24 Hours in Florence


Florence was our second stop in Italy. Our 24 hours there marked the beginning of a whirlwind six-day tour across three cities.

On the afternoon we arrived, we headed over to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michaelanglo’s “David.” We had bought tickets–which were essentially scalped–through a tour agency so that we could be certain to get in. I am glad we did. The situation would have been impossible otherwise. The lines were maddening. It was like trying to get into a club in Detroit or Chicago when you’re not on the guest list and it is the middle of a summer music festival.

The Galleria dell’Accademia is a magnificent Renaissance museum. David is its main attraction. Michaelanglo’s “The Prisoners” are also there. Seeing his sculptures in person exceeded my expectations. Like so many things in the arts, the technical details are really what made them. Michaelanglo’s ability to express musculature, tendons, and even veins in white blocks of marble is astonishing. The successful portrayal of hands and feet is often regarded as the mark of a true master of human figuration. In Michaelanglo’s work they come off perfectly.

We saw other art in the museum. It was almost all religious. Neri Di Bicci’s “Saint Francis, Philip, Catherine of Alexandria, Jerome and a Holy Bishop” caught my attention, as did his “Annunciation.” His work might be described as archetypically early Renaissance. It is iconographic, focuses exclusively on figuration, and makes little use of perspective in the backgrounds or landscapes. I was surprised how much I liked it.

I was also surprised at how White the art was. Italy in the period between 1300 and 1600 was a major center of international trade. Much of the wealth of Florence came from its merchant elite. There were Moors in Spain and Italian expeditions to North Africa and Asia. Shakespeare’s “Othello” is set in Venice. During the Roman period several emperors were African.

I thought that with all that interchange there would at least be some representation–a Black Madonna, a Black saint, or something. There was almost none. The situation was such that in the women’s restroom Sadé found a piece of graffiti, in English, reading “Where are all the Black people?”

We did find one, a Magi, tucked away on the second floor in a Nativity scene. He wasn’t easy to spot but seeing him led to the lamentation that neither of us had a sharpie. That would have led to an answer to the earlier query of, “He’s upstairs!”

After we left the Galleria dell’Accademia, we dashed back to our room to change for dinner. We had reservations at a charming Michelin Bib Gourmet place called Podere 39. It specializes in farm-to-table cooking. It did not disappoint. The ambience was delightful. Half of the restaurant functions as a flower shop by day. The opportunity to dine amidst a florist’s delights is unique. The food was quite good as well–mostly elegantly done-up takes on Italian classics. Sadé and I each had a particularly well done lasagna and we enjoyed some stuff squash blossoms as an appetizer.

The next day we got up somewhat early to get the most out of Florence before we took the train to Venice. We walked our luggage over to the station and left it at the left luggage before embarking on a three part excursion: a visit to the Rinascente Firenze, which my friend Zach had told us had the best view of Florence; a trip to the Jewish Synagogue; and an excursion to Theodore Parker’s grave. Before we went to any of those places though we stopped for a quick breakfast on the Piazza del Petti–a famous scenic plaza in front of one of the city’s best known palaces. The wasn’t particularly memorable but it was a great spot for people watching.

Rinascente Firenze, where we headed to next, is a fancy department store–think Harrods or Nieman Marcus–with a roof garden restaurant. Zach had told us that we could go there and pay for a drink and enjoy the view. Unfortunately, this is only true if you go after 4:00 p.m. and we arrived at about 11:00 a.m. Our tickets for Venice were for later in the afternoon and so we decided to go ahead and have lunch. Not before, however, having an interaction with an exceptionally rude hostess–like a French waiter dealing with tourists from the United States who are making no effort to speak French level rude. This was quite odd since the restaurant caters exclusively to tourists who visit for the view. Whatever the case, she was empathetic that we could only be seated if we wanted lunch. It didn’t matter how much we spent (i.e. if we got some mid-morning drinks) or if we wanted breakfast or pastries or anything else. She was very clear that she would only seat us if we ordered lunch. She must have said the words “Only lunch” a dozen times in our two minute interaction with her.

When we got to the roof we found the food to be unremarkable but the view to be spectacular. It’s possible to see the cupola of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, which is one of the most beautiful in the world, as well as much of the central historic city from up there. There is also excellent people watching since the restaurant overlooks the Piazza della Repubblica, a public square near the heart of the city.

After we finished our meal we walked over to the historic Jewish quarter to visit the Great Synagogue of Florence. Now, one thing we had decided to do throughout the trip was to visit the various ghettos in all of the cities that we stayed in. And I am a glad we did, I learned a lot about Italian Judaism and overall the history of Judaism.

Florence’s Jewish community is tiny, perhaps 1,000 people, but their synagogue is grand and beautiful. It is surrounded by an equally small Jewish neighborhood, with a couple of Jewish restaurants and a Judaica shop.

The community in Florence dates back to at least the beginning of the fifteenth century. And I learned that the Jewish population of Italy has never been large–it was about 43,000 before the Holocaust and is about 43,000 today–but has always been diverse and unique. Italian Jews have the own particular rites and there have long been Sephardic and Ashkenazi populations as well. One of the challenges that appears to have been consistent is figuring out how these three groups can live and share worship space together. Florence, for instance, only has a single synagogue but it is home to Italian Jews as well as Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

We followed our visit to the synagogue with a Unitarian Universalist pilgrimage to Theodore Parker’s grave. Florence is his final resting place. He died there after fleeing the United States. He had helped to supply the arms for John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. When it ended in Brown’s capture he high tailed it out of the country.

I’ve always admired Parker. He’s one of the paragons of Unitarian Universalism’s abolitionist wing. I like to think that his prophetic social justice oriented ministry has inspired my own significantly lesser efforts. It was a powerful experience standing before his grave and I suspect that experience, in particular, will be grist for my sermon mill.

We walked from Parker’s grave to the train station. Then it was on to Venice, which I will have rather more to share about sometime in the next couple of weeks.

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  • I didn’t realize Theodor Parker provided assistance to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. There are so many small but significant links of people in history that help us understand the richness of history.

    • Yes! He was actually part of a group that historians have come to call the Secret Six, though they weren’t an organized group and didn’t all know each other, who provided support to Brown prior to the raid. One of the things that’s so fascinating about the raid is the people who were connected to it in one way or another. Brown was in conversation with both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman prior to the raid. That’s not to say they necessarily supported his efforts. Douglass thought wasn’t a good idea and Tubman didn’t participate.

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