The other side of Florence

As a student in Bologna I made a few trips to this capital of renaissance opulence, bobbing up for air in cool basilicas before plunging into palazzo after palazzo, packed closely with more art than I could chew in a lifetime, let alone a day, before sinking into a bowl of something starchy somewhere shady, off the deeply beaten tourist track that circles Brunelleschi’s egg-topped duomo.

Now in my 33rd July, I’m pleased to be back in Florence with a little more time. I recommend you give Florence at least 3 days – enough to let it introduce itself to you in its own time. I’m not one for these prescribed “36 hours in” tours, which tie you to your map and your intention on getting there, missing the joys of happenstance. Cities like Florence, with so much to see and eat everywhere, are designed to be eaten whole, from seed to peel.

My favourite quarter is on the other side if the river,  L’Oltrano, across the river from the Uffizi and duomo , near the miles of box hedges in the Boboli gardens. Here, on the other side, is space and peace broken only by mouthwatering artisanal markets and brilliant buskers . Also, in seeming homage to the statue of Abundance (L’Abbondanza) that surveys this quarter from the top of the Boboli estate , there’s not a street or piazza without a place to feast on beef and udon-like ‘pici’, gnocchi, bean stew, wild boar and all manner of Tuscan treats, finished off with a basket of edifying almond-packed Cantuccini biscuits steeped in soul-affirming Vin Santo.

 

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Where was I? Ah si si, the other side of Florence’s  river Arno, bridged by the ancient, tourist-heavy jewellery arcade that is the Ponte Vecchio, joint equal with Venice’s Rialto, the most touristed bridge in Europe and possibly the world. As if by magic the tourist flow dissipates once you cross over, with the duomo behind you, as the Oltrarno’s network of clear streets welcomes you into its confidence. 

Here you’ll find a couple of palazzos now turned into public museums and art collections,  time capsules created by the 18th and 19th century aristocratic ‘grand’ tourists and later “cognoscenti”. Here you’ll also find the piazzas of Santas Spirito and Croce. The former is perhaps my favourite square in Florence. Its beauty is not it’s ornate medieval-renaissance architecture, that forms merely the stage – it’s the players: Florentines, students, immigrants, all milling about, lining the long steps outside the Basilica of Santo Spirito, letting the stirring of the busking dancers and musicians fan their ‘discorsi’ in the gently simmering dusk.

 

Santo Spirito

 There’s a 15th century convent on this square that the Catholic church have obligingly allowed to become a lovely hotel, each room blessed with its own character and heavenly views over the city. There’s one with a bathroom that looks like there’s a romantic painting of the cathedral on the wall, until you realise it’s actually a window with the best view in Florence. I’ll never forget having a shower, looking out into this with the evening sun and breeze flowing through the window, mingling with the smell of gorgeously cheesy opera music wafting up from the Piazza below.

Room with a view

Hopelessly sentimental I know, but Italy does this to you, it’s very hard not to be lost in ‘sentimentalità’ here. I have a friend who is one of the rare breed of non-Italians who have managed to penetrate the impenetrable ancient world of the Florentine artisan. What I wouldn’t give to have a little garret  in Piazza Santo Spirito and have a pastry and espresso under the trees before making my way to my cave-like workshop in a dusty side-street to work diligently and thoughtfully on an altar piece or a memorial stone of pietra dura, carving different stones into animals and crests and flowers before stopping for a beautifully simple lunch somewhere delicious and affordable

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But back to reality and London frenzy we Londoners must go, thanking Italy for yet another beautiful city of art, love and of course, food. Here are some of the places I love in Florence. If you spot them, bene, if you don’t, bene, you will no doubt find your own treasures. The only thing I would recommend above all, is to stay in the converted covent in Piazza Santo Spirito, formerly known as Convent of the Sorelle Bandini (Bandini Sisters), now Hotel Palazzo Guadagni.

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Toucans of affection

Toucans are one of the most punnable species. No wonder Guinness trial of  “zoo” mascots in 1930s found that the toucan took off, scoring high above the ostriches and tortoises…

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Just take one topic, e.g.  ‘Valentine’s Day’: ‘toucan of my affection’, ‘love toucan’, ‘not just a toucan gesture’,  ‘toucan play that game’, ‘toucans take to tango’, ‘a romantic evening for toucans is toucans of Guinness and a packet of…’

And so this colourful cousin of the woodpecker (yes indeed, you’d be forgiven for assuming them to be the Barbara Streisands of the Parrot family) shot to fame thanks to a serendipitous grammatical coincidence of one of the most useful numbers +  the #1 bestseller of the verb world…They came on my radar lately thanks to this one:

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It’s by German artist Wolfgang Tillmans, whose exhibition at the Tate Modern opens today. Tillmans calls his works ‘images’ and not photographs. The ‘image’ is a careful composition of choices.  Wolgang has cited colour as one of the areas of ‘choice’ over which the photographer, like a painter, has jurisdiction…

Read more about this photograph

 

What makes a portrait great?  

Photographs capture a moment in time.  In exchange for the depth and truth of this one moment, photographs risk loosing the whole truth of all the other moments that have brought it to the viewer.

Saint-Exupéry, in  The Little Prince,  says ‘What is essential is not seen’.  A great portrait can be entirely abstract or ‘warts and all’; the final goal should never be  to get a visual likeness, but to take us to unseen dimensions, beyond the skin.

A bad portrait  can be replaced by a photograph. A great portrait layers experience over appearance, to conjure up something that’s part of time and yet beyond it.

Many of the portraits in this year’s exhibition pointed towards this extra dimension.

The National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 BP Portrait Award runs until September

 

Recommended reading

‘Diversion’ by Charlie Masson, oil on board, shown above

The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupéry

The origin of the phrase ‘warts and all