the baker’s daughter, lives on as the great love of his life.