Evening Vespas and Gelato alla Gordon’s

When in Florence…

Woman About Town

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Living your best life hadn’t been invented when I last spent time in Florence but being twenty-one and having Via delle Belle Donne as my address is probably the closest I’ll ever get. 

Nominally studying history of art at the British Institute, I seem to remember my main preoccupations being how to dismount elegantly from sitting sidesaddle on a Vespa in a mini skirt and which intense public schoolboy doing oil painting at the Charles Cecil school I liked that week. 

The Charles Cecil boys are still in evidence and seeing my daughter off for a night on the razzle at my old haunt of Campo Santo Spirito might have left me a bit wistful; in fact, I was grateful that these days scooter helmets are compulsory and that I could drift off at 10pm on our tiny balcony overlooking Ponte Vecchio. More Charlotte Bartlett than Lucy Honeychurch these days.  

• • •

In town to meet up with maestro of maestri, pianist Clive Britton, to discuss an upcoming project on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Clive was zooming off to London to rehearse Schubert at the Royal Academy with cellist Robert Cohen but managed to find time to introduce me to his local café in Piazza Calamandrei near Santa Croce, where they do a very peculiar but exceptionally scrumptious pastry filled with apricot jam and lemon custard: pudding for breakfast. 

Thanks to my new research obsession, the Schoenberg World Map, which gives extraordinarily detailed geographical information about every aspect of the composer’s life, I was able to mention airily between crumbs that Pierrot had been given at the Pitti in Florence in 1924.

“Oh yes,” replied Clive, “How they hated it.”

Laughing in the aisles

Donatello: The Renaissance at the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi has received rapturous reviews as a “once in a lifetime experience”. The rooms at the Strozzi open with the 1408 

David Victorious, a projection in white marble not only of the great century to come, but of Donatello’s vast and myriad influence up to the present day. 

Art Deco is already present in the smaller bronzes whilst the majestic Sienese font, Herod’s Feast, collapses time through angular formations in a fashion which is positively Cubist. But why do people feel they have to behave as though museums were cathedrals? We were loudly shushed for daring to giggle joyfully at one of the accompanying works, Marco Zoppo’s Madonna with Spiritelli. The name has to be a pun avant la lettre as the gloriously irreverent putti look to be in an advanced stage of refreshment.

It’s no accident that Zoppo worked in Venice — the rearmost angel is having a discreet puke, as though he’s had one too many Spritzes. Meanwhile the Christ Child in Uccello’s Madonna is actually crawling out of the frame; you can practically hear his poor mother hissing “Will. You. Just. Keep. Still.” Renaissance art is full of jokes. It doesn’t always have to be gazed at in reverent silence. 

The show’s second site, the Bargello, gives the viewer a chance to walk across a city which would still be familiar to Donatello. The centrepiece here is the bronze David of the 1440s and here a bit of shushing might be justified. It is mesmeric. 

I saw it on that first visit to Florence, must have seen it fifty times since and still it surprises, astounds, delights. What a shame that the Kafkaesque regime which prevails in Italy’s state museums prevented the piece from being shown in isolation. The Bargello is a bit of a Renaissance jumble sale — everything from ivory handled-guns to della Robbia ceramics — but David deserves better than clutter.

• • •

Someone who has strong views on how exhibitions should be staged is super-curator James Bradburne. Along with the Uffizi’s Eike Schmidt, he is one of the first generation of Italian state museum directors to have come from outside the system. As director of the Strozzi and now the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, Dr Bradburne has proved a bit of a Marmite figure for the Italian establishment: once visitor numbers had increased by over 1,000 per cent even the bureaucrats stopped counting, but his insistence on the museum’s purpose as part of living culture rather than as a hallowed repository of the past has not proved popular with several ministers.

He asked me about the labels at the Donatello show and I was obliged to report that they had reverted to wordy and impenetrable type. In Dr Bradburne’s view, they should be no more than 500 characters and ideally written by outsiders, not experts who can’t forget their professional knowledge. British writers including Tim Parks and Sarah Dunant have done just that at the Brera. “Otherwise,” he said, “it’s just curators showing off to other curators.”

There aren’t many irritations that a superlative Fiorentina can’t soothe though. When I lived in Florence there were a few great old-time restaurants hanging on between the tourist joints and the tripe shops, including Sostanza, a former butcher’s shop in a slightly dodgy part of town (it’s still known to locals as La Troia, the whore), that everyone raves about, but I think the lighting is nasty and the staff are supercilious. Lovely Olio on Borgo San Jacopo has the best Fiorentina in town for my money, presented unadorned and proudly upright after a primo of pici, the fat hand-rolled pasta from Siena.

Gelato alla Gordon’s

If I’d been a proper art student I would no doubt have visited the Scuola del Cuoio, founded in the Franciscan monastery behind Santa Croce in the 1930s. The district was home to Florence’s tanneries from the thirteenth century and the nearby street names recall their trades — Corso dei Tintori (Dyers’ Street) and their effect, Canto delle Mosche (Fly Place). 

The frescoes are magnificent and the artisan leather goods can be monogrammed while you wait. This was my first visit and after picking up some godchild-gifts (o tempo) we just had time for an ice cream at the fabulous Gelateria della Passera. 

I went for the gin and tonic. For old time’s sake.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover