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3 guidelines for tourists. And the highlights of Florence

While living in Lucca, I am taking advantage of the opportunity to see something of the rest of Tuscany, and indeed Italy. Most recently, I went to Florence to catch up with Heidi Zimmerman, she of the sumptuous Meyer longsword plate reproductions, as she passed through with Chris Vanslambrouck (who was touring Italy teaching Meyer). I took the train up on Tuesday morning, and met up with Heidi, Chris, and their charming hosts Rodolfo Tanara, Eleanori Rebecchi, and Lorenzo Lotti, outside the Uffizi (where else?). We visited the Uffizi, had lunch, chilled out some, and ended up at Eleanora’s home polishing off a bottle of red; I got back to my hotel about midnight, and met them all again the next morning for a trip to the Stibbert museum, followed by our own bodyweight in sushi, a visit to Rodolfo, Eleanora and Lorenzo’s workshop (where they make swords, knives, and leather goods), and then the train home.

This all-too-brief trip (I was away from home for 36 hours exactly) reminded me of the technique of being a tourist, which I have distilled down to three simple guidelines for your benefit and amusement.

1) Do one thing each day; let serendipity do the rest. For example, on this trip I had two days. I went to the Uffizi on the first day, and the Stibbert on the second (I go on about the Stibbert at length, further down this post) . That’s the top two items on my Florence bucket list (in reverse order, but that had everything to do with museum opening times and Chris’ schedule). I also, and by accident, made three new friends, ate a glorious Bistecca Fiorentina, saw the inside of a truly astonishing church (thanks for suggesting it, Lorenzo!), and soaked in the renaissance. I didn’t see Michelangelo’s David, but it will still be there when I get back. Be warned though: I was in New York in June 2001, and had a choice between going up the World Trade Centre tower, or going and getting a new sword bag. “I’ll do the tourist thing next time I’m here”, I thought. Bugger.

2) Rest. There is absolutely no virtue attached to having once glanced  at some cultural treasure. If it has no effect on you, it’s doing you no good. But wetting your pants in glee because you just saw the actual painting, the real one, of the father of the Duke of Urbino to whom Philippo Vadi’s De Arte Gladiatoria was dedicated, changes you.

The Duke and Duchess of Urbino

It’s what you bring to the experience that makes the difference; where this piece fits in its story, and yours. Time spent chilling out in a cafe with friends is every bit as valuable as time spent shuffling through yet another gallery of priceless artwork that is all running together in your head. Recognise how much you can actually absorb in a day and don’t overdo it.

L-R: Guy, Heidi, Chris, Eleanora, Lorenzo, Rodolfo, not overdoing it. (photo by Lorenzo)
L-R: Guy, Heidi, Chris, Eleanora, Lorenzo, Rodolfo, not overdoing it. (photo by Lorenzo)

3) Always look up, and down. Sometimes the best stuff is on the ceiling, or even the floor. Like this in one small room in the Uffizi; I couldn’t tell you what was on the walls in this room, but these utterly amazing images are on the ceiling!

Making gunpowder (I think):

Buti gunpowder makers

Making cannon:

Buti Cannon

Designing fortifications:

Buti fortifications

Making armour:

Buti Armourers

and best of all: Making swords!

Buti Sword makers

Roberto Gotti’s book Caino  tells me they are by Ludovico Buti (1560 – 1603). They are so taken for granted here that I could not find the slightest thing about them written up for visitors in the room itself.

That’s it, in a nutshell: Do one thing, rest, and always look up.

Now, for you sword enthusiasts: the Stibbert Museum. Oh my. What an under-appreciated utterly magical gem of a museum. Of all the museums I know, the Wallace (in London) is usually my favourite, and this is very, very similar. But in terms of arms and armour, I’d say the Stibbert has the edge (and point, and both barrels!). This was the home of Frederick Stibbert (1836-1906), ambassador to Florence, and a keen collector of arms and armour, in the way of nineteenth century wealthy English lunatics. Which is to say that if my next book does a JK Rowling on me, this is what my house will look like.

The entrance hall

Because it is just a house (a very large and amazingly well decorated and filled house); it’s as if the man has just popped out, and someone had left the door open. There are a few ropes keeping the unwashed masses back from the hand painted embossed leather wallpaper, but by and large, you could get your fingerprints all over the goods if you were so inclined. Which is why you can’t just buy a ticket and walk in, the way you can everywhere else. Every hour on the hour, between 10 and 1, a museum employee will walk you round in a group. Ours was very kind, and clearly pleased that the six of us (plus a coincidental group of three Spaniards) were so overwhelmed by her museum. She allowed us to spend as much of our allotted 60 minutes as we liked (which, as there wasn’t another group coming after us, stretched to about 90), in the main arms and armour rooms, and not footling it away on the porcelain. The place is pretty dusty, something you just don’t see in most modern museums, and it’s very dark; I think they can’t afford to light it properly. Which means that most of my photos didn’t come out at all. So can’t show you things like the cases of stirrups, or pommels, or cinquedeas, or guns, or knives; nor the fucking sarcophagus he had in his house. I kid you not, you could outfit a regiment in pretty much any period from 1350-1600, in either European or Asian style, just from the stuff on display.

This is where the famous hauberk with a verse of the Koran on every link is kept. Here is the best photo I could get of it, cropped to a bit of the sleeve:

Mail closeup

Fortunately, I went on about this place at length to my Italian teacher, Stefano Manelli, who was passing Florence that weekend with his family, and they went in to see it. He was able to use 10 second exposure times to get images like this cavalcade of 14 mounted knights in armour of various periods, in what passed for Stibbert's fucking living room:

The Cavalcade

And a tiny fraction of the pistols:

Some guns

And remember what I said about remember to look up? Here's a ceiling. Nothing special. Just a hallway in a chap's house:

A ceiling

And the smoking room. Because every house needs one, right?

Smoking room ceiling

He even has the funerary armour of Giovanni dei Medici, that’s Giovanni delle Bande Nere to you and me. Right there.

Giovanni's legs

(This was my phone doing its best in low light). Stibbert could have worn it if he wanted to. Fortunately for us, he had his own suit of armour, in which he fought his chums. Yes, he was one of us!

Stibbert's armour

Now, chaps, a call to arms. This museum is an utterly priceless treasure in our arms and armour world, one that gets none of the attention or funding that those silly paintings in the Ooofeeezy (like I was wetting my pants over only the day before), or that dopy stone bloke with a sling (who I’ll visit next time), seem to attract.

I put it to you all; what can we do to make the Stibbert the best-known, best funded, most appreciated museum in all Florence? Because it ought to be.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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