Sunday, November 29, 2015

Tuscany in a Day, the Divine Comedy

The highlight of the port of Livorno may be one of Moby Lines' ferries, garishly adorned with Looney Toons characters amidst the uniform grey of heavy industry. The ship's livery is evidence that not all European ferry disasters involve loss of life. Otherwise, I have almost no recollection of Livorno. It is the seaside gateway to the treasures of Tuscany, and most cruise tourists don't stop to look on their way to Pisa or Florence. I didn't. The Livornese may be the old-world equivalents of the overshadowed residents of New Jersey. 

Upon disembarking the Emerald Princess, we boarded a motorcoach promptly at 7 a.m. to beat the summer crowds to Pisa.

Pisa's main attraction is the Piazza dei Miracoli, and specifically its famous Leaning Tower. The miracle here is that the tower is standing at all. But for sloppy engineering, the exquisite architecture of Pisa might be lost amidst the grandeur of larger Italian cities. Instead, millions of people arrange the compulsory photograph of a loved-one "propping up" the tower, and replicas crafted in genuine polyresin can be had at the nearby licensed souvenir stands. Did its builders live to see such transformation of the original ridicule? For me, the leaning tower was the bait, the real hook was the medieval Baptistery, one of the most beautiful buildings I've seen in Europe. It is like a domed crown of gleaming white marble. The cathedral and cemetery are beautiful in their own right. Perhaps if New Jersey had a similar famous mistake, it might get better press.

Baptistery of Pisa
Duomo of Pisa

Ubiquitous peddlers outside the piazza offer knock-off watches, sunglasses, and other junk. If it had been raining, I'm sure umbrellas would have appeared as if from thin air. Our guide mentioned these were unlicensed vendors, and, if police are nearby, it's the consumer that pays the steep fine. Buyer beware.

We headed next to Florence on a winding drive through the pretty Tuscan countryside. I tried to pretend I was on one of those romantically immersive sabbaticals, but I was on an air-conditioned motor coach, wearing a cruise-tour group identification sticker, an earpiece paired with an radio receiver, while hobnobbing with the blue-rinse set on an escorted day trip. Eat, Pray, Love this was not.

Our first stop in Florence was at the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze to see the most famous sculpture in the world, by Michelangelo. His masterpiece David is an excuse for otherwise heterosexual men to take lots of pictures of a naked guy. I took about 400, enough to make my own 3D model of the glaring future King of Israel. It's obviously cold in the museum, judging from David's physical reaction. And he's clearly uncircumcised. Either David wasn't a very observant Hebrew, or Michelangelo wasn't a very observant sculptor. The latter option might explain Adam's prominent navel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It's chilly in the Accademia.
David's head and right hand are disproportionately large. This has been attributed to either the planned perspective from below his originally-intended position along the roofline of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (the "Duomo"), or an emphasis on the primary tools of the Renaissance man. But I think it's just further evidence that Michelangelo wasn't a details guy.

There are a few incomplete pieces that illustrates Michelangelo's belief that the subject is already locked in the stone, and he just had to liberate it. And I'm sure there are several floors adorned with treasures of the old masters, but people generally come to the Accademia to see David, and then they leave without paying their respects to the Renaissance paintings. The rest of the museum's art likely has the same inferiority complex as Livorno.

We set out on foot from the Accademia, passing the crowd of closely-packed, sweltering people who had barely budged in the huge line we skipped outside the museum entrance. It helps to have a pre-paid date with David. A cruise tour can be like a backstage pass. From there we navigated the shady side of narrow streets to the Ponte Vecchio, the world's most romantic bridge. It's really just an overcrowded, narrow span strung with jewelry stores and leather boutiques, a medieval mall that replaced the original butcher shops, but that doesn't make for an effective travel brochure. The recent "tradition" of bedecking this bridge over the River Arno with lover's padlocks is discouraged of late by heavy fines, much to the improvement of the scenery and the outward view of Benvenuto Cellini. Local tour guides allege Hitler personally ordered this one bridge to remain standing as the German forces retreated during WWII, which was a typical strategic blunder if true. Perhaps he'd left a padlock there with Eva Braun.

Ponte Vecchio.
Benvenuto Cellini, his enclosure festooned with cheap, modern symbols of love.
Ponte Vecchio.
The Arno. The view from Ponte Vecchio may be better than the view of Ponte Vecchio.

From the Ponte Vecchio we proceeded to other treasures of Medieval Florence, in particular its famous piazzas, della Signoria and di Santa Croce. Piazza della Signoria is famous for a life-size knock-off of David, slightly larger than what the gift shops sell and this one free to view. The Loggia dei Lanzi, on one side of the piazza shelters two original masterworks, however, Giambologna's immense Rape of the Sabine Women in marble and the bronze Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Cellini. "Rape" in Giambologna's work is translated in the original Italian context of abduction, as a lusty Roman bachelor steals off with a Sabine bride, much to the consternation of her male relation, all of them naked. Perseus is in his birthday suit too, exposing some tender bits to the monstrous Medusa, but his unorthodox approach to combat was clearly successful. Apparently, the famous events of antiquity were all imagined in the nude during the Renaissance. Peep shows were on a majestic scale in the 16th century. I had my 14-year old son with me; when I was his age, I had a healthy appreciation for classical sculpture. This time, I took a lot of photographs from various angles.

Palazzo Vecchio, the historic town hall occupies a prominent corner of the L-shaped plaza, which is the great meeting place of the Florentines, and there is the famous Uffizi gallery nearby.

Palazzo Vecchio.
Duomo, the Cattedrale di Santa Mara del Fiore, the main church of Florence. David was originally destined for the alcove just below the lower half-dome in the image on the left.

Battistero di San Giovanni. These doors designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti were named the "Gates of Heaven," by Michelangelo.
Lunch at the Palazzo Borghese was included in the cost of our excursion. The neoclassical palace was once the home of the second husband of Napoleon's scandalous sister Pauline, Prince Camillo. The marriage netted Pauline a fabulous trove of diamonds, part ownership in the villa and a large annual allowance that in part financed her daily milk bath and a reclining nude sculpture by Canova, the closest she could get to posing for Playboy in the early 19th century. Today that behavior wouldn't even elicit a raised eyebrow. The setting of the villa's Council Room was suitably opulent, though lunch was merely serviceable, probably more a reflection of what Princess Cruises is willing to incorporate in the cost of a shore excursion than it is the capabilities of the Palazzo Borghese's caterers.

Fine dining in the footsteps of the Bonapartes at Palazzo Borghese, in the Council Room. The fireplace on the left is in the Empire style.
"Buchette di vino," literaly wine holes, are small windows characteristic of many of the palazzi of Florence, through which the noble wine=producing families sold their goods.

We finished a long day at Piazza di Santa Croce. The large square is now lined with leather boutiques. We watched a demonstration at one, the gratuitous shopping stop of any cruise tour. But it was informative, and everyone got something out of it excepting the cow. Santa Croce has its monuments too, particularly the statue of Dante Alighieri, father of the modern Italian language. He had to cobble it together from about 10,000 local dialects that are still in use today, which explains his severe expression of annoyance. Ironically, Dante's Divine Comedy is also not humorous reading, especially for high school students.

The other main feature of the piazza is the beautiful marble facade of Basilica di Santa Croce, where it seems half of Italy's most famous sons are interred, including Galileo and Michelangelo. More modern artists now set up shop in the piazza and sell their memories. It's a good place for a cooling gelato under the Tuscan sun.

Basilica di Santa Croce.


On returning to Livorno, my son noticed the garishly-decorated, modern Moby Lines ferry and asked, "Dad, what ship is that?" Maybe it is a reason to linger in Livorno and see what else the city has to offer. Maybe there is hope for New Jersey.