Florence is undergoing a new Renaissance – and Ian Collins has just enjoyed a tour via a painterly guide from the Tuscan capital's great artistic flowering first time round.
AT 17, I VOWED TO VISIT PARIS every year of my life and did so until the age of 30. After which my annual resolution of love and loyalty switched to Italy.
Here's to the joy of the long weekend that makes all European travel plans possible.
Dividing a precious week of holiday into three shorter, sharper breaks spreads the benefits hugely while extending the costs only a little.
Where to go? I sometimes think that I could stick a pin into the map of Italy at random to find the next magical discovery.
Anywhere I end up, it's bound to be near to something interesting. And Italian charm – like the fine wine and fabulous food – is close to universal.
OK, let's forget the dismal politics and the dire bureaucracy (and the Mafia also). Such curses would ruin other countries, but so strong is Italy's civilisation that the people just carry on merrily, secure in the knowledge that they inhabit the most brilliant place on this planet.
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Italy has everything I look for to refresh my work-battered senses – great art, good views, clear light, friendliness and fantastic hospitality. A long lifetime would bring nothing like enough time to sample such riches.
I keep gravitating back to the glories of Venice. Then there's Rome for a living city over a metropolitan museum. And now there's Florence too.
The capital of Tuscany is undergoing a second Renaissance. It was always loud and proud. Now it's positively buzzing.
The historic Medici treasure house is also the home of contemporary style (Pucci, Gucci, Ferragamo and now a mass of cutting-edge design). Its new 35-year-old mayor and his 34- year-old deputy are vowing to rescue the city for its residents – and therefore also for thoughtful tourists who want something more authentic than theme-park experiences.
When I first came here 15 years ago I flew to Pisa and then transferred for an hour-long train journey (as you continue to do if you fly Ryanair from Stansted – still the easiest East Anglian option).
But I've just flown straight from Gatwick to a small suburban airport. And Florence is one very compact city.
A short taxi ride takes me to a fantastic hotel – an old palazzo bang in the centre. Led up a cool, silent marble staircase I am shown to a perfect room on the top-floor with views over two sides. My private panoramas range over terracotta tiles, roof terraces, washing lines and sleeping cats with a focal point of the church of Santa Croce where both Michelangelo and Galileo are buried.
And I can see the Tuscan hills above and beyond Florence. I go for a stroll, buy a bag of peaches and retire to take in the spectacle – as the sun starts to set a great flurry of bats takes to the wing.
I would stay put in such a room, savouring such a vantage point, for my entire visit. But I am here for a special purpose.
Last time I darted rather wildly between great sights – highlights being a whole day in the Uffizi Gallery, a morning in the cathedrallike church of the Duomo and an afternoon picnic in the Boboli Gardens.
Now, thanks to a landmark exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi – whose recent rescue from near-collapse may be the greatest symbol of the new Florentine Renaissance – I am being guided by a 16th century genius.
The Strozzi (a grand relic of the first Renaissance) is hosting the first-ever solo exhibition anywhere for Agnolo di Cosimo – known as Bronzino.
The swarthy one is the ideal guide to Florence because he was born here in 1503, and died here in 1572 after spending most of his very productive life in his native city.
He was taught by the great Jacopo Pontormo – and his own favourite pupil would be the brilliant Alessandro Allori – and he found fame from 1539 when one of many artists chosen to create the ornate wedding decorations for the Medici family patriarch and city ruler Cosimo I and Eleonora of Toledo.
Clearly he pleased his patrons because soon he became the main painter of the Medici court with a string of ravishing – and revolutionary – portraits of the noble elite.
The best commission – and the poster for the current exhibition now hanging from the airport terminal building and paraded all over the city – was the 1544-45 portrait of Eleonora and her second son Giovanni.
This magnificent double likeness oozes power and wealth, and comfort and complacency – with the queen bee's stupendous dress speaking volumes about the material wealth of mid 16th century Florence.
(Both sitters look invincible, but both were to die from malaria in 1562).
Bronzino was a poet as well as a painter – and he depicted writers and intellectuals as well as the masters and mistresses of patronage. His subjects often exude the confidence of genius.
Perhaps none of his ground-breaking images was more daring than that of Andrea Doria – the Genoese admiral cast in the near-naked guise of Neptune. (There would be a lot of bared flesh in this man's art until the great cover-up ordered by the counter-Reformation.) Almost all of the key surviving portable Bronzino paintings from all over the world – as well as some very splendid and lately restored tapestries – have been borrowed for the Strozzi show. The exceptions being the Frick Collection in New York, which won't lend and the National Gallery in London whose key work by this master, Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, is deemed too fragile to travel.
That London loss is a particular pity because this mysterious allegorical picture seems to have seeped as if by magic (or in truth by the marvel of animation) into our modern consciousness. Terry Gilliam used the right foot of Cupid to squash the titles on Monty Python's Flying Circus! Being an art addict, I could spend most of a day ogling the Bronzino show. But the great through central Florence.
First stop should be the Capponi Chapel in Santa Felicita on the far bank of the River Arno. Expect a slow journey because it is impossible not to linger on the Ponte Vecchio (that bridge of jewellery shops and houses which was the city's only medieval span not to be destroyed by the retreating Nazis).
Impossible, too, not to be distracted by Vasari's overheard corridor built in 1565 to link the Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti, via the Uffizi. (Open by appointment only – get in if you can, since it is filled with Old Master self portraits.) The corridor extends along one side of the Ponte Vecchio, with a sharp detour around the house of the one family who defied a demolition order, to form a fa�ade and gallery for the older Santa Felicita. The best bit is inside, with sublimely tender 1520s paintings for the Capponi family chapel by Pontormo.
There are only facsimiles of the original roundels at the base of the ceiling just now – since the four precious pictures are now in the Strozzi, with two probably by the young Bronzino, who assisted his mentor throughout the project.
Then it's back to the Palazzo Vecchio (via another delay on that very distracting bridge) – completed in 1322 and the city hall of Florence to this day.
Here Bronzino produced frescoes for Eleonora's private chapel from 1540 – with the furore and tumult of the mass slaughter involved in the Crossing the Red Sea suitably stylised to prompt prolonged meditation rather than provoking a fainting fit.
The church of San Lorenzo has Bronzino's monumental Martyrdom of St Lawrence fresco, while Santa Croce has Descent of Christ in Limbo – the artist's largest panel painting.
We're lucky: the latter work was only recently restored after disastrous damage from the Florentine floods of 1966.
The Gaddi chapel of Santa Maria Novella has Christ raising the daughter of Jairus and I experience a moment of revelation in the St Luca chapel of the Santissima Annunziata… Having admired frescoes by Allori depicting both Pontormo and Bronzino, I look down and find that I am standing on the entrance to the subterranean tomb of the great Florentine goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini.
Here lies the final stop in a tour for another visit.