Memories from a trip last autumn. On beauty, sadism and steak

Florence is not a beautiful city, not by Italian standards at least. It doesn’t make you love sick or sweep you off your feet. It’s too brusque and businesslike, too solidly built for that.

It rained when I was there. The painted plaster-work of the buildings along the river Arno, all yellows and ochres, looked smudgy and dull in the half light. The cobblestones had an oily black sheen. But even when the sun shines, there’s something forbidding about the streets. They’re hemmed in by high walls, meters thick, that amplify the sound of voices, the whine of scooters and the rattle of bicycles. Many of them are studded with barred windows and iron rings that give the Tuscan capital a slightly sadistic feel. They’re the trappings of somewhere hard-edged and just a little twisted, of a city with a thing about power. 

If the rings are the rumour, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence’s Duomo, is proof. It’s awe-inspiring in the literal sense of the word. It lifts your spirits but it also puts you in your place. You can see it from the far side of the city – a distant terracotta dome. You turn a few corners. It disappears from view. And then suddenly it’s towering over you, with its slender campanile and frantic marble facade, striped like a boiled sweet – black and white, with veins of pinky red (representing life) and green (death). To say it dominates the piazza is an understatement. There’s no standing back from it or taking it all in. Craning your neck is the only option.

It’s so hostile it’s almost fearful, and at times Florence feels like a city on the defensive. It’s made its money and amassed its national treasures, and now it’s hunkering down like an architectural Smaug, guarding them jealously. Beneath that flinty exterior though, everything softens. Indoors there are some truly beautiful things.

My most vivid memories from a visit to the Convento Di San Marco (perhaps the most beautiful place in all of Florence) and a morning spent jostling through the crowds in the Uffizi, are of angels: crisp Renaissance angels with peacock eyes and barred hawk-feathers in their wings. A rosy-cheeked Gabriel with plumage of red, blue-grey and gold by Fra Angelico at the top of the stairs in San Marco, where each Monk’s cell is decorated with a delicate fresco of its own. In the Uffizi, Gabriel in robes of gold brocade appearing before a sulky, amusingly disgusted virgin in the Annunciation by Sienese masters Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi; and a lesser angel with wings like a macaw, flanked by ghoulish dutch aristocrats and other well-wishers in Hugo van der Goes’ Portinari Triptych.

The convent at San Marco was once home to the dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola who, in 1497, famously called upon the people of Florence to burn immoral books, mirrors, cosmetics, clothes and musical instruments in a “bonfire of the vanities”. He was excommunicated the same year for accusing Pope Alexander VI of corruption, charged with being a heretic and schismatic and strung up from a scaffold in the Piazza della Signoria, above another raging fire. You can visit the cell where he lived during his time at the convent. They have his chair. It’s the shape of a stylised X – the seat like a ribcage, broken and opened outwards.

It takes a couple of hours to see San Marco, but a whole morning in the Uffizi still feels like a rush. On top of angels, I remember Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Presentation at the Temple, with a wrinkled, prune-like St Anne and baby Jesus sucking his thumb; heavy-lidded green Christs being hauled down from the cross; the Tribuna, an octagonal room with hundreds of shells set into the ceiling, like mother of pearl polkadots; preferring Botticelli’s Pallas and the Centaur to The Birth of Venus; and doubling back to see Raphael’s portrait of Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, a bruiser with a face-full of fag-ash-grey five o’clock shadow, who became Pope Leo X, locked horns with Martin Luther and died leaving the Catholic Church in crisis.

The Medicis were a Tuscan banking family, for a time believed to be the wealthiest in Europe.  They lent money to the vatican and got above themselves in the 15th century, eventually becoming hereditary dukes, first of Florence and then of Tuscany. You’ll see their crest (6 balls) slapped on churches and palaces all over the city – a cross between a graffiti tag and a political campaign poster.

As a family, they footed a large part of the bill for the Renaissance and proved themselves sufficiently adept at crushing popular revolts and dodging assassination attempts (or getting in first) to rule for some 300 years – producing four Popes and two queens of France, before the aging, inept Gian Gastone de’ Medici took the family crest at face value and balls it all up by dying without an heir in 1737.

Cosimo I de’ Medici commissioned the building of the Uffizi (literally “offices”), which originally housed the city’s magistrates; supported Brunelleschi in his successful bid to build the dome atop the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore; and stumped up the cash for the library and the frescoes at San Marco. His grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449 – 1492), commissioned Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli.

Ruthless, business-like, partons of the arts. Perhaps that’s why Florence feels the way it does – it’s an urban expression of the Medici mindset.

