Firenze - The David

photo: Ties for sale by the Mercato Centrale

Colourful ties for sale, carefully wrapped in plastic.

I left the B&B early this morning to make a run for the Uffizi, but I'm not good at early mornings so I still didn't get there until around 0845. And the line-up was already looking pretty painful, so I passed. That led me to my alternate, which was the Bargello. The Bargello is only a few blocks away, and draws a fair crowd - but it's second tier compared to the Duomo, the Accademia (with "The David") and the Uffizi. It's only a "second tier" museum because it's in the same city as the Uffizi and the Accademia: its collection is very good. Lots of Cellini, plus some Giambologna and Donatello. The Rough Guide mentions three works by Michelangelo, of which I spotted precisely none. I didn't ask and probably should have. The museum also has some small and finely detailed religious ivory carvings (surprisingly, I like those - something about miniatures I suppose), porcelain, a small room of Islamic art, etc.

My next stop was the Mercato Centrale, a place much akin to Toronto's St. Lawrence Market. It was interesting to see the produce on display: I almost always enjoy food markets for this reason. Then I headed back upstairs to the prepared food stalls I'd seen a couple days ago, which are much less busy this early in the day (it was 1030 or 1100, as opposed to around 1800 last time I was there). I chose the place that made pretty much everything with truffles: I had a frittata-truffle sandwich and a ham-truffle sandwich - each only €4 and a great deal better than I expected: I would definitely recommend them. A wandering waitress from another booth asked me if I wanted a drink, so I got a cappuccino. After that, I bought a cannoli at another stall: not so good as Carabé's, but still quite nice.

From there to a museum literally around the corner from the Accademia, the Museo dell'Opificio delle Pietre Dure. "Pietre Dure" is not - as I kept misremembering - a person, but rather a process: that of creating pictures with polished inlaid semi-precious stones. Hey, it's rocks. I like rocks. Although it turns out, as much as I like rocks and the vibrant colours they sometimes have, there are some poor uses for those strong colours. Malachite, for example, is a spectacular shade of striped green ( ), and small pieces of it are very lovely. This museum had an entire fireplace made out of malachite, and I found that overwhelming and just garish. The art they do with inlaid rock is (sometimes) utterly gorgeous. Its biggest failing is much along the line of the fireplace: there's very little control of gradation of colour, no subtlety. But at its best, it's very beautiful indeed.

I dropped by the nearby Cenacolo di Sant'Apollonia - apparently "Last Suppers" are something of a Florentine speciality, and that's what's on display here - a "Last Supper" by Andrea del Castagno (that's all there is to see). I'm afraid that my mind went in a rather irreverent direction: all the guys on the far side of the table have golden frisbees over their heads, why doesn't the black-haired, black-bearded Judas on the near side of the table have a frisbee? And why didn't anyone notice?

San Marco Church and Spedale degli Innocenti share a square nearby, but my luck wasn't too good: San Marco is closed for about three hours mid-afternoon - a window I managed to hit - and the Spedale is in the midst of renovations that have closed its two evidently lovely cloisters until mid-June. And then it was time for my appointment with The David at the Accademia: I had to pick up the timed-entry ticket I'd paid for online, which also allowed me the opportunity to buy a timed-entry ticket for the Uffizi on Saturday. The Accademia timed-entry ticket allowed me to walk straight in (usually you have a 5-10 minute wait, even with the timed-entry), which was great. I went first to their temporary exhibit on Carlo Petrelli, a medieval painter. And then to the hall with five unfinished Michelangelos (one is disputed), but towering down the end of the hall is the man you've all been waiting for, David. I find it fascinating that Michelangelo's roughed out, incomplete sculptures are given a place of more importance in a museum than the best works of lesser sculptors. And I'm a bit surprised to find that I sort of saw why. But it's David that's the reason we're here: and damn, that's a brilliant piece of work. I spent about ten minutes walking around him and taking photos, then went off to look at the second floor - religious art of my least favourite kind: altarpieces, triptychs, diptychs, panels, and every single one dipped in gold leaf. That didn't hold my attention long. Then back to David. I found a seat, and sat there about 45 minutes. Seriously, it's extremely unlikely I'll ever see this sculpture in person again. The detail is spectacular, perfect. So yes, this is one I "get."

The Bargello is in possession of multiple "David" sculptures, two by Donatello, another by Verrocchio, possibly more. But its main competitor for me is the one by Bernini that's up in Rome.

I have to add a note of respect for the way the museum has chosen to display David. There's lots of light from a huge frosted dome window overhead, and you can walk all the way around him. He's also at exactly the right height, with his feet perhaps two metres off the floor, meaning that everyone can see him quite clearly and will only have to wait a few seconds for enough space to take the picture they want - despite the ever-present crowds.

On the way out, I visited the small but interesting musical instrument museum. They have four or five Stradivarius instruments, which surprised me: most Strads are usually in the hands of world-class musicians (and HEAVILY insured) because it's better for them to be played. I was very entertained by the two basses they had on display (not Strads, I think): one had three strings, the other five (and in each case it was what they were designed for). Between the two they average out to what we expect these days. They also had two ebony harpsichords (one a replica of the other). Ebony was and is a very expensive (and hard to work) wood, so this is a little like making your brass instruments out of silver. Unfortunately, they didn't say what it sounded like.

I decided the next stop was Il Torchio - a marbled paper store - again in Oltarno. On my way to the west before crossing the river, I noticed a small place called "Oil Shoppe." I remembered that one of my guides had recommended it (turned out to be Lonely Planet) and I was hungry, so I stopped in. Despite the odd and (to my mind) not very encouraging name, this is a sandwich shop. I ordered a #30 panini (from the all-English menu - it took a moment to register that that's unusual): chicken chunks, fried egg, roast pepper sauce, carmelized onion, spinach, and garlic mayo. It was a few minutes because each sandwich is made to order. It cost €4.50. Understand: in the main tourist areas, cold sandwiches (not hot, like this one) are sold pre-made with maybe one topping (two if you're lucky) for €6, and - although I haven't tried one - they ain't this good. My only complaint - and it won't be fixed in this country - is the dryness of the bread: I like French bread, crusty outside, chewy inside, but Italians like their bread dry (and in this case it was toasted to boot). But damn, that was a GOOD sandwich. I also got onion rings: thick pieces of heavily battered onion, much doughier than we expect, and a bit salty (but in a good way). And some iced coffee: too sweet (and I don't often say that) and too much dairy, reasonably tasty but I probably wouldn't order it again. Sadly Oil Shoppe is in the east end and I'm in the west end so I may not have much chance to go back for those excellent sandwiches.

Il Torchio has some excellent marbled paper, and some nice leather-bound and marbled books of various sorts.

On the way back to the B&B I visited train station. The train to Pisa leaves every fifteen minutes or so, so I'm not even going to worry about it: I'll just go to the station when I want to go. The plan - contingent on the weather - is to go tomorrow. I also found the well-hidden bus station (it's a driveway and a couple small pedestrian walkways into a poorly marked building) and got a bus schedule for Siena, the other out-of-town destination I'm planning on visiting. Those leave every half hour.

photo: "The David"

Michelangelo's David's torso.