September 2012

Wednesday 12th September

Could a journey go smoother? I catch a train at Balham after no wait at all, the connecting train at Clapham Junction arrives within minutes, I get a seat, there's no queuing for bag drop, a short queue for security with only one dithery woman fussing ahead of me, and then no queue for an Americano and a spicy apple and pecan muffin from Costa. I then find and buy a snazzy red mock-book-cover for my Kindle. The flight is eventless and on time and there's even a through train from Pisa Aeroporto to Florence, leaving within 25 minutes. God loves me! Despite my not believing in him.

The Hotel Albani seems fine - near the station but pretty quiet. The room is an OK size and woody, the bathroom marbly, and the wi-fi is free and needs no log in. And when I get back from my evening stroll and meal I have a pair of slippers by my bed and a jelly sweet with a little card telling me what tomorrow's weather's going to be. The stroll was all good too, apart from visiting a bookshop and finding that Fifty Shade of Bloody Grey is the bestseller here in Italian too. (Cinquanta Sfumature di Nero, seeing as you asked, but the first few reviews on Italian Amazon are heartwarmingly headed "Monotono", "Inutile" and "Vaniglia????") I got as far as the Ponte Vecchio, where a political march which my Italian wasn't up to identifying was passing the North end, and so I looped down through the Oltrarno and back up to the good old Grotta di Leo where I had a mozzarella and fresh tomato pizza with a side salad and a beer. It was only 6 o'clock but I'd had no lunch, apart from a cloudsoft in-flight BA baguettette with mozzarella and pesto, and so I scoffed mightily. A coconut and cinnamon gelato did the business too, from the gelateria in Piazza Santa Maria Novella, and I also bought myself a small fig panforte, just in case.



Thursday 13th September

An odd night. The room is very quiet - it's overlooking the road but the road is strangely little used. Before I got to sleep there was the sound of what seemed to be moths hitting my window, then I was woken before 7 by the sounds outside my room, but could not for the life of me figure out what they were, or even could be, at that time. And it didn't include voices. Weird. The breakfast selection was good - fresh juice and some superior pastries. The service is a bit fussy though, with the waiters keeping people waiting like restaurant clients while they find and/or prepare tables, which involved a new table cloth for each change of breakfaster. And there are fresh flowers on each table.

My morning's key words were cenacolo and grisaille. I set out in the vague vicinity of my hotel to confirm churches marked on my (very old) map, and to visit refectories. First up was the Cenacolo di Fuligno, where you sign in and make a donation. The Cenacolo (Last Supper) is visible through the open doors. It's by Perugino, but was previously thought to be by Raphael (hence the bust of him on display here) and there's still some argument over whether it might have had more than its share of studio input. There are 33 cenacoli in the refectories of central Florence, and this is one of the best. There are other works on display too, one by Perugino, some very nice bits of an altarpiece by Lorenzo di Credi, and my fave here - 6 bits by Antonio Rimpatta. I know, me neither, but his faces are winningly serene but still very human.

Further along the road I found San Giuliano open. It's lit by just three windows high up in the façade, which shine through an odd filet of a room between the facade and the inner facade, so the aisleless space, with three arched recesses on each side, is dimly lit. There are three nuns' grills high up on the left side, where the convent was, I presume, and an organ gallery on that side of the apse. The interior is very undecorated, apart from a grisaille panel in the flat ceiling and portraits of Christ and some saints in the spandrels of the dome over the apse. Two elderly black-clad nuns sitting in pews and the the sounds of catering coming from a door on the left suggest a still-functioning convent.

On to cenacolo number two - Sant'Appolonia, where you just have to sign in. But don't imagine that the entrance to the refectory is the door to the right of the church (see left) When you come out of this door, having been exasperatedly directed, you turn left up to the main road and then left again to the far corner of the complex. This one's by Andrea del Castagno, it was the first, and it's the one with the jazzy faux-marble panels and the very sculptural figures. It was only discovered in 1808, as the convent was that of a closed order. There are also three damaged frescoes of the Crucifixion, Deposition and Resurrection above the Last Supper and their sinopie (underdrawings) have been installed on the facing wall. Below these are some unfascinating decorative panels from the the tragically lost fresco cycle painted for the church of Sant'Egidio as well as a sinopia of a nude woman with perspective lines.

