Mont St. Michel
 Off the coast of Normandy in northwestern France rises from the ocean fury a granite island which can be reached by land at low tide. In the year 708 Abbot Aubert of the close-by town of Avranches dreamed one night that he was commanded by the Archangel St. Michael to build a place on the rock dedicated to his worship. After experiencing a number of miracles to convince the Abbot that the order was genuine, he built a sanctuary on the island, which in time came to be known as Mont St. Michel. After the Normans had forcefully settled in what was later named Normandy, the Duke of Normandy Rollon, now Christianized and recognized by the Frankish king, and his descendants set about rebuilding sanctuaries, among them the one on Mont St. Michel, at the height of the Romanesque age. Over time more additions were erected for the benefit of an expanding community of monks and pilgrims to become a remarkable building complex rising over five hundred feet.

 Mont St. Michel is a curious blend of church and fortress exhibiting Romanesque and Gothic elements added on over a period of a thousand years, the last renovation taking place in 1780 when a Classical façade replaced the high towers and their supporting arches which had collapsed. The history of Mont St. Michel is filled with pilgrimages, battles (during the Hundred Years' War, the Religious War between Catholics and Protestants), devotions (great illuminated books produced), and incarcerations of political enemies right up to the 19th century. In 1870 Mont St. Michel was declared a historical monument.

A visit to the abbey now leads you through a narrow medieval lane lined with souvenir shops past a unique restaurant famous for its omelets. The cook beats dozens of eggs in cadence in a huge steel pot reminiscent of a wok in full view of the visitors, creating a captivating music with which to accompany the gustatory delights of the diners.

The breath-taking view along the climb up to the top has an unrivalled charm: the canopies of trees rising from different ground levels, the low tide exposing the beach of unstable sand hundreds of feet below, the rising spire of the abbey church, the intriguing play of light and shadow on the sheer walls, the twisting and turning inner stairways, the machicolations, the round arches over the grand outer staircase leading to the abbey, the ramparts, the massive columns, the ogival arches, the Flamboyant spires rising from the chevet, the cloisters surrounding a colorful flower garden, combine to create the unforgettable effect of the extraordinary architecture of this monument.

