Most of us spend our lives taking our surroundings for granted, to some degree — always chasing the next minute and forgetting about the one we are in. Sometimes we live in a place for years and don’t notice the obvious, or we visit a place over and over and feel we know it, but miss an important gem. And yet. . . once in a while we strike it rich, and the old is made new again.
The last two days before I left for Lucca, Antonella and I had a chance to spend time in Florence’s historic centre together. On Friday, she met me in town after her classes and we had a few hours to enjoy Firenze before heading back home for dinner. She had lived in the heart of the city for a number of years and was able to flesh out many of the sights I was already familiar with, and point out buildings and places that held a special place in her heart. Through her I also discovered new treasures. My cousin was shocked, for example, when she realized I had never been to Officina Santa Maria Novella, in via Scala, acknowledged to be the oldest pharmacy and perfumery in Europe, possibly the world. It dates back to 1612 in its present location, although the Domenican Monks had been growing herbs and using them for effective salves and balms since the 13th century. 800 years of doing business is not a bad recommendation!
I had walked by it many times in the past week and on prior visits to the city, but had not noticed it. Mind you, there is not much to notice from the street: just a grand door which could have been the entry way to any well-appointed apartment or business.
But inside was a whole other world, perfectly restored and maintained: lovely frescoes, especially in what used to be the chapel, beautiful woodwork, and many pharmaceutical and scientific artifacts from the last 800 years, kept as museum pieces behind glass doors.
And the smells. . . such heavenly smells wafting from the perfumery — smells for which one pays through the nose, so to speak. By all accounts, well worth the expense.
On Saturday we went to see Ghirlandaio’s Cenacolo (Last Supper) in the refectory off the cloister of the Church of Ognissanti. Our visit happened to coincide with FAI — Spring Open Days — a weekend in which 670 cultural and historical sites all over Italy are open and free to the public, an event that has taken place for 20 years. Most sites have volunteers on hand, often students, who act as docents, who are there to answer questions and offer explanations if requested. When we visited the Cenacolo, the volunteers were older gentlemen who, over the years, had acquired a great deal of knowledge about the treasures of this church; over time they had quietly followed many tours and listened intently as the guides spoke in depth about the works on display. These gents were eager to share their knowledge and opinions with us and happy to have found two visitors so willing to participate in a conversation about about art and history.
Entering the refettorio, we were immediately struck by the quiet beauty of Ghirlandaio’s fresco which covered the
wall at the far end of the large hall. I imagined the monks eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in that space, with that image to contemplate. Were they as appreciative of it as we were as we approached? Or did they come to take it for granted as we do so many beautiful things in our life, simply because we see them or experience them all the time: The way the morning sun slants through the fir branches on your morning walk; the way a child’s hand quietly slips into yours as you prepare to cross a street. . . Moments all too soon gone. So many things taken for granted. But in this particular moment, neither one of us was taking the image for granted: The symbolic birds and fruit trees; the design on the ends of the tablecloth; Judas’ defiant stance before the figure of Christ; St. John, laying his very feminine head on Jesus’ breast. . .
On an adjacent wall, on the right of the entrance, was just as large an image — an outline of the painting we had just studied, a full-sized drawing. This, we learned, was the sinopia, Ghirlandaio’s preliminary sketch of the work. There were some differences in what he ultimately painted, but many of the details were the same. What struck us most was that it had been recovered by accident after the flood of 1966, when the Arno overflowed its banks on November 4 and 5 of that year. The Angeli del fango (Mud Angels) were Italian and foreign volunteers who descended on the city to try to salvage as much as possible of the priceless art and books which had been damaged — many destroyed — by the flood. Those working on the Cenacolo discovered the sinopia attached to the back of the painting. No one, until that time, knew it existed. These ‘angeli‘ were able to extract it by strappo, which literally means, by tearing it off the back of the damaged painting. As you can see by the video I have provided, it is not nearly as dramatically violent as it sounds, but very risky nonetheless. With the elderly FAI volunteers in the refectory, we had a lively conversation about the strappo, the sinopia, and the ultimate fresco. We left knowing much more than before — even Antonella, who had visited the work on many occasions.
Upon leaving the refettorio, we decided to take another tour of the Church (Ognissanti); I insisted on walking the longer way, around the perimeter of the cloister, to look at the frescoes I’d not had a chance to see before. There was restoration work going on (of course!) and a sign caught my attention:
“Giotto is very sorry for the ‘undelayable’ work in progress”
It seems that even 800 year old painters have a good sense of humour and a healthy sense of the sarcastic, as do most Tuscans. Old and new — a revolving door!
After leaving the church we meandered towards Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, past the cathedral, the Baptistry, and the hoardes. Our goal was a little Sicilian bar called Ara’ just around the corner from the Accademia, home to Michelangelo’s David. This tiny cubbyhole of a shop serves many Sicilian specialties, among them arancine, balls of rice stuffed with various delicious fillings. John and I discovered these little bombs when we visited that unforgettable island in 2002.
Here you see Anto enjoying her arancina, making the Italian sign for “It’s good!”
Naturally, the bar also serves homemade cannoli, perhaps Sicily’s best-known dessert and culinary export (Please, forget what passes for cannoli in Canada. Just put it out of your mind.) Below you can see just how committed I am to my new role as blogger: Here I am sacrificing myself in the name of cultural pedagogy and sampling one for you, my friends. I started from the side dipped in crushed almonds; the green you see are the crushed pistachios on the opposite end. The crema filling had just been made and was still warm. As my wise daughter once said in a moment of similar culinary ecstasy: There are no words.
Feeling refreshed and sated, we walked past the Accademia and its lines of waiting visitors to San Marco, at the end of the block, again a church and monastery neither Antonella nor I had ever visited. The volunteers at Ognissanti had insisted: We must go there. Simply must! Being the perennial good students, Anto and I obeyed. It turns out it was worth the time to visit the beautiful fresco-adorned cloister, and the rich paintings in a side room, almost all by Fra Beato Angelico.
Of particular interest was the adjacent monastery, where each cell was decorated with its own fresco by the same
painter, depicting a scene from the life of Christ. Cosimo de’ Medici il Vecchio had his own cell there, larger than the rest, of course, with three steps leading to a private chapel; a quiet place of reflection and prayer.
Even more interesting to me was the living quarters of Girolamo Savonarola, vicar at the convent of San Marco, the controversial preacher who ruled Florence for a time, and railed against the tyranny and excesses of the Church. Whereas all the other cells were empty, Savonarola’s still had his writing desk, his ‘folding’ chair, and other personal items. I could not help but think of what he must have felt the last time he left these objects, with a clear understanding of what was to be his terrible end.
Our last stop in the convent was the magnificent library, an awe-inspiring room in which were displayed a number of exquisitely decorated books. A bibliophile’s version of heaven.
When we left San Marco we were in desperate need of an espresso and a change of scene. The latter came in the form of a stroll through Piazza Santissima Annunziata, designed by Brunelleschi; both Antonella and I were saddened to see its state of disrepair and neglect and hoped it would soon get a much needed face-lift.
To our delight, in the piazza we found a little fiera (fair) where they were selling croccante (peanut and almond brittle) and fresh, warm brigidini, a light, sweet confection, a specialty of Lamporecchio in the province of Pistoia, Tuscany. If you click on the picture you will better see the machine above the cellophane bags, the conveyor belt that drops the warm brigidini into the large bag below. A mesmorizing process.
These items are staples at the fiere or sagre of the area. As you can see, they are a temptation to most locals. . . even those who have made it their life’s work to resist such earthly pitfalls!
Another local specialty is porchetta, (the picture should speak for itself. . . ) and one can find it at many marketsand fairs. It can be sliced to take home or most vendors will happily make you a panino to munch on as you stroll by the other stalls.
After leaving the piazza, with a croccante alla nocciola (peanut brittle) in my purse (a treat I remember so well from my very tender years lived in the region), we finally had our caffe’ macchiato at a nearby bar and rested a few minutes. Next door we found a pizzeria that made and sold cecina (a flat, chickpea ‘pizza’ of sorts) which, again, can only be found in some areas of Tuscany.
Obviously, we had to buy a few slices to share with the girls that night at supper. . .
We were heading back through the throngs of Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, when it began to threaten rain and then make good on the promise. As we dashed from one awning to the next, I asked Antonella if she had ever been to the ‘Lorenzi’ store, on via de’ Cerretani, just down from the cathedral. She looked at me as though I had been dipping into the limoncello a bit too enthusiastically, and asked what I was talking about. I suggested to her that I was neither matta (crazy) nor drunk, and how could she live 20 years in a city and not have noticed a store with our name on it. I’d known it was there for at least that long. This back-and-forth went on for a while until we dashed in the protective entrance of that very shop. Yes, she had walked past it hundreds of times, but had never noticed the name. Something new for her! The shop sold beautiful leather items, pens, umbrellas, scarves — none of which I’d ever bought. Given the rain and given that I’d always wanted to purchase something from that shop, I dragged Antonella inside and bought a small, light, 8 Euro brolly. I announced to the shopkeeper that we were Lorenzis, and was he, indeed, a bonafied specimen of same? The dapper gentleman replied that, yes, he was, but from the Pistoia area.
Ah. . . Alas, not one of ours.
As Antonella and I headed back home, we were tired, but much richer, for we had both learned an important lesson: amid the well-worn, one can always find something shiny, new, and precious.