Monday, March 29, 2010


The Annunciation by Fra Angelico in San Marco monastery
The 25th of March is an important date for Catholics around the world as it celebrates the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, the incarnation of Christ who is born nine months later on 25th December. But, what most people don’t know about, is that until 1582, throughout the medieval and Renaissance period in all of Europe, this was also the first day of the year. In Florence however, the 25th of March continued to be the first day of the year until 1750.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar and made long overdue and much needed major reforms on the one mapped out by the ancient Romans and, indeed, today we follow the Gregorian calendar. Until 1582 all of Europe however followed the Julian calendar which Julius Caesar had implemented from 45BC after changing the time calculations to follow the Egyptian solar based calendar rather than the lunar based one they had been using for centuries.
Due to slight imperfections by the Ancients in the calculation, by the time we arrive at 1582, the days and the seasons no longer corresponded. Pope Gregory XIII ordered the major astronomers, scientists and mathematicians of the day to readjust the calculation of the year. In order to create order in chaos, it was necessary that the 4th October be followed by the 15th October, also making the first day of the year the 1st January.
Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII (in St Peter's Basilica) celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar
Not everybody followed this new reform immediately. In fact, it took until the 1900’s to get everybody on the same page. Immediately after the papal bull was signed by the pope in 1582 the Protestants viewed it with suspicion and the poor viewed it as a cunning ruse on the part of the landowners to squeeze more rent money from them. In Florence the change of new year happened only in 1750 under the Grand Duke of Tuscany Francis Stefan (a plaque on the right hand wall of the Loggia dei Lanzi in the piazza Signoria reminds us of this). England followed soon after in 1752, the Bolsheviks in 1918 after the October revolution and Greece only in 1923!

Every year Florence continues to celebrate the traditional new year with a historical procession in costume in the afternoon which snakes through the centre finishing at the Santissima Annunziata church. Here the citizens of Florence pay homage to one of the city’s most venerated images of the Virgin Mary shown receiving the Holy Spirit along with the Archangel Gabriel.

Annunciation fresco by Friar Bartolomeo
This painting of the Annunciation inside the Basilica dates to 1252 and it has been greatly venerated since it’s creation. The Annunciation fresco was commissioned to a painter called Bartolomeo who, after completing the archangel Gabriel, was so overwhelmed by the task of having to paint the beloved Holy Mary, decided to have a little nap in order to increase his energy levels for the impending job. When he awoke however, much to his astonishment, the fresco was finished!
The news of this miracle spread like wildfire and since then it has been one of the most important spiritual images of the city and a major pilgrim site for Florentines.

Basilica of Santissima Annunziata
The Basilica of Santissima Annunziata is, in any case, a church partial to the Virgin as it is of the Florentine order, the Servites – servants of the Madonna (the street that leads to the Basilica from the cathedral is called via dei Servi after them). This uniquely local order was created in 1246 after the Virgin appeared to seven Florentine noblemen who, in consequence, founded an order dedicated to her.
So tonight, go out for a prosecco to welcome in the new year Florentine style, after having passed by the miraculously angel finished Virgin housed in her beautiful silver coated chapel inside the Basilica Santissima Annunziata!   Cheers and happy historical new year!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

FOUR EVANGELISTS – man, eagle, bull & lion.

Saints and the various protagonists from the Bible are always represented the same way when shown in art (same clothes or holding the same thing) so that they can be easily & immediately identified by the faithful. In order to become literate in religious decoration, we need to learn the symbols and the signs and then we can read the visual displays anywhere in the world, & touring around the headquarters of Catholicism – Italy – makes so much more visual sense & becomes more enjoyable.

During the medieval & Renaissance period, the decoration of churches and religious buildings in cities was done for instructive purposes. As the common man couldn’t understand the Latin mass nor read the bible, he would read the frescoed walls or the sculptured reliefs. Artistic decoration, also referred to as the biblia pauperum, was fundamental in the diffusion of Christianity.

The four Evangelists, Mathew, Mark, Luke & John, & their respective symbols, are splashed all around the churches & so it is handy to know how to recognise them. They are always shown holding books (they being the authors of the four gospels that make up much of the New Testament in the Bible) however, to be able to distinguish one Evangelist from another, they have their own individual symbol. Often only their symbols are shown together as a group.

