The other side of the Arno

To re­ally know Florence, you have to cross the river

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - DIANE ARM­STRONG

IT is as­ton­ish­ing how much you miss when you are des­per­ate not to miss any­thing. This oc­curs to me in Florence as I join fren­zied tourists queu­ing for hours out­side the Duomo, the Uf­fizi and the Ac­cademia, and then push my way past the throngs on the Ponte Vec­chio and the Pi­azza della Sig­no­ria.

But only a few min­utes’ walk away, on the other side of the Arno, I dis­cover a dif­fer­ent Florence. Gone are the daunt­ing queues and the fre­netic crowds, yet in these unas­sum­ing pi­az­zas and de­cep­tively plain churches some of the jew­els of the Re­nais­sance wait to be dis­cov­ered.

All you have to do is cross the Santa Trinita Bridge and start ex­plor­ing this less-fre­quented part of the mag­nif­i­cent city. Pi­azza Santo Spir­ito is a good in­tro­duc­tion to the area and here lo­cals far out­num­ber vis­i­tors. As soon as I turn into this un­pre­ten­tious lit­tle square, I feel my heart­beat slow­ing. Lib­er­ated from the pres­sure of tick­ing off the city’s fa­mous sights, I wan­der hap­pily around the lively morn­ing mar­ket among Ital­ian housewives se­lect­ing their aubergines, ar­ti­chokes, peaches and cheeses.

Un­der weath­ered tan­ger­ine awnings, small cafes on the edge of the square are filled with lo­cals re­lax­ing over their espres­sos. It feels, fi­nally, like the real Florence.

I walk to­wards the Church of Santo Spir­ito, with its un­adorned fa­cade that’s in stark con­trast to the poly­chro­matic, elab­o­rate churches I saw on the other side of the river. There are no queues, but the dour ex­te­rior gives no in­di­ca­tion of the riches within.

This church was Filippo Brunelleschi’s last mas­ter­piece and, ac­cord­ing to some, his per­fect cre­ation. The im­pres­sive in­te­rior, with its 35 mas­sive pil­lars and two tiers of win­dows that flood the church with light, is a reve­la­tion. Un­ex­pected, too, are the Re­nais­sance paint­ings, such as Filip­pino Lippi’s lu­mi­nous Madonna and Child, the beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated chapels, and the or­nate in­laid mar­ble altar en­cir­cled by huge can­dles. But the big­gest sur­prise is in the sac­risty, which dis­plays Michelan­gelo’s ear­li­est sculp­ture, an ex­quis­ite cru­ci­fix he carved when he was 18 and do­nated to the church. As an old monk in a hooded sage robe ex­plains, the fri­ars of Santo Spir­ito had given Michelan­gelo per­mis­sion to study anatomy at their ad­join­ing hospi­tal, and the cru­ci­fix, which al­ready showed his ge­nius, was his way of thank­ing them.

I dis­cover this, and many other lit­tle-known trea­sures of Florence, dur­ing a guided walk with Ric­cardo, an en­thu­si­as­tic young his­tory afi­cionado. Af­ter we have passed the Re­nais­sance palace that houses Sal­va­tore Fer­rag­amo’s cen­tury- old shoe em­pire, Ric­cardo an­nounces, ‘‘Now I will show you the most beau­ti­ful Re­nais­sance chapel in Florence.’’

GETTY IM­AGES

The late-af­ter­noon light shines through the me­dieval stained-glass win­dows of Santa Trinita church, re­veal­ing the beauty of fres­coed walls painted in the 1300s by Domenico Ghirlandaio — who, I learn, was Michelan­gelo’s men­tor. Al­though the fresco de­picts the life of St Fran­cis, Ghirlandaio set the scene in the street out­side the church, and when we step out­side I have the cu­ri­ous sen­sa­tion of stand­ing inside the fresco.

As we stroll along the an­cient streets, Ric­cardo of­ten stops to point out in­ter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal fea­tures tourists would oth­er­wise miss. These in­clude the iron hooks in­serted into the fa­cades of palaces to tie up horses, and the sconces that once held torches. In some walls there are small niches be­hind which mer­chants used to sell wine. Passers-by would knock on the tiny doors and buy a flask that, dur­ing the pe­riod of the Black Death, was safer to drink than wa­ter.

Ac­cord­ing to Ric­cardo, the exquisitely carved and painted lit­tle shrines on street cor­ners also owed their pro­lif­er­a­tion to fear of the plague. There was less risk of con­ta­gion in the street than inside the churches.

To add spice to this stroll through me­dieval Florence, Ric­cardo en­ter­tains with gos­sip about the Medi­cis. Out­side the Palazzo di Bianca Cap­pello, he re­veals that Cosimo Medici’s son and heir Francesco built this palace for his mis­tress Bianca, and con­nected it by an un­der­ground pas­sage to the Pitti Palace, where he lived with his wife. But the Medi­cis didn’t be­lieve in brotherly love or ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal prin­ci­ples, and his brother Fer­di­nand, who was a car­di­nal, killed Francesco and Bianca with a poi­soned cake and be­came the ruler of Florence.

But, as Ric­cardo points out, the Medi­cis de­serve our grat­i­tude for their con­tri­bu­tion to the arts. Moral­ity and pol­i­tics have never been com­fort­able bed­fel­lows.

We fin­ish our walk at Ric­cardo’s favourite wine bar, a small hole in the wall called Le Volpi e l’Uva, the Foxes and the Grapes, where we toast the Medi­cis and their mag­nif­i­cent city.

Santa Trinita Bridge and, be­hind it, the Church of Santo Spir­ito

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