 I left Mont St. Michel with a sense of eternity lodged in the deepest part of my psyche. I had seen permanence embedded in the rocks immutable and immovable. I had seen the limitless sea and sky and my own finiteness. And even though I knew Mont St. Michel had seen its mighty towers collapse, I somehow gained this certainty that it will be around forever. To witness the vicissitudes that life metes out to all things living. To imbue us with the transcendance of the spiritual. To impart humility and hope, and a meaning of life beyond corruption.
St. Malo
 The trip from Mont St. Michel to St. Malo traversed the idyllic landscape of salty Brittany and its Celtic heritage. As we crossed one of the gates into the city center, its medieval charm began to unfold. Narrow streets, paving stones, the closeness of its shops, the thin crowds. Then the twentieth century intrudes. Scarce parking space, the hair-raising near-miss of passing vehicles. Hugging the rugged coast St. Malo used to defend itself mainly from the sea with a mighty rampart on its perimeter that still inspires awe and respect. As we walked along the top of this fortress surveying the calm bay beyond, a peaceful restaurant came into view on the street level below, beautiful and dainty, as if knowing it is secure from the pirates' forays of yesteryear. A short walk led to the city hall, fronted by a small manicured park ablaze with spring blossoms. It is the stuff of romance. If your Muse has so far not stirred from her slumber, take another short walk. Soon a tiny square appeared every miniscule speck of it covered with colorful flowers vying for attention, a quiet corner in a quiescent city, the inevitable restaurant with its inevitable sidewalk array of tables, little shops, a few unhurried passers-by, the essence of serene living. A short stay was all we needed to carry away the unspeakable charm of this town by the sea. We did not delve in its history, nor had enough time to explore its nooks and crannies, perhaps for the better, because we were afraid of shattering the delicate web of enchantment already invading our consciousness.
  McLaw, the hardy sailor-adventurer, was credited with resting his weary bones after long seafaring on this piece of forbidding and forsaken coastline, and creating out of the rocky wilderness a town that could sustain itself and prosper. Here where the land ends and the Atlantic begins rose as if by magic this town small but endowed with an ineffable charm. Not that it always had a peaceful or blissful history; the Celts who settled it had fled from the Anglo-Saxons in the British Isles to find safety here. They had to defend themselves against the pirates who frequently pillaged the coast, and not to be outdone had sometimes become pirates themselves to enrich their own settlement.
  Today all this turbulent past is gone, leaving behind a peaceful, wind-swept and sea-battered gem of a town. To appreciate the kind of life you might have in this place, walk the ramparts along their crenelated walls bristling with guns that were once a formidable defense but now a silent backdrop for photography aficionados, and soak in the sea air laden with vigor and freshness. Stroll down the medieval streets whose paving stones glitter after a short-lived afternoon shower, and catch the reflection of street lamps on the wet pavement. You will want to freeze the passing of time, and prolong the blissful moments to eternity.
Sandro Filipepi, aka. Botticelli
  In Primavera Venus in the center has a dignified attitude while Spring in her flower-studded garment walks spritely on the forest floor. Mercury reaches up to the branches with his staff to dissipate the fog while the three Graces gather around as they always do, clad diaphanously without evoking sensuousness, engrossed in their own bliss. Just above Cupid shoots his arrows at an invisible target. On the right a nymph is pursued by the wind god Zephyr. Tomes have been written about this painting and its meaning. I do not wish to add any more to this exercise, but merely note that a work of art is never finished. It is always open to the interpretation and appreciation of each individual who sees it. I see in this allegory an idyllic scene which drives my cares away and brings back joy in the wake of winter's demise and the rebirth of nature in its endless cycle of life and death.
  According to one legend Venus was born of the sea, and blown fully-formed to shore by Zephyr and Chloris. Botticelli freezes the moment when the goddess of love is about to reach land where a maiden is waiting with a flowered gown to cover her nakedness. Notice that Venus's representation is not perfect: her too long neck is at an unusual angle, her shoulders falling precipitously, and her left arm unnaturally attached. But perfection is not the essence of beauty. The grace and demure pose of her form emanates a charm that eclipses any flaws in detail, and draws your attention to her femininity and humanness. Botticelli captures a Venus that is accessible, not a feared goddess but a beauty capable of love. In so doing his Venus goes on to capture the imagination of the world.
Why Florence?
 Florence is the undisputed capital of Renaissance art. As such this quaint place attracts people everywhere who are interested in getting a glimpse of what Renaissance is all about. It is the premier destination<, the mecca of students of art and art history. If you are curious about this period of history, find in Florence the inexhaustible treasures and the feverish work of restoration that seems to go on unabated indefinitely.
 Visit the Virtual Uffizi Gallery. Navigate your way through all the rooms, and search for any Renaissance artists and their works, and names like Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Mantegna, Fra Angelico, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Uccello, Perugino, Bellini, Verocchio, Pontormo, Titian, Tintoretto, Filippo Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Pollaiolo, Ghiberti, Rubens, Veronese, and more.
 Drop in on the Accademia Gallery for Michelangelo's David, and more statues of Classical inspiration. Pay close attention to the anatomical detail of the human form, which is rendered with such wonderful precision.
 The Pitti Palace will surprise you with its rich collection displayed in the most sumptuous settings of any galleries I have seen. Do not let the Palace's unassuming exterior deter you. Its Galleria Palatina is nothing short of stupendous, where large canvases of Renaissance art cover almost every inch of its immense walls.
 In the peaceful region of Normandy by the ocean lies a town which is laid out unlike a medieval city: wide streets, large squares, spacious parks, a modern downtown with elegant shops and tall bank buildings, homes with surrounding yards, no narrow streets. Caen was the site of fierce fighting during World War II's invasion of Europe, and the medieval town was flattened. Today, having risen from its own ashes, Caen is a very livable city. Its small-town atmosphere, manageable downtown traffic, peaceful residential neighborhoods, relatively low cost of living, and superb climate make it a desirable place to have a good life. A few miles outside of the town a World War II Memorial was erected, and its bookshop is filled with gifts, souvenirs, and books about this most lunatic era of all history.
 As we rode through Caen's modern streets, we had little knowledge of, much less empathy for, what its people had gone through during the thirty days in World War II when the Allies and German forces waged fierce battles for mastery of this important German command and control center. But judging from the destruction elsewhere, it wasn't at all difficult to visualize the hellish state of affairs reigning here half a century ago.
  Today that period is buried in the past, and a new dawn has begun when people everywhere are united in the promise and hope of "Never Again."

