Sunday, July 29, 2012

Art History 101

We are standing by the river Arno in Florence

   We only had a day and a half in Florence, but with all the walking we did, we managed to see most of the sights.  This trip has been wonderful so far, but not necessarily relaxing.  As a matter of fact, I'd call this a two week educational field trip!  Florence was so full of history that I couldn't begin to fit it all into this short blog, but I'll try to give you the highlights.
     First, I didn't know that Italy has only been a country for 150 years.  Before then, each city operated as a state, with its own government, military, and state council.  Towns tried to conquer each other to obtain a larger territorial rule.  That's why each town built walls around itself.  Florence had a very powerful ruling family named Medici (Meh dee chee).  In general, the Medici family started out as bankers, made a tremendous amount of money, and because of this wealth gained enough political power to make Florence one of the richest and most influential city-states in Europe. Also, Cosimo Medici was one of the first bankers to extend credit to merchants. You see and hear the Medici name everywhere in Tuscany.  This family was so powerful they conquered and ruled many localities for centuries.  To this day, Florentines view themselves as superior to other Italians.  They are not well liked and we found this to be true.  When we were in both Rome and Siena, the people we talked to had nothing nice to say about the people of Florence.  Even our Florentine guide acknowledged that Florentines were snobbish. :)
     We hiked to the top of a small mountain to a piazza (pee o tsa) dedicated to Michelangelo. A piazza is just a plaza or concrete park and you find them everywhere in Italian cities.  Its where people go to hang out.  The view there was breathtaking.  Here are some pictures.  Note that the duomo (town church) dominates the skyline.  The dome on this church is the 2nd biggest one in Italy.  It is magnificent!
The dome of the church is the biggest thing in the city.  Isn't it beautiful?
      The dome was built by a very famous 14th century architect, Filippo Brunelleschi (Broon eh les kee), who built it without any wooden supports, something that had never been done before.  Because he wanted to keep his methods secret, he destroyed his designs when the dome was finished.  Even though there is much speculation, no one is exactly sure how he did it. Michelangelo, who was quite famous when the dome was finished, was unimpressed and called it "a cricket cage".
      The inside of the duomo was very plain, but my favorite piece was the clock.  It was hard to get a good picture, but back in the 14th century, clocks showed all 24 hours.  The day did not end at mid-night, but at sunset, when the light was gone. :) I'm not sure when we began using the modern day analog clock.  "Time" for more research!
Italians still tell time in 24 hours. 15.30 in Italy is 3:30 pm in the US.  I have had to do a lot of time conversions so we didn't miss our trains.  See, we DO need math!

     We also visited the bridge over the Arno River called the Ponte Vecchio (Pon teh  Vek ee oh).  This was the only original bridge left in Florence.  If you look at the bottom level, you can see the backs of the old original shops along the bridge.  These were full of butchers, tanners, meat and cheese markets.   Across the top of the bridge you can see a more modern looking covered structure.  This was a passage built by the Medici family in the 15th century from their palace to the government offices, so they wouldn't have to walk amongst the common folk. Evidently, the meat and fish markets caused such a horrible stench, that Duke Ferdinand I (one of the Medici family) ruled that only goldsmiths and jewelers could set up shop there and that's what you'll find to this day. People of royalty don't like to walk where it smells bad! The jewelry in the shops was exquisite, but way out of my price range!  I am not a Medici!
Can you see the old buildings on the bottom section?
     One of my favorite sights was the bronze doors on the Baptistery next to the duomo. Unfortunately we were all so in awe that we forgot to take pictures of the entire doors! The Baptistery is a working church where people go to be baptized.  It is dedicated to John the Baptist and was built before the duomo.  In 1403 a contest was held to design new doors for the church.  7 artists entered the contest including Brunelleschi.  However, an artist by the name of Lorenzo Ghilberti won the contest and began work.  It took him 20 years to create his first set of doors.  Here is a picture:

    He then took another 27 years to create a 2nd set of doors which are even more beautiful than the first.  Back then, artists were just learning about perspective and you can see the difference in the two sets.  The first doors have 28 panels and have flat backgrounds.  The second set has only 10 bronze panels which are very much 3D.  Ghilberti signed his doors by making a bronze portrait of himself to hang next to the doorknob.  Here he is:

This is a close up of one of the bronze panels.  It was truly outstanding!

Ghilberti, the artist, is the bald guy on the left.
     Michelangelo said about these doors, "They are worthy of the gates of Paradise" meaning they looked like the gates to heaven.

     No trip to Florence would be complete with out mentioning Michelangelo's most famous statue, David. Have you ever wondered what makes this statue so famous and why Michelangelo made his hands so big?  Well, first Michelangelo was only 26 when he created this work.  It took him 30 months and propelled him to fame.  He carved the statue out of a single piece of very low quality marble, one that was actually thrown away by other artists. No one had created a statue of that size out of a single block since ancient times.  The work is from the biblical story "David and Goliath", and shows David as he prepares for battle against the giant.  He has the sling in his hand and seems to be sizing up his opponent.  Before the 15th century Renaissance, artists did not show much emotion in their work. However, the face of David is contemplative. Michelangelo sculpted the chest, arms, and muscles of the human body perfectly, including the veins, creating the illusion of life.  No one had done that before either. Also, back then, artists strived for perfect proportion when sculpting.  Michelangelo's genius was that he understood proportion according to where the piece was to be viewed.  The statue was supposed to be mounted on top of the duomo.  He sculpted the head, chest, and hands slightly bigger so that they would appear correctly proportioned when viewed from down below.  When the masterpiece was finished, it was so well acclaimed that it was given a place of honor on ground level in the Piazza del Signoria.  I end this blog with a picture of Michelangelo himself.  This is what genius looks like. :)
The statue of David.  

Michelangelo as an older man.  He lived to be 89.
We've been excellent students and learned so much that our brains are tired!  It's time for recess so we're off to the beach and the Amalfi coast!  Ciao!


  1. absoulutely fabulous. Have a grand time on the coast.

  2. Kate, are you having to take notes or do you remember it all in your head? Have a great time at the beach. How is the weather? Be safe!

  3. Karen, believe it or not I remember it all in my head! The stories are so fascinating that they are fairly easy to remember. Being here makes it come alive. Plus, I have a book and I read about each sight before we go visit. That helps! We will definitely enjoy the beach!

    Jean - Miss you!

  4. Love your explanations and the photos are great! Anxious to hear about the Isle of Capri. Relax your mind and "feet" on the beach!

  5. Can't wait to see you all and hear all about it!!