(It was really only two hours)
After the great fun we had on the walking tour in NYC, Lisa found http://www.contexttravel.com - a company that specalizes in walking tours. Ours was a tour of architecture called the Colors of Florence. It turned out to be just the two of us and Elizabeth Butler - our guide. Elizabeth is from the US but has lived in Florence for the last 9 years studying art history. In a surreal happenstance, her sister lives in Indy! She was saying that she normally goes to the states in August and loves going to our state fair with her nieces.
The tour itself was fantastic. She definitely knew her stuff. It was great to go beneath the surface to learn special details about different buildings. What follows are a few stories from our tour.
The picture above is the Basilica Santa Maria Novella. It was built over literally hundreds of years. There were even times when it sat unoccupied. If you take a close look at the photo you can tell that it's truly a facade - the fancy white and green marble is only on the front side of the building with the rougher local stone in the background (see right side). Also, if you look closely the facade has two different levels of detail on the top vs. the bottom half. These were built in different eras with improved construction techniques on the top. This church is quite a bit older than the duomo and you can tell that the carving skills were not yet developed as this is all inlaid marble without much carving. This church, which now is firmly within the city limits was once in the countryside and even had a nickname "vineyards church" because it was surrounded by vineyards.
Next we headed over to the Piazza della Repubblica, which among other things is the site of a famous cafe called Caffè le Giubbe Rosse. Founded by two Germans in 1900, it has been frequented by literati including Hemmingway throughout the century.
There were two tiny features that Elizabeth pointed out that would have very easily been missed. The first (above) is a flood water marker. In November of 1966 it rained almost non-stop for 60 days and Florence was badly flooded. This was about three feet off of the ground, and closer to the river the water was even higher. Famously, the bronze doors from the Duomo's baptistry were torn off of their hinges and carried away by the flood. The flood cleanup was extensive and many young people (dubbed Mud Angels) moved to the city to aid in the restoration work. Many of the techniques for restoring fresco paintings in use today were quickly developed after the flood out of sheer necessity.
Next, we headed over to the Piazza della Signoria where the current-day government is held. There is a large building that included several details from medieval times including large holes in the roof line where flaming arrows or hot oil could be dropped. One of the most beautiful parts of this Piazza is the gallery of sculptures overlooking the square. The most striking sculpture is of Perseus holding Medusa's head and standing on her body. We learned about bronze casting and the lost-wax technique used to form the sculpture. The artist was lucky to be supported by the duke of the time which allowed him to practice and refine this art of bronze sculpture.
We concluded our tour with a beautiful view of the Ponte Vecchio. As you can see, it's a very old bridge that is actually lined with shops, and has a walkway across the top. This was built by Cosimo I de' Medici so that he could walk from the government building, through the Uffuzi, across the river to one of his palaces on the hill. In 1593, in order to establish the prestige of the bridge Cosimo banned the butchers that had set up shop along the bridge. They were quickly replaced by gold merchants, who remain on the bridge to this day.
The elaborate wooden security doors that completely cover the glass storefronts still exist to this day. Many of them have a small peephole that allows a look into the shop from the street.
Overall it was a fantastic tour and an opportunity to see many things we wouldn't have otherwise noticed.