From a history buff perspective, Florence was sometimes frustrating. I didn’t know enough and Florence wasn’t set up to fill in the gaps.
The physical remnants of Florentine history are everywhere, but historical explanations are a bit thin on the ground. Renaissance palaces, forts, and churches are open as museums, but the emphasis is on the art rather than the historical role of the building. Some like the Bargello, offer a few excellent panels that explain what the building was originally used for and its transformation over time. Others, like the Forte di Belvedere, don’t even have a plaque telling you when it was built.*
Here are a few highlights, mysteries, and miscellaneous tidbits:
1. If you only have time to visit one museum, I suggest you skip the Uffizi and go to San Marco.–formerly the Dominican monastery that housed Savonarola, now a museum devoted to the work of Fra Angelico. This small museum blew us away. Seeing Fra Angelico’s Annunciation in real life was amazing. Seeing it in context was instructive. This is one museum where the English language tour was definitely worth taking. It was given by a curator who was impassioned, opinionated, and knowledgable. We came away knowing more about the Dominican order, the iconography of the paintings, and Fra Angelico’s role in the Renaissance than we could have imagined. The short version: the extraordinary frescos in San Marco had no real impact on the development of the Renaissance because they were not seen by the public until centuries later. They were created for the use of a cloistered order for purposes of contemplation. This turned my sense of art history on its head.
2. A old German Lutheran church on the waterfront, currently used as a small performance space. There’s a story there. I’m sure of it.
3. One of the most useful bits of historical data that we found wasn’t an official display at all but part of a construction site: a series of boards on the construction hoardings with the arms of the medieval guilds and a description of what each guild did. Fascinating.
4. The Hall of Geographical Maps in the Palazzo Vecchio was probably my favorite Renaissance room in Florence. Never completed, it was commissioned by Cosimo di Medici to represent the entire known world in a single room. Map nerd heaven. If time had allowed I could have spent hours in this room.
5. <This: –seen in the Piazza Signoria. Since I previously had seen an historical monument held up by turtles on its corners,** I assumed there was some connection. between turtles and Florence. Like wolves and Rome. This was incorrect. The Florentine spirit animal is the lion. *** The turtle statue turned out to be part of a series of works by Belgian artist Jan Fabre called “Spiritual Guards.” The work was intended as “a self-portrait of the artist “in his dual capacity as knight and guardian, as a mediator between heaven and earth, between natural and spiritual forces.” To me it looked like Elvis on a giant turtle.
After we got home, I discovered an excellent website that would have helped a great deal. Timeline Florence is one man’s effort to make sense of 2000 years of Florentine history. Complete with pictures and links.
*Finding something–anything–that would tell us about the history of the fort became something of a quest. At which we failed.
**Shades of Terry Prachett!
***Given the realities of male lions and turtles in the natural world, a turtle would actually be a more powerful image, in my opinion.