Butter chicken at Sostanza

That mindset even extends to the food. Its robust and reassuring, comforting but no nonsense – like a firm handshake or a slap on the back. Aside from art and architectural sadism; the climb to the Piazzale Michelangelo for panoramic views of the city; a visit to Orsanmichele, a church in what was once a grain market where you can still see fixings for pulleys and chutes in the walls and a painted ceiling with a strange, androgynous depiction of Eve, most of my memories of Florence are of my brother Will and his girlfriend Virginia and of the food we ate together.

There was lunch at Sostanza, a trattoria that’s in all the guide books and that deserves to be. A tiny place: white tiles, white tablecloths, sluggish ceiling fans and photographs all over the walls. Plus a little kitchen out the back where veal chops sputter and char over smoldering banks of charcoal.

I never think of butter as a particularly Italian ingredient. It’s so often elbowed out by olive oil, but at Sonstanza it’s the cornerstone of the cooking, part of a holy trinity: butter, salt, fire. Plates of penne and bowls of tortelli are anointed with ivory coloured slivers of it and the signature dish – perhaps the most delicious chicken I’ve ever eaten – is bathed in it, cooked in a skillet amongst the charcoal until it’s all sticky, chewy crust and tender flesh, with a depth of flavour that’s borderline indecent. Brightened with a squeeze of lemon juice it sings.

Pudding was wild strawberries with lemon and a little sugar. Perfect.

At Teatro Del Sale, a supper club run by one of Florence’s best known chefs, there was more chicken – cooked on a spit in front of an open fire this time, with fudgey roast potatoes drowned in olive oil and meat juices. Before that, a buffet table of salads and other appetisers: delicate grilled sardines; bowls of clams in a chilli-spiked broth and penne with peas and bonito; each new arrival announced by a portly chef who bellowed out of a hatch in the glass wall of the kitchen.

“Fresh bread on the table by the pillar. Brushed with animal fat. Always real fat.”

My kind of place.

After that came the chicken, then banana gelato and squares of intense chocolate tort, and then flamenco. Naturally. At Teatro Del Sale dinner comes with a show and the Florentines in the crowd went mad for it.

Sonstanza. Teatro Del Sale. What else? So many delicious things: a porchetta sandwich with balsamic onions and shards (no, panes) of crackling, rustling with fennel seed and enough salt to clear an Alaskan highway, wolfed down straight off the train from Pisa Airport at a place called Da Vinattieri – a shoeboxed-sized deli/hole-in-the-wall next door to Santa Margherita dei Cerchi, the church where Dante got married. And a second visit, for lampredotto (the original Florentine street food, like tripe but from the cow’s fourth stomach). Silky ribbons of it piled into a bun, with grassy salsa verde and a scattering of espelette pepper. Intensely savoury with all the deliciously complicated back-notes of gut.

There was an early-morning visit to Sant’Ambrogio market for slabs of Schiacciata Con L’Uva, cakey bread studded with wine grapes that was sticky and soggy in a good way, its sweetness tempered by the bitterness and crunch of the grape seeds.

Oh, and gelato after gelato after gelato. At least three a day. Grown up chocolate and Chianti, and a caramelised orange flavour that won first prize in this year’s Gelato festival from a new place called My Sugar (roll your eyes at the name but don’t let it put you off); a subtle but memorable pine nut flavour from Carapina, a mini chain but a good one; and numerous trips to Vivoli.

Vivoli is a stalwart. Founded in 1929, it’s the oldest parlour in the city and still one of the best.  It feels like the Florentine equivalent of Betty’s Tearoom, all dark wood and doilies. We went for spanking fresh fruit flavours (pear, fig and walnut), for coffee and pastries at breakfast and, best of all, for the tiramisu semifreddo, which we practically inhaled, sat on the sofa in my brothers flat, chiselling it out of its polystyrene trough with a blunt desert spoon.

My biggest regret from the whole visit is not having room for a Bistecca alla Fiorentina. They whisked one out of the kitchen at Sostanza as we were midway through lunch – a thick cut t bone, charred on the outside, bloody and unctuous in the middle, the way a good Fiorentina should be. It’s one of the few Italian meat dishes to be served rare, and if you believe the stories it got its name in 1558 when a whole ox was roasted in the Piazza San Lorenzo to celebrate the marriage of the Roman nobleman Paolo Orsini to the 16-year-old Isabella de’ Medici, a wife he later had strangled for adultery. They say that during the feast a group of English knights (16th century lads on tour) saw the meat and began calling for “beefsteak! beefsteak!” and the Bistecca was born.

I don’t know what I was thinking. A brutish slab of muscle with murky, medieval roots –  carving into a Bistecca would have been the perfect way to round off the trip. Suitably sadistic. Florence on a plate.

– Thomas Rees

Posted in Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *