When we began to plan our trip, Steve spent about four hours browsing the Internet (especially sites like Atlas Obscura) and unearthing a wealth of strange museums and odd gift shops in Florence. We didn’t even get to all of them, leaving behind things like the museum full of medieval armor and fully-dressed warhorse figurines (the legacy of another Medici heir who had more money than he knew what to do with), but we saw a tantalizing few which showcases the history and culture of Florence in a different way. I’m glad to report we enjoyed pretty much all of them!
First off the bat was the Museo Galileo, our first stop in Florence. It sits on a building adjoining the Galleria delgi Uffizi. Once you get past the crowds in line to see that august museum, you find only a few people lingering in the entrance hall of the Museo Galileo, which costs 10 euro to see. This used to be named the Museum of History of Science, but deciding to abandon such a prosaic name, the museum chose to double-down on its collection of actual instruments by Galileo. Like most museums in Florence, it is another Medici legacy, with hundreds of instruments and scientific tools over hundreds of years. Through those tools like astrolabes, quadrants, and distillers, you can clearly trace the development of the disciplines of astronomy, navigation, military arts, chemistry, and more. We saw clever sundials made of thread instead of a wedge, allowing it to be closed like a pocket mirror. The biggest piece in there was a model of the solar system (constructed according to the Aristotelian model of the universe, with Earth at its center). It was gilded all over, with little clever touches such as the face of God painted under the very top of the dome. The entire thing was at least two meters tall. The actual collection of instruments of Galileo included three of his actual telescopes, which did look very old and leathery. Through them, he made discoveries like the fact that Jupiter was surrounded by its own moons (which he called “Asterae Mediciae” or Medici Stars after his patrons), a contrary claim that shook the very foundations of the Aristotelian model. After all, everything was supposed to revolve around the earth. We also saw an interesting scientific paradox machine, which showed that a cylinder does not roll down a slope if there is no friction (I really learned something there), and curiosity machines that demonstrate the effects of static electricity. These were the ways that the European middle class began to explore an interest in the popular science of the day, like electricity and physics. The Museo Galileo probably had the most well-developed English captions and guides of the lesser-known museums we were visiting, but it lacked explanation when it came to the operation and use of these instruments. For example, the thing that I understood best in that museum was a golden protractor, like the kind used in math class. When it came to how these instruments were used to determine the time of day, year, and even location on earth (especially longitude), it would have been useful to have diagrams or examples with simple calculations. In that, it was less of a science museum and more of an art museum, because the scientific instruments of the time were mostly for institutions and upper-class households, who used them to showcase their own learning and leisure through precious metals and decoration.
The Museo Galilieo is partnered with La Specola, and we got reduced admission to the latter museum a few days later, because both are among the natural history museums of Florence. While Museo Galileo focuses more on the history of science that pertains to physics, La Specola is about specimens and models that focus on biology. The crown jewel of their collection is a set of anatomical waxworks, probably hundreds (maybe even a thousand), which were produced between the 1700s and 1900s. They are incredibly life-like, and were created by wax-modelers in conjunction with doctors and medical personnel of the nearby universities. These were used for medical students to understand the inner workings of the human body, because otherwise, the only other way was to see a live dissection of a cadaver. They range from rather simple waxworks like that of a shoulder or arm with a few muscles attached to entire bodies where the circulatory or lymphatic systems are displayed in all their glory. We paid an extra 3 euro each to take the guided tour, which is the only way that one can see these waxworks. They are after all, so fragile and in need of preservation that you’re not allowed to even touch the glass and wood cases that these are enclosed in. Our guide spoke English with an extraordinarily thick Italian accent, but fortunately, she spoke slowly for our purposes. She showed us that the wax modelers began by creating a clay model of a heart or bone, and used that to create a plaster mold, which they filled with the wax of the color and consistency they needed. Then we moved on to the actual rooms, five or six in all, which were arranged by the systems they showed (circulatory, digestive, lymphatic, nervous, etc.). Each waxwork also had a correspondingly detailed picture which hung on the walls above them, which the wax-modelers also used to help them create the work. The strangest and most interesting them about them is that they look very vibrant and alive, like real people whose muscles and organs are on display. Body Worlds before there were Body Worlds, basically. And they are arranged in various poses, very much like the marble statues that we saw in the art museums. Several have a hand loosely held in front of them, as though they were about to start speaking. All of them have real human hair. One model of a woman has luxurious curls and even a string of pearls around her neck. One model showcasing human muscles is depicted stretched out on his belly and his head turned to the side, one arm flung-out as though sleeping. These wax-modelers were truly artists of their time, who saw no contradiction or even separation between the sciences and the arts. They created beautiful, lively, unsettling works that are scientifically accurate but not sterile. I loved the chance to see this different approach that was much more prevalent before the technological revolution.
Finally, the religious: we were recommended by a friend to visit the Abbey of San Miniato al Monte, high on the south side of the Arno. We went for the views, but also for the services. San Miniato is an active Olivetian Benedictine abbey, and holds masses on weekdays and Sundays in both Italian and Latin with Gregorian chant. Behind the abbey is also the Cimitero della Porte Sante, which is a quiet and lovely place to be laid to rest. To our surprise, the service was conducted with only three brothers – two white-robed brothers and one abbot who wore a gold vest over his white robes. All three sang beautifully, chanting and singing the Latin mass. Predictably, I was a few beats behind everyone else as to when to stand, when to sit down, when to join in and say, “Et cum tuum spiritum” (“and with your spirit,” in English!). There was actually about twenty to thirty people there, some tourists like us who had come to see the service, but some who lived nearby, certainly. After the early evening mass, we also saw the beginning of Vespers, which featured even more brothers. When we left, we purchased a candle and also some delicious gelato made by the abbey. The view was even more spectacular when we left near sunset. From this perspective on the hill, nearly as high as the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, we were able to see the entire city of Florence, spread out. Through the center of the city flows the Arno, crossed in several parts, by bridges new and at least one old (the Ponte Vecchio). Most were destroyed in World War II, but the Ponte Vecchio was preserved. It is so old that it has many stores and buildings constructed on the bridge. To our right was the Duomo, and to our left were smaller churches. Everything was in a golden haze at sunset.
For our last day in Florence, we did some gift shopping. First, we made a beeline for Il Papiro, a handmade paper store. Italy is full of these types of boutiques, selling hand-bound leather books and journals, stationery, sealing wax, stamps, and the list goes on. We were welcomed by an older paper-maker in the back who demonstrated to us the art of making marbled paper. It was a beautiful demonstration: he started by lightly scattering drops of acrylic and oil paints on a gel surface, then swirled and dipped various tools to shape the paints into different patterns, and finally slowly settling a piece of paper on the entire surface. What was astonishing was how the paint was instantly sucked onto the paper, with almost none left behind on the gel. The laborious part was apparently the preparation of the paints, with the right colors, and different proportions of solvents like turpentine and distilled water. We went away with several purchases of the marbled paper products and with a strong appreciation of the art and patience it takes to make this unique product.
For our second stop, we walked nearly to the main train station in Florence. The Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella has a very long history. Since the 1200s, the Dominican monks who established Santa Maria Novella grew herbs and plants for medicinal purposes. They even produced rose water which was supposed to purify, and was in hot demand to ward off the Black Death. Catherine de Medici commissioned them to make her a perfume before she left Florence for Rome, and you can still buy the original formula, which is now called Acqua de Santa Maria Novella. Just walking into the pharmacy is an experience – inside, the air is thickly perfumed with every single scent you can think of. You can buy soaps of excellent quality, perfumes made from scratch, scented soaps or papers, lotions, and much more. The entire pharmacy is also housed in a space that looks very much like all the other museums in Florence – originally, it was most likely a palazzo that is still sumptuously decorated with gold molding near the ceilings.
Overall, Florence was just a perfectly lovely time. We had such great places to visit, and stayed in our favorite Airbnb which was well-located and full of amenities. I wish we hadn’t had to spend almost 100 euros on tickets to these sorts of locations, but one does pay to support the preservation of art and history. Onto Rome!