Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Renaissance overload in Firenze

Florence is far from the romantic chaos and imperial ruins of Rome. It lacks any trace of the aquatic melancholy or the Arabian flourish of Venice. Florence is all intellect. This is the city that invented the Renaissance, not to mention its contributions to science, medicine, literature, and music, including the creation of opera. The Tuscan capital's long list of genius residents includes the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Dante.

The world’s best art is in Italy, and Italy’s best art is in Florence. The city center has more masterpieces per square foot than any other place in the world. The city is so crammed with art that any visit is in jeopardy of becoming a long, tiring trajectory of culture torture. I balanced the art overload with a minimal daily dose of gelato (part of my comparative search for the best gelateria in Florence), which I enjoyed while tirelessly mazing through the stern streets.

The austere city lacks lawns and parks, and there is nary a flower or tree in sight. But the sunset perspective of the colorful Ponte Vecchio bridge over the golden Orno River is divine. The views are even more idyllic atop one of the surrounding hills — the Duomo’s grand red-brick dome rising among clusters of rooftops and steeples bisected by the gleaming Orno and framed with Tuscan hillsides and blue skies.

On the cultural circuit, the Galleria Uffizi is Italy’s premier art museum, and as such without reservations the line can be a three-hour-long wait. Unfortunately during my week in Florence the museum wasn’t accepting reservations due to a computer crisis and the online reservation calendar was booked solid until the next month. Luckily I got the tip to get in line an hour and a half before closing and only had to wait 15 minutes, although I didn’t have time to spare once inside. It was a bit magical walking briskly through the palace-of-a-gallery after dark, taking in as many masterworks as I could with a tight deadline. No miniature reproductions or postcards can do justice to seeing Boticelli’s graceful, airy renditions in person, especially the mythical Birth of Venus and Allegory of Spring.

When I looked up at Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia gallery, I found its immense dimensions startling, just like every other visitor exclaims. A David larger than Goliath is a bit disconcerting, and its absolute perfection gives the image a brutal, inhuman air. The statue’s gaze is said to reflect the newfound confidence in the individual liberated by the Renaissance; some critics consider it chillingly arrogant. I found it ambiguous. At 16-feet, the statue was the largest since Roman times, carved by a 29-year-old Michelangelo from a stone quarried 40 years earlier and marred by the botched efforts of earlier sculptors.

Atop the Duomo is the pinnacle of the brutal Florentine artistic route and the city’s showpiece feature, Bruneschelli’s dome. An unprecedented 15th-century engineering feat, it was the biggest and best dome at the time of its construction. Next door is the baptistery with a matching green and white striped marble fa├žade, which historically hosted the annual christening of all of the babies born in the past year. In those days the Florentines believed the octagonal shaped structure to be a Roman temple to Mars, although it was actually constructed in the 7th century, during the darkest of dark ages, and must have seemed almost extraterrestrial to the current population. The odd building's most outstanding feature is the gilded doors, the result of a Renaissance-era contest in which the seven best sculptors of the day competed head-to-head with the assignment to render the sacrifice of Isaac. Ghiberti’s use of mathematical laws to add perspective to his engravings secured him the commission and just might have ignited the Renaissance. As my Cardogan guidebook put it, he succeeded in “interpreting the forms of antiquity with a depth and drama that have never been surpassed.” Ghiberti dedicated the next 21 years to completing the doors, while Bruneschelli, devastated by his second-place finish, abandoned door-making and went on to create the most marvelous dome since antiquity.

I ventured off the cultural course to into a dustier part of town in search of the SantAmbrogio flea market, where I bartered for an antique cameo-bracelet and some chandelier earrings. They were my only Florentine souvenirs, as Florence’s overabundance of exquisite leather goods were far out of my 100-euro-or-less self-imposed price limit.

I spent quite a bit of time in the under-visited Oltrarno neighborhood on the south bank of the river, where along with the revered artisan’s quarter and its workshops I discovered quaint little grocers, sandwich shops, and vintage stores. The district also houses the Boboli gardens, where for 8.50 euros visitors can walk the verdant paths admiring the meticulous landscaping and elaborate fountains. Across the Ponte Vecchio in the main part of town is the city’s principal plaza, Piazza della Signoria, which doubles as an open air art gallery with stunning sculpture such the Rape of the Sabines.

Although Florence hosts numerous markets, the only real success I had was in the Mercato Central, the monumental two-story food market, where I bought some almonds and cashews to mix with dried apricots and bananas for a very reasonable 3 euros. In the San Lorenzo market, perhaps Florence’s largest and liveliest, most of the merchants didn’t look Italian, and the few I heard speaking the language didn’t appear to be artisans in the least. I couldn’t even glance at the merchandise without being accosted by an aggressive vendor in English, and the designs of the leather goods looked the same from stand to stand. I suspected that rather than authentic Florentine crafts they were cheap products mass produced for tourists. I didn’t trust myself to distinguish from the quality goods and the low-quality and low-taste. My retail failures continued on the luxe street Via deTornabunoi, where in an Ermanno Scervino store window I spotted two a lighter-than-air party dresses the Italian designer most certainly confectioned with me in mind. If only I had 2,800 euros to spare one of the deliciously sweet visions of ruffles and origami roses would have been mine.

Along with boutiques Florence has a brilliant concept of free food known as aperitivi. In the early evening hours bars and restaurants offer a spread of appetizers such as bruschetti or mini panini that are free with the purchase of a drink. This offer might sound too good to be true, but in my case the situation was best avoided as it takes quite a bit of self control for a hungry and solitary budget traveler to keep from looking like a glutton or a cheapskate faced with a complimentary gourmet buffet.

The last thing I wanted to do was err on the side of bad taste, having noticed that Florentines tend to have an arrogant air about them, as if they and not their ancestors were the ones to single-handedly give birth to the Renaissance, shaping the future of Western Civilization. (Not that all Florence’s residents are pompous. A faultlessly gracious local led the free tour my hostel offered, politely addressing the doubtful inquiries about her Italian origins in light of her blond hair and blue eyes.) However, the characteristic Florentine attitudes are understandable, as these people are descendants of the Medici family, the dynasty that inspired Machiavelli’s ideas in The Prince. You can’t really blame their haughtiness; it was their hometown that inspired the term Stendhal Syndrome, a breakdown provoked from an exposure to an excess of art and beauty.

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