Florentine Delights and Tuscan Side-Trips
In this second of a two episodes on Florence, we’ll enjoy more of the exquisite artistic treasures of the city that propelled Europe out of the Middle Ages. Then we’ll side-trip to a couple of rival cities and cultural capitals in their own right, Pisa and Lucca, where we’ll marvel at a tipsy tower, circle a city on its ramparts, and enjoy some Puccini in his hometown.
Lorenzo the Magnificent’s home is worth a look for its art. The tiny Chapel of the Magi contains colorful Renaissance gems such as the Procession of the Magi frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli. The former library has a Baroque ceiling fresco by Luca Giordano, a prolific artist from Naples known as “Fast Luke” (Luca fa presto) for his speedy workmanship. The fragrant garden, with its greenhouse for lemon trees, is a tiny oasis, a mere fraction of the once-spacious gardens that stretched for a city block to the north. In the past, the grounds were studded with many more fountains and statues, including the Venus de’ Medici (now in the Uffizi). Donatello’s David (now in the Bargello) likely stood in the courtyard. Teenage Michelangelo studied sculpture and liberal arts in the family school located in the gardens.
The Medici Chapels contain tombs of Florence’s great ruling family, from Lorenzo the Magnificent to those less so. The highlight is a chapel designed by Michelangelo at the height of his creative powers. This is Renaissance Man’s greatest “installation,” a room completely under one artist’s control, featuring innovative architecture, tombs, and sculpture. His statues tell of a middle-aged man’s brooding meditation on mortality, the fall of the Medici Golden Age, and the relentless passage of time — from Dawn to Day to Dusk to Night.
With its distinctive castle turret and rustic stonework, this fortified “Old Palace” — Florence’s past and present Town Hall — is a Florentine landmark. The highlight of the interior is the Grand Hall: With a Michelangelo sculpture and epic paintings of great moments in Florentine history, it was the impressive epicenter of Medici power. The richly decorated rooms of the royal apartments — though hardly the most sumptuous royal quarters in Europe — show off some famous art, creative decorative flourishes, and aristocratic curiosities. It’s open very late in summer, making it a fine after-dinner sightseeing option.
This place can be fun if you want a long, drawn-out event of a meal with a local crowd and smart-aleck service. The boss, Bobo, serves quality traditional food and lots of wine. While the food is good, there’s no pretense — it’s just a playground of Tuscan cuisine with “no romance allowed.” The music is vintage 1980s and can be loud. To gorge on a feast of antipasti (cold cuts, cheeses, a few veggies, and bruschetta), consider ordering fermami (literally “stop me”) — for a set price, Bobo brings you food until you say, “Fermami!” A couple can get fermami, desserts, and a nice bottle of wine for around €60 total. As this is a popular place, they say that reservations are “almost obligatory.”
According to legend, the martyred St. Minias — this church’s namesake — was beheaded on the banks of the Arno in A.D. 250. He picked up his head and walked here (this was before the #12 bus), where he died and was buried in what became the first Christian cemetery in Florence. In the 11th century, this church was built to house Minias’ remains. Imagine this fine church all alone — without any nearby buildings or fancy stairs — a peaceful refuge where white-robed Benedictine monks could pray and work (their motto: ora et labora). The evening vesper service with the monks chanting in Latin offers a meditative worship experience — a peaceful way to end your visit.
Overlooking the city from across the river, this square has a superb view of Florence and the stunning dome of the Duomo. It’s worth the 30-minute hike, drive, or bus ride. It makes sense to take a taxi or ride the bus up and then enjoy the easy downhill walk back into town. An inviting café (open seasonally) with great views is just below the overlook, but the best photos are taken from the street immediately below the overlook. Off the west side of the piazza is a somewhat hidden terrace, an excellent place to retreat from the mobs. After dark, the square is packed with school kids licking ice cream and each other.
The off-kilter Tower parallels Pisa’s history. It was started in the late 12th century, when Pisa was at its peak: one of the world’s richest, most powerful, and most sophisticated cities. Pisans had built their huge cathedral to reflect their city’s superpower status, and the cathedral’s bell tower was the perfect complement. But as Pisa’s power declined, the Tower reclined, and ever since, both have required a great deal of effort to prop. However, after a 10-year renovation, the Tower’s been stabilized. You can see it for free, and admire it in all its cockeyed glory, or, for a fee, climb up for a commanding view.