Slicing through the Tuscan countryside, its vineyards and mountains and valleys and rivers, our train had left Venice earlier this beautiful sunny morning bound for the Florence of my Renaissance dream. Yvonne and I had left behind the canals, the sea birds, the Byzantine splendor, the supreme serenity of this gem in the lagoon to embark on an odyssey in the comfort of a modern train, much less eventful and more prosaic than the one that took Ulysses from Troy back to his native Sparta. There wasn't much to excite our minds during the trip. Like most passengers we whiled away the time by looking vacantly out the window, the trees close to the train whizzing past in a blur of verdure, and the constant clanking of its wheels on the tracks filling our ears with monotonous rumbling.

Three and a half hours after leaving Venice, our train pulled into the Florence railroad station. Quickly mingling into the crowd, meager baggage in hand, and with the nimbleness of light travelers, we inquired about a hotel at the station's information desk. The attendant promptly made a phone call, and in a few minutes we were on our way to our hotel only two blocks away, in the heart of Florence.

At last, here we are a heartbeat from the center of excitement: the Duomo (Cathedral), and its surroudings where Renaissance art flourished, the city of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, the city that probably has more art treasures in its museums, palaces and churches than anywhere else in Italy or the world. For throughout its turbulent Renaissance history Florence was blessed with art patrons who had enough foresight and wealth to support a community of master artists who created the most enviable inventory of Renaissance masterpieces anywhere.

On the literary scene, the giants of fourteenth-century Italy gave Italian its undisputed status as the national language even though Latin for centuries had been the language of the literate world. Dante Alighieri could have written his epic Divine Comedy in Latin, but chose the Florentine dialect. In this work, Dante evokes a dark mood and disturbing visions of the underworld. In the new papal see at Avignon Petrarch elevated romantic love to an art form so refined with artifice and conceit, and when smitten by Laura's divine beauty, poured his unrequited love in rhyme and music which only the melodious Italian tongue with its profusion of vowels over consonants can supply. Boccaccio started out much like Petrach pining after Fiammetta (his little flame) in terza rima, and continued in prose the same outpourings of love. But it was the Decameron, tales of ten days written in unsurpassed Italian prose, which established Boccaccio as Rabelaisian and profoundly human for his optimistic outlook and joie de vivre.

In its 2000-year history, no period was more glorious or troubled than the Renaissance era, and no name was better known to Renaissance Florence than that of the Medicis, a banking dynasty who, while professing to stay out of politics, exerted a profound influence on the course of Florentine history, economy, and culture far more pervasive than that of any other ruling clan or party. From 1434, when Cosimo de Medici was recalled from exile, and for the next sixty years, no government decrees were written, or laws passed without the advice and consent of the Medicis, who controlled the banks, and had economic interests ranging from the wool trade to the leather trade. Kings, nobles, cardinals, even the Pope had become Medici debtors, and politicians owed their allegiance to this virtual ruling family. But the Medicis were generous patrons of the arts, and were among the greatest art collectors Florence had ever known. With an eye to posterity, the patriarch Cosimo de Medici, and his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent, presided over a period of unprecedented prosperity in an age of great civil strife during which Italian city-states were pitted against one another in a relentless rivalry for power and influence. During the thirteenth century civil unrest had reigned within the cities themselves, especially in Florence, which became the theater for a paroxysm of violence. In 1215 the Guelphs (loyal to the Pope) fought the Ghibellines (loyal to the German Emperor) in an inexorable power struggle that tore Florence asunder until 1266, when the Ghibellines were definitively defeated and forever left the political scene. In the aftermath of this victory the Guelphs were themselves divided between the White Guelphs, whose ranks included the people, and the Black Guelphs, whose power base was made up of the rich merchants, bankers, and industrialists in the Arti or guilds (known collectively as the popolo grasso). The Black Guelphs finally triumphed sending the White Guelphs (the most famous among whom was Dante) into exile.

Among its many achievements Florence is best known for its contribution to Renaissance art and culture. Everywhere within a mile radius of the Piazza della Signoria, which was the hub of government, the marks of this cultural rebirth are evident, even in some piazzas. From the Duomo to Giotto's Campanile and the Baptistery, from the Palazzo Vecchio adorned by its distinctive belltower to the adjoining Uffizi Gallery and the Ponte Vecchio that spans the Arno River, from the Pitti Palace to the Boboli Garden, from the Accademia dell'Arti to the Church of Santa Maria Novella and the Palazzo del Bargello (now housing the Museo Nazionale), the works of great masters give an eloquent testimony to the undisputed position of Florence as a Renaissance center.

No building in Florence epitomizes this great era better than the Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore , whose red dome has been an inspiration for Michelangelo in his design of the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica. This dominant structure had benefited from the calculations of Brunelleschi , and is the largest dome outside Rome. Among the dozens of major churches in Florence the Duomo is without a doubt the most remarkable, the most photographed, the most symbolic landmark of the city. In a relatively small square, the Duomo, the Baptistery, and the Campanile impose their masterful presence not so much by their size and height as by the works of the great architects and artists who contributed to their construction and decoration. Arnolfo di Cambio designed the Duomo, and work began in 1296 under the direction of a succession of talented managers (capomaestri) such as Giotto, Andrea Pisano, Francesco Talenti. The cathedral was not finished until 1461. Its neo-Gothic façade was completed in its present form in 1887 by Emilio de Fabris. Giotto also designed the belltower bearing his name although he built only the first two levels, and Andrea Pisano the upper two stages.

Opposite the façade of the Duomo stands the Baptistery, a regular octogonal edifice topped by an eight-sided pyramid which conceals the interior cupola. Built on an ancient site probably dating back to the sixth century, the Baptistery assumed its present aspect between 1059 and 1150. Its faces sport romanesque arches over pedimented windows, and are pierced by three bronze doors. Lorenzo Ghiberti designed the north and east bronze doors, and Andrea Pisano its south doors, which illustrated the life of St. John the Baptist and Allegories of the Virtues. Of these Ghiberti's east doors (called Gates of Paradise) earned fame for depicting in ten splendid gilded bronze panels episodes from the Old Testament, such as the creation of Adam and Eve, the drunkenness of Noah, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore's cupola, which gave its name to the cathedral itself, was designed and built by Brunelleschi using a new technique of raising the dome in rings of bricks locked in a herringbone pattern, in two layers (the inner and the outer domes) which are reinforced by vertical ribs, in such a way as to dispense entirely of the traditional wooden scaffolding.

On this glorious Tuscan spring morning Yvonne and I set out to explore Renaissance and our first destination: the Duomo. The cavernous interior of this church was overwhelming, even after our visit to the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica, and Rome's Pantheon. The opulence of St. Peter's and the antiquity of the Pantheon now yield to this simple and almost austere nave. A remarkable example of Italian Gothic architecture, the Duomo is the fourth largest church in the world, 153 meters long, 38 meters across the nave and aisles, and 90 meters at the transept with its dome spanning 45.5 meters and rising to 114.5 meters. It was built on top of the older (4th-5th centuries) Cathedral of Santa Reparata, whose floor, frescoes, and slab marking Brunelleschi's tomb among other remains, can still be seen in the basement. Its museum, the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo, located just behind the cathedral, assembles the art works from the Duomo, the Baptistery, and the Campanile.

When we left the finely wrought neo-Gothic façade of the Duomo behind, our curiosity led us irresistibly to the Campanile close by. It's Giotto's Campanile, I said to Yvonne. So, there we are confronting the impregnable fortress of a belltower mocking our earthly smallness with incredible effrontery and audacity. But it was spring, and our indomitable spirits were high enough to push us into any absurd adventure. We decided that we must scale the challenging heights of Giotto's campanile, whose white and pink marble face, quarried from nearby Carrara and Maremma, glistens in the warm sun like a jewel. Little did we know what we were getting into when we bought admission to the belltower! Our expectations of an elevator to lift us to the top were dashed when the turnstile we crossed led us to a narrow stairwell with stone steps barely wide enough for two or three people walking abreast. So here we were, fool-hardy souls of fin de siècle Houston assaulting the fourteenth-century structure (all of its 414 treacherous steps) without a clue as to why we wanted to do it in the first place. Actually this is not exactly true. I knew why we wanted to get up there. If you see Giotto's campanile, its majestic rise, its gleaming white marble face graced with strips of pink inserts in its pilasters, its panels filled with exquisite reliefs (many of which by Andrea Pisano), each of its stages distinct in character, detail and style, its two-light and three-light windows, its niches, pilasters, twisted columns, gables, corbeled top, all that seem to harmonize with the Duomo's façade, this 84.7 meters high tower is simply the most beautiful campanile anywhere in Italy. It captures your imagination and speaks directly to your sense of wonder, your sense of esthetics, your sense of adventure, deeply stirring your soul to its inevitable ascension.

The stairs started out relatively steep, and there were no handrails to assist in our climb. With the stone steps echoing the dull thuds of our feet we quietly hoisted ourselves up vigorously to the first landing for a welcome short break. Having decided from that perspective that we were not high enough to gain a spectacular view, further up we went, negotiating the ever-narrowing and -steepening steps. Along the way we had to stop a few times and flatten ourselves against the wall to allow the few other visitors to pass on their way down. The second landing offered a panorama that was acceptably intriguing, and with her energy level dwindling Yvonne made up her mind to stay put. By instinct I knew we were within reach of the top (Really!). It beckons irresistibly. So leaving Yvonne to her contented rest I continued to climb the last, narrowest, steepest and scariest steps of all. Soon the final landing reached, I emerged onto the observation deck, and walked around. The sun bathed the tower with warmth and the unfolding vista wove a tapestry of harmonious colors. Florence from the air is a sea of red tile roofs here and there parted by piazzas and pierced by crenelated towers and church domes. The hills lying in hazy outline just beyond the city limits, the sluggish Arno River, the green patch of the Boboli Garden, the rolling countryside stretching gracefully beyond, all seem to enter into a pact that proclaims Florence as the place for art lovers. Visitors to the Duomo were staring back at the Campanile from their lofty perch on the lantern structure (designed by Brunelleschi) that tops off the dome. And the few visitors on the Campanile returned their curiosity.

Here in the heart of Renaissance country, time seems to linger for you to travel back to the Classical tradition you'll want to have for a true appreciation of the wealth of artistic achievements that permeates the air. Here you don't look for romance or poetry in the streets. There is however an abundance of romance and poetry in the works assembled in the palaces, which are veritable depositories of art, in the museums, even in the churches. Florence exudes an artistic élan that attracts art scholars from around the world. This city has not the elegance of Paris, nor the poetry of Venice, nor the muted majesty of the ruins of Rome. It has something different: the Renaissance seemed to have touched it with a special magic that procreates artistic and literary talents on an unrivalled scale.

While I was lost in my musings about the centuries that embellished this city, and about its inexhaustible source of wonderment, the lumbering steps of someone walking up laboriously but with a palpable sense of determination rudely awoke me. In a few moments who did I see but the irrepressible Yvonne emerging from the same arduous trip that I would not wish my worst enemy to take! She was carrying my jacket I had left behind.

Within walking distance of the Duomo, we were in the Piazza della Signoria, where an equestrian statue of Cosimo I de Medici (1594) by Giambologna reigns over the domain now as he did in life five centuries ago. Nearby the Neptune Fountain (1575), where the giant white statue (nicknamed "il Biancone") of the sea god dominates the piazza with his Tritons and Nereids (by Giambologna), was built by Bartolomeo Ammannati and his associates. On the opposite side of the piazza, the Loggia dei Lanzi (built by Benci di Cione and Simone Talenti and completed toward the end of the fourteenth century) exhibits statues of note such as a copy of the The Rape of the Sabines (1583) by Giambologna (Giovanni da Bologna), Hercules and the Centaur (1599) also by Giambologna, Benvenuto Cellini's famous bronze Perseus (1554), six statues of matrons dated back to Roman times lining the back wall, and more.

The nearby Palazzo Vecchio, which housed the Florentine Priors, and when Tuscany became part of the Kingdom of Italy and Florence served as the capital of Italy from 1865 to 1871, was the seat of the government, began construction in 1294, and was completed in 1315. This austere palace-fortress in the shape of an irregular trapezoid bordering the east side of the Piazza della Signoria, which was made by razing among others the Uberti properties, is covered with rusticated ashlar of pietra forte, and surmounted by a crenelated tower 94 meters in height, its main entrance flanked by a copy of Michelangelo's statue David, whose original is in the Accademia delli Arti, and by Bandinelli's statue of Hercules and Cacus. Compare Michelangelo's marble David in the Accademia with Donatello's David housed in the Museo del Bargello, and see how Donatello's earlier David is almost devoid of the virility which emanates from the later David of Michelangelo.

