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THE OLTRARNO

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The Oltrarno, the section of Florence on the other side of the river from Piazza Della Signoria, differs remarkably from the rest of the city, and in many ways feels like a small town. This is in part because the region is, historically, the poorest section of town (despite the presence of Palazzo Pitti and Costa San Giorgio), a section the well to do used to avoid at night, and that even the police hesitated to brave alone before the war. The neglect and mistrust with which the rest of the city regarded the Oltrarno has had several consequences. First, the neighborhoods are closely knit, and people look after each other more than they do in other parts of the city. Neighbors greet each other on the streets, stop to gossip or coo at babies, and still gather on the stoop to wile away the hours on summer evenings, rather than sit in front of the tube. Second, since the Oltrarno still has a slightly disreputable atmosphere associated with it, the offices and trendy shops that have driven out the artisans and mom and pop establishments in the rest of the city have never taken hold (except between the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza Pitti), and the area is distinctly earthier and more practical than the other side of the river. Finally, since the Oltrarno was disreputable, those Florentines who could afford to moved out in the '60's and 70's, surrendering their houses to immigrants and students, thus making the area one of the most cosmopolitan parts of Florence. Since then times have changed; people have come to value the central location of the Oltrarno, and are moving back, buying up the old houses for a pittance, and renovating them (often at phenomenal cost). So now the Oltrarno is a curious mix of pensioners and blue collar workers, students, immigrants, and young professionals, who get along with a remarkable spirit of tolerance.

The Oltrarno essentially consists of two neighborhoods, San Frediano and Santo Spirito. You will want to begin this walk at the church of San Frediano in Cestello, the church with the raw stonework façade that is directly across the river from Ognissanti. San Frediano is one of the prettiest of Florence's minor churches, and a fine example of the relatively restrained Baroque style adopted in the city in the late 17th century. The cupola, one of the most characteristic landmarks on the waterfront, is a gem. The interior of the church is remarkably airy, and contains several pleasant 18th century frescoes and paintings.

The squat, massive building to the left of San Frediano is the granary built by Cosimo III De'Medici in 1695, and clearly indicates how important being able to control the food supply was for maintaining control of the city at the time. It is now the home of the military draft.

The dam that crosses the river between San Frediano and the far side of Ponte Vespucci is the Pescaia di Santa Rosa, one of several spillways designed to guarantee a supply of water to mills (which have since been removed) during periods of drought, and is now used as a sun deck during the summer by those who can stand the heat and the smell. Continue down river to the Torrino di Santa Rosa, a tower built in 1324 and modified substantially since. Popular tradition holds that the fresco in the tabernacle, a Pietá, is by Ghirlandaio.

Follow the walls to the Porta San Frediano, the massive gate built astride the road to Pisa in 1332. It's the largest of Florence's gates, and it's hard to imagine how anyone could ever have moved the doors, which are 43 feet high and weigh 33,000 pounds each.

Walk down Borgo San Frediano, and turn right onto Via San Giovanni, the street my wife's grandfather was born on in 1903, and which he flooded in about 1910, by breaking the water main (nobody's quite sure how). The tabernacle at the corner, restored by a group of pious people a century ago, contains a 16th century Madonna. The little tabernacle set into the façade of N° 6 is considerably older, and commemorates the Miracle of the Bread, when two starving spinsters prayed to the Virgin and found their bread chest full. Continue down Via San Giovanni and turn left on Via Dell'Orto. After about two hundred yards the street opens out into Piazza Del Carmine, a pretty square that has, alas, become a parking lot. The church was begun in 1268, finished in 1476, devastated by a fire in 1771, and rebuilt in a rather grandiose Baroque style in 1792. Fortunately for us, the fire spared the Brancacci chapel, one of Florence's great treasures. It has been recently restored, and is worth a journey by itself.

The chapel has been separated from the rest of the church, both to limit the number of visitors at any one time (breathing increases the humidity in the air, and can thus damage frescoes), and to put a stop to the steady stream of visitors that used to disrupt the services. You enter the Brancacci Chapel through an exquisite cloister, go up a flight of stairs, and find yourself face to face with Masaccio's masterpieces, Scenes from the Life of Saint Peter, and the Original Sin. And masterpieces they are.