This gargantuan Pisan Romanesque church has a Pisano pulpit, modest dress code, and no baggage check. Budget some sightseeing time for the church’s artistic and historic treasures.
Pisa’s round Baptistery is Italy’s biggest. It’s interesting for its Pisano pulpit and interior ambience, and especially great for its acoustics.
Lucca’s most remarkable feature, its Renaissance wall, is also its most enjoyable attraction — stretching for 2.5 miles, this is an ideal place to come for an overview of the city by foot or bike (wonderfully smooth 20–30-minute pedal, depending on how fast you go and how crowded the wall-top park is). You can rent bikes cheaply and easily from one of several bike-rental places in town. The best people-watching — and slowest pedaling — is during passeiggata time, just before dinner, when it seems that all of Lucca is doing slow laps around the wall.
Gabriele knows and shares his hometown well.
Many Tuscan towns have towers, but none is quite like the Guinigi family’s. Up 227 steps is a small garden with fragrant trees, surrounded by fine views over the city’s rooftops. On your way up, you’ll pass colorful illustrations of historical Lucca, then huff up twisty metal stairs through the hollow brick tower (open daily, small entry fee).
This first cathedral of Lucca is interesting only for its archaeological finds. The entire floor of the 12th-century church has been excavated in recent decades, revealing layers of Roman houses, ancient hot tubs that date back to the time of Christ, early churches, and theological graffiti. Sporadic English translations help you understand what you’re looking at, and you can climb the 190 steps of the church’s campanile (bell tower) for a panoramic view. In summer, the church hosts daily one-hour concerts featuring a pianist and singers performing highlights from hometown composer Giacomo Puccini.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Ciao! Hey hey!
Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re enjoying a city with exquisite art and people-friendly streets…Florence! Thanks for joining us.
In this episode we’ll enjoy some of the treasures of the Florentine Renaissance, and we see the city in a wider context, from ancient to modern. Then we’ll side-trip to a couple of rival cities and cultural capitals in their own right: Pisa and Lucca.
In Florence we’ll be wowed by Michelangelo, eat and drink well with my friend Bobo…
Bobo: I’m working!
…and get to know the Medici dynasty through the art of the Palazzo Vecchio. Then we hop a train, side-tripping to marvel at a tipsy tower, circle a city on its ramparts, survey the realm from atop a tree-capped tower, and enjoy some Puccini in his hometown.
Italy, about the size of Arizona, is made of many distinct regions. We’re in Tuscany exploring its capital, Florence, before side-tripping to Pisa and then to Lucca.
Florence was the epicenter of the Renaissance, that cultural explosion that propelled Europe out of the Middle Ages and into an economic, intellectual, and artistic boom time. This is the city where civic pride, an abundance of genius, lots of wealth, and a passion for merging art and science ushered in an age of humanism. In the space of a couple generations, Florence gave us Brunelleschi’s dome, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, and Michelangelo’s David. This remarkable town — with just 60,000 people in the 15th century — would help lead Europe into the modern age.
You can’t have an art boom without money. And the Medici family, who ruled Florence for generations from palaces like this, was loaded.
It was the Medici wealth — they were bankers — along with their passion for art, and their super-sized egos that helped Florence fund the Renaissance, and make this city the art capital of the western world.
The statues in their garden [at the Medici–Riccardi Palace] are a reminder that it was in Florence that art was first commissioned simply to be enjoyed by a wealthy elite. With the Renaissance you had art not just to teach Bible stories or to glorify kings. Now, rich people sponsored art just for art’s sake.
The art-loving Medici hosted lots of famous artists, philosophers, and poets. Imagine. A teenage Michelangelo lived with them almost as an adopted son. Leonardo da Vinci played the lute at their parties. And Botticelli actually studied the classical statues that dotted their gardens.
Today the plush world of the Medici is on display in their palaces. This lavishly frescoed family chapel [also at the Medici–Riccardi Palace] takes you back to Florence — at least the Florence of its aristocratic class — in the 1400s.
The walls around the altar display The Journey of the Magi, or Three Kings, on their way to Bethlehem, by Benozzo Gozzoli.
Showing no shortage of ego, a Medici prince portrays himself as one of the Three Kings. This is an idealized image of Lorenzo the Magnificent — leading a parade of Florentines through a rocky landscape. Rather than the Holy Land, the scene is set in 15th-century Tuscany. Behind the king are other family members along with the city’s rich and powerful of the day. These elegant Florentine dandies are actually realistic portraits, showing the leading characters of Florence around 1450. They’re wearing colorful clothes that set trends throughout Europe.
The chapel doubled as the place the Medici received important guests. And by portraying their family in this religious setting, the Medici made an impressive display of power and sophistication. When potential rivals would drop by and see this, they could only think, “Damn, those Medici are good.”
Powerful as they were, the Medici were mortal, like everyone else, and eventually ended up down the street at San Lorenzo, in a grander Medici chapel — which served as the family tomb. Designed by Michelangelo at the height of his creative powers, this richly decorated room — created completely under one artist’s control — is an ensemble of innovative architecture, tombs, and sculpture.
Michelangelo, who personally knew three of the four family members buried here, was emotionally attached to the project. This is the work of a middle-aged man reflecting on his contemporaries dying all around him. And, it seems to me, reflecting on the tension between humanism, salvation, and his own mortality.
The room is strikingly empty of Christian iconography. Lorenzo II is shown as a Roman general, seated, arm resting on a Medici money box, and bowing his head in contemplation.
His sarcophagus bears two reclining statues, metaphors for birth and death: Dusk, worn out after a long day, slumps his chin on his chest and reflects on the day’s events. Dawn stirs restlessly after a long night as though waking from a dream.
Opposite, on the tomb of Lorenzo’s brother, Giuliano, Michelangelo portrays Night and Day. The woman representing Night looks almost masculine, reflecting Michelangelo’s passion for capturing the musculature of the human body.
The man, representing Day, struggles to be comfortable, each limb twisting in a different direction. These statues represent the swift passage of time, which eventually overtakes everyone…even the most powerful.
Day, Night, Dawn, and Dusk — brought to life in this room by the greatest sculptor of the Renaissance — meditate eternally on Death.
On the city’s main square stands the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s City Hall. While the exterior is medieval, Michelangelo’s David (this one’s a replica) seems to welcome you into the Renaissance world — and the dawn of our Modern Age. The elaborate courtyard, with its Roman inspired decoration, is textbook Renaissance.
The enormous main hall is designed to impress 500 guests at the same time. In an age before it was possible to buy mass media, this was how you shaped public opinion. The art trumpeted the glory of Florence, thanks to the Medici. The frescos recall great military victories: Florence beating Pisa 1497…Florence trouncing Siena in 1555. The ceiling heralds the divine glory of the grand duke Cosimo de’ Medici. Dressed as an emperor and blessed by the pope, he was the first Medici to rule like a king.
In front, you’ve got Leo X, the first of three Medici popes — giving the family some nice connections in both Rome and heaven, and explaining how the Medici family became the bankers of the Vatican. The hall is flanked by statues showing the heroic labors of Hercules, a mortal who became a half-god through his labors…a parallel not lost on wowed Florentines. Again, you gotta be impressed by those Medici.
Back out on the streets, it’s fun to think that today, even a tourist can eat better than princes and dukes of centuries past.
My son Andy’s taking time out from his travels to join us for a convivial Florentine dinner at Trattoria Tito.
My favorite restaurants in Europe have a common thread: they’re run by people who love their work. And Bobo, with his grande personality, runs this place with exuberance. Tonight, we’re going with his recommendation: the antipasto extravaganza. A parade of plates…with wine to match.
Knowing what I’ll be eating, he recommends a wine that complements the food.
Bobo: Dry enough to clean the mouth with salamis, with the fats of the salamis.
Bobo, the consummate professional, tests the wine to make sure.
Bobo: I think it’s perfect….OK, this is the pecorino cheese, aged in caves for 12 months, and is perfect to eat with the honey or with fava beans. You have to get a fava bean, you have to break it, push out the bean…’K?
Rick: Look at that! That’s nice!
Bobo: Eat it and…with a piece of pecorino cheese. It’s perfect.
Bobo takes time from his busy schedule to make sure the wine will still compliment the fava beans…what dedication!
Bobo: It’s not a typical Florentine starter without bruschettas — or “crostini,” as we call them. We have crostini with seasonal mushrooms and then the lard, lardo de colonnata; spice it with black pepper and rosemary. And then the bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and garlic. We have the typical Florentine liver paté. I think it’s time to change the wine.
I was just about to suggest that….
Bobo: …Syrah, and it would be perfect with stronger cheeses and with the wild meats. Enjoy! I’m working!
Bobo certainly loves his work.
Bobo: Here you go. OK. This is wild salamis. This is deer salami. This one is wild boar shoulder; this one is wild boar cheeks. Deer ham and wild boar sausages! Enjoy them with the wine.
Oh, boy — here comes another wine change.
Bobo: OK. OK. This is the vin santo. And these are our homemade Florentine biscuits with almonds. So you dip ’em in the sweet wine for five seconds…
Rick: Uno, due, tre, quattro…
Bobo: Cinque…and then you eat them.
The perfect end to a fantastic meal…thanks to Bobo.
Civic pride and the Florentine celebration of good living enlivens the city streets to this day. Any time of year, a festival with centuries-old roots, is likely to take you by surprise, as did this one here on Piazza della Signoria.
Another grand meeting place, this time with ancient roots, is Piazza della Repubblica. This lonely ancient column reminds us that 2,000 years ago, this piazza was the Roman forum. The grand square also evokes 19th-century Florence. Marked by a triumphal arch, it was built as a nationalistic statement celebrating the unification of Italy. That explains its name: Piazza of the Republic.
Florence reigned as the capital of a newly united Italy for just five years, from 1865 to 1870. That’s when Rome was still Vatican territory. Florence lacked a square worthy of this grand new country, so this neighborhood — once a ramshackle Jewish ghetto — was torn down to open up a space for this imposing, modern piazza.
Today, the piazza, surrounded by stately buildings from the 19th century, is a fine place to enjoy a coffee, or just feel the energy of contemporary Florence.
While most of Florence’s attractions cluster together in the old center, a short bus ride takes us to a much-loved medieval church. Set on a hill overlooking the city, it makes it clear there’s more to Florence than Renaissance treasures.
For a thousand years, the Church of San Miniato — still part of a functioning Benedictine monastery — has blessed the city that lies at the foot of its hill.
The church predates the Renaissance by several centuries. Its marble facade, dating from the 12th century, is a classic example from the Romanesque period. The perfect symmetry is a reminder of the perfection of God. And the eagle on top, with bags of wool in his talons, reminds all who approach the church who paid for it — the wool guild.
Stepping inside, you enter the most exquisite holy space medieval Florentines could create. The “carpet of marble” actually dates from about 1200. The wood ceiling is repainted, showing off its original color scheme. This 14th-century golden mosaic shows an earthly king offering his paltry secular crown to the king in heaven.
Visitors are welcome to attend the sung mass chanted as it has been by Benedictine brothers for centuries.
In the adjacent sacristy, 14th-century frescoes show scenes from the life of their founder and inspiration, St. Benedict.
Benedict is shown as an active force for good, busy blessing, preaching, and chasing the devil, until the day he slides up the ramp to heaven.
Benedict was the founder of the Benedictine Order, a vast network of over a thousand monasteries that eventually gave Europe some cohesiveness in the cultural darkness that followed the collapse of Rome. That’s why Benedict is the patron saint of Europe.
While San Miniato comes with commanding Florentine vistas, the nearby Piazzale Michelangelo, marked by its towering statue of David, is the city’s most popular viewpoint.
Crowds line the terrace enjoying the cityscape of Florence. From here you see the Arno River dividing the town center and the Oltrarno district, landmarks like the Ponte Vecchio, and the city’s beloved dome, designed by Brunelleschi. It’s a fine place to reflect on your Florentine visit.
While Florence is the big draw in Tuscany, there are a handful of side-trips within about an hour by bus or train. Pisa, with its famous tipsy tower, makes a wonderful day trip.
Pisa is a grand city with a grand history. For nearly three centuries, until about the year 1300, Pisa was a booming port town, rivaling Venice and Genoa as a sea-trading power. From here, where the Arno River meets the sea, its 150-foot galleys cruised throughout the Mediterranean.
Pisa’s three must-see sights — the Cathedral, Baptistery, and leaning bell tower — are reminders of its long ago sea-trading wealth. This dazzling ensemble floats regally on the best lawn in Italy. This square — the Piazza del Duomo — was nicknamed the “Campo dei Miracoli,” or Field of Miracles, for the grandness of the undertaking. The architectural style throughout is Pisa’s very own “Pisan Romanesque.”
Where traditional Romanesque has a heavy fortress feel, Pisan Romanesque is light and elegant. The buildings — with their tight rows of thin columns, geometric designs, and striped colored marble — give the square a striking unity.
