Living and dying in Florence

Florence, Italy We explored two residences today that proved you could indeed live well in medieval and Renaissance Florence – particularly if your name was Medici.

We began at the Palazzo Vecchio, which was originally the town hall and then became the palace of the Medici. They stayed there until Eleanora of Toledo convinced her husband, Cosimo I, to move into the Pitti Palace. The square was filled with too many of the unwashed and disgruntled for her taste. And even though the Pitti Palace is across the Arno, the walkway across the Ponte Vecchio allowed the Medici to avoid any public mingling — a very wise move.

But the Medici couple made the most of the palace while they lived there. The courtyard is impressive and the centerpiece was originally the Donatello David. Some of the private apartments feature the grotesque style paintings which copy those found in the Domus Aurea in Rome, which we revisited last week. It was a style not at all familiar, hence the name, however the delicacy of the paintings is anything but grotesque.

The ducal apartments were lavishly decorated with paintings that glorified the power-mad Cosimo, and aligned him nicely with God.

But the highlight is the Grand Hall, which was originally built by Savonarola to house the Republic’s 500 grand councilors. However, when Cosimo took over, there was no need to pretend that Florence was a republic anymore, so he turned it into a party space. (Looks like it’s still a useful party space.) Its paintings glorify him and show the power of Florence in triumphing over those evil kingdoms of Pisa and Siena. One painting illustrates the moment the Pope offers Lorenzo the Magnificent a cardinal’s hat, which he tossed to his 13-year-old son, who later became Pope Leo X. There was no one greater than Cosimo and his descendants!

All that was impressive, but we were much more attracted to the Museo di Palazzo Davanzati. It is an amazingly preserved example of a medieval nobleman’s house of the 14th century and it shows life into the Renaissance. The wall paintings are stunning and are the originals. They were preserved under whitewash till the early 20th century, and are incredibly charming. They even decorated the ‘bathrooms,’ which had all the necessary equipment, as long as you had servants to fetch the water. The entire place was so pretty and looked so livable, that the Medici should have taken a page from the Davanzati decorating scheme.

So much for living. What about dying? Well, the Medici may not have absolutely believed they could take it with them, but they certainly wanted you to know that they had been here.

We ended at the Medici Chapels, where the famous are entombed. First, there is the Chapel of Princes, a dazzling kaleidoscope of marble that goes over the top into vulgarity. Two of the later Medici dukes are here, with room for more.

But there’s more. In total contrast, Michelangelo had the opportunity to design the New Sacristy, to house four of Medici whom he actually knew and who had sponsored him as a young man. While the entire plan was never completed, the sarcophagi of two lesser Medici dukes were finished, and Michelangelo’s statues grace the tombs. The finale was to be the tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother, Guiliano, but they remain undone, though graced by Michelangelo’s Medici Madonna. The dome echoes the Pantheon and is altogether a more serene resting place than the previous chapel.

We also walked through the Central Market, which is exactly the kind of exuberant and fragrant place one would expect. But we could only inhale and move on past so many perfect specimens of their kind.

Don’s Food Corner

It was steak day — Florentine style. After consulting many guidebooks and internet suggestions, we focused on an old-timey place that had limited table space, but lots of commotion. We were seated right next to the (tiny) open kitchen. There was much yelling from waiters to cooks. It wasn’t a restful experience, but it had that exuberance that you could associate with an Italian restaurant.

So, the steak: They were disappointed that we only wanted it for one person. But we heard the hacking of a piece of meat. Then, they showed me the piece that was to be grilled. It was a lot of meat — just under two pounds, but that included the bone. They asked me how I wanted it prepared and I said “the traditional way.” They were pleased with that response. I had been warned by both book and hearsay that “traditional” meant rare — REALLY rare. To my surprise, it came to the table in a state that I would call medium-rare, except in one very thick section, which was an acceptable “rare.” It was wonderfully juicy and flavorful. I suspect it came from a grass-fed animal, making it all the more flavorful. It was sprinkled with rock salt, which was a surprise when I bit into those grains.

For the rest of the meal, we started with a lasagna that featured pasta that was clearly homemade and with very meat-heavy layers between the pasta sheets. I didn’t detect much cheese.

Jo had a platter of roast beef — just sliced onto the plate, unadorned by any type of sauce. The beef was nicely rare. We also had some roasted potatoes, which were a little too rustic for Jo’s taste, but I liked them.

And all was washed down with a half carafe of Chianti. The combination worked, as apparently it has for many hundred years.

Despite such a big lunch, we had pizza later in the evening. As in most places, the pizzas were prepared in a wood-burning oven, giving them that nicely charred texture that I like.

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