Athens and the Acropolis

After making the trip back to Athens, we checked into our hotel, Divani Palace Acropolis, and had a traditional Greek dinner. Located in the historical heart of Athens, the hotel is close enough to walk to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. It’s also located atop part of the Themistoclean Wall, which is on display behind glass in the lower level of the hotel. As a result of the Persian Wars, Themistocle’s Wall was built during the 5th century BC in the hopes of defending against further invasion.

themistocles wall

A vibrant city at night, Athens is also safe. We walked to dinner and passed by the ruins of Hadrian’s Library.

 

The following morning, we took a sightseeing tour of Athens. The itinerary included a trip to the Olympic Stadium and the capital building. Then we headed to the base of the Acropolis for our climb to the top.

 

The marble steps are slippery from years of use and lead up to the Propylaia, or monumental gateway.  A building of the Doric order, it includes a few Ionic columns supporting the roof of the central wing. This complex structure was built to leave a lasting impression on any visitor (always be sure to look up).

 

 

The Parthenon, an enduring symbol of Athenian democracy (it was originally the treasury) and one of the world’s architectural feats, is undergoing another round of restoration. This time, titanium is being used in place of rebar that left rust stains on the marble columns. Replacement columns are being carved from marble taken from the same quarry as the original, so that, with time, the color will match up to the original. Considering the Parthenon was severely damaged in 1687—when an Ottoman ammunition dump inside the building was ignited by Venetian bombardment—it looks pretty good behind the scaffolding. It’s doubtful it will ever look as it did after it was first built (below right).

 

The Acropolis is also home to the Temple of Athena Nike, which once housed a gold statue of the goddess, her clipped wings preventing her from leaving the city.

temple of athena nike2

Built between 421 and 406 BC, the Erechtheion is a temple dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena and includes one of the most famous porches in the world. The statues that grace the Porch of the Maidens now are reproductions—their originals are in the nearby Acropolis Museum.

erechtheion6

From the southwest edge of the Acropolis, there is an excellent view of the Odeon of Herodes-Atticus. Built in 161 AD, this stone theatre was—and still s a venue for music concerts and can seat 5,000.

 

 

From the Acropolis, you can see all of Athens including other ruins like the Temple of Zeus and the Dionysus Theatre.

 

After our descent, we bought a Koulouri (a pretzel-looking bread covered in sesame seeds) and headed to the Acropolis Museum. See you there!

The Center of the World

Located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus high above the Gulf of Corinth, Delphi was considered by the ancient Greeks to be the center of the world. According to mythology, Zeus sent out two eagles from the ends of the universe to find the navel of Gaia, and this is where they met. This UNESCO World Heritage site was the center of our world for a full day.

We made the two-hour trek from Athens to Delphi on a tour bus after flying from Rome in the early morning hours. We passed geological formations that reminded us of Wyoming.

After checking into our hotel in the town of Delphi so we could drop off our luggage, we reboarded the bus for the short trip to the site. Our bus driver managed the winding, thin mountain road like a champ. (Note: After having ridden several buses in different parts of Greece, we admit to being very impressed by their drivers. They are masters at negotiating roads never designed for conveyances larger than chariots.)

Our guide led us up a steep slope into the center of the ruins before explaining the historical significance of the area.

In mythology, Python, a huge serpent, guarded the navel before the infant god Apollo stayed him. When Apollo’s arrows pierced the serpent, its body fell into a fissure and great fumes arose from the crevice as its carcass rotted. All those who stood over the gaping fissure fell into sudden, often violent, trances. In this state, it was believed that Apollo would possess the oracle and fill them with divine presence.

Named for the serpent, Pythia, the role of the Oracle of Delphi was played by a pure, chaste and honest young virgin. However, since young virgins were prone to attracting negative attention from the men who sought their council (which resulted in oracles being raped and violated), older women of at least 50 began to fill the position. They fasted and drank spring water to prepare, and then on the seventh day of the nine warmest months of the year, they held a dish of spring water and took their position on a tripod chair positioned over a fissure. Monarchs as well as mortals made the pilgrimage to Delphi to ask questions of the oracle. Although her answers were sometimes vague and could be misinterpreted, she was the most powerful person in Greece.

