April 2012

Wednesday 18th April

As a wise man once said "Starting a holiday where you get up in the morning and it's so blustery you have to take your hanging bird-feeder down because it's swinging around so much is not a heartening thing". And how right he was! Especially with the weather for the next few days in Florence looking wet too. But undisheartened we made for Balham station in the rain, got to Gatwick smartish and thence to Pisa and on into Florence on the train with only a flight delay of almost an hour to sour an otherwise darn smooth journey. We even didn't make the mistake of catching the (painfully) slow train from Pisa, which seems to leave from platform 1 at Pisa Centrale, where the faster (1 hour) train leaves from platform 8. Mostly. It was a cloudy and sunny journey, and it's been a rainy evening, but the Rivoli Hotel seems pretty good so far and the pizzas and panna cotta at La Grotta di Leo were up to scratch too. I had a pizza called a Scugnizza, which had a buffalo mozzarella and fresh tomato topping and which begs two questions. Why had I not had it there before, and what the heck's a scugnizza? A dampish walk to make sure everything is still where it should be. And it is. And then an early night, after typing this stuff.


Thursday 19th April

It rained on us as we made our way to San Marco, but that turned out to be the only real rain that fell on us, although dark-cloudiness persisted. Stopped off at San Giovanni degli Solopi on the way, which turned out to be a bit crapi. Maybe I'm being unduly harsh in my pursuit of blindingly clever word play, but this was unarguably a gloomy church on a rainy day. The ceiling has a somewhat congested painting, and weird stripy discolouration too (see above right).

The San Marco complex was oddly free of entry charges, and full of parties of teenage kids. The lower floor of the Sant'Antonio cloister as you go in is confusion of rooms full of second-rate stuff, with nothing much to bring you up short. (Whilst typing this up I consulted the guide book I bought, and discovered we'd missed a room called the Pilgrims' Hospice (first room on the right) where all the good (Fra Angelico altarpieces) stuff was.) The upper floor, with the monk's cells frescoed by Fra Angelico is a must-see, though, in Florence and for all renaissance art junkies. Every cell is different, although gory and spurty crucifixions seem to dominate. The cell that Cosimo de'Medici used to use, with its Adoration of the Magi, is a highlight; as is the one with the sweet little Annunciation (see right). Don't miss the Ghirlandaio Last Supper in the refectory/gift shop either - it's very similar to the one in Ognissanti, but very fine, if you can block out the sitters and shoppers. The church itself is a bit disappointing - an aisleless box by Michelozzo with a very gilt-scrolly ceiling - but it has some nice bits of uncovered fresco fragments and the chapel of Sant'Antonio at the end on the left has some good mannerist stuff, including an altarpiece of The Descent into Limbo by Allori.

On to Santissima Annunziata, with its frescos as soon as you get into the entrance cloister, by the likes of Pontormo and Andrea del Sarto, made somewhat less of an attractive space by a posse of, pardon me, pushy gypsy beggar women. Inside it's an impressively confusing dark and dusty space, with added baroque-period gilding much in evidence again (see right). It's Michelozzo's work again, with connected chapels up each side and an OTT main altar with chapels in a  semi-circular choir behind. There's an unsignposted door to this choir in the left transept, and I recommend it as there are good views from behind the altar and some superior (if unlabelled) altarpieces, by Bronzino and Giambolgna amongst others. A service started soon after we arrived, but we weren't ushered out. But it was taking place in the spectacular tabernacle (on the left as you enter),  so I  didn't get a good look at this, or the chapel nearby with Castagno's odd Trinity fresco. And by the time I got into the Choistro dei Morti a monk was gently booting everyone out, so I didn't get to see the chapel of the artists' confraternity where various late-16th Century painters are buried. If you're interested in this period's mannerist artists, as I'm beginning to be, then this church is an essential visit.

Gnocchi with a fresh tomato and mozzarella sauce made for a special lunch, the cheese not being melted making it unusually yummy. And then the sun came out, it was warm, and so...the first ice cream! I had a cocco and canella coppa, and it was the best. A short stroll to investigate some crosses marked on the map in my guidebook - only one of them churches I'd so far listed on my site - made me realise that if a short post-prandial stroll near our hotel could reveal four more (including the oddly English-looking one below right) how many more am I missing? And how many more trips (and excellent meals, and gelati) before I get them all?

An evening walk to tick off a few more churches, mostly obscure, deconsecrated and/or closed. But we finished up at San Giovannino dei Cavalieri, an odd one in many ways. Far up the Via San Gallo, it used to be part of a home for 'girls of easy virtue', as my guidebook puts it, before being acquired by the Knights of Malta. It has an oddly huge entrance hall, and inside a very tall nave and quite low aisles. It has two worth-a-trip altarpieces in the Annunciation by the Master of the Castello Nativity and a Coronation of the Virgin by Neri di Bicci. These are in the aisles either side of the apse, and are both strikingly good. The apse itself is totally frescoed but utterly dark, so you can't see them, but they look a bit the worse for wear. There's a painted crucifix by Lorenzo Monaco there in the gloom too, we're told.

My mozzarella and tomato pizza at the old Lampara tonight was a bit boring, and the panna cotta also disappointed with its rather ordinary syrup topping after yesterday's superior syrup and fruit topping. The beer was nice, and hoppy, though.

Friday 20th April

Another rainy day, but bearably so. Ticking off some churches - the façades for the  photographing of - until we got to San Jacopo d'Arno in Oltrarno which had an open door and so we went in. There was a deal of Greek Orthodox chanting and incense and mistiness and bell-shaking going on, with a congregation of two. So we sat at the back and soaked it up. Lots of icons about too. Architecturally there were nice old columns and spandrels embellished at the sides with the later baroquer additions, rather than covered up by them. Generally things were nicely neo-classically embellished here, in quite a subtle way.

Out into the rain and on to Santo Spirito, a fave church. Big and serene and Brunelleschi-ish, if a little spoilt by the slightly jarring later big baldacchino (see right). Ignoring it this is Brunelleschi's biggie, arguably. Thirty-eight altars run all around the walls, almost all with painted altarpieces - the best have been cleaned and are almost all are around behind the baldacchino. These include a Fillippino Lippi Madonna and Child with Saints, with a slightly drugged looking Madonna, an earlier M & C with S's by Maso di Banco, a follower of Giotto, a couple by Allori and a fair few impressive painted altar frontals, which aren't something you see everyday.

A few more façades and some threatening dark skies (see below) and it was time for lunch. After a false start at the LungArno 23 where we had some tasty spaghetti last year but which this time was veggie hell, we went for an Indian - a place by the south end of the Ponte Vecchio we'd had good food at last year. It was good and spicy again, but two samosas, two curries, rice and naan bread, with a beer and a mango lassi came to €50, which seemed a bit steep. On the way back to the hotel we stepped into the old B&M English bookshop in Borgo Ognissanti and found it all new. A helpful and enthusiastic chap has recently taken it over and made things modern and organised and neat and arty. The stock of novels set in Italy is better than ever, and the art books are more and more usefully arranged. We bought a book, and wished him luck. Do visit the place if you're in Florence.

Some more churches photographed in the evening, including Santo Stefano which looks odd and impressive inside (see right) but the interior was roped off beyond the doorway, as the church hosts concerts and you're only allowed in as far as the ticket desk, but where a pianist and an oboe player were practicing prettily for a concert tonight.  Back to the good old Grotta di Leo, where two pasta dishes with bread and salad, a red wine and a medium birra, oh,  and a panna cotta, was all good and tasty and fresh and came to €28. That Indian lunch WAS steep.

In The Florentine newspaper this evening I read that an exhibition featuring a walk-in box containing a virtual church of San Lorenzo is touring the world, and it includes a virtual version of Michelangelo's façade, which was never built. I also see an advert for Mama's Bakery over in Oltrarno, which does filled bagels (fillings include flavoured cream cheeses like herb and spring onion and fresh vegetables), cinnamon buns and various muffins, including pear and nut and apple cinnamon. Oh, and a pear and almond tart. Gotta get me there! Also Ruth's Kosher Vegetarian restaurant.


Saturday 21st April

On Thursday it was just the one 'gypsy' woman, but yesterday I was pushily bugged by three beggars. Firstly in the Greek church a bloke ostensibly selling some newspaper or other would not take no for an answer as we sat and enjoyed the chanting. He nabbed me on the way out too. In the evening a tall African guy in Piazza Santa Maria Novella tried to sell me some glitzy trinkets and again wouldn't be shaken off - "You're English, I love you English, what's your name?" Then a bit later a man approached me as I left a bookshop putting my change away, suggesting I might give it to him instead. Do I have a soft-touch look about me? Why don't they ever approach Jane? Mysteries both.

