Letter from Italy #7 – Florence, Fashion and the Pitti Palace

Although it seems as if we have been away from home for ages, the time, like the high speed train we travelled on from Venice to Florence, is speeding past.

I love the Italy I have seen so far and am fascinated by the differences between Rome and Venice. Rome is busy at all hours of the day, clogged with cars, scooters and pedestrians. The sound of Rome comes from the press of vehicles, the roar of engines, car horns. Romans converse loudly and passionately. The smell of Rome includes exhaust fumes mixed with the aromas wafting from the many restaurants, trattorias, orestias.

In Venice, you are immediately hit with the smell of the sea. Human voices are much more prevalent thanks to the lack of vehicles. We often heard music in the many piazzas and along the Grand Canal. Accordions playing in the gondolas clearly intended for tourists if the cheesy music choices were any indication. Boat engines and horns and the occasional argument over parking spaces can be heard. A Venetian traffic jam is a jam like no other. All it takes is one small boat in the wrong place at the wrong time to create chaos on the water, something we experienced on our trip back from Murano Island. Lots of big boats making lots of noise while the little boat and its young owner appeared remarkably indifferent. After much shouting and arm-waving, he finally cast off and manoeuvred his way out of the harbour narrowly missing the big boys.

Now we are in Florence, different yet again. The home of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raffaelo and the infamous Medici family. It’s a bustling city with the now familiar narrow cobble-stoned streets, traffic zipping in and around the pedestrians. Not quite so many people here though compared to Venice. I must admit, I was beginning to find the Venetian crush uncomfortable. Florence seems a bit more laid back although we have only been here a few hours.

We are settled into a charming little apartment in a building erected in 1392. 1392! You can still see original paintings on the walls. It’s a place of low doors, little hidden closets and stairways and original stone floors. We are in the San Spirito district of Florence, just across the Arno River from the main part of the city. Just a hop, skip and jump from the Ponte Vecchio (not that we plan to do a lot of hopping, skipping and jumping) and around the corner from the Pitti Palace, once home to the Medicis.

The Pitti Palace was built originally for Luca Pitti, a Florentine banker who happened to be friends with Cosimo di Medici. The Palace was later purchased by Eleonora di Toledo, wife of a later Medici who wasn’t satisfied with the size of the Medici family home on the other side of the Arno River. She apparently wasted no time in having it expanded despite its already imposing size. Her husband too apparently felt that since they were expanding, they might as well go further. He had a walkway built from his original palace across the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace, apparently so that the Medicis could avoid having to interact with the rabble. At least, that’s what our cab driver told us. Despite all this expansion, the Pitti Palace was used mainly for guests at first. It wasn’t until a later descendant came along that a Medici lived in it full-time.

It’s stinking hot here in Florence so we decided to wander over to the palace thinking it would be cooler inside. Not so. I had hoped to see the Royal apartments but they were closed. We were in luck though. The costume gallery was open. Sweetie was delighted at the prospect of wandering through galleries displaying Italian women’s fashion from the mid 19th century on. To get there, we had to climb eight long flights of stairs. I know, I know. Foolish especially after the St. Peter’s Basilica incident. No air conditioning either. It was only at the top that we discovered there was an elevator.

I knew we were in for something special when the first exhibit we encountered was the work of Rosa Genoni, a designer who at the age of 18 became involved with socialist workers’ clubs and was the first person in the history of fashion in Italy to support the concept of “Made in Italy”, a tradition designed to support genuine Italian craftsmanship and design and equated with quality and taste. Rosa was also deeply committed to improving the position of women in the workplace. My kind of woman.

I oohed and ahhed over the many gowns and fine handiwork. Sweetie was a good sport, helping to point out the era of each garment and dutifully taking pictures of the many dresses. Under my direction, of course. Once a producer, always a producer.

The palace is actually a rather gloomy and unattractive place, a strange place to house an exhibit of style and creativity. It’s also home to some impressive art – lots of Titians, Tintorettos, Raffaelos, and more. Yet the palace is blocky, imposing, almost military-like in design and frankly, rather ugly. Inside, it’s dark. Dark wall paper. Heavy draperies. Very little natural light. It doesn’t seem a happy place. A far cry from the Doge’s Palace in Venice or the Royal apartments of Princess Sissi. The gardens out back are more than a little impressive though with some spectacular views of the city if you’re prepared to climb high enough. We did not.

Instead, we made our way to the bar in the main courtyard, watched the pigeons and sparrows battle for territory and crumbs and enjoyed a glass of prosecco while imagining life in the 15th and 16th centuries. I may re-watch the television series, Da Vinci, depicting Leonardo’s early life. Somehow, now that we’ve been here, it has a new appeal. But first, it’s nap time. Then a fine dinner in Firenze.

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About saxbergonstuff

I'm a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a daughter, an auntie. When I'm not focusing on that, I'm an educator, facilitator and content designer. When I feel like it.
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