The 200-foot-tall bell tower is famous because it leans about 15 feet. The tower started to lean almost immediately after construction began. Various architects tried to “correct” the problem of leaning by kinking the top level up straight. Climbing to the top is an unforgettable experience, offering great views of the city, the square, and its dramatic duomo, or cathedral.
Pisa’s huge and richly decorated cathedral is artistically more important than its more famous bell tower. Its ornate facade glitters in the sun. The 320-foot-long nave was the longest in Italy in the 12th century, when it was built. The floor plan is that of a traditional Roman basilica — 68 Corinthian columns dividing the nave into five aisles. The striped marble and arches-on-columns give it an exotic, almost mosque-like feel.
The pulpit by Giovanni Pisano dates from around 1300. Pisano left no stone uncarved in his pursuit of beauty. While this was sculpted over a century before the Renaissance began, Michelangelo himself traveled here to marvel at Pisano’s work, drawing inspiration from its realism.
In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t even enter the church until you were baptized. That’s why baptisteries like Pisa’s were free-standing buildings adjacent to the church. The interior is simple and spacious. A statue of John, the first baptist — the man who baptized Christ — seems to say, “Welcome to my baptistery.” The finely crafted font is plenty big for baptizing adults by immersion — medieval style.
A highlight here for many is the remarkable acoustics…resulting in echoes long enough to let you sing three-part harmony…solo.
Nearby is another fine side-trip from Florence. Traveling through more Tuscan countryside, we reach the delightful town of Lucca.
Beautifully preserved Lucca is contained entirely within its iconic ramparts.
Most cities tear down their walls to make way for modern traffic. But Lucca kept its walls — effectively keeping out both traffic and, it seems, the stress of the modern world. The city is a bit of a paradox: While it has Europe’s mightiest Renaissance wall, it hasn’t seen a battle since 1430.
Locals, like my friend and fellow tour guide Gabriele Calabrese, treat their ramparts like a circular park. And, with plenty of rental bikes available, visitors can enjoy a lazy pedal around its two and a half mile circuit as well.
Rick: So, Gabriele, this is a Renaissance wall. What’s the difference between a Renaissance wall and a medieval wall?
Gabriele: Medieval wall is thin, because they had no problem with arrows or stones. But in the Renaissance time the cannons, they became very strong and they became a problem so that’s why it was so thick.
Lucca’s wall didn’t come cheap. But all that hard work and investment combined with clever diplomacy earned the city a long period of independence. And, to this day, the proud Lucchesi have a strong sense of identity.
Rather than showcasing famous monuments, Lucca’s appeal is in its relaxed Old World ambience. Stroll around. Take time to let the city unfold. Romanesque churches seem to be around every corner, as do inviting piazzas busy with children at play.
The main pedestrian drag is Via Fillungo. Strolling here, past elegant old store fronts, you’ll get a glimpse of Lucca’s rich past, as well as its charming present.
Piazza Amphitheater [Piazza dell’Anfiteatro] was built around an ancient Roman arena. While the arena’s long gone, its oval shape is a reminder of the city’s classical heritage. Locals have been gathering here for two thousand years. Today’s attraction: a flower market.
Piazza San Michele also has ancient roots. It’s hosted a market since Roman times, when it was the forum. Today, it’s dominated by the Church of San Michele. Towering above its fancy Romanesque facade, the archangel Michael stands ready to flap his wings — which, thanks to a crude mechanical contraption, he actually did on special occasions.
In its heyday, Lucca packed over 100 towers within its walls. Each tower was the home and private fortress of a wealthy merchant family. Towers were single rooms stacked atop each other: shop, living room, and then the kitchen. This one, Lucca’s tallest surviving tower, is famous for being capped with a bushy little forest.
Those making the climb are rewarded with commanding city views — all in the shade of its amazing trees.
Nearby, the church of San Giovanni hosts nightly concerts celebrating the music of hometown composer Giacomo Puccini. He was one of Italy’s greatest opera composers.
Puccini’s delightful arias seem to capture the spirit of this wonderful corner of Italy.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our look at the treasures and charms of Florence, Pisa, and Lucca. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time…keep on travelin’. Ciao!
Bobo: And this one, the name is sopressata, and uh…you know him!
Bobo: Ah, ah-ah-ah-ah…
Rick: Mama mia!
Bobo: Listen to me, you’re not my type, you know!
Like Pisa!…like Pisa!…like Pisa!
Damn, those Medici are good…