Inspiration is often fleeting…sometimes it hits you like a thunderbolt from the heavens: unexpected and with great force.
The Uffizi Gallery in Florence is shaped like a U, its open end flowing into the Piazza della Signoria. The closed end of the U is an archway leading to the Arno…but inside the U is a category 5 vortex of inspiration. The Portico degli Uffizi is the courtyard formed by the U and is guarded by statues of great Florentines either by birth or through life. There are a few names you might recognize: Amerigo Vespucci (can’t love ‘Merica without him), Leonardo da Vinci (he had a code), Dante (Hell’s a hotter place), Michaelangelo (David is a goliath because of him), Donatello (did not, in fact, carry a bo), Machiavelli (politics would be no fun without him), and Galileo (you are, in fact, not the center of the universe).
If you’re mind is not blown surrounded by this greatness….you have no mind. All of these men shaped not only the world of their time, but the world of today. In fact, I’m still sending letters of apology to the people of Florence for having defiled such great intellect with the moronic presence of the Jersey Shore cast. No, I’m really sorry about that. Really.
Before we made it to the Uffizi we had already started our day inspirationally. Our first stop was Galleria Accademia to see The David. My first time seeing David I remember being unexpectedly awe-inspiring. I went in to see what I thought would be just another statue and instead sat there in amazement at the detail and precision of the sculpture. There would be no element of surprise for this second time, but I was still in awe. To be that close to such a masterpiece and bear witness to the skill and labor that enabled its creation…it’s, well, inspiring.
After lingering we walked through the rest of the museum before grabbing some coffee. Just a heads up: there’s almost always a line, in the offseason the line’s short and fast so it’s not really worth spending the extra cash on an express ticket. Can’t say the same about the busy season. But two off-season visits I waited a combined total of 15 minutes to get in.
From coffee we made the call to go ahead and grab lunch, it was already midday at this point. We headed over to one of the suggestions that Nat had given us: Pizzeria Ciro and Sons. The place has a bunch of outdoor seating, but the day was cold, damp and gray. Our first bout of bad weather on this trip. So we opted to sit inside. Walking in you’re greeted by the “kitchen” of wood fired stoves. The main dining area was under a high domed ceiling that, along with the walls, was covered in heavily weathered frescoes showing the past glory of Rome. See, the restaurant was once a home. A home owned by the family of a guy named Ippolito Aldobrandini who would go on to be a cardinal in the Catholic Church before changing his name to Clement VIII…as in Pope Clement VIII. And now we were eating pizza in his house…Italy…
By the way the pizza was delicious. Lauren pronounced it the best she’s ever had. I’ll give it a pretty damn good rating…I mean it was holy pizza. With lunch just finished it was time to start thinking about dinner. Lauren was particularly excited about one suggestion that Nat had made, a small family operation adjacent to Signoria. We stopped by to make a reservation on our way to the Uffizi…key, for reasons to be explained.
My last time through Florence I didn’t make it into the Uffizi, an omission I always regretted. So this time there was no way it wasn’t happening again. Further…the gloom of the day was perfect museum weather. The gallery is extensive, think of it as the massive attic collection of the Medici family. If you’re not sure who the Medici are just think something…go ahead, think something…anything. Now you know who the Medici are, seeing as they’re largely responsible for modern thought. It was through their patronage that the Italian Renaissance was born and flourished. PBS probably put it best, calling them the Godfathers of the Renaissance in their tremendous four piece series on the family.
So there you have it. A family with power and cash and an urge to show off that power and cash. What better way to do that than to collect the art of the known world while commissioning the greatest artists alive to create new pieces. And now we wait in line 500 years later to see what they made. Our line was short…if you come in the high season book in advance or face lines up to 5 hours long.
The main corridor of the gallery is lined with statues from ancient Rome and the Renaissance and frescoes line the ceiling from end to end, a distance I’d estimate to be about four city blocks. There are 45 rooms, each showcasing incredible art…pieces like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus da Vinci’s Annunciation and Tiziano’s Venus of Urbana not to mention works by Michaelangelo, Carveggio, Rembrandt and Ruebens. Oh, also there are somewhere between 3,000 and a million works depicting the Madonna and her Child…no disrespect to the Mother Mary or Jesus Christ, but that’s one theme that gets a bit old. With that said, there are interesting tidbits to find in some of these pieces, little notes of rebellion against a Church that forced artists to submit to its despotic ways.
The end of the first gallery overlooks the Arno, which even in the murkiness of February effuses with inspirational waters. We spent somewhere between three and four hours in the gallery, and only scratched the surface. I mean we didn’t even make it into the famed Vasari Corridor with another KILOMETER of art stretched along the secret passage built for the Medici to walk from the Pitti Palace through Ponte Vecchio to the Uffizi. That’s something you have to book well in advance and, even at that, be lucky. By the way, I love that they measure their art in Italy by the kilometer.
We walked up to the rooftop balcony overlooking Signoria…and even with low clouds and chilly temps the view is astounding. As is the perspective, think of the people who have stood here and down below. Think about what happened here. Think about the modern Western World starting right here, at this spot. This is why I love Florence.
