17. The Sacred and the Profane

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Apr 30th, 2011
17. The Sacred and the Profane

You can’t miss it in Florence – The Duomo (dome) dominates the skyline and towers above everything else. Quite handy if one gets lost. Having goggled at its exterior on many occasions – the vast cathedral with it’s dome topped by a golden sphere, the baptistry with its golden gates and the soaring tower – we finally take an afternoon to go inside and up to the top of the dome itself.

Santa Maria dei Fiori, aka Florence's largest cathedral, The Duomo

The golden sphere at the pinnacle of the dome was, when first completed, filled with holy relics – bones or something from a saint (a bit pagan sounding if you ask me), but it was struck by lightning, vaporising the contents. The replacement globe is now empty, as far as we know.

You have to pay separately to visit each part of the Duomo, and they ain’t shy, mate. So we opt to just do the ascent to the top of the dome itself. About 460 steps up (we lost count) on narrow spiral stone stairways, along gloomy corridors, round corners, up and up. You start to think about the guys who built this incredible edifice – which took hundreds of years – and how, if one had been working up this high one would have been very careful not to forget one’s sandwiches or tools.

Enormous paintings on the underside of the dome

Halfway up you come out onto a gallery running right round in a circle on the inside, from where you can see the hellish paintings curving away above you on the ceiling of the Dome. But finally when you reach the top – ah, the views all round! It feels like being in a hot air balloon. Easy to spot Santa Croce and ‘our’ neighbourhood from up here, where the BatCave is tucked away out of sight of the sunlight. It’s a gorgeous sunny afternoon, too. I click and click my camera. Very useful to get a bird’s view of the city too, it helps to connect the dots and get a feeling of what lies in which direction; it’s like consulting a live map. I pick out the way to the covered market at San Lorenzo and make a mental note. The ground is a giddying distance away, crowds looking like swarming ants.

View from the top. Giotto's tower in front, tiny people on the ground

Fabulous views over the river to the Tuscan hills, with their elegant tall cypress rows, vineyards and olive groves. Here again the city fathers decided not to allow developers and the lovely parklike hills still surround the city as they did in Michelangelo’s day.
Talking of Michelangelo, on a hilllside on the other side of the river there is a very large and splendid piazza adorned with a large bronze copy of The David, glaring over the Arno with his “I’m gonna get you with my sling here” scowl.

David ponders the lovely view from PIazza Michelangelo

The view from this open-air terrace is possibly better than the one from the top of the Duomo, as you can see the river in both directions, spanned by its elegant bridges including of course the Ponte Vecchio laden with its treasure houses.
Behind the Piazza Michelangelo and further up the hill is the ancient Florentine church of San Miniato, where the saint in question apparently got up after having his head cut off, pressed it back into place and proceeded to go walkabout, only lying down to die some time later.  At the place spot where this miracle happened, the church was built. The churchyard is where all the most important Florentine families have their crypts and vaults.

The beautiful painted roof and beams of San Miniato

Being very old, San Miniato has a magnificent wooden ceiling, every beam and tile inside is painted with glowing colourful patterns. On the way back down to the piazza one passes a modest little church, a Franciscan monastery with real monks in it; on popping into the hushed gloom inside, we could hear them singing their other-worldly chants, offstage. Or maybe it was a recording.

The other sight one cannot miss in Florence is of course the Uffizi Palace, now a huge art gallery of global fame and importance. Instead of joining the queue which goes right round the block, the thing to do is pre-book a ticket for entry at a specific time. Once inside, there are floors and floors of art. Among the endless madonnas and crucifixions, was a room full of Botticellis, all of the most famous ones including his Venus on the seashell. Seen together like this, you notice that the main female subject has the same face in each painting. Must have been his favourite model…

View from the Uffizi - the Vasari Corridor going over the bridge.

It’s a foot-aching walk around, but fortunately there are plenty of benches set about for the weary to sit upon. Cast your eyes up and you see that every single one of the vaulted ceiling panels is also elaborately painted, with fantastical creatures, historical scenes and lots of twirly bits.

In the evening back at the BatCave, we haven’t organised supper so we decide to partake of the famous ‘aperitivo’, which is supposed to be an after-work, pre-dinner drink with a couple of snacks to prevent you from boozing on an empty stomach – also to encourage you to stay and have another. This arrangement has evolved into a situation where it is possible to pay for one (fairly high-priced) drink and then eat yourself to a standstill at the buffet spread of many different snack-style dishes and pasta salads. We decide to get our revenge by getting our suppers at the expense of the Soul Kitchen downstairs, who torment us every night with their loud pop music and rowdy customers. The staff are apologetic when we introduce ourselves as the tenants upstairs. They say they have just installed new speakers, hung from the walls in the place of the ones they had set into the ceiling (our floor). This should help lower the noise, they say. We eat our fill of the buffet then leave. There is a bar round the corner which offers live music, so we go to investigate.

There is an antique silent movie being projected onto the wall, and a large group at a table having dinner. We order a pitcher of wine and wait for the live act. After a while the patron, dressed in a cook’s apron, comes out with a shallow wooden tray full of bread and cheese and salamis and unidentifiable things on toast, which he insists on giving us for free – as far as I can make out, he feels we should eat something if we are drinking. We say no no, we have ‘mangiare gia’ (already eaten) but to no avail. The tray stays. We nibble. The strange things on toast are, I think, bits of tripe. Then at last, four long-haired guys come in and start fiddling around with their guitars etc. The name of the band is ‘Sexual Chocolate’, and we are agog to see what sort of music they will produce. A crowd of evening drinkers is gathering, but since everyone in Florence is a chain-smoker, the crowd is outside. Turns out that Sexual Chocolate is a blues band… and the two of us left in the room make up the whole of the audience. We’re trapped.

They are young and very earnest, put on a fine performance of classic black blues, and we applaud quite sincerely.  Enthused, they play on and on. Getting up and walking out would be, er, discouraging or even rude, so when we do finally leave, they insist on giving their new fans a Sexual Chocolate T-shirt. I shall cherish it always….

The lazy way to see Florence - by Segway, no aching feet

4 Comments

  • Allen.

    17 May 2011
    Reply

    Okay. I have officially overdosed on Firenzi! Enough! On to Carcassonne and Rennes-le-Chåteau

  • Coz Lesley

    18 May 2011
    Reply

    We have been following your adventures avidly. You must go back to Barcelona. We love it – there’s so much to see and the nplace never seems to sleep! We can’t wait to see you in your Sexual Chocolate t-shirt ………….

  • Shaz

    25 May 2011
    Reply

    Megan loves ‘segways’ – you’ve gotta tell her all about them!

  • Laurianne

    30 May 2011
    Reply

    I want to see a picture (suitably posed) of you in your Sexual Chocolate t-shirt!

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