Sights of Florence

5 days in Florence gave me space to get on a bike and find somewhere to ride unblocked by thousands of tourists like ourselves! Here I am in the square of San Miniato al Monte Church above Piazzale Michelangelo across the river from the domed Cathedral on the right. Anne and I stayed at the period San Giovanni Hotel next to the Cathedral. I’m old enough to remember the florin (10p) first made in 13th Florence cradle of the Renaissance. They put truth-telling city patron John the Baptist on the coin as guarantee of the metal. Hence the saying: ‘Saint John doesn’t like cheating’.

Florence’s most famous Christmas Card image is Fra Angelico’s Mary receiving Gabriel outdoors. Gothic images of this scene had the Madonna indoors on a throne, flat, static and unlifelike. Here - in Florence - is the Renaissance, with new spatial awareness in painting. The realism of this Annunciation in the Convent of San Marco is reinforced by its being secured at the top of the stairs to the monks’ cells bringing the scene into the heart of the Christian community seeking with the Virgin Mother ‘Christ in us the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:27). Fra Angelico was commissioned mid 15th century to decorate the Convent walls by Cosimo de Medici whose cell is the only one decorated with gold leaf!

What did I make of Florence’s David? The youthful beauty of Michelangelo’s statue married with the crowds of young people that flock to the city for which David is historic symbol of defiant independence. With beauty and courage I saw consideration, taking thought, before action with the stone filled sling that dooms the tyrant in the biblical record. The Renaissance brings man to the fore but it is a Christian humanism. The spiritual force of David’s head towers above, once you see close to, reminding me Christianity is humanity in its right mind or it is nothing at all.

What a privilege to spend 5 days beside Florence Cathedral where Brunelleschi’s 15th century dome ‘covers with its shadow all the people of Tuscany’ (Alberti). Our San Giovanni hotel, found online for £80 a day, was formerly the Bishop’s residence and 700 year old walls quenched the wifi! 3 min to the Cathedral side door providing easy access to worshippers. We attended High Mass at which Gregorian chant was drawn up the Dome with awesome echoes. To think Dante and Savonarola worshipped here, the judgement scene inside the Dome true to the former and the simple Gothic interior true to the austerity preached at cost by the latter.

This crowded scene in the Uffizi Gallery demonstrates what Florence is up against as the place with greatest concentration of art in the world. The gallery has 2 million visitors a year linked to 8.5 million overnight stays in Florence. Our 3 day visit included Academia, Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, Piazzale Michelangelo, Ponte Vecchio, San Lorenzo with its Medici Chapels, San Marco, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella and Uffizi. Anne and I spread 3 days in galleries and churches over 5 days so we could digest, draw and write, taking in worship that brought eg the Duomo alive and tours that brought Florentines like Dante, Galileo, Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Rossini alive to us.

The shop covered Ponte Vecchio or ‘Old Bridge’ dates back as a bridge over 2000 years but this version from 1345. We weren’t able to enter the Medicis’ hidden passage across it commissioned to allow unobserved passage from Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti. In 1944 Hitler gave orders to spare this bridge alone as the Nazis fled before the American army. Why the shops? The original butchers, fishmongers and tanners were attracted by dumping waste below in the Arno. The river took revenge in the devastating flood of 1966 killing 101 people and damaging thousands of paintings and rare books.

‘The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding’ wrote polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). A polymath is one embracing many spheres of knowledge. Florence’s Leonardo is famed for excelling in invention, drawing, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. We were privileged to visit Florence’s quincentenary exhibition 500 years, almost to the day, after Leonardo’s death 2 May 1519. The exhibition in Palazzo Vecchio was headed up by this beautiful 1511 painting ‘Head of Christ the Redeemer’ by his close disciple nicknamed Salaino.

Here’s a picture of the Medici coat of arms on the wall outside our Florence hotel, formerly the Bishop’s Palace. The Medici family rose to power through banking in 15th century Florence and for 300 years their patronage impacted Italian art and architecture. There are various theories on their striking coat of arms. Most probably the balls represent five gold coins supplemented by the arms of France. Another theory is they represent dents in a shield or pills, given that ‘medici’ means medical doctors. The triple tiara on the Medici arms is a reminder of the four Medicis who were made Pope, such a tiara being worn by successors of St Peter up to the reign of Pope Paul VI (d1978).

