Tag Archives: Florence

Italy 24: Florence (Part 6)

The Great Synagogue of Florence

May 25, 2019

Image by Toksave, published under Creative Commons licence

The Great Synagogue (Tempio Maggiore) of Florence, built between 1874 and 1882, is a magnificent building located not far from the major museums of the city, which is appropriate as it houses an extensive museum on its upper floor. The style of the building is Italian and Moorish Revival but signage at the synagogue indicates that it is also known as “of the Emancipation” as it “was designed as an independent building and is not disguised as something else, as happened in the ghettoes.” The lovely pink and beige colours of the travertine and granite that dapple the building used to be darker – were, in fact, once red and beige.

The domes of the synagogue were familiar to Separdhic Jewry, of which the Florentine community primarily consisted, which had its origins in Berber Moorish Spain. The domes, finished in copper now oxidized to green, stand out against the skyline. (Note: I am grateful to the photographers whose photos are posted for public use on Wikipedia. They make it possible for me to show these two angles on the synagogue that we were not able to capture ourselves. If you click on the images you can see the source photos.)

These are the photos we did take of the exterior:

The interior of the synagogue is wonderfully ornate. (Click on images to see them better.) “During World War II, Nazi soldiers occupied the synagogue and they used that as a storehouse. In August 1944 retreating German troops worked with Italian Fascists to lay explosives to destroy the synagogue. However, Italian resistance fighters managed to defuse most of the explosives and only a limited amount of damage was done. What damage was done was restored after the war. The synagogue was restored yet again after damage from the flood of the River Arno in 1966.” (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia also tells us that “The Jewish community in Florence is composed of about 1,400 people. However, it has a long history which reaches back to the medieval era. In addition, there was a nearby Jewish community in the Oltrarno area, south of the Arno river , that dates to the Roman era. It is thought that the first synagogue was probably built in the 13th century.”

The Jewish Museum of Florence, opened in 1987, is located on the second floor of the synagogue. We were not allowed to take photos, but you can see some of the lovely pieces on the Museums of Florence website. We spent quite a bit of time admiring the “kiddush cups, prayer shawls, silver ornaments and embroidered vestments dating from the 16th to the twentieth century, with illustrative panels of the community’s history, together with a carved model of the old ghetto and along with a pictorial display which is occasionally changed.”

The names of 248 Florentine deportees are listed on this plaque.

It was as much a reminder of the history of the Jews as it was a sign of the times that the synagogue was guarded by soldiers with rifles, and the process for being admitted to the grounds was very strict and thorough –involving passports, metal gates, and lockers for bags and coats.

We were sorry to have already eaten lunch when we saw this inviting spot, just beyond the grounds of the synagogue. Next time. (Where have I heard that before?)

Italy 22: Florence (Part 4)

Firenze al aperto (Florence Out of Doors)

May 23 – 24, 2019

We enjoyed wandering around Florence as much as we did touring its galleries and, still fortunate with the weather, we managed to get quite a bit of fresh air. As I continued to recover from my face-plant in the Borghese Gardens, I was amused to see a street sign that seemed to warn me against landing on my head again. (As if I needed a warning.)

We spent time on both days in Florence in the Piazza della Signoria because it is so central. Surrounded by several “palazzos” and the Uffizi Gallery, the piazza is massive, accommodating outdoor restaurant seating, a lovely old merry-go-round and many shops (including an Apple store). At times in its history, the square has been less welcoming: it was here that the puritanical Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola and his followers carried out the famous “Bonfire of the Vanities” – burning secular “books, gaming tables, fine dresses, and works of poets” in their attempt to build a new Jerusalem, and here – in front of the fountain of Neptune – Savonarola and two of his fellow friars were ultimately hanged and burned on May 23, 1498 (Wikipedia).

As is true in many major cities in Italy, being outside can be very much like being inside a museum, and that was certainly true of the large space just off the Florence’s Piazza della Signoria that is known as the Loggia dei Lanzi. We went there one afternoon to rest our feet between tours, but I soon found myself standing up again to more closely examine the huge sculptures on display in the loggia.

The Loggia dei Lanzi or Loggia della Signoria was built in the late 1300s and was intended to accommodate public meetings and events. The statues now located there include two Medici lions, historical figures, and a number of sculptures depicting characters and events from Greek and Roman myths. One of these, Perseus with the head of Medusa, I remember seeing in an encyclopedia when I was a girl, and being absolutely horrified. The actual statue is pretty horrifying too.

The River Arno flows from its source in the Apennines through Florence on its way to the sea, and while the water itself looks uninviting (it is fast and dirty), there is no matching the spectacle the river offers, especially when the light is right. There are six bridges across the Arno in Florence, five of which were bombed during the retreat of the Nazis from Italy in 1944. These have been rebuilt, either in a more modern form or to resemble the historic structures they replaced.

Although it was swept away by floods a couple of times during the first two centuries of the Common Era, and was damaged again by flooding in the mid 1960s. the Ponte Vecchio, the most famous and remarkable of the bridges, is the only one that was not destroyed in the German retreat — rumour has it that it was spared by direct command of Adolf Hitler. However, the buildings at either end of the bridge were destroyed in order to prevent its use.

The Ponte Vecchio is a “closed-spandrel bridge with three segmental arches” built from stone at the end of the first century. (The spandrel is the space between the outer part of the arch and the deck.) Its design was determined in part by the need to allow horses and carts to cross it easily, and vendors have been selling their wares from stalls on the bridge for more than a thousand years. We wandered past clothing and jewellery shops, some selling products of the highest quality (and price!) and others selling schlock for tourists, also at the highest price. The kicker was a gelato that I bought on the Ponte Vecchio for eight euros ($12)! (It did involve two tasty scoops, but the only reason it is memorable is because of how much it cost me.)

I was quite tickled to be standing in a place where Dante had also stood.

Florence, like other major Italian cities, must be particularly magical to those with limitless wealth and a fondness for shopping. We meet neither of those conditions, but we did enjoy wandering past some of the exclusive shops.

We are hard-pressed to remember even one disappointing meal in Italy. However, we discovered a couple of outstanding restaurants in Florence, one of them thanks to a fellow-writer from the U.S. who I’d met online on a writers’ forum. Caron Guillo had spent the previous four or five years leading tours in Europe and she had lived for an extended period of time in Italy. Before we left on our trip, I saw that she had posted a photo of a dinner she’d just eaten in her favourite restaurant in Florence. She gave me the name — 4 Leoni — we tracked it down, and had a most spectacular dinner. My main course was the restaurant’s popular ravioli dish featuring pears in taleggio cheese and asparagus sauce (the same dish that Caron had posted on Facebook) and for dessert a chocolate pudding. We should have made a reservation: we were lucky that they let us in without one.

Of course, even the graffiti in Italy is artistic. I liked this piece, which somehow evoked both Banksy and Magritte.

Italy 21: Florence (Part 3)

During the Virus: Remembering “The David” and Some Really Off-Beat (?) Musical Instruments at the Galleria Dell’Accademia

May 24, 2019

I am writing this post in March of 2020 — ten months after our trip to Italy — and at this moment Italians are experiencing the horrors of the peak days of the coronavirus: the most lethal and widespread catastrophe to have hit their country in decades. Thousands have died and the health-care system is overwhelmed. Italy has become a worst-case scenario for the rest of the world: a warning of what will happen if we don’t stay physically apart and “flatten the curve.”

Although Florence is not in one of the hardest-hit regions, Twitter posts show deserted streets and closed stores and bars. Clearly, the impact of this event on the economy will be immeasurable. At the moment, it all looks so desolate and yet so familiar. I’m so glad we have been there, and my thoughts are with all of the wonderful Italian people we met during our visit to their beautiful country.


