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Thursday 6th October
No problems with the journey. The BA in-flight snack was a choice of a packet of biscuits, nuts or crisps. Waiting for the shuttle bus to the station at Pisa airport we noticed that this 'temporary' service, for while the people mover was being built, has been running since 2013 and that said people mover was due to come into service in 201 - the last digit had been erased. Let's hope it gets going before 2019 then. Happy for us to just catch, rather than just miss, the Florence train. Checking in at the Hotel Berchielli was efficient and old school, with big brass key rings and the desk clerk and a porter showing us to our rooms. Jane's is bigger and nicer than mine, with a view over the Piazza del Limbo and the Santi Apostoli Church. (My view is a wall and window across a alley.) But it is her birthday.
A soul-nourishing visit to Santa Trinita was followed by an early evening visit to the Grotta di Leo for The Lunchless Ones. My starter was a new favourite thing: Pappa al Pomodoro - tomato soup thickened with bread, with onion and garlic. It sounds like stodge, but was very very nice. As was the traditional cipolla pizza. The first gelato (from the place in Piazza Santa Maria Novella) was cinnamon and raspberry and the first night was early, but not peaceful. Having a passionate couple with an enthusiastic and vocal wife in one direction and the Italian couple with a shouting husband in the other meant my earplugs were needed for the first time in many trips.
Friday 7th October
Breakfast featured good fresh juice and coffee, granola, but no muesli, and fresh, empty, but sugar-glazed croissants. A variety of other cakestuffs too, including the traditional apricot lattice-topped crostata di marmellata.
To the new Duomo museum this morning. I'd heard lots of good reports, and they were not wrong! The visit begins with the huge hall with the full-sized replica of the original façade facing the Baptistery doors, which makes you wonder if they're giving you the best bits too early. But no, there's still much to impress - models, statues, panels, paintings and many and various bits of stonework. And as you go up the floors you get changing views across to the mocked-up façade. The (mostly panel) paintings are probably the least special things here, but still are interesting, not least for featuring Santa Reperata, who you don't see being martyred every day. The top floor is a viewing balcony giving views of the east end of the actual Duomo.
Over the Arno for the traditional bagel lunch at Mama's Bakery. After the afternoon siesta I shopped for cinnamon toothpaste, fresh earplugs, panforte and chocolate. In the evening we met up, in our hotel's bar, with ex-colleague Jamie and his partner Charlie for aparol spritzes, followed by pasta at the Grotta di Leo, and some wide-ranging chat.
No couples-based disturbances in the night, except a brief row in Italian around 4.00. Our Duomo ticket of yesterday permits visiting all the bits in 48 hours, so we saved the Baptistery for today. I can't help but compare it to the one in Pisa - here is smaller, but not by much, more decorated and more full of people. The mosaics in the octagonal dome are expected, but all the decoration, and variety thereof, in the window niches also wows.
Then to the new Innocenti Ospedale museum, which starts with audio visuals and a corridor of history illustrated by paintings, statues, reliquaries and such, ending with drawers containing the items left with the babies and screens on which you can call up some of the touching stories of the babies from various centuries. Arrows then point upstairs to Architecture and Art. The Architecture is the two cloisters, the larger of which is inaccessibly full of scaffolding. Up more stairs to Art and a long gallery of lovely early stuff, at first, leading to darker 16th century works, and the highlight room with the Ghirlandaio and two more and too many guided groups stuffed in. But I got in and alone eventually. Access to the ospedale's church still just amounts to a view from above, though, except for services on Sunday. A decision to head off in the rain to Ruth's Kosher veggie restaurant on a Saturday had disappointment built in, so we walked down to Baldovino by Santa Croce for pasta and some drying out.
