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.


[1] 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.

[2 Series Open]

[3] 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.

[4] In Florence we'll be wowed by Michelangelo, eat and drink well with my friend 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.

[5 map] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] You can't have an art boom without money. And the Medici family, who ruled Florence for generations from palaces like this, was loaded.

[8] It was the Medici wealth — they were bankers — along with their passion for art and super-sized egos that helped Florence host the Renaissance making this city the art capital of the western world.

[9] The statues in their garden 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.

[10] The art-loving Medici's 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 sculpture that dotted their gardens.

[11] Today the plush world of the Medici is on display in their palaces. This lavishly frescoed family chapel takes you back to Florence — at least the Florence of its aristocratic class — in the 1400s.

[12] The walls around the altar display The Journey of the Magi, or three kings on their way to Bethlehem by Benozzo Gozzoli.

[13] 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.

[14] The chapel doubled as the place where 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 dropped by and saw this, they could only think, “Damn, these Medici are good.”

[15] 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.

[16] 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 around him. And, it seems to me, on the tension between humanism, salvation, and on his own mortality.

[17] 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.

[18] His sarcophogus 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.

[19] Opposite, on the tomb of Lorenzo's brother, Guilano, Michelangelo portrays Night and Day. The woman representing Night looks almost masculine reflecting Michelangelo's passion for capturing the musculature of the human body.

[20] 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. 

[21] Day, Night, Dawn, and Dusk — brought to life in this room by the greatest sculptor of the Renaissance, meditate eternally on Death.

[22] 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.

[23] The enormous main hall is designed to impress 500 guests at once. 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.

[23a] In front, you've got Leo the 10th, 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.

[24] Back out on the streets, it's fun to think that even today's tourist can eat better than princes and dukes of centuries past.

[25] My son Andy's taking time out from his travels to join us for a convivial Florentine dinner at Trattoria de Tito.

[26,] 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. Tonight, we're going with his recommendation: the antipasto extravaganza. A parade of plates... with wine to match.

[27] Knowing what I'll be eating, he recommends a wine that compliments the food.

Bobo: Dry enough to clean the mouth with salami, 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…eat it with a piece of percorino 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 larde, larde de colinata, spice it with black pepper and rosemary. And then 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. Okay. This is wild salamis. This is deer salami. This is wild boar shoulder, this one is wild boar cheeks. Deer ham and wild boar sausages!  Enjoy them with the wine.

Seems like we are about due for another wine change.

Bobo: Okay. Okay. 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. And then you eat them.

The perfect end to a fantastic meal, thanks to Bobo.

[28] 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.

[29] Another grand meeting place, this time with ancient roots is Piazza della Republica. This lonely ancient column reminds us that 2000 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.

[30] Florence reigned as the capital of 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 the neighborhood — once the ramshackle Jewish ghetto — was torn down to open up a space for this imposing, modern piazza.

[31] Today, the piazza, surrounded by stately buildings from the late 19th century, is a fine place to enjoy a coffee or just feel the energy of contemporary Florence.

[32] 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 make it clear there's more to Florence than Renaissance treasures.

[33] 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.

[34] 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. The eagle on top, with bags of wool in his talons, reminds all who approach the church who paid for it — the wool guild.

[35] 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.

[36] Visitors are welcome to attend the sung mass chanted as it has been by Benedictine brothers for centuries.

[37,] In the adjacent sacristy, 14th century frescoes show scenes from the life of their founder and inspiration, St. Benedict.

[38] 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. 
[39] 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.

[40] 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.

[41] 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 Bruneleschi. It's a fine place to reflect on your Florentine visit.

[42] While Florence is the big draw in Tuscany, there are a handful of great side trips within an hour's bus or train ride away. Pisa, with its famous tipsy tower, makes a wonderful day trip.

[43] 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.

[44] 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.”

[45] 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.

[46] 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 straight. Climbing to the top is an unforgettable experience offering great views of the city, the square, and its dramatic duomo...or cathedral.

[47] 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 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

[48] The pulpit by Giovanni Pisano dates from around 1300. Pisano left no stone un-carved 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.

[49] 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.

[50] The highlight here for many is the remarkable acoustics...resulting in echos long enough to let you sing three part harmony...solo.

[51] Nearby, is another fine side trip from Florence. Traveling through more Tuscan countryside, we reach the delightful town of Lucca.

[52] Beautifully preserved Lucca is contained within its iconic ramparts.

[53] 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 in that it has Europe's mightiest Renaissance,  it hasn't seen a battle since 1430.

[54] 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 peddle around its two and a half mile circuit as well.

[55] Rick: So, Gabriele, this is a Renaissance wall. What's the difference between a Renaissance wall and a medieval well?
Gabriele Calabrese: Medieval wall is thin because they had no problem with harrows or stones. But in the Renaissance time the cannons they became very strong and they became a problem and that's why it was so thick.

[56] Lucca's wall didn't come cheap. But all this hard work and investment combined with clever diplomacy earned the city a long period of independence. And, to this day, the proud Luccasi have a strong sense of identity.

[57] Rather than showcasing famous monuments, Lucca's appeal is in its relaxed old world ambiance. Stroll around. Take time to let the city unfold. Romanesque churches seem to be around every corner…. as do piazzas busy with children at play.

[58] 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.

[59] Piazza Amphitheater 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.

[60] 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.

[61] 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.

[62] Those making the climb are rewarded with commanding city views — all in the shade of its amazing trees.

[63] Nearby, the church of San Giovanni hosts nightly concerts celebrating the music of home town composer Giacomo Puccini. He was one of Italy's greatest opera composers.

[64] Puccini's delightful arias capture the spirit of this wonderful corner of Italy.

[65] 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'.