Florence has one of the highest Amazing-Things-to-Square-Yards ratios of any city, but that doesn’t make it a great city to visit because all those nice things are awash among less-nice, and even foul, things, that make it not a great city to visit. The problem is all the people who have come from far away; not only the bazillions of tourists like you and me that clog the streets and overwhelm the historic sites, but also the gajillions of people who have come, seen an opportunity to make a buck, and stayed put. In short, Florence is kind of destitute of Florentines, and as is the case in so many places, the general quality of the place really suffers for all the people who don’t belong there (and yes we, as hearty travelers, recognize the irony of that statement, but we proclaim it nonetheless). Florence is like a lovely soup brimming with choice morsels prepared in the most careful and perfect manner and that one might savor individually, but the broth is all wrong: it came out of a can, and the can came from a factory somewhere far, far away.
This is not to say that Florence not worth the trip; for Heaven’s sake, that is not our point. This is one city whose individual elements are worth picking out of, or to continue the metaphor, wading through, a wonky gravy. It is the medieval powerhouse that became the birthplace of the Renaissance; brilliant and tasteful clergy, merchants, artists and architects have left their stamp all over the place. This is the Florence that Lucy Honeychurch discovered in the excellent A Room with a View, where Lucy knows that the best things happen when Florence is either taken in from far away (the famous view from across the Arno or from the poppy field), or a view from right in the midst of the beautiful things (hanging back from a group of gogglers outside of the Bardi Chapel, for example). It’s the in-between parts that are problematic, because there it is so very hard to get by yourself.
The in-between parts are made worse today by all the commercial ugliness that a visitor must pass to get from point to stunning point. But it’s absolutely worth it and, at the same time, since Florence is really, really small,travelers can manage this quickly, if not comfortably. Just don’t go planning to spend weeks on end in Florence; it’s not a place to wander and get lost in, as we like to do in many cities with happier fabric. Let’s start with the hard part first, shall we?
What it’s like
The center of town was built by Imperial Romans, and there’s nothing that the Imperial Romans loved more than a straight road (except perhaps a ninety-degree angle); it’s very clear where the Romans left off (the edges of the neat castrum grid) and the Florentines began (by observing where the roads get all crazy and, well, Italian). This central plan, juxtaposed against the non-planned periphery, makes it very easy to get around and know where you are at all times. Florence has a few main nodes of wonderfulness: the Piazza della Signoria, Santa Croce and the Cathedral-San Lorenzo area among them, and you will want to go there. But, as you make your way, keep in mind:
What to avoid
Appreciated by Roman veterans two millennia ago, those nice straight streets in the center are the obvious paths for today’s traveler to take, and businesses are mindful of that. It is the easiest, straightest paths from place to place that have been almost completely taken over my multi-national brands, turning Florence into a big open-air shopping mall. Part of that character is necessary in any city, and the miles of leather stands crowded around San Lorenzo are, we think, a welcome reminder of medieval markets. Il nostro problema are the boring retailers that line the main drags of this and every other big city’s commercial center. It’s one thing to window shop Italian labels (and we have spent plenty of time window-licking our way along swanky streets where houses like Prada, Gucci and Armani stand, aloofly, cheek by fashionable jowl); it’s another to be pummeled with images of the big fat boring brands that are here and everywhere else. When we travel to Italy we want to be swept into an Italian reverie, and stay there: not to be jostled back to twenty-first century Boringland. Florence is not alone here: if a Gap store can open in Milan, what hope is there for the rest of the Apennine peninsula?
Steer clear of Mallissimo Massimo Firenze, a condition that has spread through the fair city like Eczema ‘on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.’ In general, MoT resident travel experts bemoan the impact of what MoT resident economists believe about globalization: it’s kind of bad (and yes we recognize the irony of that statement that we just MacTyped on our MacBook while drinking Ethiopian coffee from a cup made in China while wearing clothes from yet another continent, but we believe it nonetheless). Our advice: take the long way around from place to place; the narrower and more twisty the street, the better: you’ll find fewer boring stores and more interesting local goods, as well as fewer American art history students clogging your path and a greater number of good places to eat.
