Florence 2022

First impressions

Santa Maria Novella

It’s a treat to see Masaccio’s Trinity.

Anyone who studies perspective in the context of art history learns about this fresco. But this painting is more than just about perspective; it’s a fascinating study of the convergence between the Holy Trinity’s visual depiction and its’ theological concept.

There are six figures in the painting, the kneeling patron and his wife, the Virgin Mary, Saint John, Jesus, and God the Father. Masaccio painted them in two interlocking triangles (see my drawing), which meet precisely in the body of the crucified Christ. The figures are situated in their logically perspective place, but for God the Father who is floating in both spaces, as only God can.

The cadaver tomb below the painting says: “I was once what you are, and what I am you will become.”

The Duomo

Duomo is the Italian word for any cathedral, but it is often used synonymously with this Florentine cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore. The word derives from domus, Latin for “house,” here, the “house of God.” The basilica is crowned by the great Renaissance dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi.

From the Uffizi – Busts

Many bust sculptures are on display at the Uffizi, none with broken noses. Some depict strong personalities, others soft, some handsome, others less, some famous, others unknown, regardless they all look like you and me. One, in particular, made me excited to meet – Marcus Aurelius, the warrior and philosopher. While leading his Roman army in a fight against the Barbarians, he wrote “Meditations,” a book that became the cornerstone of Stoicism. The essence of this approach to life can be summarized by the serenity prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

A walk to San Miniato Al Monte

The church is named after Saint Minias, an Armenian prince who made a pilgrimage to Rome in the 3rd century. While traveling, he decided instead to settle in Florence and live as a Christian hermit. When the Roman Emperor found out that Minias refused to bow down to the pagan gods, he was tortured, becoming Florence’s first Christian martyr. Legend tells that he was thrown into an arena with a panther who refused to devour him. Nevertheless, the Romans beheaded him. And this is where the story gets really good; the beheaded Minias picked up his head and marched across the Arno to the present-day church site.

From the Uffizi – Botticelli

It’s hard not to love Botticelli’s stylistically “sweet” paintings. His handsome Madonna and ladies have similar features as if only separated at birth. To his credit, though, the subjects of Botticelli’s paintings are more than just Madonna and Child. I love his depiction of the sheer clothes and fabric patterns.

From the Uffizi – Bacchus and Satyr 

Bacchus was the Roman God of wine, ecstatic ritual, musical trance, drink, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. I guess he is the God that represents what we all want and need more of in life. Bacchus leans on Satyr in this sculpture and mumbles, “take me to bed. I think I drank too much.”

Galileo Chini at the Bardini Garden

Galileo Chini’s spectacular exhibition at the Bardini Garden was a perfect combination of beauty, a fantastic city panorama, and loving company. I had never heard about Chini, an early 20th-century multi-disciplinary artist. His colorful ceramic glazes reminded me of my dear friend, the ceramic artist Anna Silver. One day her artworks will be exhibited here too.

The Synagogue

The Synagogue is in a beautiful Moorish style. It is definitely worthy of the city.

Santa Croce

It made me feel uplifted to be in the presence of luminaries like Galileo, Michelangelo, Macchiavelli, and Dante, even though it’s only with their spirits.

The light illuminating the colorful stained glass windows is magnificent and awe-inspiring.

The Pazzi Chapel, commissioned by the Medici’s rival family and designed by Brunelleschi, is perfectly geometrical, austere, and serene. No frescos, paintings, or sculptures are required, and none are present. The beauty and grandeur are in minimalism.

From the Uffizi – Leonardo’s Luminosity

The Uffizi is filled with great master paintings, including Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Rafael. On this visit, I was most impressed by Leonardo’s paintings. Three of his paintings greeted us in the first gallery, each in an enclosed, almost invisible, glass box; two of the paintings the maestro completed, and the third was left in its early stages of development. 

I read about Leonardo’s greatness from several art historians, but seeing his craftsmanship closeup, particularly the thin layers of brushstrokes, made me appreciate his artistry in a new light. Leonardo’s colors are not saturated; but have a sense of lightness, depth, and translucence. His slow painting method began with a detailed drawing in neutral gray or brown. He then started layering with tiny bits of color added to hefty amounts of glazing material. The many layers of glaze explain why the paintings have a unique sense of luminosity and transparency.

I came out of the gallery with a deeper understanding of Leonardo’s greatness and his detailed and time-consuming process, which probably contributed to the limited number of paintings he completed in his lifetime.

Lucca

We enjoyed an exquisite Italian gourmet feast at All’Olivos restaurant with our gracious hosts, Danny and Alejandra Beim.

Palazzo Medici Riccardi

When the last Medici died in 1743, the family’s enormous private art collection was bequeathed to Florence on the strict condition that it never leaves the city. The last Medici may be dead, but their family legacy lives on, and its fortune keeps filling up the city treasure chest to this date.

Pasta and lasagna cooking class.

Pasta is the root of the Italian community and culture.

From the Uffizi – Caravaggio and Others

Caravaggio took the pictorial drama of light and shadow to new heights, which many Dutch and Spanish artists followed. Note the homoerotic overtone, the dirty fingernails, and the decaying fruit in Caravaggio’s Bacchus, the intoxicated young boy – supposedly based on a self-image.

It’s also interesting to note the numerous visual interpretations of a beheading act, whether the beheaded is Holofernes or John the Baptist.

Ponte Vecchio

We stayed at an Airbnb near the Ponte Vecchio bridge; it was not like “Room with a View,” but close enough. The bridge is a pictorial site, especially with Sandra and Burt Sigal in the front. They are inspirational! At 81 and 86, they led the way.

The Ponte Vecchio was a butcher market way back in the 14th and 15th centuries conveniently situated above the river; what a better place to dump the meat remains than straight into the river. Until one of the Medici Dukes said, this is too filthy for me to pass by back and forth to work every day. Let’s convert it into something more clean and refined, like a jewelry market. So they did; the same families have run these stores since then. Later the Duke said, this path is not safe for me; I am concerned about being assassinated; I need to have a private corridor to my office at the Uffizi. So, the second floor was designed and added by Vasari.

From the Uffizi – Parmigianino and others

The Madonna with Long Neck by Parmigianino is by far the tallest Madonna ever painted. After the artistic period of High Realism, the new style, Mannerism, was meant to look unreal. The more distortion and exaggeration, the better.

Early morning walk with my beloved

Central Florence is small, and it is to be experienced and discovered on foot. An early morning walk is an opportunity to be alone in the streets, with only a few locals heading to work and the street cleaning crews. The sunrise made the sights look fantastic, and we had them all to ourselves. We stumbled upon some finds and photographic opportunities that are harder to notice during the day.

Donatello at Strozzi Palace

Some experts consider Donatello’s sculptures in relief, terracotta, and marble the true soul of the Florentine Renaissance, especially in their deep understanding of perspective. The exhibition did not move me. Although it is centered around sculptures, Donatello’s famous sculpture, David, was notably absent.

Florence is an open-air museum; each photograph you take might become a masterpiece if only your back is to the sun and the framing is interesting. Often walking outside a museum is more interesting than being inside.

Fra Angelico at the cloister of San Marco

San Marco belonged to the Dominican order, known for its austerity and deprivation. On the cloister’s second floor, there are 43 rooms. They are small, like a jail cell, only 13 by 8 feet, with a tiny window. One monk occupied each room; they must have been freezing in the winter, which makes me wonder how they kept themselves warm.

Fra Angelico lived and created in this convent during the 15th century; he is one of my two great discoveries on this visit to Florence; the other is Galileo Chini. He was a devout monk known for saying, “He who wishes to paint Christ’s story must live with Christ.” His nickname, Fra Angelico, was given to him as a token for his angelic painterly skills.

He painted a beautiful fresco in each cell for the resident monk to look at, pray and meditate on, which might have alleviated some of the cell’s winter coldness.

San Marco was also Savonarola’s parish for a while. He was a charismatic extremist who preached the destruction of secular art and culture in Renaissance Florence. And he had his way for a short period. Thankfully, when he was having his lunatic bonfire of the vanities, he left the frescoes alone.

The Last Judgment by Fra Angelico

San Marco is a Mecca to Fra Angelico’s admirers. On the second floor are the frescos and on the first floor is a feast of colors displayed on wood panels. One painting, in particular, mesmerized my imagination, The Last Judgment.

At the top center of the picture, Christ sits in judgment on a white throne flanked by his angelic advisors and saints. He is the judge, his left hand pointing down to Hell, his right up to Heaven. On Christ’s right hand is paradise, with angels leading the anointed ones through a beautiful garden into a shining city. In the middle are the broken tombs of the dead who rose to be judged. On Christ’s left, monsters direct the damned ones into Hell, where they suffer torture. All the way at the bottom is Satan in a feast, devouring three of the doomed ones.

Thinking about Fra Angelico, I can’t avoid comparing him with Carravagio. The church canonized Fra Angelico for his angelic attributes, both artistic and personal. Carravaggio, on the other hand, was kind of canonized by art historians both for his extraordinary talent and unruly behavior, bloodthirstiness, imprisonment, and, in the end, becoming a fugitive. Both Fra Angelico and Carravaggio were innovative for their time and both depicted biblical scenes with utmost devotion and awe.  

From the Uffizi – Baby Jesus and others

I never liked how in Medieval art and early Renaissance paintings, Jesus’ face is that of an adult, but his body is that of an infant. It is kind of hilarious. Yet when I look at some of these restored artworks, it becomes secondary to the vivid colors and the gold, ooh, the gold!

Why was this his standard depiction?

First, religious iconography is not supposed to be a realistic depiction of the figures; instead, it is idealistic.

Second, Baby Jesus doesn’t just symbolize a young version of Jesus, but the idea that Jesus was born already grown, all-knowing, and ready to change the world.

Third, while praying underneath a painting of Mary and her baby son, worshippers wanted the comfort of their prayers in the hands of someone who could help, not a baby.

In later Renaissance paintings, Jesus’ depiction became naturalistic and pleasing, and he looks like a cute child.

Last impressions

Till our next visit to this magical city of beauty.