Leaving Florence

I forget exactly how it happened, but many years ago I learned this trick: Extend the fingers of your right hand. Then bend down your index finger so that from above it looks like half your index finger is missing. Then bend the thumb on your left hand and place the back of your thumb joint against the bent index finger of your right hand. Cover the space where they come together with the index finger of your left hand. then slide the bent thumb of your left hand along the middle finger of your right hand. The effect is that it looks like you are pulling off half of the index finger of your right hand.

I was blessed, if that’s the word, to have fingers and thumbs of the same width, so I can play this trick to absolute perfection. I first started by amusing our kids with it. I would, say, be slicing something with a big knife in the kitchen, then I would let out a loud yell. The kids would look up and I’d tell them that I just cut off my finger. Then I would pull half of it off using the above trick. What fun! Over the years I would do this for the benefit of our kids, their cousins, their friends, and, later, our grand kids. Endless hours of entertainment! Often kids who had seen it would ask to see it again the next time they came because they simply couldn’t believe it was possible!. To this day it still gets lots of laughs.

Our hotel in Florence is located across the river from the city center on the edge of a residential area consisting of apartments and mid-size homes. And, while Florence is home to many fine, upscale restaurants we were never sure enough of our schedule to make reservations at any of them. A couple times we made it back to the hotel just in time for their Manager’s Reception, an event like no other. To begin with, wine and beer were free with no limits on quantity. Then, on top of that, they put out tray after tray of tasty snacks.


The Reception was held in this nice little garden.


After spending time here the idea of a big dinner was not all that appealing. So we asked at the desk if there were any, say, pizza places or small restaurants nearby. Turns out there were several. We settled on a place called La Piperna.



This is a classic neighborhood restaurant where everybody knows everybody, but when the occasional tourist stops in, they are greeted by friendly staff with English that is plenty good enough. Dianne got a pizza,


And I got a pasta dish with, yes, real, genuine anchovies!


Well, at La Piperna, the tables are fairly close together and the waitress seated us at one near a family of three which included a little girl, probably five of six years old. The girl was a little antsy and from time to time she would get up on her knees and turn around on her chair and look the place over. Unfortunately, about all there was to look as was Dianne and me. Her mother would tell her the Italian equivalent, I suppose, of “Turn around and sit down!”, which she would do, but then soon she would be back up again looking around.

It didn’t take long for her to catch my eye and I would smile at her and she would smile back. Then her mother would tell her to sit down again. We repeated this cycle a few times. Pretty soon she was back up looking at me. I thought to myself, I bet she would enjoy my famous finger trick!

So, up goes my hand, and off goes my finger. Well, that little girls eyes grew as big as saucers and all of a sudden, she starts to cry! Loudly! Now, my eyes are as big as saucers. I won’t say this is the first time I have ever gotten that reaction, but it doesn’t happen often. Thankfully the girl’s father saw the whole thing and understood that this was an attempt at humor and I was not trying to traumatize the kid. So he said something to her which must have been, “It’s only a trick.”

That did not exactly calm her down. Then the waitress shows up at their table with a cake. Turns out they were there celebrating the mother’s birthday. Which was now not much of a celebration with the kid wailing away. I was mortified. Thankfully, when the girl saw the cake, my abuse was quickly forgotten. Eventually the mother gave me a half-hearted smile so I was reasonably confident I would not have to call the US embassy to seek shelter. I was, however, glad to settle up and get the hell out of there.

That will probably be my last finger trick on foreign soil.

On our last day in Florence we agreed that if we saw any more art our heads might explode. Instead, we turned our attention to the sciences with a visit to the Galileo Museum. This museum, of course, is dedicated to the man himself, but also contains an extraordinary collection of scientific instruments now centuries old.

At the entrance is a bust of Galileo,


Clearly, this is no shrinking violet.

While Galileo is credited with a number of inventions and his use of scientific method, he is best remembered for his work in astronomy and his discovery of the phases of Venus and of four of the moons of Jupiter. Where he ran into trouble was with the publication of his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”. In this work he offered astronomical and observational support to the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. In the course of this presentation he appeared to attack the Pope, who took a very dim view of this theory. He was tried by the Roman Inquisition in 1633. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forced to recant, and his book was banned. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

In the museum you will find some of his early telescopes


Then later improvements


And even later improvements.


Among other scientific items on display, not having to do with Galileo, are these:


These models apparently were used to train the physicians of the day. There is another far more graphic set which I’ll keep in the vault.

