Florence is packed full of more museums than anyone could see in one visit, so it’s important to pace yourself or face being overwhelmed by all the beauty. As I’ve mentioned before, if you need a break the best treatment is a generous serving of gelato and a slow stroll, but a glass of wine at a streetside café table will also work wonders.
Perhaps the most famous and important museum in Italy is the Uffizi Gallery. As the former offices of the Florentine magistrates, the Uffizi now houses an astonishing collection of some of the world’s most important works of art. It can be a crowded place any time of year for good reason, but by purchasing tickets in advance you can avoid waiting in a line that stretches far off into the distance. No one wants to waste precious time standing behind Buzz and Marge from Cedar Rapids for three hours as they complain about the food at their hotel. The Uffizi is shaped like a horseshoe, with rooms lining the corridors, and each room is packed with beauty. In one of the larger rooms, usually filled with a crowd murmuring quietly in awe, is Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” The painting is beyond beautiful and I had a difficult time grasping that this was the original, painted by a master artist for his Medici patrons. I always imagined this masterpiece as a small work, but it’s huge; five and a half feet tall by nine feet long. It’s the painting I still remember my first glimpse of many years later, but I would be hard pressed to pick out a favorite piece from the museum.
Florence is also the home of Michelangelo’s David, a sculpture with no equal. He’s housed in the Academia Gallery, a very nondescript building on a quiet side street. There is a copy of the David in the Piazza della Signoria, but the original that once stood there was moved to the Academia to protect it from pollution and the elements. In the museum, the David stands at the end of a long gallery lined with several of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures. David is larger than I’d imagined, the marble shining under the natural light from the domed skylight overhead. While he’s basically a big naked guy, it’s easy to stifle your inner snickering adolescent when you see the veins in his arms or the wrinkles on his knuckles and realize he was carved from a single piece of stone. You can circle the statue and view it from every angle behind a barrier to keep you from touching it (or taking a hammer to it like one deranged visitor did in 1991), but no pictures are allowed. Try taking a stealthy shot if you dare, but I for one am not going to risk getting yelled at by a guard again.
My very favorite museum in Florence is the Bargello, a former prison that now houses sculptures by many famous artists. I particularly loved Michelangelo’s marble Bacchus (the god of wine), and was surprised to find the bronze sculpture of Mercury, exactly as it appears on the famous florist’s logo. I wasn’t aware that Mercury stands perched on a tiny zephyr, representing the wind, but it’s one of those details you’d only notice from up close. In fact, it’s fascinating to examine all of the sculptures in detail, where the chisel marks can be seen and the delicate fingernails and individual strands of hair make the entire piece look flesh and blood. I can’t peel an apple without the threat of lopping off a thumb, and yet these graceful figures were carved from stone by the hands of someone who died centuries ago. It’s very humbling.
There are scores of museums in Florence, but just wandering the cobblestone streets is to walk through an open-air museum, and it costs nothing. A stroll in any direction will take you past amazing architecture or through beautiful piazzas, where you can linger in the sunshine as long as you wish and enjoy being in a city so packed with beauty. A double scoop of chocolate hazelnut gelato in hand will enhance the experience, but I might be biased.
Stay tuned, more to come …
Matt Grigsby is a Redding native who has learned how to tell the difference between fresh gelato and machine-made. He owns a beautiful imaginary six-room villa in the hills above Florence, as well as a very real cottage on the west side of town. By day he’s a computer analyst toiling for the public good and he dreams of one day owning a robot servant. Matt only uses the fancy ketchup.
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