We owe one of the most beautiful paintings in Florence to a wayward monk. Fra Lippi was born 1406. He entered a monastery near Florence and fell in love with the nun, Lucrezia Buti with whom he allegedly had two children. The Medicis were his regularly disappointed patrons - Lippi the painter was bad at fulfilling contracts! It may be Lucrezia posed for this painting entitled ‘Madonna and Child with two angels’ (1460-5). It was worth the hour queue for Florence’s Uffizi Gallery to see this painting immortalised by Christmas cards. It represents a humanising of art in which Madonna and Christ-child are for the first time depicted as real mother and baby.

In my burgeoning Anglo-catholic youth I visited San Lorenzo, Florence on its patronal feast to be mightily impressed by trumpets at the elevation of the Host! I guess St Laurence’s Day on 10 August still brings out Florence’s great and good. The immense Church with its bustling Piazza is at the heart of the city, a block away from the Duomo which it preceded as Cathedral. 41 years later Anne and I stayed around the corner from San Lorenzo with time to more fully digest the oldest church in Florence and its crypt full of Michelangelo adorned Medici tombs. Though now a gigantic spacious building it started more modestly in 393 outside the city walls.

I picked up a lot of vices in Florence - there’s loads depicted in its galleries! Here are three at the feet of a fine decorative painting of St Martin in the Church of Orsanmichele. You see the cringing figure of pride (superbia) alongside miserliness (avaricia) clutching her money bag. The figure on the right looking in her mirror represents narcissism or vanity. The tempera painting on wood is dated 1380-5. In those days the spiritual life was much seen as a struggle against deadly sins with the devil inflaming their attraction. In our own day we shun such dualism, maybe to our peril! Pope Francis recently got headlines for saying we should remain on the lookout for the devil today!

Will Pope Francis declare Savonarola a Saint? This troublesome monk denounced corruption in the church, misuse of power by rulers and the exploitation of the poor enlisting the youth of Florence to his cause. Pope Francis’ 15th century predecessor had another take on the troublesome Dominican monk approving his hanging and burning 23 May 1498 as shown in the picture. We saw a shrine to the prophet at the Convent of San Marco, decorated by Fra Angelico. As Angelico went for beauty, Savanorola went for truth and spoke it to power, including the Medicis. Some see him as Luther’s predecessor. Like Pope Francis Savanorola was a Catholic reformer who didn’t shy away from speaking unpalatable truth.

Our visit to Florence lay under the spell of Michelangelo!  The tour of his Medici tombs of San Lorenzo followed a visit to see David in Uffizi Gallery. After David Michelangelo is most famous for his decoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome in 1508. The work he did in the crypt of San Lorenzo on the Medici tombs in 1516 follows this. He returned to Rome in 1534 to paint the Last Judgement. In the picture Giulano, Duke of Nemours lies between allegories of Night (moonlit woman) and Day (awakening man). In his memoirs Michelangelo tells us he intended but never got round to carving Time as a marble mouse travelling between them!

Who are all these young priests with blue tasselled birettas? That was my thought as we bumped into this procession of Our Lady of Fatima one Saturday evening in Florence. My own biretta upgraded from black to red tassel in 2013 when I became a Canon, but blue? Google tells me they’re priests of the ICK or Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest which has stated goal of honouring God and the sanctification of priests in service of the Catholic Church and souls. They say Mass following traditional Latin liturgy (1962). In 2006 the Archbishop of Florence authorised their distinct Marian headgear.

How could I end a visit to Florence without calling at Dante’s house a short distance from the Cathedral? His ‘Divine Comedy’ rivals Shakespeare as one of the most important literary works in the world. It provides through his vivid faith an imagined tour of the levels of hell, purgatory and heaven. The book, once described as ‘the fifth Gospel’, is brilliantly written. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) ‘embraces heaven and earth, eternity and time, the mystery of God and the affairs of men, both sacred and profane teaching, as well as the understanding made possible by divine revelation and the light of natural reason’ (Pope Paul VI).