How to See Less of Florence

Bloomberg View , June 23, 2015

Thanks to the strong dollar, larger than usual hordes of American tourists are thronging to European destinations. If you’re headed to Paris, I can’t offer you much advice other than to skip the "Mona Lisa"-- seriously, you cannot see her at a distance and behind that glass. If you’re going to Florence, however, where I’ve spent extended periods, I have some tips for keeping your sanity amid the madding crowds.

Unlike the Mona Lisa, Florence’s most famous masterpieces are big enough to see even in a throng, and greater than you can possibly imagine from photos. To experience Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s "Primavera" and "Birth of Venus," you’ll just have to brave the crowds at the Accademia and the Uffizi. Either buy tickets online in advance or get both at the Uffizi box office, where the lines are shorter. Try first thing in the morning at the Uffizi, before the large tour groups show up.

But the real secret to enjoying Florence is to explore some of its less popular sites -- and to savor rather than rush, even if that means ticking fewer items off your list.

After seeing Michelangelo’s David, continue up the street a few blocks (away from the Duomo) to the former Dominican convent of San Marco, where frescos by Fra Angelico adorn the cells and hallways. Cool and quiet, San Marco was built for the contemplative life, with a single painting and a small window in each cell. At the top of the stairs leading to the dormitory is one of the world’s best arguments for seeing paintings in person: an "Annunciation" where tiny flecks of mica, invisible in reproductions, make the angel’s wings sparkle. The fresco’s arches and garden echo those of San Marcos, inviting its original Dominican audience into the sacred scene and reminding contemporary visitors that Fra Angelico created it for this specific spot.

Not all San Marco’s inhabitants were friars. The convent had space for lay visitors as well, and Cosimo de’ Medici, its patron, kept a sort of luxury box for his own spiritual retreats: a two-room cell that includes a large "Adoration of the Magi," Renaissance Florence’s favored scene for reconciling wealth and piety. (Unfortunately, it's currently closed for maintenance, according to the museum's Italian-language site.) Its beauty contrasts sharply with the spartan three-room cell on the opposite end of the corridor. It once housed Girolamo Savonarola, the monastery’s prior and a real-world version of Game of Thrones’ fanatical High Sparrow. Today it contains his portrait, a painting of his execution, and a few belongings.

While San Marco offers art in its original setting, another tranquil museum, the Bargello, is a converted prison that once rang with the screams of the tortured. Today it’s dedicated mostly to sculpture, particularly the works of Donatello, including his behatted David, a very English-looking St. George, and a ridiculously adorable dancing cherub. A room on the first floor includes some early works by Michelangelo and Giambologna’s Flying Mercury, who balances on one foot against a puff of (bronze) air from Zephyr’s cheeks.

With big rooms and small crowds, the Bargello lets you get close to the sculptures. It’s a good place to apply one of economist Tyler Cowen’s tips for enjoying an art museum: Think about what you’d take home. I’d probably go for the cherub, but it faces tough competition from two nearby reliefs -- Ghiberti’s ground-breaking Sacrifice of Isaac and Giovanni di Bertoldo's Battle Scene.

Across Via del Proconsolo from the Bargello is one of the many Florentine churches where plain façades disguise hidden riches: La Badia, home of Filippino Lippi’s painting of the Madonna appearing to St. Bernard. At just the right time in the early afternoon, it glows with light from a window high above. La Badia is an active monastery, housing both monks and nuns, and visitors say the services are hauntingly beautiful. A Catholic friend who happened on vespers there describes the experience as “spiritually exciting and refreshing. A wonderful surprise. It felt like a gift.”

Finding hidden gifts is one of the joys of Florence. On a trip last fall, I discovered the church of Ognissanti, where Botticelli’s painting of St. Augustine faces Ghirlandaio’s St. Jerome. The church also contains Botticelli’s grave; art lovers leave him multilingual notes of appreciation on the nearby railing. As much as I loved his St. Augustine, the notes were what really moved me. Ognissanti, which conducts masses in Latin and Italian, is closed to tourists Friday mornings and every afternoon except Sunday from 4 to 5. Check theonline schedule for details.

If, like my husband, you have a limited tolerance for religious art, fear not. Among Florence’s less-crowded attractions are a couple of gems for those who prefer science or military history to yet another rendition of Madonna and Child. The first, right around the corner from the Uffizi, is the Galileo Museum (formerly the History of Science Museum). Here you can see Galileo’s original telescope and, in keeping with the Renaissance reverence for relics, his preserved finger, along with recreations of his mechanical experiments and many intricate examples of scientific instruments and pocket gadgets.

Then there’s the most eccentric museum in Florence: the Stibbert Museum, formerly the home of an Anglo-Italian collector who inherited a fortune and a family tradition of military service. It displays an enormous collection -- about 50,000 objects -- of European, Islamic, and Japanese arms and armor, as well some historic costumes, including the ensemble in which Napoleon was crowned king of Italy. The labels are minimal, the cases jumble together weapons from multiple centuries, and the museum offers nothing so high-tech as an audio guide or app. But Frederick Stibbert’s decree that his former home should display formations of mounted knights was brilliant. A room full of men on horsebackengenders sensations of power and dread that the best-researched curator’s plaque can never match. The Stibbert is open Monday through Wednesday mornings, and from 10 to 6 Friday through Sunday. Entrance is on the hour, with a guard to show you around and protect the displays. You need a reservation to see the Japanese collection, which is only open at specific times on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. See the website for details.

From the Ferragamo and Gucci museums to the Fratelli Alinariphotography museum to the lovely little church of San Miniato al Monte high on a hill above the city, Florence has more riches than anyone could possible enjoy in a normal vacation. Churches alone could keep you busy for days. The Lippi and Ghirlandaio frescos inSanta Maria Novella near the train station are among my favorites, while my colleague Tobin Harshaw calls Santa Croce his “favorite church in the world.” And, of course, your visit should include some good food and a little shopping.

Although I’ve been to Florence five times, including four weeks in 2009, I have yet to exhaust its delights, and I’m always discovering new ones. Be open to surprises. On my very first visit, exactly nine years ago, we never expected to spend an evening gasping at fireworks over the Arno. If you’re lucky enough to be there this Thursday, you can see them too -- no matter how big the crowds.

  1. Another option is the Firenze card, which lets you go straight to the front of the line at a long list of museums. Some people swear by it, but it costs €72 per person, is good only for three days, and doesn’t allow you to go to any museum more than once. It seems designed to encourage rushing around without actually looking at anything -- exactly the wrong approach for enjoying Florence.