Choir18 Florence, Lucca and Pisa trip, May 2010

We've been singing with Choir18 for quite a while now, though the name of the choir changes from time to time. A couple of years ago we sang in three churches in Venice, which was a real privilege, and last year in Brussels, which was also quite splendid, though not in the same league, of course.

This year we went to Florence for a long weekend, and had a most excellent time. Jenny couldn't come as she was senior examiner for Part II zoology this year, which entailed being around to supervise and mark over that weekend. I had originally planned to stay at home and sympathise with Jen, but then realised that several of my favourite women were going, so quickly changed my mind! As a bonus, Jane, who's not in Choir18, then booked a singing course in Assisi for the following week, so came with us on the Friday and was a groupie on Saturday. That just polished it up nicely for me!

This otter on the left is part of the border detail in one of the bronze panels forming the north door of the baptistry associated associated with Florence cathedral. This is original early 15th century lost-wax bronze casting, and the detail and workmanship are simply exquisite. There is some discussion of the baptistry doors further down the page.

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see a larger photograph.

We flew Easyjet from Luton to Pisa, then caught the train to Florence and walked from the station to the hotel. The next morning, after a quick rehearsal, we joined a walking tour of Florence, in which an ex-pat Danish girl introduced us to some of the interesting bits of Florence.

This courtyard was in a convent and was one of the first places we visited. The only thing I can remember about it is that it was attached to the church that Medici Senior used to attend. His palace was just across the square and his back door was directly opposite the church.

From there we went to the Duomo, which is the cathedral, but the first thing you come to is actually the baptistry. The doors are cast bronze and were made by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378 - 1455). They are simply astonishing and one of the must-see items in Florence. The pair on the north of the baptistry were the first pair he made and what you see are the originals.

The east doors are replicas because the originals were seriously damaged in some floods I think in the 1960's and are now kept in a museum somewhere and also on tour around the world. This picture shows the east doors, which face the cathedral.

This close-up of one of the panels shows a scene from the Christian Old Testament. I have no idea what it actually depicts, but was completely blown away by the quality of the workmanship. Ghiberti re-invented lost-wax casting of bronze around 1400 when he made the north doors and he'd obviously not lost his touch when making the east doors. They're gilded, of course.

It was not uncommon for artists to include themselves in their works at this time, and this photo shows Ghiberti on the left in middle age, with his son, who worked with him on the east doors, on the right. If you look at the north doors, of which I've not included any pictures, Ghiberti figures as a much younger man wearing a turban.

The Duomo itself is both incredibly impressive and disappointing. Before going to Florence, I'd only seen pictures of the city on the internet and on TV, all taken from some distance away and showing the enormous dome.

The big surprise for me was turning the corner and being confronted by this vast building completely faced in white, green and pink marble. It just took my breath away, which is precisely what was intended.

However, when you go inside, you discover that all the effort at impressing the neighbours was expended on the outside of the building, and very little on the inside. It's quite austere and dark, with little decoration. You walk in, look around, go "OK, done that!" and walk out. The floor is nice and there's a famous mediaeval painting that I couldn't get close enough to for a decent photograph, and that's about it.

The Giotto (1267 - 1337) bell tower is pretty impressive, too. Giotto designed it in 1334, not long before he died.

Further on in the tour we came to a small square where Dante (1265 - 1321) used to live, so I took a photograph of his bust, which is stuck on a wall there. I got very confused by somehow mixing him up with Descartes (1596 - 1650), about whom I'd recently been reading in Russell Shorto's Descartes' Bones. Fortunately, my senior moment was short-lived and I worked out what was going on.

Near the end of the tour I exchanged text messages with Jane, who had booked online to go to the Uffizi Gallery that morning. Her tour had just finished and she was just around the corner, so I slipped away from my minder and we found a decent café for lunch.

The next day we sang in Lucca, which is not far from Pisa. Lucca was the only town in the region not taken over by Florence in the 15th (I think) century and still retains its mediaeval city walls. Traffic is very restricted inside the town, which is mercifully small!

A coach picked us up and dropped us just inside the walls and we walked to the spot where we were to sing. The area had been a slum in the 19th century, and when the authorities demolished it, they discovered the remains of a Roman amphitheatre underneath. When they rebuilt the houses, they laid them out following the elipse of the amphitheatre and paved the area within. It was very pleasant, with a few cafés and shops around the periphery.

We sang for an hour or so, then dispersed to find lunch, after which I walked around rubbernecking, gradually making my way back to where the coach had dropped us off.

This rather splendid lion was one of a pair standing on pedestals on either side of a wide gate. I took loads of photographs, but I'll spare you as they're mostly churches or towers about which I know nothing. This tower, Torre Guinigi, is interesting. According to our tour guide, the height of a tower was supposed to reflect the social status of the owners, and that this tower is the correct height, but gives the impression of being taller, owing to the seven holm oak trees growing on top. On the other hand, I can't find much to support that on the net!

The coach took us the short hop to Pisa, where we were a little early for the concert we were to give in the cathedral, so we did the tourist bit, then retired to a café where we could relax for a while.

I hadn't realised that all three buildings, the tower, the cathedral and the baptistry, were skew-wiff. Everyone knows about the leaning tower, but it's rather obvious that if the tower is built on a lake bed, so are the others, and it shows! Take a look at the side of the cathedral and check out the bottom row of arches and how it relates to the layer immediately above!

It's clear they're spending a fortune on the whole site, to tart it up as a tourist attraction. The buildings were originally faced with local marble, which is a pale grey shade, but that's being progressively replaced with bright white Carrera marble. It does make it much more impressive.

The lawn around the tower was full of people holding weird poses, while relatives and friends took photo's of them apparently trying to prop up or push over the tower. We were much too superior to do anything like that!

While we were sipping cool (soft!) drinks in the café, our tour guide blagged us 5 minutes in the baptistry to sing a couple of numbers, just as a warm-up before the actual concert in the cathedral. That turned out to be a quite astonishing experience.

You can see from the photograph that the baptistry is about 25 metres across, and rather taller than that, so the accoustics inside are very interesting. Clap your hands or snap your fingers and the sound takes easily 7 seconds to die away. We sang the Stanford Beati Quorum Via and Purcell Hear my prayer, O Lord, both at about half speed so that the notes didn't just merge into a blur of sound. There were quite a few rather soggy eyes after that! (Oh, that's interesting. Listening to the recording of the Purcell that I've linked to, I notice that the Clare College choir have a bit of organ accompaniment. We always do it a capella.)

Feeling rather emotional and just buzzing with adrenaline, we walked over to the cathedral for the actual concert. This was slightly anticlimactic, of course, after the baptistry, but even so, we had a most excellent time. With a reasonable audience and, let's face it, still a pretty good accoustic, we made a pretty good fist of it. The weekend is primarily about having fun, not singing to CD standard, and we certainly did have fun. The singing actually is not bad, though there are members of the choir who complain that we could do some pieces better. That's always going to be true, particularly as we do the weekend on a couple of rehearsals.

On the Monday, having checked out of the hotel, I wandered semi-aimlessly around the old city, looking again at some of the sculpture I'd already seen and checking out some of the famous tourist attractions. The statue is of Medici Senior and is just exquisite in its detail and execution. I think the man himself was a nasty piece of work, but then I guess you had to be, to rise to the top of 15th century Florentine society.

The bridge is the famous Ponte Vecchia, lined with shops selling very expensive, touristy gold and silver. I looked and moved on!

Last modified by Rob Clack on 21st July, 2010.