“Who hasn’t seen Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Venus or Brunelleschi’s Dome?” These are icons of Florence everyone is familiar with. People might not remember the artists’ names, but they associate these images with the City of Renaissance. With millions of tourists each year, Florence is considered one of the most popular and desirable tourist destinations. There is so much to experience in terms of art and architecture. These treasures are in every corner, every street and every square to enjoy: museums, palaces, art galleries, buildings, churches and monuments. But also, there are other treasures to discover and experience: sophisticated stores, cafés, markets, bakeries, craft workshops, and antique shops.
I still remember the anticipation and excitement as a kid in elementary school when the month of May was approaching. The school year was about to finish and the teacher would have taken the class for a few field trips in the historical center of Florence, my hometown. It was sunny and the fresh crisp air was already warm when we got off the bus in Piazza Duomo. We were immediately mesmerized by the beauty of this huge cathedral, The Dome, one of the biggest buildings of the Christian World. Commissioned to the architect Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296, it took almost 200 years to be completed, by several architects. The enormous Dome, designed by Brunelleschi, is a technical wonder. The architect came up with the revolutionary idea to use self-supporting interlocking bricks to avoid any internal structure. The Dome, the very symbol of Florence, rises 350 feet and offers an expansive, spectacular view of the city. The exterior of the whole cathedral is a delicate pattern mix of white, green and pink marble that shines in the sunlight. The façade, with its sculptures, endless bas-relieves and carvings, is an amazing combination of balanced, rigorous design and brilliant creativity that looks like precious lace from the distance.
“Come on kids, it is time to go! The Dome will be our next field trip,” the teacher shouted.
While walking orderly in line with my classmates along Via Calzaioli, one of the most elegant streets in town, I was fascinated by the rigorous style of the buildings, the beauty of the stores and the sweet, intense smell of pastry coming from the cafés.
“What’s that building , Teacher?” I asked.
“That’s Palazzo Rucellai,” she answered.
“What about that one?” somebody else asked.
“That is Palazzo Antinori,” she said.
“When were these buildings built?” a third classmate asked.
“In the 1300’s, when Florence was one of the richest cities of Europe, and art and commerce flourished,” the Teacher said.
All these buildings, which belonged to noble families, were grand and majestic. They expressed a sense of perfection, elegance and severity aimed to reflect wealth and power. I marveled at the stores along the street selling shoes, clothes, fashion accessories, jewelry, ceramics and antiques. The store windows were all refined and polished, displaying the items with a sense of uniqueness. Also, the stylish cafés, with people sitting outside at tables, sipping cappuccino, eating pastries, and speaking foreign languages, were just beautiful to watch.
Once outside of the Uffizi, I was amazed by the superb architectural structure of the palace. It was designed by the architect Giorgio Vasari in 1550, originally to house the Administrative Offices of Cosimo de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. However, from the beginning, Cosimo de’ Medici took aside the whole third floor to house his art collection which was enriched overtime by other members of the family. The elegant colonnade complex runs down from Piazza della Signoria toward the Arno River like a grand avenue. The enormous museum contains masterworks of paintings from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, from artists such as Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Paolo Uccello, Raffaello, Piero della Francesca and Bellini; you name it, it’s there. In addition, the museum houses a vast collection of paintings from the Dutch School and sculptures from Roman times. All the masterpieces that we had seen in books, while in school, were waiting for us.
Once inside the Uffizi, the Botticelli’s Venus was a dream. The Goddess of Love was in the center of the painting, emerging from the ocean, driven ashore by the wind on a huge shell. On the right, the Spring Goddess was waiting to welcome her with a gown to cover her naked beauty. On the left, the God of Wind and an angel were caressing Venus with their breath, blowing flowers all around, moving Venus’ long hair, the gown and the leaves in the background. Venus was radiant, pure and gorgeous. The scene was sublime. My jaw dropped from amazement.
The morning was gone and the Teacher took us to the Mercato Centrale to have lunch. We were blown away by the feverish activities of the market. The vendors shouted, with a thick Florentine accent, to attract customers to their merchandise, fresh colorful fruit in yellows, reds, oranges, browns and every color in between. Also there were the vegetables in all shades of green and the intense, inviting smell of cold cuts and cheese that made us want to taste that soprassata, that wild boar prosciutto or that cheese from Sardinia one had never had before. We headed to the bakery, where we bought generous pieces of focaccia bread filled with prosciutto and cheese. It was exhilarating. It was warm, fragrant, crusty on the outside and soft on the inside; the filling melting in our mouth. All the simple ingredients: olive oil, salt and herbs were perfectly balanced. We also bought some zesty and juicy fruit from the greengrocer and went to sit on the steps of the market to enjoy the scenery of daily life. Everybody was talking, moving and gesturing animatedly. The butcher singing while cutting meat, the baker taking more bread out of the oven, the greengrocer loading fruit and vegetables on the stalls, the grocer giving samples of cheese to customers and the fish vendor, with squids in each of his hands, shouting that his fish was the best. It was spectacular, pure theatre.
Florence is beyond art. That is what I like about it. Yes, one can enjoy the treasures of history, art and architecture and travel back in time, but it is also an intense pleasure to wander around the narrow streets and hidden squares to find and experience the treasures of daily life. Whenever I’m back in Florence, I love strolling through the street. Without knowing where I’m going, I just let my senses guide me. I know though that I have to follow that sweet, divine smell of pastry that pulls me to enter a pasticceria. The little pieces of colorful fruit have been placed by patient, knowledgeable hands. Just looking at these treasures is mouth watering. The freshness of the dough and the cream are amazing. I eat two of them and drink a strong, creamy espresso that instantly wakes me up. Recharged, I continue to explore. I pass a little square with a well right in the center of it and as I look up, an old lady is leaning out of the window. She looks at me, I smile and wave at her, she nods and smiles back at me.
While walking, I am attracted to a tiny window that reveals a leather workshop. The craftsman has managed to create glass shelves displaying little leather boxes in different dimensions: squared, round, triangular and in different colors.
“May I come in?” I ask.
“Are you kidding? Of course,” the craftsman replies with his sharp Florentine sense of humor.
Surprisingly, the workshop is bigger than I thought. The desk, where the man works, has tools to cut, curve and bend the leather, and create texture to it. The smell is exhilarating, and I am fascinated by the passion and devotion the man puts into his work; knowledge and skills passed down from generations. I end up buying three boxes.
Back in the street, I pass a florist, a bookstore and an antique shop. A heavenly smell of bread circulates in the air and pretty soon a bakery appears around the corner. Inside, the scent of the olive oil and the aroma of the herbs are invigorating. Different kinds of focaccia bread are displayed: rosemary, onion, arugula, olive, potato, basil and tomato. The baker presses her fingers to give texture to the dough’s surface and to create holes to let the olive oil sit there. I have to try three pieces. How is it possible that these simple ingredients give such flavor? The baker knows what she is doing.
As I leave the bakery I turn left and follow a little street that leads to the Arno River. I sit on the parapet to enjoy the sun of the late afternoon and the sound of the flowing water. Ponte Vecchio, the Old Bridge, another of the most beloved and precious icons of Florence is right there; intact in its beauty. It has been watching the water flow for 700 years.
While contemplating the view, I find myself smiling and breathing deep to capture the moment. My mind goes back to the other exquisite treasures I experienced during the afternoon, the pastries, the espresso, the crafts, the focaccia bread, and the people behind them. A visit to Florence is a sensory voyage that expands the moment and enhances the sensation.