Florence was the main event for me on our European Ladycation. The birthplace of the Renaissance, Firenze was the city Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Michelangelo, Poliziano, and Botticelli all called home. Masters of art, science, and philosophy all tied together by one family: The Medici, and I am completely obsessed. Being in their city, walking those streets, and seeing the art they commissioned was more than just a dream come true for my history-nerd self. It was practically a pilgrimage.
So, about that history. . .
The Medici were the wealthiest, most powerful family in Florence in and around the 15th Century. They were cunning, ruthless, calculating, and ambitious. They were also some of the most influential lovers and patrons of the arts who ever lived. Artists depended on wealthy people like the Medici for their livelihood, while people like the Medici depended on the artists to curate favor and popularity among the people. The Medici reigned during a time when, instead of buying mega-yachts and private islands or dick-shaped rockets, the upper echelon of society spent their money commissioning artwork and building projects. While the Medici patronage certainly had an aspect of political manipulation, it also sprung from a genuine love of the arts and an innate ability to identify pure artistic talent. They were basically Renaissance talent scouts. Really good ones.
Cosimo de Medici (Father of the Fatherland) commissioned Donatello’s bronze sculpture of David, and chose Brunelleschi to construct the iconic dome atop the Duomo. Cosimo’s son Piero (The Gouty–15th Century shade) took Botticelli into his home and raised him alongside his own sons. Piero’s son Lorenzo (The Magnificent) gave Michelangelo a space to hone his skills, commissioned work by Leonardo da Vinci, and held gatherings at the Medici villas with philosophers like Poliziano to debate the wisdom of the ancients against the teachings of the Church, and the emerging field of science. It was Lorenzo’s nephew Guilio who became Pope Clement VII who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. And it was a Medici who later took in Galileo after the Catholic Church condemned him as a heretic and sentenced him to house arrest in perpetuity. These are just a few examples of Medici contributions to the world of art, science and philosophy. Their legacy in its entirety is immeasurable.
We set out from our flat and headed towards the historical center of the city, just a few blocks away. We’d only been walking a couple minutes when I saw it. Austere, imposing, it was exactly like the pictures in my books: The Palazzo Medici!
We walked the halls and admired the rooms, and somehow I maintained my composure. While the exterior was severe and stark, the interior was lavish and lovely. Many of the rooms had been updated by the Riccardi family, who owned the palazzo after the Medici, including a mirrored ballroom that would have felt right at home in Versailles. But it was the chapel, with Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi frescoes, that I was most enthusiastic to see. Of course, when I saw them, I lost my composure and the tears began to flow. It was stunning. I couldn’t believe I was actually there, seeing it with my own eyes. Cosimo, Piero, Lorenzo, Guiliano, Contesina, Lucrezia. . . all of them had been in that very room, staring at those same frescoes. I was basically fan-girling over a bunch of people who’ve been dead for centuries.
After I collected myself it was time to move on, and we headed towards the Piazza della Signoria. So much to see, so much history in one little space! We wandered around the piazza, taking it all in, as my head spun remembering all the trivia I’d learned throughout my years of obsessive reading. I stared at the windows in the Palazzo Vecchio where the Pazzi conspirators were hung after their failed coup attempt (more on that in a later post), and at the tower where Cosimo had briefly been held prisoner. I looked at the wall of the loggia that once showcased Botticelli’s death portraits of the executed conspirators. It was in this piazza where the fundamentalist friar, Giorlamo Savanarola had ignited the Bonfire of the Vanities, and later where he was burned to ash at the stake. I was hardcore fan-girling again. We admired the sculptures, the fountain, and the palazzo before heading towards our next Renaissance stop, Chiesa di San Salvatore in Ognissanti.
I love Botticelli. Sure, it’s partly because of the Medici connection, but I also love his work. You may recognize his paintings as some of the most famous on the planet, but you probably don’t know the story behind the beautiful blonde in his most famous pieces.
Simonetta Vespucci was considered the most beautiful woman in Florence, and Sandro Botticelli was enraptured by her. She was the model for Primavera, Venus and Mars, and Birth of Venus, and she was also rumored to be the mistress of Giuliano de Medici (Mars, in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars). At the tender age of 22 she succumbed to what was likely tuberculosis, devastating Botticelli. He requested to be interred next to her upon his death, desiring to spend eternity alongside his muse, and his wish was granted. Both are now laid to rest, side by side, in the little church.
Since it was closed for the afternoon riposo we decided to relax in the piazza for a while. I smoked a cigarette, and we admired the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio. It was a perfectly lovely way to kill an hour, away from the crowds of the main tourist areas, with sunny skies and a light breeze. We were having the best effing day!
The church was small compared to the other monstrosities we’d visited, and was quite dark inside, but no less marvelous in its decoration. We wandered around the sanctuary, pausing at the pulpit for a picture to send to my retired-pastor father (his response, “Cool pulpit! Steal it for me!”), and finally found what we were looking for. Side by side, for all eternity, there were Simonetta and Sandro. Sadly, Botticelli’s tomb was under some kind of renovation, and was blocked from view, but we were able to pay our respects, and I, of course, cried again.
We headed back to our AirBnb afterwards to get cleaned up for dinner. Along the way a sign caught my eye. As I’ve previously discussed I’m very much a cannabis advocate, so when I saw a sign with a single cannabis leaf I went in for a closer look. Much to my amazement, not only was the sign for a little basement pot-shop, but that shop had a vending machine. Weed vending machines?! How is this a thing?! After two weeks of not smoking this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I picked up a few grams and some rolling papers and we headed back to the flat. I won’t say it was good weed. It decidedly wasn’t. It was most likely not cannabis at all, but hemp, as the THC content was almost nil, and it smelled more cannabis-adjacent than dank skunk. But damn if smoking that joint on our Florentine balcony as I gazed at the dome of the Duomo didn’t make me feel like the most cultured, sophisticated stoner ever!
We did our laundry that afternoon, feeling like real Europeans as we hung our wet garments on the clothesline off the balcony. I’m not sure if it’s energy consumption or what, but Europeans seem to have an aversion to clothes dryers. No place we stayed had one. Be that as it may, we kind of enjoyed the line-drying. It was different, felt authentic, and even fun. It made doing laundry in Europe feel like an adventure!
Our meal that evening was. . . interesting. Ironically, what initially drew us to the restaurant we chose was what ultimately made us desperate to leave: a singing waiter. In theory it’s a delightfully Italian experience. In reality it’s cliché and obnoxious and likely caused by a bit too much nose candy. We spent the entire meal listening to him singing the same few bars of the same song, and hollering at passing tourists. The food was fantastic, but we didn’t linger and savor our meal as we’d done at each previous dinner. We scarfed down our meals and high tailed it out of there like the Americans we are.
We’d had another magical day, and despite our dinner time serenade, the girls remarked at how surprised they were to be falling in love with Florence. I wasn’t surprised, but I was most definitely smitten, and so happy that they were loving it as much as I was. We still had a few days of magic left, so it was time to close the curtains on our view of Brunelleschi’s Dome and get some sleep. I’d love you to come back for our next installment as we visit the most famous sculpture on the planet: Michelangelo’s David, and so much more! Till then stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!