Leaving the gallery we went on something of an expedition, Lauren spotted a piece of pottery in a storefront on our first night and she wanted to go buy it. We crossed Ponte Vecchio exposed to the elements instead of in the comfort of the Vasari Corridor and found the storefront. Closed. But Lauren wasn’t giving up. We dove into the narrow alley of shops next to this storefront and found a collection of little pottery shops. While Lauren shopped I stood outside taking things in. There was a bank of mailboxes for the occupants of the apartments and stores. Average enough. Then I looked above the mailboxes to a tile with a passage written in Italian…I noted two phrases: immortali di storia florentina and in quest casa dei macchiavelli. I took two years of latin high school, and just enough stuck with me here to know that said: “the immortal history of Florence” and “in this house Macchiavelli” deductive reasoning allowed me to grasp that I was standing at the mailbox of Machiavelli, the masterly and dastardly skilled political advisor.
And someone who’s works I’ve studied extensively, he’s known for The Prince but it’s his Discourses that really teach. And here I stood where he once worked. Today it’s just a simple collection of shops and apartments. I took a picture of the tile and translated it, this place had been reconstructed…but still. Alleys in Italy.
From what I understood of the translation, the original had been destroyed in total war…as in World War II, which leads to an interesting point as we cross Ponte Vecchio. You see, there is this wonderfully sensational rumor that I’ve heard a few times regarding this old bridge. They say that as the Nazis retreated across the Arno that Hitler ordered all bridges destroyed…except…Ponte Vecchio, because he loved it. I had heard that story a few times during my previous visit to Florence, and I only bring it up here to say I’ve never been able to confirm it. These sort of rumors tend to have a way of propagating and becoming truth simply by repetition. Being a former tour guide I’ve heard more lies come out of the mouths of my colleagues than any politician. And nearly 100 percent of them unintentional. I know I stand guilty of this. It happens easily enough, someone trains you, you trust them and their information, they say something interesting…you say “that sounds interesting!” you note it and add it to your spiel and never think to check up on the fact. So it goes, the unofficial history of the world. I don’t say this to bag on guides, you’ll usually learn more from them than doing something on your own…but always keep a bit of cautious skepticism in your travel arsenal.
We went back to the hotel and cleaned up before dinner. I think at this point we were both a little tired and grumpy…but dinner would change that.
The place is called Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori, calling it a restaurant is generous. They only have seating for 18, so really it’s as if you’re at somebody’s house for dinner. To make things even more rich, it’s run by a family. One son cooks with the mama while another son waits tables and the father tends bar. We were seated at a table of four, but it wasn’t the two of us for long. About 15 minutes after we sat down another man came in and sat himself at our table. He was clearly a regular, bantering with the family before finally settling in with a biography of Andre Agassi and a glass of prosecco.
The menu was handwritten…in Italian…no translation. We stared blankly at it, recognizing a few words and getting ready to order based on those few words. But fear not, for the waiter son, Tommaso (who looks like he’d do very well in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood) knelt down at our table and translated the entire menu, offering advice and warnings. We started with prosecco and switched to wine, both flowed freely and often. Our first course was a Caprise salad that, if I could recreate and sell, would make me a wealthy man. The pasta course brought rabbit ragu pappardelle for Lauren and ravioli stuffed with butter and sage for me. The main was fried beef with tomato for Lauren and beef stew for me. Every bite was amazing. The stew was so thick as to be served in a clump on a plate rather than in a bowl. We cleaned our plates and downed a few more glasses of wine, which were filled by Tommaso once they were a quarter full. Eventually the man reading Agassi was joined by his wife. Between each course was a break, a chance to breath and take in the atmosphere. The restaurant was full now, with people waiting outside. The walls decorated with wine bottles and a massive wooden chianti vat cut in half and covered in postcards from around the world and homages to Madonna, the singer not the Mary.
We were told not to leave without trying the raspberry tiramisu. When Tommaso asked us about desert, we said two please…he looked at us:
“No, are you sure you want two? Are you not full?”
I couldn’t tell if he was offended by our sweet ambition.
“No, we are full…but we heard amazing things.”
“Ok, I will bring you one…then if you want another I will bring you another.”
I’ve waited a lot of tables in America…and at every place I was urged to upsell at every chance possible. I’ve never come across a server in America that would say something like Tommaso. For him, it was about really taking care of us over making a few more euros off an extra dish that might be wasted.
The tiramisu was gone in less than thirty seconds…it was that delicious. And we are that disgusting. We ordered another, Tommaso laughed. And we killed that second one as well. I still want more.
The bill came, it would be the cheapest meal of the trip. It was also the best.
We walked through Palazzo Signoria, meandering through the streets taking our time on our last night in Firenze…inspired by the incredibly lit palaces, and the shops sporting world-class fashions. We were inspired by a divinely delicious meal and an incredible show of hospitality. We were inspired by the voluminous history of this place and the enormous pride of its residents. We walked home that night inspired by our surroundings, inspired by life…inspired by travel.