by Sophia Khan published on September 29, 2011
A tall, rusticated stone arch embedded in a palace's wall basks in the sunlight emitting a sense of antiquity. These were my first impressions of the backside of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence as seen from my studio apartment. A view revealed through tall windows set below a delightfully frescoed ceiling. What I slowly learned, however, was that while first impressions are often valid responses to places, they need time to develop into something more profound. So it was with my private view of Florence and the city itself.
My first visit to Florence had taken place several years earlier when I was studying abroad for my undergraduate degree in Architecture. The first city we stayed in was Venice where I immediately felt welcomed, and was awestruck by all the beauty I discovered in its mazelike arms. The next city we visited was Florence, and my impressions of this city were not as immediately favorable. Florence is a beautiful city; however, I only recognized its charm after my initial feelings of ambivalence faded. I would not say that Florence is a mysterious place like Venice. Here, everything is out in the open. The architecture of the churches, piazzas, and palaces are all strong and bold reflections of the city's social and political history. It is acceptable here to have statues depicting Perseus beheading Medusa and of the rape of a Sabine woman in one of its most public spaces, the Piazza della Signoria where public executions had also taken place. Perhaps it was images such as these that stayed with me most during my first visit to the city.
Several years later, I found myself in Florence again, studying abroad for a year. The Piazza della Signoria soon became one of my favorite spaces to wander around in. Both during the day and in the evening, I found myself sketching the Loggia dei Lanzi where the sculptures mentioned above are displayed along with several others. Raised slightly above the piazza, the Loggia contains stone and bronze sculptures beneath a soaring, groin vault supported by massive columns as if it were a stage set for the movement of the sculptures captured in time. Dramatic as they are, the sculptures convey a sense of the city as an expressive outdoor museum that never closes.
Another well-known site that I visited often was Florence's cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, also referred to as the Duomo. It clearly conveys a sense of dramatic and powerful growth with Brunelleschi's dome culminating from a series of forms below it. The piazza surrounding the cathedral takes its shape from the floor plan of the cathedral, as if it were a result of the force of its thrust onto the cityscape. The Duomo can be overwhelming at first as it conveyed authority at the time it was built, but also dramatic, magnificent, and, when I took the time to view it from a distance, awe-inspiring.
As I spent more time in Florence, I came to appreciate other parts of the city that similarly leave such vivid impressions. The façade of the church of San Lorenzo has remained unfinished, and one can still see the bare, rough structural stonework that was meant to support a decorative façade. Finished façades of other structures were built with rusticated stone in mind, like that of several palaces, including the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Walking down any street, one can also see that the original stones on many of the buildings are still visible even through modern interventions. Whereas on my first visit to Florence I found all this somewhat uninviting, I later felt that these reminders of the past added a sense of solidarity and permanence to the city. Finding myself in the backdrop of all of this was quite captivating.
Looking through the windows of my apartment in Florence, I could also see the Duomo in the distance. I was, however, content with my view of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi and rarely needed to look much further. Initially, the palace felt inaccessible and closed off to the outside world. But, after visiting it, I found that the rusticated stone arch and surrounding smooth wall, crenellated above, suggested the secret of its elegant and airy, light-filled courtyard, hidden like a pearl in its shell waiting to be discovered. For as I learned in Florence, appreciation of a place grows with time, within whose capacity sites can take on different meanings. Furthermore, with an open eye and mind, beauty can reveal itself in places where it is not initially found and in the obvious places in ever-changing ways.
Portions of this article have been adapted from the blog, A Daughter of Venice.
©2011 Sophia Khan
Image attribution: By Of the individual pictures, Gryffindor, of the panorama, Roland Geider (Ogre) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons