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13 December 2010 @ 11:58 pm
2010 Travel Advent-ures of Brammers, part 9  
Back in Firenze ...

My friends H1 and H2 were leaving separately on the Monday, H1 allegedly on an early morning flight. Being experienced travellers, I promised to sleep with my phone beside my bed in case she locked the front door to the apartment building a moment before remembering that her laptop was on the table, and she promised not to leave her laptop behind. She did not, but nor did her plane happen. At an early but slightly reasonable hour, my phone chirruped with a plea that I pop some clothes on as she was headed back form the airport and would need to be let in.

I did a quick mental calculation and managed to be washed, brushed and dressed in exactly the right amount of time to dash down the stairs and throw the door open just as she stepped out of the taxi with phone in hand, about to call. This is in fact one of my secret superpowers of late, as I did it to H1 the first time she arrived at the flat, too, and last year managed to find raitala  among hundreds of thousands of art fiends seconds before we were about to call each other in the Louvre lobby. This new finding friends power is one I like and it can stay -- in fact, it ran rampant this trip, but more of that in subsequent posts.

H1's unexpected return could mean only one thing: Ghirlandaio at Santa Maria Novella! We trotted up the road to be among the first visitors into the basilica for the day. There is a strict no photography rule, which is a shame, because I would love to share the lunacy that is the decoration with you. Most of the interior is dignified and fairly Gothic in taste, and then you get to the Tornabuoni chapel. Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the most famous artists of the period (end of the 15th century) was commissioned to paint the frescoes, and from what I can read in the paintings, the brief appears to have been: 'I want it to be staggeringly obvious that we are gobsmackingly rich. I want people to look at this in 520 years and think "Holy fuck, those bastards were loaded!" Use as many apprentices as you want, and no stinting on the gold leaf!' They are very beautiful, and a wonderful document of late 15th century life among the wealthy, but not what the standard interior decorator would call at one with the spirit of the building's fabric.

We had a wonderful time pottering about, and even found the book and postcard shop, which is no easy feat -- it's hidden off to one side disguised as another chapel. On leaving, we dithered over whether we should go and have a look at the museum attached to the basilica. 'We could go and put our feet up,' said H1, 'But we're here now, and it seems as though we ought to go in ...'

'Oh look,' I said 'It's 2 euros and a bit, if it's crap, we'll just leave, and feel virtuous for donating funds to the cause.'

Feeling like good cultural tourists, we paid our money and went in. Best Decision Of The Day.

On paying the entry feel, you head into a very quiet cloister. There was literally no one else there while we visited, aside from the staff, while the basilica had grown steadily busier during our visit and a long queue was waiting as we left it. There are attractive frescoes all around the cloister, but not in staggeringly good condition.

The reason for the poor condition is simple. If you look for the small rectangular sign high on the white wall below, that is the level the floodwaters reached when the Arno breached its banks in 1966. Despite being quite some distance from the river, the church was inundated by the waters and mud, and the art badly damaged. In some cases, as on this wall, there was no possibility of restoration and the old frescoes exist above the level, with whitewash below.

We were enjoying the peace in the cloister, but then we turned into the first room leading off it and found ourselves in a place of wonders.

The Cappellone degli Spagnoli is a beautiful medium-sized chapel lined with 14th century frescoes, all amazingly vivid and well preserved. Alas, I am a rubbish photographer, but even these photos give you an inkling of what it looks like -- imagine being surrounded by dozens of these figures stretching up to high embellished ceilings, with colour and light flooding you on every side.

For a pair of costume historians, H1 a professional one and me a keen amateur, it was heaven. Frocks! Dancing! Pilgrims! Sickbeds!

This is about 1/30th of what is on the walls, so please do not let my terrible photography put you off. It is a brilliant space and a genuine surprise --  something that is hard to find in Firenze!

After spending far too long for our timescale but not long enough for us in the chapel, we ran through the museum itself (reliquary, reliquary, vestement, vestement, appallingly conserved textile, reliquary ...) and then jogged through the rain back to the flat in order to be out by 11. I was back to Hotel Davanzati (they had my room ready for me early, despite me only giving them one night's notice -- I love that hotel!) and they were off to left luggage.

We had arranged to meet up, and H2 and I were off paper shopping, while H1 had some alone time. Foolishly, I decided to wait on the street below and spent the next twenty minutes directing Americans to the spots they were looking for, trying to convince myself that I didn't need yet another scarf, and fobbing off taxi drivers. Reunited, H2 and I set off to my fave paper shop. It is called Il Torchio and is at via dei Bardi 17r, up from the Ponte Vecchio on the south side of the river. Like all good paper shops, it sells beautiful, beautiful things:

but at much better prices than most Florentine shops. The owner works in the shop binding little books and making boxes and other trinkets, and very occasionally marbling the papers, too. It's a great spot to spend some time if you have it, and they are happy for you to potter and watch and even ask questions.

H2 and I wandered back to the river and walked up the south bank for -- er-- several kilometres. In fact, we only noticed how far we had gone when we realised we didn't know the name of the next bridge. Along the way we paused several times to take photos of the river, which was running swiftly and high. After being reminded of the flood's devastation, I found myself staring at the banks and being more conscious than usual of the mitigation devices.

