Monday, July 12, 2010

A day of Florentine churches

What a day! Since the major museums were for the most part closed today, I decided to spend the day visiting some Florentine churches and looking at their major works of art. Herein lies my tale.

I left the hostel at about 8:15 am and headed straight for Santa Maria Novella, leaving a bit of extra time to stop for breakfast along the way. Since I arrived before the church opened, I decided to eat my breakfast on a bench outside the church. While I was sitting there, I was entertained by watching two young Italian guys trying to sell printed pictures to the passersby, claiming it was for some sort of charity for children or something like that. They tried to sell me a picture of Bart Simpson. They spoke to most of the passersby in Italian, but I didn't need a translator to know that the people who refused them were using all of the same tricks you'd see at a similar scene in New York: walking more quickly, doing the old "I have my iPod on and I can't hear you" trick, refusing to make eye contact, arguing, etc. Incidentally, I have figured out that generally, when a guy starts "Ciao bella"-ing you, it's because he's trying to sell you something.

I wasn't allowed to take pictures in most of the churches I visited today, so I'm supplementing my tale with some images from Wikipedia. Of course it was awesome to see Masaccio's Trinity, which was much brighter and especially pinker in color than I expected it to be (thanks ARTstor!), but I was also really impressed by many of the other chapels. My favorite was the Cappella di Filippo Strozzi, painted by Filippino Lippi and pictured at right. It's hard to tell from this picture, which cuts out the sculpted tomb below the frescoes, but this is a wonderful example of a chapel in which trompe l'oeil, painted architecture and sculpture is perfectly integrated with real architectural and sculptural elements. I spent a long time staring at this chapel and enjoying the sensation of being fooled. I have a feeling this is going to be a trip in which I am constantly delighted by the perfect integration of painting, sculpture and architecture.

The ban on picture-taking in a lot of these churches was a real bummer, because I was particularly excited by some of the sculpted tombs I saw today, and I really would have liked to take some images of them home with me. Hopefully the Roman churches will be more open to this sort of thing, and I'll be able to get some great pictures there.
Next up on my tour was San Lorenzo. This picture is a good example of something I've realized, which is that it's very hard to get far enough away from some of these churches in order to be able to take good pictures of them! A lot of the piazzas in which these churches are located are quite small, and they tend to be filled with vendors and other tourists who block your view. From now on, I'll probably be a bit more understanding when I see crummy pictures of architecture in European cities.

The artistic highlight for me in San Lorenzo was getting a chance to take a long look at Bronzino's wonderfully weird Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. I was able to get a laugh from a group of undergrads in a review session this past spring while discussing the crazily twisted figure who is torturing Saint Lawrence, and it was fun to see it in person. My question for today: what's with that weird dog/cow/wolf thing next to the creepy baby on the lower right? It may be a little hard to see in the picture, but in person it is very strange.

From San Lorenzo, I headed over to the Mercato Centrale for lunch, and had a delicious roast beef sandwich from Nerbone, along with some strawberries (thanks for the suggestion, Catherine H.!). I'm getting better at ordering food without freaking out about my inability to speak Italian, but it is still a bit of an issue.

After lunch, it was back to the Piazza del Duomo. I went into the Duomo (my one picture didn't really come out), but I decided not to go up in the dome today. It costs something like 8 Euros - people who have been up there, is it worth it? I'm trying to decide whether or not I should go up later in the week.

I almost didn't go into the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, because my guidebook had it listed as "expensive", and I wasn't sure whether it would be worth it. When I went to check the price, though, the air conditioning felt fantastic, and it wasn't actually that expensive, so I decided to go on. Boy am I glad I did, because the place was full of sculpture. On the right is Michelangelo's late-period, unfinished Pieta, which marks the first time I have seen a sculpture by Michelangelo in person. It was really special to be able to look at one of his unfinished works and get an idea of his sculptural process. The face of Nicodemus is definitely unfinished, but what's there is executed with tremendous skill. I really liked this particular vantage point, and I'm really looking forward to seeing more works by Michelangelo later on in this trip.

The Museo dell'Opera del Duomo is filled with painting, sculpture and relicquaries removed from the cathedral and baptistery during various renovations. It's kind of amazing to think that a collection this impressive can be assembled from the cathedral's storage, more or less. In the museum, I saw plenty of works by Donatello, the two Pisanos, and many more. Above is one panel from a cycle of hexagonal reliefs by Andrea Pisano that once decorated the exterior of the Campanile, representing various arts and sciences. This one is Sculpture - wonder why that caught my eye? ;)

I'm sure I'm going to have a lot more to say about Donatello later on in the week, but I just wanted to include this image today, his Mary Magdalene. I'd never seen it before, and in fact I'd never seen any artwork representing Mary Magdalene before today that looked like this. Lots of people stopped and stared at it when they saw it, and I can see why. I'm glad to know it's out there.

The Duomo and its surrounding buildings pretty much ended my tour today. I went to San Marco after the Duomo, but I discovered that it is closed on the second and fourth Mondays of every month, so I'm going to have to stop by again sometime later this week. I'm still getting used to these Italian schedules!

For the birders in the audience, are these the same species of rock pigeon that we have in the United States? They're pretty fearless little blighters - when I was sitting on a bench, they were pretty much walking right under my feet. It doesn't necessarily do them any good, though, because yesterday in the Piazza del Duomo I saw a group of boys kicking them.

And finally, your weird Florence for the day:

I don't even know where to begin with that one.

Tomorrow, I have a date with a 17-foot tall man with one hot bod, and I can't wait!


  1. Having trekked to the top of the dome of the Duomo twice, I would highly recommend it. Great views of the interiors of the church and the city of Florence. Sounds like you're having a great time. Florence is one of my favorite cities to visit!

  2. Reading your post is bringing back happy memories for me. What a thrill it was to see Michelangelo's unfinished Pieta and Donatello's haunting Mary Magdalene along with everything else. I'll leave the rock pigeons to the resident experts. Couldn't connect the houndy thing to St. Lawrence. Have a great evening.

  3. Yes, the same pigeons!

  4. Sarah, What is San Lorenzo built out of? Hard to tell from the photo.

  5. Rock pigeons on their native continent!

    That strange creature in the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence looks to me like a wolf or bear. Maybe held in reserve in case the other torture measures weren't sufficient. I'm not sure if any martyrdom accounts mention that, though. It looks a little too wild for a domestic animal. It's very weird, in any case.

  6. Janet - The exterior of San Lorenzo is made of roughly cut stone, arranged in straight courses. I just did a little poking around, and it looks like a marble facade was designed by Michelangelo but never executed. It's kind of neat as-is, though.

    Maybe there's no real reason for the bear/wolf/cow thing - it is a Mannerist painting after all, and there's no reason for a lot of the other things in the fresco to be there. :)