I have to admit to an obsession of mine….the Medicis. It started when I studied Italian History for A Level however it was reignited recently when I watched the Netflix series, The Medicis (produced with a lot of creative license). I also reviewed the book, Bella Figura by Kamin Mohammidi, a lifestyle book about the author’s move to Florence. The book captivated me and was more real than my obsession with the Medicis.
So when Husband said let’s take a mini-break to Florence I was quick to say yes as I have never been.
To me the Medicis are the uncrowned Tudors of Florence, equally as flamboyant and colourful. They came from very humble beginnings and rose to dizzy ducal heights. It is Cosimo di Medici or Cosimo the Elder who is the one that I am most fascinated in. (I have to add it may have been Richard Madden playing Cosimo de Medici in the Netfliz series that was the catalyst for my fanatical obsession!)
Cosimo was the elder son and successor of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who founded the Medici Bank in the 1390s, opened branches in Rome, Venice and Naples and went on to take charge of the Vatican’s finances. He died in 1429, when Cosimo was 39. Cosimo was a brilliant businessman who made a colossal fortune in banking and also adroitly built up Medici political power in Florence.
In 1433 some of his rivals had him arrested and charged with trying to elevate himself above the status of an ordinary citizen, which in supposedly democratic Florence could carry the death penalty. Imprisoned in a tiny dungeon, Cosimo contrived to make sure that his food was not poisoned and quietly bribed enough members of the Signoria to reduce the sentence to banishment for five years.
Cosimo went to Padua and soon moved on to Venice, where he and his money were warmly received. He had taken his bank with him and the effect on the economy of Florence was so severe that the banishment was cancelled and Cosimo returned to Florence in 1434. He then had his opponents banished in their turn and made sure that they never returned.
Cosimo’s huge wealth and his combination of open-handed generosity and shrewd bribery took him to the top of Florentine society. He took care never to behave like a despot and his simple, straightforward manner helped to endear him to many citizens. So did his generous gifts to churches, the religious orders and other good causes. He gained the support of the majority of the Signoria, who considered him the most influential figure in helping them to retain their privileged position in the city. Pope Pius II, who knew him well, said that political matters were settled at Cosimo’s house; he chose who should fill public positions; he decided peace and war; and he was virtually king of Florence.
Another factor was Cosimo’s exaltation of Florentine prestige through his encouragement of scholars and artists. Cosimo also commissioned work from the city’s architects and artists. The Medici Palace, where he lived with his wife Contessina and his slave-mistress Maddalena (he bought her in Venice), was designed by Michelozzo de Bartolozzi and built in Florence from the 1440s. Cosimo had already paid Michelozzo to rebuild the monastery of San Marco, where he had his own private cell.
He paid Filippo Brunelleschi to rebuild the Medici family’s parish church of San Lorenzo. Others he backed included Michelangelo, the sculptors Donatello and Ghiberti and the painter Fra Filippo Lippi. He is on record as saying that his two supreme pleasures in life were making and spending money and that spending it was even more satisfying than making it.
He was 74 when he died at his country house at Careggi. His body was taken to Florence and huge crowds filled the streets as he was buried in the church of San Lorenzo, where his tomb can still be seen. Carved on it by order of the Signoria were the words Pater Patriae, ‘Father of the Country’.
Walking around Florence the Medici influence is everywhere. Cosimo had his finger in every pie as it were. Our first day was spent visiting the Duomo and climbing to the very top – 463 steps – and enjoying the extraordinary panoramic view of Florence. The route takes you by the interior of the dome where you can admire Giorgio Vasari’s frescoes of the Last Judgment (1572-9) up close. Then we caught the Verrocchio, master of Leonardo exhibition.
Finally we visited the Galleria dell’ Academia to see the original David of Michelangelo. It was a day of walking, admiring, and being completely overawed by all the remarkable works of art in one small city.
The following day, Saturday, we took the Bella Figura tour as inspired by the book of the same name. Kamin and I chatted over what’s app as she made sure I did not miss one thing. Once again we wore our walking shoes and backpacks and set off with the help of Google Maps. It was a gloriously, sunny day and we had no idea what to expect however our first stop was coffee at Caffe Cibreo to set us up for a day of walking. A truly traditional Florentine coffee shop where you can sit and watch the world go by whilst enjoying a delicious coffee and sugared croissant. Cibreo also has a Trattoria and a Ristorante – all equally well-worth visiting.
Close by there is a market and it is well worth wandering through and viewing the colourful display of fruit, vegetables, flowers and plants. Kamin in her book explains that shopping for food to an Italian is a joy not a chore! Next door is an antiques market full of gorgeous bric-a-brac and some pieces of more value.
We then set off to climb to San Miniato. Built between the 11th and 13th century, the exterior of the Church of San Miniato is decorated with green and white marble in geometric patterns similar to the facades of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella. A mosaic from the 12th century decorates the facade over a central window. It was truly incredible, one of the most beautiful churches I had ever seen. The cemetery is full of the families of the Florentine aristocracy. What a perfect final resting place.
Once again we enjoyed views over the city to the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio (Cosimo’s palace). We then set off to the Boboli Gardens via the Piazze di Michelangelo and a Gelato Festival. I am nearly as obsessed with Gelato as I am with the Medicis.
No time to linger as we continued on to the Boboli Gardens and the Pritti Palazzo, finally walking back across the Ponte Vecchio for a well-earned cup of English tea!! It was a day to remember – totally exhilarating and inspiring.
Thank you to Kamin for directing us. Kamin is going to run some ‘Bella Figura tours’ in September/October visiting all her favourite places, most of which are not on the tourist map. As with her book you will learn ‘How To Live, Love and Eat The Italian Way’. I will let you all know when these are running but keep an eye on her website by clicking HERE.
My husband and I met up with Kamin and Bernardo, her husband, in Caffe Cibreo on our last day. She is such a warm and vital person and so keen to share her Italian experience in order to help others in their everyday lives. Her tours are bound to be therapeutic as well as informative but definitely full of gastronomique delights.
So four days in Florence has set me up with a determination to keep up with the walking and to plan another city-break soon.
We stayed at Villa Antea, a B&B, owned by the family that built it. It was recommended by Alistair Sawday and was half the price of all the recommended hotels. We liked the fact that that it has just 5, very large, en-suite bedrooms and there was a very personal service. The owners and staff gave us lots of tips of where to eat and visit. The perfect ‘home’ for our city-break weekend.