Florence: Art

Florence is strongly associated with art and architecture - it's the cradle of the Renaissance - and that's (mostly) down to the Medici family who I mentioned in my Boboli Gardens post last week. Michelangelo, Leonardo (da Vinci), Raphael and Donatello were all supported by the Medici family.

To prove they didn't just support the Ninja Turtles (sorry!), Boticelli, Fra Angelico and Vasari, as well as countless others, were also commissioned by the family to produce art for them during their reign.

Cosimo I de' Medici  asked Vasari to begin work on the building that is now the Uffizi Gallery - Vasari being the same person responsible for The Last Judgement on the ceiling of the Duomo - though, originally its purpose was as offices for magistrates.

Nowadays the Uffizi Gallery is one of Florence's most popular attractions and is home to a lot of the works the Medici family commissioned. (I told you that that are synonymous with art in Florence!)

Make sure you book your tickets in advance as queues to get in can vary from an hour to five hours! How long you need depends on how much you love your Renaissance art - the collection in the Uffizi Gallery is vast, and includes many famous pieces.

 Botticelli's Birth of Venus

Michelangelo's Doni Tondo

You can safely say, if it's covered in glass or has a crowd gathered around it, well it's going to be a masterpiece you're about to view. (Though that's subjective, of course. I prefer my art to be a bit more modern.)

Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze is the other gallery in Florence where the crowds gather - that's because it's home to Michelangelo's David.

Classed as a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, David dominates the Accademia. He's that important that there are two copies of him elsewhere in Florence. There's one outside the Palazzo della Signoria, which is a stone's throw away from the Uffizi Gallery, and the other is at Piazzale Michelangelo, which is near San Miniato al Monte.

Again, book your tickets in advance, though you might find that you're not there that long as it's quite a small place. We spent about 40 minutes there, in total, whilst we spent around two hours in the Uffizi Gallery (though the Uffizi Gallery was closing so we had to leave regardless).

Art dominates Florence, and we did start to feel a bit overloaded after visiting the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia, but there are other options if you're in Florence. The Palazzo Pitti, Palazzo Vecchio and the Bargello Museum all house collections, and if we'd had more time I would have definitely added the Palazzo Vecchio to our itinerary.

Unlike London though where art galleries tend to be free and you pay if you wish to see a special exhibition, in Florence it's a bit different. The Uffizi Gallery costs €6.50 to get in, but if there's a special exhibition on you have to pay to visit that, even if you don't actually want to see the exhibition. Ditto for the Accademia. That made it €11 each to get into the Uffizi Gallery, and €11 to get into the Accademia. As we booked online to skip the queue, that added another €8 to the total (€4 each) in booking fees, which made the total cost of the two galleries a pricey €60!

Tickets for the Uffizi Gallery can be booked here; click here to book the Accademia. Both are closed on Mondays. x

Florence: Boboli Gardens

Situated behind the Palazzo Pitti, you'll find the Boboli Gardens. As you would expect from the former residence of the Medici family, who were the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, it's rather splendid.

You'll hear the name Medici a lot in Florence. Founders of the Medici Bank, the family had extreme political power but were also sponsors of art and architecture which, funnily enough, is why Florence is so renowned for all of its art and architecture.

Whilst the Boboli Gardens may not contain as much art as the Palazzo Pitti does, the gardens are still extensive and filled with sculptures. After climbing the 414 steps up to the top of Giotto's Campanile earlier that day, we decided to skip the Palazzo Pitti to soak up some sunshine in the Boboli Gardens and have a more leisurely afternoon. 

But, we soon found out that we'd have to do some more climbing before we could settle down with our Kindles since the Boboli Gardens is built on a hill - doh!

I read Dan Brown's Inferno at Christmas, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to visit Florence this year. At the beginning of the book our favourite Harvard Professor, along with a mysterious woman who is helping him figure out why he has been shot at and has a cylinder with a biohazard symbol on it, find themselves in the Boboli Gardens being chased by a drone.

One of the places they end up hiding is in the Buontalenti Grotto, which you can only access at certain times of the day (though you can admire its exterior at any time).

Luckily we timed it right and popped in before we headed to the Uffizi Gallery - another thing to thank the Medici family for - and we got to explore the three chambers that make up the Grotta Grande. (There are two other grottos in the Boboli Gardens which we didn't get chance to visit - there's the Grotto of Madama, plus the Cave of Adam and Eve.)