As to why the Oracle of Delphi experienced her visions, we can turn to a more modern explanation. In the late 1980s, a team of curious scientists discovered that the rocks beneath the Temple of Apollo were oily bituminous limestone and had been fractured by two faults that crossed beneath the temple. This had to be more than a coincidence. The scientists theorized that tectonic movements and earthquakes caused friction along the faults. Combined with the spring water that ran beneath the temple, methane, ethylene and ethane gas would rise through the faults to the center and directly into the temple. The low room, with its limited ventilation and lack of oxygen, would help amplify the effect of the gasses and induce the trance-like symptoms experienced by the oracles.

 

The site includes the temple of Apollo and the ancient theater (above), the Castalian spring, the gymnasium and a stadium where athletes competed.

 

The history of the Sanctuary is displayed in the site’s archaeological museum’s 14 rooms. Here you can learn the political, religious and social history of Delphi. The museum also includes several artifacts from the site and the surrounding region, including two magnificent sculptures of the Charioteer and the Sphinx.

We had dinner back at the hotel and spent the evening shopping in the boutiques that line the two streets that make up the town.

gold flower

 

Next up: Athens!

 

 

Pompeii for a Day

mt etna

See that hump-backed mountain in the background of the image above? That is Mount Vesuvius, and it’s the only European-based volcano to have erupted in the last one-hundred years. Back in 79 AD, it spewed a huge cloud of ash, stones, and volcanic gases in an eruption that ultimately killed over a thousand people and buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis.

The ash and stones have mostly been removed from Pompeii to reveal a seaside resort city that was once a playground for rich Romans. The amphitheater is in excellent condition as are many of the mosaics that can be found on the floors of the homes of the wealthy.

Frescoes adorned the walls of those homes, and many retain their brilliant colors, although earthquakes have caused some to crumble. This particular villa was home to the owner of a gladiator school.

Ovens for baking bread and public fountains for water can be found everywhere. Pottery, amphorae, bowls and other pottery, still in excellent shape, are on display.

How did they get water to those fountains? Why, lead pipes, of course! The Romans had discovered the malleable metal in England and brought it back to Italy. If the volcano hadn’t killed them, it was likely the citizens would have suffered lead poisoning at some point.

lead pipe

Although not all the walls survived the eruption, the purpose of many of the remaining structures has been determined by what was found inside. There is a treasury, temples, shops and more lining the main square.

Look closely, and you’ll find evidence of chariot wheels in the stone streets, detailed plasterwork along the edges of doors, and carved column tops. You’ll also find ancient graffiti.

And because this was a resort city, there is a brothel district. It’s not hard to find when there are directional signs right in the pavement.

penis

Since language may have been an issue, fresco menus allowed a patron to simply point to what he wanted. Let’s hope those beds had some cushions, though.

A few plaster casts of bodies caught in the eruption on are display under glass. These were made when voids in the ash were detected. Plaster was poured into the void and then the ash and stone was removed to reveal bodies, furnishings—anything that had been organic. At the time of our visit, most of the bodies had been removed for use in a traveling exhibition.

man

Upon exiting the grounds, be sure to survey the area. We took a tour of a nearby shop that sells cameos and watched a demonstration of how they are created (they are carved from seashells) before having a traditional lunch. Then we headed back to Rome for our last night there.

Next up: Delphi

The Vatican Museums on Ash Wednesday

basilica_dome

Back in pagan times, a Roman necropolis stood on what is now Vatican Hill. After the fire of 64 AD, Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire. He executed them (we won’t go into detail, other than to say it was gory). Among those crucified was St. Peter—disciple of Jesus Christ and the first bishop of Rome—who was supposedly buried in a shallow grave on the hill. By the time the Christian religion was recognized as the official religion of Rome, Emperor Constantine started construction of the original basilica atop the ancient burial ground with the tomb of St. Peter at its center. The present basilica, built starting in the 1500s, sits over a maze of catacombs and St. Peter’s suspected grave.

Vatican City, a separate city within Rome, is home to that basilica as well as Christian and art museums. Linda, our guide from our tour of the Forum, once again proved how important it is to have a knowledgeable person leading the way. She took what was listed as a two-hour tour and gave us five hours in the museums and basilica. We gained access to places not on the schedule, a necessity considering there are five miles of corridors in the Vatican complex and 70,000 exhibits.

