Florence for the Holidays

We left home on the day after Christmas, and stayed in Florence through January 6, the traditional end of the Italian holiday season.

Traveling in the winter, we avoided the large packaged tour groups and boisterous bands of students that you see in Florence much of the rest of the year. But the city was hardly uncrowded. It was filled with Italian and other European tourists, including many families, which was very festive.

A presepio

Holiday decorations were remarkably eclectic. In Florence, as in the US, the best holiday decorations were on the main shopping streets. Christmas trees, born in northern Europe, have been enthusiastically adopted as Christmas decorations here, at least in public spaces; Santa Claus was somewhat less in evidence. Many of the city’s churches had a “presepio,” or Christmas crèche. Many of these nativity scenes included, in addition to the religious figures, depictions of early modern Italian villages, complete with country people in traditional dress working at traditional occupations – a window into a vanished way of life. The city also ran evening “sound and light” show on a number of public buildings, allowing local artists to juxtapose modern art against Renaissance structures.

We rented a lovely apartment in the Piazza Santo Spirito, in the Oltrarno district, around the corner from where we had stayed during our previous visit. We love this part of Florence – it is no more than 15-20 minutes’ walk from most of the city’s attractions, yet somehow it feels like a real neighborhood, with many small markets. The Santo Spirito farmer’s market runs all year, and in Italy you get green vegetables, even in winter. All of this was great for us, since we love to cook our own meals, even while we were on vacation.

Our apartment lacked an espresso machine, so after breakfast we topped off our meal with a cappuccino from the café downstairs. The first day, they greeted us with some surprise – you don’t see many Americans in this neighborhood in the winter. The second day, we got a nod of recognition. By the third day, they were making our cappuccini as soon as we walked in the door. The open-heartedness of small interactions like these is one of the many small pleasures of travelling in Italy.

Having spent a month in Florence in 2012, we had already seen most of the “major-league” attractions.  But that didn’t stop us from seeing many of them again. With art of this quality, every time you see it, you notice something new.

There seems to have been a rule change since the last time we were in Italy, and you are now allowed to take photographs inside museums almost everywhere. (Maybe they have finally figured out that digital photography doesn’t harm the art. Or maybe, since everyone has a cell phone now, they just gave up.)

So you may notice that our pictures include a lot of art this time.

A particularly affecting moment for me was in the Uffizi, in what I always think of as the “Niobe” room (not its official name). According to the Greek myth, Niobe, the mother of

Niobe and her (last) daughter
Niobe and her Daughter

14 children, was heard to boast that she had more children than Leto, the mother of Apollo and Diana. The gods were not amused and killed her children one by one. After 13 of her children had been killed, Niobe begged the gods to spare her last child. But the Greeks didn’t do Hollywood endings. This room has been closed for many years now, after it was severely damaged by a bomb in the early 1990s. In fact, it was the first time I had been in this room since my very first visit to the museum, in 1970. Sometimes it blows me away that I have been going to Italy for nearly half a century now.

During this trip, we also had a chance to visit the so-called “Vasari corridor.” The corridor was a private passageway built for Cosimo de Medici, which allowed him to travel from the city’s administrative offices in the Palazzo Vecchio to his home in the Palazzo Pitti across

the river without ever going down to the street. The walls are decorated with pictures of the Medici family, as well as self-portraits of a number of artists, from the 14th century Gaddi family to Carl Larson and Marc Chagall. The Corridor also offers a unique perspective from the “second-story” of the Ponte Vecchio.

We also visited a special traveling art exhibit, Divina Bellezza, which included a lot of 19th and 20th C art (new to us) and some unusual religious-themed paintings by Van Gogh and Chagall.

New high-speed trains have reduced the travel time from Florence to Rome from 2 – 2 ½ hours each way to 80 minutes, making a day trip possible. A bit maxed out on 14th and 15th C art, we decided to binge on Bernini and Caravaggio. This is possible to do, with some planning; Rome is a huge city, but most of the historic sites (except, perhaps, the Vatican) are easily reachable by foot from the train station.

Bernini: Ecstasy of Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa in Ecstasy
Santa Teresa onlookers
And her onlookers

We saw Bernini’a Santa Teresa in Ecstasy, perhaps one of the most emotionally evocative sculptures of a woman ever created. The saint is supposed to be ecstatic over her mystical union with God; many observers have made the connection with a more earthly form of union. At the Church of Santa Maria del Populo, we saw two works by Caravaggio – the Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion of St. Paul.

Bernini: Apollo and Daphne (1622-25)
Bernini: Apollo and Daphne (1622-25)

The Villla Borghese is the real mother lode, though. Cardinal Scipione Borghese was one of Caravaggio’s most important patrons, and the museum has an incredible 6 Caravaggios, including an evocative Bacchus and a wonderful depiction of baby Jesus learning to walk (criticized at the time because mother and child looked too much like real people – which is of course what makes it so interesting today). The museum also contains two of Bernini’s most incredible works – Poseidon and Proserpine (where you can see the indentations made by Poseidon’s fingers on Proserpine’s tender thigh), and Apollo and Daphne (where you can see the nymph literally changing into a tree – creating a sense of movement in marble statue that is truly magical).

On our last full day in Florence, we were lucky enough to see the Cavalcata dei Magi, or the parade of the Three Kings. January 6, or the Feast of the Three Kings, was the traditional gift-giving day in Italy, and it is still a public holiday. In this parade, the King’s costumes, and those of their principal retainers were based on those shown in a well-known fresco by Gozzoli, which lives in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. The parade also included dozens of others dressed up in every variety of medieval and Renaissance garb – archers and falconers (with real birds), Crusaders and pikemen, villagers and nobles; even Jon Snow was represented. A number of participants played traditional instruments, or performed traditional flag-throwing routines. It was quite a happening. The costumes were amazingly well done, especially since most of them seem to have been made by hand (I’ve never seen a costume shop in Italy).

We spent the last day and a half in Milan, a working city that has some incredible art as well as some of the best seafood in Italy (Milan is not that close to the water, but it’s where all the money is). We saw Leonardo’s Last Supper, which after a spectacular restoration is now almost visible as a pale reflection of its original self. Leonardo used an experimental technique for this fresco which worked out poorly – it was starting to noticeably deteriorate only a few decades after it was painted, and only modern techniques were able to prevent it from disappearing completely.

DaVinci Cenacolo: The Apostles' feet were lost beyond hope of restoration.
DaVinci Cenacolo: The Apostles’ feet were lost beyond hope of restoration.

At the suggestion of our hotel, we visited a museum 19th and 20th C Italian art. After spending so much time with Renaissance art, the inspiration for this more contemporary art was easy to see.

Milan also has one of the only Gothic cathedrals in Italy, and one of the only churches anywhere where you can walk on the roof – even for those prone to vertigo, a remarkable experience.

Winter travel is not for everyone. We were pretty lucky with the weather – although Italy in December is cooler and rainier than northern California, there was no heavy rain, and no snow. The advantages are that it’s easier to do things on the fly – we were able to book a reservation at the Villa Borghese which frequently sells out weeks ahead in the summer, only three days in advance. So give it a try!

More photos here.