Today we made for the Palazzo Vecchio as it has a new exhibition dealing with the history of Florence, with stuff from the much-missed Museum of Florence Com'Era (as it was) which closed in 2010. But having paid our entrance fee we decided to do the whole place justice, as it has been almost 20 years. Passing through the big chamber with the enormous Vasari panels we moved on into the chambers we had no memory of, and which were eye-openingly fine. Most of the wall and ceiling paintings in the newer bit were as insipid as all the other Vasari bits, but the older part was a fascinating mix of styles and periods, with the highlight the small chapel of Eleonora of Toledo frescoed all over by Bronzino. The impressive Deposition altarpiece in here is a copy, though, the original having been sent to France as a diplomatic gift. Weird mythological goings-on too, lovely patches of pattern, old scenes of even-older Florence, a funny dark little chapel painted and decorated by Ghirlandaio's son, and even an authentic Renaissance loo. After all this the very small display of the history of Florence was a bit of a let down, but it did have a huge oil painting of that famous old map, you know the one, and some fascinating odd old topographical paintings.

Back at Piazza S.M. Novella there was a produce market. Fig and ginger jam was bought, and some pear flavoured too, but the pear and dark chocolate spread was merely  sampled. Also some pick-and-mix Italian biscuits were picked -  I went for mandarin, orange, pistachio and coconut. And here my beggar experience was extended by a young chap signalling his wanting me to buy him a cannolo by kissing my shoulder and pointing. Back at the hotel we learned that there needs to be emergency plumbing work done on our side and that we should have all our belongings gathered together tomorrow morning for a move to another room.

An evening stroll deep into the Oltrano, finding many unlisted-by-me churches as we went, even further than the Porta Romana, beyond the farthest tip of the Bobili. We found services happening in three churches, mostly well attended, the last one called Sant'Ilario up a windey narrow road. Coming back past the entrance of the Boboli Gardens we spotted a word-processed poster on the gate saying that during the 'Weekend of Culture', 14th-22nd April, entrance to the gardens and the Pitti Palace are free. Looking this up just now it turns out to be a week of culture during which all state museums are free. Not the most publicised event in the cultural calendar I'd hazard.


Sunday 22nd April

No rain this morning, but no sun either, so off to see some non-renaissance art - an exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi called Americans in Florence. It deals with American artistic visitors to Italy in the late 19th century. So yes it's Sargent, Whistler, Henry James and them lot again, but also some people I'd not heard of. An exhibition worth seeing, no question, but also one which was a bit eccentrically wide-ranging -  not a bad thing, but sometimes losing focus with, for example, a selection of still-lifes by artists who were friends with artists who'd been to Florence, or something like that. There was also a somewhat desperate need to cite impressionist influences in, say, the perfectly-plain painting of a sitter's shirt collar. I personally could have done with more landscape and less portraits too. Good to follow up my soaking up of Sargent and others in Boston and New York, though.

A pre-lunch stroll towards Santa Croce took us through some furious car-horn beeping, which turned out to be procession of old Minis - more than you would have though existed in the whole of Italy. A brief veer into the Badia Fiorentina which was rather empty of people and full of incense mist. We were chucked out by monks pretty quickly though. Lunch was in Baldovino by the side of Santa Croce and was a pizza Crudaiola - fresh tomato, rocket and ricotta cheese, henceforth to be known as my new favourite pizza. The walk back to the hotel took us past the spiffy gelateria in Via dei Neri. I had mandarin sorbet with orange chocolate and it was very special.

Back at the Rivoli we'd been moved to our new rooms, and they overlook the courtyard, rather than a side street, the sun is streaming in as I type this, and the window is open to just a light breeze and the sound of murmured conversation below. The room is slightly smaller, and still only has an (even smaller) old and unflat TV, and the knee-hole in the desk is a bit narrow. But the bidet can be reached for foot-washing sitting on the loo seat, and I have a proper upright chair for the desk. Roundabouts and swings, in a nutshell.


Some evening church searching took us up the Via Nazionale and over the Torrente Mugnone around the Fortezza and down through some railway-side rough territory and back to SMN. Five churches were found, including a surprise Russian Orthodox church with three very jazzy onion domes. Then pasta, bath and bed.



Monday 23rd April

This morning we met up with Jane's friend Helen and her daughter Sally, who flew in last night. It's their first time in Florence so we took an acclimatising walk past the Duomo, through Piazza della Signoria and over the Ponte Vecchio. Then the bracing trudge up the hill to Piazza Michelangelo to watch the Japanese brides, and on up to San Miniato. Phew. But what views! Photographed a few churches from the list on the way up too, including the up-a-country-lane San Leonardo in Arcetri, near which was a rather nice gate (right).

Then back down the hill and over to Santa Croce to introduce our guests to the delights of Baldovino, from yesterday. And I even ordered that same wonderful pizza from yesterday, and it still was. To Gelateria Neri on the way back - I had an apple and Mexican spicy chocolate coppa. Having gotten turfed out of our original rooms for a 'plumbing emergency' it was reassuring that when we got back there was a big tankery thing outside the hotel doing some major pumping.

