The look of astonishment on their faces (obviously feigned somewhat by Mitch!) is something I look forward to every year. I love to take my Art History students into the heart of Florence with no indication of where we are going or what we are first going to see. So after droping the bags at the hotel we head down the street from the Piazza Signoria toward one of the great sights of all Europe. And it is that sight that they are getting their first look at – the Florence Cathedral!
It is spectacular! There is just no other word for it! Made of the typical Tuscan colored marble of red and green and white, it is a masterpiece of Italian Gothic decoration and design. There is no facade in Western Europe that is as stunning, and to see the looks on the faces of my students when they see what we have only seen in pictures is just great fun! Giotto’s tower rises beside the cathedral and gives a commanding view for miles around, and gives a great look at the gigantic dome that Brunelleschi put on top of the cathedral. In all respects this is one of the great buildings in the world. And just as they are recovering their wits I remind them that just opposite the cathedral facade is one of the sculptural masterpieces they have been waiting for – The East Doors of the Baptistry of Florence Cathedral!
Created by Lorenzo Ghiberti, none other than Michelangelo gave them the name they are know by – the Gates of Paradise. That is what Michelangelo called them when he first laid eyes on them, and Michelangelo did not go around passing out complements. For him to give a nod to another work of sculpture means something. And these doors, 17 feet tall with individual bronze panels three feet square detailing scenes from the Bible in remakable three dimensionality are among the very peaks of Western art. Needless to say, this group of students was impressed as well.
I love Florence. It’s spot on the Arno river is beautiful, and the great Uffizi gallery is a gem of a museum. We had a great time in there, with the first room showing the work of the most important painter in the history of Western art – Giotto. Astounded looks all around as the scale of his altarpiece Madonna Enthroned struck them, and they saw first hand his revolution of three dimensionality in painting. Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Fra Fillippo Lippi, Caravaggio, Van Honthorst, the list went on and so did the smiles. But Florence itself, astride its beautiful river, is equally the star of the show.
Yea, it leans. It leans a lot. I had forgotten. The last time I was here was 1989, and memory hasn’t served me well. In fact, they have straightened the tower by nine feet since I saw it last, so when I saw again how dramatic the tilt is, how astounding that the thing stays up, I really can’t imagine that I climed it when it leaned out another nine feet! Sheesh! And, as far as Pisa goes, this is it. Back on the train and off we went to Lucca,
I like Lucca. We all liked Lucca. Far lest touristy that any other place on our Italy itinerary, it was just fun to wander around and enjoy. Best of all was the medieval rampart, a huge wide earthen wall lined with stone that has now been converted into a wonderful pedestrian and bike way that goes all the way around old Lucca for 2.5 miles. On rental bikes we were off for a leisurly five mile ride under great plane trees and beautiful views of the city. We all highly recommend it.
Venice is like no other. Elegant decay is the best description I can come up with for this unique water world. Venice’s blessing and it’s curse is us – the tourist. Without us Venice would have been lost to crumble and the Adriatic. With us it is a crowded warren of humans elbow to elbow. The only way to really enjoy Venice, to my mind, is to be up and out at 5:00 A.M. That way no one is around, and you have the experience of Venice above. Quiet, serene, rotting and beautiful, Venice captures your imagination and your heart like no other place I know. But not at noon in St. Mark’s Square with the rest of humanity!