What to see
In addition to being a smallish place, Florence has been beat up in ways that interrupt what might otherwise have been opportunities for hours of strolling through picturesque neighborhoods. Much of the area around the historic core is quite recent, and some of the interior has been rebuilt in the nineteenth century (following national unification, Florence was Italy’s capital from 1865-71) with urban schemes of questionable quality and in the twentieth century to replace what Hitler blew up. Florence is one place that does not, in our opinion, repay the slow traveler. Take your time with the things that matter, but that can be a short list, and then you can move on to Siena or Venice or wherever. If you need someone to tell you three things you cannot miss, here they are:
Santa Maria del Fiore is the full name for the cathedral (Duomo) of Florence, which stands, in the Italian tradition, with a bell tower (campanile) and baptistery (here, dedicated to St. John). The interior is not thrilling to those who have learned to like Gothic churches by looking at France, where vaults soar miles above lofty interiors bathed with stained glass. Florence cathedral’s medieval structure is comparatively drab, and the iron tie bars that support the vaults look, to many people (who notice them), like afterthoughts (they’re not). But you probably didn’t come to see the church interior, or even its external marble revetment (stunning, but nineteenth century); you’re here for the lid they didn’t know how to build when they started work on the cathedral in the middle ages. You’re here for THE DOME.
The cathedral’s dome is perhaps the dome of dome experiences. It’s the mother of all domes; really, we mean that. Its designer, Filippo Brunelleschi, invented a new thing when he made a double-shell dome, meaning there is a void rising up through the structure and you get to walk through it. (If you want a good history of the dome, you could do worse than read Ross King’s book, which is comprehensive but not nearly as exciting as the story it tells.) If later architects from Michelangelo to Christopher Wren could be impressed by the idea, you should be, too.
Get there early; the line gets long in the summers later in the day. It’s a long climb; first to the base of the dome (visitors can briefly walk through the church interior below the dome and view the (intentionally) gruesome and terrifying images in the frescoes painted by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari). Then the walk gets really interesting, through the dome itself, since your walk follows the curvature of the structure. 463 steps above the pavement, you’re rewarded by sweeping, stunning views. It’s the best thing in Florence; second only, maybe, to the climb up the Campanile (do this on another day after your legs have recovered). The climb itself is less interesting and a bit shorter (414 steps), but the view of the city is still spectacular AND the view back to Brunelleschi’s dome makes it appear even bigger than you thought it was.
In the neighborhood: Don’t miss the wonderful memorial for the cathedral’s architects against the buildings immediately opposite the transept to the south side: the medieval architect, Arnolfo di Cambio (tablet in hand) looking downward to the plan of his design; and the Renaissance architect, Brunelleschi (working the compass) looking upward to the dome of his invention. Great architects should be honored this way more frequently. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is the museum for the building; it has lots of sculpture that used to be on and in the building, and also preserves really, really old drawings and models of proposed designs, as well as Brunelleschi’s death mask. After the exertion of the climb, travelers are well rewarded by a great, relatively inexpensive and completely delicious lunch or snack at Cantinetta da Verrazano (Via dei Tavolini, 18). It’s all focaccia, all the time. Pay at the register at the front for the number of pieces desired, take your ticket to the back where you can point out your selections (MoT recommends fungi and the one that is all tiny tomatoes & basil). It’s a small place but you can probably perch on one of the little benches that also allow you to gawk at the pastry case while you eat, and make your selection for wrapping up lunch with a slice of torta della nonna and a cappuccino. Or, go across the street to Perche no! (“why not,” indeed! Via dei Tavolini, 19r) for gelato. And wonder what in the world those dopes over at MoT were complaining about; this city is fantastic!
