The land is idyllic, the art is devine and the food is out of this world.
– Stanley Tucci on Tuscany
Towards the end of 2022, four of us wanted to take a trip abroad. Where to break a fast of three homebound years? It was my birthday, so I got to choose.
“Something I read in a book.”
The book was Still Life by Sarah Winman (2022). Set mostly in Florence, it’s a love letter to the Tuscan city. As well as its fabulously original characters – outsiders all, united by humanity, humour and love – what stayed with me were the descriptions of the floods which blighted the area in 1966.
I’d never heard of them. They left thousands homeless and devastated the city. The swollen waters of the River Arno swept at lightning speed, swamping – with tonnes of mud – countless works of art. Winman evokes these true-life scenes so vividly. Most poignant is her account of the mud angels – hundreds of young people who descended on the city, saved paintings and books and fell in love.
This fired my desire to see some Florentine cultural bounty up close. We’d visited Florence before on a summer day-trip, but it felt as hot as a pizza oven and – jostling through the ancient streets, joining the crowds gaping at Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza della Signoria – we failed to explore treasures like the Uffizi Gallery and the cathedral, marvel of 15th century engineering.
The oldest gallery in the world
The Uffizi was HQ of the Medici family, but belies its meaning (the offices) because, like many buildings in Florence, it’s a palace. Open to the public for 300 years, it’s the oldest art gallery in the world. Even now, in autumn, though we’d booked in advance, we had to join a line which snaked around the elegant courtyard.
Once inside, you still feel huckled along, so tight is the throng keen to view the artworks in vaulted rooms off the splendidly frescoed corridors. Inching forwards to get a swatch of the Botticellis felt like trying to view the Mona Lisa in the Louvre – you need your elbows as much as your eyes.
It’s worth it. In the flesh and up close, The Birth of Venus (1485), is spine-tinglingly beautiful. The central icon stands in a giant shell, blown by zephyrs of wind.
She is born from the sea foam, the guidebook says, coyly. I prefer Stephen Fry’s account in Mythos: Kronos slices off his father’s genitalia, tosses them over the sea, sperm spills into the waves from which arises Venus, originally Aphrodite. Greek mythology, representing divine love and rebirth – or maybe it’s just another cock-and-balls story.
Fitting, perhaps, that Botticelli used tempera – diluted egg – to test new pigments and achieve such brilliant lasting colours.
Just as striking is the nearby Primavera (1480). A vibrant rainbow of a panel, it teems with the scantily draped flesh of mythological figures: Venus again, another Zephyr, the three Graces, Mercury and a nymph, topped by a wee plump Cupid, all surrounded by an abundance of flowers, foliage and fruit. The figures are busy, not still – the embodiment of Spring, fertility, desire and love.
The classical source of these tableaux stands out amidst a sea of biblically inspired scenes. The preponderance of Christian iconography is overwhelming – Oh, god, not another room of Madonna with Child pictures!
Rarer still are paintings by women. Bloody and beautiful, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620) by Artemisia Gentileschistill shocks. A determined Judith cleaves with a sword the neck of an invading general – more retaliatory slicing – his blood soaking the bedsheets. Was Artemisia avenging her own rape by another artist? She was tortured to verify her story, while his sentence of exile was never carried out.
A delicious history lesson
We didn’t confine ourselves to pure aesthetics, but widened our cultural horizons to include buildings, drink and food. The Eating Europe walking tour was enlightening and mouthwatering, but for one local delicacy.
The tour started just over the river. Like Paris’s rive gauche, Florence’s south bank – the Oltrarno – was once seen as the more authentic, home to workers and the poor.
First stop was the formaggioteca where the proprietor – wearing a beatific smile and an apron saying King of Cheeses – gave us a taste of creamy ricotta, pecorino and other local products. Next came a pasticceria: cake, pastries, and crisp, nut-embedded cantucci biscuits which we dunked into sweet Vin Santo, the booze used for Mass.
Dodging motorini scooters, a dander through the tight side streets, two more shops and a wine degustation and we were sated, ready to say ciao to all this heavenly chow.
But there was one more dish, served from a van, smothered in parsley, garlic and anchovy sauce and stuffed into panini (bread rolls): lampredotto. The name derives from lamprey eels – once fished out of the Arno and considered a delicacy – which it resembles in colour, shape and, maybe, flavour.
We know it as the aptly named tripe. We valiantly gave it a go, but none of us could finish it. It was, as we say in Glasgow, boggin’!
We’d had a tip about Florentine food, thanks to the Tuscan episode of Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy (BBC iPlayer), a charming watch full of local colours, tastes and sounds. Having lived part of his childhood in Florence, he focussed on cucina povera – peasant food, using cheap and plentiful ingredients like pasta, beans, tomatoes (Ha! cry the Brits, now) and stale bread in Tuscan dishes like panzanella salad, pappa al pomodoro soup and ribollita stew.
Tucci gave us our first-night, good-value restaurant – Osteria Cinghiale Bianco, White Boar Tavern. After the failed tripe trial, roast boar seemed really appetising. So were the desserts like tiramisu and bignolini, cream in choux pastry.
Stanley’s programme also showed the buchette del vino – wine windows, first sprung during the seventeenth-century plague. Some reopened during Covid as the safe way to get a drink. We scoured the ancient walls and eventually found one – though it was quicker to queue at the bar!
Books and Florence
In Still Life, the fictional Evelyn, a brilliantly perceptive art expert, meets a version of real-life author, E.M. Forster. She gifts him her Baedeker guide to Florence and feeds him bomboloni alla crema (custard-crammed Tuscan doughnuts).
Evelyn’s ardent affair with the hotel maid hints at same-sex love and Forster, stuck in his English closet and ruled by mother, has his eyes opened. Such passionate scenes in and around Florence figure in Forster’s A Room with a View (1908).
Another bestseller set in the city is Brunelleschi’s Dome. Santa Maria del Fiore’s huge cupola – largest of its type in the world – dominates the city and panorama from kilometres away. Not only is it free of visible support, it was also built without scaffolding. Ross King’s book details the technical genius of raising huge blocks of marble as well as the aesthetics, morals and politics of 15th-century Florence.
Towards the end of our last day, we climbed south of the city to the Piazzale Michelangelo. Sarah Winman takes Evelyn and her lover there: the views across Florence and the Arno plain were ravishing. The afternoon light had turned the valley gold and the roofs shone vivid red. And of course, that dome.