Michael Henderson

The jewel in the Renaissance

The world beats a path to Florence – just get up early to enjoy its riches, says Michael Henderson

The jewel in the Renaissance
Text settings

‘Remember, signor,’ the gateman at the Uffizi Gallery is reputed to have told the sceptical American tourist who wondered whether it was worth popping in for an hour before lunch; ‘here it is not the paintings which are on trial.’

Florence has never been on trial. It passed the test centuries ago, when America was a land of forest and sage bush. Whatever sins its citizens have committed, the world will never withhold its thanks from a city-state that has come to define civilisation, and still tries to uphold civilisation. The world beats a path to Ghiberti’s baptistry doors but Florence remains Florence: proud, to the point of rudeness and indomitable.

It is best seen in the morning, before the tourists (of whom you are one, never forget) begin to clog the streets. Rise early and walk along the Arno, like countless thousands of pilgrims before you. You may feel as though you are bathing in honey: the Ponte Vecchio; the Uffizi of course, with its incomparable representation of the Florentine Renaissance; the Bargello; the Piazza della Signoria; and all those streets and lanes that connect these landmarks.

Walk by these places at break of day, as the city is coming to life, and, no matter how many times you have been there, you can never ignore the fact that this was where mankind revealed its brightest colours. There was bloodshed, decades of it, as there is in all places where humans try to push along the messy business of civilisation, but there was also a glory that can never pall.

This small city — a small town in Tuscany, as John le Carré might have called it — changed the way people think, paint, sculpt, eat, drink, play, work and live. It may have driven out Michelangelo, and Dante pulled up stumps before his innings was done, but history marks them as Florentines: then, as now, cussed and disputatious, not bothering very much what people think of them.

Dante began the great adventure with The Divine Comedy, one of the spines of western literature. Giotto, born two years later than Dante, in 1267, gave it physical form with the campanile next to the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, of which Brunelleschi designed the dome that gives the city its greatest image. Throw in Donatello, Michelangelo, and Galileo, and you have a full house.

There were a few rotters. Florence claims Machiavelli, who instructed princes in how to rule most effectively, which is not always in the best interests of their subjects. Savonarola, executed in 1498, thought God was the only ruler. The Medici family acted as gods because they owned the city, and all who worked in it. They also lavished love in the form of churches and palaces. Or, in the case of the Palazzo Pitti, that immense collection of treasures on the south of the Arno, they acquired it. If ever a family defined a city it was the Medici.

The churches deserve a library of their own. Indeed, the books written on them would peer over Giotto’s campanile. Brunelleschi’s masterpiece is Santo Spirito, two blocks from the Pitti, in the city’s less frenetic streets. But the trick is to walk west to east, from Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican church, with its frescoes by Masaccio, to Santa Croce, where the great men of the city are entombed.


The Ponte Vecchio

Michelangelo never completed the tomb he designed for his memorial in Santa Croce. The work was undertaken after his death by Vasari, the artist and historian whose claim to fame, other than writing about artists with a greater claim to fame than his own, was as Florence’s most prolific propagandist. Rome good, Venice better, Florence best of all, he thought, and would brook no argument.

In Vasari’s eyes a good name in Tuscany was more desirable than all the riches of Araby. Then, as now, Italy was less a nation than a confederacy of provinces, all with rich histories, and Vasari was never going to allow the various republics, kingdoms and dukedoms usurp the Florentine traditions he hymned so proudly. Florence, Florence, Florence is best; I wouldn’t give two groats for all of the rest. If Italians think less kindly of Florence than Vasari did, his tub-thumping on the city’s behalf, to secure its place in history, helps to explain their coldness. There is music in Florence, too. How could there not be? Its musical history may not be as grand as that of Venice, the city of Monteverdi and Gabrieli, but it did give us the first opera. The work of four hands, Euridice was composed to celebrate the marriage of Maria, niece of Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici, to Henry IV of France in 1600. We heard it, thanks to Martin Randall Travel, specialists in art and music tours, in Palazzo Corsini, overlooking the Arno. On such evenings one feels blessed.

There were other palaces and churches for madrigals, organ recitals and, to round things off in a style in keeping with a week of majesty, The Mass that would be King in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, which houses the Medici family vaults. This was a splendid Anglo-Italian affair, with Robert Hollingworth leading I Fagiolini and the choristers of The 24 in an evening performance of Malvezzi, Striggio, Bovicelli and Tallis. With the singers arranged on both sides of the church, Spem in alium carried us close to heaven. It was a perfect alignment of music, architecture and history.

A final treat. Round the corner from the Uffizi, close by the river, you will find a restaurant called Antico Fattore, a Florentine classic. When the cow is placed on the table it is a case of ‘everything except the horns’. Don’t disappoint them. Pick it up, and lick the bones dry. They’re civilised folk, but a touch of barbarism is permissible.

Martin Randall Festivals in 2019 include the Johann Sebastian Bach Journey (13–19 May), West Country Choral Festival (7–11 July) and Sacred Music in Santiago (28 September–2 October). Go to martinrandall.com.