Veni, vidi, Medici

Trip Start Oct 20, 2012
Trip End Nov 02, 2012

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Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Friday, October 26, 2012

After two nights in Napoli (two nights too many, some might say...and by some I mean myself), we made our way north to Firenze, the heart of Tuscany, on what had to be one of the most gorgeous train rides imaginable. The train took us through the most bucolic scenes--rolling green hills, verdant farms, mountaintop fortresses--and dropped us off at the Santa Maria Novella train station, which was just about the best train station we encountered on our trip. I know that's a weird thing to track (pun intended), but seriously, it was a nice moderate size, had plenty of conveniences, and it's in Firenze. Ding ding ding! On top of that, it was only a 5 minute walk through beautiful, narrow, cobbled Florentine streets to our abode for the next few days, the Hotel Lorena. For anyone considering visiting Firenze, give this place a shot:  spacious rooms, friendly staff, free wifi, and...oh yeah...A VIEW! We got up to our room on the second floor, opened up the shutters, and "Buongiorno, Medici Chapel! So nice to see you!"

There was a time when Firenze was one of the most important cities in the world. After all, it was their banks and their money (the florin) which financed everyone from the Kings of England to the papacy itself, and it was their city that served as a trading hub for all of Europe. Indeed, the language of Firenze in the 14th and 15th centuries is recognized today as the forerunner of modern Italian. Take that, Rome. However, with its picturesque red rooftops and captivating beauty, perhaps the more important part of the city's history (at least as far as we modern folks are concerned) is it's notoriety as the birthplace of the Renaissance. One of the most powerful families of old Firenze was the Medici family. This family bankrolled the city's development and served as patrons for some of the most famous artisans of the day, leaving their mark in the history pages and throughout the city itself. I mean that literally. In the old town, it's difficult to walk a block without seeing the old family crest emblazoned on something. The Medici aside, Firenze is the Renaissance. The Renaissance is Firenze. Every major artist from that golden era had a connection to the red-roofed city, including all of the Ninja Turtles. You know who I mean. In Rome, the story was about the ancients--the Coliseo, the Fora Romano.  In Firenze, the story is the art of the Renaissance.

And it is beautiful.

After settling into our hotel smack in the middle of the historic district, we set out to do one of the most crucial things one can do when in Tuscany:  eat. We found a cute little trattoria, Antichi Cancelli, just a few blocks away from our hotel. Again, I found myself foiled by a stupid Italian door. I'm telling you, the doors in Italy are wonky. They stick, the knobs are weird, and apparently my skillset just doesn't extend to Italian ingresses. After making sure everyone in this charming restaurant knew I was a bumbling tourist, we took a table and ordered some aqua non gassata and a fantastic appetizer, the crostini misti, a plate of toasted bread with various toppings (including liver pate, tomatoes, basil, etc.). Not a fan of liver, in any way/shape/form nor on any continent, apparently. That aside, I really did like this place. The staff was friendly (and spoke some English), the meal was tasty, the clientele was a good mix of local and tourist, and the trattoria itself has some gorgeous vaulted ceilings and a rustic feel. So...pretty much just what you'd hope for in an Italian restaurant. Minus the stupid door.

We thought we'd spend the afternoon exploring the environs around the hotel, otherwise known as the neighborhood of San Lorenzo. Long story short, this particular part of the city was the playground of the Medici, containing everything from their original palazzo to their fort and, of primary interest to us, their church. Unfortunately for us, the Medici Chapel was closed for renovation. However, it is actually part of the Basilica di San Lorenzo, and the larger church was open for business. So, while the Medici's private chapel was a no-go, we were able to tour the church they considered 'theirs,' and it certainly bore the marks of their decades of influence. They might as well have erected golden ginormous statues of themselves throughout the place--the message was the same:  you're in our house, and it's awesome...awesome to be us. Anyway, the church isn't terribly well signed, so we backtracked to the ticket office and picked up an audioguide. The nave is lined with priceless works of art. I mean, we should have known it would be. This is Italy, and there's just so much of the stuff in this country that they literally just have it spilling out of every building. That's not even hyperbole. Donatello contributed heavily to this place, including sculpting two bronze pulpits. They were to be his last works, in fact. Don't worry, though. The Medici thought he did such a bang-up job that they allowed him to be buried there in their church. For anyone playing along at home, this day marked the completion of our Ninja Turtle collection. Heroes in a half-shell!  

This church is a fantastic example of early Renaissance architecture, and it was one of my favorites. It was beautiful without being too gaudy (although I might have to exclude some of Donatello's contributions to keep this statement true). The columns, the arches, the natural light...all of it combines to form this harmonious symmetry that gave me the warm fuzzies. One of the most fascinating aspects of this place was the Sagrestia Vecchia, or Old Sacristy, and it dates to the mid-1400's. Brunelleschi was responsible for the design of this room (he died before the rest of the church was completed), and Donatello took care of many of the details (again, before he died). With the muted white walls and the grey stone outlining the vaults for the dome above, this is the type of room that makes geometry nerds such as myself very, very content. Everything was symmetrical; everything worked in harmony. I particularly liked seeing the cupola over the altar, which featured a historically accurate representation of the night sky, as it appeared on July 4th, 1442. Incidentally, this is also the date of the arrival of the King of Napoli into Firenze, where he would go on to convince Cosimo de Medici to open Europe's first public library. The center of this room contains the tomb of a Medici patriarch. In fact, there are no less than fifteen different Medici tombs in this building, spanning several generations of the banking family. I would love to have photographed this place, but alas, there were signs everywhere saying NO FOTO.  Grrr. So if you want to see for yourself, here's a site with a little peek into the basilica of the Medici

Secondary to the Medici mania, San Lorenzo is also known as market central in old Firenze. While we missed the food-centric central market, we spent a good bit of time walking through the Mercato di San Lorenzo, which sets up just outside the Basilica di San Lorenzo. Pedestrians are surrounded by stall after stall of street vendors hawking their goods. Leather purses, t-shirts, leather jackets, tchotckes, leather gloves, and just about everything else one could possibly want...75% of it in leather. I wish they'd hurry up and invent smell-o-vision; it was that kind of enticing. Like any street market, there was a mix of decent quality items and cheap knock-offs, and it wasn't all that difficult to tell the difference. A lot of these stalls, actually, are just fronts for shops lining the streets themselves:  stop and eyeball a pair of gloves and you'll find yourself being shown to a shop a few steps away. Be prepared for a very un-American tradition:  haggling. Not my forte. That aside, it's a neat atmosphere, and one I think everyone should check out, even with the ever-present possibility of pickpocketing. I mean what's life without a little risk, right?

As the afternoon came to an end, the cold front moving through the city started to become a real factor. Temperatures dropped. The steady drizzle turned to a pouring rain. Being the sensible women we are (and, also, since we were wearing cloth shoes that weren't exactly suited to puddles), we moved back to the Hotel Lorena. Did I mention how awesome our hotel was? Not only did our room look out over the bustling Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini, but it had not one but two windows. No fighting over the window seat! The rest of the evening was spent people-watching and relaxing in a little Tuscan rainstorm. Not a bad way to end a day, right? And we didn't even fall asleep to the sound of sirens!  

Things I learned today:
  • Do they make leather scented air fresheners? I would totally buy one. If you could combine that with the smell of roasting chestnuts, I would probably just hand over the entirety of my wallet. It's a weakness.
  • Hotel shower rods are not always as sturdy as they appear to be.
  • It doesn't matter where in the world you are, someone will always ask you insulting questions about being gay. Word to the wise:  never ask a gay couple "Which one of you is the man...there has to be a man...?" Especially when trying to sell them over-priced, imitation leather. 
  • I'm physically uncomfortable with the thought of haggling. I would rather overpay than be forced to make a deal. Violet has no such qualms.
  • So, Brunelleschi worked on this church, but died before it was completed. Donatello worked on this church, but he died before it was completed as well.  I'm sensing a pattern here. Those Medici...slippery ones, they are. Anything to get out of paying the bill, right?
  • The Duomo is amazing. We scoped it out few a few minutes before turning in for the night. More on that in the next entry!
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