Last week I went travelling to Florence: flying to Pisa and catching the train through the Tuscan countryside to the Santa Maria Novella station. I have to say, not a moment of the trip was disappointing. I’d always wanted to visit the city, knowing it to be the driving force of the Renaissance, full of beautiful views, and delightful weather. However, I was not prepared for just how pleasant it was, a true locus amoenus.
The streets were predictably bustling, but nothing close to over-crowded; the sun shone day in, day out; the food was delicious and the architecture was simply breathtaking. But this is a Classics blog, so it’s the Classics I shall discuss.
Galleries and Museums in Florence
Alongside a host of minor museums, galleries, three stood out to me as the tips of the classical trident. The Accademia gallery, the Uffizi gallery, and the Laurentian Library. Since it was my favourite, I shall start with the latter.
The Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, built onto the side of the Basicilia di San Lorenzo and designed largely by Michelangelo, was a veritable goldmine of classicism. It is often said that the Florentine renaissance brought back and kept alive the Classics, but a visit to this library allows one to glimpse that for themselves. Since it doubles as a museum, visitors are entreated to glass cases of manuscripts and books, meticulously copied out by literary devotees under the Medici patronage. Philosophical, tragic, comedic and biblical texts written by archaic authors are written out in perfect Latin hand. Despite being no gift-shop enthusiast, the posters being offered in the Laurentian library store of prints of texts that had been translated to Latin was too good an opportunity to miss; so I bought a printed page of a Latin translation of Plutarch’s Vite Parallele – The Life of Theseus.
The Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, or Accademia, is home to one of history’s most famous works of art: the sculpture of King David, by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Of course I’d seen pictures of this before, but truly nothing compares to actually seeing it for oneself. I remember turning the corner into another room and hearing the bustle of a denser crowd. Before the corner I saw a row of sculptures, all of which turned out to be works by Michelangelo, so the anticipation was naturally mounting. Upon actually entering this room and seeing the towering marble form ahead, it was clear how such a piece had acquired such a reputation. Truly astonishing, it dwarfed all others in size and workmanship. Not that I’d quite agree, but I could certainly sympathise with a placard next to David with a quotation by one earlier viewer, opining that once David had been seen, one simply wouldn’t need to view another piece of stone masonry, since no other work had, or could, surpass it. As magnificent as it was, I wouldn’t go so far as to boycott all other works… Michelangelo’s other sculptures alone were all excellent, and Florence was filled with other such masterpieces. It was a point of personal satisfaction to see Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, since I’ve seen a number of prints of this work.
More Botticelli, including his Primavera was seen at the Galleria degli Uffizi, which on a piece by piece basis, was even more impressive than the Accademia. Here I saw Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Titian, Tintoretto, Uccello, Giotto and works most likely by all of the Old Masters. What was most striking about this place was the manner by which visitors were led around. Entrance was on the ground floor – of course – but then you were led straight up to the third floor, and progress spiralled down floor by floor, from the top, leading you through all the rooms (each dedicated to a style or single painter) downwards until the exit. Overall, a well worthwhile visit.
Museums notwithstanding, Florence was a magnificent city, even if you just wanted to wander around and drink in the atmospheres. The evenings entreated locals and tourists alike to a vibrant energy, the community coming alive with dancing lights, music and fireworks. Every corner is rich with historical significance to the discerning academic, from Galileo’s workshop to a sight of the Catiline conspiracy in neighbouring Fiesole, and rich with modern repose and enjoyment to the discerning tourist.
One of the best places I’ve been to, I highly recommend.