January 24, 2011

Florence in January

In winter, Florentines take back their city.  The Florence that’s usually hidden by crowds becomes visible and intriguing.  For example, take the short street, via dei Servi, which runs from the piazza of the grand duomo to Piazza Santissima Annunziata.  I go down that street often to buy papers and notebooks at Tassotti and to look at the hand- bound leather books at the Scriptorium.  The rest of the street has been rather a blur, with bicycles, Vespas, and people crowding the way.  In January, it reverts to a calm little street, with the great bulb of the duomo visible at one end and the magnificent piazza at the other.  This (actually taken two streets over) draws me to Firenze in any season.  See the people at the top of the dome?  So much to contemplate in this one small photo.

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The Piazza Santissima Annunziata would be the pride of any city but here, in the city of extravagant treasures, it’s kind of neglected. The city has chosen to position six big trash receptacles around the perimeter.  In winter, it’s empty of people and you get to stand near Ferninando I, the bronze horseman who anchors the piazza, and slowly turn around, enjoying the ideal Renaissance architecture and speculating about the barred window in the Ospedale degli Innocenti.  The innocenti were babies, abandoned at the hospital; the window at the left end once held a wheel where the innocents could be left and spun inside to some refuge.  The building was designed by Brunelleschi and later decorated by Andrea della Robbia with ceramic medallions of swaddled bambini. There’s an easy half day to spend on the piazza and the nearby Archeology Museum. But this time I was taken by the little street, lined with tiny, interesting  shops.

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We stayed at a residenza, not quite a hotel, nor and b & b.  Italy has been very fast to offer alternate accommodations to hotels during the crisis and even before.  B & B’s are cropping up everywhere and now very nice “residences” are too.  Our was Residenza della Signoria, www.residenzadellasignoria.com in the very heart of town and next door to Verrazzano, where we often go for pastries, quick lunch, or a glass of wine before dinner.  Location, location, yes!  The residenza  offers no hotel services—no concierge or bellmen or room service, or even breakfast.  But the room was attractive and the bath nice and it was very quiet. Amazingly inexpensive, too.

Not so, the two restaurants where we dined: Ora d’Aria,  www.oradariaristorante.com and Alle Murate, www.artenotai.org . Both represent the new food of Florence.  We love the traditional trattorie but these two strike out in directions primarily pertinent to the chefs in charge, rifting on tradition and surprising combinations.  Ora d’Aria, used to be located across from a former prison and took the inmates’ “hour of air” as their name.  They’ve moved now to an airy space—a little too well-lighted—painted in pale gray and cream, a cool Gustavian style. Alle Murate, also contemporary in décor, is romantically lit and discreet.  The ceiling is painted with 13th-century frescos of astonishing quality.  The chef and most of the staff are female.  If you go and are four or five people, request the table at the top of the stairs—you’ll be right under the fresco and across from the earliest portrait of Dante.  We were downstairs at an intimate table and more than happy. Neither restaurant was the kind of place where I felt comfortable snapping photos, but, take my words, these are two unique experiences in Florence.  When food is great that’s enough but when the place itself transcends its space, that’s a memorable experience.

Both days were fine.  The sun blazed in a blue, blue sky and all the Florentines were strolling, sipping hot chocolate–very thick–topped with whipped cream, or walking their dogs, also in Prada coats, and chatting in the sunshine with friends.  Italians manage to look stylish and elegant in their bundled up state. I guess it’s the cut of the coat, the butter-leather boot, the scarf knotted just so. It was just warm enough for an aperitivo outside at Café Rivoire on Piazza della Signoria.

Very late, returning from Alle Murate, we were pulled by the music to a café on the main piazza. The band played 70’s music and when they began “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” a small, thin man in his 80’s glided out with a big-boned girl in her 20’s.  They were smooth and symbiotic, and found each other’s rhythm across the years.  He later danced with two loose and angular young Japanese girls.  Lovely to witness, especially out under the stars on a January night. . .

The last day, we were knocked sideways by the big Bronzino exhibit. His portraits!  The grace with which he painted hands.  I’d say he was obsessed with hands.  I bought the catalogue and all the way home on the train dreamed over his canvases full of light, his touch of the erotic, his faces looking frankly at you from another time, and most of all his blending of the tactile and the visionary, rather like two dancers who, in the confluence of movement, become one.