La Citta Magnifica Florence
Known as the ‘Cradle of the Renaissance’, Florence remains a cultural and architectural gem, and arguably one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Artist, writer and television presenter Douglas Skeggs describes Florence’s appeal.
The streets of Florence have seen some bizarre sights over the years. There have been lynchings and public executions, naked Archbishops strung out from tower windows, not to mention the Bonfire of Vanities, when all the dresses, scent bottles and books of erotic poetry went up in smoke.
But nothing can have rivalled the moment, just over 500 years ago, when the gates of the Cathedral works-department opened and a huge wooden contraption was trundled out into the sunlight. It must have looked like a medieval catapult except that, in place of a stone boulder, it had dangling from its innards the colossal statue of David.
The sight of it being winched slowly forward over planks pulled quite a crowd. When you consider that this is a city in which, even today, a van stuck up a side street is enough of an event to bring locals out on the pavement, it’s hardly surprising that the spectacle of 20 tons of Carrara marble being manhandled down the road caused a sensation.
How they reacted after it was unveiled on its plinth by the door of the Palazzo Signoria is difficult to imagine. Unlike the thousands of tourists who jostle around it today, they didn’t know what to expect. They hadn’t seen miniature versions of it on every stall along the Ponte Vecchio; there weren’t pictures of its stone torso printed on aprons and boxer shorts, or fibre glass copies of it available as water features in every garden-centre in Europe. They were seeing it for the first time.
They probably knew it was carved by Michelangelo, the sullen, self-pitying 29 year old, who had recently arrived back from Rome. But they probably didn’t realise that it wasn’t meant to be there in the first place. When he first got the specification, it was intended to be up on one of the buttresses of the Duomo, just silhouetted against the sky. But as soon as they saw it finished, the cathedral authorities realised this was far too good a piece to have stuck up on the roof and so it was brought down to the main square of Florence.
It remained here for a few centuries, having the occasional chip knocked out in wartime, and getting more deposits from the pigeons than the Medici bank, until it was decided that it should be taken inside for its own good. And so it was hauled up to the Accademia where it stands to this day, surrounded by Michelangelo’s unfinished carvings of the Captives, which should be in Rome, another half-done St Matthew, which was intended for the Cathedral, and numerous other paintings that used to be somewhere other than here.
And that’s my point. Everything in Florence is in the wrong place. They’ve still got a lot of treasures but very few of them are where they should be. Donatello’s David, one of the most erotic bronzes of the Renaissance, used to be the first thing you saw as you walked into the courtyard of the Medici Palace. Now it’s the last thing you see in the Bargello Museum. Duccio’s Ruccellai Madonna was originally in Santa Maria Novella, where it must have lit up the dank little chapel with a radio-active glow. Now it’s queued up with the Giottos and Cimabues in the Uffizzi. And, I believe, this just takes the edge of them. They are still great works of art but they have been sanitised, repackaged for our convenience. Florentine art has almost become a victim of its own success.
Mercifully there are still exceptions, places that have been left untouched, and these are what make the city unique. This is why you can go back to Florence time after time and still feel the same buzz of excitement.
The first of these is the chapel in the Medici Palace. It’s up on the first floor, above the empty space in the courtyard where Donatello’s David used to stand. It’s surprisingly small but the walls are covered by one continuous painting and you are completely immersed in it. It’s as though you are standing in a brilliantly lit aquarium but, instead of fish, you are surrounded by a cavalcade of horsemen making their way though a magical landscape of forests and rolling hills topped with turreted castles.
It was painted by Benozzo Gozzoli and is called simply ‘The Procession of the Magi’. This is one of those stories that is nearly in the Bible - something that must have happened but isn’t actually mentioned in the script - so the artist can let his imagination rip without worrying that he’ll have his collar felt by the church authorities.
And well he might because the characters Gozzoli has created have nothing to do with the Bible, or with Judea two thousand years ago. They’ve come straight out of the streets of Florence. They’re real. There are foot soldiers, and huntsmen whistling up their dogs, spoiled teenagers dressed up like dolls, nobles with the glazed-eyed look of those who’ve done all this before, and surly young men you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.
But what keeps your nose pressed to the walls is the detail. Here you can see exactly how they dressed, how they buckled up their leggings, how they carried their cross bows and harnessed their horses, leashed their dogs and stuck their daggers through their belts. You may not get to understand much about the meaning of the Renaissance from these pictures, but you get a fair idea of what it was like to live in it.
It’s this that makes a visit to Florence worthwhile. This is where time stands still and you can reach back through the centuries to touch the past.
It’s always said that the rather pretty boy on a horse on the main wall is Lorenzo Medici, better known as Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’. It’s a nice idea but unfortunately unlikely, as it doesn’t even begin to look like him. Lorenzo might have been magnificent in many ways but it wasn’t in his looks. He had spiky black hair, a jutting out lower jaw and the flattened nose of an ex-boxer, which between them gave him a high, squeaky voice and no real sense of smell.
You can see him in the wonderful little Sassetti chapel in Santa Trinita, looking as real and believable as if you’d just passed him in the street. In the painting, which is by Ghirlandaio, he is standing watching St Francis kneeling in front of the Pope - an event he actually missed by about 250 years. Down below, appearing rather mysteriously up a sunken staircase, are his sons Guiliano, Piero – who has the misfortune to be remembered as Piero the Fatuous – and little fat Giovanni who would grow up to become Pope Leo X, bankrupt the Vatican and go on to be identified as the Anti-Christ by Luther. No small achievement for a single lifetime.
The most important thing about these paintings is that they are frescoes and so they can’t be manhandled and taken away to a gallery for their own good. And this is what makes them so special. Before you go into the church, check out the view from the doorway as it appears, almost unchanged, in the picture below. It tells the story of a boy who fell out of a window and was brought back to life by some Franciscan monks . This actually took place miles from here but in the painting it’s happening right outside the church. The artist has brought the real world and the miracle together and they’re both the better for it. The miracle becomes that much more believable, and the streets of Florence get a whiff of mystery to them.
Crossing the bridge, the Florentine streets become high and narrow, the Fiat Cinquecentos slipping up them as neatly as bullets up a rifle barrel, the pedestrians pushed into the doorways. At the far end is the tiny Branccacci chapel. It hardly rates as a chapel, it’s really just a niche in the wall, but what holds the eye here is Massacio’s painting of the Tribute Money: Christ and his disciples standing, solid as sculptures, in a landscape that looks as though it’s come from the Battle of the Somme.
The figures impressed the teenage Michelangelo so much that he made copies of them in his notebook. He was evidently rather pleased with the result and began bragging about them until one of his fellow students smacked him in the face and broke his nose, flattening it out to look rather like his patron Lorenzo’s.
As you work your way round to the Ponte Vecchio, you pass some of the better restaurants in Florence. These are the real things, with vaulted ceilings and waiters in white aprons, full of noise and rich smells, the conversation hanging over the tables like cigar smoke. The walls are invariably papered with photos of the patron shaking hands with celebrities. In some ways they’re no different to the frescoes you’ve just seen, with a real man meeting the miraculous world of showbiz.
Tucked away in a little square before the bridge is the little church of Santa Felicita. Inside, hidden in a cage by the door, is the quite unforgettable painting of the Deposition by Pontormo. You slip a coin in the meter and - poof - there it is, a brilliant swirl of rose pinks and turquoise blues, as sharp and abstract as a Kandinsky. Only the olive black eyes of the figures hold still and stare at you with the fixed intensity of beggars in a backstreet.
If you do discover this painting, and find yourself hypnotised by those wide eyes gazing out at you across the centuries, make sure you don’t let on. Because if the Italian authorities ever get a suspicion that this is something worth looking at, they might, just might, prize it off the wall and wheel-barrow it over to the Uffizzi Gallery - for its own good.
Cox & Kings offers luxury 4-night short breaks to Florence, staying at The Boscolo Hotel Astoria, from £395 per person including return international flights with British Airways. Please call 020 7873 5000 for details or visit www.coxandkings.co.uk.