Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Book, A Bridge and a Naked Statue

 Courtyard in Palazzo Vecchio

 "A Room with a View"

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery

 Dome of Il Duomo

Faux David and Admiring Tourists

E.M. Forster's, A Room With A View, a dreamy sketch of Ponte Vecchio and Michaelangelo's statue of David in all his glory, come to mind whenever I think of Florence.

To sum up my short visit to Florence last July, it is all about a book, a bridge and a naked statue.  Of course, there's a lot more to see and do (or eat) in Florence. However, everything tends to become a blur after seeing and feeling so much "renaissance" in a couple of days.

Walking the narrow streets of the historical centre of this UNESCO World Heritage city, can quickly give one a Florentine feeling. Just like the book.

Piazza della Signoria, the town square, is the best place to start.  Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall of the past and present day of Florence, is on one side of the square.  I had walked into this humongous courtyard admiring the columns and the rich looking ceiling, before I actually realized I was already inside.

Palazzo Vecchio is nothing like any city hall, hardly a hint of bureaucracy at work. The palace museum exudes magnificence floor to ceiling, befitting the Medici name.  Cosimo de Medici, the patriarch of the Medicis, once lived here until he moved the family to Palazzo Pitti across the Arno. Up in the tower, is the postcard view of the romanticized Florence with the surrounding Tuscan hills and the river Arno.

At the entrance to the Palazzo is the most famous naked man in history.  A statue of David by Michelangelo flanks the main entrance.  Seeing the outdoor version of David (albeit a copy but identical) can be a good  excuse to skip the Academia Gallery where the real thing is.

Uffizi Gallery is down the street from Palazzo Vecchio.  Considered one of the largest, famous museums in the world, Uffizi is the home to Italian renaissance masters, from the more famous (Boticell, da Vinci, Titian) to the not so famous but interesting (Artemisia, Cimabue, Giotto).

I found the most pleasant section at Uffizi in the outer corridor wrapped around the gallery halls.  Marble sculptures from Greek to Roman to Byzantine periods, BCE to CE eras, basked gloriously in natural light from the huge windows. From one window in the corner, I caught a view of Ponte Vecchio.

The "vecchio" or old in the name of the bridge is based in fact. It is the oldest Roman bridge in Florence.  Unfortunately, the structures on either side of the bridge resemble squatters and the bridge roadway is full of vendors. The bridge is best seen at a distance, just like a 19th century sketch I once saw.

Of course, there is more to Florence than a book, a bridge and the naked statue.  I can add the best melon gelato I've ever had anywhere yet and stuffed canelloni in a delicate white cheese sauce for lunch at the unpretentious Trattoria Le Mossacce.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Most Serene Republic

 Quiet Morning on the Canal

 View of the Grand Canal

A Gondola in the Making

 Basilica of San Marco and Piazza San Marco

 Gondola laden with Tourists

Classic Renaissance Building of the Academia

A "Street" Scene

View from the Bridge of Sighs

Gilded ceiling going up to Palazzo Ducale

Venice once called itself the "Most Serene Republic". The republic's "serene" reputation rested on its preference for economic over military conquests.  That didn't stop it from waging a  few battles to gain economic muscle.  

In medieval times, the title "most serene" also referred to a sovereign.  The "republic" was the most serene, the highest sovereign over any doge, the elected head of state.  It lasted a millenium until Napoleon took care of that in late 1700s.

The republic was patterned after ancient Greek democratic states.  The impression one receives after visiting Palazzo Ducale, the seat of government, was less than democratic.  It was a democracy but only of the elite, for the elite and by the elite.

A millenium of economic prowess and progress created Venice's unique and fantastic cityscape.  The city built on the wetlands of the Venetian lagoon in the Adriatic, and supported the structures with thousands of wooden piles.  The life of Venice literally and delicately rests on these wooden supports.

Years of reclaiming, piling and building has given La Serenissima the feel and look of an outdoor museum.  The whole Venetian lagoon is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  There are no electric vehicles of any kind on the islands, just a variety of boats on the waterways: water bus, water taxi and the iconic gondola.

The city is best experienced just as the locals do: on foot through calles, soportegos and cobble stoned campos; over arched bridges that connect streets, or on water by pricy "buses" at 7 Euros for a single ride, point to point.

Last July, I discovered that 3 days of traipsing in the hot sun did not give me enough time to venture beyond San Marco and the neighborhood of Academia in Dorsoduro. One can overdose on museums, churches and palaces in such a short time. Beyond the standard tourist fare, there is a lot more one can do and see without actually stepping into another church or museum.  Just wander around.

La Serenissima is also renowned for its art, music. Vivaldi is of course true blue Venetian. The Biennale hosts a famous film festival.  There are masquerade masks, Murano glass ware; little shops and caf├ęs;  more islands in the lagoon, side streets with houses wearing the face of history.

On a more mundane issue, I asked the lady at the reception what happens to the sewage of these wall to wall houses.  Simply she said, they have sewer lines.  Not too long ago, the canals served another purpose according to a non-Venetian lady friend.  The most serene commune of Venice has definitely taken care of that matter.