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Header image: Courtesy Prof. Rohan Jayasekara, Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo (2011 - 2014).
I have always wanted to visit Florence
having read about its history as a teenager. Almost five decades later came my
chance to fulfil my dream. After the winter snow and storms spring must be the
best time to see central Europe. I chose my time well to visit Florence in May
last year with my friend and colleague Fida, an effervescent Jordanian. There
were flowers in great abundance and the trees appeared a brighter green with
the new foliage for the year. The people seemed happy to greet the warmth of
the spring sunshine.
Florence means flower. I couldn’t have
described its beauty any better.The
city lies in the middle of the Italian peninsula and is the capital of the
region of Tuscany. It is a city of half a million people living mostly by the
Arno river.We arrived at the sleepy
Vespucci airport on awarm Thursday
afternoon. Despite the lack of urgency to process our papers and send us on our
way there were plenty of smiles and politeness to make up for it. We arrived at
the Grand Majestic Hotel which was neither grand nor majestic. But it was cosy
and comfortable and the service was prompt and proper.
The city was founded by the Romans in the
first century B.C. After the excesses and decadence of the barbaric ages its
resurgence began between the 11th and 15th centuries. The Medici family ruled
Tuscany from the 15th century and transformed the city to its
present glory in art, culture, politics and economic power. In 1860 Tuscany became
part of the Kingdom of Italy.Florence
remained its capital and became the summer retreat and playground for the rich
and famous European aristocracy.
The survival of so many fine Gothic and
Renaissance buildings is part of Tuscany’s immense appeal.The shape of arches, doorways and windows
give a clue to its style and when it was built. Tuscany has been at the
forefront of the artistic revolution and record the transition from the
stylised charm of medieval art to the pristine beauty of the Renaissance. The
Medici family were responsible for commissioning some of the great works of
Renaissance art and are remembered with much affection by the Florentines.
The best sights of the city can be seen
by foot as they are encompassed within a small area. The Cathedral forms the
focal point to this historic city. Its eight sided Dome was designed by
Brunelleschi. The sheer beauty and size of the frescoes on the interior of the
dome took my breath away. The door on the east side of the baptistery was named
by Michaelangelo as the Gate of Paradise and contains the detailed carvings
from the Old Testament. There are numerous galleries and museums to vet the
appetite of the occasional tourist and the seasoned connoisseur. My favouritewas the Uffizi. It was completed in 1580 as
an office building but later assigned to display the Medici art treasures and
is the oldest gallery in the world. There are ancient Greek and Roman
sculptures and a vast collection of art from Gothic to High Renaissance. It
took us a whole day to absorb the beauty of this marvellous treasure and would
have taken us a lot longer if we allowed our emotions to take control.
Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Annunciation,
Michaelangelo’sThe Holy Family,
Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch and the many works of Rubens, Van Dyke,
Caravaggio and Rembrandt kept us busy and focussed. The sensuous painting of
Venus of Urbino by Titian was my special favourite for its sheer artistic
brilliance although it was condemned at the time for portraying a Goddess in
such an immodest pose.
Florence is a treasure trove of history
art and sculpture. To appreciate its elegance one requires diligence energy and
enthusiasm. Fida dealt with our flight plansin his own inimitable relaxed style and Itook over the controls on the ground. There
were times when the whole effort seemed overwhelming. When our enthusiasm
failed we took to the Florentine cuisine. Fida is an orthodox Muslim and he
looked for a menu without pork and alcohol. The many types of pasta and pizzas
cooked in virgin olive oil suited him well. I kept to a cholesterol filled
western carnivorous diet with lavish amounts of red wine to wash it down. I
tossed a coin whether to refuse the brandy at the end. Fortunately my hotel was
just a stones throw away from the gourmet restaurants. Fida most generously
took part in the inebriated discussions about my jaundiced and light-hearted
view of the world. I left the restaurant having solved the human problems that
were fomenting since the beginning of time.
The river Arno runs through the city. In
the summer it is reduced to a trickle and its pollution risesto unacceptable level. Its most famous bridge
is the Ponte Vecchio. There are many goldsmiths at work here exhibiting their
wares in the shops on the bridge. Built in 1345 it survived World War II. The
bridge is specially attractive at sunset viewed from the embankment. The Gothic
church of Santa Maria Novellacontains
some of the most important works of art in Florence. The church has a marvellous
façade of inlaid marble.
The local economy depends on tourism and
industries like textiles, jewellery pharmaceuticals, glass and ceramics. Much
of the jewellery is still produced in the Ponte Vecchio to be sold all over
Europe. The Boboli gardens are not to be missed. It is an excellent example of
Renaissance landscape architecture formerly owned by the Medici family. Its
hedges with geometric patterns and the tall cypress trees show an unusual but
pleasing contrast of shapes and sizes.
In the Academy Gallery the most famous
sculpture is Michaelangelo’s David (1501). He is the person of David and
Goliath fame. The anatomical detail of the sculpture is absolutely stunning.
The size and proportions of this work of art shows his brilliance and genius.
We walked the length and breadth of the
city many times over absorbing the atmosphere and appreciating its ambience. By
the end of the week the bricks and mortar made us claustrophobic and we decided
to take a short bus ride to the Piazzale Michaelangelo at the edge of the city
to get a panoramic view of Florence and the river Arno. That was indeed a
breath of fresh air!!
The public transport in Florence is good,
clean, cheap and punctual. I did not see the massive traffic jams. There were
no rows of vehicle standing still behind traffic lights spewing toxic
emissions. The scooters and motor cycles were seen in great numbers zigzagging
their way past pedestrians. We never saw the blue haze of pollution common in
the big cities. The main train station opposite the Santa Maria Novella church
is modern and computerised. I realised how cheap it is to travel by train
compared to London.
During our stay we had remarkable good
weather. The days were hot but not humid and the nights were warm enough for
people to gather in the squares of the city centre to wine and dine and also
listen to classical and popular music played by buskers and local bands. The
Florentines seem to enjoy a wonderfully relaxed outdoor lifestyle. Many of them
spoke English and were helpful. I never saw the infamous Latin temper.
Florence exhibits unparalleled beauty and
sophistication. There was no let up in the sheer richness we saw and
experienced. A week would be the minimum time required to appreciate its vast
treasures and the extraordinary beauty of its lush green countryside. We left
the city with a sack full of pleasant memories and a heavy heart.
We took the return flight to London from
Pisa which was an hours train journey from Florence. The trip past olive groves
and vast acres of vineyards was a treat and gave us a cross section of life in
Tuscany.Some lived in small shacks in
screaming poverty whilst others lived in plush palaces. Five thousand years of
civilisation, religion, democracy, socialism, communism and even the European
Union have failed to change this. We live in such an iniquitous world.
The sheer physical sensation of being in
Florence is powerful and exhilarating. Its splendour and its enduring charm
will remain a magnet for travellers for centuries to come.