A new way to see Florence: The Five-Church Dash

June 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence - West Front

Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence – West Front

I didn’t end up going to Krakow last week after all. (Don’t worry, things worked out for the best – I’ll be going in August, on holiday [which also means several days’ hiking in the Tatras] rather than for work, which I think is a better result!) However, I can’t complain too much as instead, I ended up going to… Florence.

My first – and only previous – trip to Florence was fifteen years ago, part of my first travels around the Continent. I adored every minute of my stay but never made it back again (studies and work kept pulling me to France and Belgium; holidays, for whatever reason, never involved Italy). So when I had the chance for a two-day work trip to Florence, I was determined to make the most of it.

That first visit, as was the case with every other city I visited on that trip, was a breathless dash from museum to monument to museum; I was only twenty, hardly travelled, and fuelled as much by fear that it would be my one and only chance to see each city I passed through as I was by sheer passion for them. When I looked back over all I had packed into four days it made my head spin. The Uffizi, the Bargello, the Accademia, the Duomo (and its museum), the Baptistry, the Palazzo Medici, San Lorenzo, San Miniato, the Palazzo Pitti (and the Boboli Gardens), not to mention a daytrip to Siena… I thought, at the time, that I’d done it all. At least, the most important bits.

Of course, in the intervening years I realised there actually was quite a lot I missed. Mostly churches, as it turned out. And so, despite my determination to take things a little easier this time, yesterday turned into something rather extraordinary… a Five-Church Dash.

1. Santa Croce

Santa Croce - nave

Santa Croce is the obvious starting point – it’s a five-minute walk from my hotel and opens the earliest of the churches on my list. Unfortunately I can’t stand far enough back to gawk properly at the west front because the piazza is filled with bleachers (for the annual game of calcio storico, which I have never heard of before but later learn is like a cross between football and bare-knuckle boxing – no thanks!) but I like what I see – in fact I’m going to say something utterly sacrilegious: I prefer it to the Duomo. But the facade does little to prepare for the wonders inside…

Michelangelo's tomb

Santa Croce is, among other things, Florence’s answer to the Pantheon – the burial place of the great and the good. Galileo, Dante, Michelangelo… the last of whom is the only one to really have a tomb worthy of him (designed by Vasari, no less). (Dante’s tomb is a hideous monstrosity that I will not dignify with photography. Grrr.) But I didn’t go there to look at tombs… I’m there for the frescoes:

Castellani Chapel (frescoes by Agnolo Gaddi)

Castellani Chapel (frescoes by Agnolo Gaddi)

Baroncelli Chapel (frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi)

Baroncelli Chapel (frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi)

Bardi Chapel (frescoes by Giotto)

Bardi Chapel (frescoes by Giotto)

Cappella Maggiore (frescoes by Agnolo Gaddi)

Cappella Maggiore (frescoes by Agnolo Gaddi)

It’s not all about frescoes, of course – there’s the Pazzi Chapel, too.

Pazzi Chapel

Pazzi Chapel

There was more as well – two cloisters, the sacristy, further chapels, a museum… don’t believe the signs at the ticket desk that say the visit takes 30-40 minutes. I was there for an hour and a half… and could happily have stayed longer if I hadn’t had to go off and do a bit of work.

2. The Brancacci Chapel – Santa Maria del Carmine

Santa Maria del Carmine’s not much to look at. Partly because the facade was never finished (it’s raw brick to this day), partly because a fire ripped through it in the late 18th century and destroyed most of the interior. However – by some miracle, no doubt – the best bit survived. The Brancacci Chapel.

The frescoes were started by Masolino and Masaccio, finished by Filippino Lippi. The former had loomed large in my college Intro to Art History textbook and I had mourned the missed chance to see them on that first trip; the latter I knew nothing about and were a complete revelation…

Brancacci Chapel - The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Masaccio)

Brancacci Chapel – The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Masaccio)

The Tribute Money; The Raising of the Son of Theophilus (Masaccio)

The Tribute Money; The Raising of the Son of Theophilus (Masaccio)

The Healing of the Cripple and the Raising of Tabitha (Masolino); The Crucifixion of St Peter and Disputation with Simon Magus (Filippino Lippi)

The Healing of the Cripple and the Raising of Tabitha (Masolino); The Crucifixion of St Peter and Disputation with Simon Magus (Filippino Lippi)

I end up staying in the chapel for an hour. Excessive, maybe, just going by its diminutive scale, but I had to wait fifteen years to see it.

