When I passed through the Porta San Frediano the other day, I noticed a discreet brown metal sign stating that UNESCO has included the entire centro storico of Florence on their list of World Heritage Monuments. UNESCO’s website describes the city “as a treasure chest of works of art and architecture….defined by the 14th-century walls” (Porta San Frediano is one of the gates piercing these massive stone walls) and praises the “unique coherence” of Florence’s historic center.
Coherent it may be but Florence is overwhelming, too, especially for a tourist trying to make some sense of all this Art with a capital “A.” It’s no wonder that a condition dubbed Stendhal Syndrome affects a certain number of visitors each year with symptoms including rapid heartbeat, fainting, dizziness, and even hallucinations! Real or psychosomatic, local hospital staffs are accustomed to treating tourists experiencing the symptoms of what is basically “art overload,” proving the point that too much of a good thing is not good.
But what is a conscientious tourist to do, surrounded by all this magnificent art and with only a couple of days in Florence? My advice is not to look upon art as medicine – meaning that you shuffle through the Uffizi to gaze at Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” because it must be good for you – or even worse, you check off items from some predetermined bucket list of the world’s “greatest hits” that should be seen before you die. Better to admit to yourself that you can’t see it all and spend some time really LOOKING at the things you do go to see (hint: snapping a photo with your iPhone is not really looking!).
So, traversing the centro storico from north to south, here are my suggestions for approaching the treasure chest that is Florence without risking Stendhal Syndrome and ending up in the hospital. And because food and wine are such a large part of any trip to Italy, each art stop has a corresponding food stop where you can sit on a bench and refuel.
1. Accademia Gallery
Bucket list or not, nobody should miss seeing Michelangelo’s white giant in the Accademia Gallery: the marble “David” is 17 feet tall without its pedestal, and is carved with such sensitivity and finesse that he almost seems to breath. I once toured the Accademia with an orthopedic surgeon, and he marveled at how all the bones, muscles, and tendons perfectly link up, lending weight to the story that the teenage Michelangelo was allowed to dissect corpses by the prior of the Monastery of Santo Spirito. But it’s another monastery right around the corner from the Accademia that I urge you to visit now.
2. Monastery of San Marco
Unlike the Accademia, the Monastery of San Marco is blissfully uncrowded, as befits a place where Dominican friars once lived together in an atmosphere of meditation and prayer. Just walking through the door plunges you back into the world of the early Renaissance, where palm trees grow in the central cloister and the whitewashed walls display masterpieces from the brush of Fra Angelico. His remarkable frescoes, painted in restful pastels, adorn the friar’s spartan cells upstairs while on the monastery’s ground floor hang a number of recently restored altarpieces, also by Fra Angelico (as member of the Dominican order, he lived here himself from 1438 to 1445, and so did the fiery friar Savonarola before his public execution in Piazza della Signoria).
3. Food stop #1
Now it’s time for a break and Focacceria Pugi is perfectly placed, directly across the piazza from the Monastery of San Marco. Since 1960 the name Pugi has been synonymous with schiacciata all’olio, the famous Florentine flatbread made with olive oil. This bakery also bakes bread and pizza al taglio with a huge variety of toppings. At lunchtime the place is packed with students from the nearby University of Florence, but it’s worth waiting in line to grab a hot slice and take it to a bench in Piazza San Marco to eat.
4. Palazzo Strozzi
Walking south towards the river, you pass the colorful, marble-encrusted Duomo and then Piazza della Repubblica. Behind the piazza sits one of Florence’s biggest and most impressive Renaissance palaces, the Palazzo Strozzi. Like a lot of the real estate in this part of town, it was built by a banker who rivaled the Medici in power and influence. Nowdays the palace is used as an exhibition site: every show I have seen here has been beautifully installed and curated — the current one, “The Springtime of the Renaissance. Sculpture and the Arts in Florence 1400-60,” is a show for sculpture lovers and connoisseurs that moves to the Louvre in Paris after closing in Florence on August 18th, 2013.
5. Palazzo Davanzati
The Palazzo Strozzi isn’t furnished as a private residence any longer, but the nearby 14th century Palazzo Davanzati is and it is well worth a visit, especially if you are traveling with children. Who wouldn’t love the charmingly-frescoed dining room with an all-over pattern of red-and-green parrots? Or medieval plumbing as represented by the private bathrooms on each of the three upper floors — a real rarity for this time period! An added perk if you visit the Palazzo Davanzati between April 20th and May 25th is that in honor of the 700th anniversary of the birth of the Tuscan poet, Boccaccio, every Saturday at 11:30am musicians from l’Ensemble Musica Ricercata and actors from the Teatro Oranona di Certaldo will be giving free performances in the palace’s gaily-decorated rooms.
6. Food stop #2
When you exit the palace onto the Via Porta Rossa, walking down the street in the direction of Via Tornabuoni, you will pass a narrow alleyway off to the right called Chiasso de’ Soldanieri. Tuscany’s only claim to fame isn’t just celebrated poets like Dante and Boccaccio; it also boasts the Tuscan Chocolate Valley, stretching west of Florence all the way to Pisa. One of the very best of these chocolatiers is Roberto Catinari whose Florentine boutique, Arte di Cioccolato, rivals the fancy designer shops on Via Tornabuoni.
The difference is that Roberto’s art is edible so buy some of his beautiful bonbons shaped like wine corks, acorns or porcini mushrooms and go around the corner to eat them, seated comfortably on the wide stone bench attached to the facade of the Renaissance Palazzo Bartolini-Salimbeni on the corner of Piazza Santa Trinita (wealthy merchants in the 15th and 16th centuries included places to sit out in front of their palaces, a boon to footsore tourists in the 21st century!).
7. Church of Santa Felicita
If you haven’t crossed the Ponte Vecchio yet, now is the time to do so. Dazzled by all the gold in the shop windows, you can continue down the pedestrian street called Via Guicciardini until you see the church of Santa Felicita on your left. The first chapel on the right as you enter the church, the Capponi Chapel, contains a masterpiece of Mannerist art that outshines anything by Pontormo hanging in the Uffizi. The eccentric artist’s altarpiece of the “Descent from the Cross,” with its incredible day-glo colors, anguished facial expressions, and unbalanced figures, is a strangely contemporary image that is not soon forgotten.
8. Palazzo Pitti
Luca Pitti, the man who built the Pitti Palace in 1450, went bankrupt before it was finished so 100 years later the Medici moved in and used the place to display part of their enormous art collection. They also lived here so the rooms are sumptuously adorned with over-the-top frescoed ceilings, acres of gilt, and enough inlaid marble tables to furnish ten Park Avenue penthouses! All this, plus masterpieces of oil painting by Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian, and Rubens can be seen in the Galleria Palatina, my pick among the Pitti’s several museums (but on a sunny spring day, follow up a visit to the Palatina with a stroll in the Boboli Gardens).
9. Food stop #3
Now it’s time for a gelato break and I know just the place to go! Gelateria della Passera, located in Piazza della Passera on the corner of Via dello Sprone, makes 20 flavors of gelato daily — the nocciola has whole hazelnuts in it and the selection of fruit flavors changes with the season. Buy a cone or a cup, and plunk yourself down on one of the piazza’s new wooden benches to eat it.