Somewhere between Brunelleschi’s dome and the Ghirlandaio frescoes, my best-laid plans for a day devoted to the great treasures of Florentine art went awry. So awry that long before I reached Santa Maria Novella I considered detouring to my hotel to unload the increasingly heavy leather shoulder bag I’d bought just outside the Medici chapels.
I had planned an art-filled day in the quarter between the Duomo and the church of Santa Maria Novella, although I knew it would barely scratch the surface of this Tuscan city’s artistic largesse. My list was a long one: Brunelleschi’s dome, Giotto’s tower, Ghiberti’s doors and the 13th-century mosaics in the Baptistery, Donatello’s pulpits and Michelangelo’s magnificent Medici tombs in San Lorenzo, a Medici palace, Lippi’s and Ghirlandaio’s fresco cycles in the church of Santa Maria Novella.
But on my way between these Renaissance icons, I found distractions and diversions I hadn’t planned into my itinerary – shops, street markets and craftsmen’s studios where I discovered that the artistic fervor that made this one of Europe’s great destinations did not stop with the Renaissance. It’s alive and well today — and I have the excess baggage to prove it.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Shopping and sightseeing stroll arm-in-arm in Florence. Where else can you so easily mix shopping with marveling at some of the world’s greatest art?
- The historic center of Florence is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; if UNESCO recognized shopping sites, Florence would certainly be on that list, too.
- Good for collectors, art lovers, and those who like to bring home a bit of local culture.
Fine bookbinding, marbled and printed papers, gilded wood, leather, silk and fine foods all vie for luggage space, while markets, boutiques and designer shops vie with the Renaissance splendor of churches and palaces for a traveler’s attention.
Many of today’s artistic and craft traditions date from the Renaissance, and no city embodies the brilliance of that era more than Florence, where it all began. It was Florentine merchant princes who dragged Europe out of the Middle Ages and into a time of high culture, science, scholarship and commerce that marked the way for modern Europe. Quickly rising to the top of these leading bankers and merchants was the Medici family, whose conspicuous consumption set a standard that brought work to artists, craftsmen and architects.
As I made my way between the great sights of Florence, at every turn was another temptation to follow the Medici consumer tradition.
San Lorenzo Street Market
From the Duomo and Baptistery I headed to Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel, following Borgo San Lorenzo into Piazza San Lorenzo – although it was hard to see either in this neighborhood, where every available foot of ground is covered with stalls of a giant street market. Leather predominates, but silk scarves and neckties and fine woolen wearables are also good buys — after some serious bargaining. Many items are seconds with imperfections, which may not even be visible. Or they may, as in the blouse I spotted with two left cuffs.
Just behind San Lorenzo, beside the splendid Palazzo Medici Riccardi, I found two irresistible shops on Via dei Ginori. After holding the hand-bound journals, sketch books and albums at Abacus (# 28), I looked at those in the street markets with a much more discerning eye. Surprisingly, these leather-and-paper artworks are very reasonably priced at Abacus, especially considering that they are made using acid free, 100% cotton paper. Surely my words and sketches in these would be enjoyed by generations to come.
Unlike bookbinding, the resin and plastic jewelry up the street at Falsi Gioielli (# 34) isn’t an art that’s flourished here since the Renaissance, but the barrettes, necklaces and bracelets in bright plastic color splashes reminiscent of the ‘70s, all the designed by owner Silvia Franciosi, are fun to wear.
On my way to Santa Maria Novella I swung past the Mercato Centrale, where I found Tuscan olive oils amid mounds of brilliant fresh fruits and vegetables. Streets around it are lined by market stalls, many displaying wooden trays and boxes finished in gold.
Gilded Trays and Boxes
Popular with Medieval, Renaissance and Byzantine artists, gilding originally involved applying gold leaf to frames — and to paintings, where they made saints’ halos seem to glow. Now used mainly for frames, the art is still practiced here, but these trays in the markets are not gilded with real gold, as their prices will tell you. They still make good gifts and souvenirs, and are distinctly Florentine. The most attractive trays are oval, with curving baroque rims and designs. While they may look garish en masse in markets, they appear far more tasteful when seen alone, and the surface is quite durable. Small trays begin at a few Euros.
Pressing on toward Santa Maria Novella, I found a surprising studio at Via Faenza 72. I expect masks in Venice, not here, but the family atelier of Alice’s Masks creates handmade papier-mache masks for opera and theater, as well as for collectors. I wanted to stay for one of their courses, taught one week each month.
Frescos and Herbal Lotions
Finally reaching the church, I admired its frescoed chapels, then stopped to inhale the fragrances in Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, where the convent’s friars have for centuries dispensed healing herbal compounds, perfumes and soothing lotions from a 14th-century chapel.
Two of Florence’s best shopping streets are close. Best known are the smart shops of Via dei Tornabuoni, where Ferragamo (#2) shows the latest collection of fine shoes and handbags in Palazzo Spini Feroni; there’s also a museum of shoes designed by Salvatore Ferragamo. Every big name in Italian designer fashion is on this street.
But I diverted instead down Via dei Fossi and neighboring little lanes where shops are filled with antiques, art and traditional Florentine handworks, including fabrics and silk tapestries. I found original pieces of Art Nouveau sculpture, contemporary art ceramics, sumptuous art books, estate jewelry, 16th-century Italian paintings, intricate mosaics and museum-quality antiques far too big to get home.
Perhaps shopping in Florence should be considered more than self-indulgence: I prefer to think I’m exploring the city’s artistic heritage from all angles.
Tips for shopping at street markets:
- Bargaining is expected in street markets (not in studios or shops). Offer half the asking price, with a smile, and be prepared to move on (or appear ready to); the price will come down faster if you seem only mildly interested.
- Be careful of quality. Look for the “seta pura” label on silks or better yet, know the feel of real silk in your hands.
- Don’t be tempted by knock-offs of name brands: laws are enforced with fines as high as €10,000 on buyers, even if you don’t know it’s a fake and just need the item.
- San Lorenzo street market is closed Sunday and Monday.