FLORENCE WEEK FOUR
Sunday, September 19, Betsy's mother's birthday, we took off on our scooter on an adventure, riding out to the beginning of the Mugello region north of Florence. This rural area is the birthplace of the Medici family. It starts with large villas and palazzos and then spreads out into farm country and mountain trails and valleys. The scenery is breathtaking and we often found ourselves pulling over to just stop and look. In spite of the magnificent clear day, the roads were almost empty so we had little trouble finding our way to our destination, the Villa Demidoff. This was one of the mountain retreats of the Medici family, but it passed through several families until it was finally donated to the Florence Provincial Council because it became too costly to maintain privately. We arrived at our destination to find an enormous property spreading out over what must be several hundred acres (it was difficult to find out how large it actually was) and encompassing fields, ponds, hills and a number of very large structures. The property is used as daytime trip destination by families and groups and the structures and grounds are active educational sites with forestry schools, art schools, community theatres and a library on the property. The enormous stable which had to be at least 50,000 square feet of space in an 400 year old 4 story building, was in the process of being rebuilt. The most striking finding for was Giambologna's "Il Appenino", a huge sculpture that towered over the main property as it leaned down over a reflecting pool. I'm not sure this picture does justice to the impressive size and elegance of the sculpture.
It's hard to believe, but this statue of marble that is almost 60 feet high from the base was carved by Giambologna in only 2 months almost 500 years ago. We had a remarkably good lunch of pasta, salad and grilled vegetables served in what was disguised as an insignificant snack bar in the old carriage house on the grounds of the villa. After cruising a little further into the Mugello region, we road back to Florence to return the motor scooter, stopping at a small village fair near our apartment at Piazza Santo Spirito.
This was a raucos affair with the local agricultural merchants purveying their wares of cheese, wine, fruits and vegetables, knitted goods and a few crafts. People were packed in with almost exclusively local residents enjoying the spectacle. It was punctuated by the sounds of this rather boisterous group of musicians sponsored by the agricultural group. They just paraded through the dense crowd of people playing wonderful loud tunes. We had trouble leaving, but it was getting dark and we had to return the scooter.
The next day we spent on a few errands. I had to mail out a small package, so I spent 30 minutes in the post office waiting for my number to be called. While all the instructions for the various steps needed to be taken were in Italian, it proved to be a remarkably efficient system and the postal worker couldn't have been nicer or more helpful. This was my first pleasant encounter with Italian bureaucracy and I was surprisingly impressed. We spent the afternoon at our ceramics/sculpture class, Betsy finishing off a few pieces and my moving on to starting a more formal sculpture after completing my first relief piece. Here we are, hard at work with our instructor Sylvia who speaks almost no English.
The next day we went for a long walk, exploring the near the synagogue and Santa Croce. We had lunch at Pizzaiuolo, a tiny Neapolitan pizzeria with ostensibly the best Pizza in Florence. We had to agree it was exceptional and cheap. We wandered over to the are of Piazza d'Azeglia, a lovely French style square around a park with three and four story townhouses and offices surrounding it. The play area was crowded with elementary school kids out for recess and young mothers and nannies pushed carriages along the marble paved lanes. The elegant 5 star Regency hotel is right on the park. That night we had a great dinner of Betsy's new creation, Chicken with mushrooms, onions and garlic. We followed this with an old treat, the first English speaking movie we'd seen in five months.- Spiderman II. Not great film, but I enjoyed it. The theater had a moderate crowd of mostly college students on their semester abroad.
Betsy went to get her hair cut the next day while I went to the Museum of the History of Science, a wonderful collection of the works of the great Italian inventors of the past 500 years, particularly focused on Galilleo. Needless to say, I enjoyed it immensely. That evening we joined Adam and Linda Crescenzi who came in from their villa in Panzano where they are staying for a month. Using their car, we drove up into the hills to have dinner once again at Tullio's. Paolo didn't disappoint us. The meal was as good and as reasonably priced as we remembered.
Betsy was feeling a bit under the weather with a mild stomach upset, so we took it easy the next day, taking only a few short walks to visit our friend Francesco at Noi, the best leather store in Florence (really, no kidding), and stopping to buy a new CD. We were terribly upset watching George W. Bush at his post UN news conference/campaign speech. It is hard to communicate how desolate one feels over hear about the behavior of our President. There is no 48-52% support group that stands blindly behind him and his guffaws and poor decisions are not covered over the way the US media seems to have chosen to proceed. We decided we needed more fantasy to make up for this distasteful display of politicking and went to see "The Terminal" with Tom Hanks at the Odeon, this time with hundreds of viewers.
We met Valentina, our cultural tour guide at San Marco, a 500 year old cloister, to view the works of Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk who was one of the great fresco artists of the early renaissance. The structure is remarkable with elegant arches and high vaulted ceilings around two grassy courtyards. Angelico's frescoes are amazing. I was particularly captivated by his artistic skill in communicating stories. His work became important for the church to spread its message to the public when most people were illiterate and there was no printing press. Written works were largely the property of the church or wealthy nobles. Angelico created what amounts to comic strips, illustrated stories with very realistic but stylized characters. He was clearly the first great comic book artist. The Medici-Ricardi Palazzo was our next stop where Betsy was particularly captivated by the private chapel, decorated with Frescos by Bennozzo Gozzoli with the ostensible message of honoring the three wise men but really simply glorifying the Medici family. Like many wealthy families, after the successes of the early generations, the Medici offspring spent more money focusing on puffing up their own importance than on supporting art for its own sake. Here is a picture of Betsy and Valentina in the baroque main hall of the Palazzo.
We went on to the Medici Chapels at San Lorenzo, the remarkable work of Michaelangelo and Buontalenti. These two rooms, one small but with many statues by Michaelangelo and the other with soaring heights up to the second largest dome in Florence, are astonishing works of art and architecture and well worth the visit. We left and met for lunch with Lydia and Charlie Janac, neighbors in our building who are here in Florence for a couple of years with their two sons ages 10 and 12. They know their way around well and we enjoyed their company.
After lunch, we rested and readied ourselves for Kol Nidre services at the Synagogue. We started with dinner at 5 pm at Ruth's, as delicious as our last visit. We sat with Sharon Goldstein, a delightful women from New York City who works for the Jewish Theological Seminary on a woman's development fund. She's here in Italy to attend a wedding in Sienna next week and came to Florence for the city and to attend services for the holiday. She sat with Betsy in the women's section and was as disappointed as we at the closed and unwelcoming nature of the service and the congregation. It was pouring outside so we managed to negotiate a cab for the short ride home.
Services the next morning were equally disappointing. The Rabbi chanted the service alone in an almost monotone with participation from what appeared to be a tiny minority of mostly older men sitting in one section while the remainder of the 200-300 people present either stared blankly or chatted incessantly. It was nearly impossible to follow the service since it didn't consistently follow the prayer book. Since very few were actually praying, there were few who were able or willing to give clues and there was no effort on the part of the Rabbi or the Shamus to communicate with the congregation. I will be surprised if this pattern doesn't change if there is any congregation left here in Florence in 5 years. When we left after 1 pm, the service running over an hour and a half behind, it was a beautiful clear day. Betsy and I walked to the Boboli Gardens and enjoyed the beautiful Florence air. I took this one picture from high in the gardens looking down toward the Pitti Palace across the city.
We returned to temple for the Neilah service. After the opening prayer and the amidah (silent prayer) it was impossible to follow, so I and the two Canadian men sitting next to me read our own service. The only two exceptional moments in the service came at the end. When the priestly blessings are made, all the families gather at the back of the synagogue and cover themselves each under the family tallis during the prayer. After that, nearly everybody leaves. Finally, the shofar blowing was once again almost mystical in this cavernous room. We broke fast at Osteria de Benci, now one of our favorite Florence restaurants. The food is great and the staff are among the happiest workers I have ever seen. We met a nice young couple from Toronto who were also breaking fast, Andrew Udelman and Leah Daniels. He's a social worker who deals with rehabilitating and finding employment for the disabled and Leah is an attorney who runs the Toronto Bar exam. We kidnapped them back to our apartment to give them some advice and tips on touring and shopping in Italy. Here they are desperately trying to get away from these meddling Bostonians.
Sunday morning I rose early to wait in line at the Uffizi. Valentina told us we could get passes to see the famous Vassari Corridor if we were able to sign onto the daily list early enough. Only 30 visitors are allowed at a time with three groups a day on the rare occasions when the corridor is opened, which is on an unpredictable basis. The corridor was built by the Medici family to connect the Pitti Palace to the municipal offices (the original purpose of the Ufizi) and the Piazza Vecchio without forcing them to walk through the town and across the Ponte Vecchio with the "common people." This was of added importance since the Ponte Vecchio was, at the time, the local meat market and it was a foul smelling, messy scene. Getting through this daily in one's regal robes and fancy hand made shoes made the corridor a necessity for the Ducal family. In the past 300 years, the corridor was filled with a collection of self portraits of all the great Western artists and constitutes the largest collection of its kind in the world. I took these photos from the corridor out to the town streets and the Arno River below.
While no photographs are allowed in the corridor, my camera accidentally went off and took this poor picture to prove we were actually there.
Dinner was at 4 Leone, a wonderful Restaurant just around the corner from us between here and Santo Spirito. We went off to Orsanmichelle for a chamber orchestra concert. The room is beautiful and is a perfect high ceiling structure for chamber music. Most of it was entertaining, though one long choral piece had more than half the audience asleep.
Monday, September 27 we went to have coffee at the Coffee House and Osteria de Benci, then walked then to the internet. I returned to the apartment and Betsy went off to the market at Santo Spirito. Valentina came over for my Italian lesson. Then we went off to ceramics/sculpting class. Betsy began painting her creations and I struggled with cosmetic surgery on my statue (named Fiora by Betsy) whose face hadn't been progressing as well as I wanted. On the way home we discovered Franchini Giovanni, the famous Florentian pasta maker who has operated his shop off the via Neri for more than 50 years. This was the find of the week and is rivaled only by getting into the Vassari Corridor. Here is a picture of Franchini running the pasta through his hand cranked machine. It doesn't get any fresher than this.
Betsy made a fabulous dinner with the new pasta and we enjoyed it in our kitchen over great wine from Tullios.
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