3. Santa Maria Novella

It’s 3 pm when I finally emerge from Sta Maria del Carmine, and the next church on my list, Ognissanti, doesn’t reopen until 4. What am I going to do with the hour in between? I could have a gelato (and I do, from the Gelateria La Carraia, which I can heartily recommend), but it’s certainly not going to take an hour to eat.

Santa Maria Novella isn’t too far from Ognissanti, though, and although I’m pretty sure I saw it on my first trip it wouldn’t hurt to have a wander past. But when I get there, I’m suddenly seized by doubt. It actually doesn’t look that familiar. Did I really visit it, or did I confuse it with the many, many other churches I tore through? Well, I’ve got time and thanks to my ICOM membership the ticket’s free, so no harm done in having a look round, right?

The second I step through the door, I’m glad for my moment of uncertainty. The Crucifixion by Masaccio certainly looks familiar, but I realise that’s only because I’ve seen so many photos of it. The rest of the church is new to me. And glorious.

Filippo Strozzi Chapel (frescoes by Filippino Lippi and Domenico Ghirlandaio)

Filippo Strozzi Chapel (frescoes by Filippino Lippi and Domenico Ghirlandaio)

Filippo Strozzi Chapel (another view)

But one of the best, by an artist I’m much less familiar with, is hiding in the chapter house:

Chapter House (frescoes by Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze)

Chapter House (frescoes by Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze)


4. Ognissanti

I stumble, blinking, out of Sta Maria Novella; it’s just after 4 pm and Ognissanti should be open now.



It’s a handsome church, much smaller than any of the above, but it apparently contains frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Botticelli. Sadly, ‘apparently’ turns out to be the key word. The Botticelli fresco, which depicts St Augustine, is down for conservation and has been replaced by a photographic facsimile. The Ghirlandaio frescoes are… well, okay, but the ones in Sta Maria Novella are a hard act to follow:

Ognissanti (fresco by Ghirlandaio)

Ognissanti, Vespucci Chapel (fresco by Ghirlandaio)

I’m being unfair to Ghirlandaio, of course. His best work is a Last Supper in the refectory… which is closed. As is a chapel dedicated to St Francis, which is roped off but affords tantalising and frustrating glimpses of more frescoes. One to return to…

5. Santissima Annunziata

SS Annunziata

I’m starting to question the wisdom of trying to fit five churches into a single day. It’s late in the day, the heat is stifling, my feet are starting to ache, and SS Annunziata is quite a distance (well, at least for Florence) from Ognissanti. But… it is also full of frescoes. With a difference. Mannerist frescoes. And anyone who knows me knows that I have a serious soft spot for Florentine Mannerism. Le beau est toujours bizarre... (I’ve no idea if Baudelaire had Rosso, Pontormo et al. in mind when he wrote that, but I like to think he did.)

So I bravely trudge north, pushing through the crowds around the Duomo and heaving a sigh of relief when I reach less touristed streets. SS Annunziata faces onto a quiet square whose slightly worn beauty is all the easier to appreciate for the near-total emptiness – people are outnumbered by birds.

Unfortunately, as soon as I cross the threshold I run smack into scaffolding. The cloister, which is where most of the best frescoes are, is entirely covered up. Restoration works, it appears. I press on, hoping things will improve in the nave, but no such luck. The church itself is one of those heavy, oppressive Baroque affairs, all dark stone, gilding and overblown carving, that must once have been loved because there are so many of its type in Italy; it’s so poorly lit that it’s all but impossible to make out any frescoes in the chapels. I’m about to throw up my hands in despair when I see a door leading outside – presumably to another cloister.

