I took a fleeting five-hour sojourn to Florence, the capital of Tuscany, during my recent trip to Rome. On a sunny Monday morning, I hopped on a Trenitalia train at Rome’s bustling Termini station and was in Florence by noon.
Florence is electric. Magnificently so. Florence (or Firenze) is the birthplace of the Renaissance period, the elegant home to artistic and architectural masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s “David," Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” and the neo-gothic "il Duomo di Firenze." I studied Latin and classical civilisation for years at school, so the whole trip, including Rome, turned me into a heart-eyed, sixteen-year-old art boffin all over again.
The minute I stepped out of the station onto the cobblestones of Florence I was giddy with excitement. It was scorching hot, being Italian summer, but Florence's narrow streets were shady and cool. After following weaving strands of chattering tourists through the alleys for a few minutes, a domed building suddenly blossomed in the distance: the majestic Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral). Bright and beautiful, we stood admiring it from afar.
Heading towards the cathedral, we soon found ourselves standing in the Piazza del Duomo, surrounded by people and vendors and nuns. Up close, the Duomo di Firenze was marvellous to look at. It was so clean, pristine, detailed.
White, green, and pink shades of geometric Tuscan marble adorned every nook and cranny of the facade. The muted colours of terracotta and teal were a festive, Neo-Gothic, 19th century tribute to the Italian flag as we know it by artist Emilio De Fabris. We didn't go inside as the queues were cuh-razy, and we only had a few hours, but Basilica's exterior alone was a sight to behold.
In the main piazza, we admired the Gates of Paradise, the replica of the exquisite 6ft tall gilded bronze doors created by early Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti in 1452. It was the artist Michelangelo who, upon seeing the original doors in the piazza, deemed them the “Porta del Paradiso” (Gates of Paradise), because they were gorgeous enough to "grace the entrance to heaven." That's good criticism, right there! Ghiberti's ten intricately carved golden panels depict scenes from the Bible’s Old Testament. Beautiful.
We ventured onwards through the Piazza, passing ah-mazing Firenze leather shops. To this day I’m pining over a soft teal blue leather jacket I found that seemed to make all my dreams come true. It smelled like Italy and was softer than silk. Unfortunately, it was also €1,800 (a.k.a. my average monthly rent in London). To cheer myself up, I bought instead a buttery leather purse the colour of mustard. It was €7. Can deal.
As well as passing droolworthy leather shops and clothing stores, there were some absolutely insane gelato parlours calling my name. Got a cheeky 2-scoop. Hello, nutella and coconut gelato, my new fave dessert combination.
It's worth noting that modern art thrives in Florence. There are so many talented pavement artists who whip up world-class chalk replicas of artworks like Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” everyday on Florence's streets like it ain't no thang. Shamazing.
One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Florence was to see Michelangelo's epic sculpture, the David. I haven’t seen “David” for almost ten years, but I remember how dumbstruck I was the first time I saw the sculpture as a little girl! Sadly, it turned out that the Galleria dell'Accademia where "David" hangs out was closed on Mondays. Bummer!
As luck would have it, our wandering led us to the Piazza della Signoria, where the 94m-high Palazzo Vecchio fortress towered against the crisp blue sky. And guess what was guarding the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio? A replica of Michelangelo’s “David”!
The original statue actually stood there for over 350 years before being moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873. I grabbed a photo opportunity with replica "David" by the... marbles.
Also at Piazza Signoria is the Loggia dei Lanza (or Loggia della Signoria), a free arched open-air gallery attached to the Uffizi Gallery. See, this is the beauty of Florence. Art is free, architecture is free. You don't need to spend a single centavo to access some of the world's most beautiful classical creations.
I was mesmerised by the 14th and 16th century Renaissance sculptures and replicas. The classical sculpture nerd in me was fangirling so hard over the various forms of “contrapposto” (counterpose), and the exquisite dynamism of the draperies, expressions, and muscle movement of each statue. The below photo is a close-up of Pio Fedi's "The Rape of Polyxena" (1865). I mean, just look at the emotion. The pain. The arched back, the taut ribcage, the lips falling apart. It's phenomenal.
I was so into it, actually, that I reached up to touch the leg of one statue and suddenly got a very stern Italian warning from the Loggia’s security guard. He winked kindly afterwards so I didn’t feel too bad. At least he could tell I was into the art!
Giambologna’s “Hercules and the Centaur” (c.1599) and Pio Fedi's "The Rape of Polyxena" (1865).
It blows my mind, how talented our human ancestors were at capturing the very essence of human movement and emotion in something so seemingly hard and unyielding as marble. Look below at Giambologna’s “Rape of the Sabine Women” (c.1583), at the incredible depiction of aggression (or, well, rape). The feet, the arms, the rippling muscles. The immense, alive detail. See the way his curved fingers seem to sink into the flesh of her buttocks.
There is more human observation happening in this Renaissance butt than in the majority of modern undergraduate Anthropology seminars.
Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze “Perseus with the Head of Medusa” (1554)
Strolling onwards, we came across statues of Dante Alighieri and Niccolo Machiavelli along the Uffizi Gallery exterior. I obviously had to copy Machiavelli’s pose. Not a single cringe was given.
We continued strolling towards the sunshine, towards the river. Upon reaching the Ponte Vecchio bridge, it felt like my heart skipped a beat.
That vision of Tuscan-hued buildings dappled in sunlight, suspended over the sparkling green water of the river, has forever claimed a fibre of my heart. Florence, you are perfection.
Once we tore ourselves away from the river, we walked along the bridge. Lining the curved street were rows and rows of glitteringly seductive jewellery shops. Beautiful layered rose-gold necklaces and rings inlaid with emeralds sparkled at the first window I looked at. I had to tear myself away from the windows before I started pining again. I don't think I've ever been so painfully aware of my student loan hanging over my soul like a cloud of pleasant doom like at the moment. No jewels for Mel (yet)!
I did, however, fall head over heels for a tan brown leather Medici-embossed backpack at a nearby bag stand as we meandered back to the train station. My dearest Pops, who was still feeling bad about the theft of my favourite leather backpack at the Vatican, decided to buy it for me as a graduation gift (I'd graduated the week before).
Thus, I left Florence reeling not only from creative inspiration, but also with my first real piece of Italian leather in the form of a gorgeous, rustic, Tomb Raider-esque backpack in tow, which I will cherish forever. The bag has two very strong magnetic buckles, a buttoned pouch, a leather drawstring (I adore bucket bags), and sturdy straps. One may admire below!
Side note: I have had this bag for a year now and I use/care for it religiously, like my own baby, massaging it with non-alcohol lotion and all sorts. And it still smells amazing. Sorry vegetarians!
Finally, we took one last photo opp in the fading sunlight. Then we weaved our way through throngs of tourists and down alleyways to get to back to the train station. Our day in Florence drew to a satisfying close as the train whisked us back to Rome, the Tuscan sun setting over all the blurring hills and houses.
I completely understand why artists are so drawn to Florence, to the Ponte Vecchio. There's such a powerful creative energy here, a magnetising inspirational spirit in the air that is highly conducive to making art, to writing, to painting, sketching, singing. To appreciating life.
If you ever feel like you're lacking in art, culture, gelato, or leather, go and replenish your spirits at Florence, one of the world's most dazzling cultural capitals. There is so much free inspiration and free art.
The entire city is a work of art.
Sweet Firenze, see you soon.
Thanks for reading! Have you been to Florence? How did you enjoy the city?
Mel left London to chase summer around the world, one country at a time. She loves the ocean, writing postcards, and solo exploration. Travel with her on Instagram.