On our second day in Florence, we visited two galleries — the Galleria Dell’Accademia and the Uffuzi Gallery. That was a lot of art for one day, and as we neared the final rooms of the Uffuzi we were hurrying past some astonishing works of art simply because we were physically worn out and (dare I admit it?) tired of looking at art. I’ll talk about the Uffuzi in a separate post, in the hope that my readers do not experience art-gallery fatigue as well.


The Galleria dell’Accademia was established in 1784 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1873, Michelangelo’s David was moved into the Galleria from an outdoor piazza in Florence, and the facility features several other sculptures by the world-famous artist – who was born in the Florence region. It also includes pieces by Uccello, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Andrea del Sarto, plus the original full-size plaster model for the Rape of the Sabine Women by the sculptor Giambologna, who was Flemish, but based his career in Italy. 

The Accademia also houses a number of Florentine Gothic paintings, and a collection of Russian icons. All told, the collection represents an overwhelming representation of primarily Renaissance art.

The Palestrina Pieta (1655) was originally thought to have been created by Michelangelo, but scholars today do not believe that to be true, primarily because of its style.


The Museum of Musical Instruments, housed in the same building, opened in 2001. It includes a red spruce and maple viola made by Antonio Stradivarius, a cello by Niccolò Amati, and several instruments designed by Bartolomeo Cristofori — including the first-ever pianoforte, which Cristofori created for the Medicis in 1699.

The Galleria Dell’Accademia was a very satisfying museum to visit because, despite the size and glory of the pieces on display, the relatively cohesive parameters of the collection (compared to the Vatican and Borghese, for example, or the Uffuzi which we saw later that day) meant that my mind could (almost) accommodate it.


Aside from the “David” – which we have all seen so often in photographs that there is no point in trying to describe it – I was most drawn to the four “Prisoner” or “Slave” sculptures by Michelangelo: which he may or may not have left deliberately unfinished. To some they suggest the struggle of humans to break away from the earthly desires and material objects that hold their spirits down. To others, they represent the challenges of a human “becoming,” in all senses of that word.

In “The Prisoners,” I saw the struggle of an artistic work to become what it is intended to be – intended by the artist in some cases, more often (in my experience) by the work itself. But above all, they are testaments to the shining talents of the man who created them, his genius for bringing blocks of stone to life.


I think of Michelangelo’s “Prisoners” tonight, struggling their ways out of their stone integuments in the vast, silent, darkened halls – rooms now empty of visitors. Outside the Galleria is a world that evokes the Middle Ages, where humans fall sick and die for a lack of scientific knowledge, medical equipment and supplies – awaiting our own Renaissance.

Italy 20: Florence (Part 2)

A Dome, 463 Steps and a View

May 23, 2019

Our first tourist destination in Florence was the magnificent Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on this building began more than 700 years ago, in 1296, and was completed 141 years later, in 1436. The original designer of this Gothic-style building was Arnolfio di Cambio, and its crowning glory, il duomo, was the creation of Filippo Brunelleschi.

Wikipedia is quite helpful (and also quite interesting) in explaining what Gothic architecture is: “[The] most prominent features included the use of the rib vault and the flying buttress, which allowed the weight of the roof to be counterbalanced by buttresses outside the building, giving greater height and more space for windows. Another important feature was the extensive use of stained glass and the rose window, to bring light and color to the interior. Another feature was the use of realistic statuary on the exterior, particularly over the portals, to illustrate biblical stories for the largely illiterate parishioners. Some key architectural features, such as the pointed arch and a decorative kind of rib vault, existed earlier outside Europe, and may have been derived from Islamic architecture.These features had both existed in Romanesque architecture, but they were used more extensively and in more innovative ways to make Gothic cathedrals higher, stronger, and filled with light.”

Having purchased a ticket to climb to the top of the dome, we entered the cathedral through a side door (the baptistery and cathedral were a separate tour) and once all of us with tickets for the appointed time had gathered, we immediately started climbing. We climbed and climbed and climbed, with an occasional break to have a look around at pre-designated stages on our way up (you can see the walkways around the inside of the dome in a couple of the photos above). As we climbed higher and higher we were able to get a closer view of the frescoes of the Last Judgement inside the cupola, designed by Georgio Vasari but “mostly painted by his less talented student, Frederico Zuccari” (what a way to go down in history!) They were completed in 1579, and cleaned relatively recently (1996) — apparently to the consternation of many of Florence’s residents who felt that the money could have been better spent.

The passageways containing the stairs are very narrow with low ceilings, and the steps are steep: they were used by the workers during construction, and no one back then ever envisioned that the public would use them – especially not in the great numbers that now visit the cathedral every day (except Sundays). The higher up we went, the farther below us was the floor of the cathedral: from the “lantern” (the walkway inside the cupola), the drop is 40 metres, according to the “Visit Florence” website. The site encourages those with a fear of heights and small spaces to think twice before they sign on to this tour.

In all, we climbed 463 stairs.

As I had already learned in Siena, in addition to the view that awaited us at the top, climbing hundreds of stairs is a great way to meet people from all over the world who are climbing along with you. Misery loves company.

The climb, of course, was worth it. Once we got out onto the terrace no one regretted having made the trek — at least not until we remembered that going down such narrow steps was going to be even more disconcerting than climbing up had been.

A story I loved reading during my research for this post involved a balcony that Baccio d’Agnolo started to build at the base of the dome in 1507. It took him eight years to complete one balcony on one of the eight sides. At that point, “someone asked Michelangelo – whose artistic opinion was by this time taken as cardinal law – what he thought of it. The master reportedly scoffed, ‘It looks like a cricket cage.’ Work was immediately halted, and to this day the other seven sides remain rough brick!”

Five days after my tumble, my face looks worse but feels fine

Italy 19: Florence (Part 1)

The Lovely Villa Belvedere

May 22, 2019

Welcome / reception line, Villa Belvedere

Late on the afternoon of May 22, we arrived in Firenze (Florence) after a long drive through central Italy from Salerno. The Hotel Villa Belvedere, our accommodation for our visit, was so lovely that if we had been advised that every tourist site in the city had been unexpectedly closed for repairs and we were going to have to stay at the hotel for the entire three days we were in Florence, I would not have complained too much. This is the kind of hotel that makes you want to sit outside and read a book, or sit near a window inside and write one. Since we had a lot to see and do, I felt as though we did not have time to properly enjoy our accommodations – although we gave it our best effort.

The Villa Belvedere is a family-owned hotel, and the members of the family seem to have been born for the hospitality business. Everyone, including the hired staff, was helpful, accommodating, and eager to help us resolve any issues we had, whether they related to the villa, the city, or our next destination. Several suites have balconies: ours did not, which is a good thing or I would have wanted to spend even more time lounging about, but our room was large and comfortable. The gardens are magnificent, obviously cared for like the house itself with loving care, and the main floor common areas are comfortable and decorated with of all kinds of unusual objets d’art.

The dining room is a bright, well-appointed room with large windows that look out onto the pool and the gardens. The food was outstanding and the service impeccable. The chef is one of the owners, and when we complimented her cooking and especially her baking one morning, she asked if we would let her mother-in-law know we’d enjoyed it. (I did as she’d asked, of course, amused at this glimpse into the family dynamics.)

The city was not far away: as we wandered in the garden in the evening, we could hear the enthusiastic sounds of fans cheering on their favourite local football (soccer) game at a nearby stadium. After a spectacular dinner at the hotel and a sound night’s sleep, windows open to the Italian night, we did – of course – bestir ourselves to check out the other sights and sounds and tastes of Florence: from the Duomo to the Accademia Dell’Arte to the Uffuzi Gallery, from the Arno River to “the David” (more on those in subsequent posts). And of course we were glad we did. But it was lovely to have this place to return to each day after our wanderings had worn our feet out once again.

The art of Florence extends beyond its galleries: here, two European Rose Chafers, dining