Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Italy - Florence, a bigger and better post!

Dedicated to ditto

That was a cheap cop-out post, now wasn't it?

In the meantime I got some dinner (pizza standing up and gelati sitting down, reversed for a change), had a few minutes to sit back and relax, and now I'm feeling capable of taking on another museum! Bring them on, Florence!

OK, for real descriptions...

Since I basically missed out on the Palazzo Pitti yesterday afternoon, taking a ticket only for the oversized Boboli Gardens and pretty-too-pretty ceramics museum, I went back early this morning just to see the Granducal apartments and the Palatine Galleries. This was the serious art collection - all higgedly-piggedly old masters, several big names like Reubens, Raphael, Tintoretto, Lippi, and Botticelli, amongst dozens of others less familiar to me. All displayed in floor-to-ceiling manner, in keeping with the Royal Ostentation of the overall interior decoration.

(For colour, at this moment, a gang of presumably drunk Japanese teenagers dressed in puffy red jackets and baseball caps, like costume-party gangstas, have just waltzed into the internet cafe. They are singing "Heeeeeeeeeey, Hey Baby! Ohh! Ahh! I wanna knooo-oh-oh-oh,-oh-oh-ow if you'll be my girl!". They were just politely removed by the management).

I played my favourite Grand Tour Art Gallery game, sneaking photos of major artworks, throughout the Palazzo Pitti and got about 90 good shots, including overall room views displaying their strict colour schemes (white, blue, mustard yellow, green, red, etc). It was easier than initially expected, most of the attendants were reading papers or chatting to each other, and there weren't many visitors in the early morning. I experienced no queue to get tickets, but as I left I saw a good couple of hundred tourists waiting at the gates!

On that note, a similar fate seemed to await me at the Galleria dell'Accademia. The line for sophisticated folk with reserved tickets, like me, was actually longer than the line of the poorly organised plebs. The guy herding the convergence at the entrance was very much a bouncer who could speak three languages with great authority! As a Slushie I was impressed, but my odds of getting in felt slim. Fortunately, I maneuvered my way in nonchalantly with a group of Americans, and the bouncer didn't check my reservation. The bloke at the ticket desk did, luckily, so it was a wise investment.

Taking in the luxury of a six-minute wait where others hath taken days and nights, I explored leisurely to see what this place had to offer besides the obvious marble celebrity. There was a lovely group of Filippo Lippi's, Botticelli's and other colourful Florentine religious artwork in the first room, then a special exhibition of Medici-era musical instruments. Loved the antiquated ones in particular - I imagine you know what a dulcimer is, but how about a trumpet-mariner, a standing guitar with only one string that sounds like a trumpet? Or a hurdle-gurdle, a wind-up piano-violin-box that also followed me into the Uffizi? I also saw a guitar with piano keys, designed to let aristocratic women play without damaging their fingernails.

The David stands at the end of a long corridor defended by Michelangelo's unfinished "Prisoner" series - partially carved giants emerging from marble hulks that were destined to be part of Pope Julius II's tomb. Happily I knew this before I got there - it was part of my degree - but it was interesting to watch the various interpretations told by tour guides, and unfamilar tourists trying to work it out for themselves.

Out of respect for the crowds and professionalism of the staff, and not least for the six-minute wait, I took no photos of the galleries. Instead, I made notes in several colours on the back of my ticket stub (the third I've prepared so far), and drew a good sketch of a detail from the David. Not the bit most frequently reproduced on postcards, you with dirty minds out there.

After David (which I could spill more ink upon, but to what purpose, really? I thought it was superb), I checked out a forbidding room of plaster casts and working models for larger statues. The best thing was actually the very impressive icon and altarpiece collection located after David and in the upstairs galleries, which none of the guidebooks mention. I didn't leave much time to see these, but was very surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Wonderful golds, blues, silvers, and well-designed forms for display.

Dashing on to the Uffizi, lunch in hand, and it was only another six-minute wait to get in. Oh I felt so smug. Furthermore, just as I arrived, it started to rain. The poor queuing mob in the courtyard dispersed to the edges as rapidly as if someone had just pulled out a gun. It was funny once I realised what had caused the commotion.

The Uffizi. A Museum with all the superlatives I can muster. People legitimately queue for days to get in. A destination of pilgrimage and peregrination for art history fans. It was great, and big, and great.

I could double the length of this post by describing it in detail, so for your sake I won't. I now feel a more complete person for having seen a room of Botticelli's, including the Primavera and Birth of Venus. Titians, Lippis', Rembrandts, Reubens, Tintorettos, Carravaggios... So, so many I could name and describe... Loved the way each corner would unveil something I'd seen before plenty of times in books or in lectures, and the way the friendly, reassuring and only infrequently pompous audioguide would coax me out of each room to see the next. I studied a few of their guides in their three bookshops (Three!!) and was so contented to be able to spot an image, and mentally locate it upon the wall with others nearby. As I said in the last post, visiting this place after all the preparation I've put into it, feels like undergoing a second degree.

Wrapping up now.

Tomorrow I go to Siena, hopefully after seeing the Palazzo Vecchi early in the morning, and the Carmine Basilica for the Massacio frescos. The bloke at the hostel was odd on the phone. It took three calls to reserve the bed, apparently a double room but only at the dorm bed rate. He kept hanging up before he got my name. Finally, I was able to get him to record it, and the conversation went something like this:

"You need my name, or how can you know my bed is reserved?"
"Oh, Ok... What is your name?"
"Sam Bowker"
"I do not understand. What is your first name?"
"Sam. My name is Sam"
"You say your name is Markus?"
"No! No, my name is..."
"You do not know what your name is? How can you not know what your name is?"

Finally I got it recorded, I think, but it will be interesting to get there! I have not heard good things about the place, but everything I've heard could be equally applied to my current place. So long as the word "bedbugs" does not enter the descriptions, I'm happy.


  • At Wednesday, November 02, 2005 8:03:00 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    Terrific post. Wish I could be there to see it. Keep travelling mate.


  • At Wednesday, November 02, 2005 8:21:00 am, Blogger Jenny said…

    Such a VERY satisfactory post. Definitely an A plus.

    Thank you boyo.

  • At Wednesday, November 02, 2005 6:29:00 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    wonderful, Sam: it's great to share all your experiences.


  • At Thursday, November 03, 2005 9:37:00 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'm looking forward to reading the sequel dialogue once you arrive in Sienna. I laughed out loud when I read it... Character building!

  • At Thursday, November 03, 2005 9:47:00 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I think you should start photographing the interesting people you meet along the way (Japanese choir, poorly organised plebs etc.). I recall from a much earlier blog, you mentioning a fashion competition you were hypothetically running (worst dressed??) You could do a coffee table book at the completion of your tour and make a fortune. Don't know if it'd stand well legally, but it'd be a great book.


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