Saturday, May 14, 2011

Climbing Giotto's Campanile

View of campanile from top of domeHaving climbed the 463 steps to the top of Brunelleschi's dome, we had a breathtaking panoramic view of Florence, in which we could see nearly the entire city. Alas, the one thing we couldn't see from the dome was… the dome itself. Thus, there was nothing to be done for it, but to climb the 414 steps to the top of Giotto's campanile so that we could get a good look at where we had just been. So it was that after coming down from the dome, with a quick stop for resuscitation at Cantinetta di Verrazzano, we began the ascent of the campanile. Built in the mid-1300's, the campanile is nearly a century older than the dome, and of course there are stone spiral stairs to be climbed. But the ascent of the campanile is not as claustrophobic as the ascent of the dome, since the upper two thirds of the campanile are open in the interior. There are many more and larger windows, and the climb is broken by stops at the third, fourth, and fifth levels. Each upper level has a very open-feeling "room" with pairs of huge lancet arches open on all four sides, and a center which is open through the upper levels. The windows afford some great close views of the upper part of the cathedral and the dome, as well as views over the piazza and baptistry.

View of Il Duomo from Campanile
Looking down inside Campanile
View of Baptistry from Campanile
View of cathedral from Campanile

On the fifth level, you can stand on a steel grate in the floor and look down an uncomfortably long way. You can see one or two of the bells above, and there is an older no-longer-used bell set out for close perusal, but they don't let you get too close to the seven active bells (five of which are 20th century, but the two largest are over three centuries old). As you climb the last part on steel staircases past where the bells are, they are closed off from view. We didn't get to discover what it's like to be in the bell tower when the bells ring. Probably an awesome experience, if a bit deafening.

Campanile bells
Looking down inside Campanile
Campanile bells

Looking straight down from CampanileWhen you finally get to the roof of the tower, you can walk around all four sides, but you are completely fenced in including overhead. I guess they wanted to be certain nobody did anything stupid up there. It's pretty cool to look straight down to the piazza 280 feet below, and watch the people looking like ants. Even the top of the baptistry is far below.

On top of Giotto's Campanile
Top of campanile from the dome
View of Il Duomo from Campanile

Giotto's CampanileAfter we'd soaked up the views and finally descended, we paused to look back at the beautiful tower we'd just climbed. The facing uses the same tri-color marble (white, green, and red) that is used on the cathedral, and the same geometric designs. The tower is gracefully divided into five levels, each level being taller than the one below it. This trick of perspective makes the levels look evenly proportioned when regarded from below, while the tower still looks graceful from afar. The upper three levels feature pairs of double-lancet windows emphasizing verticality, while the lower two levels are subdivided into two bands each, making them look sturdier, yet all in harmonious proportion. The first band features a series of hexagonal panels with relief carvings showing stories from Genesis and allegories of the arts. The second band features lozenges on various themes: seven virtues on one side, seven sacraments on another, etc. The third band has statues of prophets, and the fourth band are simply white lancet slabs. All of these decorations are works of art in themselves. The ones in the tower now are all replicas. The originals have been moved inside where they can be preserved and you can get a better look at them.

Campanile door
Campanile lozenges
Giotto's Campanile

Cantinetta di Verrazzano

Fresh-baked bread and pastries
Focaccia with fresh tomato and basil
Fresh-baked focacce
Fresh-baked focacceTipped off by a food blogger, we discovered the delights of the Cantinetta di Verrazzano, a bustling little focacceria and caffe in the heart of historic Florence, in the blocks between Il Duomo and the Piazza della Signoria. As soon as you enter, a beautiful display case of breads and pastries catches your eye at the same time as the aroma of fresh baking fills your nostrils with confirmation that it is as good as it looks. You can get baked goods from the girl behind the bakery counter, or, as we soon learned, if you want fresh focaccia, you proceed toward the rear, where a woman will heat a slice of focaccia to order in a traditional wood-burning oven. The varieties of focaccia were beautiful to behold. One had fresh tomato and basil, another had roasted peppers and mozzarella. Yet another had carmelized onions, olives, and anchovies, while a layered one had porcini mushrooms sandwiched between two bread layers. Happily, amidst all this gluten-fest, they had something special for George too: a focaccia-like crepe called cecina, which is made from ground garbanzo beans and is completely gluten-free. The bustling place has a small number of tables, but there are also several chairs and benches around, and some people just get some focaccia and eat on the benches. If you get a table, you can also enjoy coffee or wine. The Cappellini family who run this actually owns a winery estate in Chianti (the Castello di Verrazzano), and this little "cantinetta" offers a great venue to taste their wine, as well as to enjoy a terrific light lunch or afternoon snack. We were so delighted with this place that we ended up coming back here a couple times during our few days in Florence. (The Cantinetta is at Via dei Tavolini, 18/R. Hat tip to Gluten-Free Girl, who tipped us off to this gem, and its cecina, as well as to several other great foodie finds around Tuscany.)

