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Fra Angelico, fusilli and fun in Firenze

Posted by: John Cameron and Richard Martin - 20 June 2024 - MPW London - Read time: 5 minutes



By John Cameron

The annual trip to Florence is in many ways the highlight of the year for Art History students as they begin to see how what they have studied in the classroom finally make sense within the geographical context of what is still essentially a medieval city.  The purpose of the visit was to assist students in the preparation for their exams. Seeing the extraordinary Renaissance paintings, sculptures and architecture up close brought everything they had been learning about vividly to life. .Florence’s beauty is almost indescribable, with every street you turn down a perfect picture postcard image.  Florence is remarkable with every part easily accessible within about 15 minutes on foot. Our hotel is right in the centre, a stone’s throw from the Cathedral, and whilst there is the odd car, it is a city that is made for walking; full of enchanting palazzi and ancient churches. 

For the last couple of trips our party has had the pleasure of being augmented by the gifted and talented cohort from the English Department and it was wonderful to see them so openly embracing a new visual world quite different to the one they normally inhabit; how satisfying to eavesdrop on one student whispering ‘I find this all so fascinating’. 

Most of the first day was spent travelling and due to technical difficulties at London City airport, we arrived a little later than expected at Hotel Perseo where we have been staying now for at least 25 years. A new innovation is the tram ride from the airport to Santa Maria Novella and an immediate downpour failed to dampen the spirits of the students and within an hour or so we were out on an orientation walk where we were able to stop and admire the magnificent sculptures at Orsanmichele on our way to the Piazza della Signoria. Then it was back to the hotel for a wonderful group dinner at the ever reliable and familiar Za Za. 

Tuesday was a very early start as we had an 8.45am appointment to climb the Dome, still the largest masonry dome in the world; 463 steps of pain with the beautiful reward of magnificent views and a real sense of conquering fear for some. From there it was on to San Marco to seen Fra Angelico’s frescoes and then on to Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia after lunch. We still had time to fit in the Ospedale degli Innocenti and the Medici Palace before another highly enjoyable group dinner. Wednesday morning was reserved for the much improved Uffizi where Botticelli was, as ever a highlight as well as works by Lippi, Piero, Leonardo and Michelangelo.. After lunch we immersed ourselves in public sculpture at the Loggia dei Lanzi as well as the magnificent Museo del Opera del Duomo which contains Ghiberti’s original doors for the Baptistry as well as the ever-popular Mary Magdalene.  However much one endeavours to bring Florence to life in the classroom there is no substitute for the real thing and is always gratifying to gradually see students begin to realise how art is shaped by its cultural context.  

Thursday was a day for walking briskly as, starting with Donatello in the Bargello we then moved on to the gothic splendour of Santa Croce and its beautiful courtyard with Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel resplendent in the glorious sunshine that we were so lucky to enjoy. As one student said “many years ago turning pages is great, but turning corners is better!” By lunch we were all thinking that we could have spent days looking at what we had just packed into a morning. From there it was on to Santo Spirito; Palazzo Rucellai; Palazzo Strozzi, Suddenly, it was Friday and our last full day where we concentrated on the magnificent churches of San Lorenzo and Santa Maria Novella in what felt like a pilgrimage as we encountered old friends and Tilda encountered the fashion police! We were disappointed that Masaccio’s iconic Trinity was under restoration but this disappointment turned to elation when we realised it meant we could all climb the scaffolding and, for a modest fee, see it from close up; a rare treat that may never be repeated in our lifetimes. We had packed in a huge amount during a relatively short space of time, yet students still had time to wander around the city visit the markets, eat ice cream and enjoy the language and wider culture of this beautiful city that they had the good fortune to be able to visit. I would like to thank Richard Martin and Ruth Lee for rallying the troops and being great company as were the students whose enthusiasm for art, architecture and of course pasta helped it to be such a successful trip. 


By Richard Martin

Having spent the morning in the Uffizi, it was a tribute to the English students on day 3 of the 2024 History of Art trip to Florence that even after lunch, they were hungry for a session in which we evaluated a scholarly work on Renaissance contexts behind The Duchess of Malfi. We may have been 500 kilometres from the location of Webster’s great tragedy but under normal circumstances in South Kensington we are, of course, over 3 times that distance! In any case, discussing a Renaissance play set in Italy in the Piazza Signoria did not seem inappropriate. We could see from where we were sitting, the site of both Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities and the location of his own subsequent immolation for one, chillingly, is the other. For an hour plus we discussed such recherche issues as whether Muriel Bradbrook is right to privilege the Penelope Rich scandal over the case of Arabella Stuart; we voted against her proposal!  Our intense debates were interrupted only by an official who seemed to think we had rather too casually discarded a Fanta bottle which we had not! He was (thankfully) seemingly unconcerned by a London tutorial college setting up a pop-up branch in Piazza Signoria.

The next afternoon we spent a very instructive session (courtesy of John Cameron) at Santo Spirito across the river – known locally as Oltrarno. The weather was beautiful, and the English Literature cohort sat outside to sun themselves and simultaneously discuss the differences between the source material (from 1567) for Webster’s play and The Duchess of Malfi (1614) itself.

As in previous years, I am struck by the fact that the real virtue of the college’s inter-disciplinary annual visit to Florence is the impromptu and continual blending of the literary and the painterly. This year, for example, and within five minutes of leaving the hotel for our traditional orientation expedition, conversation turned from the ways Humanism informs the naturalism of the statues that adorn the exterior of Orsanmichele to the ways it leads also to Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio and Chaucer forging new and liberating styles by privileging the vernacular over Latin. Discussion of Botticelli’s Primavera in the Uffizi led naturally into a discussion of Neo-Platonism in Shakespeare and Donne and Milton’s blending of Christian and pagan ideas in Paradise Lost. Walking towards Santa Croce on day 3, I recounted that significant sequence in E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View (it features in the college’s anthology prepared for this trip) when Lucy Honeychurch encounters something for which her Baedeker had not prepared her with: her postcards are stained with blood. All those beautiful Fra Lippo Lippi paintings are the richer for recourse to Robert Browning’s poem about a painter so in love with life that Cosimo Medici had to lock him in a chamber to paint.

English students leave Florence having done a crash course in Florentine Renaissance art while at the same time maintaining contact with their own subject.  History of Art students are hopefully enriched by a recognition of the correlation between the linguistic and the plastic arts and the cultural forces that shape both. The fact that many members of the group study both History of Art and English underlines the worth of this inter-disciplinary project and thanks are due therefore, to the Principal, Dr Sally Powell for continuing to support it and to John Cameron for organising the trip and for disseminating his expertise to the English students.