- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

Ah, Tuscany. This is the land of olive trees; of bread without salt; of cypresses; Chianti; alabaster; pottery; cathedrals of black, green, pink and white marble; of rolling hills and hilltop fortresses; of sandy Mediterranean beaches — and of the Medicis, Machiavelli, Dante, Michelangelo, da Vinci and Galileo. It’s the cradle of the Renaissance.

Tuscany is a feast for the senses, with treasures both natural and man-made. Despite the millions of tourists who visit annually, it looks much as it did in the Middle Ages, thanks to the Italian genius for recognizing and maintaining the beauty and integrity of the landscape.

We came to Tuscany as part of a symposium on travel, guests of the Italian Tourist Board and the Tuscan Regional Tourist Bureau. Tuscany and Florence are eager for more tourists, although they already seem to have their fill during the summer months. In winter, Tuscany is a traveler’s delight: Museums don’t have lines; hotels have rooms available; restaurants aren’t crowded.

We enjoyed four days of indulging the senses with elegant dinners in the splendid Medici palazzi in the outskirts of Florence, dining in Renaissance splendor. At the final celebration in the Corsini palace on the banks of the Arno, we were welcomed by the municipal heralds, complete in Renaissance costumes and plumes, and all with their trumpets. Romantic, timeless and enthralling. The effect is memorable.

You don’t have to be a VIP to get the Tuscan experience. The warmth with which the Italians receive visitors is felt at once. On a bus to Siena, the young guide, Massimiliano Costantini, was pleased that I was using my fractured Italian. “This is good,” he said (with excessive modesty), “because my English is not so good.”

He answered questions for our group with explanations in English and French and took pride in pointing out bits of local lore.

Florence (Firenze in Italian), population 375,000, is the capital of Tuscany and for a brief period — 1865 to 1871 — was the capital of Italy. In the Midand from 1865 to 1871 was the capital of Italy. In the Middle Ages, Florence was one of several free cities. Siena was its great military and economic rival. With the cities separated by just about 40 miles of lush, rolling Chianti countryside, the rivalry goes back a thousand years.

The wars between the Guelfs (supporters of the pope) and the Ghibellines (supporters of the Hohenstaufen emperor) began between the dukes of Bavaria and the imperial family and spread to Italy. The Sienese sided with the emperor (the word Ghibelline comes from Waibling, a castle in Germany owned by the Hohenstaufen family); the Florentines in general were Guelphs (from the name Welff, a spokesman for the dukes of Bavaria). The Florentines ultimately triumphed, and after centuries of war, Siena was absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, ruled by Florence.

@Subhed.belt:Rooster emblem

Legend has it that the bishop of Poggibonsi, who lived halfway between the two cities, grew weary of the constant battles and decided to end the border conflict. He suggested that a horseman from each city ride from his respective city at dawn on a given morning. The border would be set at the horsemen’s meeting point. Departure would be at the first cock crow.

The sly Florentines covered their rooster with a basket and didn’t feed it for three days. When the given day arrived, the basket was removed, and the poor cock, wild with hunger, let out a mighty crow two hours before dawn. Off went the horseman. Needless to say, the Florentines claimed more of Chianti than the Sienese.

With this probably apocryphal story, the black rooster as the symbol of Chianti was born. It adorns labels of the best wines from the Chianti region to this day. With just a touch of bitterness, our guide in Siena said nonchalantly, “We Sienese have nothing against the Florentines, but they don’t like anyone to tell that story.”

Siena was an Etruscan city and later a Roman colony; it is said to have been founded by the twin sons of Remus. As in the legendary origin of Rome, the Sienese twins were suckled by a she-wolf.

This exquisite city of about 55,000 inhabitants is virtually unchanged from its Renaissance days. Divided into three terzi, corresponding more or less to the three hills on which the town is built, Siena was and continues to be subdivided into 17 contrade, legally chartered neighborhoods organized to look after residents in matters of religion and to organize festivals.

The only part of the city not part of a contrada is the stunning campo, the shell-shaped central square, the heart of the city where twice a year one of the world’s most unusual horse races, the Palio, takes place.

Even a riderless horse can win the Palio, the modern version of which dates back to 1633. On July 2 (the feast of the Madonna of Provenzano) and Aug. 16 (the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin) 10 of the 17 contrade are chosen. For four days before each race, trial runs are held, with each rider wearing the costume and colors of the contrada he represents.

The final race on the Campo is over in minutes, but it has become one of Italy’s foremost spectator sports. After the race, thousands celebrate at long tables set up in the narrow streets of each contrada; a place of honor is set for the winning horse.

Siena is replete with beautiful medieval buildings and extraordinary works of art. The black-and-white marble duomo, one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in Italy, has gorgeous paving of inlaid marble representing biblical and secular scenes.

The Sienese intended to enlarge their cathedral, a project that remained unfinished because the Black Death of the mid-14th century decimated the population and funds were no longer available. The Opera Metropolitana Museum was intended originally to be the right-hand nave of the new duomo. In it, a visitor can see the exquisite early-14th-century “Maesta” painted by Duccio of the Virgin and Child surrounded by angels and saints.

In the narrow streets leading to the campo are shops with elegant and stylish Italian shoes and bags, dresses and ties; pastry shops with irresistible delicacies, including the local specialty, panforte, a nougatlike flat cake; and numerous banks. The Monte dei Pasche is claimed by the Sienese to be the world’s oldest bank. (The Italians lay claim to the origin of the word bank from the Italian banco, the bench on which banking business was conducted in the Middle Ages, although the French claim it was in Lyon that the word bankruptcy was coined, when the banking benches for businesses that failed were broken.)

Beautiful and timeless as Siena may be, Florence remains Tuscany’s crown jewel. The entire city is a museum; there is beauty wherever the eye falls. Many of its streets and piazzas retain the feeling of the ancient medieval city. Its buildings reflect an elegance of style that began in the late 13th century and flowered in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Powerful merchants

In Florence, the great merchant families, rather than the aristocracy, rose to political and economic power. In particular, it was under the Medicis that Florence reached its golden age of creativity with a flowering of poetry, architecture, painting, philosophy and music. The Medicis supplied Italy with three popes and France with two queens.

Florentines point out that it was Marie de’ Medici who brought the Guelph emblem of the fleur-de-lys to France and made it the symbol of the royal family — although it also is said that the fleur-de-lys (an iris rather than a lily) was first given to Florence by Charlemagne in the eighth century and used by the French in the intervening centuries.

There is no question, though, that Florence gave the world its first euro — the florin.

At first glance, Florence is a somber city with pre-Renaissance fortresslike palaces and buildings. But enter any of these public buildings, whether they be Medici palazzi, churches or villas, and the eyes are overwhelmed with the beauty of frescoes still brilliant 500 years after their creation.

The brooding quality of the city has been lightened greatly by the presence of thousands of young people. Thirty American schools have branches in Florence, 13 of them representing major universities such as Stanford, Harvard and Yale. American students are not alone, for young people from all over Europe and other parts of the world come to Florence. Their presence lends a joyous tone to the gray walls of this magnificent city.

Florence also offers art academies specializing in classical painting, attended by hundreds of students. An exhibit of the work of 67 of these young artists will be on view in New York at the Westbeth Arts Center Gallery until June 29 and then will travel to the Rhode Island School of Design, to Rome and ultimately back to Florence.

The major museums of Florence are filled with incomparable treasures. The graceful Botticelli “Primavera” (Spring) and “Birth of Venus,” as well as works by da Vinci, Fra Filippo Lippi, Rembrandt, Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio, among many others, can be seen in the Uffizi gallery, built for the Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici as an administrative building and later used to install the family art collection.

At the Galleria dell’Accademia, a visitor stands in a long line to glimpse Michelangelo’s David (the original). The Archaeological Museum displays Etruscan sculpture and jewelry. Medici household goods, including silver, are found in the Pitti Palace, built for the Pitti banking family about 1460; and the Bargello, once the city’s law court and prison, is filled with sculpture by Michelangelo, Donatello and Benvenuto Cellini.

The wealth of Florentine art is not limited to museums. Of the 85 churches in Florence, 50 contain works of art. One of the oldest is the charming San Miniato, located on a hill outside the city proper near the Piazzale Michelangelo, a splendid spot from which to view the entire city — the Arno a gleaming ribbon below, straddled by the lovely Ponte Vecchio with its jewelry shops. (The Ponte Vecchio is the only Florentine bridge not blown up by the Germans during World War II.) The magnificent Brunelleschi cupola crowning the duomo, one of the masterpieces of the Renaissance, shines in the sunlight, and all the towers and narrow streets of Florence are clearly visible.

The cathedral is flanked by a graceful tower designed by Giotto. Across from it stands the baptistery with its famous bronze doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti, declared by Michelangelo to be so beautiful that they could serve as the gates to Paradise.

Down in the city, next to Santa Maria del Carmine in the Brancacci Cappella, are gorgeous 15th-century frescoes by Masaccio, Masolino and Filippino Lippi, including a heartbreaking Masaccio Adam and Eve being chased from the Garden of Eden.

Step into the imposing Santa Maria Novella, near the railroad station, and see a Masaccio painting of the Holy Trinity, frescoes by Ghirlandaio and crucifixes by Giotto and Donatello.

Around the corner from Santa Maria Novella, on the Via Della Scala, is the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, a treasure-trove of potpourri, soaps, scents and herbal products in an ancient pharmacy founded by the Dominican friars in 1542. Even if you don’t buy anything, it is worth a visit just to see the beautiful building and the exquisite products sold there, including rare honeys, elixir of rhubarb, lavender smelling salts and exotic perfumes..

The Piazza della Repubblica, the site of the ancient Roman forum as well as the former ghetto where Jews were forced to live from 1571 to 1848, was once the heart of the city. The ghetto is gone, and the piazza is graced with the elegant Hotel Savoy and a series of fancy cafes serving delicious gelati, pastries and coffee. Standing up to drink an espresso or cappuccino is always much cheaper than sitting down with table service.

@Subhed.belt:Piazza della Signoria

In the grand Piazza della Signoria, after you have admired the magnificent Palazzo Vecchio, stop at the Caffe Rivoire for a Florentine tradition, hot chocolate with whipped cream. It was in the Piazza della Signoria that in 1497 the famous bonfire of the vanities took place when the fanatical monk Savonarola burned the jewelry, books, precious objects and works of art that he considered to be pagan. Savonarola, in turn, was hanged by the church authorities and burned in the same piazza on May 23, 1498.

Many of Florence’s most illustrious sons are buried in the Church of Santa Croce: Michelangelo, who picked the spot for his tomb so that the first thing he would see on Judgment Day when the doors of Santa Croce opened and the dead arose would be the Brunelleschi dome; Galileo, who was not entitled to a Christian burial until 100 years after his death because of his controversial scientific theories; Machiavelli and Rossini, to name but a few.

There is a monument to Dante, who is buried in Ravenna. (In his “Innocents Abroad,” Mark Twain noted skeptically, “I suppose they are buried there, but it may be they reside elsewhere and rent their tombs to other parties — such being the fashion in Italy) …”

Outside the church, the square is surrounded by little shops, many of them artisans’ workshops selling leather and other local specialties. A Punch-and-Judy show entertains children on the square as families take their Sunday stroll.

Walking north a few blocks from the Duomo, next to the San Lorenzo Church are dozens of stalls selling leather coats (not the artisans’ workshops of Santa Croce but commercial enterprises). Just beyond is the Central Market, a marvelous covered market in a 19th-century cast-iron building. Stalls sell all sorts of fruits, vegetables, salumi (ham, salami and sausages), cheeses, prepared foods, olive oil and some delicious aged balsamic vinegar.

A couple of small restaurants in the market serve typical Tuscan food, essentially simple, peasant-style cooking. Dishes such as ribollita (Tuscan bread soup), a summer bread-and-tomato soup, suckling pig, salumi, pecorino cheese and tripe, a Florentine specialty, are ubiquitous. The principal vegetable in Florence is spinach.

Crespelle — paper-thin crepes — are another specialty. I had a splendid version at the new Angels restaurant on Proconsul Street. The pancakes were stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach and were delicate and delicious. A main course of seared Mediterranean tuna medallions (the tuna is smaller than the Pacific variety) was equally splendid, accompanied by a combination of grilled eggplant and peppers. Nothing peasantlike in that meal.

Unique passage

Perhaps the city’s most unforgettable walk is through the Vasari passage, which connects the Piazza della Signoria to the Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno. Vasari built the passageway (corridorio) for Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1565 as a means for the duke to watch audiences in the Palazzo Vecchio from a secret window and to flee to safety in the event of an attack by his enemies.

The passageway begins in the Palazzo Vecchio, past the grand Sala dei Cinquecento with its unfinished Michelangelo sculpture. It crosses above streets and buildings, above the shops on the Ponte Vecchio to two exits, one to the Bobboli Gardens, the other directly into the Pitti Palace. Along part of the passageway are hundreds of self-portraits by artists of the time, the intervening centuries and even contemporary times.

A visit to Tuscany is not complete without a tour of Lucca, an exquisite small walled town, home of some of Italy’s best olive oil, and Volterra, a stern stone Etruscan hill town standing “somber and chilly,” as D.H. Lawrence described it. When it was occupied by the Etruscans, it had 25,000 inhabitants. Only 11,000 are there today.

Volterra has a fine Etruscan museum; an impressive third-century B.C. unmortared Etruscan arch incorporated into the medieval city wall; and a well-preserved first-century A.D. Roman amphitheater. The town’s specialty, begun in Etruscan times, is alabaster, which is no longer mined but quarried.

Leaving Volterra, one glimpses the Balze, a series of sheer cliffs created by erosion. Erosion over the centuries has claimed the oldest necropolises, two early medieval churches, several houses and a monastery.

We pass the walled town of Colle di Val d’Elsa (the Elsa is a pretty river), once famous for the manufacture of paper, where the main industry now is the production of fine glass and crystal.

Farther on, the towers of San Gimignano appear on a distant hilltop. Once an Etruscan city, San Gimignano was already an important market town in the 10th century; its 72 towers were an expression of the city’s prosperity — as well as useful for pouring boiling oil on attacking enemies. Today, it’s a quiet little town with just 14 towers still standing in stark relief against the clear Tuscan sky. San Gimignano is known for its vernaccia, a light, dry white wine.

Pisa, the other historic rival of Siena and Florence, is an overwhelming attraction for tourists from around the world. The grand square where the cathedral, the baptistery and the famous leaning tower are to be found is an anomalous mix of Africans selling African art, a Chinese restaurant, a Jewish cemetery and Gypsies.

Tuscan perspectives reflect the Renaissance painters’ vision — another brilliant example of nature imitating art. Let your eye feast on the beauties of this land; let your heart rejoice; and let your mind be enriched by ancient treasures.

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