II. San Lorenzo
This church looks like a real dump from the outside; we’re still puzzled that the Medici never got it together enough to finish Cosimo’s church—its bare, ugly macigno front was intended to be covered with marble. But, they had other priorities, as you will see inside. This interior is Brunelleschi at his best; a much more identifiably Renaissance style when compared with the cathedral’s dome. It’s a sublimely quiet, cool, refined interior; just what the doctor ordered after wading across the stream of leather merchants outside, and shielding one’s eyes from the cheap souvenir shops across the street (then again, if you need that Ciao Bella t-shirt, or apron featuring the anatomy of Michelangelo’s David, this is the place).
The church interior is wonderful, but do not neglect its notable additions, too: the Sacristies designed by Brunelleschi and Michelangelo; the two together are your textbook-perfect examples of early and late Renaissance works. The “New” Sacristy features lots of Michelangelo sculpture too. So good. But just as good is the Laurentian Library of Michelangelo’s design, accessible from the courtyard to the south of the church. All of it by him, including the clever reading desks and the ridiculously and fabulously monumental stair leading to the library.
III. San Miniato al Monte
Florence looks best from far away, and this is the far-away spot from which it is seen to best advantage. Go to a market (the Mercato Centrale is handy and interesting) or good sandwich shop to gather provisions for lunch or a late afternoon snack; get a bus ticket from a tobacconist and grab the number 12 bus across the Arno then up, up and away. Don’t be fooled by the Piazale Michelangelo, where the bus will stop first. Let others on your bus get off and join the glut of tour coaches, cars, crap hawkers and tourists who fill up the parking lot. Go all the way to the top of the monte and be rewarded for your patience.
A steep climb up some stairs takes you to a piazza in front of San Miniato, a Romanesque church that is lovely and striking all on its own and definitely worth poking around in for a while; you might get lucky and get to hear the Olivetan monks sing for a while. But it’s the view back to the city that will make you swoon; it’s a great place to sit for a while, eat, and enjoy this beautiful city. What was it again that we were crabby about earlier?
Those are the three places a person really should go to avoid being slapped by passport control on the way home. But the city does, of course, offer a lot more, and it is our habit to think thematically about our destinations. Behold:
I. The Medieval & Renaissance City
Although Firenze has Roman roots, it flowered during the medieval and Renaissance periods; lots of buildings and collections reveal this important historical transition. For the earlier material, see the great church of Santa Croce and the Cathedral (the former will make the latter look more majestic than comparisons with the French Gothic that most people think of when they think of “medieval architecture,” which we know everyone does, all the time). Pass through the medieval church by Cambio, adorned with Giotto’s wonderful frescoes, exit into a courtyard and find yourself face to face with the Renaissance: Brunelleschi’s little Pazzi Chapel is a fifteenth-century gem dropped into this medieval crown. Walking back toward the center, wend your way to Via Isola delle Stinche, 7r where you will find Vivoli and its truly magnificent gelato. Please have a pistacchio for us. Our other favorite medieval sites include Santa Maria Novella, a superb collection of buildings with the strictest guards in town; pay the extra to go into the museum cloisters: the frescoes will knock you out and hardly anyone goes back there, so you will have some time to commune with art all by your onesie. Very close at hand, the Officina de Santa Maria Novella (Via della Scala, 16r) is a pharmacy dating back to the fourteenth century that now offers some of the nicest shopping for your Florentine memento. Warning: once you’ve lived with almond hand cream, you can’t live without it. Florence has great medieval palazzi: don’t miss the Bargello (see below), now an art museum, the Palazzo Vecchio (at least from the outside, which is framed to one side by the Loggia dei Lanzi), and the Palazzo Davanzati (Via Porta Rossa, 9-13), which remains furnished and adorned like a fine residence. It’s under-visited (read: not crowded) and fantastic. Don’t miss it.
With this medieval background, visitors will even better understand the profound and radical shift of taste seen in the Renaissance. Compare Santa Croce with San Lorenzo; consider the Bargello and Davanzati in light of the Palazzi Medici and Strozzi. Warning: your head may begin to ache from aha! moments. We recommend liberal dosages of gelato to ensure full recovery.
Florence is Filippo’s town. Start at the Baptistery, admire Ghiberti’s doors, which beat Brunelleschi’s in the design competition; celebrate this failure which pushed him into architecture. You’re standing near the place where he famously demonstrated one of his many inventions: linear perspective. Yes, someone had to think that up so that Western art could change completely and forever. It was Brunelleschi. (How are you feeling about your resume right about now?) If you haven’t been to the Duomo dome, do that. Then, walk north from the piazza and find your way to the Piazza Santissima Annunziata, the eastern edge of which is Ospedale degli Innocenti. Compared with the more majestically scaled, but old-fashioned Loggia dei Lanzi, Brunelleschi’s small arcaded loggia is a delicate and stunning first go at what we now call Renaissance architecture. It’s pretty amazing: there are no baby steps here; Brunelleschi just did it. Zigzag back toward the middle of things, down the Via Camillo Cavour to pass by the house of Brunelleschi’s great patron, Cosimo de’ Medici. Continue on to Cosmino’s church, San Lorenzo, of Brunelleschi’s design. The core of its interior is the Ospedale’s loggia bent around and given a roof. Make sure to see his “Old” Sacristy before you go, and if it’s open also take in the other sacristy, designed as an homage to Brunelleschi by one of his better-known admirers and fellow Florentines, Michelangelo. From here, it’s as much of a hike as you’ll have in Florence to walk back through town, crossing the Arno over the elegant ellipses of the rebuilt (grazie, Nazis) Ponte Santa Trìnita to Santo Spirito.
III. Floreale Florence
The Medieval and Renaissance elements of Florence are enough to keep most people happy; travelers who like to go off the beaten track, especially in an Art Nouveau kind of way, can do that here in Florence too. Many Italian cities took part in this modern movement that swept Europe from around 1880 to the outbreak of WWI. In Italy the movement is called Stile Floreale (suggesting the naturalistic source for ornamental motifs) or Stile Liberty (revealing indebtedness to the London department store, of which we are rather fond also), but was part of the self-conscious modernity of much of Europe at the time, applied here as decorative devices that modernized buildings that remained otherwise conservative in their planning. A surprisingly good walking tour is available here. It’s long, but will take you to places you wouldn’t go otherwise, to see a very different side of Florence.
IV. Art Without Tears, or Band-Aids
What about the Uffizi? What about the Accademia? Ignoring them leaves a Florence holiday incomplete, but we have explained elsewhere why we are in favor of leaving itineraries incomplete. We are all for enjoying the bounty of art available in this museum-rich city, but as we’ve said before, we do not like museum-going to become a contact sport, so we avoid these places. Probably in one’s life one needs to go to them—we’re glad to have seen Primavera in person, but regret how impossible it is to do that without being mercilessly packed with so many other people who need to pay their respects to Botticelli. In a city with such good alternatives, we prefer the Casa Buonarroti, a fine palazzo on an insignificant street with early and diverse Michelangelo works; the Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air kiosk full of sculpture (and unfortunately, usually, lots of tourists resting their feet and not looking at the Giambolognas all around them); and our favorite, the Bargello, stuffed with wonderful things like ceramics, textiles, silver, and sculptures by Michelangelo, Donatello, the Della Robbia family, Cellini, competition entries for the Baptistery doors by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, and lots more Giambologna, one of our favorites. He’s not very well known outside of art history circles, which is too bad; take some time to get to know him through his violently twisting multi-figure works, his quiet allegories (Architecture is in the Bargello) and even a riot of little bronze birds (also Bargello) that you will want to take home.
It’s all good, and because everyone else is in line at the Accademia and Uffizi, you’ll almost have the joint to yourself. It proves the rule that Florence is really, really better when it’s just you and a bunch of dead artists.
Photo of the Innocenti loggia: Simone Ramella (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ramella/)