Culture / Travel

Italian Idyll: The Renaissance Was Birthed in Florence, and That’s Still Evident Today

BY Mary Margaret Hansen // 07.25.16

This is the seventh installment of photographer and activist Mary Margaret Hansens travel diary, written as she and fellow artist Earl Staley enjoyed an Italian sojourn. Read some of the previous dispatches herehere, and here. And be sure to scroll through the slideshow above. 

As I began to write about our six days in Florence, I asked Earl what was so special about this Italian city. He answered without hesitation: “This is where contemporary Western culture began. What happened in Florence in the 15th century still defines us today.” Big statement.

I searched for a second opinion and found Mary McCarthy’s The Stones of Florence, published in 1959. (McCarthy also wrote The Group, a saga about Vassar College, later made into a movie starring Candice Bergen and Larry Hagman.) McCarthy has this to say about Florence:

The Florentines, in fact, invented the Renaissance, which is the same as saying that they invented the modern world…Florentine history, in its great period, is a history of innovations. The Florentines wrote the first important work in the vulgar tongue (Divina Commedia); they raised the first massive dome since antiquity; they discovered perspective; they made the first nude of the Renaissance; they composed the first opera…the first public library was founded by Cosimo il Vecchio. The Italian literary language is exclusively the creation of the Tuscans, who formed it on their dialect as spoken in the city of Florence…Tuscany is the one province in Italy that does not have a dialect, the Tuscan dialect being, precisely, Italian.

Florence, the city that 'invented' the Renaissance.
Florence, the city that ‘invented’ the Renaissance.

I’ll take both Earl’s and McCarthy’s word for it. Florence is impressive. The city lacks the warmth and intimacy of Rome, the rough energy of Naples, the college-town feel of Bologna, but Florence has art that is, without question, important and astounding. Earl and I spent those six days immersed in the Renaissance. We explored museums, churches and monasteries. Stopped intermittently to refuel with espressos and quite wonderful pastas and bowls of ribollita, that nourishing thick vegetable and day-old bread soup. If you have day-old bread on hand, Ina Garten has a good recipe for ribollita.

Our first stop in Florence was the Palazzo Pitti, originally built by the merchant Luca Pitti to rival the homes of the Medici. In 1549, Eleanor of Toledo, wife of Cosimo Medici, purchased this palazzo and made it an even more magnificent dwelling for generations of the Medici dynasty. She also took note of the hill behind the palazzo and used it to create Boboli Gardens for her husband Cosimo. The palazzo and its extensive formal gardens are a must-see.

The Medici were collectors. Palace rooms are crowded with sculpture and walls are covered floor to ceiling with the family’s paintings in elaborate gilded frames. Surprises? Walking into a painting gallery to find five Raphael portraits on a single wall.  Discovering three Titian portraits side by side. Entering a frescoed room called Salla della Stufa, in which every wall is covered with Pietro da Cortona’s fanciful 17th-century frescoes depicting “The Four Ages of the World”. The floor in this divine room is paved with majolica tiles.

Earl in awe of Raphael's Madonna of the Chair in the Sala di Saturno gallery in Palazzo Pitti.
Earl in awe of Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair in the Sala di Saturno gallery in Palazzo Pitti.

A hike up the hill behind Palazzo Pitti and we were in Boboli Gardens, a vast public park with avenues of cypress trees, fountains, grassy meadows and secluded staircases. On the very top of the hill stands the Museo delle Porcellane, surrounded by rose beds. The petite museum holds the Medici collection of porcelain. In abundance.

At the top of the very highest hill in Florence stands San Miniato al Monte. This basilica is 1,000 years old. The basilica’s interior survives almost in its original state, and features a mosaic in the apse that dates from 1297. The floor is a carpet of tomb slabs and marble intarsia panels displaying animal motifs and Zodiac signs. It is quiet in this basilica, even when a tour group arrives.

A group of monks dressed in burnt-red and orange robes also entered the church. My jaw dropped when one monk held a selfie stick and photographed himself with the altar as backdrop.

Outside, we take in the magnificent view of Florence under blue skies, then head down the hill on foot until we find a gate and signage for a rose garden. We veer from the street into an intimate and magical garden, where clusters of women and children sit reading books, chatting, or napping. Extraordinary that Florence has such a quiet spot nestled into the side of this hill high over the city.

That evening, after a nap, we head out to dinner at Osteria dei Centopoveri, just a few short blocks walk from our hotel. For several evenings, we returned to this trattoria to eat with great gusto. We couldn’t resist its seafood menu, which included a cold salad of sliced octopus.

In the next installment, we visit the new Opera del Duomo Museo, take a walk through Florence’s central market, and find that the line into the Uffizi is surprisingly short.

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