One of the first things you see when you come into the museum is this incredible machine:


This is the Armillary Sphere of Antonio Santucci. What you cannot see in this picture is, at the very center is a globe of the Earth. All these gears, when set in motion, replicate the orbit of the planets and the sun around the earth. This was built before elliptical orbits were discovered also. It no longer works.

When Galileo died, he requested to be buried in the cathedral of Santa Croce. However, because he was still considered a heretic, the best he could get was to be stuck off in some side room. By 1737 the Church had to recognize that Galileo was right all along and so, that year he was re-buried in the main cathedral as he had requested and a statue was placed there in his honor. During the re-burial, three fingers and a tooth were removed from the body as relics. Not inappropriately, his middle finger is on display at the museum:


Now, for eternity, he is able to send one last message to his detractors.

Well, people, we could do on and on about Florence and we only saw a fraction of it in 3 days. But at last, it was time to leave. Which meant, it was also time to get behind the wheel and actually drive in the crazy country.

Our next destination was the Mediterranean coast, which meant that we would have to go through town on this side of the river and pick up their equivalent of an interstate. I will leave you with just a small sampling of what that was like:

The Art of Florence (At Least Some of It)

There is so much fine art in Florence that even if you lived here you probably wouldn’t see it all. And, while there is art in this blog, this is not an art blog. So, while we have hundreds of photos of works by the masters, there is no way to do them justice without spending the next year or so on nothing but art. Since this info is already readily available on the internet, you can easily call up just about every painting and sculpture in the city, if you want. Good luck.

So, what we will do instead is to give you sample of some of the works that, even weeks after returning to the US, continue to leave an impression on us and no doubt always will. You’ve already seen the David and his friends. Now we’ll head down the street to the Ufizzi Gallery, one of the largest in the world.

Once again, we took the advice of Rick Steves and hired a guide. So instead of waiting in this line


we got right in! Not only that, but she actually slowed us down and explained stuff that we otherwise would have blown on by. Money well spent indeed!

First of all, this place is HUGE. Not as big as the Louvre, but close enough. And, even the ceilings are works of art.


So we go into one of the first rooms, and here is this lovely couple:


Allow me to introduce you to Frederico II do Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza.


It doesn’t take long before you begin to notice that something ab0ut these people is a little odd. Take Frederico, for example:


Sure, the hat’s a little funny, but mostly it’s hard to ignore that schnoz. Our guide, who seemed to have a little flair for the dramatic in her own right, told us that, in his younger days, Frederico was a valiant soldier. He was leading his troops into battle against some other city state, when he took a blow to the right side of his face that not only removed a good portion of it, but also his right eye as well. In spite of these VERY severe injuries, he found that he could still function and he wanted to go back into battle. Problem was, he couldn’t see anything coming at him from his right. To fix that he called in the company surgeon and had him remove enough of his nose that he could see past it with his left eye. And back into battle he went.

Now that is one fine story, and it appears that it is mostly true. Only the timing is slightly off. Frederico, as it turns out, lost the right side of his face, eye included, in a jousting tournament. Later, contemplating going into battle, and being constantly annoyed by that obstructive proboscis, he brought in the surgeon. As it turns out, he was a very successful warrior and leader and later became the Duke of Urbino

Along the way, he married the beautiful Battista Sforza

Picture credit Wikipedia

Two things you will notice about Battista. First, she has quite the high forehead. Apparently women with high foreheads were considered to be more intelligent and desirable, so it was the custom to pluck away a few rows to boost the perceived IQ.

In addition, she has quite the hairdo and is dressed to the nines with pearls and so on. But the second most striking thing about her is that she is so pale. The reason for this is that, at the time this painting was made, she had already been dead for two years. Sadly, she died at age 25, having just given birth to her seventh child.

Frederico was crushed by her loss. He carried these paintings, bound in an ornate gilded folder,  with him wherever he went. He never remarried and lived out his life as a highly regarded statesman.

Below is a painting that might otherwise be unremarkable compared to the others in this place, except that it is the only known panel painting attributed to Michelangelo. The principle characters are Joseph, Mary and St. John and the  naked people in the background apparently symbolized humanity before the Law as given to Moses.


Now here’s one you’ve seen before, Sandro Boticelli’s Birth of Venus:


So the basic story line is goddesses are born in the sea foam. Then the winds blow them ashore


and the nymphs arise from the ground to welcome them home


But the real story of this painting and several others is Venus herself.Simonetta Cattaneo was born into a noble family in the Genoa area. When she was fifteen (or maybe sixteen) she married a nobleman named Marco Vespucci. They promptly moved to Florence. It took no time whatsoever for Simonetta Vespucci to catch the eye of every lecherous gentleman in the city. This included the Medici. At the time Lorenzo and his brother, Guiliano Medici, were jointly ruling the city. When Lorenzo was busy with affairs of state,  Guiliano apparently was interested in affairs of another type. In addition, every painter and poet in town were similarly smitten. Maybe none more so than Sandro Botticelli. Here is another of his masterpieces, La Primavera:


Does the lady in the middle look familiar?


She shows up in other Botticelli works also as well as the works of other painters. Simonetta Vespucci was the “it” girl of the renaissance. But, at age 22, she contracted tuberculosis and died. It is said that thousands accompanied her coffin to the Church of Ognissanti. There is no evidence that she ever had so much as an affair. Botticelli finished The Birth of Venus nine years later. He requested that when he died, that he be interred at Simonetta’s feet. Thirty-four years later, he was.

So here is another tale told by our guide. This painting is called Baptism of Christ and is attributed to the “workshop” of Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrocchio was apparently primarily a sculptor, but he maintained a school of promising young artists and when a painting would be commissioned he would have his students do most of the work.


One of those students was Leonardo di Vinci, who painted the angel on the left. He used a brush with a single hair to paint the hair on the angel.


The guide said that the envious Verrachio painted the angel on the right and then, in awe of Leonardo, put away his brushes and never painted again. Good story.

OK people, that is just a few of the bazillion paintings in the Ufizzi, but now you know why we won’t be doing more. As the great Rod Stewart once said,”Every Picture Tells a Story”. I would certainly suggest you go on line and see the rest.

Like just about every Italian city, art is everywhere. This is the Palazzo Veccio, home to the Medici Palace. If you look to the far right you will see a statue by the doorway. That is where The David originally stood. An imposter stands there now.

As you can see, a number of other statues are there as well.


And then there is this:


Now that is one big-ass golden turtle! Now he might look fine in an American city, but here? On the same square where Savanarola and his followers were burned to death for heresy? Let’s just say, he seemed a little out of place. Even Hercules had to look away.


Well, we’re going to do one more museum, then we must move on to other topics. Our next stop:


Picture Credit Wikipedia

The Bargello, built in 1255 was once a barracks and a jail. Now it is an outstanding art museum. Let’s take a look:

Talk about tipsy! This is Michelangelo’s Bacchus, an early masterpiece.


I hate when those crazy satyrs show up.



If ever the colors in the marble made the piece, this is it.


But once again, where is the joy in the creator? This Daniele da Volterra‘s bust of Michelangelo.


Here is Michelangelo’s Brutus. No regrets. He killed a tyrant.


Then, in very stark contrast to the one we saw earlier, this is Donatello’s David.




And now Verrocchio’s David:



You can choose between the three, but before you do, the best one may be in Rome, as you will see.

Here is a work by various artist who contributed from 1387 to 1483.

Image result for altare d'argento

Picture Credit Wikipedia

The incredible detail is beyond words to describe.


Yes, we could on and on, but we will close with one final work by Donatello, Santa Maria Maddalena Penitente. Mary Magdalene, at one time a beautiful harlot, became a follower of Jesus. After the crucifixion she went off to live in a cave as a penitent. Now thirty years later, the toll has been taken, but the prayers continue.




There is nothing else to say.

The Duomo


When you walk down the streets of cities in Italy you are often hemmed in by buildings two or three stories high on either side. That, in part, is why it is so easy to get lost. You have no landmarks and no horizon. Imagine your surprise, then, when you come around a corner and find this:


This is the Florence Cathedral, the centerpiece of which is the Duomo.It takes a while to walk around it. Here are some of the details:











Pictures do not do this place justice.

Well, as we strolled around we saw that there were several lines formed. As we later learned, some of the lines were to tour the inside of the Cathedral. One line was to climb to the top of the Duomo, a total of 636 steps. I did some quick mental math. Last year, when we were in Costa Rica we climbed down to, and back up from, the falls at La Fortuna, a total, I seemed to recall, of 730 steps (actually it was 550 plus or minus). Some of those steps were barely steps at all and, although it damn near killed us and we took beaucoup breaks, we made it due, in large part, to the patience of our guide. So, I reasoned, certainly I could handle this!


See that little cupola on top? That’s where you come out.

So, I bought my ticket and stood in the very long line. Dianne declined and said she would prefer to see the inside of the Cathedral. She encouraged me to call her on the cell phone once I got up there so she could be assured I hadn’t had The Big One on the way up.

Well, the line moved right along. They were letting in about 20 people at a time, and this is where things started to go south. Rather than letting me be the last person in the group now entering, the ticket taker decided to make be the first person in the next group which was made up of a bunch of hard-bodied millennials. When the gate opened it was like being in a 5K.

At first, we climbed a few sets of modest stairs that led led us up into the Cathedral. We were moving at a pace that was less than ideal for photos, but here are a couple taken from that level:




So far, I was holding my own. Then we went into a very narrow entrance. Immediately it was much darker, much cooler, and only single file with not so much as an alcove to tuck your weary carcass into. Oh, and did I mention, it was also much steeper.



I was good for a while, but it did not take long before I was sucking wind and starting to get a bit wobbly. The prospect of having The Big One was no longer just amusing hyperbole. Then, thankfully, there was a shift in the staircase, no doubt to accommodate the shape of the dome. At the point of the shift was a place to pull off and catch a breather. The rest of my group bounded on by, but they were feeling it too. Our starting pace had slowed dramatically.

Once my heart rate slowed down to a more reasonable 700 beats per minute, I started off again. With each opportunity I stopped. At one point some guy with a gray beard stopped next to me and in broken English asked something to the effect of “What the hell are you doing up here? Man, you’ve got to slow down. That’s the key” I didn’t really need that advice, but I was encouraged, not by what he said, but by the fact that a guy with a gray beard had made it this far.

In time, I made it, but not without a pretty good case of the heebie-jeebies. Here is the entrance and exit:


After I finally got up there I took a moment to collect myself and was good from that point on.

There isn’t a whole lot of room up there and you have to work around the crowds. Here is the principle route:



Naturally the first thing I did was take a peek over the edge:



Then, a much broader vista, starting with the Basilica of Santa Croce:


The church of San Lorenzo:


A glimpse of Tuscany:


The campanile, which you can also climb. You can, I’m not:


What a beautiful city!


Well, the trip back down was much better, but by no means easy. Arriving at the ground floor is much like making it into port after a storm on the lake. You don’t actually want to kiss the ground, but you are glad to bounce up and down on it a few times.

Here are some pictures of the inside taken by Dianne:





What an incredible creation.

The David

We had already decided that our first full day in Florence was going to be Art Day. The two prime stops for this purpose are the Galleria dell Accademia which houses Michaelangelo’s David and the Galleria degli Uffizi, one of the great art museums in the world. the Accademia is fairly small and easy to navigate, so we bought tickets online for the morning. The Uffizi, though, is huge, so for that one we arranged a tour for the afternoon.

So, off we went from our hotel to the 23 bus which stops right around the corner and then winds its way through the heart of Florence. After a very scenic ride we were soon deposited in front of the Accademia. After they take your tickets you just follow the arrows, or the crowd, if you prefer. Soon you end up in a large room at the center of which is a plaster reproduction of Giambologns’s Rape of the Sabine Women. Since you’ll see the original in a later post, we’ll move on.

So, you leave this room and enter the Hall of the Captives. You enter at one end and at the other is this guy:


But not so fast, my friends. As you head for the David you can’t help but notice some other statues, or blocks of marble along the walls. These are the Captives. Michelangelo was once hired to create statues for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Well, it wasn’t long till the Pope became a little strapped for funds. First he reduced the scale of the project, then later he dropped it altogether. Michelangelo went on to work on other projects and these guys were never finished. They were found after his death and eventually made their way back to Florence.

So, we have figures trying to make their way out of the marble, but now forever captive. Let me introduce you!

The Atlas


The Bearded Slave



The Young Slave



The Awakening Slave


In addition to being eerie, the value of the Captives is to show how Michelangelo worked. Most sculptors, apparently, work from a plaster models and match points on the model to points on the marble. Michelangelo, however, worked free-hand with no model. Somehow he knew where to stop taking out big chunks and what to leave in to make veins, tendons, and so on. The whole process is a mystery to me. So, let’s take a look at a finished product:


Not only is he perfectly sculpted, he stands fourteen feet tall. You can look at picture after picture of this guy, but nothing prepares you for the real thing.

When he was first commissioned by the Vestry Board, the idea was that he would be one of a series of statues hoisted up into niches of the  Florence Cathedral. You may recall the story of how Michelangelo was given a marble block to work with that had been previously rejected by other sculptors as too imperfect. Michelangelo, though, saw the potential. He was only 24 years old when he began the project. Working in seclusion for several years, at long last one January day in 1504 he invited he invited the Vestry board in to see the finished product. You can only imagine how they must have felt when they saw it for the first time.

Immediately they realized that they couldn’t just stick this guy up on a niche. Instead they commissioned a panel, which included Leonardo Di Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Giuliano da Sangalloand along with 27 other prominent Florentines. Eventually they decided to place it outdoors in the Piazza della Signoria, the heart of Florence. It took 40 men four days to move it from  Michelangelo’s workshop to the new location. There it remained from 1504 to 1893, when somebody finally realized that the weather was doing some real damage. It was then moved to the Accademia.and restored.

