Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Firenze=Florence, Part I

Florence for Peace—Sign outside the Florence train station
 Everything about Florence seems to be colored 
with a mild violet, like diluted wine. 
~ Henry James

Florence is not one of my favorite Italian cities.  Let me rile you up just a little more and tell you that I'm also not a big fan of Venice or Rome.  I can already hear the virtual screaming that I must be nuts because everyone loves Florence, Rome, and Venice. They are, after all, the center of history and culture and art and music and literature and everything Italy.  

No offense, but that's not quite true. There are a lot of cities in Italy that have as much history, culture, art, music and literature as Florence, Rome, and Venice. Tourists just haven't discovered these other places yet, and I seriously hope they don't for a long time because I don't want to have to fight crowds everywhere. (Of course, they can go to Modena because I probably won't go back.)

Just because Florence is not one of my favorite cities, though, doesn't mean I don't like it.  I actually do. The architecture is stunning, and the art and sculpture are wonderful.  Consider all of the artists who lived and worked in Florence: Michelangelo, DaVinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Donatello, Della Robbias, Rubens and others. Important writers, including Dante, Petrarch, Macchiavelli, Boccaccio, and Gianni, also worked from Florence.

The façade of the duomo and campanile
One of my favorite sites in Florence is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (above), or Il Duomo. Construction on the cathedral started in 1296 and took almost 150 years to complete it.  The cathedral complex includes the cathedral, its bell tower (below), and a octagonal baptistry (not shown). The baptistry, which dates to the 11th century, was where all Florentine Catholics, including Dante, were baptized until the late 19th century.

The campanile and dome
The cathedral is massive. It is over 500 feet long by 124 feet wide except at the "cross" section where the width grows to almost 300 feet.  The arches over the aisle are 75-feet high, and the dome, the most famous aspect of the cathedral, is almost 115-feet high.  Giotto's Campanile, the bell tower, is almost 280-feet high and houses seven bells.  (Should you wish to climb to the top, there are about 450 stairs.  Good luck. Send me a photo.)

The dome
The dome, which is the most well-known part of the cathedral, was the final piece put in place.  Part of the reason was that the area it was to cover was so large that no one could figure out how to construct it. I won't bore you with details, but the dome is the largest masonry dome in the world. The octagonal dome includes over four million bricks (weighing an estimated 37,000 tons), and is about 150-feet wide.
The main door to the duomo

 Two final notes about the duomo: The façade is a combination of pink, white and green marble from various areas of Tuscany.  Most interesting is that the façade is not original and dates to the 19th century. 

Second, if you look at the main doors (above), you can see a mosaic above depicting Christ with his mother, Mary. The relief on the door also show an enthroned Holy Mother. The side doors (not shown) also have relief work depicting scenes from the life of Mary.

Fresh fruit in Mercato Centrale

 Many tourists who go to Florence know about the Mercato San Lorenzo, but they don't realize that there is a huge covered market in the midst of all the craziness.

Housed in a 140-year old building, the Mercato Centrale houses vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, flowers, spices, candies, pastries, and anything else you can think of.  Recently renovated, the market also has a second floor "food court" with enough seating for more than 500 people. Surprisingly, the prices were less than what I found in the Modena market and about on-par with the Bologna market.

A butcher tying up pork roast

A few vendors told me that since cooking shows have become so popular in the last few years, more and more tourists find out about and flock to the market.

Just outside the doors of the market, on all four sides of the building, are hundreds of stalls selling everything from t-shirts to magnets to scarves to, and especially, leather goods.  Most people don't realize that during the Renaissance, it was the textile industry that originally gave Florence a strong economy.  Wool, was the main product, and in the early 14th century, nearly 1/3 of the population worked in the wool industry.  By the end of the century, they added silk production.

A wool coat I would buy if I had an extra 175 euro

In addition to the stalls at San Lorenzo and Mercato Nuovo, there are leather shops all over Florence.  Prices vary from one minute to the next, and everyone swears his/her leather is genuine leather that was "Made in Italy." Unfortunately, most tourists don't do their homework and find out later that their bargain ostrich-leather purse was really made in China. 

I walked through the market on my way to the duomo Friday, and I did stop to look at a number of items. One vendor stopped me.

"Signora. Signora. Where you from? United States?" I hadn't said a word. At least he didn't think I was British.

Leather stand on the street near Mercato Nuovo
"No." I lied, but I knew he was going to do so, too.






"Let me look," I finally said to him in Italian. I particularly loved one jacket that he had, but it was way too expensive at 250 euro.

"It's pure lamb skin...made in Florence...guaranteed." He wanted me to buy it.  "We're the only ones who have this style."

"I just saw the same jacket a few stalls down."

"Theirs isn't real leather from Italy."  Of course not.

I bought nothing, of course, although I will admit that I got caught the last time we were in Florence.  I love the scarves sold at the market. Last time we were in Florence, I bought a number of them because they were "MADE IN ITALY."  We went to Prague, and I saw the same scarves—"MADE IN CZECH REPUBLIC." Then I went home, and I saw the same scarves  in Dillard's—"MADE IN CHINA." Oops.

I guess my advice is this: If you're going to Florence and want to buy leather, do so. Just be sure you know what to look for. You can read how to tell if you're buying real leather here.

Tomorrow: I scarf-hunt in Florence and a few fun tidbits.

Side note: Thanks for your patience for the 12 days I was without internet access in my apartment.

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