We crossed the river and it was only then we noticed the weather had been worsening as we walked. Oh it looked fabulous, but as I took this photo, my hair and tightly belted Barbour streamed out behind me like flags in a cheap historical fantasy novel. H2 and I pulled our sunglasses down so at least our eyeballs were protected against the wind, and then started to walk back towards town, trying not to develop hypothermia as we went. Some lovely umbrella salesmen tried to sell us brollies, we pointed to the gale, they insisted that rain would follow (it didn't).

Scurrying as quickly as we could, we made our way back to Santa Croce and had a perfectly reasonable lunch (the best that can be expected beside a major attraction) before H2 went on her way and I went into the church.

I always have to visit Santa Croce for a few reasons. One being that I have a longstanding tradition of paying my respects to Galileo and Machiavelli. This is Galileo's tomb.

I suspect I may have told this story before, but for those who do not know it, how his body came to be buried there is highly amusing. At the time of his death, he was excommunicated, and so not allowed a Christian burial. Many years later, the Church decided that actually, as it turned out, the sun probably DID revolve around the sun, and made vaguely apologetic noises in Galileo's direction.

'You could probably give him a Christian burial now,' said the Franciscans of Sante Croce.

'Oh yes, of course,' said the Pope and his mates. 'What a shame his remains were quietly disposed of all that time ago.'

'Actually,' said the Franciscans, 'He was right over here under the Campanile the whole time! How lucky!'

Florentines really do revere their own heroes (a Pisan is close enough!) ... and they're a patient lot.

The other thing I do in Santa Croce is light candles. I have no belief system, but I have a travel budget, so I light candles for those who do have a belief system but can't make it to Florence every few years, including darling Mic who has a different system, but still one very beliefy! Should I be completely wrong about theism, I am sure that any god or gods can work the whole thing out, and for my part, the money goes to the upkeep of the church, which keeps my dear Galileo and Machiavelli comfortably ensconced, so we all win.

It is a wonderful church, and no matter how often you visit, you always see new things, or old things in a new way. Especially because the restoration work from the floods is still being carried out, along with general conservation. Things are moved around, too. This Berlinghieri altarpiece of scenes of St Francis's life was in one of the side chapels (probably the Giotto St Francis chapel) the last time I visited, but this time was back near the main altar, where it was far more fitting and beautiful.

The one problem is that after a while in the church, E.M. Forster leaps into your head and Room With A View jokes spring unbidden to mind. I was very good and the words Baedeker, Lavish and Charlotte Bartlett did not pass my lips. Instead, I enjoyed all the frescoes without once considering whether or not they were untroubled by snares of anatomy and perspective or unhappily ruined by restoration. And while I am critical of Italian textile conservation in many cases, they are excellent at fresco restoration and Santa Croce is a very good place to see some of the best examples of this.

As to why the restoration has been so needed ... this photo was taken as the waters were still incoming:

The flood reached 22 feet at its highest here. This is what things looked like after the water went down.

The museum and cloisters attached to the church are worth taking the time to visit, with many beautiful artefacts including this Della Robbia. The actual spaces are really lovely, too, calm and quiet and outside the bustle of the church, just as the museum at Santa Maria Novella had been.

I was just leaving Santa Croce when my phone beeped. H1 was in Palazzo Strozzi with two friends of our and we were invited for drinks. I picked up my pace and made it there in record time, navigating successfully around a group of 12-year-old American schoolchildren (I hope they were from a local American school, or someone is insanely brave). After nimbly skipping past tour groups, avoiding several buses and out-striding several young men who were horrified to be out-stridden (I may be limpy, but I have a turn of speed on me when I need it! Comes from having so many tall relatives ...) I met H1 and we turned up Tornabuoni and found the bar we were meeting our friends in, which was a perfect throwback to 1945. We snuggled around the table and chatted about our days, aware that we were all going our separate ways that night. It was a wonderful end of this part of the adventure feeling and a perfect spot for it (if anyone needs a great Florentine bar, let me know and I will hunt out the card).

Afterwards I walked H1 to SMN station and reunited her with H2 and their luggage, then said goodbye. I would be seeing her again in London in ten days, but that night I was alone again -- not for long, though, as on the morrow I would be back in Siena, with one old American friend, one new American pleasant acquaintance, and a long story with even more photos. Obviously, that will have to wait for now, as I am all out of brain.

Susanlil_shepherd on December 13th, 2010 03:33 pm (UTC)
Those frescos are stunning!

Thank you for sharing the Adventures of Brammers!
Jaeenchanted_jae on December 13th, 2010 06:37 pm (UTC)
You are an able photographer, and the photos are stunning!
Casaella_irene on December 13th, 2010 08:21 pm (UTC)
I have always been very pleased by the fact that Galileo's daughter is in there with him. (Her name was, aptly, Sister Maria Celeste.)
Blythe: always has been well dressedblythely on December 13th, 2010 10:18 pm (UTC)
Oh, oh, I've been to see those frescoes! (gosh, many years ago now) I have a whole bunch of postcards but they do no justice to the amazingness of the colours. Thank you for reminding me of how lovely and full-on they were.
κάτι τρέχει στα γύφτικα_inbetween_ on December 13th, 2010 10:21 pm (UTC)
Huh, I spent the last four weeks or more looking at flickr photos of such papers and boxes and crafts rooms.
Nennenenne on December 13th, 2010 10:39 pm (UTC)
What an amazing restoration job they have done.

You really have seen a lot on this trip.
Hueyphoenixacid on December 14th, 2010 05:13 am (UTC)
Stunning pictures!