Florence – putting the Renaissance into proper perspective.
Tuscany, the home of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Gallileo and of course Gelato! Great art, great food and great weather made the 6 days in Tuscany a very worthwhile experience for me.
Florence, the largest city in Tuscany and home of the Renaissance was my home base for the 6 days. Florence has a different charm than Venice and is not nearly as big or as busy than Rome. Having seen some great art and frescoes in Rome and Venice I was prepared for superlative work in Florence. However, the works in Florence while very good, represent the early days of the masters, and show the transition of art from medieval to Renaissance better than any where else I visited.
The Uffizi Gallery is the largest in Florence and has one of the largest collections of art in Italy. More importantly for me, the Uffizi is presently featuring an exhibit on the history of the Perspective in art, science and Architecture. This exhibit combined with the artwork brought the meaning of the Renaissance together for me and made all the other work I saw in the other cities have even more meaning.
Brunelleschi is considered the rediscoverer of the use of perspective or vanishing point in the making of modern art and drawings. He designed the dome of the Cathedral in Florence, which was the largest dome built after the Pantheon in Rome. However, there was a 1500 year gap between the building of the two domes, and so the Renaissance (1400 to mid 1500) is viewed as the time period when art, architecture and science progressed after ancient Rome (in Western civilization). Brunelleschi’s work was used by Masscio, for the Trinity, that is frescoed on the walls of the Santa Maria De Novella Cathedral in Florence, and which is considered the first work of art to properly incorporate perspective. This was revolutionary at the time, with many people thinking that he had created space where there was none. He hadn’t, he had just used common drafting tools that we use today to create the depth perception.Leonardo and Michelangelo also relied heavily on the work of Brunelleschi in doing their respective work some 50 to 100 years later.
The exhibit at the Uffizi went into detail about the development of mathematical tools, astronomy, architecture, and cartography that followed from this use of vanishing point and linear perpsective. Indeed most of our modern architecture and engineering design is rooted in this rediscovery. The exhibit also included the first attempts at making cameras (camera obscura, in which a darkened room had a small opening and a screen, and the artist would then trace the image formed on the screen to make his art – a large type of pinhole camera). These points were made clear in the main gallery of the Uffizi with works by Leonardo (the Assumption, I believe) which showed brick work having these characteristics. While this may all seem rather mundane today, the number of paintings and frescoes that were done prior to the Renaissance that did not have perspective in them makes you realize what a ‘Great Leap Forward’ western art and civilization as a whole made during this period. Since I dabble in photography and suffered through lots of drafting exercises in universtity I found this exhibit to be very interesting, and indeed the visits to all of these museums and churches has been one two week lesson in the history of western art, science and architecture.
I complemented this by visiting the History of Science museum, which has original telescopes by Gallileo, other navigation aids, as well as machines developed by Leonardo. Again very interesting. Of course I also visited the Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David. Again this was considered revolutionary in its day for the realistic sculpting of the human body, the likes of which hadn’t seen before. There are two other copies of this statue around town, one where the original used to be before it was moved indoors, and another one on a hill overlooking Florence.
To complement the time spent in Florence, I went on two one day tours, one to Siena and San Gimignano in the Tuscan hills.
Tuscany is noted for its wine and olive oil, and we passed acres of both en route to Siena. Siena and San Gimignano are both medieval towns, very well preserved over the past 700 years. Both were important towns on the Roman Road to France. San Gimignano is noted for its multiple towers, which were built by rich families, apparently to hang their textiles to dry during manufacture. When the family fortunes changes, the towers were cut down in size, and so of the original 72 towers, only 14 remain at their original height!
The second day trip I took was to Pisa, home of Gallileo, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa! This was interesting to look at, but the town was more over run with tourists than anywhere I else I have been. The tower is actually the original bell tower for the Cathedral of Pisa. After making the first 3 floors it started to lean. Pisa is in a delta region of the Arno river and doesn’t have very stable soil. Nevertheless, a few more floors were added, and various attempts at correcting the lean were made. Then about 15 years ago lead weights were added to bring the tower back a few degrees. That combined with drilling of the ground has resulted in the lean being reduced a bit. Of course, I figure they would never completely get rid of the lean, because then the entire tourist industry of the town will dry up!
The food here has also been the best in Italy. The Gelato (ice cream) has been extremely rich, and creamy. You know it is great when you start equating the price of the museum entrance with how many gelatos you can buy with the money!
Tuscan food is traditionally been a peasant food, and so is generally lighter than other Italian food. Copious amount of olive oil and very fresh food (even in winter) have made this a gourmet’s delight. But as they say all good things must come to an end. Tomorrow I head to Nice and then make my way across the south of France to Barcelona to meet Marg on Saturday, and the start of three weeks in Spain and Portugal. Until next week.
PS Some other points about traveling in Italy.
This is definitely the time to travel in Italy. There have been a lot of tourists (more than I thought), but everyone tells me it is still a lot less than during the high season! There only seems to be two seasons here – high season and renovation season. This is definitely renovation season! Italian bureaucracy is legendary, and I have run into mild forms of it making train bookings and tour bookings. I also faced a wild cat strike of the water bus operators in Venice and had to walk the 25 minutes to the train station, over all those canal bridges. Good thing I pack light and can carry everything on my back. There always seems to be the threat of a strike of some form of transportation looming! I noticed that most of the towns are very crowded with buildings but a few km outside you are in the countryside. I asked the hotel manager about the land use policy and he told me that it is very difficult to develop residential lots on what is now agricultural land (no urban sprawl, but very dense urban areas with lots of smog!). He went on to tell me about the amount of paperwork he has to go through to renovate even the inside of the hotel! Morale of the story is it is a great place to visit, but would probably drive a North American crazy living here! But that is just my 20 lire worth.