Besides its governmental function Palazzo Vecchio houses numerous works of art. Most memorable is its spacious Salone dei Cinquecento, a dazzling display of exaltation of Florence contributed by Giorgio Vasari and his collaborators, by Baccio Bandinelli, Giovanni Stradano, even Michelangelo. Its coffered ceiling is filled with scenes glorifying Florence and Cosimo I de Medici's conquests created by Vasari and associates, and its walls were decorated with frescoed panels commemorating episodes of the War with Pisa and with Siena.

The Uffizi Gallery, hallowed by its more than four hundred years of existence as the world's oldest art gallery, shelters the richest collection of Renaissance art starting from the Duecento (thirteenth century). Just next door to the Palazzo Vecchio, the prestigious Uffizi (Offices) Gallery rewards our hour-long wait with endless displays of Renaissance works that excite the envy of art curators. Here in its unassuming, even spare, rooms, are gathered the treasures in chronological order, starting predominantly with altarpieces in diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs from representatives of various Italian schools.

As we moved from room to room the themes began to shift from a proponderant religious treatment of the altarpieces of the thirteenth to the fifteenth century to the Classical themes evident in the Antonio Pollaiolo Room, where paintings featuring Hercules made their appearance. In Antonio Pollaiolo's Hercules and Antaeus the demi-god is seen raising the giant Antaeus in the air to kill him because Antaeus, being son of the Earth, will always regain his strength as long as he touches his mother Earth.

In the Botticelli Room, Primavera (Spring) (1477/78) and Birth of Venus (1485) both painted by Botticelli for the Medici villa at Castello, were inspired by neo-Platonist ideals, which epitomize the rebirth of the Classical tradition in art and literature as Europe was emerging from the Age of Faith, when religion dominated life at every level. The three graces in Primavera and the figure of Venus in the Birth of Venus remain the world's most recognizable artistic images. Rarely did I see the crowds staying longer anywhere else than in front of these masterpieces. Tour guides always seemed to have more information and comments here than about any other oeuvres in the museum.

How this representation of the nude could exist in a Christian setting without causing an uproar about neo-paganism could be explained by the movement that reaffirms the return to antiquity, a movement which discerns in the Christian faith, classical mythology and Platonic ideals a unity not perceived in the Middle Ages. The thousand years period of the Middle Ages had experienced the continuing tradition of the classical Graeco-Roman world in the arts and literature. But for the most part, the tradition existed more in form than in content. The intellectual and religious dominance of the Christian faith had for practical purposes crowded out the pagan world until the Renaissance, which proclaimed the compatibility between the Bible, Plato, and classical mythology. The Platonic philosopher Marsilio Ficini believed life in the universe to be linked to God in a spiritual way so that the divine love of the Virgin Mary is not unlike the human love of Venus. Thus the nude Venus, inspired by Greek models, was not a sensuous female figure but a human rendering of the divine love embodied by the Virgin Mary. However, most Early Renaissance artists, and even later ones, were not imbued with such philosophical thoughts. Botticelli, who was active during the four-year rule of the extremist monk Savonarola, was said to have destroyed some of his own "pagan" works out of religious conviction or fear of zealotry.

In the Caravaggio Room Caravaggio represented on a shield the mythological Medusa, whose fearful head with serpents as hair would petrify anyone who looked at it. Compare this to Medusa's severed head in the Cinquecento Corridor painted by a seventeenth century Flemish artist.

The Tondo Doni by Michelangelo is one of the works that depict a Christian theme (the Holy Family) on a background of nudes, which is clearly of pagan inspiration. This is prevalent in the period as the classical ideals are considered compatible with Christian themes.

More classical mythology awaits discovery. In the Tintoretto and Barocci Room the myth of Leda, the wife of the Spatan King Tyndareus, who was the mother of Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux, finds a vivid expression in Tintoretto's Leda and the Swan, in accordance with the story that her children were by Jupiter, who disguised himself in the shape of a swan. The same theme is treated by Portormo in a painting exhibited in the Tribune, a room designed by Bernardo Buontalenti for the Medicis' most prized art collection.

Just as important are the sculptures in the Uffizi. Copies of Greek sculptures of the Hellenistic period as well as Renaissance works such as Baccio Bandinelli's Laocoön testify to a vibrant collection of Classical forms of utmost beauty and power. I was particularly moved by the Laocoön group that depicts the Apollo priest among the Trojans and his two sons in a death struggle with the serpents sent by Apollo to punish him for warning the Trojans not to take the wooden horse left behind by the retreating Greeks. The Greek ideal of the male body is personified in vivid detail here in Laocoön, whose virility is being snuffed out by the wrath of a god against whom man proves powerless. It is the human condition buffeted by the whims of superior forces.

Crossing the Arno over the Ponte Vecchio, we soon reached the Palazzo Pitti, another palace where the Medicis had lived. Now the Palazzo Pitti contains seven museums: the Palatine Gallery, the Royal Apartments, the Silver Museum, the Porcelain Museum, the Costume Gallery, the Carriage Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art. Behind the palace extends a beautiful oasis, the Boboli Garden, which serves almost as a natural extension to the Palace. Here is a formal garden rising beyond the palace's courtyard, graced with fountains, grottoes, statues, and paths designed by the same masters whose works enrich the museums in Florence and elsewhere. Names such as Bernardo Buontalenti, Baccio Bandinelli, Ammannati, Giambologna and more are represented on this hillside garden.

The most visited of the Pitti museums is the Palatine Gallery. Like many of the Florentine palaces, the Pitti Palace has an austere façade which efficiently hides the opulence, and splendor reigning inside. A marked contrast to the modesty of the Uffizi exhibition rooms, the Palatine Gallery seems the acme of Baroque exuberance. Huge paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries were exhibited in gilded frames which are almost works of art! The Gallery was given entirely to the sumptuousness befitting a reigning dynasty. Even the door frames were finely carved as if they were part of the art world. We were struck speechless by the ceiling fresco cycles and magnificent stuccoes by Pietro da Cortona. In the Venus Room the statue Venus Italica by Antonio Canova reigns over a realm of landscapes, portraits, and mythological themes in huge canvases by Tintoretto, Titian, Rubens, Guercino, Salvator Rosa. In a succession of grand exhibition rooms, we were treated to a cornucopia of masterpieces each bearing in its own distinctive way the realism and naturalism so characteristic of the works of these centuries. The richness of the collection demanded close attention to each piece in order to gain a genuine appreciation which it deserves. Take your time, pay attention to detail, and savor the delights.

Like Venice and Rome, Florence is a source of intellectual stimulation for art lovers and history students. This is where professionals and amateurs alike can come, tablet in hand, to jot down their notes, and to see live the art works discussed in scholarly polyglot treatises published around the world. From Cristofano Allori to Alberti, from Bandinelli to Buontalenti, from Caravaggio to Correggio, from Donatello to Dosso Dossi, from Giotto to Giambologna, from Filippo Lippi to Leonardo, from Mantegna to Michelangelo, from Pisano to Pollaiolo, from Raphael to Rubens, from Salviati to Sansovino, from Titian to Tintoretto, from Veronese to Verocchio, Florence has attracted and produced masters in painting, sculpture, and architecture who once occupied the center stage of these most creative of human endeavors. Because of this rich heritage Florence will continue to shine among the great centers of art, and to give generations the inspiration to move forward by looking back at an exciting era of achievement.

Tomorrow we would board the train back to the city in the sea, leaving Florence of gentle Tuscany forever enshrined as the Renaissance art capital. Florence is not romantic or poetic. It does not turn your head at every corner, nor set your heart throbbing with flights of poetic fancy. It is not Petrarch's Laura or Boccaccio's Fiammetta as Paris surely would be; it has not the poetry of Venice, nor the grandeur that Rome once had been, but it grabs you with irresistible force, for nowhere else can the Renaissance be felt more keenly than in this town on the Arno.

  See Paris, City of Light   See Paris Romantic   See Lovers' Venice   See Troyes, the Medieval City   See Troyes Revisited   See Across Northern France

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