You'll find this grotto towards the exit of the Boboli Gardens; time it right so you can visit it on your way out without having to backtrack.

The Boboli Gardens is a peaceful green space in Florence, which felt quite empty on that hot September afternoon we were there. Costing €7 to get in (€10 if you book online), this also gives you access to Museo degli Argenti, the Costume Gallery, the Porcelain museum and the Bardini Gardens. Take a picnic, spend the day there, and make the most of this beautiful space in Florence. x

Florence: San Miniato al Monte

Back in 1018, a community of monks began to guard the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, situated on one of Florence's highest points.

Being one of Florence's highest points means that it offers one of the best views of Florence, too. How stunning is this view?

The monks are still there, and each evening you can hear them sing in Latin during Mass. They also have a shop which sells their home-made wine, honey and teas.

As seems to be the case in any Italian church you go in, San Miniato al Monte is full of beautiful and ornate paintings, statues and mosaics.

There's also the Monumental Cemetery outside the Basilica, which is worth exploring. It's not as opulent as the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan we visited last year, but it's still pretty impressive.

We hunted high and low and tried to spot the grave of Pinocchio creator, Carlo Collodi, but only realised when we had left that we were looking for a grave with his pen name when we should have been looking for his actual name, Carlo Lorenzini!

We did spot however the family tomb of Franco Zeffirelli. (Zeffirelli is very much alive, by the way.) I associate Franco Zeffirelli with his 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet which I had to watch as part of my Key Stage 3 SAT prep. I can remember being most put out because three years earlier a certain Baz Luhrmann had directed a version of Romeo and Juliet with a certain Mr DiCaprio... Yeah, we didn't get to watch that version.
It's definitely worth a hike up to San Miniato al Monte, or you can get a taxi from the Duomo area for around 10. Be warned though, Italian driving is as bad as they claim it is. We used taxis twice in Florence, and nearly ended up in an accident twice. o_O

Entry to the basilica and grounds is free, but it's always appreciated if you have some coins to put in the donation box. x

Florence: Piazza del Duomo

Whatever you call it - Florence Cathedral, il Duomo di Firenze, Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or, simply, il Duomo - Piazza del Duomo is home to Florence's most iconic landmark, which stands out because of its red brick dome.
You'll find more than just the cathedral in Piazza del Duomo though; it's also home to Giotto's Campanile - that's a bell tower to you and me - as well as the Baptistry of Saint John and Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. These, as well as the Crypt of Santa Reparata inside the cathedral, make up the cathedral complex.

I could have stared at the stunning façade of the cathedral for hours, especially at night when the white, green and red marble appears to shimmer and glow. Day or night crowds gather to take in the magnificence of il Duomo, which is one of the largest cathedrals in the world.

Work started on the cathedral in 1296, and it was finally consecrated in 1436. The cathedral itself is free to get in but remember that your shoulders and knees must be covered. Look up when you get inside and you'll see The Last Judgement, painted by Vasari and finished by his student Zuccari, but the rest of il Duomo feels very empty. It's exterior is rich and complicated, whilst the interior is sparse - a very different story to the story the façade tells.

Buying a ticket gives you access to the aforementioned cathedral complex, though the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore is closed until November 2015. Costing €10 (to access all the ticketed parts of the cathedral complex), you can now climb the 463 steps to the top of the dome and inspect Vasari and Zuccari's masterpiece up close and personal, plus stare out at the stunning view of Florence from up high.

Or, you could climb the 414 steps to the top of Giotto's Campanile, which we decided to do. We had planned on climbing to the top of the dome after that but, truthfully, couldn't face any more stairs!

It was an exhausting climb, especially since I was wearing trousers on a shorts kind of day (I didn't want to risk not been allowed up if my shoulders and knees weren't covered), but the climb is worth it for the view if you can just persevere. 

At 84.7 metres tall you're guaranteed an excellent view of Florence, plus you can peek at the people at the top of the dome. Make sure you take a bottle of water if you decide to brave the steps, though you'll probably want to give it a miss if you suffer from claustrophobia as the stairs are extremely narrow.

Opposite the cathedral and bell tower is the Florence Baptistery, aka the Baptistery of Saint John (again, you need your ticket to enter). It's even older than the cathedral, though the exterior was covered whilst we were there for restoration work. We could still view what Michelangelo dubbed the Gates of Paradise, though it was actually Lorenzo Ghiberti who made these doors as well as the ones on the North side of the Baptistery. (The doors are a copy though - the originals are tucked safely away.)

