Happy Birthday, Auguste Rodin

In honor of Auguste Rodin's birthday and the fact that I now have all the photos from our France trip, today is a great day for a little picture post from the Museé Rodin. I can't really say that the museum is a hidden gem. Everyone and their guidebook recommends coming here, but I think it often gets pushed aside in favor of some of the bigger, more grandiose sites.

The museum and its gardens, however, are gorgeous. They are worth a leisurely, relaxed visit and a perfect way to discover Rodin's works.

Rodin museum and roses
Rodin museum and roses
Rodin Museum Paris gardens
Rodin Museum Paris gardens
Rodin The Thinker
Rodin The Thinker
Rodin's The Thinker and Roses
Rodin's The Thinker and Roses
Rodin Museum The Thinker
Rodin Museum The Thinker
The Thinker Rodin Museum
The Thinker Rodin Museum
Rodin Museum Paris
Rodin Museum Paris
Rodin Museum Paris
Rodin Museum Paris
Rodin Museum painter
Rodin Museum painter
Rodin Museum gardens Paris
Rodin Museum gardens Paris
Rodin Museum gardens Paris
Rodin Museum gardens Paris
Rodin Museum Paris gardens
Rodin Museum Paris gardens
Rodin Museum Paris
Rodin Museum Paris

There's something magical about being so close to those massive sculptures that you can see every chisel mark and then walking through those gardens and stumbling upon something unexpected amidst the flowers, trees, and meandering paths. Pictures can't do it justice and without Rodin's work, this little oasis in the midst of an already overwhelmingly beautiful city wouldn't exist.

Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities

Ah, the Renaissance. A rebirth. The end of the Dark Ages. Leaps forward in art, science, thinking, and learning Since Florence was the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance, it's easy to think of it as a bastion of optimistic progress.

So it might be a little surprising to know that in 1494, when the Renaissance had been going on for quite a while, a man named Girolamo Savonarola came to power and literally set fire to the things he considered amoral, including Renaissance works.

To the right is a painting of Savonarola, who was born in Ferrara, Italy in 1452. I don't think we'll be seeing him featured on Bangable Dudes in History any time soon. That's ok, though, because he was a Dominican Friar and kind of a wet blanket, unless you're really into morality or, perhaps, if you're a pyromaniac.

I must admit, though, I do find him pretty fascinating. So what's his deal?

Savonarola vehemently opposed moral corruption, especially within the aristocracy and clergy. He developed a fiery preaching style to disseminate his message, which was well received by the Florentine public. They gathered in crowds to hear him rail against sinfulness and vice. He claimed to have received messages directly from God and said,

The sword of the Lord will descend on the earth swiftly and soon.

Even Lorenzo the Magnificent, a Medici and Grand Duke of Florence, respected Savonarola despite being one of the monk's targets. There's a story that Lorenzo, on his deathbed, called on Savonarola to administer the last rites. Apparently Savonarola would only do it if Lorenzo handed his power over to Savonarola. Lorenzo refused and, therefore, Savonarola would not administer the rites.

I haven't found any real evidence that this story is true. I'm skeptical. I think the story itself, especially if it's not true, is an interesting example of the complexity of Savonarola's place in history. Was he a power-hungry fanatic or was he a reformer in a time of corruption?

After Lorenzo died in 1492, his son Piero took power and swiftly earned the nickname "The Unfortunate." The Medici family, you see, ruled the Tuscany starting in 1434 with Cosimo de' Medici. Poor Piero lost Florence and Tuscany when he failed to stop King Charles VIII of France from invading in 1494. He and his family were exiled.

For Savonarola, Piero's failures were a great opportunity. After the French left Florence, Savonarola became a leader of the new Florentine republic that would follow God's law under his watch. He clamped down on vices by enacting sumptuary laws and prohibiting gambling.

His group of followers, called the Weepers, saw him as a prophet and supported his fight against materialism and sin. One of his most famous devotees was Renaissance superstar, Botticelli.

Jonathan Jones wrote a great article in the Guardian entitled "The sword in the sky." He details Savonarola's influence on Botticelli and he also suggests people followed Savonarola because he gave them a "way of making sense of some of the most shocking, brutal changes anyone remembered." He goes on to say,

Governments were falling, empires crumbling, Italy was one vast battlefield. Savonarola not only explained all this, but made it possible to see some glimmer of hope - it was all a divine plan in which Florence would play a special part in reforming the Christian world.

So while Savonarola was not without detractors, he masterfully used the social and political climate to his benefit.

All of this culminated in the Bonfire of the Vanities. On February 7th, 1497, Mardi Gras, Savonarola held a public collection of anything related to vice or sin, like mirrors, cosmetics, certain books, paintings, cards, ostentatious clothing, and jewelry. He then held a massive bonfire and burned it all. Some sources say Botticelli himself threw some of his paintings into the fire.

One might think that someone like the Pope would be a-ok with this kind of faith-based rule. Nope. Savonarola, remember, was against corruption in the clergy and this included the Pope.

Pope Alexander VI was a Borgia, Rodrigo Borgia to be exact. Their lot was known not just for being power-hungry, but also for a number of nefarious acts and scandals: murders, affairs, orgies, intrigue, and, as you will soon see, torture.

Needless to say, the Pope and Savonarola were not buddies by any stretch of the imagination. The Pope saw Savonarola as a threat and accused him of heresy. On May 13, 1497, Pope Alexander VI formally excommunicated him.

To make matters worse, Savonarola was already starting to lose hold in Florence. People began to revolt against the sumptuary laws and bonfires when they did not see any resulting benefit for themselves or the city.

Eventually, Savonarola and two other Dominican friars, Fra Silvestro and Fra Domenico da Pescia, were captured and charged with "religious errors," heresy, sedition, and false prophecies. Pope Alexander VI had the three men tortured.

Finally, on May 23, 1498, they met a horrifying end together. They were hanged and burned in Florence's Piazza della Signoria--where the Bonfire of the Vanities took place. There's still a plaque marking the spot in the Piazza today. Their ashes were thrown into the Arno, next to the Ponte Vecchio. [More info on Wikipedia]

In a strange twist of events, the Medici family regained power in Tuscany during the 16th century. Ferdinando I de' Medici became the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1587. He sought to be a more gentle, tolerant leader. He, for example, penned an edict supporting greater tolerance for Jews and heretics.

Ferdinando also got sick of the stench and pollution on the Ponte Vecchio, which was home to Florence’s butchers. He ordered them all out, banned them, and allowed goldsmiths and jewelers set up shops in their place.

How is that for an extraordinary juxtaposition? Nearly 100 years after Savonarola burned the sumptuous vanities of Florence, a more tolerant Medici helped turn the bridge next to Savonarola’s ashes into one of the most famous places in the world to shop for pretty, gilded trinkets, even today.

Just as a quick note to end on, I read a historical fiction novel about Florence and Savonarola a few years ago called The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. I remember feeling like the story was pretty far-fetched but being interested in the descriptions of Florence and Savonarola.

A Love Affair with Firenze

  I distinctly remember getting off the plane and stepping into Rome's Fiumicino airport for the first time.

I was on a school trip in November 2001. Suddenly, we were surrounded by the sounds of the Italian language.

Someone could have been arguing or talking about the disgusting infection they once had, but it certainly sounded beautiful to me.

It took me off guard and didn't make any sense, but I felt like I was coming home.

Our trip started in Rome. I realized there that my love-at-first-sound impression at the airport was not wrong. Rome was more than I ever hoped it would be. It's ancient and yet still fully alive with the vibrant pulse of people and sounds.

But when we got to Florence something I have a hard time really explaining happened. I guess you could say I just fell in love. There are lots of places I've been now that I love and daydream about all the time.

Florence, though, was the first city that really captured my heart. It was the first time I went somewhere and wanted to live there. I wanted to experience the people, the seasons, and daily life. I still do.

So what is it about Florence? I'll do my best to explain.

It's magical to me. It's the architecture and the way the sun hits the warm colors of the buildings, making them glow. It's knowing that the it was the heart of the Renaissance and seeing the evidence of it everywhere, but still feeling the bustle of a city. Of course, during high season, a lot of that bustle comes from tourists but the city is more substantial than the sum of its tourists.

It's the quiet moments in the mornings watching deliveries or vendors put up their goods in the markets.

I stayed at a little hotel called Relais Cavalcanti twice, once in 2004 and once in 2007. It's run by two very nice sisters and is in a beautiful townhouse.

Right next to the door to the hotel is a small purse shop. The guys running it were always so happy and friendly. Whenever we passed by, we'd often hear something like "Hey! Our Canadian friends!" And then we'd get a nice smile and wave. It was such a warm way to start or end a day.

It's the way the morning quiet is so perfectly broken at a busy neighborhood café where regulars go to wake up with a pastry and a quick caffè or cappuccino.

It's also the art. Florence is home to the Uffizi, one of the oldest and greatest galleries in the world, which began housing the Medici family art in 1581.

And it's just wandering around outside, because the art goes beyond galleries.

I loved seeing David 's--ahem!--assets (I can hear you groaning, but I had to!) at the Accademia Gallery, but it's fantastic to be able to saunter by the copy in the Piazza della Signoria while soaking up the sun.

It's also the fact that there are still some artisans working in Florence who produce beautiful things.

The city is famous for leather, for example. It's pretty easy to stumble upon leather shops, factories, and market vendors, especially at the massive San Lorenzo market.

Or you can buy a bauble or two on the Ponte Vecchio.

But for me, it's paper.

Yes, paper.

I stumbled upon an Il Papiro shop on one trip. In the back, past the usual journals and cards, there were poster-sized sheets of paper that had been hand-stamped with patterns that were hand-carved from blocks of wood. Apparently it is a dying art and there are not many who make them this way anymore.

I bought two. So far, these two sheets of paper are my favorite souvenirs from all of my vacations.

It's also the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, also know as the Duomo, with Brunelleschi's Dome proudly sitting atop the cathedral, surveying the city.

The dome itself is a marvel of engineering. Brunelleschi devoted most of his adult life to it.  He died in 1446 when just a few decorations were being added to completely finish the dome.

No one matched his guts, passion, creativity, or know-how to make something to top the octagon of the basilica.

And that's another thing, the city feels almost optimistic because the influence of the Renaissance is still so visible. So much true genius that came from this Florence. Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Botticelli. . .it's almost as if you can feel the remnants of their creativity hum through the streets.

It's Piazza Santa Croce for a couple of reasons. The church itself is holds the tombs and monuments to many great and well-known Florentines like Dante, Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Enrico Fermi.

But I also love Piazza Santa Croce because I had one of my favorite meals there.

When I was on the school tour, it was with 3 other friends, a couple of parents, and our teacher. We were given a free afternoon in Florence.

Eventually my friend and I ended up in the piazza and noticed our other friend in the window of a restaurant called the Boccadama. It was the first time we had been able to choose a sit-down place to eat. Heaven! We feasted on pasta, shared a bottle of Chianti, and then ate the most incredibly decadent flourless chocolate cake I've ever had.

Maybe by now I've talked about that cake so much that it's become mythically good, but it was a day the deserves mythic status in my mind.

So, it's also the food. Simple, honest, fresh, delicious, soul-satisfying Tuscan food and wine.

One year, I overheard a woman talking about Brunello wine at a restaurant in Florence. Her take? "It's better than sex!" I think that's all I need to say about that.

And, finally, it's about strolling and discovery. I don't want to make this post about must-sees. It's about falling in love. And the best way to fall in love with a city is to relax and just walk around a bit.

I love seeing what the shops have to offer, especially the ones I can't possibly afford.

Crossing the Arno River and walking through the Boboli Gardens gave me a completely different perspective of Florence.

Most of all, however, I love when evening comes and the quiet of the morning begins to return little by little. There's nothing quite like the charm of Florence after a leisurely dinner.

Imagine walking the old cobblestone streets with a gelato in one hand, following the sights and the sounds of a street performer's music as the city continues to glow, just more softly now.

I think D.H. Lawrence said it best about falling for Italy:

For us to go to Italy and to penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery -- back, back down the old ways of time. Strange and wonderful chords awake in us, and vibrate again after many hundreds of years of complete forgetfulness.

So if you go to Florence and fall in love or feel awakened, remember to rub the snout of Il Porcellino in the Mercato Nuovo. He will ensure your return.

People seem to like to touch other parts of Il Porcellino too. Maybe this brings you extra special powers of return, I'll have to test the theory next time.