I forewent the afternoon snooze to go visit the San Sebastiano dei Bini museum in the via Romania, which I'd never found open but which a recently discovered website informed me was open Friday-Sunday 3.00 - 6.00. It lied. Nearby the Sacristy and Chapter House of Santa Felicita were reportedly opened by volunteers on Saturdays from 3.30 to 5.30. Which was half untrue - the chapter house isn't, despite despite what the poster says, but the sacristy is and worth the special trip. It's a pleasing small space off the right transept, very Brunelleschi (built by a follower to his design) with white walls, pietra serena details and a deepish square apse (see right). It's also full of the superior gold-ground altarpieces displaced by the mostly inferior later works in the church itself. And a couple of detached frescoes. These are by the likes of Giovanni del Biondo, Neri di Bicci, and Pacino di Bonaguida, but the highlight is Taddeo Gaddi's fine Virgin and Child with Saints polyptych . A very clued-up and personable volunteer here too. On my way back I had a black sesame and pear gelato, purely for the pietra serena and white effect (see right), in tribute.
Today the Chiostro Grande at Santa Maria Novella, which has for years been the Carabinieri Caserma, had an open day to celebrate them moving out and an extension of the SMN museum being in prospect. The cloister and the refectory hall was hearteningly heaving with crowds and groups being guided by art students. The large cloister has fresco panels along each side, 53 in all, some depicting the life of Christ, but most the life of Saint Dominic and other Dominican saints, notably Anthony and Catherine of Siena. All are 16th century, they vary much in vividness and amount of damage, and only one is by a major name - an Entombment by Allori (see right). The refectory was open too and it's a handsome long space, with sandy-coloured cross vaulting, and the Carabinieri's cafeteria fittings tastefully hidden behind plastic shrubbery. As we left a woman with a microphone and a TV crew wanted to interview me, but not after I confessed to being English.
Walking up to San Miniato is a traditional Sunday thing, but starting late we only got halfway up before the call of lunch became irresistible. We did venture into a walled garden, though, which seemed to be having a special open day, but which turned out to be a demonstration by the Florence Crossbow Club. The never-open church of San Niccolo was, of course, closed. But Santa Lucia dei Magnoli was open, as a service was ending, and so I finally got to see the Pietro Lorenzetti Saint Lucy panel, and the place where the altarpiece by Domenico Veneziano once was, it being what this church is famous for no longer having - it has a large reproduction of it on the back wall. We had just enough time to admire and photograph before the doors were closed - such perfect timing! An antique/junk market filled the Piazza Santo Spirito as we headed to Mama's for another bagel lunch. The place was very busy, but it was cinnamon bun day, and I got a warm one to take back to the hotel for tea.
A stroll around the San Frediano district as the sun set, and back to the Leo for pizzas, as it began to rain, but it had safely stopped by the time we left, craving gelato.
This trip's third new museum, devoted to the Misericordia, opened this year. It's all very modern, with sparse displays and a few videos, through fourteen small rooms of art, manuscripts and divers strange items related to the order's job of helping the sick and needy and disposing of their bodies, whilst wearing spooky pointy hoods with eye holes cut out, the better to retain their anonymity. We were part of a group of four English speakers being shown around by all three of the staff. I'm not sure how such personal service would survive larger visitor numbers, but it was sweet, and the staff were obviously proud of their organisation. The entrance is in the shadow of Giotto's tower, behind the ambulances, through some glass doors and up in a lift to the 4th floor, so fine views towards the tower and the Baptistery are also to be had. Entrance is free, but donations are welcome, in a discrete glass box at the end.
We then had a stroll through the stalls and market by San Lorenzo, picking up some dried fruit (apple with cinnamon and cherries) and two brace of curtain ties, with tassels. Lunch was pasta at Alla Griglia, which used to be gingham table cloths and a TV showing perplexing game shows but which now stresses the steaks and is all dark wood tables and offensively inoffensive jazz. An early return to the hotel so we could be rested before venturing out to the Badia which encourages touristical visits on Mondays from 3.00-6.00, when the impressively frescoed Cloister of the Oranges is also open(see right). The ramshackleness here also makes you appreciate the places with the funds and will to look presentable. Pear jam made by trappist monks was bought in the abbey shop. Then some more shopping, featuring a wooden cheese board in the shape of Santa Croce, some orange flavour panforte, and spicy milk chocolate. Then as a break from four days of pasta and pizza I introduced Jane to the joys of the McVeggie burger.
Today we divided our efforts to cover more ground. Jane went to La Specolo to look at weird medical stuff in dusty glass cases and I decided to revisit (and revise website entries for) some favourite churches. Santi Apostoli is just opposite our hotel and has become a bit more user friendly lately. It has more info on A4 sheets, but only in Italian, and a useful light for €1 has been installed which lights the whole church nicely but only lasts a stingily short time. Santa Trìnita is a firm fave and can always benefit from more comprehensive coverage. Nothing new to report, except the Crypt which I'd never noticed before, which costs 50c to light and which is bare, low and wide and roughly cross-shaped (see right). Chunky and atmospheric, if not pretty. It was 11.30 by now but luckily Santo Spirito closes at 12.30. More revision of website descriptions, adding details (dates and Saints' names), clarifications and corrections. Mama's Bakery so near too. After a snooze I went shopping in search of a new memory-card reader, for transferring photos to my tablet, as my old one had stopped working last night, but with no luck.
Today to Santa Croce (see above right). Having contributed in 2014 to a crowdfunded project to clean the outside of the Pazzi Chapel, one of my rewards was one free entry for me and my family, which I had to use before the start of 2017. So the family (me & Jane) presented a printout and after a quick walkie-talkie exchange was allowed in. The trecento thrills of this church have been reported on these pages many times. The quiet joy this visit was that Agnolo Gaddi's fine frescoes in the Castellani Chapel were much more appreciable as the whole chapel is no longer roped off. The museum rooms before the refectory are a bit more presentable too, with one room (which used to be the Cerchi chapel) where restoration work can be observed, or in our case a man with a beard staring into a laptop. Display boards here detail some juicy frescoes being taken out of storage (and the refectory) and spruced up, with the very works mentioned propped up on the wall behind the man checking his Facebook page. But the refectory itself was disappointingly closed, this being the reason for the restorations, I suppose. The work was due to finish on October 15th 2016.
After our foolish attempt to eat at Ruth's Kosher veggie restaurant on Saturday we walked there today confident it would be open, due to our not realising it was Yom Kippur. But good fresh falafel wraps were still had, at a more Muslim joint further east. And on the walk back the Gelateria dei Neri, which had been closed until yesterday, provided a delicioso mandarino and riso coppa.
An advantage of a later-in-the-year trip is how evening strolls tend to involve impressive evening skies and sunsets. One of the former preceded some window shopping over in the Oltrano, before our last Leo pizza and a stracciatella and pineapple coppa.
We had enough time before we need to catch our train to Pisa this morning for a visit to Santa Maria Novella. New things included the four bays of restored Uccello frescoes from the Green Cloister now on display in the middle of the refectory, prior to being put back in the cloister. The lunettes are all in better shape than the lower panels, with the weather having wrought much damage on the lower. Things noticed included the Filippino Lippi frescoes in the rear of the chapel of Filippo Strozzi featuring some excellent trompe l'oeil; and the last chapel on the right having damaged side lunettes by your actual Duccio.
Checking out, catching the train and bus, and checking in were all problem-free. Much calmer at Pisa Airport than last month, with no queue at the BA check-in desk at all. Minimal snacks again, no flight delays, and a very easy train journey, considering there was a rail strike on. Even colder than Florence, though, which was unseasonably parky and due to warm back up next week. Pah!
Some last thoughts. In recent decades it's become fashionable to downplay Florence's importance as the seat and source of the renaissance and to blame its dominance on Vasari's bias. Having spent time in Pisa, Siena and Florence in recent weeks I'm of the opinion that Florence still rules. We spent a full week here, full of top-notch art thrills, and we didn't go to the Brancacci Chapel, the Uffizi, the Accademia or San Marco. In Pisa two days was enough, and Siena, though I need to return, can be 'done' comprehensively in a week, I think. Also puzzled why Siena was full of Brits where Florence was chocka with Americans.
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