Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Italian painting holidays: How Florence makes people swoon – literally

Western art all goes back to Florence. The Tuscan city’s Piazza del Duomo, still the biggest and probably grandest of its type in the world, is where the Renaissance began in the 14th century – that remarkable flowering of art, architecture and sculpture, whose results surround you today as you walk the city’s galleries, cathedrals, churches and squares.

No wonder it’s a magnet for art lovers of all kinds – from those taking painting lessons or courses, copying great masters in galleries, or sketching streetscape watercolours, to those simply immersing themselves in the atmosphere.

It wasn’t just Giotto, Donatello, Michelangelo, Botticelli and countless other artists, who learned to paint here. The city’s lavishly booming economy through the Renaissance was also the birthplace of the piano, opera, paved city centres, spectacles, modern table manners and telescope astronomy (via Galileo) – as well as bank-based capitalism, and modern politics (thanks to Machiavelli).
The most famous square is Piazza della Signoria. The heart of the city since the middle ages, it’s also a miniature sculpture park, lined with cafes. The Loggia della Signoria holds many important statues, including a copy of ‘the’ Florentine renaissance sculpture, Michelangelo’s David (the original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia).

For breathtaking aerial views of the Florence, climb the steps in the Duomo, or its Campanile (bell tower). Just as stunning is the sight of the River Arno from the medieval, shop-lined Ponte Vecchio, the only historic bridge to survive Nazi bombing.

Gallery-goers have some of the world’s greatest collections of art within an olive-stone’s throw of each other. Two of the must-visits are the Uffizi, full of Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo, Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo and Raphael – and of tourists, so book ahead; and the Accademia, with early Renaissance paintings and sculptures, including the original David. The spirit of Michelangelo, as well as his work, can be found everywhere – especially in his house on Via Ghibellini, Casa Buonarrotti.

Florence is full of palaces too, most notably the Pitti – once home of the notorious Medici family, whose banking and political dynasty ruled the city during and after its Renaissance heyday, and who managed to contribute four Popes as they did so.

In fact, the city is so saturated with beautiful buildings and artworks, it’s too much for some people, who literally faint from sensory overload – a recognised medical condition known as ‘Florence Syndrome’. So be aware: that dizzy and disoriented tourist on an Italian painting holiday, stumbling round the square, might not have been overdoing the Frascati, only the frescoes.

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