Florence Day 2 – San Marco, San Lorenzo & Santa Maria del Fiore tour.

Day 2 in Florence began early. And when I say early I mean we were up and out of the door by 6.15am so we could take advantage of there being no crowds in the Piazza della Signoria. The previous evening we had decided that we would head back to the Piazza so we could film a little vlog of me in front of Savonarola’s execution monument talking about the fateful day in which he lost his life. It’ll be posted both here and on my youtube channel once it’s been properly edited. Once done, we headed back to the apartment for some breakfast.

The plan for our second day in Florence was to visit San Marco and San Lorenzo in the morning before taking part in a guided tour of Santa Maria del Fiore in the afternoon. So an incredibly busy day! We were at San Marco for opening time – and the moment we stepped foot through those doors my excitement knew no bounds. This convent was one of the main reasons I had come to Florence as it was the place where Girolamo Savonarola lived and worked, and where he was arrested in 1498 before his brutal torture and execution.

The convent, now of course a museum, was incredibly quiet when we arrived and for that I was extremely grateful. We knew it would pick up later on in the morning so our first job was to head up to see Savonarola’s cell before the crowds. And I was in awe.

Just outside the little cell is a monument to the infamous friar, topped with a lifelike bust of the man himself. There are also medallions that were struck during his lifetime on display, and above the door is a little sign that states the room belonged to the one time Prior of San Marco.

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Savonarola’s monument, San Marco. Photo by M.Bryan

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Me and the monument, San Marco. Photo by M.Bryan

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Detail of Savonarola’s monument, San Marco. Photo by M.Bryan.

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Me stood in front of relics once belonging to Savonarola and the infamous painting of his execution. Photo by M.Bryan

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Savonarola’s execution, San Marco. Photo by M.Bryan

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Savonarola’s cell. Photo by M.Bryan

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Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola. Photo by M.Bryan

After spending a fair amount of time within the cell, I reluctantly agreed that it was about time to look around the rest of San Marco. A leisurely stroll around the monk’s cells allowed us to see Fra Angelico’s beautiful frescoes that had been painted on the walls. We also had a look around the display set up in what was once the library – it was in here that Savonarola addressed his fellow monks during the Siege of San Marco before his arrest. Now, there is a display of beautifully illuminated books as well as a little display on how the illuminations were carried out.

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Library of San Marco. Photo by me.

Just down the corridor from the library is a set of cells that once belonged to Cosimo de’ Medici, also known as Cosimo the Elder. These were his own private rooms within a religious house that he did a lot of work for – he commissioned Michelozzo to completely redesign the place and put thousands of ducats into the place. The cell was his own personal retreat within the peaceful confines of the Dominican friary.

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Photo by me

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Photo by me

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Interior of Cosimo de’ Medici’s cell. Photo by me

After a very pleasant few hours wandering around San Marco we headed to San Lorenzo, Church of the Medici family. Our walk took us right by the Palazzo Medici, where we would be visiting on the following day.

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Exterior of San Lorenzo. Photo by me.

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Interior of San Lorenzo. Photo by me

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Ceiling of San Lorenzo, showing the Medici coat of arms. Photo by me

I found San Lorenzo to be an incredibly peaceful place, the simplicity of the blues that decorated the walls was so calming. And yet again, it wasn’t busy. There were no massive queues to get in (like what we had seen at the Uffizi the previous day) and the tourists that were inside were so spread out that it really felt as if there was no one there.

Our ticket included entry to the crypt below the church, the crypt that famously holds the tombs of the artist Donatello as well as Cosimo the Elder. Following a quick walk around the church we headed into the cloister (absolutely stunning) and down into the little crypt. There’s a small museum room within the crypt holding some of the treasures of San Lorenzo – beautiful reliquaries holding relics of Saints and beautiful crucifixes that must be worth an absolute fortune. The next room holds the very understated tomb of Donatello. And in that room is a locked gate, behind which you can view the tomb of Cosimo the Elder, his body held within a column.

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Tomb of Donatello, San Lorenzo. Photo by me (slightly blurry as my camera doesn’t seem to enjoy taking pictures in low-level light)

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Tomb of Cosimo the Elder, San Lorenzo. Photo by me.

After finishing at San Lorenzo, we headed back to the apartment for lunch and a bit of a rest as we’d be climbing to the top of the Duomo that afternoon. I, for my sins, ended up falling asleep after going to lay down and rest my very sore feet!

I’d paid for a VIP tour of the Duomo months before and was really excited about getting to head up Brunelleschi’s infamous cupola. We met our tour guide at 2.30pm and headed outside into the blazing heat – we began outside the Santa Maria del Fiore where the tour guide gave us a brief history of the magnificent cathedral, explaining how it had been built over the original church of Santa Reparata and giving us a brief introduction to Giotto’s bell tower. We then headed inside, completely skipping the lines.

Santa Maria del Fiore’s interior is absolutely breathtaking. From the moment you step foot inside it, you feel so incredibly small and I truly think that was what those who designed and built the cathedral wanted. They wanted you to feel small in comparison to God. Everything about the interior exudes symbolism, from the clock upon the inner wall of the facade (It measures time in hours after sunset), to the differing colour of marble upon the floor, the frescoes and the stained glass windows.

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Outside view of Santa Maria del Fiore. Photo by me.

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Giotto’s bell tower. Photo by me.

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Interior of Santa Maria del Fiore. Photo by me.

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Detail of the marble flooring. Photo by me.

Our tour took us down into the excavations beneath Santa Maria del Fiore where we were able to see much of what had been uncovered from Santa Reparata as well as the remains of paving slabs and tombs from the old cathedral. Following the excavations we were taken back upstairs where we got our first glimpse of the stunning frescoes that cover the inside of the cupola – the dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, still holds its secrets even today. Brunelleschi wrote down nothing, keeping his plans entirely within his own head. His argument, when asked how he would complete his work if he wouldn’t tell anyone, was that if he told them how to build the dome then they would be able to do it too. The Last Judgement frescoes painted around the inner dome were designed by Vasari and started in 1568.

Before beginning the monumental climb up the Duomo, we were taken behind the choir and stood in front of the very room that Lorenzo the Magnificent escaped into after the murder of his brother in 1478. It was a moment that stopped me in my tracks, having read about and written about the Pazzi Conspiracy. To think that just behind me, Giuliano de’ Medici had been stabbed to death and his corpse left on the floor whilst just in front of me was the very room that Lorenzo had escaped into in order to save his life.

Then the climb began. 150 steps up was our first stop where we got to go out onto the terraces, part of the Cathedral that isn’t open for tourists. And the moment I stepped out there, I could see why. To get onto the main terrace you have to squeeze through a tiny little gap and there are no safety rails whatsoever. One wrong step and you’d be a goner! Still, it was worth it. The views from the terraces alone were absolutely stunning.

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VIP Duomo tour. Photo by me

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VIP Duomo tour. Photo by me

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View of the dome from the closed terraces. Photo by me.

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View from the closed terraces. Photo by me

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View from the closed terraces. Photo by me

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View from the closed terraces. Photo by me

The closed terraces were the last part of the tour. After that we were free to climb up the rest of the way (over 300 more steps!!!) or go down as we saw fit. We, of course, decided to head up. Let me tell you, going up was a lot less scary than coming down. But going up we got to see Vasari’s frescoes up close as well as the intricate brickwork of Brunelleschi’s dome. It was a strange experience, walking between the two domes in corridors that had been built for the original workmen. But at the same time it was beyond my wildest dreams. Brunelleschi’s work on the dome was the work of an absolute genius – his use of herringbone brick work can be clearly seen as you make your way up towards the lantern, and it is utterly breathtaking. Sadly, he didn’t live to see the completion of his work. But I think he would be proud to know that his beautiful dome has become a symbol of Florence.

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Closer view of Vasari’s frescoes. Slightly blurred photo due to poor lighting. Photo by me.

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Closer view of Vasari’s frescoes. Slightly blurred photo due to poor lighting. Photo by me.

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View from the very top of the lantern. Photo by me.

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View from the very top of the lantern. Photo by me.

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View from the very top of the lantern. Photo by me.

Getting down was my least favourite part and it definitely took me a lot longer than it did getting up there! Still, by the time it was done I was so very proud of myself. Extreme heights bother me a lot, especially where steep stairs are concerned. But I’d done it. And it was time to celebrate with a nice dinner!

After walking across to the other side of the Ponte Vecchio, we decided that we may as well try one of the restaurants by our apartment. Sadly, it was a mistake going here. Despite rave reviews the service was shockingly poor and incredibly slow. And the food wasn’t even all that great! Baked stuff rabbit…whatever it was stuffed with tasted really weird and gave me some terrible heartburn! Not somewhere we’ll be going back to.

The step count at the end of the day totted up to well over 25,000…that’s well over ten miles! We certainly slept well!

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Savanarola by Fra Bartolomeo

Giralomo Savanarola is probably one of the most famous people from Renaissance Italy, next to the Borgia and Medici families. He is best known as the preacher who fundamentally ruled Florence with his sermons, and the man who was behind one of the greatest atrocities in Renaissance history: The Bonfire of the Vanities. As a man, Giralomo Savanarola is fascinating and I will be doing a piece on him and his life in more detail soon. Today however, I wanted to do a brief post on the Bonfire of the Vanities – an event in which the supporters of Savanarola piled up all manner of famous works of art, books and fine clothing…and burned the lot.

Painting of Savanarola’s execution, in the same spot where he had started the Bonfire of the Vanities

It was Lent, 1497. Giralomo Savanarola had already been ruling the city of Florence for many years, preaching to the people and almost brainwashing them into believing that their extravagant life’s were sinful. He regularly packed out the Santa Maria del Fiore, famous for it’s massive dome built and finished by Brunelleschi in 1469, where he delivered rousing sermons against the extravagant clothes and art that the Florentine people were famous for.

At the start of Lent Savanarola sent a band of innocents around the city to collect up what he called ‘vanities’. These innocents, known as the ‘blessed innocents’ were groups of children who up until then had walked around the city dressed in robes of purest white and singing the praises of God. They had previously been barred from a number of streets in the city when it became apparent that some Florentine’s didn’t actually support the friar. However this time they had armed guards with them and every vanity that they could get their hands on were piled into a huge pyramid in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria (as seen in the painting above of Savanarola’s eventual execution, but this will be covered in more detail in later posts).

At the very bottom of the pyramid were items such as wigs, false beards, pots of rouge that women used to redden their cheeks and perfumes. On top of that were books that Savanarola and his followers considered to be ‘Pagan’ – these were all important historical works from Greek philosophers, books of poems by Ovid and Petrarch, works by Cicero. Next came paintings, drawings and bust sculptures of subjects considered profane. Included among these were works by the famous Sandro Boticelli, who is said to have been a follower of Savanarola and abandoned his paintings to follow the friar. Next were musical instruments, sculptures and paintings of naked women. And right at the very top of the pyramid were sculptures of Greek Gods and mythical legends. This was then finalised by an effigy of Satan, reigning over these sinful items. It is said that this model of Satan was given the face of a Venetian man who had offered to buy the items for 22,000 florins. This can only hint at the worth of all the items together, and I can only imagine that such works of art were worth much, much more.

The Palazzo Veccio, Florence.

The bonfire was lit on Shrove Tuesday, 7th February. As the entire signoria assembled from the balcony of the Palazzo Veccio, flames began to lick up the pyramid which by now was now over sixty feet high, and the crowds surrounding the massive bonfire singing a Te Deum.

This event divided Florence even more than it already was. The people were turning against Savanarola, and Piero de Medici ended up leaving Florence and heading to Rome where he received the blessing of Pope Alexander VI to lead an army against the city. Yet even as the army approached, the majority of Florentine citizens did not want to return to Medici rule (they had been ousted from the City during the early part of Savanarola’s “rule”). Piero returned to Rome, not as the victor he envisaged.

Savanarola’s reign of religious tyranny (for want of a better word), would start to decline in June 1497 when Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull excommunicating him from the Roman Catholic church. Yet when Savanarola continuted to preach in the Santa Maria del Fiore, the signoria tried to ban him from preaching and riots occasionally broke out.

His reign would not come to an end until 1498 when he was arrested and made to prove that he had a special relationship with God. When he failed he was jailed in the Bargello before being tortured and eventually executed. But that’s for a different post.

For now, all I can do is feel the huge loss of so many works of art lost to Savanarola’s flames. This really was a crime against the art that was created during the renaissance, and from my reading of Savanarola I have to wonder how anyone could condone doing something like that? A crime yes, but certainly a very interesting event in the history of both the fascinating man and the beautiful city of Florence.

Further reading

Donald Weinstein, Savanarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet.
Lauro Martines, Scourge and Fire: Savanarola and Renaissance Italy
Paul Strathern, The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance
Paul Strathern, The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior
Paul Strathern, Death In Florence: The Medici, Savanarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance.
Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies