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FLORENCE - things not to miss

This isn't really a travel journal. It's just a short note that I wrote to a friend who is going to Florence and wanted some tips.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by Florence, not so much because of its amazing works of art, but rather because there is so much to see, normally so many people wanting to do the sights, and – frankly – an element of modern-day chaos that can get the better of visitors. For this reason, it may be helpful to note a very few things that are worth seeking out, that are not normally over-crowded and that are not necessarily on the general tourist trail. They also happen to be some of the real treasures of the city.

I am not listing the things that everyone knows about, magnificent though they are - for example: the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Duomo, the Baptistery, the Palazzo Pitti and, of course, the famous Ponte Vecchio, which you can’t really miss. The things listed are those that might be easier to miss.

The first item on my list is the Brancacci Chapel in the Santa Maria del Carmine. It’s south of the river, most of the city being on the north. It’s just a side chapel, but it contains some of the most important and wonderful frescoes in Italy. They were painted right at the beginning of what we think of as the Italian Renaissance and represent the first real steps that artists took to move on from the stylized iconography of the middle ages. Michelangelo was a big admirer.

The frescoes were actually painted by several artists: Masolino, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi, but the one we all admire was Masaccio. He did the two most famous paintings: the Expulsion of Adam and Eve; and the so-called Tribute Money – the latter depicting the curious story of Jesus telling Peter to find the money for some tax from the mouth of a fish! He can be seen in the background struggling to find it.

At the moment, I believe that there is a serious problem, in that the frescoes are being restored, although the good news is that the authorities are allowing guided tours to climb up the scaffolding and see the frescoes much better – better than perhaps even Michelangelo could manage. The trouble is that you have to book a tour and they only happen on some days of the week. Full details are on the relevant website.

My next item is the Palazzo Medici Riccardi as it contains a small chapel called the Cappella dei Magi (I imagine one has to book in advance here too). The chapel is decorated with a wonderful fresco depicting the procession of the Magi, although most of the key people in the procession happen to be members of the Medici family. It was painted by Benozzo Gozzoli, not perhaps one of the best known of the Renaissance artists, but details from the fresco appear on countless Christmas cards.

The third item is outside the city centre, overlooking the city from the south, the church of San Miniato al Monte. It is a gem of Romanesque architecture, constructed long before the Renaissance, actually – to put it in context - a few years before the Norman Conquest.

Those are my three suggestions. I’m also tempted to add three other things, although all are well known and presumably on any tourist trail. One is the Convent of San Marco, with its individual cells decorated by Fra Angelico and containing perhaps the most famous image ever of the Annunciation, also by Fra Anglico, who was a monk as well as a painter.

The other is the Bargello, a museum containing some of the most beautiful statues by Donatello, in particular his David, the first nude statue since Roman times, he standing elegantly with his foot on the head of Goliath.

And finally, the superb Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, perhaps actually the best of my three additions. It contains, as indicated by its name, things taken from the cathedral and elsewhere. It has yet more statues by Donatello, including his famous La Maddalena, and the originals of the panels on the door of the Baptistery, called by Michelangelo the “Gate of Paradise”.

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