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Touring Florence Solo or with a Group Report – Getting Oriented and Getting In

By Amy Munice

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Walk with a personal tour guide, Guya Toninelli, in Florence and experience one curtain after another seeming to go up in your mind so you can get new eyes to better see this history-rich city overflowing with art treasures.



In very short order, with Guya as our guide, we were able to see the streets more as Florentines do—both as mirrors of the city’s life in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, during World War II, an in modern times reaching to today. 


Real Florentines, for example, heed which side of the Arno River you come from and go to some lengths to avoid the throng of tourists north of the river during the high season.  


We no longer walked past buildings without immediately distinguishing their origins as Middle Ages or Renaissance.  The former have relatively windowless towers that kept out the many enemies in your Middle Ages midst.  They do have brick openings that would allow planks to join friendly clans together or to give a family defender a good position for pouring hot oil on would-be intruders. 


It seems that not only minds opened during the Renaissance, but also windows and doors that could be decorated with lush brocade fabrics for covers.  Walking with Guya, renaissance buildings with their many gentle arches inspired by Ancient Greek and Roman architecture became easy to spot.  Palazzo Strozzi proved a good place to take in this short course on Renaissance architecture. 


Today, you’ll find many boutiques of precious goods in these former Renaissance edifices, especially on Via de Tornabuoni, where many upscale couturiers that help define Italy as the world’s Fashion Central have set up shop.



But it was the short course on medieval politics, Medici history and art that really made an impact.  You can read this in dry tour book presentations or you can take Guya’s lively short course as she points out the main sites. 



When we walked past a large building with a lamb emblem, for example, we could easily understand the power of the Guild of Wool. 



When we peered at the splendor of the Church of the Guilds, Orsanmichele, we could imagine the trauma that prompted the Priori (heads of the Guilds) to decide to build a church in the one-time grain storage to get in good with the spirits that would prevent future fires. 




When we walked past the market square where bankrupt people were stripped naked and beaten ,we paid homage to its famed sculpture of a pig, Della Porcellino, and we learned to do the obligatory nose rub that legend says guarantees your return to Florence. 


What Guya especially brings to life is how the buildings of the Middle Ages were re-purposed in the Renaissance.  Most of the city’s art splendors grew out of the status-conscious Medici’s desire to use art as propaganda to impress all of their power.  In the Medici drawn world it is men and not Gods who had stature.  Nowhere is this more on display perhaps than in the political center of the city where the Medicis created open air sculpture gardens in front of the older buildings.  It is in this Loggia dei Lanzi that you see the trademark Medici lions, among many other pieces.  So many of the sculptures are iconic works you have seen so many times in photos—from a copy of Michelangelo’s “David” to Giambologna’s “Rape of the Sabine Women” and his bronze of Cosimo I himself on a horse. 



On foot you are impressed by how close all of Florence’s monuments are to one another.  Guya led us from the public square (Piazza della Signoria) to the enormous Dome of the cathedral (Duomo) that is perhaps THE image most associated with Florence.  Its 1334 bell tower was probably the biggest medieval skyscraper – a stature very important to the Priori who wanted to distinguish Florence from its competitors in Pisa and Sienna



Again you can read of this, but it is quite another matter to hear the history – the nuggets mentioned here and much, much more-- as you walk on foot with your personal guide.




While Guya did outline the history of the Uffizi that we had walked past our main explorations of that site happened the next day in a group tour.   



It’s quite a different experience to join a group tour such as one of the more than a dozen group tour offerings by group tour operator Florencetown Tours.  We joined their Uffiizi and Vasari Tour, which enabled us to avoid the long queues to get into the museum.  In fact, without pre-booking far in advance you may find it impossible to get into the Vasari Corridor any other way, as tours to this historic site are limited.   Also, if you have not pre-booked your Uffizi tour you can expect wait lines as long as five hours during the high season.



With headsets on that amplified the voice of our group tour guide, Vanessa Garau, our group ambled to the shorter of the long queues to get into the Uffizi, while Vanessa gave us a short course on how it came to be what it is today. 



It was the Medici Grand Duke Cosimo who bowed to his wife’s wishes to move to a new palace with more open air that in part explains how the Uffizi and Vasari Corridor came to be. 



Uffizi means office, and it is a building that Cosimo commissioned the architect Vasari to build, and also the one kilometer corridor that would take him from his new palace to his offices. 



The latter was of particular importance because the royal wanted to keep his distance from the butchers and similar challenging odors and everything commoner below. 


It was a different Medici, Francis I, who first started exhibiting the family’s great art works at the Uffizi.  The last Medici heiress had the foresight to preserve the collection for all Florentines and visitors to the city.



That visitor is you and millions more, something that greatly colored our experience of the museum as it likely will yours.  The treasures within are vast and amazing—works by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Da Vinci and hundreds more.  This was not high tourist season, and yet the din from all the tour groups visiting the Uffizi made it difficult to concentrate on the explications of art history by our guide, whose  enthusiasm seemed steroid powered and in retrospect appropriately designed to hold our attention amidst the chaotic scene.  In many cases, one couldn’t see the paintings that the tour guide was talking about without bordering on rude elbowing of others around you.



Getting out of the Uffizi per se and into the Vasari Corridor was a relative breath of fresh air.  This is the path that Cosimo took every day to work, perhaps stopping at a window here or there to spy on the commoners below.  There you see self-portraits by the great Italian artists on one side and self-portraits of foreign artists on the other. 



The challenge that we were unable to surmount was the crowds and timetable of the group tour.  While you can breath better in the Vasari Corridor, and get great views of the city, you similarly don’t get a chance to linger, but rather must keep pace with the group. 



Similarly in the Uffizi you are dependent on seeing what your tour guide wants you to see.  


In an alternate universe the Uffizi would likely be a place where you’d want to linger for an entire day and perhaps make a return visit as well.  In the real world you are on a tour group where the 2+ hours in the museum itself serves more as a teaser than the art feast you set out to find. 


That said, the Florencetown group tour did the most important thing of even getting us in the door.  Overall, this tour was a grand success in that it hatched our plan is to return to Florence in the dead of winter in hopes that the crowds in the Uffizi, arguably the top art museum in the top art city of the world, are more manageable.


For individual tours in English, French or Spanish:


Guya Toninelli

Phone: (+39) 348 33 58284


For more than a dozen group tour options: 


Florencetown Tours

See the Florencetown Tours Website 

Or call (+39) 055 281103














Published on May 06, 2015

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