St John has an eagle, St Luke a bull, St Mathew an angel (winged man) & St Mark a winged lion.
The origins of the symbols are connected to the opening image of their gospels. St Mathew begins his account of the life of Christ by writing of his ancestry & hence, has as his symbol, a winged man. St Luke starts his book with Zachariah (father of St John the Baptist) making a sacrifice in the Holy of Holies temple, so he is shown with a bull, which is traditionally an animal used in religious sacrifice. St Mark has the winged lion, as he begins his gospel with St John the Baptist & writes that he is ‘preaching like a lion roaring’. St John, who is accompanied by an eagle, begins his book with ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was God’. The eagle is the animal which soars the highest in the sky &, it was believed, was able to look directly into the sun with open eyes.

Another explanation for the symbol association with the Evangelists can be found in the book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament. One of the divinely inspired visions that Ezekiel received was of the throne chariot of God pulled by four animals, the eagle, bull, man & lion. In Christianity the events in the Old Testament were thought to prefigure those of the New Testament & so Ezekiel’s vision was interpreted as foreshadowing the coming of Christ, the saviour of humankind.

Happy saint spotting!

Thursday, March 18, 2010


A local Florentine trattoria, with good Florentine dishes for an honest price, in the centre of the city, is as rare as a good night’s sleep on an international Singapore-Roma flight - very rare!. But last night I had just that experience. Just off the Piazza della Signoria, in a narrow street, is the VINI VECCHI SAPORE. It is small, only a few tables, you have to like rubbing elbows with the people next to you & your coat is hung up in the bathroom! However, the food is great & the place itself is a very typical, rustic, old-school family run joint. It is true Tuscan fare. We had a ribollita & a salad of fresh artichokes, rocket and parmesan to start with, followed by peposo with fennal parmigiano & lampredotto inzimino – price 39euros (wine & water included). For dessert there was a Tuscan speciality rarely seen on menus, Zuccotto, along with a pear cheesecake and apple pie. The house red wine was good and the service was great. The hand written menu is only in Italian & states specifically that there is no Bistecca, no pizza and no ice! It is the perfect place to go for some true Florentine dishes that, unfortunately, now make only rare cameo appearances on menus around town. Bookings are essential & they have two set seating times (8pm & 9.15pm) so as to organise their limited space. Tel. 055 293045
Historical note on the Florentine dishes:
PEPOSO means peppery & it is the name given to this Tuscan meat stew which is cooked with whole peppercorns and so is quite spicy. It has a luscious meaty sauce made from tomatoes and red wine that is perfect to mop up (permissible!) with the good Tuscan bread. The dish originates from Impruneta, a town about 15km from Florence famous in the Medieval period, and still today, for terracotta (bricks, urns to hold the wine and olive oil etc.). The bricks for the dome of the Florentine cathedral were all fired here. The industrious brick-makers, whilst cooking the bricks, would also cook their meat stews at the same time at the opening of the furnace.
LAMPREDOTTO INZIMINO – Lampredotto is more Florentine than the Fiorentina (the local football team) & they have been eating it here since the 1400’s. It is the fourth & final stomach of the cow & they boil it. Inzimino, again a Tuscan word from the Middle Ages, refers to when something is cooked with spinach or chard. This was served in a bowl, the lampredotto cut into strips. Forget the Uffizi, if you haven’t eaten Lampredotto here, you haven’t done Florence.
ZUCCOTTO – this dessert has regal origins dating to the 1500’s with Catherine de Medici Queen of France (who took her Florentine chefs & forks to Paris as the French court was still eating with their hands) and is in the form of the Brunelleschi’s dome, she being nostalgic for her homeland. It is a semi freddo made with gelato, sponge cake & liquor.
In season now......
ARTICHOKES – season March – May. For recipes and information about this amazing vegetable check out – written by artist and chef Michael, one of the great all time lovers of this veggie, he has courted it for years and has mastered its transformation into delicious dishes.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In a nutshell

After being focused on anything French from my teenage years and throughout university, I first came to Florence in 2000 to study for six months on a post graduate art history scholarship. After only a few days I thought that the Italians were crazy, the country was beautiful & I had an inexplicable sensation that my soul could be very happy here. Eleven years on I am even more convinced that the Italians are pazzi (so it wasn’t just a case of total lack of communication), the country is molto bello and my soul indeed sta molto bene here. After my initial landing in Florence & learning the language, I went to do an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice , worked at the Venice contemporary Arts Biennale and had a job in an arts & communication studio in Milan, before coming full circle and returning to Florence to work as a tour guide. I have been guiding in the city for eight years now, and my veuve and enthusiasm only increases with time.

