Dante above all, who was banned as victim of this party-quarrel, accompanies us to his quarter between Via del Corso and Piazza Signoria. His family, the Aligheri, owned some houses here. In the small church of San Martino he married Gemma Donati. The house of Beatrice Portinari - his immortal Beatrice - stood on the Corso, now Palazzo Salviati. When you enter this house to change money, a statue remembers you that Cosimo I spent his youth here...
In this town of history I'm feeling often more familiar than in present times.
But for now there’s the church Santa Croce by sunset. The people say if you want a photograph you have to go at sunset. Otherwise the sun is behind it and you will never get a picture of it. The people are right. A deep blue sky is beaming over the wide place - simply azzurro. On two days in summer the Florentine youths are playing a sort of football here in old costumes of the middle ages. It’s a pretty rough and brutal sport but they still like it. The church stands at the end of this place. The setting sun hits the white marble, the green serpentine and red porphyry; the doves, teens and tourists are having it for themselves and the Florentines meet for a chat.
Santa Croce has traditionally always been used for important civic and religious events because it is large enough to contain crowds of people. This is where the Franciscan preachers, as well as St. Bernardino of Siena, during the plague of 1437, addressed the population. This was also where Carnival and May Day festivities were celebrated, as well as tournaments, jousting and carousels, especially during the Renaissance, with the enthusiastic partecipation of the younger members of the Florentine aristocracy: such events included the famous jousts described by Pulci (1469) and Poliziano (1475), with Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici among the principal protagonists.
The Basilica of Santa Croce dominates the entire square. Constructed between 1295 and 1443 on the site of an earlier and smaller Franciscan oratory, built in around 1225-26, when the Saint was still alive, it was subsequently enlarged in 1252. Arnolfo di Cambio, the brilliant head architect of the City Council was entrusted with the new project and, almost immediately afterwards, the city also commissioned him to construct the new Cathedral and Palazzo della Signoria.
On the left side from the church Dante Alighieri is looking at us with his "Divine Comedy" in hand - a late monument for the expelled son of the town. His family didn’t belong to the emperor-faithful (and thus enemies of the Pope) Ghibellinis. When the tide had turned, he had to leave the town, in absentia sentenced to death and didn’t see his beloved Florence ever again. Well, even then the right ‘book of party’ was necessary for survival. Today Florence sends oil for the lamps upon his grave in Ravenna each anniversary of his death.
Inside darkness and coolness are ruling. And there’s Michelangelo’s grave, just right from the entrance. It never looked so gigantic in photos. Three marble personifications of "sculpture", "painting" and "poetry" surround his sarcophagus. The three things Michelangelo had controlled to perfection.
His friend and adorer Giorgio Vasari did his job well to regard highly the greatest of great artists. Vasari - also his biographer - not only knew him very well, he loved him and - because he was artist himself - he understood him completely: Michelangelo’s terribilit`a. He always had been a victim of his own character, his talent, his ingeniousness. But where had he received this genius from? Perhaps we’ll find out here.
Actually the Romans and the pope wanted to have him buried in Rome but his nephew remembered his wish to be buried in Florence. He stole the dead body one stormy night and rode with him upon his horse the long way from Rome to Florence. At least so the legend goes.
We are passing the cenotaph for Leonardo, passing the graves of Machiavelli, Rossini and Galileo Galilei. After his inquisition trial in Rome, Galileo was placed under house arrest, but he was at least allowed to continue his studies. After his death in 1642 Grand Duke Ferdinando de' Medici wanted to place a monument here over his grave. But Pope Urban VIII warned the Duke for Galileo had stubbornly defended his thesis that was opposed to the Holy Bible. Therefore he would take each monument for the astronomer as a personal offence against his authority. Well... Ferdinando wasn’t brave enough to resist the pope and so it came that the body of the greatest scientist of his time lay unburied for almost 100 years (well, in a coffin I assume) in a cellar under the clock tower of Santa Croce. Only in November 1992, exactly 350 years after his death, Galileo was openly rehabilitated by Pope John Paul II.
This church has important and imposing small chapels that are like a string of pearls. Each noble family wanted to have its own, for instance also the Rucellai, the family of Michelangelo's mother.
Evening falls when we are in the direction of the Uffizi Gallery. Above our heads leads the corridor of Vasari, it is a sort of secret way, that leads from Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall) over Ponte Vecchio to Pitti-Palace, the place of the Medici-dukes of Toscana. The Uffizi-yard is broad and empty until it is actually besieged by tourists who desire entrance to the museum. But there it is: under the Loggia - Cellini’s Perseus, lifting the head of Medusa high in the air, triumphantly, naked and bronzed. Not far away from it, naked, firm marble buttocks are held toward us. As a gay man you have come to the right place it seems ;-) It belongs to a group of men that raid women from the tribe of the Sabin, an old legend that belongs to Rome. If you want to learn more about Cellini and the excitingly work of "Perseus", just click here.
In front of the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio - this monstrous building that stands tall above our heads in the warm light of lanterns - "David" is waiting. Verdigris covered, but beautiful. And the difference between copy and original we will see later.
Right beside stands the ungainly figure-group by Baccio Bandinelli. "Cacus and Hercules". Cacus was a gigantic, murderous monster, a son of Vulcanus, the blacksmith God, who was fought by Hercules finally. This group was compared to "David" as an object of surreptitious laughing. Cellini called it a "Melon squeezer". Poor Bandinelli. Well, it wasn t that easy for Michelangelos contemporaries. It wasn’t easy to outdo "David". Michelangelo's flexing of muscles and proportions of the male body were perfect. And everything that came afterwards, was grossly exaggerated. You know, sort of "Mister Universum". Nonetheless the citizens left the figure standing where it was: right beside the entrance to town hall, to protect the senate and to protect the town. And as a warning: Florence was a free state, independent from the pope and everybody that dared to attack it would get it like Goliath from David. Like the Jew woman Judith did with the conquerer Holofernes, like Perseus did with Medusa....
You can enter the inner yard of the town hall without problem. There's a cute putto-spring in the center of it made by Verrocchio - who was the teacher of Leonardo da Vinci. Formerly the putto had spun around himself with water power, a dolphin lovingly pressed to his cheek, but now it doesn’t anymore. The square, supported by golden pillars is completely decorated with frescos.
To celebrate the marriage of Francesco I de Medici with the Habsburg princess Johanna of Austria the yard was painted with towns of the Habsburg Reich like Prague, Passau, Graz, Freiburg, Linz, Bratislava, Vienna, Innsbruck, Konstanz, etc. etc.
The rooms of the town hall can be visited and shouldn’t be missed. They are mostly painted by Giorgio Vasari, but there are some fine sculptures too, like the "Victory" by Michelangelo and some other famous Renaissance-artists.
The most interesting tale happened there when Leonardo and Michelangelo started a competition. In 1504 both had got the order to paint the Room of the five hundred where the Senate of Florence (signoria) gathers. Both started their work: Leonardo decided to portray the "Battle of Anghiari" (see picture below), Michelangelo for the "Battle of Cascina". Michelangelo proceeds well, but Leonardo - all self-confident fop and always up to try out new things - tried a wax technique. For this, a fire has to be lit to make the wax soft but since the fire was too hot on the lower side of the fresco, the wax melted and the colours ran down, leaving long, tough traces down and the fresco was destroyed.
Michelangelo said nothing, no triumph, no anything although both weren’t exactly what we would call friends. Leonardo simply went away and got busy with other things. The painting he had forgotten instantly. And also Michelangelo never finished his fresco because he was called to Rome to work for pope Julius II.
Careful examinations hasn't found any traces of it. Later it was Giorgio Vasari who painted finally the room with huge freschi of battles. Of Michelangelo's freschi there is just a cartoon left made by Aristotele da Sangallo (1542) and is situated in Norfolk. Click here to see a sketch of Michelangelo:
Outside again there is the large spring, the Florentine call "Biancone" - the not beloved "big white one". It is the Neptune-fountain by Ammannati who is similary unsuccessful like "Cacus and Hercules" by Bandinelli. The spoiled Florentine mocked it as always.
When you cross the Piazza Signoria you reach the large shopping mall of Florence: the Via Calzaiouli. Ragazzi and tourists are mingling, saunter up and down, from the cathedral to town hall and vice versa. In the night you just can guess the big dimensions of the cathedral and in front of the baptistery people stand and admire the "Golden Gates of Paradise" made by Lorenzo Ghiberti. There’s the tale of Brunelleschi and his friend Donatello, both had applied for the contest of making the doors to the baptistery. Finally Ghiberti won. Brunelleschi and Donatello went to Rome to study there the antique monuments and to dig the Forum Romanum (yeah, they were sort of predecessor of Sebastian von Scheffel ;-) The uneducated Roman seemed to both Florentines very suspect because they thought they would dig for gold (And probably both had been seen in indecent establishments for gay customers). Until very much later the Romans also got the idea to dig there, what gave the push for the excavations to the antique Forums of the emperors.
Brunelleschi arrived in Florence again just in time. The architects of the duomo had the very difficult task of finishing the building with a cupola. But they didn’t know how. Well, good old Brunelleschi thought he had the solution. In presence of the signoria, the Senate of Florence, he presented his proposal in demonstrating a standing egg. You know, the "egg of Columbus" was actually the "egg of Brunelleschi". He hit the egg upon the table and it stood. The model of his cupola was daring. So daring that everybody was laughing. The space was so big that it seemed to be impossible to close it. But Brunelleschi - as we know - had studied Rome’s antique monuments, so the Pantheon, which built a perfect circle in a cube. So Brunelleschi changed his model to an egg-formed cupola that was erected within sixteen years. It is the biggest self-carrying cupola of a Christian church. Not even Saint Peter in Rome achieves its dimension. Remember it was built without having cranes, without cement machines, without computer animation or -calculation. Some scientists today are saying, the artists of the time of the Renaissance had found the gate to macrocosm - in their minds of course. All their thoughts are hovering in the endless depths of the rooms. Matter can't disperse. But probably it was just earth shaking compared to the gloomy area of the Middle Ages. If you need more information about the duomo I recommend reading this.
Right beside the duomo is the bell tower of Santa Maria del Fiore, one of the most beautiful in Italy, was an (extremely costly) invention of genius by Giotto which was created more as a decorative monument than a functional one. In 1334 the great artist started when work on it had already been interrupted for over thirty years, while Arnolfo di Cambio worked for the Cathedral. Giotto preferred to create something of his very own: the bell tower.
The artist worked from 1334 to 1337, the year of his death, on the addition of the new architectural element that was to enrich the square, but only lived to see the first floor of his project completed, where the pointed entrance stands. White marble from Carrara, green marble from Prato and red marble from Siena colour the surface (which today are the national colours) while also dividing it up with classical rigor; a figurative "narrative" (an indispensable form of expression for a painter) runs around all four sides, carried out with a series of octagonal tiles in relief by Andrea Pisano (who completed the South Doors of the Baptistery in 1336) from designs that were carried out in part by Giotto himself.
There are statues made by Donatello (you remember the friend of Brunelleschi, the builder of the cupola). Formerly they stood as decoration for the bell tower but of course they were too precious to rot in sour rain and fumes. Once his figure of "Habakkuk" was finished, Donatello stood in front of the very livid looking old Prophet and cried out "Favella! Favella! Talk!!! Or the plague should get you!"
But let me tell you something about Giotto. It started on a day in 1266. On this day Giotto di Bondone was born. He was a shepherd's boy who flabbergasted the old Master Cimabue while he was drawing a perfect circle in Tuscany sand, there, out on the fields. Cimabue (who had himself great merits as painter) gave Giotto an apprenticeship. You know, in Giotto's time all churches were white washed, the old freschi and mosaics removed and over painted. Why? Because the people remembered the words of the New Testament: "You shouldn't make a picture of myself." Well, somehow the old Greeks got bored with the white churches and started to paint their monasteries again but they had forgotten how to paint. When you match freschi, mosaics and sculptures from ancient times with the time of the early middle ages, your hair stays on end. It was as if they had been blind. They couldn't work stone, no clue about perspective. But Giotto sat among his sheep and drew from nature. Later he worked in Padua, Rome, Assisi and of course Florence. For instance he painted several chapels of Santa Croce with themes of the life and death of Holy Francis.
Well... I don't know why he didn't have any pupils or perhaps they had been that bad that nobody could compare with Giotto's genius. Anyhow, again it took one hundred years before another Giotto was born, exactly here in Florence: Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Guidi, called Masaccio.
He studied Giotto's freschi in Santa Croce and quickly learnt to continue his work and even more: He was the real new man who remembered the perspective painting. His outstanding freschi in the Brancacci-chapel of the Carmine-church were a never ending source for studies. Michelangelo learnt the perspective painting there, but more about this later.
Unfortunately Masaccio - wild and gay - died an early death in Rome only 27 years old. He hadn't had time enough but what he did was earth shaking enough to start a new era. The time of the Rinascimento was born, the time of the neo-antique, the time of remembering the Greek and Roman masters.
Back to the "Biancone". In front of it there’s a porphyry plate inserted to the ground. It tells us that exactly at this place - for about 500 years - Savonarola was burnt to ashes. Four years before his death he burnt his "pyre of vanities". He was the Prior of the church and Dominican monastery of San Marco and if you want to read his story please click here.
The whole of Florence knew that he was dying innocent, but breathed relieved - freed from the urge to do good things. Michelangelo didn’t say a word about the events in Florence. Although he does share a part of Savonarola’s opinions, he condemned his fanaticism. Michelangelo was fanatic enough himself to know what evil it brings.
Was it fair? The Florentines are still biased. Still they bring flowers to this place on the day of his death.
Next morning is a fine opportunity to visit the granary. That’s a church now, called "Orsanmichele" (actually San Michele in Orto, because there once was a nunnery with a garden). This building had in 1350 a double function of the town granary and of an oratorium.
Arnolfo di Cambio had gotten the order to built an open hall, to protect the merchants for rain and sun. But of course they had to hang pictures of the Holy Michael and of the Madonna, as protection from high above so to say. Well, the picture of the Madonna started to work miracles and soon enough pious people were gathering to sing "laudi" to honour the "Madonna of the Gracious". A brotherhood was building. And soon later - after a fire - the still present, new respresentative church was built while on the lower ground the market was still open. The arcades were closed later with elaborated Masswork of Florentine Gothic.
The most important things are the 14 recesses on the outer façade because they were offered by the Parte Guelfa (the party of the pope) to all guilds of the town to place there their patron saints. And so it came that this building is today a precious museum itself, because each of the rich guilds in town had engaged a famous artist.
I wonder how the town manages to protect these pieces of art against destruction by modern vandals. I cannot imagine them standing in Berlin or any other town in Germany without being smeared with graffiti to say the least or in the worse case being completely destroyed. Well... more on this theme later.
You can go inside of course. There’s a fantastic tabernacle made by Orcagna for the miracle working picture of the Madonna. On the ceiling are still hanging the old hooks for the sacks of grain.
Back to place of the huge cathedral. Yesterday night it was the story of the cupola, but the interior is telling other stories. Exciting ones. Although it is cold and empty because everything that is precious has been brought to the museum of the cathedral, like one of Michelangelo’s last pieta for instance.
The inside of the cupola is painted with freschi by Giorgio Vasari again. But that’s not the interesting thing. It was in 1943 when the Jewish people had to be deported from Florence. They remembered the canteens and sleeping places Brunelleschi once had created for the workers, so they didn’t have to walk two hours until they were down and two hours up to reach the ceiling each morning and evening. The places were still there and intact. They brought the Jews up there and nobody ever found them there.
But there’s more exciting history: On Easter Sunday 1478 there took place the so-called Pazzi conspiracy. Lorenzi il Magnifico de’ Medici dragged himself seriously wounded into the sacristy while his beautiful, not less popular brother Giuliano bled to death.
There it is, the pews that are positioned in a half round in front of the altar. Here was sitting the noble people of the town, listenening to the Easter-Mass. Slowly the priest lifting his arms in front of the the altar. Just that moment there's a turmoil at the entrance. A splendid dressed group is there, burst into the duomo, their heavy boots scratching over stone.
A cry: "Prendi, traditore!" (Take this, traitor) and everybody is frozen to the ground. A wild crying and screaming sounds from the chancel, spreading out in the whole cathedral and sounding up to the high cupola.
Bernardo Bandini pushes with all his might his short sword into Giuliano's heart from behind. The young man falls and Franceschino de'Pazzi pounces on him. Over and over again he stabs him with his dagger, even when he's lying already motionless to the ground.
At the same time Maffei and Bagnone attack his brother Lorenzo. But just one of their daggers hits and causes a deep flesh wound in the neck. Lorenzo jumps over the balustrade, pulling his sword, fighting, seeing a good friend dying for him beside him. He flees through the chancel, passes the altar, into the sacristy where he barricades himself with some of his friends. Blood is dripping on bronze and marble.
Murder in a church! That’s an inexusable outrage, that pope Sixtus IV had tacitly sanctioned. What had happened? Actually it was just one another of the mad family feuds that so often happens in Italy, until now. But the family of the Medici was something special. Lorenzo de’ Medici as their ruling leader of town did exceptional good things for the people and the country. But you know it: envious persons are everywhere. The noble family of the Pazzi had enough to leave the town's government to any peasant's offspring of the Medici. Those parvenus! Just the blood ennobles, they are saying, not the deeds. But nonetheless the people of Florence had idolized Lorenzo's grandfather Cosimo, like they do with Lorenzo himself, they knew themselves greatly protected by the family of the Medici. But on Cosimo's grandson the revenge now was executed. The Pazzi and their adherents found an ear even in Rome, at the highest place with Pope Sixtus IV. He approved the attack, because then he could spread the papal power even over Florence, the heathen town, that so stubbornly insisted on being a republic and not to belong to the Papal States. This conspiracy stretched even over the archbishop of Florence: Salviati. Lorenzo and his beautiful brother Giuliano had to die. A mercenary's army of Salviati waited in front of the gates to the town, ready to overthrow the Signoria...
Well, the conspiracy failed. Lorenzo mourned his wonderful brother and took terrible revenge. The Pazzi family had to suffer very hard. In the yard of the Bargello - the police building - they had a fast trial and next morning they were hung on the window crosses openly, also archbishop Salviati, others banished for their lifetime.
Interested in more?