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Book Review: Secret Florence by Niccolo Rinaldi

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I love Florence. It is my favorite and one of the most accessible of Italian cities. I have been there a few times and was lucky enough to stay for almost a week once and really feel a part of the city.

I walked everywhere, seeking out frescoes by the Fras — Angelico and Filippo Lippi. I crossed the Ponte Vecchio in search of Masaccio and Florentine steak. I found Della Robbia ceramic details on buildings while laundering my clothes at the convenient laundromats. I searched out the little devils painted into so many frescoes in churches — it’s not just about angels in Florence. I tried to find a pair of red shoes, which seemed the right sort of Florentine footwear.

I knew that Florence was more than just the tick-it-off-your-list city with the Uffizi and Duomo, but after reading Secret Florence, I realize that I have only just scratched the surface of this enchanting city. I would imagine that even long-time residents might also find many spots in its pages that they have yet to explore. I’m not quite the insider I hoped I was, but this very different sort of guidebook might help me become one. And it definitely makes me want to start planning my next trip.

Secret Florence is very cleverly organized by city section, adding additional guidance to places where travelers will already be headed: Piazza Della Signoria, Duomo/San Lorenzo, Santa Maria Novella, SS Annunziata, Santa Croce, Oltrarno, and the Outskirts of Florence. But in each section the emphasis is on little details that might easily be missed, while you were preoccupied by the bigger, more-travelled sites.

For example, The Palazzo Vecchio at the Piazza Della Signoria is a frequent tourist spot. Its tall clock tower is not only visually impressive, but it makes it a terrific meeting place. It also is still functioning as the city’s town hall and has a replica of Michelangelo’s famous “David” sculpture outside (for the real one you need to visit the Accademia). But there is also art inside the Palazzo Vecchio, and Secret Florence doesn’t guide you through the masterpieces by Michelangelo and Ghirlandaio as other guide books might, but instead poses an interesting question regarding a “missing” fresco by Leonardo da Vinci.

Other highlights, suggested points of interest, include:

  • Artist’s clever and hidden self portraits — Benevenuto Cellini’s face on the back of his famous “Perseus” sculpture, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s head on the bronze doors of the Baptistery;
  • A Florentine fast food delicacy made from a cow’s fourth stomach, lampredotto, if you dare;
  • The astronomical qualities of the Duomo, and how to watch the sun transit the building on the summer solstice to land on a perfect circle of marble on the floor;
  • A fresco depicting the family of Amerigo Vespucci, from whom America gets its name — with Amerigo, who was only a child when it was painted, shown as a cherub;
  • An equestrian statue of Ferdinando I which features a concentric circle of bees (as a symbol of power, but mostly used as a counting game for children);
  • Traces of Florentia, Roman Florence;
  • The love nest of English poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Casa Guidi;
  • A Japanese garden in the center of anItalian rose garden, in Oltrarno.

The book includes an alphabetic index and an even more helpful thematic index, which helps you pinpoint areas of interest such as architecture, gardens, history, painting, religion, science, etc.

Secret Florence is chock-full of anecdotes, so makes for interesting reading about the city and its art and history. It’s definitely a fresh look at the city and would make for a great resource for some quirky walking tours once you’ve tired of standing in line to get into the Uffizi.

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