“When I raise my eyes to the sky, I see earthly things as well.”
– Tycho Brahe, 1588
When a city is visited by 16 million people a year, it can be difficult to enjoy your own little slice of it, uninterrupted from tour groups, bicycles and street sellers. However difficult it may seem, Florence is well worth it. This is the city to visit if you love history and art. This is the birthplace of the Renaissance, and its power is everywhere.
Wherever you turn in Florence, you’re stepping back through time. Whether its trudging over cobbled streets past the Palazzo Vecchio with its David replica and outdoor museum, or taking iconic photos of the even more iconic Ponte Vecchio, with its Skittles-coloured buildings held up on spindly stilts above the water. They look like they’ve been there forever, but you also wonder how many more days those little bits of wood can hold everything together.
The city is rustic, bustling and undoubtedly breathtaking, but how do you find your niche so far from your comfort zone? I’m not all too familiar with Italian history or the language, there’s not much nature in this historic centre, and my history of art knowledge is certainly not as detailed and chronological as my studying of Gombrich’s The Story Of Art would have had me believe.
Wandering through the Academia art museum, I marvelled at the skill in which Michelangelo carved the veins running through David’s wrist, and looked into the longing white eyes of the hall of cast models in the great workshop. There were stories everywhere, but there were so few that I could recount, so instead I wondered about the people that had crafted these beautiful pieces. Where do you start from? How does solid marble become fabric, anger or dimpled skin?
Even more sublime, if you can take all the walking, is the Uffizi Gallery. One of the most impressive art galleries in the world, the Uffizi is a massive collection of Italian Renaissance art, and just the tip of the iceberg of the massive Medici family art collection. Banking truly was big business.
Hall after majestic hall of Roman statues followed by a labyrinth of art rooms containing everything from Giotto’s Gothic chapel paintings with their gold backdrops to Caravaggio’s Medusa and the Birth of Venus. Instead of getting lost in the world of the artists and their commissioners, I found myself lost in the artworks themselves. I mused over the greenish skin tones of the early paintings, wondering if it was age that had turned them this colour or simply the inability to obtain the correct pigments. I noted the repetitive colours of them too: the same four shades of red, pink, green and a stunning ultramarine blue, reserved only for the Virgin Mary in those days. I found myself giggling at the faces and proportions of babies, painted by artists that looked like they’d been as close to a baby as they were likely to have the latest iPhone.
I wondered if my approach to seeing the world and my selectivity was naive, ignorant and possibly arrogant. But then I realised, as I took a picture of the statue of Ceres – the sister of Jupiter, goddess of mother love and agriculture – and also the name given to the largest object in our Asteroid Belt – that I was merely seeing things from my own perspective. I wasn’t looking the way we’re all supposed to look: to show off to our friends about how many of the famous artists we can name, and how accurately we can recite history.
Instead of entering the epic Duomo – the Santa Maria del Fiore – which is stunningly clad in white, green and peachy marble and beautifully asymmetric on the outside, yet perhaps a little underwhelming inside – I ventured alone to the Museo Galileo Galilei to indulge my inner geek in the world of early astronomy, science and medicine, which included a rather stark glass case containing the great astronomer’s finger, no less!
When millions of people can crowd into the same city, eat the same Bistecca and crowd onto the same Romantic bridge, yet see their own unique stories and recount things only they could know, that is the beauty of travel.