We passed a reproduction of the statue, Pieta, before heading into the Pinacoteca, 18 rooms featuring art in chronological order. Over the years, the popes have been amassing a huge collection of art. Some is altar art rescued from churches that have been destroyed or are simply priceless pieces requiring museum care. Most pieces were commissioned by popes or are from their private collections and include frescoes and sculpture. The collection boasts of 460 paintingsincluding absolute masterpieces by prominent artists like Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, il Perugino and Caravaggio.

IMG_7887

We immediately recognized that painting of King George IV (Prinny!).

Along the way, it was important to look up. Art is everywhere, adorning the ceilings and the floors. Note: Although we did see the Sistine Chapel, no photography was allowed.

The Gallery of Geographical Maps includes a panel for every town in Italy as well as regional maps. The ceiling is more amazing than what’s on the walls.

The Pio Clementino Museum, twelve rooms in total, is made up the Octagon Courtyard, the Room of Animals, the Gallery of Candelabra, the Round Room, the Room of the Muses, and the Gallery of Statues (filled entirely with Greek and Roman sculptures, most marble but some in bronze).

We didn’t tour the nine rooms of the Gregorian Egyptian Museum or the Pavilion of the Coaches, but we did visit Raphael’s Rooms. Works include The School of Athens and The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple by Raphael Sanzio. Can you find Raphael? He’s the one who is peeking out at the viewer. Throughout these rooms, there are interesting architectural details as well as proof they have been toured by millions.

Normally, a visitor would take the helical staircase to exit the museums, but Linda had us heading to the basilica by way of St. Peter’s Square.

An Italian Renaissance church and one of only four major basilicas, St. Peter’s can accommodate 60,000 people and features huge paintings and sculptures. Michelangelo’s famous carving of the Pieta is here. Two lower levels house the tombs of all the popes (the Vatican Grottoes) and Vatican Necropolis, including St. Peter’s Tomb. Only three women are entombed in the Vatican Grottoes; Queen Christina of Sweden, Agnesina Colonna Caetani and Queen Charlotte of Cyprus.

After five hours, it was time for a stop at a outdoor cafe and some refreshment!

Next up: Pompeii

 

Rome at Night

Despite its size, Rome is a very walkable city. Given the amount of traffic, it’s sometimes preferable to simply pull on a good pair of shoes, preload a Google map of the area you want to explore on your phone (GPS works even if you don’t have cell service), and then head out with a few others to see the sites that aren’t included on your tour. For two nights, we did this, racking up miles on our pedometers while seeing some attractions that appear far more romantic at night.

basicila beyond river

We had to cross the Tiber River to begin our tours, but the view of St. Peter’s Basilica is breathtaking at twilight.

Fountains are Fab

Over two-thousand fountains can be found in the Eternal City—more than in any other city in the world. Fifty of those are considered monumental fountains. We made it our mission to visit as many as we could.

The Fontana del Pantheon can be found directly in front of the Pantheon in the Piazza del Rotunda. Atop the fountain is the Egyptian Obelisk. Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII and designed by Giacomo Della Porta in 1575, the fountain was sculpted out of marble by Leonardo Sormani. The redesign of the fountain in 1711 by Filippo Barigioni added the the Macuteo obelisk (originally created during the period of Ramses II) set in the centre on a plinth with four dolphins decorating the base.

 

The Fontana Dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) can be found in the Piazza Navona. Designed in 1651 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Pope Innocent X, the fountain stood in front Innocent’s family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili. It depicts the Gods of the four great rivers in the four known continents of the time: the Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe, and the Río de la Plata in America.

 

At the north end of Piazza Navona is the Fontana de Neptune. This was once called the Fontana dei Calderan because a nearby alley was home to blacksmiths and those who made metal pots and pans.

fountain of neptune

 

The Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Boat), is a Baroque-style fountain found at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. This one has a particularly interesting history. According to legend, as the River Tiber flooded in 1598, water carried a small boat into the Piazza di Spagna. When the water receded, a boat was deposited in the center of the square. When Pope Urban VIII commissioned Pietro Bernini in 1623 to build the fountain, Bernini was inspired by the story. He designed the fountain to be the shape of a half-sunken ship with water overflowing its sides into a small basin.

The source of the water comes from the Acqua Vergine, an aqueduct from 19 BCE. Bernini built this fountain to be slightly below street level due to the low water pressure from the aqueduct. Water flows from seven points of fountain: the center baluster; two inside the boat from sun-shaped human faces; and four outside the boat.

