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A crash course in culture in Italy’s Renaissance heartland

The beauty of Florence hits you before you set foot in the city. As you drop into the luscious Tuscan hills and begin your descent at Firenze airport, Brunelleschi’s Duomo shines amongst the terracotta roofs, scattered amongst the hills like a beacon welcoming you to this ancient land, neatly tucked away in the valley below.

I was not a lover of art and sculpture before I came to Florence. I never had an eye to appreciate it, nor the patience. Perhaps it is that I have never looked at a piece of art long enough to know the special implications of art. But the city of Renaissance Italy awoke in me my own renaissance…

Our hotel is nestled at the foot of Ponte Vecchio, and it is here that our journey begins. At the foot of Ponte Vecchio the bustle is of tourists milling around, and Florentines busy with their day to day lives whilst actively engaging in passionate conversation.

The bridge feels like a step back in time with the antiquated jewellery shops which are locked up when not in use like treasure chests, with their wooden, cabin-like exterior. Despite the thriving tourists and crowds, the feeling of being somewhere exotic and heavenly resonates. It is as if, as Henry James once said on his visit to Florence, that “everything about Florence seems to be coloured with a mild violet, like diluted wine.”

Once reaching the summit of the bridge, you can see before your eyes along the narrow street in front the magnificent Duomo, just peeping over ancient stone buildings. From this point onwards in whatever direction you are heading, the duomo will serve as your guide, always appearing no matter which via you end up exploring.

Once over the bridge we came across Piazza della Signoria where sculptures of drama appeared around every corner. Amongst the cafe’s and trattoria’s dotted around the piazza, dramatic sculptures look down at you, sometimes menacingly, with Cellini’s Perseus proudly holding Medusa’s head and Bandinelli’s Hercules and his triumphant pose over Cacus.

Neighbouring the Palazzo Vecchio stands the Uffizi glistening in the Florentine sunshine. As one of the oldest museums in the world, it is dutifully protected by heroes of the past, including Dante, Da Vinci, Galileo and Michelangelo.

The formidable building resembles a temple built to worship gods or deities. Many tourists pass by with mouths open and eyes staring at the gracefulness and awe at this museum, even before they have witnessed its contents.

Inside the Uffizi, still awestruck at the beauty outside, it was here that I began to have my own awakening. Viewing Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and the serene beauty of Venus herself, I could finally see the beauty that lies within the painting and the skill involved. By the time we reached Caravaggio’s Medusa, I was overcome with awe.

Our next stop was Basilica di Santa Croce, the main Franciscan church in Italy, which is situated by Piazza de Santa Croce. Looking at this colourful church, your gaze inevitably directs you to exquisite architecture, with its pretty pink and green markings, as if the church were a glorious wedding cake which has been neatly decorated in beautiful colours. Dante stands beside the church, his formidable sculpture towering over you sternly, an almost frightening look about him, as if he is haunted by the perils of the inferno he famously wrote about.

The piazza is littered with groups of people, some waiting for the next inspiration to photograph, others preferring to gaze upon the pretty building in quiet contemplation.

Inside, Santa Croce did not disappoint. Galileo’s tomb was spectacular, and Dante’s empty monument pays homage to the Divine Comedy writer, even though he was exiled from Florence and is in fact buried in Ravenna. The church is full of works of art and sculpture and you could lose yourself in its beauty for hours on end. One such person to experience this over-whelming feeling is Stendhal, who in 1817 visited the basilica and wrote of his feelings:

“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”

This very feeling of intense, over-whelming beauty was later recognised as Florence, or Stendhal Syndrome. A few tourists every year are diagnosed with Florence or Stendhal syndrome whilst holidaying here. Perhaps they can’t take any more of perfection which seems to surround the entire centro historico.

After feeling tired of so much art and beauty, we found ourselves in the cloisters and listened to the peel of Santa Croce, all the while reflecting on this marvellous city which evokes feelings of reverence and wonder. I was truly under Firenze’s spell.

Night time in Florence is as romantic and as stunning as it is by day. The city sparkles under the stars and if you are lucky a full rounded moon will light up the ethereal Duomo . Behind the Duomo various performers capture the magic with their sweet melodies, inspiring lovers and drawing admiration from small crowds.

On our last night a band played on Ponte Vecchio creating a jovial atmosphere. As people danced carefree on the bridge it was the perfect end to a perfect holiday.

Since leaving Florence, my passion and desire for art and sculpture has never eased. When it is time to go back to the normal routine of our lives, it is best to take Dickens’ advice:

“ Look back on Florence while we may, and when it’s shining dome is seen no more, go travelling through cheerful Tuscany, with a bright remembrance of it, for Italy will be fairer the recollection.”

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