Last up was the Cloister of the Scalzi. No church building survives, but there's a small cloister decorated all around with grisaille frescoes of the life of St John the B by Andrea del Sarto. They are monochrome, of course, and also very pale, but with some dark details and patches, especially in the corners, suggesting that they were not always so.

Having exhausted the local cenacoli  I map-consulted to try and tick off and photograph some nearby obscure churches. San Domenico al Maglio turned out to be in a zona militare and so only visitable with the risk of being shot. And then I found another one not even on my map - the Chiesa Valdese, which was originally built as an Anglican church. After tracking down a couple more I found myself in the Piazza de Liberta, which follows the seemingly universal rule of town planning, that if you have a spectacular triumphal arch (with a city gate too, in this case) then you have make it the centre of a noisy and fume-clogged traffic roundabout.

Lunch was Gnocchi della Principessa, with a side salad and a lesson learned about care with the applying of balsamic-vinegar to one's salad if one is wearing a pale grey t-shirt. The gelato flavours were lampone and peanut. The cake was a small torta di nonna. 

In Vienna we got so fed up with squeezing the wall-mounted liquid-soap bottles that took a grip of iron to dispense a dribble that we found a Body Shop and I discovered their coconut soap, and that when buying soap it's best to go for your favourite ice cream flavours. So, as my room here in Florence has no soap, only shower gel, I went in search of soap here, and found a shop selling local produce. I chose two bars: one fig and almond milk and the other olive oil and tangerine, as they sounded like yummy gelato favours. And got back to the hotel to find soap now in the bathroom. Coconut flavour. I also asked this evening if the painfully week wifi signal in my room was ever so, and was it stronger down in the lounge. The woman in reception said that if I did come and use the wifi downstairs it would then be stronger when I went back to my room. Oh yeah, pull the other one.


Friday 14th September

Woken in early hours by what I woke up thinking was an alarm bell but which then settled in my mind as the sound of distant machinery. Or maybe I'm hallucinating. Breakfast room calmer this morning, and with a better selection of pastries. Off towards the Oltrarno to cover more church ground.

But before crossing the Arno I found Santa Lucia sul Prato open. It's aisleless, compact and squarish inside, pale with some quite chunky pietra serena detailing. Three arches on each side contain a pair of recesses with a chapel at the apse end. The pair nearest the door each contain a damaged fresco fragment, one a fine and unusually relaxed annunciation and the other the bottom half of an even more damaged scene of The Resurrection, maybe, looking much later. The two middle recesses contain a very modern fresco and a square painting by an unidentifiable artist of The Adoration, after Ghirlandaio's original in Santa Trinita. The square apse has long carved panels on the sides and a painting of the crucifixion on the wall behind, but with the actual crucifix carved. Flanking this are saints with children - Santa Lucia and Sant'Ippolitto Galanti, looking 18th Century and pretty grubby. There's an organ gallery (and organ) on the inner facade and a murky circular ceiling painting. Patterned stained glass windows over each side arch help the light and calm and Brunalleschian cube effect.

Over the river I wandered and ticked off some churches and convents. One was now Romanelli, a studio selling serious statuary: life-size equestrian statues, full size lions and panels bigger than my house. And a very clued up young woman who answered all my questions about how the place had been converted from the church with admirable knowledge. One of the churches on my list, San Francesco di Paola, was on the way up to Bellosguardo, a residential area in the hills above Florence where 19th Century worthies rented villas. I didn't get all the way up as it started to rain in a concerted and annoying way. I had no map, and I'd found the last church. But next time I'll persevere to find, for example, the Villa Brichieri-Colombi, which Constance Fennimore Woolson sublet to Henry James, and where he wrote The Aspern Papers. And the Villa Mercedes, which he used as the model for Gilbert Osmand's villa in The Portrait of a Lady.

Back down the hill I finally found Mama's Bakery, behind San Felice, and bought myself a couple of (it turned out) deliciously chewy cream cheese and cucumber seedy bagels, and a raspberry and choc chip muffin. And San Felice was open! It's a big, but dingy and cluttered, church with a deep vestibule area half the length of the church containing four altars each side and a closed nuns' gallery above. The main body of the church has a mixture of altars, depth wise. The three biggest are on the left with more of mixture on the right. Some good and bad art, including a dingy (or just ill-lit) Ridolfo Ghirlandaio altarpiece of The Madonna and Saints and a large crucifix over the high altar, recently restored and with its attribution to Giotto confirmed. A few good fresco fragments too. 

This evening I noticed that the fridge does make a fair amount of noise, and goes chonk quite loudly when it starts, so it probably was what woke me up last night, intruding on a dream maybe, to explain why it seemed more worrisome then. And loud and mysterious. So no trace of any real psychosis there. At all. Also the morning noises seem to be the lift, which is just outside my door. Earplugs tonight, methinks.



Saturday 15th September

A full night's sleep, even unto my alarm having to wake me at 8.00, praise be to earplugs. The hotel provides quite a range of pastries and cakes, not all of which even I would consider breakfast material, I mean: creme caramel! I am learning to appreciate the fresh little ring doughnuts though. I headed off East today, ticking off more churches. Using a map from the 1940s this week (it has every church, ever, marked on it) you'd expect there to be a lot of churches that can't be found. But it's only today that I've had to write gone five times, usually it's been only one or two. Took a break to look around the Saturday produce and cheap clothing market around Piazza Ghiberti, but after confronting a large pile of (many shades of grey) tripe I decided to press on. And two demolished convents later I came to San Giuseppe (the big one behind Santa Croce) and it was open! A far from common occurrence, as you may have guessed from that exclamation mark. I also had the place to myself.

It's a big church, with no aisles but three deep chapels each side and a full-width choir with a hanging crucifix over the high altar. There's an organ behind the altar, on a balcony, all in eau de nil and gilding. Either side of the organ is trompe l'oeil architecture rising to clouds and a scene of...something cloud-based, going on in the dome above. The chapels on the left are pretty plain, but the ones on the right are all not. Three stained glass clerestory windows, one over each chapel, and another one over the door don't let in much light.  The art is solidly OK, with no big names, especially as the Taddeo Gaddi triptych in the central chapel on the right, mentioned in my guidebook and on the board in the church, is no longer there. And the rectangular painting that is there looks to have been fitted in by chipping bits out of the existing stone frame. But one chapel does contain that rare thing - a 20th Century fresco, done in 1933-4.

A few more finds, then me and some pigeons and one sparrow ate a somewhat dry mozzarella, tomato and rocket panino in Piazza Santa Croce, followed by a chocolate with orange and fior di latte coppa.

Out to find and  photograph a few more churches this evening, little did I realise how gobsmacked I was going to be before the evening was out. First shock was that the music shop just off Piazza della Republicca is totally gone. And I bought two CDs there only four months ago, at the beginning of my current Early Music thing. It's now a shop selling those coffee machines using disposable pods. Wandering nearby looking for a couple of churches I was amazed at how there are still streets I've never been down, even in the historic centre. I found Santa Margherita de' Cerchi (aka Dante's Church) open and was amazed at what a messy and grubby little box it is. It may have been the location of Dante's marriage to Gemma Donati in 1295 you see and so, of course, visitors leave letters to Beatrice, who he didn't marry, to ask her to fix their love lives. Which explains the cardboard box full of scraps of paper. There are a couple of paintings on the walls showing Dante meeting women outside the church and lots of bright and garish unframed paintings propped on chairs of religious subjects, and the life of Pinocchio. It's a dark church lit by a small window up high behind the altar and with weird and intrusive new age music playing. The reported fine altarpiece of The Madonna and Four Saints by Neri di Bicci I didn't notice. Then a huge party swarmed in and I swarmed out.

Then I found San Filippo Neri, the church in the San Firenze complex, open. It's big, tall and baroque but with no aisles, just three huge altars down each side, each with big altarpieces by 18th Century painters you won't have heard of. It's all dark pietra serena with a flat and typically excessive gilded coffered ceiling. There are two confessionals between the altars on the left, and two more at the back. There's only one on the right as where another should be (between the second and third altars) is the entrance to a chapel. This is wider than it is deep, with a carved altarpiece, some more dark art, and two more confessionals. (Making seven in all. I know that the other half of the building is the courthouse, but still.) In this chapel you'll also find a chair, a small table and the death mask of Filippo Neri himself, all in an ornate glass case with his bust on top.

Ready for more amazement? In a swank sweet shop in the centre I spotted some temptingly varied-flavoured panforte. The shop did little (CD-shaped) samplers with four wrapped bits, each a different flavour, so I went in and...19.50!




Sunday 16th September

Sunday isn't a good day for church visiting, as most are only open for services. Contrarily this can sometimes lead to churches usually closed being open, allowing a chap to sneak in and take a surreptitious photo or two. But the  place will also likely be full of people doing scary religious stuff. So, a good day for the Pitti Palace. I thought, and a visit to the Palatine Galleries, which I haven't explored since the early 90s. The entrance is in the middle but the ticket office is off to the right, with no queues at around 9.30. Through the arch you turn to the right, leave your bag, and trudge up several flights of those big wide stone steps beloved of palace builders. The Palatine's room are sequenced a bit oddly, with some lesser later stuff to get through before you get to the goodies (and biggies) around Room 17. Here you'll find Woman Strangling a Putto (and who of us can blame her?) and the Titians and Raphaels start up. There's Raphael's Fornarina, one of my many art-historical objects of affection. Also in this category is Allori's nearby Judith. How can you not feel drawn to a woman with a geezer's severed head in her hand? Andrea del Sarto was my surprise impression-maker this time. The paintings here mostly come from the collecting of the later Medici. There are some altarpieces, mostly from out-of-Florence churches and lots of portraits. Fans of Justus Suttermans, who I'd never heard of, must be in serious danger of fainting with pleasure here as each room has at least two portraits by him, with some having as many as six. A temporary exhibition called Florence Through Artist's Eyes was a treat of topographic views of churches, vistas and even the Old Market just before it was demolished. I zipped through the Appartamenti Reali as these are to be appreciated mostly for their decor, there only being some lesser art on the walls. I didn't spend much time in the Galleria d'Arte Moderne either, I must admit, due to a combination of exhaustion and bladder fullness. Finding a toilet helped, but I hope to do more justice to these rooms next time. Some fine portraits and views of Florence and Venice have been left imprinted, including an unusual painting of San Zanipolo in Venice after its fire.

A craft market in Piazza Santa Spirito had a stall selling tasty-looking pastries and pies, and so I lunched on two vegetable samosas. I choose the piccante ones when asked, reasoning that the Italian idea of spicy wouldn't be too strong for a man used to Tooting's hottest. But eyes watered much and noses ran, I can tell you. (Well one nose, actually, but 'nostrils ran' sounded a bit gross.) And then I noticed that Santo Spirito's refectory was open, even though I'd read only this morning that it's only open Saturdays. There's a very ruined fresco of The Crucifixion by Andrea Orcagna and his studio, which would probably have included his brother Nardo di Cione. The space is used to display various old statues and bits of stone stuff from the collection of Salvatore Romano. I quite like fragments of column and patches of scadgely old wall painting so I liked the place. Still feeling the effects of the samosa I decided that I needed the mouth-soothing properties of a dairy product. I had noticed that a new (to me) gelateria called La Carraia was sporting long queues these past few days. I went for crostato di frutti di bosco and latte di mandorla flavours. Big portions, I have to say, which may explain the popularity, and fine flavours. Back to my hotel for some vanilla redbush tea, and the slice of crostato di fichi I'd bought from a stall in Piazza Santa Spirito too, but forgot to mention.

Off in the evening to meet David and Helen, a couple of friends made through our respective web sites. On the way, walking in an looping way to Santa Croce, I was surprised to find Piazza Santissima Annunziata transformed into a garden centre (see right). We'd arranged to meet under the statue of Dante and this was managed, with a bit of confusion as we'd not met offline before. David Orme I had originally made contact with through this site and his spiffy website dealing with various juicy renaissance art topics (but he has various other fire irons) so it'll come as no surprise that the conversation at our table rarely touched on the Olympics or Man U's chances in the cup. It did, however, reach a level of obliviousness that led to the waiter having to ask us nicely to depart the needed table. The restaurant was Baldovino, the joint by the side of Santa Croce chosen by me so that I could revisit the pizza Crudaiola - fresh tomato, rocket and ricotta cheese - discovered in April and still solidly up there in my favourite pizzas chart. Back to D&H's rented flat for me to have a gander at it, and to quaff some more red wine. Got a buzz at being able to go in through one of those big Florentine wooden doors, in a block just north of the Duomo, and after a rickety wooden lift to the third floor, a walk along enclosed corridors into the building next door, methinks, or further away. All very labyrinthine, but nice tall rooms in the flat. After having drunk more red wine than usual I strolled a bit blurrily back to my hotel much later than I'm usually out, even experiencing the streets around San Lorenzo market totally empty of stalls.



Monday 17th September

Passing the oratory of the Misericordia (by the Duomo, where there's always ambulances parked) I saw an open door and steamed quietly in. It's long and low and not bright, being all pietra serena above and dark wooden stalls below. A pair of small stone side altars face each other two thirds of the way down. The ceiling is dark wood too, flat with gilded coffers. There's an Andrea della Robbia altarpiece, which had been commissioned by Francesco Sassetti for his chapel in the Badia Fiorentina, and a marble Saint Sebastian (the Brotherhood's patron saint) by Benedetto da Maiano. The Confraternity of the Misericordia was established to help those in need, which in Medieval times usually meant plague victims, hence St Sebastian, but now the institution carries out wider ranging  social and medical help, still staffed by volunteers.

The Buonomini, in something of a contrast, is a confraternity that was set up to help rich merchants who had fallen on hard times. San Martino, their oratory nearby, is small but full of ten fine frescoes in the lunettes, depicting the work of the fraternity, by the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio. There are also two Madonnas, one Byzantine and the other by the unfortunately named, but undoubtedly talented, Nicolo Soggi. There's also a reliquary bust of St Antoninus attributed to Verrocchio. Requests for help were posted in the slot marked per le istanze in the church's façade. The confraternity still meet every Friday afternoon to deliberate the distributing of funds, and all donations to help the destitute rich are gratefully received.

I'm not sure how I've managed to have never been inside Orsanmichele before, but there you go. It's surprisingly (indeed Tardisly) big inside - seemingly two churches divided by a pair of huge pillars. It was originally built as a market, which might explain this odd way of dealing with its squareness. The right side faces an ornate gothic tabernacle by Orcagna, the artist's only important sculptural work. It's a magnificent creation of carved stone and inset glass, with a similarly luminescent (and well-lit) altarpiece by Bernardo Daddi at its centre. The left half concentrates on a plainer low altar with a carved group of the Madonna and Child with St Anne by Francesco da Sangallo. Lots of fresco work and fragments, mostly of Saints and worthies on columns and in the quadrants of the six domes. Upstairs is another big hall with the restored marble and bronze originals of the famous statues from the niches around the outside, where copies stand today. And there's yet another gothic hall, with a wooden roof, above that's largely empty but with some good views across Florence's rooftops. These upper halls are opened by volunteers every Monday 10-5. Did I know this and plan my visit for today? Of course! Confirming some last few churches' existence took me walking over into the Oltrarno, and so near Mama's Bakery I had to have a couple more of their superb seedy bagels, with cream cheese and cucumber, and try a Nutella and coconut muffin, of course.

For my early evening stroll I headed off West up the road by the Arno towards the Cascine park. I've not been up this way in decades so I was a bit surprised when the road became blocked by a row of huge concrete blocks across the road, softened a bit with bushes planted in them. Walking further there were soldiers in an armoured car and...the American Embassy. I was heading out this far to cross the river to a somewhat far out church on my list, which I found easily, thanks to a map I'd bought, due to my also hoping to head far out East tomorrow. The map is small, published by Touring Editore, with a green and yellow cover and it costs
4.90. It's a big improvement on the cheapo ones which cover just the centre with 3D  representations of the famous buildings. So I found the church, walked back along the South bank, sat in Santa Maria del Carmine listening to a service being held in a chapel out of sight around the left, found Filippo Lippo's house, and found Santa Monica open with a pianist practicing for a concert, and so snatched some photos. At the Grotta di Leo I had gnocchi al pesto and from the S.M.Novella gelateria I had cinnamon and peanut.


Tuesday 18th September

For my last full day I decided I needed one more cenacolo fix, to begin and end the week on the same note, as it were. One of the biggies is Andrea del Sarto's one out at San Salvi - a fair walk and the reason for my buying that map yesterday. But on my way I decided I needed a bit of Ghirlandaio, so popped into Santa Trinita. (My Blue Guide tells me that this church is so old you have to pronounce it's name in a Latin way, with the stress in the middle, and not at the end.) This church contains the best frescoes in Florence that you don't have to pay to see, in Ghirlandaio's scenes from the life of St Francis, and there's other fine frescoes, fragments, and altarpieces. But onward, along the river, to find the small oratory of Madonna delle Grazie open. It faces the Arno just past the Uffizi, and I had it to myself, which is just as well as fitting more than four people in here would mean that they would have to be quite closely related. It's a sweet little space, dominated by pinky-buff marble columns and panels. There are some small nuns' grills high up left and right and a pair of small flanking altars, one of which has a 19th Century painting of San Giuseppe by Antonio Ciseri. The high altar is nicely inlaid, and over it is a glassed-in Madonna and Child attributed to a follower of Giotto. There's also a lavendery dome over the body of the oratory.

San Salvi being a bit of a walk (or a bus ride) out means it's not very visited. There were four people there when I arrived, but when they left I had the whole place to myself for almost half an hour. Apart from the refectory where the cenacolo is, there's a long corridor and two other rooms full of altarpieces and fresco panels from other, usually demolished, churches, either by Andrea del Sarto, or his contemporaries. There is some genuinely worth-seeing stuff here, often by artists you've scarcely heard of, and all hung so the you can get up close and appreciate. And then there's the Last Supper itself, which is one of the best and said to have been Andrea's last major work. The faces, hands and feet are all equally, and extremely, expressive, the colours vivid and the paint looking fresh and unworn. I got given a leaflet about the cenacolo but there are no cards or books on sale about all the other works. The actual church of San Salvi closes, I found out at 12.15, at 12.00.

I tried a more direct, and less riverside, route back, which brought me out by the side of Sant'Ambrogio. It also took me past a basic but popular-looking takeaway that 'specialised' in curries, burgers, kebabs and falafel. So another falafel in pitta eaten walking through a major city this year, to add to Venice, Paris, Boston and New York. (In London I'm mostly sitting down, and in Gabby's.) And my gelato flavours a little later were ricotta with figs and yoghurt with uve fragola. I should explain that the latter was yoghurt-flavoured gelato, not frozen yoghurt, and that the uve fragola is a fruit I've only found in Italy, shaped like a grape but exploding in your mouth with the flavour of strawberries.

In the evening I mostly looked in bookshops and sat in Piazza SS Annunciata. But as San Michele by the Duomo was open I popped in to look at the Pontormo Madonna and Child with Saints. It's still oddly dark for a Pontormo and still not well lit, and on this subject I got chatting with a fellow artfan neck-craner, and about how cheerful they all look. He was able to clear up a puzzle too: why the board that tells you about the painting, in Italian, says Pontormo & Rosso in big letters at the top. He said there was a major exhibition with that name a while back and the board was made to tie in, but remains.



Wednesday 19th September

Some Hotel Albani observations as I clear up and pack. There's a stout square plastic sachet in a dish by the bidet in the bathroom containing a liquid called Intimate Cleanser. That's all, I've just never seen such stuff before. And while I'm in there - what's with the letters on the taps? C & F and C is the hot one! Can a room with only one bedside lamp and no room for two bedside tables be called a double room? I thought that was what I booked, and when I come to pay my bill I'm assured that that's what it is. I've gotten into the habit of booking doubles as singles are always pokey. And this one barely has room for the chair between the desk and the bed end. And only one working socket, for the TV, in the desk's knee whole, and so involving much kneeling and crawling to plug in chargers, my water-boiling doohicky etc. And who chose the yellow colour for the walls? And those prints?! And why so many of them? Also, the wi-fi, though free, was very weak, bordering on non-existent, in my room. But the breakfast featured proper fresh orange juice, good coffee, and lovely fresh little ring doughnuts. And the little cards put by your bedside in the evening with a biscotti or jelly sweet telling you tomorrow's weather were sweet. The weather forecast of rain being only too right is why I've been using up my time before my train to Pisa Airport typing this rather romm-based last post, rather than having a last stroll or shop. I'll end by sharing the thought that there's a difference between hotels where the staff are trained to be polite and a bit grovelly, and there are hotels where the staff are motivated, friendly and polite. And so I don't think I'll be returning to the Albani. OK, time to go home.


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