Musing in Florence: Have an off-season renaissance

by Chris Allsop  |  Published February 8, 2016

With the opening of the expanded Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and the reopening of the freshly cleaned baptistry, the Tuscan capital offers more than a few excellent options for indoor exploration if the weather turns. And when your stomach starts to grumble, it’s time to discover Mercato Centrale…

Skies might not be this blue off-season, but Florence is still worth the trip (Photo: Chris Allsop)

Skies might not be this blue off-season, but timeless Florence is always worth the trip (Photo: Chris Allsop)

The Italian city of Florence is an oft-tipped “must-see” for any touring Italophile. The consequence of this glorious reputation is that its atmospheric cobbled lanes are often choked with tour groups, to the degree that your progress can be stalled to, at best, a penitent shuffle.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to visit the Tuscan capital last November, during the off season. There were still a few tour groups, but I was able to stroll freely through the antique streets. The weather was a mix, as you’d expect: mostly sunny, occasionally overcast, off and on showers – cool but not cold, with distant snowy peaks drawing my attention to the Apennines for the first time.

This isn’t a winter sun trip by any means, but for those wanting the space to enjoy Florence for its world class culture and culinary scene, off and shoulder seasons trips – with reduced hotel prices to boot – are strongly recommended. And if the weather is less than magnificent, well, who cares: indoors in Florence is not like indoors just anywhere.

Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

And I’m not just referring to the Uffizi Gallery (although that could probably keep you entertained for your entire trip). Last November, the €45 million two-year refurbishment of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (aka the Duomo Museum) was finally completed. Inside this strikingly modern museum, you’ll explore the world’s largest collection of Florentine sculptures from the Medieval and Renaissance periods spread over 25 exhibition halls.

Exhibit at the Museo Dell'Opera del Duomo

Exhibit at the Museo Dell’Opera del Duomo (Photo: Chris Allsop)

Sounds overwhelming? Actually, thanks to the layout’s careful planning, it’s quite the opposite. The elegant design layers over itself, offering new perspectives on halls you’ve previously walked through, and varied light levels throughout the galleries is just one of the tricks employed to more fully engage visitors in the experience. The original museum was founded in 1891, but its lack of exhibition space meant that it’s concept was always unfulfilled.

“Worse yet,” explained Timothy Verdon, the museum’s American director who was kind enough to give me a short guided tour, “the old rooms were too small for the works shown, many of which are larger than life and meant to be seen from a distance.”

This includes the centrepiece – the original medieval façade of the Duomo. Dismantled into 100 fragments in the late 16th Century, the façade is one of the great works of art that never was, comprising forty statues, intricate mosaic inlay, and a galaxy of additional sculpted elements.

Over the years the exhibition space increased from two rooms to 18, but it wasn’t until 1997, when an 18th Century theatre adjacent to the museum was acquired, that the dimensions required to exhibit the façade in full (the project was abandoned after only reaching a third of its height) was secured. You can now view “the largest work of art in Florence” where it’s been reconstructed in a bright, airy space reminiscent of the Tate’s Turbine Hall.

You’d think that the façade could be cleanly described as the main draw for the museum, but it’s so chock full of other marvels that it all depends on what you like, really. Fancy a bit of Michelangelo? Check out the room dedicated to the sculptor’s Florentine Pietà – this work, intended for the great artist’s own tomb, portrays Michelangelo (in disguised self-portrait) as Nicodemus lowering Christ’s body down from the cross. Crazy for relics? The contrastingly intimate ‘reliquary chapel’ is a circular display of holy masterpieces. Mad for Renaissance bling? The renovated Silver Altar from the Baptistry of St. John, that took 104 years of work by some of Florence’s greatest Renaissance masters to complete, is awaiting you within.

Auspiciously, the baptistry also recently reopened last winter after its first top-to-bottom clean in about seventy years. The €15 ticket for entry to the Duomo Museum also grants access to the baptistry (as well as Giotto’s Bell Tower, Brunelleschi’s Dome, and the Crypt of Santa Reparata), so it’s nice to be able to wander into the usually serene baptistry and imagine what the silver altar would’ve looked like beneath that mesmerising gold ceiling.

Mercato Centrale

Another relatively recent opening in the city is the Mercato Centrale – a former fish and meat market that, after a renovation in 2014, has been transformed into a laidback gastro-barn. Squeeze through the stalls and leather smells of the outdoor San Lorenzo leather market to find the entrance escalator that whisks you up to the first floor of the Mercato, the leather replaced by a scent blend of fresh baked bread, margherita pizzas crisping in wood-fired ovens, and other curious food whiffs compelling you to delve deeper into the brightly designed kiosks.

The Mercato’s original French-influenced structure dates back to 1874, when it was constructed as a monument to a new era for the city, when Florence was briefly the capital of the newly reunited Italy. Today its revitalisation has had a ripple effect on the surrounding neighbourhood, and Florentines have learned that it’s one of the best places in town to hang out (open from 10am to midnight daily).

The conceptual masterminds behind the Mercato created it not just to show off the best Tuscany has to offer, but the country as a whole. So inside you’ll find buffalo mozzarella brought up fresh from a farm on the outskirts of Naples; World Pastry Champion Cristian Beduschi’s award-winning seven-layer ice cream cake; and lashings of lampredotto – Florentine tripe made from the fourth stomach of the cow that’s a popular sandwich option in the city. Sad to say my unadventurous group plumped for the pizza instead, served up at a kiosk that’s been awarded the national equivalent of a Michelin-star.

Tripe o'clock at the lampredotto stall in Mercato Centrale (Photo: Chris Allsop)

Tripe o’clock at the lampredotto stall in Mercato Centrale (Photo: Chris Allsop)

Best of all, the exquisite margherita that I wolfed was prepared with the creamy buffalo mozzarella from the cheese stall. There’s a kind of commercial symbiosis operated at the Mercato in an effort to create the right atmosphere; there’s no rental fee for stall owners (although 30% of their takings do go to the city) and they’re encouraged to buy each other’s produce and advertise the fact. The artisan food makers and sellers are chosen for produce first and style second. Beneath all of this collaborative loveliness, there’s a ruthless streak: if you’re not hitting the right note, you will be let go. I heard some mutterings about unsmiling past tenants who hadn’t had the correct ‘market attitude’.

Beyond the high-level grazing, there’s also olive oil and wine tastings available, as well as superb cooking lessons (investigate the latter at all on-site. From the buffet for the mind that is the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo to the gallery of deliciousness that is Mercato Centrale, off-season Florence offers a blissfully uncluttered refuge from those winter blues.

Museo Dell’Opera del Duomo:

Mercato Centrale: