Una Passeggiata a Firenze – Part III – A Couple of Old Things

It’s amazing how much time it can take to get from the Osteria delle Belle Donne (previous post) to Piazza della Signoria.  It’s only a few short blocks, but with all the upscale clothing stores, leather goods stores, jewellery stores, etc. along the way, you’ll be lucky to keep up with a snail.  And then there are the gelaterie.

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I didn’t have dessert at lunch and with all this walking I think it’s time for una coppa a tre gusti (a cup with three flavours).  Cioccolato, pistacchio e nocciola (hazelnut).

Surprisingly, the Guelphs apparently never got around to removing the white iris of their arch rival from the façade of one of the most important buildings at the time - Palazzo Vecchio.

When Palazzo Pitti, the extravagant new residence for the city rulers, was finished,
locals started calling the older building “Palazzo Vecchio”.

You may recognize the first of the two “old things” on this afternoon’s itinerary.  Although it’s usually referred to as Palazzo Vecchio, it was originally called Palazzo della Signoria, after the piazza in which it is located – Piazza della Signoria – the Signoria (seen-your-ee-uh) being the seat of government and residence of the city rulers.  Not to be confused with signorina (seen-your-ee-nuh), which is how shopkeepers greeted me when I first arrived in Florence.  A few years ago I realized that, without my noticing it, I had graduated to signora (seen-your-uh).  I know it’s a sign of respect – you can be unmarried and still be addressed as signora, but still…

At the north end (left side of the photo) is a fountain.  It was made by Bartolomeo Ammannato, a contemporary of Michelangelo.  Its official name is the “Fountain of Neptune”.  But Florentines in those days, perhaps jaded by all the magnificent art that was pouring out of workshops across the city, were fierce and highly vocal art critics.  When the fountain was unveiled, they were merciless.  They renamed it Il Biancone (The Big White Thing).  Michelangelo said he had ruined a nice piece of marble (it was marmo di Carrara, Michelangelo’s favourite).  At one point locals took to washing their laundry in it.  Artistic merit aside, makes you feel a bit sorry for Ammannati.  It must have been tough trying to earn a living as an artist – or artigiano (artisan) as they were called then – in a city teeming with artists of Michelangelo’s calibre.

La Fontana di Nettuno aka Il Biancone

La Fontana di Nettuno aka Il Biancone

Controversy around the Old Palace doesn’t stop with the fountain. In the pavement close by the fountain is a bronze disk.  It marks the spot where a Dominican friar was burned at the stake.

From the age of 20, when he wrote De Ruina Mundi, a poem about the destruction of the world, Girolamo Savonarola had raged against the moral corruption of the Roman church.  It may come as a surprise, but at the time, there were quite a few clerics who regularly terrified the locals with fiery sermons and dire predictions of impending apocalypse, so not all that much attention was paid to Savonarola.  Not until the 1490’s, when, for a brief period, he was the most powerful figure in Florence.

The Medicis had become increasingly weakened by prolonged wars against the French, who had also afflicted the Italians with another misery – the “French pox”, aka syphilis. The Renaissance masterpieces we now admire had been financed by a few wealthy patrons.   At the time they were a constant and bitter affront to the impoverished populace.  On top of all this, as the end of the century approached, the fear of impending doom terrified the illiterate masses.  When Charles VIII of France invaded Florence in 1494, and the Medicis were finally overthrown, Savonarola stepped into the power vacuum and took over leadership of the city.

The first thing he did was to proclaim Florence a “Christian and Religious Republic”.  Then he caused a massive exodus of artists, Michelangelo among them, and members of the elite by making sodomy, previously tolerated, a capital offence.  Piazza della Signoria became the site of the “Bonfires of the Vanities”.  Books, mirrors, musical instruments, fine dresses, countless Renaissance masterpieces – anything related to “moral laxity” – were thrown onto the fires.  Before it all ended, artists like Botticelli, terrified by the Savonarola’s sermons, had thrown many of their “immoral” paintings into the fires.

Art lovers around the world (as well as the Italian tourism industry) will be forever grateful to the Florentines who eventually grew tired of Savonarola and the gloomy lifestyle he offered.  When he refused to accept a challenge from the Franciscans in 1498 to a trial by fire, his reign of terror was over.  Pope Alexander VI, not content with excommunicating him, demanded his execution.   Savonarola was captured and, after three weeks of torture, was burned to death on the very spot where his “Bonfires of the Vanities” had blazed only a short time before.

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Here, where with his fellow brothers Brother Domenico Buonvicini and Brother Maruffi, on May 23, 1498, having been unjustly sentenced, Brother Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burned to death. This plaque was placed here after four centuries.

The next bit of controversy around the old palace has to do with the defacement of public property.  If you look closely, to the right of the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio, you will see the profile of a man’s head etched into the rough stone.

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Like everywhere else in Italy, stories to explain events or things shrouded in the mists of time are plentiful in Florence.  Often there are several versions.   What is different about the stories surrounding this sketch is that they all have one point in common –  that the culprit was Michelangelo.

According to one version, someone bet Michelangelo that he couldn’t make a carving with his back to the wall.  While that version does take into account the artist’s competitive nature,  it strikes me as somewhat lacklustre.

Much more compelling, to my mind, is the version in which the profile is of a rival (there were lots of those) who had cheated and/or was also heavily in debt, not only to Michelangelo, but also to others around town.   In this version, Michelangelo was passing through Piazza della Signoria one day when he saw the wretch in the pillory by the Loggia dei Lanzi.  He asked one of the soldiers standing guard how long the punishment was for.  Whatever it was, it was nowhere near long enough for the insult as far as Michelangelo was concerned.  “Far too short,” he said,   “the Florentine people need something that will remind them for as long as possible what this villain has done.”  He looked around and started carving the profile on the nearest surface – which happened to be the façade of one of the most important buildings in the city. Call it high-end defacing of public property.

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That the statue of David in front of Palazzo Vecchio is a copy probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise.  Pollution, acid rain and graffiti artists are just a few of any number of good reasons why the original wouldn’t be left out in the open.  But none of these is why the original is in the Accademia delle Belle Arti.

Apart from the hazards posed by Florentine drivers and tour groups, the centro storico  is a pretty safe place to be nowadays.  Not like in the past.  When they weren’t knocking off members of rival families, the locals were often busy running riot through the city.  Literally.  During one of those riots part of David’s left hand was broken off  – it got hit by a bench thrown out of one of the windows of the old palace.  Florentines were actually rather fond of the statue – on top of its obvious beauty, they knew Michelangelo intended it to symbolize the liberation of Florence (David) from Medici domination – so they decided to transfer the original to a place where it would at least be safe from flying benches, and they had a copy made for Palazzo Vecchio.

If you visit the Accademia you’ll see that the left hand is intact.  We have Vasari to thank for that.  Resourceful and opportunistic fellow that he was, Vasari rushed down into the melee in the square – at great personal risk to life and limb, as he was fond of pointing out later – to pick up the broken bits, which he kept in safe keeping until the Medicis, who had been driven out of the city during the riot, returned to power, as he knew they would, twenty years later.  Vasari scored a lot of points when he presented the missing pieces to the Medicis, who were also very fond of the statue.

Who knows how they could even bear looking at, let alone be fond of a work of art that everyone knew was meant to portray them as the loathsome Goliath?   In any event it was not a mutual admiration society and Michelangelo, who refused to live in a Medici-controlled Florence, left for Rome, where he spent the rest of his life making masterpieces and battling with a new patron, the Pope.   In a way, it’s probably a good thing he left.  Florence has enough problems trying to cope with all the art in the city as things are.

Connected to the Palazzo Vecchio is one of the most famous art galleries in the world – the Galleria degli Uffizi.  After all these years the name still strikes me as an odd one. It means “Gallery of the Offices.  The “offices” being the rooms where government business is carried out.  The idea of a city hall connected to a gallery stuffed with magnificent art is, well, difficult to imagine.

The Galleria degli Uffizi is connected on the other side to the Loggia dei Lanzi, which just may be the most art-filled loggia in Italy.  It’s named for the Swiss mercenaries stationed here as Cosimo I’s guards.  Lanzichenecchi, the Italian for the German “Landsknechte”, was shortened to the more pronounceable Lanzi.

It is crammed with gory, but elegant statues  – “The Rape of the Sabines”, “Hercules Fighting the Centaur”.  One of the goriest in my opinion depicts the moment right after Perseus has slit the Gorgon’s neck and the moment before Pegasus (the winged horse, for those of you whose Greek mythology, like mine, is a bit rusty) rides/flies forth from her blood.

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From a technical point of view it was pure genius.  It was the first major bronze sculpture cast in Florence in half a century.  It took Cellini nine years of back-breaking labour and nothing but scorn and discouragement from everyone around him.  No-one, not even Cosimo I dei Medici, who had commissioned it, believed it could actually be cast.  A particularly low point occurred during the casting when he almost burned down the entire city centre.

Like many artists of his day, Cellini was an avid self-promoter.  (Who knows what these 16th century artists could have done if Facebook and Twitter had been around?)  In any event, autobiography was one of the best ways of getting your name out there at the time and Cellini filled his with the usual embellishments and self-aggrandizing comments.   In his account of the creation of the statue of Perseus, Cellini portrayed himself as a glorious, even heroic creator, likening the blood pouring from the Gorgon’s head – blood was seen as a symbol of creativity – to the molten bronze he had poured into the cast.  He was less subtle when it came to the finishing touches on the statue.  If you check the back of Perseus’ helmet, you will find a self-portrait.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of the Old Palace and all its intrigues for now.  It’s time to head to the next old thing.

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Ponte Vecchio, the Old Bridge.

The above photo is from an earlier trip.  It was late fall and the sun had just risen high enough to light up the bridge, bathing it for a few brief moments in a warm golden hue – a foretaste of the gioielli d’oro (joy-ell-ee door-oh) for sale in the tiny shops lining the bridge.  It made it even harder to imagine the noise and stench of the stalls of tanners and butchers that once jostled for space along the bridge.

The tranquil scene that early fall morning belied the bridge’s long, turbulent history.  Ponte Vecchio is not just vecchio.  It is il più vecchio (the oldest) in the city.  How old exactly no-one knows.  It probably started with the Romans, who around the 2nd century a.C. wanted to extend Via Cassia, the consular road from Rome, beyond Florence to the more important settlements in Lucca and Pisa.  Great engineers that they were, they had no problem finding the narrowest stretch of the Arno, which is where they built their bridge.  Over the centuries five more bridges would follow.  Quite a few when you consider that only four bridges cross the Grand Canal in Venice.

The Arno River viewed from Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Trinità viewed from Ponte Vecchio

After the first of these, Ponte alla Carraia (beyond Ponte Santa Trinità), was built in 1220, the bridge on the old Roman site acquired the name it has had ever since – Ponte Vecchio – to distinguish it from the new bridge.  The name may have stayed the same but the bridge itself, victim of natural and man-made disasters, has been replaced several times.  The structure we know dates from 1354, a replacement for the twelfth-century version that was swept away by floods twenty years earlier.

The shopkeepers were just starting to open up - a task that looks as if it may not have changed much over the centuries.

The shopkeepers were just starting to open up – a task that looks as if it may not have changed much over the centuries.

Perhaps the gods and goddesses that the Romans regularly consulted also had a hand in the bridge’s fate.  When the Germans troops fled Florence towards the end of World War II, to slow down the approaching Allies, they destroyed all the bridges across the Arno – all except Ponte Vecchio, which they decided to spare.  One of those enlightened decisions that occasionally occur during war time, but seem irrational, almost inhumane, occurring as they do amidst the sordid inhumanity of war.   To slow the Allies’ progress, they blew up the buildings nearby so that the resulting rubble would block access to the bridge.

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Later in the day, jostling crowds and glittering displays in the shop windows dispel all sense of its troubled past.

Ponte Vecchio also survived the most recent threat – the flood of 1966.  On the surface a disaster of natural origin, but there are many who claim it was not in fondo natural at all, but the inevitable result of the deforestation of the mountains east of Florence where the tributaries that flow into the Arno originate.  Yet others maintain that the damage resulting from the flood was made even more catastrophic by the incompetence and corruption of local officials.  In light of all this, it seemed well worth getting up early to catch the bridge and its river in a moment of serenity.

A series of small square windows runs across the top of the bridge and along an arcade on the north shore of the Arno River.  They mark a passageway that was added in the 16th century.

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As much as he looked forward to moving from Palazzo Vecchio to the luxurious quarters of the newly built Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno, Cosimo I dei Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, knew that the new residence created a problem.  The life of a Medici was perilous at the best of times.  Rival families were always concocting plots to get rid of them.   Cosimo knew he would be an easy target as he made his way back and forth between the government offices and his new home.

So he commissioned a popular local artist, renowned at the time for his prowess in sculpture, painting and architecture, to design an enclosed passageway through which he could travel unseen between the two buildings.   It was called the Corridoio Vasariano – in honour of its designer, Vasari.  The passageway still carries his name, but amidst all the wonders of Florence, is relatively unknown.  Instead, Vasari’s enduring fame is as the first art historian and author of “The Lives of  the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects”.

One kilometre long, the Corridoio Vasariano twists and turns its way from Palazzo Vecchio through the Uffizi Galleries, along the north shore of the Arno, across Ponte Vecchio and over the rooftops of the residences on the other side of the river to Palazzo Pitti.  The square windows above the arcades on of the Arno and above the shops along Ponte Vecchio mark its path.   The corridoio still exists, but access is strictly controlled, so if you’re a mere mortal like myself, you have to proceed at street level.  This means of course, that there is no avoiding the temptations on offer along the old bridge.

As for the tanners and the butchers?  The stench and noise of the “vile arts” were a daily thorn in the life of a later Medici, Ferdinando, who had them evicted and replaced by the goldsmiths and jewellers who have tempted visitors ever since.  Even if you’re not into the jewellery, you’ll probably still be glad Ferdinando got rid of the tanners and butchers, who in addition to being smelly, had used the Arno as a garbage dump for their waste products.

At night the Old Bridge is simply incantevole (enchanting).

At night the Old Bridge is even more incantevole (enchanting).

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