Visiting Tuscany – Birthplace of the Italian Renaissance

By Jacques Tocatlian

Under The Tuscan Sun

Winter in Paris this year was long, dark and cold. Come the month of May, we decided with my friend Robert to go to Tuscany in search of some warm and invigorating change. Visitors come to Tuscany for many reasons. Some come in search of fine arts. Others come to find peace and relaxation in the superb country side. Gourmets descend on Tuscany to enjoy the simple, yet exquisite, cuisine and wine. We wanted – of course – a little bit of all these things.

We unfortunately encountered mostly cold and rain during our visit, which is unusually bad weather for the season. On the other hand, every minute of the day was a source of exhileration, enthusiasm, fulfillment and joy. What you may call a real boost!

We were fascinated by Tuscany’s history, artistic legacy, harmonious landscapes and ancestral traditions. During our trip we came accross some remnants of the Etruscan and Roman civilizatons, many striking Medieval communes, and remarkable Renaissance sites. Many of the localities visited have been designated by Unesco ‘World Heritage Sites,’ thanks to the prodigious art, outsdanding architecture and immense cultural and artistic legacy of the past, which is everywhere to be seen. The museums, churches, palaces, fountains, statutes, and art galleries, scattered around the region, constitute one of the world greatest repository of art.

Besides its famous cities and towns, Tuscany is blessed with a luxuriant countryside: gentle rolling hills; medieval villages and castle ruins; decorative cypress trees, vineyards and hectars of olive groves; rolling pastures and fields of poppies and lavender; and unforgetable fragrances of Mediterranean vegetation.

Another aspect of the Tuscan Holiday that cannot be underestimated is the excellent local cuisine and wine. Simple and delicious with its tasty antipasti, supersweet tomatoes, creamy mozzarella, basil leaves, pecorino, outstanding foccacia, crostini, brurschette and delicious fruits, always displayed simply and most attractively.

Last but not least, the real charm of this region lies in its ability to take you gently by the hand and lead you back to simpler times, where life seemed easy, harmonious and elegant. Times where music and art occupied a predominant place.

And of course, it is true what they say about Italians: they convey a sense of “joie de vivre”; they are joyous and full of life. They speak loudly, they gesticulate vigouresly, they bestow huge grins on you and are always ready to help and share a smile or a good laughter. Their natural good humour has an inevitable, positive influence which contributes to the well-being of the visitor.

From Paris to Pisa

On May 15 we flew from Paris to Pisa and, shortly after our arrival, we took off for Torre del Lago, a 30 minute train ride away. There, on a romantic lake lies Giacomo Puccini’s Residence: an old Watch Tower which he turned into his home and where he composed La Boheme, Tosca and Madame Butterfly. In a few minutes you are back in the second half of the 19th century and you know that, during this forthcoming journey, you will be making several trips back in history.

Torre del Lago (Puccini)

Torre del Lago (Puccini)

In Pisa, we visited, under heavy rain, the famous leaning Tower, the Baptistery, and the magnificent eleventh century Cathedral (Duomo). We could not help but be struck by the magnificent marble used for the construction of these beautiful buildings all over Tuscany, thanks to the high-quality marble found in nearby Carrara. It is said that Michelangelo used to go in person to Carrara to select the best pieces of white marble for his sculptures.

The Cathedral and Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Cathedral and Leaning Tower of Pisa

From Pisa we took a one day-trip to Lucca, a perfectly preserved medieval city surrounded by ramparts; a city which claims as his sons three notorius musicians: Luigi Boccherini, Giacomo Puccini and Alfredo Catalani. Wandering along the many pedestrian streets of this serene city provides a relaxing and peaceful inner feeling. We visited Puccini’s Museum, where he was born and spent his early years.

The Capital of Tuscany: Florence

Our next stop was Florence, capital of Tuscany and cradle of the Renaissance, where we spent five intense days. First, we visited the Cathedral Complex which comprises the Baptistery, Giotto’s Campanile and the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. The latter is ordinarily referred to as il Duomo, bacause of Bruneleschi’s dome, which dominates Florence’s skyline and remains the largest brick dome ever constructed. The exterior of this outstanding Complex is faced with magnificent polychrome marble panels.

Il Duomo in Florence

Il Duomo in Florence

In Florence we did not stay in a hotel, but in a peaceful, centrally-located Monastery, surrounded by a beautiful garden (Istituto Oblate dell’’Assunzione, 15 Borgo Pinti). After long hours of wearisome visits, it was a welcome relief to retire to this tranquil and comfortable haven.

Garden of the Monastery in Florence

Garden of the Monastery in Florence

One of the major attractions of Florence is, without any doubt, Piazza della Signoria – the focal point of the historical Florentine Republic and today’s meeting place of the Florentines, as well as the numerous tourists who visit the city. We spent endless hours wandering around this unique Piazza, admiring the impressive fortress-palace Palazzo Vecchio – today’s Town Hall – and the magnificent statutes which ornate the square. In contrast with the severe structure of the Palazzo Vecchio, the vivacious construction of the Loggia offers a unique open air sculpture gallery.

Not far from the Piazza della Signoria, on the Arno river, lies another best know image of Florence, the oldest bridge : il Ponte Vecchio, which goes back to Roman times. The shops housed under the porticos used to be, in the XVth century, fish-shops and butchers. Because of the bad smell, the ruling Medicis had them replaced by Jewel stores and Goldsmiths – a tradition which prevails to this day.

Ponte Vecchio in Florence

Ponte Vecchio in Florence

Memorable visits in Florence included those of the Bargello National Museum which displays the largest italian collection of gothic and renaissance sculptures that of the Basilica San Lorenzo, burial place of the members of the Medici family, the Lauretian Library and the Medici Chapel of Michelangelo, as well as the visit of the Basilica di Santa Croce. This latter Basilica is best know for its Florentine artwork, its cloisters, 16 chapels, funerary monuments and tombs of illustrious dead, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Rossini, and Machiavelli – a sort of national Pantheon.

The Chianti Valley

We also spent two days in the Chianti Valley, which runs between Florence and Siena, amid vineyards, rolling hills, cypress trees, forests of chestnuts and oaks, olive groves and medieval villages.

We visited Greve-in-Chianti, up north, and Castellina-in-Chianti towards the south. In so doing, we ran into cellars, catsles and farmhouses; we tasted wine, gastronomic specialties and felt in total harmony with nature.

In this setting of great charm and serenity, the visit of San Giminiano brought an additional emotional experience. The walled town, famous for its medieval architecture, is unique in the preservation of 14 of its 72 tower houses. Again, with the help of an excellent guide, it was easy to go, for a few minutes,centuries back.

San Giminiano

San Giminiano

Medieval Tuscany: Siena

Another step back to Medieval Tuscany was provided by a four-day visit of delightful Siena. It is one of the most pleasant cities of Italy to stroll around, any time of the day. Siena’s heart is its shell-shaped central piazza, know as il Campo, where the Roman Forum used to be. This is where the famous horse race, il Palio, takes place every year.

Piazza del Campo in Siena

Piazza del Campo in Siena

Il Campo is surrounded by beautiful buildings and dominated by Siena’s City Hall, il Palazzo Publico which, for 800 years, housed the municipal offices in most impressive surroundings.

The evening sky in Siena can be admired from a seat in one of the many Cafés in the Piazza, as the sun sets and changes the sky colors from blue to pink to gold in an amazing harmony.

Two main pedestrian streets, Via di Citta and Via Banchi di Sopra, are ideal for strolling along and looking at the elegant windowshops, the ice-cream parlors, the pastry shops, and the outstanding historial buildings, such as the Music Accademy, l’Accademia Musicale Chigiana, and the Palazzo Salimbeni. The latter, built in the XVth century is the World Headquarters of the historical Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the major banking corporation which has a hand in much of the economic and cultural life of the city.

Siena’s Cathedral, il Duomo, is the best example of Italian gothic cathedrals. It is know for its outstanding frescos, its beautiful chapels and ceilings, its statues and, most parlicularly, for its unique polychrome marble pavement showing religious and secular scenes.

Marble Pavement in Il Duomo in Siena

Marble Pavement in Il Duomo in Siena

Accross from the Duomo, we also visited one of the first european hospitals, buit on the XIth century, l’Ospedale Santa Maria della Scala, which is now an archeological Museum.

All over Siena, Santa Caterina, the XIVth century mystic patron of the city, is honored with statues, paintings and altars. Visitors flock to the house where she was born and grew up and to the chuch she went to, San Domenico.

San Domenico in Siena

San Domenico in Siena

Last Stop: Assisi

Our last stop was Assisi, in nearby Umbria. Assisi, famous as the birthplace of Saint Francis, is a small medieval town perched on a hill. Most cobblestone streets will take you to the Basilica of St. Francis towards the upper part of the hill. At the very top of the hill is the castle ‘la Rocca’ where Frederick Barbarossa spent his childhood.

The Basilica of St Francis is a multilevel structure, composed of two superimposed churches. The walls and ceiling of the upper Church are embelished with frescoes of the Giotto school, the lower sanctuary contains the tomb of St. Francis.

Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi

Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi

The Basilica of St. Francis is only one of many beautiful churches in Assisi, such as the Basilica of Santa Chiara, the cathedral of San Rufino and Santa Maria Degli Angeli, where the modest, little house where St Francis lived (La Purziuncola) is now preserved.

Piazza del Commune in Assisi

Piazza del Commune in Assisi

Strolling around Assisi’s medieval streets was a fulfilling experience, the spirituality of the place being felt everywhere.

What added to the peace and calm of those last days of our trip was also the fact that we stayed in a beautiflul and confortable Monastery of American Nuns, Suore dell’Atonment, with a superb view of the country, in an atmosphere of cheerfulness and deep serenity.

Monastery Suore Dell'Atonement in Assisi

Monastery Suore Dell’Atonement in Assisi

It was a luminous ending to a memorable trip.

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