No more joy there. There’s a single, recently restored fresco by Andrea del Sarto above the door:

SS Annunziata, cloister (fresco by Andrea del Sarto)

SS Annunziata, cloister (fresco by Andrea del Sarto)

There are further frescoes in the lunettes on the other side of the courtyard. Naturally, they’re all roped off:

SS Annunziata - cloister

I leave feeling rather downhearted, but once I’ve sat down and caught my breath in the piazza, I realise this is a good thing, for two reasons:

-I have probably narrowly avoided Stendhal Syndrome. Hot and tired? Yes. Dizzy, lightheaded, suffering heart palpitations brought on by aesthetic overload? No. (Although it will probably take a while for all the day’s impressions to filter through, and I’m sure my dreams will be filled with frescoes tonight. And I’m also sure it has something to do with the fact that a single glass of wine with dinner makes me surprisingly tipsy…)

-I have an excellent reason to come back!

Dashing around five churches in a single day probably (okay, make that definitely) isn’t the most relaxing way to see Florence. But getting to see a much less touristy side of the city, through a very different lens, is an experience I can recommend to anyone.

Just bring comfortable shoes. And lots of loose change for gelato. You’ll need it.

Further dispatches from Planet Gaudí

May 28, 2015 § 2 Comments

Casa Mila 1

This is the second roll of film I shot in Barcelona, on the roof of the Casa Mila. Unlike the Parc Guëll, black and white felt like a more logical choice to capture the marvellous otherworldliness of the chimneyscape.

Casa Mila 2

Casa Mila 3

Casa Mila 4

(Fun bit of trivia – the shiny black bits atop the group of chimneys in the centre are shards of cava bottles.)

Casa Mila 5

Casa Mila 6

Casa Mila 7

Casa Mila 8

Casa Mila 9

Casa Mila 10

Casa Mila 11

Casa Mila 12

Yes, you can look down or to the side at any time and see Barcelona spread out reassuringly before you. But it still feels like being on another planet…

(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, Lady Grey 400 black and white film, 38mm super-wide angle lens)

In a minor key (Parc Guëll in black and white)

May 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

Parc Guell 1

I went to Barcelona over Easter (how long ago it seems already!) and took my Diana with me… along with two rolls of black and white film. It seemed a bit perverse to even consider shooting Gaudi’s architecture in monochrome, but I was curious to see what might happen.

The first roll I shot at the Parc Guëll, but the weather – and time – weren’t on my side. The last time I visited Barcelona, fifteen years ago, you could just waltz into the park whenever you wanted… since then they’ve introduced timed tickets, and we showed up mid-afternoon to find that the next available tickets were for 7 pm. So by the time we finally entered the park, the light was soft and diffuse, that magic hour when shadows seem to disappear.

So here’s the Parc Guëll not as it’s normally seen (and photographed), as a riot of colour and sunshine – but black and white, in a minor key.

Parc Guell 2

Parc Guell 3

Parc Guell 4

Parc Guell 5

Parc Guell 6

Parc Guell 7

(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, Lady Grey 400 black and white film, 38mm super-wide angle lens)

A corner of Paris that is forever Poland

April 21, 2015 § 3 Comments

Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris

Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris

I’ve now been to Paris so many times that I’ve stopped counting (please, no sympathy), and one of the less desirable effects of this familiarity is that I have a tendency to fall into a bit of a rut. It’s so tempting to keep returning to my favourite places, which in itself isn’t a bad thing but means that I risk missing out on what I’ve yet to discover (and despite my feeling that I know Paris like the back of my hand, I know there’s a lot more). So for the last several years, every time I go to Paris I make a point of doing or seeing one thing I’ve never done or seen before.

Years ago, when I was a Paris neophyte, I remember reading the Rough Guide’s description of the Ile Saint-Louis as (I’m paraphrasing here) ‘the only corner of Paris without a museum, unless you count a very small museum devoted to the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz which is rarely ever open.’ I wasn’t remotely tempted at the time (although I was mildly intrigued as to why the museum existed in the first place, and in that particular location), but last month, three months before my first ever trip to Poland (of which more in June!), I got to thinking about it again and thought well, why not?

It turns out that the Musée Adam Mickiewicz is one of three miniature museums housed in the Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris. The other two are devoted to Frédéric Chopin (unsurprisingly) and the painter and sculptor Bolesław Biegas (whom I knew only from a single sculpture in the Musée d’Orsay). And the Rough Guide hadn’t been kidding about the opening hours (or the lack thereof) – it is, annoyingly, only open afternoons, Tuesday-Friday.

