The other side of the Arno
To really know Florence, you have to cross the river
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.’’
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