Week Notes: 2024-05-31 Florence


Ponte Vecchio
31 May 2024

This week was half term and we went to Florence!

After 15 years of living in London, I still pinch my Midwestern American self that I get to travel so easily in Europe. Travelling to Europe from St. Louis was a dream – and a 6+ hour plane trip on TWA.

Day 0: Arrival

Our little plane at LCY

I love travelling from London City Airport. It’s easy to get to, tiny, and I feel like an exec at a bank. A mid-level exec, perhaps, but still exciting! After a relatively smooth flight on a smallish BA plane that makes the trip between Florence and London about 6 times a day, we arrived at Amerigo Vespucci Airport – named for the 15th century Florentine explorer after whom “the Americas” are also named. 

Our charming mosquito-filled flat

We took a packed tram to a bus and then walked a few blocks on centuries-old narrow pavements to our Airbnb which was wonderfully central and absolutely filled with both old-world charm and mosquitoes. They devoured us alive and drove us slightly batty every night. No pun intended. 🦇

The streets of Florence

Day 1: Anselm Kiefer @ Palazzo Strozzi

We wandered around the old town a bit, encountering a few Stolperstein which always make me stop and think – exactly as they’re designed to do.

A Stolperstein
Another Stolperstein

I love all the assorted doorbells, door knockers, porticos, windows, cobblestones, and little devotional images painted on the corners of buildings as a reminder for citizens to be good in the days before CCTV.

Who's there?

After a quick gelato stop, we arrived at Palazzo Strozzi.

I’ve always enjoyed Anslem Keifer’s earthy yet not entirely earthly work. It’s messy, intimate, laden with symbolism, and somehow futuristically prehistoric in a way that appears to bridge past and future, heaven and earth.

Engelssturz (Fall of the Angels) by Anslem Kiefer

The show opens with his monumental “Engelssturz (Fall of the Angels)” in the main courtyard. As we arrived, the setting sun was bouncing off the interior windows of the courtyard casting a kind of dappled golden sunlight on the piece.

Several of his pieces (Fur Antonin Artaud: Helagebale, 2023, SOL INVICTUS Heliogabal, 2023, and Sol Invictus, 1995) made heavy use of sunflowers as a recurring motif, the latter using real seeds on burlap showering a prone figure (the artist). From the exhibition guide, I learned about the 17th century English philosopher and alchemist Robert Fludd who “associated each plant with a star…in an idea that can be traced back to Plato”. Nice. 🌟

Kiefer also had a series of paintings which he had irradiated with plutonium giving them an otherworldly look. Many of his works are designed to be left outside, exposed to the elements, as part of their ultimate realisation.

Plutonium-irradiated pieces by Anselm Kiefer

I also learned about Nemesis: the Greek goddess of retribution – rewarding wise deeds, and punishing foolish ones – sounds a lot like karma

Kiefer closed the exhibition with a beautiful poem by an Italian poet whom I didn’t know, Salvatore Quasimodo

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

Translation:

Everyone is alone in the heart of the earth
pierced by a ray of sunshine:
and suddenly it is evening.

Source

What a beautiful articulation of the short, beautiful, delicate thing that is life in this world.

Later we walked across the famous Ponte Vecchio with is myriad jewelry shops which have been there since 1593 when they replaced butcher shops and fishmongers. 

The Tuscan hills framed behind one of the arches of the Ponte Vecchio

We strolled up to the Palazzo Pitti, realised we were starving, and had a predictably disappointing dinner in front of the closed museum.

Day 2: The Duomo, Campanile, Baptistry, and Museo del Opera

The famous duomo (Cathedral)

We climbed endless stairs at the campanile (bell tower). The steep winding narrow staircases tested our resolve but we were rewarded at the top with beautiful views across the city. We would’ve climbed the dome but it’s booked up solid for the next two months!

Views for days

We made a quick visit inside the baptistry which is undergoing restoration work to the beautiful mosaics so we didn’t really get to see those this time around. 

Sadly, three card monte is alive and well behind the duomo. I watched as a woman with her family lost 100 euros in about 20 seconds.

Tough to watch this woman lose €100 in about 20 seconds

We enjoyed a romantic outdoor lunch until a large sewerage pumping truck arrived for an emergency visit across the street and started sucking out the contents of the ancient sewer producing a powerful olfactory assault. We moved inside and enjoyed our lunch until a gentleman in the adjacent smoking lounge lit up a fat cigar. Ahhh, Italy!

Following lunch we visited the Museo del Opera containing all the beautiful things that were previously in the duomo including Ghiberti’s beautiful baptistry doors depicting various scenes from the bible. They’re often called the “gates of paradise” in a clever play on words following the ancient Christian tradition calling the space between the baptistery and the door of its church a “paradiso” or paradise referring to the short walk from baptism to the first Eucharist. The phrase also alludes to Ghiberti’s doors as being a worthy portal to heaven. 

Ghiberti's Baptistry doors "The Gates of Paradise"
Detail of Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise" – Check out that linear perspective!

I had the privilege of seeing several of the panels in Seattle when they were on tour and it was a thrill to see the beautifully restored complete doors inside the museum along with an amazingly detailed silver altar piece (pic below).

The silver altar piece

We improvised an easy dinner at home of turkey escalopes (because Carrefour didn’t have anything else) in lemon butter sauce with fusili corti bucati which we dubbed “telephone cord pasta” and green beans.

I thought about Italo Calvino and enjoyed listening to a very atmospheric playlist of “60s Italian film jazz”.

Day 3: Gallerie degli Uffizi!

The Uffizi Gallery holds one of the world’s most important collections of Italian Renaissance art which previously belonged to the famous House of Medici donated by the last surviving heiress, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici.

My friend Chiyo Ishikawa is a renowned curator and lover of Italian art who recently retired from the Seattle Art Museum. She shared some fantastic recommendations of things to see at the Uffizi. This is a good thing to have when visiting a museum with more than 10,000 works!

A few of my favourites:

The Annunciation with St. Margaret & St. Ansanus

The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi from 1333

Chiyo called this “one of the most beautiful works ever painted” and I have to agree. I love the intricate nimbuses (halos) carved directly into the gold leaf on the canvas, how the virgin looks dubiously at the archangel Gabriel, her sinuous pose as she “shrinks from her fate” (Chiyo’s words again), how Gabriel’s message is drawn directly on the canvas and seems to travel from his lips straight to her ears. It’s extremely modern, moving, spectacular and precise.

Girls will be girls

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes such a powerful, compelling, beautifully rendered, and sadly still amazingly timely painting – executed after the artist was raped in 1611. I mentioned to a friend of mine that we had seen this piece in Florence and she sent me a photo of her daughter holding up a t-shirt featuring the painting and the slogan “Girls will be girls”. 😉 It’s nice to see this image being used as a direct challenge to the patriarchy and a response to the “boys will be boys” language used to excuse sexual harassment and generally terrible behaviour by men. The image itself is so good. The confluence of arms, the dramatic way the light rakes across the figures, the squirting blood, the crimson bedclothes, his searching desperate wide open eyes, Judith’s look of quiet determination all create an extremely powerful piece.

Caravaggio's Medusa

Caravaggio’s Medusa, cleverly painted on a shield. It was, after all, Perseus’s shield which allowed him to see her reflection instead of looking directly at her and being turned to stone. 

Day 4: Palazzo Pitti and a couple of work calls

On Thursday I took a couple of work calls. I love the flexibility of my work set-up but it does mean that occasionally I have to do some work while on “holiday”. This one is hopefully leading to a new project with a new client where I’ll get go to Hong Kong to speak to 100+ senior executives of a global bank next month.

Afterwards, I joined my family at Palazzo Pitti where I saw some of the best tromp l’oil of my life in the ducal treasury. Every room was exquisitely painted with architectural marvels, stairways, crenelated moldings, columns, archways, porticos, elaborate pediments, friezes, and more – all painstakingly rendered using only paint on perfectly smooth walls.

Nothing but paint
Dude, good party

The treasury also contained a number of intricately carved ivory pieces, detailed wooden reliquaries, and other snazzy trinkets.

Day 5: Boboli Gardens then home

We took a quick zip through the Boboli Gardens then jumped on the tram for a refreshingly quick (20 minute) journey to the airport, then back to London.

View of Pitti Palace through the Boboloi Gardens

Changing the world with art? Or with money?

Visiting Florence, one can’t help but think about how much of the world’s wealth was concentrated in a handful of cities on the Italic Peninsula for hundreds of years. A substantial chunk of that wealth was used to nurture the skills of a relatively small number of artists, architects, and craftspeople. Much of their work would be invisible to all but the wealthiest members of society but it has endured and gone on to be appreciated by billions of people around the world for generations since, even as Italy’s economic fortune’s have waned. Thanks again to Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici.

Earlier this week I saw a brilliant 3 minute interview by Jeremy Deller. It was posted by the Danish contemporary art museum, Louisiana which I got to visit a few years ago.

I’ve always enjoyed Deller’s quirky work but this interview made me appreciate him even more. When asked if he thinks art can change the world, he responds by pointing out that wealthy art patrons have the means to actually change the world… And they probably should use their power and influence to do more than just buy art!

Foto Automatica
Palazzo Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio
Two of my favourite people enjoying the sunset.

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