Whether because of the obscurity of the subject or the location or the abbreviated hours, I found myself in an unheard-of position one Friday several weeks ago – I was the only visitor. To all three museums. The young woman who sold me a ticket looked so discomfited to see an actual visitor that I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. (We had a very stilted exchange in French until I figured out that she was Canadian and she realised I was American and a bit of awkwardness was averted.)

Salon Chopin

Salon Chopin

The first of the three museums I visited was the one dedicated to Chopin. It’s a single room filled with prints, photographs, medals and sculptures of the man himself (plus his death mask and, more intriguing to me, a life cast of his hands – I was surprised to discover that they were scarcely larger than mine)… and the Pleyel piano given to him by a generous patron which he used for much of his time in Paris. There was a stereo in the corner playing (what else?) one of his nocturnes. I could very happily have stayed there with his piano and his music and not seen anything else, but I knew I had two more museums ahead.

Musée Adam Mickiewicz

Musée Adam Mickiewicz

I must admit that before I set foot in the museum, my knowledge of Adam Mickiewicz was minuscule. It could be summed up as follows:

1. He was Poland’s leading Romantic poet.

2. His masterpiece was Pan Tadeusz, an epic poem that is required reading in Polish schools and which starts with the words ‘O Lithuania!’ (which tells you all you need to know about how many times Poland’s boundaries got redrawn and/or erased over the 123 years during which it technically ceased to exist).

3. There is a big monument to him on the Rynek in Krakow.

4. He had quite possibly the best hair of any Romantic poet. Ever. (Lord Byron, eat your heart out.)

Adam Mickiewicz

I’m glad I visited the museum because I found out what a fascinating and complex character he was – poet, literature professor (at the Collège de France), librarian (at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal where I spent so many hours as a PhD student, with no idea whatsoever of his presence), political agitator (hence more than 20 years as an exile in Paris, along with many other Polish intellectuals), diplomat… I came out of it wanting to know more about him, but more to the point, wanting to read some of his poetry. (If anyone can recommend a good translation, please do!) The only caveat – the wall texts were in Polish and French, no English… so if you have neither language, enlightenment will elude you.

Musée Boleslaw Biegas

Musée Boleslaw Biegas

As for the Musée Bolesław Biegas… the only thing I can reasonably say is that entering this small and overcrowded room full of sphinxes, vampires, crucified Christs and multicoloured femmes fatales is like entering the Twilight Zone. Only weirder. He is easily one of the most bizarre artists I’ve ever encountered (Surrealist seems too mild a label) – bizarre and… well… not very good. I was astonished to learn that at one time his sculptures commanded higher prices than those of Rodin (!) although I assume that was for a brief moment only. I was also rather saddened by the thought that anyone without prior knowledge of 19th-century Polish art who visits the museum might emerge with a very skewed view of it – which is such a shame when you consider how much more talented so many of his contemporaries were (Mehoffer, Wyspiański, Pankiewicz, Malczewski… yes, I realise they’re not exactly household names but all the same!). That said, if my lonely experience was at all typical, perhaps not very many people ever discover Biegas in the first place.

And so I eventually emerged from the Bibliothèque Polonaise feeling happily melancholy (Chopin), enlightened (Mickiewicz) and a bit freaked out (Biegas). I can’t honestly say it’s a must-see for a first-time visitor to Paris (or someone without a decent reading knowledge of French or Polish), but for a repeat visitor, it was an interesting discovery – and for me, a nice prelude to my trip to Krakow. On which, more later…

Spring blossom

April 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

Cherry blossom 1

This weekend was the first in six (!) that I spent in London, so naturally I went to Kew to see the spring blossom. The cherries were at their best (thanks Fran!) and I spent some happy hours enjoying them with my eyes and camera.

Cherry blossom 2

Cherry blossom 3Cherry blossom 4

However, I must confess I am not a wholehearted fan of cherry blossom. For one simple reason: they have a serious flaw.

No scent.

So as much as I love the way they look – the big fluffy pink ones like the petticoats of ladies in a painting by Fragonard, the white ones like banks of cloud – there’s another spring blossom that holds first place in my heart…

apple blossom

Apple blossom.

They might not be as showy, but the scent is quite possibly my favourite on the face of the earth – sweet and gentle, fragile and elusive, only present for a few short weeks every spring. Also, less obviously, the subject of a passage of Anne of Avonlea that has stuck in my mind ever since I read it more than twenty years ago:

‘I read somewhere once that souls were like flowers,’ said Priscilla.

‘Then your soul is a golden narcissus,’ said Anne, ‘and Diana’s is like a red, red rose. Jane’s is an apple blossom, pink and wholesome and sweet.’

‘And your own is a white violet, with purple streaks in its heart,’ finished Priscilla.

I was always a bit disappointed that it was plain, unimaginative Jane who got assigned the apple blossom. I always felt it would have better suited Anne.

Or me.

Le plat pays qui (n’)est (pas) le mien

March 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Victor Hugo, Souvenir de Belgique (c. 1852-55) (seen at Talabardon & Gautier's stand, TEFAF, Maastricht and the Salon du Dessin, Paris)

Victor Hugo, Souvenir de Belgique (c. 1852-55) (seen at Talabardon & Gautier’s stand, TEFAF, Maastricht and the Salon du Dessin, Paris)

Another March, another trip to TEFAF and the Salon du Dessin (with a trip to Brussels to visit friends in the middle)… which goes some way to explaining why I’ve been rather silent here of late. So I’ll break the silence with one of my favourite works from both fairs, this extraordinary drawing by Victor Hugo.

Victor Hugo? Yes, he might be better known as the author of Les Misérables and Notre Dame de Paris, but there’s another side to his work, which he kept fairly private during his lifetime – darkly visionary drawings, mostly of mysterious buildings or crumbling ruins looming out of pools of wash and tangled webs of inky lines. Souvenir de Belgique is thought to date from between 1852-55, when he was living in exile on Guernsey, his sojourn in Belgium in the recent but rapidly receding past – a drawing not from life, but from memory and imagination. I’ve spent enough time on trains crossing Belgium over the last few weeks to feel that Hugo innately understood the flatness and bleakness of the landscape, as well as the melancholy and mystery: I have no idea whether Fernand Khnopff knew about this drawing (I’d guess not) but it looks and feels like a precursor to his own weird, misty visions of the Ardennes and of a dead Bruges.

Most of Hugo’s drawings are on a fairly modest scale, but Souvenir de Belgique is more ambitious, nearly a metre across including the frame. And you can’t not include the frame – it’s integral to the drawing. Hugo inscribed the title on it, signed it, and continued the drawing on it in the form of a strange red flower (hard to identify, but I think a poppy is likely, and would tie in nicely with the dreamlike quality of the drawing). But the most extraordinary thing about the frame sadly doesn’t come through in my less-than-wonderful photo.

The frame is made of pine, and it’s beaded with droplets of resin. They are of course long dried and hardened but under the lights on the stand, both in Maastricht and Paris, they still look wet, as if the planks are freshly cut and oozing resin, almost like – dare I say it – blood, or sweat, or tears.

Yes, it sounds a bit grisly, but I don’t imagine Hugo’s choice of wood can have been accidental. It makes the drawing seem alive (and grieving, or wounded, perhaps mortally) in a way no more conventional frame possibly could.

Them bones (St Dunstan in the East, Part 1)

February 28, 2015 § 4 Comments

St Dunstan's 1

I can’t remember where or when I first became aware of St Dunstan in the East, but I must have filed it away in my mind as a place to which I would have to make a pilgrimage with my camera. (After all, anyone with even a passing familiarity with this blog knows how much I love a good ruin.) I knew I wanted to photograph it in winter, when it had lost its lush but temporary mantle of summer greenery and its old bones would be exposed to light and weather.

On a sunny Sunday three weeks ago, I finally made it – and to my dismay, so had about half of camera-toting London. Still, with patience and a bit of cleverness, I managed to capture it empty and quiet, still surprisingly heaped with skeins of vines. And despite the brilliant sunshine, in black and white it emerges surprisingly eerie and melancholy, the skeleton of a lost church adrift in its own dreams.

St Dunstan 2

St Dunstan 3

St Dunstan 4

St Dunstan 5

St Dunstan 6

St Dunstan 7

St Dunstan 8

St Dunstan 9

St Dunstan 10

St Dunstan 11

St Dunstan 12

And why Part 1? I’m planning to go back in high summer – with a roll of colour film, for a completely different side of the place.

(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, Lady Grey 400 black and white film, standard lens)


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