As with a lot of things when you're out and about exploring, look up once you're in the Baptistery and you'll find the good stuff. Not bad, huh?

PS: It's not the greatest of names, but Mr Pizza in the Piazza del Duomo do excellent pizzas if you need a lunchtime pit stop after climbing all those stairs, plus if you sit outside you get a view of the cathedral if you want to soak it in some more. 

The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace

Every summer, between the months of July and September, the gates swing open to the public to have a poke around the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace, the Queen's official London residence. OK, so you go in via a side entrance and not the gates but, regardless, it's a great chance to see another of the Royal Palaces. I visited with my friend, just before I went to Italy, on a rather bleak day.

It may have been grim outside, but inside it was dazzling. Sadly you can't take photos inside the State Rooms so I can't show you the gorgeous things that make the nineteen rooms look resplendent, but I understand why this policy is in place. Obviously lots of people want to see the State Rooms, meaning there are a lot of people inside who are all following the same audio tour.

It got quite crowded at various points as we all tried to get the best view of what the audio guide was telling us. If you add people stopping to take photos every two seconds it would become hideously unpleasant, rather than a bit annoying at times. (In fact, we had that exact unpleasant experience last week at the Vatican Museums, which I'll tell you about another time!)

Don't let this put you off though - I'm often guilty of snapping photos and taking in things through a lens rather than with my own eyes - as it was fascinating to visit the State Rooms. In a nutshell, the State Rooms are the rooms that the Queen and Royal Family use to receive and entertain guests, and these rooms are filled with sparkling chandeliers, treasures, works of art and are, it goes without saying, furnished opulently. Every year there's also a special exhibition; this year's explores royal childhood.

Once you've seen all that you want to see, you exit at the rear of the palace in the gardens. Whilst you can obviously see the gardens from the pathway that leads you to the exit, you're not allowed to go off and explore them. (You can buy a special ticket that gives you a tour of the gardens but this ticket had sold out when we booked).

In my head I've always had a fond memory of Buckingham Palace, despite never been inside, because of Roald Dahl's The BFG. It was lovely to finally be able to see inside some of the Palace and imagine The BFG jumping over the wall with Sophie to try and persuade the Queen to do something about the giants!

As long as you get your ticket stamped, your ticket is valid for a year, though obviously you can only visit between July and September. I'd recommend that you go in August or September so that you have time to go back the following year to see that year's special exhibition.

There's also the opportunity to relax in the café or stock up on a souvenir or two in the shop once you've left the State Rooms. Who could resist a hot chocolate with a crown though, be warned, the price of cakes and sandwiches are on the more expensive side.

Various tickets are available to visit Buckingham Palace, but the tour we went on cost £19.75 each, plus a £1.25 fee. Tickets are sold out for the 2014 garden tour and evening tour, but there's also a "Royal Day Out" option - all ticket information can be found here. x

PS: September 28th is the last day you can visit Buckingham Palace so you'll have to go sooner rather than later if you want to have a poke around this year!

Ciao Italia!

We've just got back from Italy where we've spent the past two weeks seeing lots of sights, soaking up the sun, and eating our body weight in yummy Italian food. I'll be blogging fully about what we got up to later on, but here's a taster (what I shared on Instagram). Now, how long until I can go away again? x

Florence's iconic cathedral as viewed from Giotto's Campanile. Rome's Piazza Navona.

 The Pantheon. Looking across to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.

Looking down the River Tiber to Vatican City. Sphere Within Sphere by Pomodoro.

 Cefalù Cathedral. The view from the top of La Rocca.

A room with a view. An original Fiat 500.

Buone vacanze!

I'm very excited because Olly and I are about to embark on our summer holidays. It feels like forever since my birthday trip to Barcelona, and the turn in the weather means that summer is well and truly over in the UK.

We're heading to Italy where, hopefully, the weather will be warmer than it is here. Last year we visited Milan, and back in July 2011 I went to Rome with my best friend, red hair and all!

This time round Olly and I will be visiting Florence, Rome and Sicily over the course of two weeks - I can't wait! Do wish us a buone vacanze! {^_^}

PS: If you have any holiday recommendations, leave a comment! x


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