Piazza dei Miracoli (Italy)

One of the most recognizable structures in all of Italy is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. En route to Cinque Terre, we made a brief stop in Pisa with storm clouds threatening above. The crowds were large, as you might expect at one of Italy’s iconic sites and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After walking through the cathedral and having lunch in the plaza, a torrential rain came down and everyone scrambled to return to the bus, unfortunately without having gotten a closer look at the tower and the baptistery.

Pisa's baptistery

Pisa’s baptistery

From the very beginning, the bell tower (campanile) began to tilt because of unstable subsoil. Begun in 1063, construction endured fits and starts through several wars and periods of inactivity; the tower was not completed until 1372. It is actually slightly curved as upper levels were constructed with higher ceilings along the outer edge to compensate for the tilt.

Artistically more important than the tower is the cathedral, Romanesque in style, and more specifically Pisan Romanesque, although the interior shows other artistic influences, including a Byzantine mosaic in the apse and Corinthian columns between striped arches that look Moorish. The columns originally came from a mosque in Palermo . The coffer ceiling atop the nave is gilded and decorated with Medici shields.

Cathedral's coffered ceiling

Cathedral’s coffered ceiling

The entire complex was such a grand undertaking that it is called the Field of Miracles.

Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence, Italy)

Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flowers), a cathedral built in the Gothic style, is a treasure of Florence that showcases two important artistic achievements. The first is an impressive octagonal dome that was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, a master goldsmith by trade. Two amazing facts about the dome: because of a scarcity of wood in Tuscany, it was built without the use of scaffolding, and no flying buttresses were used to support it structurally, since they were artistically repugnant to the Italians. The first obstacle was overcome by building an inner shell first as a kind of scaffold to work on the outer dome; the second problem was solved by using a construction similar to barrel hoops made with sandstone and iron ties, the details of which are more complex and ingenious to describe here. Open to the public, a spiral stairway between the two domes leads to the top, but unfortunately we never found the time to climb it.

Brunelleschi’s dome seen from the Campanile (note people along the top)

The second significant triumph of the basilica is the bronze doors fashioned by Brunelleschi’s rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti. Twenty-four in all, the panels on two sets of doors, depicting New Testament stories, are made of gilded bronze and sculpted in low relief to give a sense of depth, along with the use of perspective. All of these techniques were new at the time. Michelangelo was so impressed by these doors that he called them the Gates of Paradise. Because of weather and pollution damage, the original doors have been removed to the Duomo Museum in 1990, replaced by replicas.

Solomon and Sheba, a panel of Ghiberti’s bronze doors

On our last day in Florence, we climbed the Campanile, a free-standing bell tower next to the cathedral, to get a better view of the dome. The entire cathedral complex is quite impressive and deserves a longer visit to appreciate fully its artistic and historic significance.

Michelangelo’s David (Florence, Italy)

Michelangelo’s David (Wikipedia)

On our arrival in Florence, Robin, our guide, took us first to the Accademia Gallery where one of the most celebrated works of art is housed, Michelangelo’s David. What a literally towering achievement it is, a 17-foot sculpture carved out of a single block of marble. Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he started, and completed the statue in two years. Robin pointed out that his right hand and head are larger in scale than the rest of his body, presumably deliberate exaggerations by Michelangelo so that they didn’t appear too small when viewing David looking up, perched high above in a niche in the Duomo where the statue was originally supposed to be placed. The Renaissance mastery of the human form is in full display, not only of anatomy but the subtleties of posture and muscle tension. No picture-taking was allowed in the gallery (the picture above is in the public domain). A replica of David sits in the Piazza della Signoria.

Piazza della Signoria (Florence, Italy)

A replica of Michelangelo's David

A replica of Michelangelo’s David

Out in a public space in Florence are sculptures that are considered to be masterpieces. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the openness and public trust. It was surprising to find a body double of one of the great works of Renaissance art.

Michelangelo’s David originally appeared in the square of the Palazzo Vecchio, but because of its artistic importance, the statue was moved to its current location at the Accademia. In its place is a replica of the famous statue.

Nearby is the Loggia dei Lanzi, a building consisting of beautifully constructed, wide open arches, under which are sheltered other sculptural masterpieces. One of them is Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa, a work in bronze that consumed ten years of the artist’s life.


Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa

One of the most impressive pieces artistically is Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, a recreation of the abduction legend of Sabine women by the mostly male founders of Rome. It was carved out of a single block of marble in a spiral motif that was meant to be appreciated from all sides.


Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women