Focaccia with onion, anchovy, and olives
Fresh-baked cecina

Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome

View of Il Duomo from CampanileThe Renaissance in Florence was a time of dazzling accomplishments, not only in art but also in architecture, and the (literally) crowning achievement is Brunelleschi's dome atop the Florence cathedral. When the cathedral was begun in 1296, Arnolfo di Cambio, the original architect, built a scale model to illustrate his design, which included a huge dome on an octagonal drum. The design was audacious, in that no one at that time had any idea how to build such a structure without it collapsing under its own weight. Nonetheless, the patrons of the cathedral clung to that bold vision, and when the nave was completed in 1380, they would wait for 40 more years with a huge hole in the ceiling of their cathedral until an architectural genius arrived on the scene with a solution. Filippo Brunelleschi devised ingenious solutions to numerous challenges that stood in the way of building the dome. First, there was the structural problem. While a perfectly round dome, like Rome's Pantheon, can support itself because of the special properties of circles and spheres to evenly distribute their weight stress, Florence's dome was meant to be octagonal rather than round in its footprint, and elongated in its height. These design elements make the dome especially graceful in appearance, but also make it inherently unstable. The solution was to build an interior dome which was more spherical, to bear the weight, and then an outer dome with the more graceful (but non-self-supporting) proportions resting on the inner dome. That design would be stable once it was built, but the next problem was how to support it as it was being constructed. Often, domes would be supported with a temporary wooden scaffolding while they were being built, but the scale of the cathedral's dome made that impossible. The opening at the base of the dome was 170 feet off the ground and spanned nearly 150 feet across. There were not trees enough in all of Tuscany to erect a scaffolding that big. Brunelleschi devised more creative solutions, including a herringbone pattern of laying brickwork that could support its own weight across an incomplete arch while the mortar was not yet dry. And he came up with many new mechanical inventions in order to hoist the 37,000 tons of brick and marble up to the height of the dome. The beauty of the dome and the genius of its construction are one of the greatest marvels of the Renaissance. It remains the largest masonry dome in the world.

Cathedral interior
Looking down from base of dome

Spiral staircaseThere's no better way to get a true appreciation of the scale and the construction of the dome than to climb it. There's almost always a line, but it's well worth the wait. After briefly viewing the vast interior of the cathedral, the climb begins inside the stone walls of the transept, ascending the first 150 feet mostly in tight spiral staircases of medieval stone. Near the top of this part, you enter a large room built into the transept that houses some of the original statuary from the fa├žade that has been brought inside to protect it. In the equivalent room on the downside (you descend the opposite transept), some of Brunelleschi's hoisting inventions are on display.

Last Judgment (inside the dome)Last Judgment (inside the dome)At this point, you are at the level of the base of the dome, and you emerge to a walkway open to the interior of the church. Over the railing, you look down on the vast open church floor 170 feet below, while looking up into the dome, you have a ringside seat for the cavernous Last Judgment fresco. Swirling high above your head, rising toward the lantern of the dome, you see God in judgment, Christ, Mary, all the saints, choirs of angels, and symbolic representations of virtues, beautitudes, and signs of the end-times. Discomfitingly closer to where you stand is the darker underbelly of the apocalypse, with demons pulling wretched souls down to torture and damnation amidst symbols of sin and Hell. The enormous fresco, nearly 40,000 square feet of surface, is jam-packed with apocalyptic imagery. It was designed to be impressive when viewed from the pews 170 feet below, so you can imagine how fearsome it is when standing right at the base of it.

Last Judgment (inside the dome)
Looking up into the lantern
Last Judgment (inside the dome)

After walking partway around the base, you enter the interior of the dome itself, in passages that navigate between the internal dome and the external dome. At first, as you walk around, the curvature is slight, but as you ascend, the curvature closes in on you, with the passage not only bending more sharply, but with the walls of the passage leaning further and further in. Near the top, when you can't go around any more, the passage makes a turn straight for the center going up and across to the top of the dome. Along the way, you get to see pieces of Brunelleschi's techniques: the herringbone brickwork, the wooden and metal chains that function like the hoops on a barrel. And the whole inner/outer dome design is completely apparent because you're walking between the two.

Descending inside the dome
Descending inside the dome
Descending inside the dome

On finally emerging at the top of the dome, you can walk around the base of the lantern topper, 350 feet above the ground, with commanding views of Florence and the surrounding countryside. This breathtaking panorama of the city, coupled with the fascinating insight into the architecture, is well worth climbing 463 stone steps.

On top of Il Duomo
Views from top of Il Duomo
Views from top of Il Duomo

Friday, May 13, 2011

Along the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio

Arno RiverOne of the simple pleasures of Florence is walking along the Arno. The principal river of the region bisects the city, with the historic center of the city on the north bank and the "Oltr'arno" (the "other side of the Arno") on the south. Historically, the river was extremely variable, and could go from a placid flow to a raging torrent in just a few days. It's had its share of floods over the years, most recently in 1966, when it overflowed its banks and filled many of the historic buildings with water and mud. (In the church of Santa Croce, they display photos of the immediate aftermath of the '66 flood, which were fascinating and horrifying.) These days, thanks to modern dams upstream, it is a more regulated flow. The Arno as we found it was tranquil, with water gently passing under historic bridges and sunlight sparkling on its smooth surface, broken only by a few kayaks. On both sides, the river is lined with a bit of wild green growth below tall stone walls. On the north side, a street runs right up next to the river wall. On the south side, some blocks have a street beside the river while other blocks have buildings that back right up to the river. The buildings along the river are mostly 3 to 5 story buildings, some shade of yellow or orange (seems to be required in Florence -- Home Depot here must have a whole aisle just for yellow paint), with green shutters.

Arno River
Arno late in the day
Arno River

Ponte VecchioThere are several charming bridges that cross the river in various parts of the historic center of Florence, but the star is the Ponte Vecchio, the famous bridge lined with shops on either side. Various bridges have stood in this spot probably since Roman times, with previous bridges being washed away by the Arno's notorious floods. In 1345, a few years after the last bridge had washed away, they built the current one using three stone segmented arches, a design which has stood the test of time. (Segmented arches are wide and shallow, not a complete semi-circle, and allow high water to pass more easily.) Originally the bridge was filled with butcher shops, but these days the shops peddle jewelry, art, and souvenirs. In the center of the bridge, there is a gap in the shops on either side, affording views of the river, and a small square often taken up with street musicians. At night, the shops are closed up, but there are still plenty of people enjoying the romance of the bridge.

The Arno at night
Ponte Vecchio at night
The Arno at night

Ponte Vecchio / Vasari CorridorAbove the shops on the upstream side of the bridge is the Vasari Corridor, a secret passage connecting the Pitti Palace to the Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio. When the Medicis moved into the Pitti Palace on the south side of the Arno in the mid-1500s, they wanted to be able to walk to the government offices without having to go out in the street. (Having seen assassination attempts against their ancestors -- Lorenzo the Magnificent was stabbed and his brother Giuliano killed in the cathedral during the Easter service in 1478 -- you can understand the reluctance of the later Medicis to go out in the street.) If you look carefully around central Florence, you can see bits of the corridor, connecting the Palazzo Vecchio to the Uffizi, running along the river for a stretch to get to the bridge, and then along houses on the south side of the river. At one point on the south side, it passes through the church of Santa Felicita, with a balcony opening onto the interior of the church, allowing the Medici to observe the church service from a safe vantage.

Piazza della Signoria

Palazzo VecchioIf the cathedral is the sacred center of Florence, then the Piazza della Signoria is the civic center of Florence. It's just a few minutes walk down the broad Via dei Calzaioli from the front of the cathedral to the Piazza della Signoria, where you first catch sight of the Palazzo Vecchio, the historic town hall and capital building from when Florence was a city-state. While the implied message of the cathedral's design is "be filled with awe and look up at heaven", the implied message of the Palazzo Vecchio is "we're a powerful city-state, so don't even think about messing with us". The Palazzo is a massive stone fortress with a sturdy tall bell tower and clock, dating from the early 1300s. While the design has definite beauty, it exudes strength and defensibility. The stone walls are obviously thick, with few windows on the lower floors and only one large door. The crenellation along the top looks graceful, but also provides the perfect combo of cover and opening for archers. Many of the upper arches contain small openings for dropping rocks or hot oil on unwelcome people outside the walls.

Palazzo VecchioThe sense of history in this square is palpable. The great leaders of Florence, like the Medicis, held court in that palazzo, made great decisions, kept prisoners. It was in this piazza that Savanarola (a 15th century religious zealot a la Jerry Falwell who became a political leader for a time) conducted his infamous "bonfire of the vanities", where books and works of art deemed irreligious were burned in a great pyre in the square. When the city soon grew tired of his extremism, Savanarola was himself ultimately burned here too. (An inscription on a flat circular stone amidst the other cobblestones of the piazza marks the spot.)

Upon approaching the palazzo, even from a distance one can't help but notice the two monumental statues that flank the large entrance. One is Michelangelo's David, and the other is a statue of Hercules vanquishing Cacus (a fire-breathing cattle thief). Both statues are solid marble, mounted on pedestals, and about 16-17 feet tall (not counting the pedestal), a rather imposing three times life size. David, looking like he eats nothing but steamed veggies and brown rice, naked and armed only with his sling, represents spiritual strength. Unlike the typical composition of David with his foot on top of Goliath's head, Michelangelo chose to sculpt him in the moment before the famous battle, looking pensively but determinedly toward his foe. In his placement here, his gaze is south toward Rome. Hercules, on the other hand, looking like he eats nothing bt raw meat and steroids, represents physical strength. He too is naked but armed with a club, and appears to be pausing, perhaps deciding whether he's sufficiently subdued his foe or not. He may also be reflecting the confusion of the time, as in the time this was sculpted (1525-34), there was much political turmoil in Florence, and the Medicis were in power, then out, then in again, and the commission of the sculpture was redirected a couple times. So whether Hercules represents Florence vanquishing her rival city-states or merely the Medicis vanquishing their political rivals is a matter of who's telling the story. In any case, anyone approaching the palazzo should be quite impressed by the stone guards at the door.
Michelangelo's David
Hercules and Cacus

Rape of the Sabine WomenAs if that weren't enough, the square boasts a number of other rather muscular sculptures. At the corner of the palazzo, Neptune presides over a fountain, looking like he and Hercules would make a good cage match. Further in that direction is a regal bronze equestrian statue of Cosimo I Medici. On the opposite side of the square is the Loggia dei Lanzi, an outdoor sculpture gallery with various Roman and Renaissance works. As if more were needed to put the fear of Florence into approaching strangers, the collection includes Cellini's "Perseus with the Head of Medusa", an impressive bronze of Perseus, sword in right hand with Medusa's severed head held aloft in his left, and Medusa's fallen bare-breasted body at his feet, with guts gushing out of her open neck. Giambologna has a couple of great works here. Hercules, not pausing this time, but in stop-frame action actively clubbing a centaur. The sculpture is so active it is literally taut with tension, looking like it might unfreeze at any moment. And the Rape of the Sabine women, a fascinating work said to be the first multi-figure statue in European history with no single dominant viewpoint. The dynamic composition, of one man lifting up a woman while a fallen man cowers below him, has a twisting movement that impels you walk around the statue and view it from all sides. While the David is a replica (the original was moved indoors for restoration and preservation from the rain, soot, and bird poop), most of these other statues are the originals, and you can just walk among them, as it was in the 1500s when so many great artists flourished here.
Fountain of Neptune
Cosimo I Medici
Perseus with the head of Medusa
Hercules and the Centaur

(Check out highlights of our photos from Florence, or the complete set of first day pics on Flickr.)