FONTANA DELLA BARCACCIA

At the top of the 138 Spanish Steps is the piazza Trinita dei Monti and the twin-tower church, Campo Marzio. This church has an interesting ceiling in that it’s not decorated with frescoes. The entire sanctuary is bright at night because there’s nothing to absorb the light.

 

Designed by the architect Giacomo Della Porta and constructed by the Fiesole sculptor Rocco Rossi, the Fontana de Piazza Colona is located near the Column of Marcus Aurelius. This Roman victory column is Doric and hollow. The exterior features a spiral relief of the emperor’s successful military campaigns against the Quadi across the Danube between 172 and 175 AD, while the inside contains a spiral staircase. Similar in appearance to its predecessor, Trajan’s Column, it’s not nearly as tall. However, its base has never been excavated—and up to seven meters is below the ground! Back in the 4th century, it was said this column stood 175 feet.

 

The most grand of all the monumental fountains is the Trevi Fountain in Palazzo Poli. Designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Pannini and several others, this is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome (161 x 86′).  Yes, we threw a coin into the fountain, but we’re not sure if we did it right (you’re supposed to use your right hand to throw it over your left shoulder). The act of doing so means you’ll come back in the future. An estimated 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain each day.

trevi fountain

While on our trek, we passed by some unexpected sites, like this colonna (collonade) left from the Temple of Hadrian.

colonna

On the way back to the hotel, we walked along the river and had an entirely different view of the night lights. A quick check of our pedometers showed we had covered over seven miles on this trek. Time to put up our feet and have a glass of prosecco!

Next up: The Vatican

Ruins in the Heart of the Roman Empire

As an author of historical fiction, we’re fascinated by the places that still exist, even if they aren’t quite all there. The Roman Forum is one such place. Once the heart of the former Roman Empire, it featured a number of temples and government buildings that are now in ruins.

The first half of our day was spent traveling by bus from Florence to Rome, a comfortable trip with picturesque scenery. Early spring in Italy means everything is green—farm fields, vineyards, and trees.

After we checked into our hotel, we made our way to an outdoor lunch spot near the Forum. Our guide for this portion of our trip, Linda, was well-versed in the politics and archaeology of Ancient Rome. As we stood beneath the ruins of the Palatino Domus Severiana, she described the daily life of Romans and those who were important to the rule of Rome.

 

The Roman Forum spans a huge area.  Two large arches are featured: the Arch of Septimus and the Arch of Titus.

 

Ruins of the Basilica Aemilia, once strewn across the grounds, have been lined up to show the location of the foundation as well as the placement of the columns.

 

The House of the Vestals was once home to the Vestal Virgins. Statues of them line the walkway in front of this ruin.

 

The Imperial Forum is a mere shadow of its former glory.

imperial forum

The Temple of Antonius and Faustina is one of the best preserved of the structures, likely because it’s been used as a church, while the Temple of Castor and Pollox, the Temple of Saturn, and the Temple of Vesta have only a few columns left standing.

 

 

A short walk past the House of Vestals, and soon you’re in the shadow of the Colosseum. This structure was built between 72 and 80 AD from stone and concrete.

colosseum

Once the home of gladiatorial combat and spectacles, the Colosseum at first feels small—how could this arena have hosted crowds of up to 87,00 people?—but once you climb the concrete steps and emerge into the arena itself, the scale changes completely.

 

It’s HUGE (and the largest amphitheater in the world). With 80 entrances and an efficient layout, thousands of people could make their way to their seats in a short amount of time. Fifty-thousand people would have been seated in the tiers that reflected their status in Roman society. On hot days, a retractable awning, or velarium, would cover the spectators.

On the day we visited, over half of the area beneath the level of the original arena’s floor was covered due to ongoing restoration work, but the visible areas provide a sense of the elaborate tunnels, passageways, and rooms that would have housed animals and gladiators during games.

As for that Roman concrete, there’s a reason it’s still intact—it grows stronger over time.  The Romans were known for producing the perfect concrete using volcanic ash, lime, and seawater. Mixed together with volcanic rocks, it was spread into wooden molds that were then immersed in more seawater. As the seawater percolated through the concrete, it dissolved components of the volcanic ash and crystals, creating new binding minerals to grow. Within a decade, a very rare hydrothermal mineral called aluminum tobermorite (Al-tobermorite) and a porous mineral called phillipsite formed in the concrete. Those minerals gives Roman concrete its strength.

Although these days those minerals can be made in a lab, they very difficult to incorporate into concrete. And to achieve that added strength? It takes centuries to achieve.

Even given the growing strength of the Roman concrete, only one-third of the Colosseum is original. The other two-thirds were damaged due to earthquakes, vandalism, and fire.

On the way back to our hotel, we passed by the Castle Sant’Angelo, better known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Originally built by Hadrian to be a mausoleum for him and his family, it was instead used as a castle fortress by popes and is now a museum.

Castel Sant'Angelo

Next up: Rome at night!

 

Leather! Gold! And Gelato with a Side of Siena!

On a day that was as perfect as could be in Tuscany, our group of travelers were all (finally) together in one place. Or rather, several of them. For this was the day we did a walking tour of Florence that included a leather factory store and the Ponte Vecchio.

ponte vecchio

Florence and the area around it are home to Italy’s largest leather producers, so the city hosts a number of leather factories and boutiques that carry the beautiful results—wallets, bags, belts and jackets—in every color imaginable. After a quick video describing  how leather is tanned and cut, we were let loose in one such factory store.

Let’s just say a number of souvenirs were purchased  (and not always for friends or loved ones).

Then it was off to Ponte Vecchio. Located at the narrowest point of the River Arno, this medieval bridge was originally home to butcher shops. The only original Florentine bridge (all the others were destroyed during World War II), Ponte Vecchio is now home to a number of jewelry shops, souvenir shops, goldsmiths, art dealers, and more jewelry stores featuring gold. Lots of gold. Unlike the wares sold in the shops, the view from the bridge is priceless. Although all the other bridges over the Arno have been built since the war, they were done as reproductions of their originals, so they retain their Old World look.

arno from ponte vecchio

Like most European cities, Florence features lots of thin streets and alleys that boast all kinds of fun finds, including boutiques, fruit stands, gelato shops, and … statue makers?

Most of the outdoor statues featured in and around Florence are reproductions. The originals are safely stored somewhere indoors, and not always in Florence, so an entire industry exists just to reproduce the priceless treasures. In the shop shown above, the sculptors use laser cutters and other fine chisels to recreate an original to exacting standards.

An Excursion to Siena

Having completed our quick morning sightseeing tour, it was time to make our way to the bus station to catch an express bus to Siena.

The center of this Tuscan city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Brick buildings surround the fan-shaped central square, Piazza del Campo and include the Palazzo Pubblico, the Gothic town hall, and Torre del Mangia, which features a 14th-century tower. Stores and restaurants make up some of the other businesses that line the plaza. We had a late lunch in one of them, and the soup was amazing.

Oh, and there’s a storm drain that’s probably the most decorative one you’ll ever see.

Here’s a shot taken from inside the courtyard of the Pubblico and the entrance to the museum-like interiors.

courtyard

A multitude of treasures await inside the Pubblico, including huge frescoes, paintings, sculptures and more. Shown below are Simone Martini’d La Maesta, a fresco along with some of the gorgeous architectural details, the sculpture Tristitia, commonly known as Il Doloreand, and the ceiling of the Room of the Risorgimento.

 

As for the gelato, we had an easy time fulfilling our goal of eating some every day. Instead of coffee shops on every corner, Florence features gelato shops on every corner.

gelateria-dei-neri

Next up: Ancient Rome

The Palace of the Masters of Florence

1280px-Palazzo_Medici_Riccardi_by_night_01One of the little-known museums in Florence is that of the Palazzo Riccardi Medici, and yet it contains one of the most interesting and renown frescoes in Italy. The 10-euro entry fee was well worth an early evening spent touring this Renaissance-era palace and a special exhibition.

Completed in 1484 at the behest of Cosimo Medici (he was head of the banking family by this time) and designed by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, the palace was known for its stone masonry, which includes the architectural elements of ashlar and rustication. The picture above shows how each story of the building decreases in height while a horizontal stringcourse clearly divides them. The cornice, common in Roman buildings of the time, is unique in design. The modest exterior design is intentional; sumptuary laws prevented one from openly displaying their wealth. Cosimo instead spent some of his wealth decorating the inside. The details in the interior rooms is amazing.

Completed in the 1680s, the Hall of Luca Giordano is a masterpiece of Florentine Baroque art and features panel after panel of painted mirrors topped with a frescoed ceiling, Apotheosis of the Medici Dynasty, done by Giordoano. (This space can now be rented for conferences!)

Fillipo Lippi and Botticelli both enjoyed Cosimo’s patronage. The Madonna of Palazzo Medici by Lippi enjoys a place above a huge console at the end of one hall.

 

 

Throughout the part of the palace that is open to the public, furnishings, statuary, and paintings of Medici family members are on display.

The heart of the palace is the Magi Chapel. Covering the walls are frescoes done by Benozzo Gozzoli. The scenes portray the best known personalities of his time playing the parts of the procession of the magi. Each generation of Medici partiarch features in a different panel. As with any chapel in Italy, you have to be sure to look up!

Once we almost completed our tour (almost, because it was closing time, and we were the last ones inside, and we really wanted to take just one last look around), we found ourselves locked in the palazzo’s main atrium! The entrance gates at both ends of the Courtyard of Michelozzo were closed and padlocked. A police station is located just off the atrium, though, and the officer on duty let us out by way of his office.

Being stuck inside this particular courtyard would not have been a hardship, but it is better viewed in the daylight. At one time it was completely open and colonnaded at the far corner of the palace but was walled in during the 16th century. Three-hundred pieces of ancient art have been placed on the walls of the courtyard. Potted orange trees, statuary and a fountain make this an oasis right in the middle of the city.

courtyard fountain w mosaicsmedici courtyard statue

We made a quick trip to the hotel before meeting with the others at the Cosimo statue in Palazzo della Signoria. Then we headed to a local restaurant for a traditional Italian dinner. Later that night, the rest of the tour group finally arrived in Florence. We could hardly admit to all the sights we’d been able to enjoy when there would be no opportunity for them to do so. Out of thirty, we were the only one to visit the Uffizi.

And if you’ve ever wondered how Italian women keep their figures, we know the secret. According to our iPhone, we walked 8.6 miles on this day. Time for a glass of prosecco.

Next up on our itinerary—a walking tour of Florence.

 

An Afternoon at the Office

uffuzi ext

One of the great things about Florence on a Sunday is that the museums are free. However, you have to have a ticket to get in, and tickets for the Galleria degli Uffizi (which is “office” in Italian) sell out quickly. Not knowing all this turned out to be a good thing. When we finished taking pictures of several of the statues that decorate the exterior of the building—a series of famous Italians are mounted at the second story level, including DaVinci, Michelangelo, Galileo and Amerigo Vespucci—we approached a ticket-taker asking where tickets might be obtained. We were told they were out. “How many are in your party?” the agent asked in broken English.

“One.”

Being alone for the afternoon proved fortuitous. He gave us a ticket!

One of the world’s top museums, the Uffizi features art from the Italian Renaissance. The building didn’t start out as an art gallery, though, but was commissioned by Cosimo Medici in 1560 as offices for the magistrates of Florence. As with any Italian building, it’s important to look up. The ceilings are works of art.

The top floor originally featured Roman sculptures and was a gallery for family and guests of the Medici. Now the entire floor, which forms the shape of a U, is lined with statuary. Those shown here are Venus, Leda, ApolloNeriad on a Seahorse, Centaur and Pan, and Amore and Psyche.

Cosimo’s son, Grand Duke Francesco I, commissioned the architect Buontalenti to design the Tribuna deli Uffizi, an octagonal room to display series of masterpieces in one room, including jewels. Completed in 1584, it became a highly influential attraction of a Grand Tour. Although you can look into the room, you cannot go in as the entrances are cordoned off.

When the house of Medici died out, their art collections, including these two works by Botticelli (Birth of Venus and Primevera), were gifted to Florence by Anna Maria Luisa, the last Medici heiress. In 1765, the Uffizi was officially opened for the public to tour, although visitors could request entry as early as the sixteenth century.

Renovations in modern times increased the number of rooms and the space for displays, most of it payed for by the Ferragamo family. (Shoes are their works of art.)

Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo has its own alcove.

doni tondo

 

Virtues by Botticelli and Antonio del Pollaiolo takes up an entire wall in one of the galleries. Pollaiolo’s La Carita is shown in close-up.

And what’s a gallery without a bunch of busts? Shown here are Constantine, Nero, Agrippa, Augustus, Titus, and Tiberius.

When we finally finished this masterpiece of a museum, we treated ourselves to a gelato. The museum’s restaurant is located on the roof of the Loggia della Signoria and has the most interesting view. We were told the man on the ledge is a temporary installation as he’s not real popular with the locals.

man on ledge

Although the light was starting to fade, we still had one more museum to visit before we were to join our tour guide for dinner. Next up: Palazzo Riccardi Medici.

A Trip for Education Rather Than Vacation

Two years ago, we flew to England to spend twenty-four days in pursuit of more information about the time in which our books take place. To visit the places we had already used as settings and to research new ones for future books. And to take photographs. Lots of photographs. (That trip is detailed on this blog in posts dated April 2017 and May 2017.)

Since then, we’ve finished six Regency-era books and one based in ancient Greece and Rome. We were in the midst of deciding where (and when) to place the rest of the books in the Stella of Akrotiri series—stories about an Immortal couple who first meet on a Greek Island—when the opportunity to tour with a local college group came up. We signed on for EF Tour’s “Intercultural Studies in Italy and Greece” the day after we learned of it. Since EF allows travelers to delay their return, we arranged our own travel plans to add that Greek island to the itinerary. By doing so, our flights to the first stop on our multi-city tour were different from the rest of the group.

We wouldn’t discover just how fortuitous that arrangement was until we reached Florence.

Although twenty-one of us flew on the same plane from Billings, Montana to Denver, the rest of the group were scheduled to fly to Florence by way of Frankfort while we were routed through Munich. Scheduled departure times out of Denver were about the same, although our flight left first.

By over eight hours.

We reached Munich on a Sunday morning and met up with the eight students and a  faculty advisor from the University of North Carolina’s School of Arts who made up the rest of our tour group. Our flight to Florence was quick—too quick for our luggage to make the plane, but with an overnight bag, we were set for a full day in Florence.

Our EF tour director, Katia, met us at the airport, informed us of the delay for the rest of my group, but assured us they would arrive later that night. After a short bus ride to Hotel Athenaueum, we checked into what had to be the largest room in the hotel and had a few minutes to freshen up before we hit the ground running.

studentshotel room

Or walking, rather. The 1.4 kilometers from the hotel to the Piazza della Signoria takes only 17 minutes. On the way, we stopped at the Duomo, also known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore or the Florence Cathedral. Begun in 1296, it wasn’t completed until 1436, when the dome was finally erected. The exterior of the basilica is a masterpiece of detailed artwork, faced with polychrome marble panels in various shades of green and pink and bordered in white.

For a dramatization of what it took to finish the dome, check out the first season of Netflix’s Medici: Masters of Florence TV show starring Dustin Hoffman and Richard Madden.

The Baptistery of St. John is opposite the Duomo. Constructed between 1059 and 1128, it is one of the oldest buildings in the city. This octagonal minor basilica boasts three sets of bronze doors. The east doors shown here were designed by Lorenzo Ghilberti and were dubbed the Gates of Paradise by Michelangelo.

Then we were off to the Piazza della Signoria, where statues of David, Hercules and Cacus, and Cosimo Medici share the backdrop of Palazzo Vecchio, the townhall of Florence.

The Loggia della Signoria, also known as the Loggia dei Lanzi, can be seen in the far corner of the Piazza della Signoria beneath part of the Uffuzi Gallery. The open-air Loggia houses an impressive array of statues, including Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines (1579-1583). Installed in 1583 at the behest of the son of Cosimo I, Francesco I, this statue
is over 4 metres high and was made from the largest block of marble (and an imperfect one at that) ever transported to Florence. It’s the first group statue representing more than a single figure in European sculptural history to be conceived without a dominant viewpoint, meaning it can be viewed from all sides equally.

The other statue shown here is Menelaus supporting the body of Patroclus, originally discovered in Rome. From the Flavian era, it was copied from a Hellenistic Pergamene original of the mid-third century BC.

When our tour of the piazza was complete, our guide released us with instructions to take in as much as we could on our own and meet at the Cosimo statue later that evening to head to dinner.

Next up: Free time means an afternoon at the Uffuzi.