A new way to see Florence: The Five-Church Dash
June 23, 2015 § 3 Comments
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 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…
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:
It’s not all about frescoes, of course – there’s the Pazzi Chapel, too.
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…
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.
But one of the best, by an artist I’m much less familiar with, is hiding in the chapter house:
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:
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
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:
There are further frescoes in the lunettes on the other side of the courtyard. Naturally, they’re all roped off:
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.