In 1425 Felice Brancacci decided to redecorate the family chapel, and commissioned Masolino. The artist painted a couple of panels before asking his pupil, Masaccio, join him. Masaccio ended up taking over the job, and in two short years, from 1425 to 1427, sparked a revolution in art. Indeed, unlike his contemporaries, most of whom still followed the stylistic conventions established by Giotto over a century before, depicting people as moving mountains set before fantastic backgrounds, Masaccio rendered his figures convincingly, giving them the expressions and gestures of the people on the streets, and painted equally convincing backgrounds.

It's a great pity that Masaccio was called to Rome (where he died) in 1428, leaving the chapel uncompleted. The Brancaccis clearly realized they had something unique, because they left the chapel as it was, and so it remained following their exile in 1436, the classroom of all the great masters of the Renaissance (Michelangelo got his nose broken when he told Pietro Torrigiani, who was copying one of the frescoes, that he was devoid of talent and would never amount to much). The chapel was finally completed in the early 1480's by Filippino Lippi, who must have been flattered by the commission, but also at least a little nervous about having to match brushes with Masaccio.

However, he handled the task brilliantly, and now the chapel offers an unparalleled opportunity to compare the early, middle, and high Renaissance styles, especially since several panels were worked on by more than one artist. Beginning on the right hand side, there is the Temptation of Eve, by Masolino (compare the figures and their expressions with those of Masaccio's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, to the left). The large upper right panel shows Saint Peter healing a cripple, by Masolino, though the cripple may be Masaccio's; the background, an accurate rendition of Florence, is almost certainly Masaccio. The panel below it, the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, is by Filippino Lippi; the first person in profile on the left side of the fresco is Botticelli, Filippino's teacher. The panels on the back wall, which were separated by the altar that is presently in the center of the chapel (it was moved during the restoration) show Saint Peter preaching (upper left), by Masolino, and Peter baptizing converts, Peter berating Ananias for withholding personal property when the community was giving alms (Ananias falls dead at his feet), and Peter's shadow healing the sick, all by Masaccio; again, his figures are far more vigorous and lifelike than Masolino's. The upper left hand panel is Masaccio's masterful rendition of Jesus' command, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's (Mat. 22.21), with Jesus indicating the lake, and Peter plucking the coin from the fish's mouth and giving it to the tax collector. According to Vasari, the young man on the extreme right of the central group of figures is Masaccio's self portrait. The panel below, Saint Peter Enthroned, and Saint Peter reviving Theophile, Prince of Antioch, was Masaccio's last; and was finished by Filippino Lippi. The rightmost of the three people kneeling before Saint Peter Enthroned is said to be Brunelleschi; Filippino completed the decorative elements of the scene, and did the revived prince and the people to the right of him. The two panels below the Temptation and Expulsion are Filippino's: Peter visited by Paul while in jail, supposedly based on Masaccio's drawing, and the Angel freeing Peter.

When you have finished visiting the Brancacci Chapel, take Via Monaca, and then follow Via Sant'Agostino to Piazza Santo Spirito. The square, one of Florence's most beautiful, is a wonderful place to sit and read or talk with a friend on a spring afternoon. It is also lively, with a market most weekdays, and open air festivals and shows on weekends. And, of course, it has Santo Spirito. Because Brunelleschi designed the church to replace one destroyed in a fire in about 1440, he was able to give his imagination free reign, and what emerged is perhaps the purest example of Renaissance thought, anywhere, a masterpiece of peace and serenity.

The view from the middle of the main doorway, in which every line draws the eye to the cross on the altar, is unforgettable, and everywhere you look you will find startling, stimulating perspectives. The main altar, designed in 1599 by Giovanni Caccini, is rather unfortunate; though it is perhaps the finest Baroque altar in Florence, with beautiful inlays of semiprecious stones, it is thoroughly out of place. The 38 side chapels were instead part of Brunelleschi's design. Oddly enough, considering the importance of the church, they were mostly decorated by lesser artists, and over a considerable period of time -- from the Middle Renaissance to the Baroque. However, many of the paintings are quite pleasant, especially those in the transepts. In particular, the fourth chapel on the external wall of the right transept, a Madonna with Child and Saints, is by Filippino Lippi, and has Porta San Frediano in the background, while the adoration directly across from it, in the left transept, was done by Ghirlandaio's students. You should also note the painted altars in these side chapels; they are fifteenth century, and are the only altars of this kind left in Florence, as far as I know. The backgrounds of some of them resemble the patterns used on the Florentine paper that is sold today.

