Glass discovers why the art and education of Florence still fascinates

Florence: an ongoing Renaissance − Glass discovers why the art and education of Florence will always hold international appeal

IN Florence, one can hardly turn their head without seeing another piece of Renaissance art, an ancient sculpture or an awe-struck, camera-wielding tourist. It’s true that this is a destination that attracts the masses, and quite rightly, because it’s beautiful, but it doesn’t mean you can’t find places that feel a bit more unique.

Story picture The gardens at NYU's Florence campusThe gardens at NYU’s Florence campus

I’ll start with my hotel: the five-star Westin Excelsior, with enormous baroque-style mirrors and wall-high oil paintings lining every hall and bringing the city’s grandeur into every room and suite, is a sanctuary that reflects its city. Here, you can connect with Florence away from the crowds. In the dining room, for example, a pianist plays while you eat and reminds you that here, art is everywhere. And, in your room, as you open the floor-to-ceiling curtains, you’re confronted with your own personal postcard: an uninterrupted view of, if you’re lucky, the famous Arno river.

Story pic The restoration centreThe restoration centre

Venturing out you must, of course, visit the most renowned attractions. A good place to start? Museo dell’Opera del Duomo museum, the home of many works originally created for the grand Duomo. Here you can see Ghiberti’s magnificent Gates of Paradise. Note the ingenuity of their design as your peer at them over schoolchildren: the story depicted, told as a sequence on each panel, starts two panels up – so you needn’t miss much, even if you are contending with bobbing heads.

Story pic The Acton's villa, now NYUThe Acton’s villa, now NYU

There’s something special about that; it’s just as it would have been hundreds of years ago. At the moment, you can also see some of the works of Bill Viola here and see directly how they correlate with the museum’s more permanent features. By Michelangelo’s The Deposition – a sculpture of Mary holding the body of her befallen son, Jesus – we see a Viola video of people looking at something, in the distance, with shock, horror and dismay. We’re reminded of how we should be reacting to such a sculpture, which shows such a tragic event.

Story pic Restoration workRestoration work

Following a visit here, it’s only a short walk to Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, where Viola’s full exhibition Electronic Renaissance, is on display until July. This is a fitting second stop, then. They call Florence an open air museum – and with that it’s hard to imagine how modern art might fit in. Bill Viola’s does, though, because he’s able to draw on the majesty and feeling of Renaissance work, and pull it into the now. There are other places that do this too. NYU’s Florence campus is one of them, and a place off the beaten track.

Story pic Bill Viola, The Greeting Bill Viola, The Greeting

Here, students from around the world can become part of the Florence and, often, weave their own thread into the tapestry of the city. The university is made up of a number of villas originally belonging to the prominent Acton family. The main building, Villa La Pietra, is perfectly preserved with the family’s personal collection still laid out as it was when they lived and entertained there. Students enjoy lectures among early Italian paintings, baroque furniture and Renaissance sculptures.

They live and dine in the estate’s other villas, and find their inspiration in the acres of perfectly manicured, Renaissance gardens that are a joy to walk through. When the Acton’s lived there, the area in the garden used as a stage hosted performers from across the world, including some of the most famous actors of the time. Now, theatre students perform their final show there – and performers such as the Royal Shakespeare Company put on plays for all, including former Presidents of the United States and the English Royal Family.

Story pic Bill Viola, Observance Bill Viola, Observance

This anachronistic branch of NYU may seem slightly obscure, but it only takes a few hours in Florence to feel inspired by its greatness. There’s so much intelligence and talent, visitors can’t help but feel the need to enrich their own intellect and skill. That’s why it’s the perfect setting for other esteemed institutions, such as the European University Institute, which educates the world’s future professors, and Opificio delle Pietre Dure, a world-leader in art restoration that hosts its own bachelors degree. At the latter, we were shown a piece of Medieval embroidery that had been damaged by a previous, less informed restoration, and was now ready to be restored again – properly, this time.

story pic MichelangeloMichelangelo’s The Deposition

The degree of detail needed to amend such a piece is unfathomable. When it was made, they crafted it in such a way that the gold of the thread appeared only on the top side. Later, we also saw an enormous, unfinished da Vinci, being worked on in preparation for an upcoming unveiling. The team at the centre work carefully to restore without losing the essence of the original work. Each of these places, like the NYU campus, attract people from across the world to stay a little longer in Florence; even to make a life there.

At the English Cemetery, it’s possible to see the graves of the people who did this in the past. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example, who lived and died in Florence in the 1800s, holds a prominent place near the top of the cemetery’s small hill. Arthur Hugh Clough, another poet and the assistant to Florence Nightingale is buried here too, along with many others of note. Nowadays the cemetery is being maintained and preserved by a small team, including members of the Romanian Roma community who come there to work and learn.

Back to the centre of the city – and, perhaps, the centre of the guidebook – and you can’t go too far wrong with finishing your day at one of Florence’s many eateries. Alongside art and education, food is another thing that this city does especially well, and a Bistecca alla Fiorentina after a day of exploration or learning is another, equally valid way, to embrace its endless culture.

by Becky Zanker

Reserve stays at Westin Excelsior online, here.