Florence – Agony & Ecstasy (2009)

Florence – Agony & Ecstasy (2009)

You’ve heard of intelligent machines, but have you encountered any? Well, you would, at Roma Termini station. Every time you ask for a ticket to any destination on Trenitalia, the vending machine invariably displays the most expensive train and ticket options.

For instance, when you query for a ticket from Rome to Florence, it would offer you a couchette on the long-distance Eurostar to Venice, although the journey time between Rome and Florence is just two hours! After you’ve coughed up the extortionate fare and picked up the ticket spat out by the machine, it will display all the options, the cheapest being just a quarter of the fare you just paid!

We just about manage to lug our suitcases through the vestibule and locate our fancy couchette and we’re already chugging into Florence with its picture-book red-tiled roof-tops set against the rolling greens of Tuscany. We’re also treated to tantalising glimpses of Duomo, the architectural marvel that inspired and launched some of the finest sculptors and architects humanity has ever produced, including the towering Michelangelo.

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Home to Machiavelli, Medici and Michelangelo, Florence is a magnet that draws millions of art-lovers every year. While all three have left their mark on Florentine history, it is the last, the boy from Arezzo in Tuscany who has left an everlasting legacy to humanity. Michelangelo designed the grand dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, sculpted the delicate Madonna with Christ that is the jewel of St. Peter’s, and David, the 14-foot-tall odyssey in stone.

The other reason people go to Florence is to visit Ufizi, which houses the finest of Botticelli, Tintoretto, Canaletto, Da Vinci, Perugino, Raphael and a host of others who constituted the best among Renaissance artists. It can rival the very best museums in Europe and once housed the offices of the Florentine judiciary, administration and the guilds in the 16th Century – hence the name Ufizi, meaning office. In 1993, a car bomb destroyed part of the collection and severely damaged the structure. Now, the Ufizi is undergoing restoration.

A lot of what Florence has to offer is free and open. Just walk through Ponte de Vecchio across Arno river. You feel you’re stepping into a sepia portrait. This is how Florence must have looked like 500 years ago. Vecchio is a covered two-tier bridge that connects the new palace, which the Medicis built across the river with the old one, which housed their private art collection and went on to become Ufizi gallery. The bridge was constructed by architect Vasari to shield the Medici royalty from the prying eyes of the hoi polloi as they strolled from the palace to the gallery. Commoners walked on the cobbled road below. Now, you may saunter across the cobbled road for free, but whether you come back unscathed is entirely dependent upon your will power. Ensnaring the unwary tourist are jewellery shops on either side, selling attractive trinkets at atrocious prices. But in a city where footwear can fetch upwards of 10,000 euros a pair, what do you expect?

Florence is an eminently walkable city. Stroll leisurely from Ponte de Vecchio to Palazzio de Vecchio. It is located on Piazza della Signoria, the heart and soul of the city. For it is here that the Medicis chose to display their extravagant taste for all that is aesthetic and beautiful in classical art. It is also here that Savarnarola, the iconoclast who challenged the profligate ways of the Medicis, was executed and burnt at the stake.

The Piazza is like a huge outdoor sculpture gallery with Ammannati’s statue of Neptune dominating the square. A replica of Michelangelo’s David stands on one side (the original is in dell’ Academia), while a series of grand statues rest under an arched marble canopy referred to as Loggia della Signoria by Italians. In the evening, a street band strikes a tune and young Florentine couples take to the cobbled floor and dance away merrily, joined by clumsy tourists. Saunter through a couple of narrow streets and you’re in Piazza della Duomo with its iconic Cathedral dominating the entire Florence skyline. Begun in 1296, the cathedral took 150 years to complete and is the quintessence of Florence. It was the crowning glory of Brunelleschi, the architect who completed the dome designed originally by the Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio.

Basilica di Santa Croce, the final resting place of Michelangelo, Dante and many others, is our next stop. Santa Croce is said to have so dazzled Stendhal, the French writer that he was barely able to walk. Most visitors to Florence might also become dizzy but for an altogether different reason. All that walking around miles of marble corridors in museums is bound to make anyone dizzy. But the ecstasy you experience when you feast your eyes on Michelangelo’s perfectly-proportioned David is worth all that agony.

(Published in The Hindu dated Aug 3, 2009)

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