When my son was 3 he asked if we could do some Halloween “decoration-ing” like his friend Brian’s mother did. So, we bought a few of those colorful pumpkin/black cat/witch cutouts to hang in the windows and a smiling skeleton (because you wouldn’t want to scare the 3-year-old) to hang on the font door. Done!
After a few years, we upped the ante, using a bale of straw as a seat for a scarecrow and “artfully” propping cornstalks in a few places. That was outside. I began to collect a variety of over-size dried gourds for inside. Then I traded the bale of straw and scarecrow for my own pumpkin patch, adding several of them to the landscape in early October.
Now we have morphed into pumpkins inside and out, especially decorative if they are not orange but rather green or white. (I even have a large pink one this year!) And we go to great lengths to get them to last until, hopefully, Thanksgiving. And I do fuss over a fruit and/or vegetable and/or floral centerpiece here and there. But I don’t make point of adding seasonal throws to the furniture or even own fall pillows for the sofa. I don’t even have a single potted mum this year.
Is this some sort of rebellion on my part? I am after all the person with files — electronic and paper — on her favorite rooms and decorators. (Thanks to Pinterest I can efficiently call up gallery walls, tabletop vignettes and mantels.) And I can spend hours rearranging books, collectables, and whatever on a shelf.
The Christmas Curtains
I was mentally making fun of all this when I remembered my grandmother’s seasonal change of curtains. Sometime in early November, she would start plotting the hanging of the Christmas Curtains. (And I say “plotting,” because the change of curtains required the assistance of my mother and/or my uncle to accomplish. My grandparents lived in an old, shot-gun cottage in Chicago, with high ceilings and tall, narrow windows. Grandma no longer did ladders, but it was fine with her if someone else did.)
The Christmas curtains I remember were sturdy barkcloth with red poinsettias and deep green leaves on a white ground. (And in truth, if my adult self had seen them on their way out, I would have rescued them and found a way to use them at my own house!) First, the living room and dining room windows and woodwork needed to be washed and/or polished before hanging the curtains, because who would hang nice, clean curtains on a window that could be dirty? (Thus making it even more of a project.)
Because these were Christmas Curtains, the process had to be repeated in January to hang the Winter Curtains. Then in the Spring, came the Easter Curtains. And, I think, there were separate Summer Curtains, though she may have eventually given them up. This was Julia’s salute to the seasons, so perhaps I come by this seasonal urge genetically.
I’ve been thinking about my grandmother and her curtains. To us it may seem an odd choice. If she knew how infrequently I wash or otherwise freshen up the few curtains I do have and how many of my windows are frankly unadorned, she would be wagging her finger at me. But in my grandmother’s day curtains were one of the few ways she could indulge in a little decorative pizzazz. And she liked that.
So I’m thinking that though she would have found my alternatively-colored pumpkins a little odd, she would have liked the idea of a pumpkin patch and maybe even a scarecrow.
My pumpkins will stay outside at least until the squirrels devour them. The gourds will remain in place inside until Thanksgiving weekend, when ready or not my husband will start bringing up Christmas boxes. And we’ll probably eat turkey leftovers on the Spode Christmas Tree plates.
What about you, are you holding off on Christmas until after Thanksgiving?
What do you do after all that fun in Tuscan hilltowns? We took a deep breath, braved the tourists, and headed to the historic heart of it all — Florence.
We waited a long time to finally get to Florence. Then we simply fell in love with the city. Steve and I both love London and Paris, but Florence is special. It’s compact and walkable (like Paris), has a seemingly endless supply of history and museums (like London), and it has what I think of as art and attitude.
The art is everywhere. The attitude is a little tougher to define, but I think it’s the total of the food and wine, shopping and sophistication, and most of all the history that ekes out of every corner. Now I can also say it’s even better the second time.
Our first visit to Florence was packed; there was so much to see. We planned differently this time, so we could wander more. In fact, the first afternoon, we did just that. After checking in at the Pierre Hotel we took a walk, found lunch, window-shopped our way to San Marco and back. We returned to the hotel and discovered they had delivered a bottle of prosecco and some snacks as a “welcome back” since we had also stayed there last year. This would be fun!
Getting serious about the Medicis
Florence was, first, a well-established medieval city, until it became the birthplace of the Renaissance and the credit for this goes largely to the Medici family. It’s impossible to spend any time in Florence without running into (and trying to understand) the financial and political power of the Medicis. Starting early in the 15th Century and lasting into the 17th century, the family enjoyed both political power (without holding office) and cultural influence.
The family’s wealth originated with its successful textile trade, which lead to the Medici Bank, the most successful in 15th Century Europe. With money comes power. The Medici’s support of the arts and subsequent impact on the Renaissance is unrivaled, starting with Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who commissioned Brunelleschi for the reconstruction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in 1419. Cosimo the Elder (another early Medici) commissioned works by Donatello and Fra Angelico. Most significantly Michelangelo accepted commissions from a number of Medici, beginning with Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was also a patron to Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) for seven years.
The Medici impact on the church and royal houses in Europe was equally significant. The family produced three Popes of the Catholic Church, Pope Leo X (1513-1521), Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) and Pope Leo XI (1605) as well as two Queens of France, Catherine de Medici (1547-1559) and Marie de Medici (1600-1610). In 1531, the family became hereditary Dukes of Florence. In 1569, the duchy was elevated to a grand duchy and the Medici family ruled the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until 1737
So much for name dropping.
The Medici family, and its money, were behind many of the ionic structures in Florence, and we visited a number of them with a guide from Context Tours who took us through the San Marco Convent and Museum, the Medici Palazzo, Baslica di San Lorenzo, Medici Chapels, and the New Sacristy (designed by Michelangelo).
(Context Tours are perfect for independent travelers. Guides, or docents as Context calls them, have with MAs, Ph.D.s or other terminal degrees in their subject matter, tours are limited to 5 or 6 people. We were the only ones on this tour. We have also used them in Rome and Paris.)
The convent was one of our first stops. After a brief period of upheaval during which the convent (which was really a monastery for branches of the order of Benedictine monks) deteriorated, Cosimo di Medici the Elder commissioned architect Michelozzo to rebuild it. The result is an elegant but spare, Renaissance structure. Like other monasteries, the convent features two cloisters, a chapter house, etc. The friars’ cells are each decorated with a single fresco, many by Fra Angelico in collaboration with other artists. Cells are walled off but topped by a single trussed roof, and the entire structure is finished in white-washed plaster. It’s easy to see how the residents could pray and meditate in this atmosphere.
The convent was home to painter Fra Angelico and preacher Girolamo Savonarola (of the infamous bonfire of the vanities). Cosimo de’ Medici also had a cell in the convent, adjacent to those of the friars, for use as his personal retreat.
The Basilica di San Lorenzo was consecrated in 393 when it was still outside the city walls. Later it became the parish church of the Medici family, as well as the burial place for the family’s principal members. The current basilica is actually the “new” building, completed in 1449 (financed by the Medici family), well after Brunelleschi died in 1446.
The Old Sacristy was designed by Brunelleschi and is the oldest part of the present church. It is also the only part completed (in 1440) in Brunelleschi’s lifetime. The Old Sacristy contains the tombs of several Medici family members.
The New Sacristy was designed by Michelangelo. Work began on it in 1520. The artist also designed the Medici family tombs to be included, but did not supervise the completion of the project. This is a far more elaborate structure. I was especially struck by drawings by Michelangelo, discovered in 1976, on the walls of a concealed corridor under the New Sacristy!
The Medici Chapel, designed by the family working with the architects, and begun in the early 17th Century, reflects a very different aesthetic, featuring elaborate marble mosaics in a domed octagonal space. The octagonal shape is distinctive on the Florentine landscape. Family remains were actually interred in a crypt below the chapel.
After these heady lessons in Medici history, art and architecture, we thought we needed something more light-hearted, so Steve signed us up for a tour of the hidden stairways and spaces at the Palazzo Vecchio. (We did this the next day. Two tours in one day would have been way too much to wrap our heads around!) Most often known as Florence’s city hall, the palazzo was, for awhile, also a Medici Palace. But that’s another history chapter.
The tour begins with an introduction to the Florentine Guilds, or Priori, who ruled the city. In 1342 the existing building was enlarged to resemble a fortress, including the addition of secret stairways allowing guild members to come and go in the night. The tour guide escorted our small group up and down some of these stairways, which, of course, included passing in and out of a number of secret doors. We had toured the building before, so this look at its “inner workings” was especially fun.
My husband and I loved the idea of these hidden doors. If you have read Dan Brown’s Inferno, or seen the Tom Hanks movie, you undoubtedly recall the crazy chase thru the Palazzo Vecchio. Remember the scene above the ceiling of the Hall of 500? After climbing dozens of narrow stairs, we were up in a corner of it. The space was more cramped than it appeared in the movie, but still very cool to see how the Renaissance building was assembled. Alternating rafters support the roof above and/or hold the ceiling below. What genius Renaissance architects displayed!
Whew! This is not all that we saw or did in Florence, but it gives you a good idea of how we spent our second visit in as many years. We enjoyed the fact that the city was somewhat familiar, we stayed in the same hotel (because we really love it!) and even ate at a restaurant we enjoyed last year. We also found some great new places. We ate lunch one day at the bustling the Central Market and I spent an afternoon at the Bargello. We spent a morning at the Pitti Palace (more Medicis) and found time to explore the tiny streets of the Oltarno. I think this second visit allowed us to “peel back another layer” on all there is to see in Florence.
What about you? Are there destinations you would happily return to? What about places you could happily say, “been there, done that” and move on? I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you so much for stopping by. See you next time!