Rick Steves says when you look in the eyes of David you see the face of the Renaissance man:



And there is discussion about his large right hand.



Talk about fine work! David’s sling is cardboard thin. After the statue was moved to its permanent home, Michelangelo came back and did some finish work on it. One thing he did was to gild the sling. He also added a gilded crown, all of which was lost over time.





What else is there to say?

Most of the rest of the Accademia is a collection of plaster models of other works of art:



At the other end of the Hall of Captives is this, a bust of Michelangelo:


This bust was the work of Daniele Ricciarelli, who was a friend and student of the sculptor. Michelangelo lived to the age of 88 and obviously this is in his later years. You will see other works depicting Michelangelo in future posts, always with the same sad expression.

Ricciarell, by the way, became famous in his own right as the painter who covered up the genitals of the figures in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel at the request of one of the more conservative Popes. He painted a tasteful selection of breeches and loin cloths.








When our train pulled out of Venice we asked ourselves what could possibly compare to this fabulous city? Two hours later we found out.


The skyline of Florence is dominated to three massive structures:

The Basilica Santa Croce:


The Duomo:


And, the the Palazzo Vecchio, former palace of the Medici:


And, snaking its way through the city is the Arno river:


Spanning that river, near the heart of Florence is the famous Ponte Vecchio and its many shops:


Yet another feast for the eyes! Speaking of which, Florence, of course, is also home to some of the greatest art ever created. Later we’ll take a look at some of it.

In addition to all of the above, Florence is also the gateway to the region of Tuscany. So, picture this, as I did many times: You spend a wonderful day looking at art and other stuff. Then, you hop in your car, head off into the Tuscan hills, pull up in front of a beautiful vineyard where you sample fine wines with your sweetie while gazing at the villa-dotted horizon. Well, to make that dream come true one thing in that picture was clearly missing: the car to hop into.

So, for the week we would be in Tuscany we decided to rent a car. Most of the car rental places in Florence are near the train station, which would normally be a good thing. However, comment after comment after comment on Trip Advisor and other places suggested two problems: 1) That area is reputed to be the craziest of all crazy places in a city that you have to be crazy to drive in, and, 2) if you find yourself somehow missing turns (my specialty) and all of a sudden driving the streets of the historic center, your fine will be several times the purchase price of The David.

For those two reasons we decided to rent with Hertz, which has an office on the other side of the Arno, far from the madding crowd. Another important consideration was that our hotel was on the other side of the Arno as well. We called a cab at the train station and soon we were off to meet our rental! It took only a few blocks to realize we had made a good choice. This was a driving experience like no other. Clearly, in Florence (and elsewhere in Italy we later discovered), you want a cab driver who is 1) aggressive and 2) has no fear of death. In no time we pulled up at the Hertz office. With shaky hands I tipped heavily.

Hertz did indeed have our rental. Only one problem. We had requested (no, demanded) a GPS and they didn’t have a car that had one. Well, I was beyond disappointed, but before I could launch into my customary string of profane words, gestures, and deeds, the clerk said, “But wait! I have something better!”  What that turned out to be was a portable WiFi that we could plug into the lighter and then we could navigate with our cell phones. Well, after much discussion, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments,  and considering our bleak options, we decided to go for it. So armed with Google Maps and hand-puppet directions from the Hertz staff we were off for the Hotel David.

Thankfully, this was indeed a quieter part of town, but there was still plenty of traffic. And, as we anticipated from previous experience, street names changed about every other block. That said, only once did we find ourselves driving out into the Tuscan countryside instead of where our hotel was supposed to be. About an hour into what should have been a twenty minute trip we found ourselves to really, truly and actually be on Viale Michelangiolo, the location of our hotel.

Well, said viale winds through a pretty large part of the west bank of the Arno. We made the trip from one end to the other umpteen times in heavy traffic and could not find our hotel. We finally called the place and the clerk was very helpful, spoke excellent English, but could not describe any landmarks in our recent experience. Finally he said he would go out the side of the street and wave! While that was a very heroic gesture, if we were on the wrong end of the viale we couldn’t have seen him if he had grown to the size of Godzilla. Then, all of a sudden, there it was! Of course, by the time we saw it I had already driven past, but in no time, we were safely parked in the Hotel David parking lot, where parking is free. I handed the keys to the valet and did not touch them again for three days. Here is what we had been looking for all along. How could we have missed that sign?: