Living in history

This is how it happens: people, places, or simply the tide of current events sweep by and my innate geekiness about history and American government go into overdrive. This week it’s the passing of Senator John McCain.

I first visited the U.S. Senate on a family vacation to Washington, D.C. in 1963. Back then when you took the Capital tour, you got to spend several minutes sitting in the visitor’s galleries of the Senate and the House. The Senate was in session the day of our tour. As President of the Senate, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was presiding, and as one Senator (I have no idea who) was holding forth on the floor, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois (who was Senate Minority Leader and represented our own state of Illinois) approached Johnson for what appeared to be a congenial conversation. Were they trading D.C. gossip or negotiating the advance of the president’s agenda? I have no idea.

What we saw was a Republican (Dirksen) and a Democrat (Johnson) deep in conversation. I have never forgotten that picture.

Fast forward to 1970, when I was spending the third term of my junior year in college (along with 24 other classmates) in Washington D.C. Nixon was president. The war in Vietnam raged on, as did the protests, including Kent State. It was an exciting time to be a student in D.C.

As part of our political science seminar, we had passes to the House and Senate Galleries. My roommate sister Danielle and I were unabashed government geeks. We had agreed that if we were near the Capitol and saw the flag flying over the House or Senate (indicating that body was in session), we would always stop. We saw some interesting speeches and began to comprehend how those bodies worked on and off the floor. One day we visited the Senate and found the chamber to be relatively quiet. We sat briefly and were thinking of leaving when Danielle noticed the Press Gallery suddenly filling. Then senators started coming in and Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine asked for the floor, where she firmly but politely (as only the Senate can do) chastised President Nixon for publicly claiming her support for Supreme Court nominee George Harold Carswell. She had not offered her support, Nixon was being presumptuous, and she was voting against Carswell.

When the Senator concluded her comments, the press rushed out as quickly as they had rushed in. We knew we had witnessed a bit of Senate drama. Senator Smith was a Republican (and a woman) who stood up to the Republican president. Her position was not partisan, it was what she thought was right for the country.

Which takes me back to John McCain. I think he might be irreplaceable. Who else can step into McCain’s role of courageous, maverick conscience in the Senate? Who else is going to weigh what’s “right” over political expediency?

Let me be clear. I never voted for McCain, and I had issues with some of of his politics. But I deeply respect his lifetime of service to the country. His willingness to work across the aisle, to listen to the other side, to move graciously forward whether winning or losing, are characteristics we sorely need but seldom see.

The realist in me understands that this is part of the ebb and flow of our history. My friend Nancy wrote a great post here on Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Meacham’s point is that our country has weathered incredible low points, then our “better angels” help us pull together.

I hope those angels arrive soon. In the meantime, I’ll add Meacham’s book to my growing must-read list.

I’m so glad you stopped by. See you next time!

 

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August, tomato capers, and a good book

The corn was delicious. We shared what we could with friends and neighbors. And we have basil, so much basil.

Do we still call these the dog days of summer? It’s hot and dry. Our lawn looks a little crisp. My geraniums are big and blooming, but the day-lilies have more spent blooms than buds and the coneflowers seem “bleached.” There is a back-to-school buzz in the air.

August is a season all its own.

My husband’s vegetable garden has been producing some delicious corn (a first for us) and tomatoes. Then the park district called. (His vegetable plot is in a larger community garden.) It seems someone took a drive thru the garden plots. All of the remaining corn and half of Steve’s tomato plants were wrecked. What a mean-spirited stunt.

Other plots were damaged, no one will go hungry because of this, and there are far more heinous acts committed daily. But does it seem to you that there’s a mean streak in the air? Perhaps it’s time to go back and read “What I learned while standing in line.” It’s time for the better demons to strike back.

But, there are still tomatoes!

Decades ago Steve and I were presented with a few bushels of tomatoes from one of his co-workers who had a ridiculously prolific garden on his multi-acre property. We didn’t know any better, so we canned them the old-fashioned way (per my grandmother’s instructions) in a water bath in glass jars. It was a long, hot, messy process in a small kitchen without air conditioning.

I went on tomato strike for quite a while after that.

I ret to contain the tomato skins, seeds, etc but working out of a few sheet pans.

But then the gardening bug bit and we had to come up with a plan (beyond salads, bruschetta, and salsa), which has been tweaked and continuously simplified. I cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato and drop them (usually in batches) into a pot of boiling water. It only takes a minute or two to loosen the skins. I scoop out the hot tomatoes and spread them out on a cooling rack that I’ve set in a sheet pan. (This corrals hot drips, errant bits of tomato, etc.)

After a few minutes the tomatoes are cool enough to handle and I move them to another sheet pan lined with a flexible cutting mat. I remove the skins and the cores, and squeeze out as many of the seeds as reasonable. (I pretty much use my hands for the latter. As Ina Garden says, clean hands are a cook’s best tool.) What I’m really after is the “meat” of the tomato, which I drop into another pot. This is a messy job, but remember, I’m corralling all the tomato juice, seeds, etc. into a sheet pan which I periodically empty.

The tomato “meat” simmers for 20-30 minutes.

This really doesn’t take that long. After I’ve gathered the best of the tomatoes into the pot, I simmer them for maybe 20 minutes, just to get rid of more of the juice. You can also pour off excess juice. (Hint #1: Too much juice in the container makes the tomatoes watery.) Then I ladle the simmered tomatoes into quart containers and freeze. (Hint #2: This year I’m cooling them first in the fridge, uncovered, to try to eliminate frost in the containers. We’ll see.) I use them in recipes that call for crushed tomatoes.

A book I can’t put down

When I’m not putting up tomatoes, I have had my nose in a new book, Varina: A Novel by Charles Frazier. You may have read Cold Mountain, set in the back country of the Civil War, for which Frazier won the National Book Award. This novel returns to the Civil War era with the story of Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.

Frazier begins in 1906, telling Varina’s story, largely in her own voice, in flashbacks. At first I found this point of view a bit cumbersome. But as I became better acquainted with Varina, who was a writer in her own right long after her husband died, I began to better appreciate the sum of her life.

Varina Howell married Jefferson Davis when she was 19. He was 36, a widower, a war hero, and destined to leave behind the plantation life she expected for politics. Especially well-educated for a woman of her time, including a term in Philadelphia at a prestigious female academy, Varina grew up with slaves, even owned slaves, but never fully embraced the Confederate Cause. She was often the object of criticism while presiding over the Gray House in Richmond. When the Confederacy fell, she and her children were forced to run for their lives. Although she worked hard for her husband’s prison release, theirs was a less than ideal match. They often lived separately; however after he died, Varina completed his memoirs and eventually embarked on a writing career of her own.

Does she sound interesting to you?

Without her place in history, Varina Davis would still be pretty interesting. With it, she’s compelling. This is not the first book written about her. I’m sometimes suspicious of “historic fiction.” I think it’s often light on the history and/or the fiction, but that’s certainly not the case here. Frazier does a masterful job.

What about you? What are you reading or cooking these days? Whatever it is, I hope you’re enjoying these last weeks of summer.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Keeping my cool

Despite my affection for a Carolina beach in the summer, I am not a hot weather girl when I’m in the midwest.

I sweat (even my eyeballs) and get beet red. And that’s just working in the garden on a typical summer day. I’m an upper-seventies to lower-eighties girl, so the recent string of temperatures in the high nineties (which feels like some heinous number over 100 when the local meteorologists start adding in humidity, corn sweat and other variables) has been a challenge. In Chicago we’ve had a brief respite Monday, but the heat is back today.

Okay. I need to stop whining. It’s July, it’s supposed to be hot. So, what have I been up to in this heat?

First, I played with the hose. We have not had much rain, and although the garden beds seem to be doing okay (a bumper crop of daylilies and now the hostas are beginning to bloom), keeping the pots going has been a little harder. Although I normally am a planner when filling garden pots, carefully assembling color, height, etc., this summer I did a few pots with leftovers — some snapdragons I didn’t have room for, an extra geranium, leftover alyssum. And guess what? These may be the happiest summer pots yet!

Then, I saw a great movie. (I’m old enough to recall that going to the movies was one of the best bets for air conditioning. The advertisements teased, “It’s cool inside.” ) “RBG” is a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is a truly remarkable woman who has quietly, determinedly, changed the legal landscape for women and men. The movie deftly covers her childhood, education and legal career as well as her time on the Supreme Court. (When she was appointed to the Court by President Clinton, the Senate approved by a vote of 97 to 3. Those were the days.) Friends, family and colleagues offer interesting comment. The movie seamlessly captures her and the challenges of equality.

Finally, I’m keeping company with a couple of great reads. I just finished The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s follow-up to This Side of Paradise and Tender Is the Night. I read this for a book group and we chose it because it’s short but also a classic. Like most of us, I read it decades ago in an American Lit Survey class, when I was churning thru books and pumping out papers and never getting to savor the language and the characters. This is not a “happy read” and the characters are not especially likable, but the writing is so clean and precise. You can tell Fitzgerald wrote, then rewrote, then rewrote again. That kind of precision, striving for perfection in each sentence, is missing in many current works.

Gatsby was not a huge financial success until it was reprinted after Fitzgerald’s death. What I read, however, is the “fifty-seventh anniversary celebration of the tenth printing of the fourteenth Scribner edition.”

But, if Gatsby seems a little heavy for this season, I also picked up another Sue Grafton mystery from the library. I haven’t read “E” Is for Evidence but I think it will be the perfect porch read for a lazy afternoon. My daughter passed along Windy City Blues by Renee Rosen. We have both read What the Lady Wants, Dollface, and White Collar Girl, all set in different eras in Chicago. Their Chicago settings make them great fun for us. Last but not least, I’m working on Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. I had to after seeing the play. Alexander Hamilton is such a fascinating character. Does anyone else do this, read more than one book at a time? This is not my habit, but sometimes it works out this way!

Finally, wishing you a fabulous Fourth with plenty of flags and fireworks, parades and patriots. This is such a happy, uniquely American holiday. Enjoy every minute!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

A family footnote to history

This “avenue” of live oaks at Boone Hall was planted by the second generation of the original family. The plantation is privately owned and has been the setting for a number of movies, including “North and South.” The original house is long gone and the current house, though lovely, dates to the 1930’s.

Once in a while, if you are really lucky and paying attention, personal history meshes with the broader picture.

Our family recently spent our annual “beach week” at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. At the end of the week, when everyone else had left, Steve and I decided to linger a few more days in Charleston.

Charleston is great for history geeks like us. Although we have made annual trips there for decades, there’s always more to see. (Last year we went back to Fort Sumter, here.) This time around we decided to drive to Boone Hall Plantation, home of this legendary Avenue of the Oaks (Trust me, it’s this stunning, although the plantation was a bit of a let-down). Getting there took us past Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, where we stopped to explore a family footnote to history.

A bit of background

Constructed to protect Charleston Harbor, Fort Moultrie was still unfinished when it was attacked by British forces in 1776. After a nine-hour battle Revolutionary forces led by William Moultrie turned back the British and Charleston was spared. The fort was seriously neglected in subsequent years, but when England and France went to war in 1793, the U.S. determined to tighten waterfront security and a second Fort Moultrie was one of 20 new fortifications. The second Fort Moultrie was destroyed by a hurricane in 1804. Congress next ordered a third Fort Moultrie, this time built of brick, completed in 1809. In 1860, Charleston Harbor was protected by Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter, Battery Johnson and Castle Pinckney. In December the Federal Garrison abandoned Fort Moultrie for the newer Fort Sumter. A few months later, Confederate troops shelled and captured Sumter. The rest is Civil War history.

Getting personal

In 1936 Fort Moultrie was the first place my father-in-law, a newly-minted ROTC officer from the University of Georgia, was stationed. (By then the fort had been equipped with more modern weapons in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, then largely disarmed after WWI. It continued, however, to play a key role in coastal security.)

This was the office of the Quartermaster (note the sign).  We think that since my father-in-law’s duty was largely administrative, he could have worked here.
This was the Commissary, though it’s hard to see the sign over the door.

We shared this bit of personal history with the Park Rangers there, and they enthusiastically pulled out some photos of the facility in that era and directed us to the few remaining buildings, some still bearing their Army signage but now converted to high-end condos. My father-in-law would be so amused. In his day it was just a hot, humid post. I think of him walking the streets of what must have been a tiny town in a swampy backwater. Lou was from New York City. Even after those years at the university in Athens, Georgia, Sullivan’s Island must have seemed the ends of the earth.

It’s amazing to think that one army installation was repeatedly called into service for more than 175 years. At some point it changed from an Army fort to an Army/Navy reservation and encompassed most of Sullivan’s Island. Fort Moultrie was decommissioned in 1947 and turned over to the National Park Service in 1960.

We’ve spent so much time in South Carolina without really exploring this exact area. Our visit on this occasion as somewhere between accidental and spontaneous, but I’m so glad we got to look at this piece of the past.

Thanks for coming along. See you next time!

 

Logical loose ends

“C” was for crosswords in my Instagram Alphabet, though I just as easily could have said Christmas or Charleston or cooking (for starters). Sometimes it was hard to decide!

At first I thought of this is as one of those posts that goes all over, because I had a handful of ideas to share. However, as I was writing I realized they tied together somewhat logically. Read on and you can decide for yourself.

Thanks to all of you who followed my Instagram project, #alphabet2018. (I wrote about it here.) I made it through the alphabet without skipping a day! My posts went from A is for artwork thru Z for zinnia with twenty-four posts in between.

This was fun to envision and fun to finish, and it forced me to think more creatively about my time on Instagram, rather than just scrolling thru (something I do a lot). I think I’ll be approaching at least some of my IG posts more purposefully in the future. And, who knows, perhaps I’ll come up with another challenge.

Maybe not traditional “coffee table books” but certainly something to spark a conversation.

Speaking of Instagram, a number of followers there liked my IG image of Personal History by Katherine Graham and A Good Life by Ben Bradlee. I dug out both books after seeing “The Post,” first because I wanted to re-read what they had written about the Pentagon Papers (and yes their stories mesh with the screenplay), and, second, because the movie and the concept of journalistic freedom are suddenly so very timely.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I hope you do. If you have, I hope you’ll tell me what you thought. Most of the people we know absolutely loved it. The story is worth telling and re-telling. Frankly, I remember Watergate much better than I do the Pentagon Papers (which is probably a function of where I was in my life at the time). Looking back, the Pentagon Papers was a fairly a-political event. The Nixon White House was furious and tried to stop publication, but both republicans and democrats had been signing off on the silence for decades. That’s the point.

Beyond the story, however, is how well Spielberg captured the sixties. There were so many subtle nods to the time: the women were the secretaries; the men were the reporters and editors. Katherine Graham was an anomaly, a Washington hostess who also ran what was becoming an increasingly powerful newspaper. She came before so many others. I found it hard to ignore those subtle messages.

Which is the perfect lead-in for the Women’s March

Heading down Michigan Avenue to the March. This doesn’t  show the crowd, which was much more than expected.

My daughter and I attended the Women’s March in Chicago a few weeks ago. We’re so glad we did! The diverse marchers included little girls and boys as well as great grandmas and grandpas and every age in between. I think that’s one of the key messages of the march. We’re all in this together and we all benefit from the larger message.

Some signs (and marchers) were more strident than others, but I think that’s just the nature of the beast. The freedom to speak out is what makes our democracy special. What a message to participants and bystanders, including those around the world.

There is an inherent sense of camaraderie about events like this. I took the train downtown from my conservative suburb, and the crowd at the station was just a clue of what was to come. There were easily 150 to 200 marchers who boarded at my commuter stop, and the next three stops were the same story. (In fact the train, which already had extra cars, was so full that it skipped the last five stops on its way to Chicago. Another train picked up the riders at those stops.) Although I met a number of friends at my stop, we were all soon friends with everyone in our car.

We loved seeing young girls like this taking part in the March and applauded their parents for giving them a great civics lesson.

Once downtown I caught up with my daughter and another friend and we made our way, with a growing crowd, to the march’s overflowing start point. After a lot of walking and standing, and a few blocks with the march itself, Mag & I broke off for lunch. We were able to reflect on what we had seen and agreed that we loved seeing so many kids at the march, including some elementary school girls enthusiastically leading chants and cheers. They march and we march because others marched before us.

At times like this I think of the suffragettes who marched — and worked — long and hard and at great personal risk to win the vote for women. My grandmother did not have the right to vote until she was well into her twenties. But once she had that right, she never failed to “exercise her franchise” by voting at every opportunity. In fact, one of the last times she voted (in her eighties), she refused to go with my grandfather because they disagreed on the candidates. She went instead with a like-minded lady friend.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Uphill in Rome

The magic of Rome is that you can just round a corner and see the Coliseum or St. Peter’s or some other iconic image. I’m always amazed to fins myself in a situation like that.

Last fall as I was telling the multi-part story of our trip to Italy, life and “the holidays” got in the way, so here is my post about returning to Rome. I hope you enjoy it! (You can read about our earlier stops in Tuscany here and Florence here.)

Rome was our last stop in Italy. As with Florence, it was not our first visit. Last year we toured the Vatican Museums, the Borghese Gallery, and the Forum. It was fun going back with some of the tourist pressure off.

We took the highspeed  train from Florence to Rome and checked into the Residenza di Ripetta, where we stayed last year. We love this hotel; it’s elegant yet comfortable and ideally situated between Rome’s Piazza di Popolo and the Spanish Steps. It’s just a few short blocks from the Via Corso, perfect for enjoying the daily passeggiata before stopping for dinner in one of the small, local restaurants in the neighborhood.

Checking off another Papal Basilica

There are four Papal major basilicas in Rome: St. Peter’s in the Vatican; St. John Lateran, which predates St. Peter’s and which we visited last year; St. Paul Outside the Walls; and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. We had seen St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran, so we decided to visit at least one more and Santa Maria Maggiore looked like it was within walking distance of our hotel.

In reality, the church was really only kind of in “walking distance.”

Rome is built on seven hills. What I have been trying to figure out, for two visits now, is why no matter where we are in Rome, we are always walking uphill. AND, if you are going downhill, you are probably navigating ancient, steep, stone stairs. It’s a puzzle.

 

We came upon Santa Maria di Maggiore from behind and there was no signage. We weren’t even sure we were in the right place. Then we walked around to the front and found the entrance and the requisite security screening.

Santa Maria Maggiore was built in the fifth century and served as the temporary Palace of the Popes after the the Avignon Papacy. Knowing this history I expected it to occupy a distinguished setting, but actually it just appears in an old Roman neighborhood, surrounded by cobblestones that set it apart from the surrounding street. Because Santa Maria Maggiore is a papal basilica, it is used by the Pope, especially on certain holy days.

Michelangelo’s Moses, intended to be part of a larger  monument to Pope Julius II, remains in this basilica as part of the Pope’s tomb.

From here we walked (mostly uphill and then up a remarkable set of stairs) to Saint Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli), built in the fifth century to house the relic of chains believed to have bound Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. This minor basilica is home to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, a massive work.

Taking a museum break

Rome is a lot more than churches.

Capitoline Museums on Capitoline Hill (another hill!) house an amazing assortment of secular art and artifacts that reflect Rome’s history. Once two palaces facing a piazza, the site was redesigned by Michelangelo in 1536. We loved seeing this side of Rome, especially after our previous “day of churches.” But for me, the real star of the day was the view of the Forum and other ruins from Capitoline Hill as we walked out of the buildings.

 

Looking down on the Forum from the top of Capitoline Hill. We toured the Forum last year, but seeing it from above made me appreciate the extent and sophistication of the ancient site even more. It’s much more extensive than our tour. Perhaps a reason to go back.
These ruins across from the Capitoline Museums, including the Forum of Augustus and Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Forum, are currently fenced off but appear to be even more sophisticated in design.

The Vatican’s Mosaic Workshop

On our last day in Rome we went to the Vatican for a tour of St. Peter’s and the mosaic studios. (And you thought we were done with churches!) We had toured the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel, ending with St. Peter’s, last year. But that tour happened to fall on a national holiday and coincided with a special Papal audience. We were shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors the entire time.

This year we were hoping for a better experience and, boy, did we get it.

Steve found a tour that included the Vatican Mosaic Studio online with Viator. We joined just one other couple and our very knowlegeable guide early that morning. Contrary to the tour’s description, the guide started our tour in the Mosaic Studio so we would better appreciate the art we would see in the basilica. He knew what he was doing; the studio director took over and led the four of us into what I can only describe as a true atelier or studio, this one devoted to the preservation of the precious (and priceless) Vatican mosaics as well as the creation of newly commissioned pieces.

The studio is discretely located in one of the buildings in the Vatican complex. We began in a room that for all practical purposes was part conference room with a center table for display and part gallery, with a variety of mosaic pieces arrayed around the periphery. Sadly, photos were not allowed. The pieces are ancient and modern, sacred and secular. I assumed that the studio’s purpose was to maintain and/or repair the hundreds of square meters of mosaics in the Vatican. While this is true, the studio also produces new works that the Pope often presents as gifts to distinguished visitors and accepts private commissions from around the world. For example, once we stepped beyond this small gallery into the actual workspace, we saw one artist working on mosaic reproduction of a Monet painting.

In order to perfectly repair the Vatican mosaics the space also accommodates a mosaic library of the stones and colors used in all its artworks. These archives are stunning in both their simplicity and their extent. We were also allowed into another work space housing a small kiln where artists can fire the exact color necessary to complete a new work. There is no part of the mosaic process that is not painstakingly created and/or cared for. And of course, care is evident in every piece the studio creates. I’m not an artist, but I do like to understand the process behind art and this was a remarkable lesson.

The guide was, of course, so right to show us the studio first, because when he took us into St. Peter’s the stunning mosaic art there came alive. St. Peter’s Basilica is Christendom’s largest church; its size and decoration are breath-taking and, as our guide pointed out to us, purposely so. It would be impossible for even a “casual believer” to not be moved by St. Peter’s.

 

Michelangelo’s Pieta. It leaves me speechless.

One of the options on this tour was a climb to the top of St. Peter’s Dome. I’m sure the view is stunning, but that’s not my kind of climb (or Steve’s either). So, the other couple left with another guide for that tour and we had a private tour of St. Peter’s. One of life’s better travel surprises.

Sure there were hundreds of others in the the basilica (in fact a group of seminarians was being ordained at the very front), but it felt like it was just us and our guide. Our guide walked us through several pieces, explaining the meaning and symbolism in each mosaic. We also visited the crypt to see where previous popes are buried. I must admit that although we are not catholic, it was amazing to see names recent and historic on tomb after tomb. (Many of the earliest tombs were destroyed long ago.)

We both think our guide made all of this come alive for us. He was more than just knowledgeable, perhaps trained for a religious vocation in an earlier career?  As we were leaving St. Peter’s he pointed out one final mosaic in the portico which purports to tell visitors there is more work to do for God as they leave the physical confines of St. Peter’s.

One of the mosaics as visitors leaves St. Peter’s, illustrating the work to be done beyond the basilica on behalf of the church.

We took this tour on our last day in Rome (our last day in Italy in fact), and we were overwhelmed with all we had seen. We stopped for a coffee then walked through some markets and found our way to Piazza Navona where we had a late lunch, before winding our way to the Spanish Steps and eventually back to our hotel. Here are some photos from that day.

Near the Vatican, Castel Sant’Angelo was initially built as a tomb for the emperor. Since no one could be buried within the city walls, Emperor Hadrian used this commanding space just outside the walls. Later it was used as a prison and as a last refuge in times of danger.

 

The Four Rivers Fountain in the center of Piazza Navona by Bernini demonstrates the four corners of the world using four river gods gathered around an Egyptian obelisk, a symbol especially favored by the Romans. This square, really an oval that was once athletic grounds, has played a role in Roman life since ancient times.

After three weeks in Italy, we were ready to head for home. But now, three months later, I could easily go back. It seems as if there are always new layers of Italy to peel back and examine, new museums, churches, vineyards and towns. I’m not tired of it yet!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florence 2.0: Meeting the Medicis

Florentine rooftops from our room at the Pierre Hotel.

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 interior of San Lorenzo is known for its Renaissance architecture, including the integration of the pillars, arches and entablatures and the use of dark stone.

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.)

Here is one of the individual cells, with its beautiful fresco.
The convent library. Can you imagine working in this space?

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 tomb of Giuliano di Lorenzo di Medici in the New Sacristy was decorated with this statue by Michelangelo featuring Giuliano and Night and Day. It is a companion to the tomb of Lorenzo do Piero di Medici and Dawn and Dusk.

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!

Michelangelo’s drawings, discovered in a hidden corridor. A bad photo and hard to see because the drawings are behind glass, but I am totally fascinated by the fact that they are Michelangelo’s sketches. They seem inherently more personal than all the other works of his that I have seen.

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.

Heading up one of the “hidden” stairways. Probably not a great tour with claustrophobics.

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!