Italy is seductive. It is a country that enters the heart, not in that comfy old friend way, but in that adventurous exciting way. It is ancient but spontaneous, it feels eternal like the change of the seasons but in the same way you discover each year just how good ripe strawberries really are, as if for the first time. So, too, Italy seems like it hasn’t changed in centuries, but every time you go back to a place, there is always something new about it.

I remember when working in Milan, an Italian film director said that he makes sure his team is made up of a majority of Anglo-Saxon technicians and a few Italian ones. Everything works very smoothly with an Anglo team on board, they are indispensable for this he said, but if something goes wrong- any type of problem, technical or logistical, the Italians are, at the end of the day, the ones who manage to get the show on the road. They are creative, individualistic, chaotic and industrious. I have never forgotten that, because I agree with him. I think everybody needs a bit of Italy in their life, & my soul agrees with me.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Tourists who find themselves in Florence on Mondays and want to plan a cultural day often find themselves in a bit of a quandary as to what to do, being that the State museums are closed (Uffizi gallery, Accademia gallery & the Pitti Palace). However, Monday is the only day that the Museum of the Orsanmichele church is open 10am-5pm & it is free! You will probably be one of very few in the museum (fantastic!) as not many know that it exists at all & it takes only a short time to visit but it is one my favourite ‘hidden gems’ in the city.

The statues of saints in the niches on the ground floor exterior of the church are all copies & the originals (except one) are all displayed on the second storey in the museum. It is a real treat to see the original sculptures both in bronze and marble executed by some of the most important artists from the early Renaissance as well as later & they are displayed around the large room in the same order and position as downstairs in the niches.

The city of Florence at the beginning of the 1400’s passed a decree that those guild corporations who had been already allocated a niche on the church in the 1300’s in an attempt to beautify the structure, & had yet to fill it with a sculpture of their patron saint, had ten years to do so, otherwise their niche would be taken from them. This caused a flurry of artistic commissioning & spurred on the competition as well as challenged the virtuosity amongst the artists themselves.

As art was used as a display of the wealth of the patron (just as advertising & sponsorship today displays the wealth of companies) these guilds wanted to show the importance and power they held in the city & the government by commissioning elaborate and innovative sculpture to show their status.

Young Donatello received three commissions (which would launch his career), as did Lorenzo Ghiberti (who was in the midst of working on the bronze doors of the Florentine baptistery which would take him 50 years to complete). These works reflect the atmosphere of the early Renaissance in Florence, as they depict man as the thinking intellectual, being both in representation of the human form true to life and the psychological presence of the individual character. This reflects the rejection of the medieval mentality of a world governed solely by God & the new era dawning of ‘man as the measure of things’ - as he had once viewed himself in antiquity.

The statues also date to periods after the early Renaissance with a masterpiece by the teacher of Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Verrocchio, from the second half of the 1400’s, & the elgant St Luke by the Medicean court artist Giambologna from the later 1500’s.

The sculptures are arranged so that you can walk behind them and see exactly how the casting of bronze is done and the different stages of refining the materials, whether it be in marble or metal.

Also, the building itself is a superb example of a medieval structure. It was originally built to house the grain storage for the city. Starting simply as a large open portico in the 1200’s & then with the additional storeys later in the 1300’s. The ground floor open portico was closed in & made a church when an image of the Madonna, painted on a column of the structure, was believed to have miraculous healing properties & they retained the upper storeys for grain. This then gave birth to the idea of creating external niches on the outside for the beautification of the ground floor church of Orsanmichele . The second storey is where now the original sculptures are displayed. The third storey is also open for visiting & here you can have an almost bird’s eye view of the city below.

Pietro Bargellini, a Florentine historian and ex-mayor, wrote of Orsanmichele: Orsanmichele è il monumento più fiorentino di Firenze. Palazzo Vecchio è un palazzo pubblico, come hanno anche molte altre città. Santa Maria del Fiore è una cattedrale, come hanno tutte le altre città. Ma Orsanmichele c’è soltanto a Firenze. Soltanto a Firenze poteva nascere un monumento come questo che fosse mezza chiesa e mezzo granaio; che servisse alla vita religiosa e a quella civile, che esaltasse la fede e il lavoro

Orsanmichele is the most Florentine monument of Florence . The town hall is a public building, as in many other cities. The Holy Maria of the Flower is a cathedral, as in many other cities. But Orsanmichele is only in Florence . A monument like this could only have been born in Florence , being half grainary half church, that served both religious & civil life, exalting faith and work.