Renaissance Florence and medieval Siena are two of Mary Bunning’s favourite Italian cities. She also has a passion for the works of the sculptor Donatello. In this article she visits Florence.
Even though I had been to Florence several times the visits had been short and the queues for attractions such as the Uffizi Palace long. I was all too well aware that a longer visit was called for.
Consequently an art loving friend and I decided that one of Citalia’s two-centre city breaks should give us time to revisit favourite places in Florence and maybe even discover new ones, before moving on to another loved city - Siena.
Hotel Monna Lisa in the city’s historic heart
And so it was that on a mild October day our taxi turned into a dark and narrow street lined by tall, Renaissance buildings and stopped at the entrance to the Hotel Monna Lisa in the historic heart of Florence.
The Hotel Monna Lisa originally a convent, later the Palazzo Marzichi Lenzi, is today a four star hotelconveniently close to many of the main attractions such as the city’s famous cathedral and the Uffizi Gallery.
Avoid queues, pre-book tickets
All too well aware of the difficulties getting into the Uffizi Gallery we had taken the precaution of pre-booking our tickets in the UK. The ploy worked well, and whilst we did have to join a couple of queues they were short and fast moving.
However it does take quite a time to actually start exploring the galleries – visitors first have to deposit bags, then pass through scanning machines and finally climb two flights of stairs.
The Uffizi, one of the world’s leading museums
The Uffizi, once home to the powerful and art-collecting Medici family, is huge; rightly described as one of the world’s leading museums. With some 10,000 visitors per day, it is also very crowded so progress through the many galleries and corridors can be slow.
We were glad we had allowed the best part of a day. On display are works of art from the likes of Giotto to Uccello and Botticelli; from da Vinci to Michelangelo and Raphael – works that most of us have only ever seen in glossy art books.
As we moved slowly along corridors through windows we kept spotting tantalising city glimpses including the iconic Ponte Vecchio spanning the river Arno.
The Uffizi is exhaustingly stunning. So do as we did, give yourself a break and head for the café and if possible a table on the terrace for a rest. Not cheap but good friendly service and the prosecco and lunch fortified us for another couple of hours gallery viewing. Incidentally apart from several museum shops there is also a really useful on-site post office.
The Accademia and Michelangelo’s David
Later, again with the help of pre-booked tickets, we entered the Accademia Gallery and stood at the feet of Michelangelo’s magnificent white marble statue of David, arguably the most famous statue ever created.
Michelangelo was only 26 when he began the commission - one which took him two years to complete.
Having paid homage to David and explored the other galleries in the Accademia our feet and tummies felt the need for coffee and a pastry. We found both at Caffè Rivoire in the Piazza della Signoria.
The Rivoire, which dates back to 1872, was the haunt of the celebrities of the day and fashionable Florentines.
On the pricey side if you sit at one of the tables, nevertheless worth it for people watching; plus the pastries are divine as are the chocolates for which the café is famous. Incidentally Dan Brown mentions the café in his thriller Inferno. www.rivoire.it
But so far Donatello had almost evaded me. However, we caught up with his works in abundance in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo and the Bargello.
The Bargello and Donatello
The Bargello is a fascinating building in its own right. Dating from 1250 it was Florence’s first seat of government, and was also a jail before becoming a museum.
Along with some smaller, and worthwhile galleries there are the two main rooms – the Michelangelo which houses examples of his work such as the rather drunken Bacchus and delightful Pitti Tondo.
In the Donatello room are Donatello’s powerful image of St George killing the dragon, and my all-time favourite statue - the exquisitely dainty bronze statue of David, complete with sword and wearing nothing but a hat and boots.
Head for the Museum of the Opera del Duomo for more stunning examples of Renaissance art, including Donatello’s moving, and thought provoking statue of The Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene.
Queues, time, and feet allowing visit the Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. It is after all one of the largest cathedrals in the world. Brunelleschi’s magnificent and innovative dome dominates the cathedral and the city skyline.
The interior whilst considerably less ornate than its exuberant exterior, is definitely worth a visit. Even though the Duomo has free entrance we decided to join an organised tour. It not only saved a lot of queuing but also gave us access to different parts of the cathedral, and our guide and his commentary were excellent.
The Ponte Vecchio and Pitti Palace…
On our last Florence day we headed for the Pitti Palace, window-shopping our way across the river Arno on the iconic Ponte Vecchio to the south bank pausing only briefly to gaze at the somewhat costly-looking jewellery on display.
The Pitti Palace, once the home of the powerful Medici family, is a rather austere looking building. Austere on the outside, maybe, but inside is a wonder of richly decorated and furnished rooms displaying some of their wealth and fabulous collections. (Be warned. Allow plenty of time, the palace houses five excellent museums).
…and the park-like Boboli Garden
And also allow enough time to wander through the palace’s Boboli Garden, it’s huge, more a park than a garden, and surely one of the most elegant and famous gardens in Italy, if not the world. Included in its boundaries are formal gardens and informal spaces, statues, grottos and fountains, and an amphitheatre.
Our wanderings also took us through Florence’s narrow streets lined with patrician buildings, through large and small piazzas to the vast church of Santa Croce where Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini and Galileo are buried; to the Mercato Nuovo home to the bronze wild boar – its nose gleaming from being polished by thousands of hands in the hope of good luck; and to the church of Santa Maria Novella (one of my favourites) with its pretty coloured marble façade and lovely frescoed interior.
Donatello’s simple marble grave stone
And last but definitely not least to the church of San Lorenzo so I could marvel at the two massive pulpits by Donatello. Beneath the church we found the tomb of Cosimo de’ Medici and close by the simple marble slab marking the grave of his friend, and my hero, Donatello.
Our tour was organised by Italian specialists Citalia: www.citalia.com
We stayed at: Hotel Monna Lisa, Borgo Pinti. www.monnalisa.it. A charming centrally located hotel with bar and small cosy lounges embellished with antiques, paintings and statues. Our well-equipped rooms were clean and comfortable, reached via a very steep staircase, overlooking the hotel’s pretty garden. Lovely friendly, helpful staff. A breakfast room but no dining room, however there several good family-run small restaurants in the immediate vicinity serving tasty food.
We ate at: Trattoria Accadi, Borgo Pinti, 56r: www.trattoriaaccadi.com Trattoria Nella, Via delle Terme, 19r: www.trattorianella.com
Trattoria Acquacotta, via dei Pilastri, 51r
Osteria Zio Gigi, Via Folco Portinari, 7r Golden View (close to the Ponte Vecchio on via de’Bardi: www.goldenviewopenbar.com
Hotel Regency (for a special birthday dinner – superb service and a delicious meal): www.regency-hotel.com