Before you leave Santo Spirito, duck into the sacristy (the entrance is on the left side of the church). To get to it you go through a vestibule with an ornately carved barrel vault ceiling, done by Giuliano da Sangallo in 1492 -- don't forget to look out the glass doors, into the cloister. The sacristy itself is an elegant octagonal room, also by Giuliano, while the cupola was designed by Antonio del Pollaiolo and Salvi d'Andrea.

When you leave the church, to your right there is the Fondazione Salvatore Romano, a small art museum in what was once a bus depot, and, before that, the refectory of the Augustinian monastery attached to Santo Spirito. It has many nice medieval artworks, and one of the most important large early renaissance paintings, Orcagna's Crucifixion. Alas, the Last Supper below it was severely damaged when the doors were enlarged to allow busses to pass.

From Piazza Santo Spirito, it's just a short walk down Strada de'Pitti to Palazzo Pitti, the other major landmark of the Oltrarno. The museum may not be as large as the Louvre, but it still takes several hours to see well, and your feet may be too tired for that by now. The Boboli gardens, on the other hand, have lots of benches. Though they are neither the earliest nor the largest formal gardens in Italy, they are certainly among the prettiest. They were begun by the order of Duchess Elenore of Toledo, consort to Cosimo I De'Medici, in 1550, and reached their present form fifty years later. The main entrance is to the left of the entrance to Palazzo Pitti; the first thing you will see is Cosimo I's dwarf, Pietro Barbino, riding naked on a turtle. It perhaps comes as no surprise that the statue is known as Baccus's fountain. Continue down the walkway to Buontalenti's grotto, a man-made fake that must have been wonderful when water ran over the stones, allowing moss to grow on them. The access route to Vasari's corridor, the passage which leads across the Ponte Vecchio to the Uffizzi, and which was the only way to cross the river unseen when the front passed through Florence during the second world war, is in the back of one of the grottoes.

From the grottoes, follow the path behind Palazzo Pitti to the amphitheater. Though it is no longer used, the performances it hosted must have been enchanting, as is the view of Fiesole from the right hand bleachers. The tub came from the Baths of Caracalla, in Rome, while the obelisk was imported from Egypt to Imperial Rome, and was moved to Florence in the Renaissance.

Continue up the hill, past the terrace with the statues of a Roman magistrate, the Emperor Septemio Severo, and a Greek Cerere, to the Vivaio di Nettuno, an immense fish pond that contains a bronze statue of Neptune cast by Stoldo Lorenzi, surrounded by tritons and mermaids. The final terrace of the hill has an allegorical representation of abundance, which began life as Giambologna's statue of Giovanna d'Austria, Cosimo I De'Medici's first wife. At this point you are directly below the Forte Belvedere; continue to the right, and you will come to a cistern, and then a terrace that was originally designed by Michelangelo to serve as part of Florence's fortifications in 1529, and transformed into a part of the gardens, with a fountain, by Cardinal Leopoldo De'Medici.

Once you have admired the fountain, bear right, along the path that slopes gently down hill, until you reach the Viottolone, perhaps the most magnificent avenue in any Italian formal garden. As you walk down it, you will note many 16th century statues of animals and monsters. You will also see, to your right, the greenhouses used to grow rare herbs, and, to your left, several lanes that go back into the woods. The Viottolone opens out onto the Piazzale dell'Isolotto, an allegorical representation of the ocean, with fountains and mermaids, done by Giambologna. The people set in the pond are Perseus and Andromeda. This section of the park also has several lawns where people come to lie in the sun, and mothers bring their children to play. Continuing past the lawns, you will come a series of statues, including one of a farmer emptying a basket into an ancient sarcophagus. Work your way around to the right, past several more statues depicting farm work, and you will reach the limonaia, where lemon trees used to be put in the winter, and where many of the works damaged in the 1966 flood were given their first summary treatment. If you continue a little further along the path and turn left, you will go by the Studio used by King Victor Emanuel II when Florence was Capital of Italy, and then exit the park, onto Via Romana.

Hear you can either turn left, to see Porta Romana, which is not as elegant as Porta San Frediano, but is more imposing, or you can turn right, and follow Via Romana back to Palazzo Pitti, and from thence to the center of town.

Back to Walks in Florence
© Kyle M. Phillips, III