An infectious, informative read.
Our favorite general guide to Tuscany has been—and remains—The Cadogan Guide written by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls. We used it extensively when we first started exploring Tuscany in the early nineties, and we still turn to it whenever we head off to explore someplace new.
Brilliantly descriptive... Up-to-date facts combined with engaging, witty cultural and historical asides.
Dante’s Vita Nuova, the autobiography of his young soul, was only the beginning of Florentine analysis; Petrarch, the introspective ‘first modern man.’ Was a Florentine born in exile; Ghiberti was the first artist to write an autobiography; Cellini wrote one of the most readable; Alberti invented art criticism; Vasari invented art history; Michelangelo’s personality, in his letters an sonnets, looms as large as his art. In many ways Florence broke away from the medieval idea of community and invented the modern concept of the individual, most famously expressed by Lorenzo de’ Medici’s friend, Pico della Mirandola, whose Oration on the Dignity of Man tells us what the God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling was saying when he created Adam: ‘...And I have created you neither celestial nor terrestrial, neither mortal nor immortal, so that, like a free and able sculptor and painter of yourself, you may mould yourself entirely in the form of your choice.’
To attempt to understand Florence, remember one historical constant: no matter what the issue, the city always takes both sides, vehemently and often violently, especially in the Punch and Judy days of Guelphs and Ghibellines. In the 1300s this was explained by the fact that the city was founded under the sign of Mars, the war god; but in medieval astronomy, Mars is also connected Aries, another Florentine symbol and the sign of the time of spring blossoms. (The Annunciation, at the beginning of spring, was Florence’s most important festival). One of the city’s oldest symbols is the lily (or iris) flying on its oldest gonfalons. Perhaps even older is its marzocco, originally an equestrian statue of Mars on the Ponte Vecchio, later replaced by Donatello’s grim lion.
Whatever dispute rocked the streets, Great Aunt Florence often expressed her schizophrenia in art, floral Florence versus stone Florence, epitomized by the irreconcilable differences between the two most famous works: Botticelli’s graceful Primavera and Michelangel’s cold, perfect David. The ‘city of flowers’ seems a joke; it has nary a real flower, nor even a tree, in its stone streets; indeed, all effort has gone into keeping nature at bay, surpassing it with geometry and art. And yet the Florentines were perhaps the first since the Romans to discover the joys of the countryside. The rusticated stone palaces, like fortresses or prisons, hide charms as delightful as Gozzoli’s frescoes in the Palzzo Medici-Riccordi. Luca della Robbia’s dancing children and floral wreaths are contemporary with the naked, violent warriors of the Pollaiuolo brothers; the writhing, quarrelsome statuary in the Piazza della Signoria is sheltered by one of the most delicate loggie imaginable.
After 1500, all the good, bad and ugly symptoms of the Renaissance peaked in the mass fever of Mannerism. Then, drifting into a debilitating twilight, Florence gave birth to the artistic phenomenon known as kitsch–the Medici Princes’ chapel is an early kitsch classic. Since then, worn out perhaps, or embarrassed, this city built by merchants has kept its own counsel, expressing its argumentative soul in overblown controversies about traffic, art restoration and undesirability of fast-found counters and cheap pensioni. We who find her fascinating hope she some day comes to remember her proper role, bearing the torch of culture instead of merely collecting tickets for the culture torture.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls