Looking for Michelangelo in Florence, Italy

In Activities, Destinations, Europe by Susan Watkins

“One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.”

Henry Miller

It has been rightly said that to visit Florence is to immerse yourself in one big living museum.  At every turn, masterpieces of art, sculpture, architecture, and history are on glorious display.  The heartbeat of this city is alive and vibrant, with stories to tell to those who will listen.

We are in Florence, and we are looking for Michelangelo.  The cradle of the Renaissance, Florence is also the birthplace of the brilliant sculptor, painter, poet and architect, Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Here he was apprenticed and mentored, rising to become the greatest living artist of his day.  In his celebrity, Michelangelo lived much of his life in Rome and Milan, but he returned to his beloved Florence again and again, finally to be laid to rest in death.

If you are fortunate enough to visit here, don’t worry if you are not a big art aficionado.  Neither am I.  This is a city for lovers of art as well as for those who have eyes to appreciate new things.  And so, we arrive with open hearts, looking for Michelangelo, eager to see Florence through his eyes.

David and the Duomo

We start our first day in Florence over cappuccino, standing at a small coffee bar just adjacent to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as the Duomo. The bells of Florence always seem to be ringing as they are now, adding a rich ambience to the city. As we sip our coffee, we look over our ambitious wish-list of Michelangelo-related sites to see, knowing that we must plan carefully.  Most of the museums and churches here keep highly irregular hours, and planning our time feels a bit like working a jigsaw puzzle to ensure we experience the must-see sites on our list!

At the top of our list of things to see is one of Michelangelo’s most famous works – the iconic sculpture of David. We arrive by appointment at the Accademia and upon first sight of the David, we are completely captivated. A hushed awe pervades the gallery where he stands. There are no words to describe what it feels like to stand in the presence of such a genius.  Seeing photographs of this sculpture all my life has done nothing to prepare me for the thrill of seeing the original work.  David is, quite simply, magnificent.

Next, we linger over four of Michelangelo’s “Unfinished Prisoners” sculptures.  As their names suggest, they are unfinished, but nevertheless powerful and expressive works of art.  The figures appear to be writhing, ready to burst out of their marble blocks at any moment.  I remember that famous quote of Michelangelo’s: I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

From here, our day is a cavalcade of museums and churches, all containing treasures by Michelangelo.  In each place, we stand in near-reverence before some of the most impressive art the world has ever known.  Now, all of this art appreciation was making me hungry!  Did I mention that there are other art forms in Florence besides painting, sculpture and architecture?  Oh yes, the city is also renowned for its culinary arts and we decided it was time to partake in some.  At an outdoor table at Trattoria Baldovino, we enjoyed Bruschetta and a thin crust Pizza Carpaccio with Mozzarella, Smoked Beef, and Parmesan shavings.  We munched contentedly and sipped a glass of Chianti as we listened to the bells of the city ring out the hour.

After lunch, we set out to visit Michelangelo’s final resting place in the cavernous Basilica of Santa Croce.  Here also are buried other famous Italian artists and thinkers, including Galileo, Donatello and Ghiberti.  The church is cool, dark and peaceful.  I stand before the marble tomb of Michelangelo and ponder the impact one man can make on his world.

The day was waning, but we had one last stop – the famous Duomo.  This majestic church with its façade of pink, green and white Tuscan marble is the jewel of the city, and its imposing presence is the symbol of Florence.  Most spectacular is Brunelleschi’s dome, which is universally regarded as the first great example of Renaissance architecture.

Hmmm…. The clock strikes four.  Gelato time!  Florence is reputed to have the best gelato in the world – yes you heard it right, the world.  After tasting, we have to agree. Our favorite gelateria is Coronas Café, where they make it right on the premises.  As our cones of Bacio (Chocolate Hazelnut Cream) and Pistachio are artfully presented and served, I have a feeling Michelangelo would approve!

Masterpieces and Moonlight

On our second day in Florence, we made reservations for the famous Uffizi Gallery.  This is Italy and if you’ve been here, you will know what I am talking about – things are a little crazy in the piazza outside of the museum.  There are special lines for people with reservations, lines for those without reservations and about eight other lines for everyone in between.  Making our way through the throngs of people, asking here and there in broken Italian, and with much gesturing, we finally find our entrance.  Once inside, all of the chaos melts away and we are transfixed by one of the most famous art collections in the world.  We find Michelangelo’s painting, the Doni Holy Family, which, like much of his work, has a story behind it.  Apparently Michelangelo scandalized the people of Florence by turning his back on tradition and painting the Holy Family not as wealthy figures in a celestial looking palace, but as peasants relaxing in an outdoor setting.  And, gasp; there are naked cherubs in the same painting as the Holy Family!  It is a visionary work of art.  We had most certainly found Michelangelo here, but we cannot miss also taking in all of the breathtaking Boticellis as well as the works of Leonardo daVinci, Raphael and Titian.  The entire museum is a feast for the eyes.

Next, it was on to the Bargello Museum of sculpture. We loved the intimate size of this museum. My favorite here is Michelangelo’s famous statue of Baccus, the Roman god of wine.  Sculpted by Michelangelo when he was only 21 years old, it is a tribute to his creative prowess that he could make even a marble statue look pretty convincingly tipsy, if not downright drunk!

It was a mere few blocks to our next stop, and we need sustenance!  We stopped for another round of Gelato.  Cooling our heels at a small table on the street and savoring the cool and creamy treat is one of the very best things to do in Florence.  Feeling rejuvenated, we wandered through the leather markets and admired all of the beautiful shoes, handbags, belts, and wallets.  Hand-crafted leather is yet another art form here in Florence, and a cute pair of red leather sandals caught my eye.  I could do some serious shopping damage here!

For dinner tonight, we asked a local shopkeeper for their recommendation.  He pointed to a place down the street, warning “They no smile there, but food good.”  Rather than risk the ire of a cranky waiter who might put a damper on our fabulous day, we kept walking until we found a warm and inviting place.  We feasted on an appetizer of Caprese Salad.  It was fresh, salty Mozzarella and sweet Garden Tomatoes nestled in Olive Oil were so delicious I could have eaten this all night.  For the primi platta, we ordered homemade Pasta with Truffles.  Secondi platta was grilled Florentine Steak, a regional specialty, served on a bed of peppery Arugula with a side of fresh Spinach sautéed in fragrant Garlic.  Strolling musicians were playing a romantic melody and the moon hung low over Florence, casting a silvery glow across our table.  Così bella!

Although the waiter offered dessert, we decline, because we already have our hearts set on stopping at the little gelateria that’s on our way back to the apartment.  I know, I know – we have eaten gelato once today already, but this is Florence, and I can assure you that gelato twice a day is completely acceptable!  With gelato cones in hand and la bella luna lighting our way, we wandered along cobbled streets past elegant boutiques, admiring the fashions displayed in the windows.  We made our way home through the quiet streets, returning finally to our apartment for what our Italian friends call “reposo” – a well earned rest.

Prodigy and Promise

On our last day in Florence, we visited sites from Michelangelo’s early life.  First is the Church of Santa Maria Novella, which Michelangelo called “my bride.”  Built in the 13th Century, the green and white marble of this structure are surrounded by restful lawns and shade trees, a very lovely site.  As a boy, Michelangelo apprenticed here under Ghirlandaio, the most fashionable painter in Florence, painting frescoes in the chapel.   Ghirlandaio is said to have commented wistfully as he watched young Michelangelo paint, “He is so much better than me!”

We walked across the Ponte Vecchio to the north bank of the Arno River to visit Santo Spirito Church which contains Michelangelo’s wooden crucifix.  This is one of his very first works carved at the age of 18.  Michelangelo donated the crucifix to this church in appreciation, because it was here that the monks let him slip in secretly at night to dissect cadavers (a practice which was forbidden in that day) which were awaiting burial in the paupers’ graves.  Macabre, I know, but no wonder Michelangelo’s sculptures of the human body were so much more realistic than any others of his day!

A spectacular sunset was in progress as we walked back across the Ponte Vecchio.  The bridges spanning the Arno are dark silhouettes against the orange blaze of the setting sun.  Visitors and students are milling about, and we paused to take in the moment. Inspired by the works of Michelangelo, students come from all over the world to study in Florence.  That night, we watched in appreciation as they painted in oil and watercolor on their easels or created vivid chalk portraits on the street.  Whether they are young apprentices or established artists, new art was being born before our very eyes.

The spirit of Michelangelo still pervades the streets, churches and gardens of this city and his works on display here are a testament to his greatness.  We found Michelangelo – his passion, his legacy, his love for his city, and the inspiration which spurs new artists to dream bigger and pursue further.  Michelangelo’s crowning achievements now circle the globe and grace the cathedrals of Europe, but to be in Florence where it all started was wonderful.  And that was the point of going there in the first place, wasn’t it?