Some strolling around some best bits with H&S in the evening - San Lorenzo and the market, SS Annunziata, and I finally found, and bought, a big poster of the famous 1470 Chain Map of Florence (the link is to a page the also features a virtual-3D swoop through the map). So a happy bunny was I. Then to the Lampara again. 


Tuesday 24th April

Relentless rain this morning. Our new gang of four having decided to go some separate ways before our Uffizi visit this afternoon, I ventured forth fearlessly to - surprise! - visit some new churches.

First was Sant'Egidio in the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova. It had a double-tier nun's gallery at the back, which I'd not seen before and an Allori altarpiece most dingy and in need of cleaning. Mannerist painters have become more appreciated and less spurned in recent years, but their works ain't getting the cleaning they deserve in churches here, it would seem.

Then I found my way to Santa Maria Maddelena dei Pazzi, through the deserted big cloister (with its weird column capitals, see right.) to the huge and empty church. I had the place to myself for my whole visit - no visitors, no-one keeping watch. It's a big aisleless box and too dark to make out much painting-wise. I liked a Coronation of the Virgin by Rosselli, but that was probably because what little light there was was shining on it. The fresco-covered left-hand transept chapel looked good too, what I could see. (Should I have brought a torch?) The chapel opposite was frescoed nicely too, in a mannerist/post-Michelangelo style.

The rain had stopped when I left the church, thank the lord. On my way to Sant'Ambrigio I passed the Synagogue, and...wow - it's big, and has lovely grey railings (see above right). Sant'Ambrigio turned out to be a little gem. Small and aisleless but with four chunky dark grey tabernacles down each side, most containing earlier fresco fragments. There was also a big sinopia (fresco background drawing) hung near its actual fresco, by Cosimo Rosselli (see right). Fascinating and impressive. The paintings and fragments are mostly well labelled, even if these are all a bit eccentrically translated. The noisy fountain just inside the door I could also have done without, at this stage of the morning, bladder-wise. And then, although it was only 11.30, we were chucked out, much to the grumbling disgust also of the two elderly women who'd just come through the door intent on actual religious activity. Out of this church to sunshine! Briefly.

Hoovering up some nameless churches on the map in my guidebook (one of which nonetheless has some fine worn door panels, see below right) I also happened across the market out here, which was mostly fruit and veg, but with general junk too. Slowly back to the hotel, picking up a mozza/tom panino and an apple and almond tart, for a hotel-room picnic.

We'd booked our Uffizi tickets in advance, so it was 'just' a matter of ignoring the plebs queuing at door one, going across the courtyard to door three to convert our print-out into real tickets, and then coming back to join the (short) queue at door two. Then we had to pass through airport-type security and join a snaky queue to the staircase and then trek up the stairs. Access to the room made from the remains of the demolished church of San Pier Scheraggio, with its display of removed frescos, was nowhere indicated, which was disappointing. There is nowhere quite like the Uffizi for (medieval and) renaissance overload and the earlier stuff is its strength, so I still paced myself badly and had to rush the end bit, but the Bronzino portraits impressed, and the Giorgione/Bellini room is a sea of strangeness and cross-attribution. And if you add the many Giorgiones in Vienna to the three here, all of which were once in Vienna, you have to ask...Vienna - why? Shepherded out at 6.30, we then had to make it through endless displays of tapestries, and about twenty shops. Well, at least four.

A final meal in the Grotta di Leo with Helen & Sally. A mess of starters, first courses, main courses, pizzas and a panna cotta all came in no real order, but made for much tasty sharing. With a fond farewell to H&S, we contemplate the journey home tomorrow. But with fortitude and courage we will face the...OK, enough of that.


Wednesday 25th April

A quick late word about breakfasts. After congratulating the Rivoli on their fine and changing pastry and sponge-cake selection, and their fruit salad coming with a separate vat of pear halves, I have to ask - why don't Italian hotels ever do unsweetened (or un-jam-filled) croissants or decent fresh orange juice? The Rivoli's juice from the machine tasted like orange squash, as ever, and even their premium (€3 extra) freshly squeezed was diluted and watery.

Not much time to do much before catching a train to Pisa Airport. Just to attempt some last-minute CD shopping and find both shops closed due to it being Liberation Day. A train at 11.00 from Santa Maria Novella goes non-stop to Pisa Aeroporto and takes just an hour. Spiff! No problems at any stage coming home, except the UK being somewhat monsoony (the puddles!) Looking over a small child's shoulder on the plane, to see what he was reading. It turned out to be an colour-in alphabet book, with such entries (judging by the pictures) as 'I is for salad' and 'M is for cow'.

Venice // Florence // London // Berlin // Trips