Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Medici Chapels are a Memorial to Wealth and Power

Main altar in the Capella Dei Pincipi

Being really rich can make a family do some strange things. Being really powerful can give that family the ability to carry out those things without anyone saying “maybe this is not a great idea.” Being rich and powerful allows a family to create something that lasts over 400 years and still attracts crowds. The Medici family of renaissance Florence were rich and powerful, and the Medici Chapels are strange and beautiful, and they make me wonder “what were they thinking?”

Carrying on my theme of visiting smaller museums, I decided to spend some time at the Medici Chapels. The chapels were built during the 16th century as the mausoleums for Medici family. They were additions to the Basilica of San Lorenzo, which was the Medici family’s parish. While the basilica was built  between 1415 and 1450, it wasn’t until the mid-1500’s that the Medicis decided to create this memorial to themselves. And it is one of the most beautiful and self-aggrandizing memorials I know of.

photo by Amada44 via Wiki Commons

When you visit the Medici Chapels you enter on the ground floor, through the crypt. This is where most of the family members have been interred. Today, the crypt is also a display area for pieces of artwork from the Medici family collections.

Painting of Pope Pius V crowns Cosimo I

Some of the Medici tombs

The real attractions are upstairs, in the two chapels. The smaller chapel is the Sagrestia Nuova or New Sacristy. It was designed by Michelangelo in 1519. When he left Florence for Rome in 1534, the chapel was still unfinished, although he had completed statues to be placed there. It was finished under the direction of Bartomeo Ammannati, a Florentine architect. Today, it is the final resting place of two members of the Medici family, Lorenzo di Piero and Giuliano di Lorenzo. While they were not high up on the Medici chain of command, they are the beneficiaries of Michelangelo’s work, with his wonderful statues sitting above their sarcophagi.

Dawn and Dusk by Michelangelo over the Tomb of Lorenzo di Piero

Day and Night by Michelangelo over the tomb of Guiliano di Lorenzo

The roof of the Sagrestia Nuova is styled after the Panthnon in Rome

Madonna and Child  by Michelangelo with St. Cosmas by Montorsoli and St. Damian by  Rafaello 

The Capella dei Principi, Chapel of the Princes, is the main chapel. Its dome rises 59 m (185 ft) high, forming the main architectural feature of the basilica. The chapel is a large octagonal room with six large and opulent sarcophagi. The walls are covered in marble and decorated in semi-precious stones. While the sarcophagi are empty, the remains of these scions of the family Medici are buried in the crypt below, the intent is clear. The Medici family controlled much Italy’s economy and included several Popes, so they were definitely important. The chapel had been designed to impart the importance of the family. 

Add caption

A visit to the Medici Chapels is a fascinating look at the ways in which those in power represented themselves during the renaissance. They used their riches to produce beautiful grand and even ostentatious memorials to themselves and their families. While the reason might have been venial, the results were often magnificent, and are still worth visiting.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence

Basilica of Santa Maria Novella

As an atheist, the following statement sounds strange, but, I really have a favorite church in Florence. It is the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. This church is often overlooked, but definitely worth a visit.

Santa Maria Novella was built by, and to be the home of, the Dominican order of the Catholic Church, starting in 1246 and finishing in 1360. The designation “novella,” or new, comes from the fact that there was already a Santa Maria church on the site, that was torn down so this one could be built. This new church was built in the Renaissance-Gothic style, with a rounded bell tower at the center of the church. Its facade is decorated with white and green marble. 

My love of Santa Maria Novella goes back to my first visit to Florence, twenty-two years ago. The Amazing Ms. D and I stayed near this beautiful church because it was also near Florence’s main train station. In the evenings, the piazza in front of the church was a gathering place for families of African immigrants. As the sun went down and temperatures cooled off, parents would bring their children down to play, while they visited with their friends.

Today the piazza has a different vibe. It was rebuilt in the early 2000’s, and benches were moved from the edges to the center of the square. Like much of Florence, tourists are showing up in the piazza in large groups, especially at lunch time. Yet, there are still many locals who come out to enjoy an al fresco meal, or just some time in the sun.

Scenes from the life of St. Gregory in the Bardi Chapel

The church itself is designed in the shape of an Egyptian Cross, which is t-shaped. Originally, its walls were covered with frescoes painted by many major artists of the time. Of special note is the work “Holy Trinity” by Masaccio. Painted around 1426, it represents a changing style of perspective. It was covered by a canvas painting and a new altar in 1570. In 1869, during a major renovation it was rediscovered and moved to a space where it would be seen at all times.

Main Altar

While the art is impressive, what I really like about Santa Maria Novella are the spaces created for the attached convent. Two large, beautiful courtyards are surrounded porticoed walkways. One had been decorated with frescoes depicting stories of the Book of Genesis. Some of the frescoes were damaged during the floods of 1966. Many of these have been restored and are now on display in the church’s museum. While the artwork is great to see, it is the space itself that draws my back. You can sit along the wall of the courtyard, or walk along the paths and imagine how the nuns used them for contemplation for centuries.

The Sacrifice of Abraham

When you visit the church make sure to leave time to see the Apothecary of Santa Maria Novella. This perfumery has been in existence for over 400 years, selling essential oils, perfume, and other fragrant products. Originally using herb and flowers grown in the convent, today they use other sources, but maintains the same quality. The store has kept many of its original fixtures, cabinets and has old equipment on display. There is also a tea-room that serves delicious pastries and sandwiches along with teas and even botanical liqueurs.

Newspaper rack in the tea room

Tea room Easter display

16th century fractioning tower

old bottles

old distillation equipment

Herbalist room

The Amazing Ms. D helping to cut a piece of soap

If I had to choose one church in Florence not to miss, it would be Santa Maria Novella. Beautiful art, lovely spaces and a fantastic place for some splurge purchases.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Palazzo Strozzi in Florence

I am not a big fan of large, overcrowded museums. They draw tourists who are trying to check off the “important sites,” and who stand in front of the major pieces of art, taking pictures that will come out worse than the post cards available in the store. This is especially true since I live in New York City, and have The Met, MOMA and the Whitney at my beck and call. When I travel, I am much more likely to look for smaller exhibits. I mean, I have been to Florence three times, and I have yet to visit the Uffizi or the Academia. Yet I have seen amazing art on these trips, and this one was no exception.

In order to fulfill my passion for walking old cities and visiting smaller museums I usually try to stay as close to the center of the city I visit as I can afford. On this trip to Florence The Amazing Ms. D and I chose the Hotel Olimpia, which is on the Piazza della Repubblica. The Olimpia is a nice 3.5-star hotel that occupies the top two floors of a building built in 1800. The beds are comfortable, the ceilings are tall and the staff is extremely friendly. It is not the fanciest place to stay, but at a rate of around $100/night in a great location, this was a good choice.

Palazzo Strozzi by saját tulajdonú képeslap [Public domain] via wikicommons

Palazzo Strozzi by Sailko [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]
Staying in the center of town makes it easy to walk around and discover wonderful exhibits. One that I found was at the Palazzo Strozzi. The Palazzo Strozzi was built at the end of the 15th century by the Strozzi family, rivals to the Medicis. It is a large, freestanding, stone structure with an open ground floor that includes an open space at its center. Today, the building is home to the Institute of Humanist Studies, and the Fondazzione Palazzo Strozzi, which organizes exhibitions of art works.

Portrait of Verrocchio by Nicolas de Larmessin [Public domain] via wikicommons
My visit to the Palazzo Strozzi was to see an exhibit celebrating the life and work of Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrocchio was a painter, sculptor and goldsmith during the 15th century in Florence. He may have apprenticed under Donatello and/or under Fra Filippo Lippi. He ran a workshop in Florence where Leonardo da Vinci and Pietro Perugino were among his students. While his work has not been well known, his influence has lasted for centuries.
Woman with Flowers by Verrocchio

David Triumphant by Verrocchio

David Triumphant with sketches by da Vinci

Madonna and Child by Verrocchio

The exhibit was an excellent collection of works by Verrocchio and his contemporaries and students. It began with some of his sculptures, including one of David, along with a drawing of that statue by da Vinci. This joining together of works was done throughout the exhibit. There was a cornucopia of Madonna and Childs, along with angels and saints galore. It was an excellent exploration of one artist and his legacy.

Madonna and Child with Two Angels by Botticelli

Winged Boy with Dolphin by Verrocchio

Saint Bernadino Restores the sight of a Blindman by Pietro Perugino

Staying near the Piazza della Repubblica also put us only three blocks from the Auditorium of Santo Stefano al Ponte. Sitting just a block from the Ponte Vecchio, this decommissioned 12th century church is now a concert and exhibition space. We saw “Van Gogh & I Maldetti” (Van Gogh and the Damned). This was a multi media show high-lighting the works of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, and Chaim Soutine. Their works were set to classical music and projected onto the walls, ceiling and floor of the building. This immersive show makes one feel as thought they were inside the paintings. In fact, there is also a VR experience that literally takes you on a tour through Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Modigliani’s Workshop. Van Gogh & I Maldetti is similar to several shows that are being staged in cities around Europe. Last year I attended a different show while in Berlin. This is a great experience and I highly recommend seeing one of these exhibits if you have the opportunity.


When you are thinking about traveling, look beyond the large museums, and seek out the smaller galleries. They have great shows of works that aren’t often seen.

Getting There:
Palazzo Strozzi – Piazza Strozzi 50123 Firenze. Tickets for the Verrocchio Exhibit are €13/10.
Auditorium of Santo Stefano di Ponte - Piazza Santo Stefano 1, 50122, Florence, Italy. Admission varies depending on the event.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Florence is a city best seen by walking

Ponte Vecchio from Piazzele Michelangelo

As I started to write this piece, I was enjoying my last day in Florence. I might seem counter-intuitive to write my first piece in this series on the last day, but it was at the end of my trip that the themes of my Italy writings came together. I had been in Italy for almost two weeks, and this was my sixth day in Florence. I started my tips there, and I returned to Florence to end it. Now, some of you might ask “Why Florence?” If so, you have probably never been there.
The Arno at night
To me, Florence sits at the heart of Italy. It sat along major trade routes between the north and the south of the country, and its role as the banking center during the renaissance has made it a center of trade and culture for over 500 years. As I walked around the “Centro Storico” that history was all around.

The streets are narrow and winding, with sidewalks that can barely fit one person, let alone two. The buildings come right to the edge, with courtyards inside. I walked along, looking in the store windows, amazed at styles that definitely are not sold in NYC. Even the big names sell clothes and shoes that I have never seen at home. While the streets are narrow, they never feel dark. I am not sure if that is because of the lighter colors used in building materials, or if it is the fact that they are mostly under five stories tall. It could be that the curving streets allow light in as they change directions. Streets open into small plazas every couple of blocks. Not the large major plazas that attract huge crowds, but small places that give a walker the chance to rest, catch one’s breath, and take in some sun.

The Duomo looms large

A wall of sandles near Piazza San Lorenzo

Delivery bicycle

Botega di Chianti near the Arno

Keep walking and you will get to one of the large piazzas in the old city. There are five major piazzas, each with its own feel. Starting at the east, Piazza Santa Croce, in front of the Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze. In addition to being one of the most beautifully decorated churches, it is the final resting place of many of Italy’s most famous artists and philosophers. Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli are just three of the famous people that you can visit there.

Basilica di Santa Croce

Walk about 800 m west and you get to Piazza della Signoria. This plaza is in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall. Built at the turn of the 14th century, this palace was created to reflect the importance of the city. Today, the pallazo houses a museum, and the piazza is the easiest place to see a version of Michelangelo’s David, along with the Neptune Fountain, designed by Baccio Bandinelli and sculpted by Bartolomeo Ammaannati. There is also the Logia dei Lanzi, which is home to over a dozen renaissance statues. The Piazza della Signoria is one of the largest tourist draws in Florence, and the crowds can be overbearing, you might want to get there early in the morning, before things get crazy.

Neptune's Fountain


A small part of the crows photographing David

Perseus with Madusa's Head

A short walk (500 m) north of Piazza della Signoria is the Piazza del Duomo, home to two of Florence’s iconic structures. The Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistry of St. John) and the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower) or Duomo. The baptistry was built around 1100 ACE and is best know for its carved doors and mosaic ceiling. The Duomo was begun in 1296, and finished in 1436 when Fillipo Brunelleschi’s amazing dome was completed. The piazza is where you will find a beautiful campanile designed by Giotto. As with the Piazza della Signoria, Piazza del Duomo draws huge crowds.

The Batistry and the Duomo

Gioto's Campanile

Duomo at night

The Duomo from Piazzele Michelangelo

A short 200m south of the Batistero is the Piazza della Repubblica. This public square is an early example of urban renewal. The area was originally home to Roman Forum, and then to the old market and Jewish Ghetto. In the late 1800’s a plan was developed to demolish the old buildings in this area, and a new square was created, along with the buildings that line its edges. Most noticeable are the porticos and triumphant arch along the western edge of the piazza.

Carousel ticket booth

Picci Family Carousel

Finally, there is the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, which is a 550 m walk west from Piazza della Republica. This is another beautiful space, in front of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Novella, a beautiful church and convent. There is plenty of seating in the recently redone piazza, and crowds are not as intense here as in some of the other squares.
Catedrale di Santa Maria Novella

Of course, no walk through Florence would be complete without a trip across the Ponte Vecchio. The old bridge across the Arno is home to several dozen jewelry stores, selling high end gold and silver pieces.

Ponte Vecchio

Looking down the Arno

Ponte Vecchio from Piazele Michelangelo
Ponte Vecchio at night

One of the shops on Ponte Vecchio

These piazzas may be the “main attractions,” but really Florence is a great place to wander. Just turning down random streets and alleys, can bring you some fascinating finds. There is Dante’s house and church, or a workshop for restoration of statuary. Or you might just find a quiet café to sit in and enjoy an espresso or cappuccino (which they now serve all day). I strongly urge you to make time in your schedule to just walk the city. 
Restoration workshop

Street artist

Copy of David at Piazzele Michelangelo