Florence – like coming home

Anyone who knows me or has read any of my travel posts knows how I feel about Florence. It’s my spiritual home, my favourite place on earth, the place I feel most at ease. I’ve been coming here for forty years and was smitten pretty much from the word go; every visit back deepens my yearning and affection for the cradle of the Renaissance. Yes it’s busy (although not as bad as I’d feared) and hot (33C at 9pm as I sit on the terrace) but it’s utterly enchanting and magical.

I have a passion for art, particularly (but not exclusively) for the Italian Renaissance. Being here is like travelling back 700 years or more and treading the streets where giants such as Donatello, Masaccio and Botticelli walked. The main driving factor for this visit is the exhibition on Donatello at Palazzo Strozzi tomorrow; cannot wait! Expect many excited pictures tomorrow or the next day…

No matter how often I visit, I always find some new way to entangle myself with the charms of this city. Sure, there are old favourites, but the Uffizi and Accademia hold no surprises any more so the focus this time is on the architecture of the city. Moira bought me a wonderful book exploring the development of the city from medieval times through to modern, as witnessed by the physical structure of the buildings rather than the wonderful paintings and sculptures created and it is through this medium that I planned the itineraries for this trip.

A word here for my magnificent wife please. The list of her charms knows no bounds but not least among them is the willingness to indulge my passion for walking miles in 36 degree heat having got up at 2.45am and not demanding an aperol spritz until offered one. Surely deserving of a formal award of some kind?

I mean, how many thirteenth century towers and palaces can you see in one afternoon? If you’re me (us) quite a few. Oh go on then, if you insist….

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Florence was frequently riven by conflict between the rival Guelph party, supporting the papacy, and Ghibellines, supporting the Holy Roman Emperor. It wasn’t pretty and the rival families holed themselves up in fortified towers with high walls and few windows. There remain a number of these throughout the central part of modern Florence and it was a trail of these that marked our walk today.

We started with the view from the terrace of our apartment, from which can clearly be seen two remnants of the Palazzo Corbizi. These are among the best preserved in the city, from the thirteenth century and were owned by the Corbizi then the Donati families. They underwent restoration between 1920 and 1930. This arrangement demonstrates that sometimes towers were owned by families of similar allegiance and arranged in clusters up to a block across to foster mutual support.

Next we visited the Torre della Pagliazzi, now developed as the Hotel Brunelleschi following repairs and enhancements between 1983 and 1988. This is the oldest building in Florence, unchanged from sixth century, based on Roman foundations, part of a bath complex. It was further raised by the Byzantines then by the Lombards. It was used a prison in twelfth century and in the thirteenth century used as the bell tower of San Michele alle Trimble. There is a large doorway at ground level and an irregular arrangement of windows on the upper levels.

Next on our route was the Torre del Castagna, near Dante’s house and the church where he met Beatrice. It was built in 1038 and donated to the monks of the Badia Fiorentina. It subsequently became the meeting place of the Priory of Arts, the executive and representative power of the city, from 1282 until the completion of the Bargello. Its name derives from the practice of the Priors voting by putting chestnuts in a bag. Architecturally it has a quadrangular base and is tall and slender. The ground floor portal has a double (‘Sienese’) arch.

From here, we visited the Palazzo dell’Arte della Lana, my favourite building seen today and one with which, up until now, I have been unfamiliar. It was built in 1308 as a private house. Today it is owned by the Dante Society and a polychrome plaque is derived from the famous panel in the Duomo.

The current building has four elements:

The original tower of the Compiobbesi family was built in the 13th century. It is three bays wide and has two upper orders above the ground floor shops and workshops. It faces Via Calimala. On the facade are two images of the Agnus Dei, the emblem of the guild. Two upper orders are crowned by characteristic Guelph crenellations.

The palazzo also has an east façade facing Orsanmichele, also of three bays.

The next element is an additional lower wing along the south side, Renaissance in style, only one bay wide, with two orders and a portal onto Calimala. It was added for Cosimo I by his architect Buontalenti in 1569.

There is the little open Gothic loggia on the northwest corner, with bifore to the upper floor.

Finally is the remaining fabric along the north side, stone faced, two bays, with the tabernacle of Santa Maria della Trombe on the northeast corner, added in 1905.

Our next stop, Palazzo Davanzati is one I’m familiar with. It is open as a museum which recreates the interior of a 14th century Florentine palazzo and is well worth a visit. Today, we merely observed the exterior. It was built in the 1330s near the Mercato Nuovo by the Davizzi family. In 1516, they sold the the home to the wealthy Bartolini Salimbeni family, who in turn sold it to the Davanzati in 1578. The last of the family to own the palazzo took his own life in 1838 by leaping from the top floor loggia.

The building passed from family to family until being purchased by Elia Volpi, a wealthy antique dealer, in 1904. He immediately set out to restore the palazzo to its 14th century appearance, in which form it can (and indeed should) be visited today.

There is a four storey façade, in pietra forte, originally surmounted by a crenellation, which was later replaced by a top floor balcony dating from the end of the cinquecento. The facade, with its three principal orders above a ground floor, is highly refined with minimal detailing, the ashlar being graded from large dressed stones of the ground floor to rougher, smaller stones of the top storey.

The ground floor has three bays with larger, arched openings and three square lights above, whilst the three upper floors have five bays each, with single arched windows. The crowning loggia was added circa 1850 to replace the original crenellation.

The stone Davanzati family crest with its lion rampant stands out above the second floor windows. The ironwork is original 14th century.

We now wandered across the Ponte Vecchio, reflecting how the crowds had grown here. This majestic old bridge used to be guarded by four towers, one on each corner. The Torre dei Manelli is the only one to survive. This powerful family would not yield to the demands of Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici that the towers be demolished to allow building of the Vasari corridor, which links Palazzo Vecchio with Palazzo Pitti. As a result, the corridor can be seen to deviate around the tower.

At this point we were near the church of Santa Felicita and took the opportunity to visit what I think is one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen. When I was here in 2018 studying art history, the Mannerist work ‘Deposition’ by Jacopo Pontormo had just been restored. I knew nothing of this artist, or indeed the movement he represents, and when I visited the church there were crowds of people making it difficult to get a view. When I did, I was immediately struck by the sheer beauty of the work, in particular the glowing if, admittedly unnatural, colour palette. I was not alone in being moved; next to me stood a very elderly gentleman in tears, smiling at me, gesturing at the painting and repeating, as one would extol the virtues of a favourite child and with intense pride in his voice, ‘Pontormo, Pontormo…’. Moira tells me this painting features early in the book she is reading – ‘Still Life’ by Sarah Winman, ensuring that I will pick it up and devour it when she has completed it.

Today we had the church to ourselves and I stood alone before the painting for many minutes, just absorbing the colours. It was an intensely peaceful and moving experience, a sense of hope that the ability of humans to create speaks to us through the centuries. The work does not evoke pathos through gesture or facial expression, does not overtly seek to preach or educate. As with many such works, I suspect its intention upon its creation was to inspire the viewer to look inwardly and search their ‘soul’. I have no religious beliefs but yet was profoundly moved by my shared moments in the presence of beauty. I recommend this work above all others if you ever visit Florence, but I’m fully cognisant of the personal nature of art and accept you might not ‘get it’ like I do. Hey, it’s free and it’s in the Oltrarno, which is pretty and has lots of quieter bars and restaurants so nothing to lose, right?

Back on the tower trail, we came to the Palazzo Acciaiuoli, now the Hotel Torre Guelfa. As you may see from my attempts to photograph the palazzo, this area shows how narrow the streets in medieval Florence were and how these hulking buildings loom over the people below; it must have been intimidating – which was, of course, exactly the intended effect.

The building incorporates the Torre degli Acciaiuoli, built by the Buondelmonti around 1280 and among the highest in Florence. The adjacent palazzo was developed by Niccolo Acciaiuoli, Grand Seneschal of Naples, around 1341. The palace is built in stone with regular drafts on the ground floor and a row of stone on the upper floors, reminiscent of the Bargello. The door is surmounted by a monolithic architrave on two moulded corbels. Three orders of arched windows, highlighted by string courses, mark the façade. There is a Carthusian coat of arms featuring two lions holding lily flags; in the centre is the cross of calvary and the word certosa to commemorate the founding of the Certosa di Firenze on the initiative of Acciaiuoli.

Our journey ended in Piazza Santa Trinita where we stood looking at the massive Palazzo Spini. The ground floor is a shop and museum celebrating the designer Salvatore Ferragamo. Above is the impressive bulk of the palazzo, characterised by rigorously disciplined, regular facades, impressively detailed stonework and crowning crenellation, the appearance is part way between a tower and a palace: tall, narrow façade of only three bays, with arched window openings, surmounted by crenellations on boldly projecting corbels.

Commissioned in 1289, and therefore an almost exact contemporary of Palazzo Vecchio, it was at the time the largest privately owned palazzo in Florence. Designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, or perhaps his father Lapo Tedesco, its outline can be seen in Ghirlandaio frescoes in Sassetti chapel in the church of Santa Trinita.

In the 14th century it was divided between two sections of the Spini family. The wing overlooking Piazza Santa Trinita was inhabited by the descendants of the original scion, Geri degli Spini, until the remaining male died without heirs and the wing passed to a series of new owners, eventually being owned from 1768 by Francesco Feroni. The section overlooking the Arno was transferred by marriage to the Del Tovaglia family in 1686 and later to the Pitti family and then, in 1807, the Feroni family. Once again, the whole palazzo was the property of a single family

In 1834 it was purchased by the Hombert family and became a prestigious hotel. In 1846 it passed to ownership of the government of Florence and became the city hall for twenty years, until Florence ceded its role as capital of the United Italy to Rome. It was renovated in 1874 and sold as a commercial building.

Built in pietra forte, the facade consists of a ground floor, three upper floors with regular segmental arched windows and a prominent crenellation on stone corbels on all four sides, built above prominent machicolation

Along with Palazzo Frescobaldi on south bank of the Arno, the palazzo defended the city from the west.

Opposite stands the smaller Palazzo Gianfigliazzi, built for the Guelph Ruggerini family, then demolished after they were expelled in 1260. Later reconstructed, it was modelled along the lines of Spini Feroni in 1841 and is now a hotel.

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