Art and Travel: A different view of Florence

The theme for this month’s ArtSmart Blogging Roundtable is favorite art and travel experience. I have quite a bit to say on this topic, actually, for reasons that might surprise you, but I will keep it fairly short and sweet in this post.

Let me begin with a few words about museums…I love museums, but I don’t always think people should visit them when they are traveling. I know that sounds blasphemous coming from an art-lover and ArtSmart member, but I am basing this on personal experience. Experiencing art is something you should do when it feels right. If you’d rather be outdoors, walking the streets of Amsterdam, watching people in a park in San Francisco, browsing antiques markets in Brazil, or whatever your destination offers, then by all means skip the museums. Though museums hold incredibly valuable works that link us to our past and the creative potential of humanity, they are also, in some ways, separate from the current reality of their surroundings and are indoors, away from the vibrancy of everyday life in the city you are visiting.

Florence Arno River

I have spent weeks visiting one museum after another in London, Munich, Florence, Prague, Venice, and São Paulo, but when I went to Amsterdam and paid the steep ticket price to enter the Van Gogh museum, I found myself disappointed–the sun was out, the museum was crowded, and I kept wanting to leave. I came away realizing that museums need not be on the “must-see” list when I visit a great city.

Getting back to the topic of favorite art + travel experience, I must admit that it was hard to choose. Certainly the month I spent in Italy studying Italian Renaissance art history was a fantastic art and travel experience. My agenda-free days of museum/gallery hopping in Munich and London were also pretty awesome when it comes to artsy travels. Thanks to my husband’s knowledge as a local in the art/architecture-rich city of São Paulo, Brazil, I’ve had some pretty cool experiences with art there, too. But the experience that really strikes me now is the recent one I had in Florence, Italy. Here’s why.

1) I was fortunate enough to get a spot on TeamFlorens, a social media/blogging team, which allowed me to attend the cultural events of Florens2012 and get a sort of insider’s look at some of Florence’s treasures.

This is the building where I reported every day, the Palazzo Vecchio, or old city hall.

Palazzo Vecchio

This was the view I had as I entered the Palazzo Vecchio a few times a day. This beautiful courtyard housed a photography exhibit of Italian landscapes.

Palazzo Vecchio courtyard

These are the halls I walked at night on my way out of the conference.

Palazzo Vecchio interior

This is one of the rooms where I watched speakers from around the world talk about cultural and landscape heritage. It’s the Salone dei Cinquecento, the main hall of the Palazzo Vecchio. Behind one of its painted wall panels is a lost (but recently discovered) Leonardo Da Vinci.

Palazzo Vecchio interior

This is what hovered over me at our table in the Salone dei Cinquecento. It’s a Michelangelo sculpture.

Michelangelo sculpture

2) Oh, Florence, I still love you…I revisited some of the places that made a big impact on me when I was younger.

Florence sculpture

The Rape of the Sabine Women, a 16th century masterpiece by Giambologna

One of them is the Piazza della Signoria, the piazza outside the Palazzo Vecchio. Besides the Colosseum in Rome, it is the first place that really made an impression on me during my first trip abroad at 16. Its sculptures are truly impressive; even the Neptune fountain, which I don’t really care for, wowed me because I had forgotten how huge it is, how it captivates the visitor with its presence.

Neptune fountain

The other is the church of Santa Maria Novella. The interior of the church is (I think) the prettiest in Florence and is full of great art. I’ve been to that church many times with various friends and classmates, and this time I am happy that I could visit (albeit briefly) with fellow blogger Hasan of 3 Pipe Problem because he loves art history even more than I do (a lot more, in fact!).

churches in Florence

3) I experienced how Florence is embracing art in new, exciting ways. Thinking outside the usual tourist’s lineup of museums can be rewarding. I attended a talk on museum apps and realized how much things have changed since my days as an art history student when the Internet was just beginning.

museum apps

Listening to the director of the Palazzo Strozzi museum talk about museum apps

I experienced the coolest museum in Florence, the Palazzo Strozzi museum. On Thursday nights, the museum hosts a free event for the public–its central courtyard is filled with Florentines lounging on outdoor couches and drinking coffee or cocktails. Entrance to the contemporary exhibit downstairs is free.

Palazzo Strozzi

For the Florens2012 celebration of how culture contributes to quality of life, Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce was transformed by a beautiful installation by Mimmo Paladino. I loved seeing how people interacted with the cross-shaped space he created with huge pieces of marble, and I enjoyed the obvious contrast between the new in his work with the old in the Santa Croce church.

Santa Croce piazza

Alexandra of ArtTrav, without whom I would not have attended Florens2012, and I showing our enthusiasm of the contemporary art in Piazza Santa Croce

There are many reasons I loved my stay in Florence, and certainly experiencing the city’s art in new and unusual ways was one of the best parts of the week. And I did it WITHOUT seeing the Uffizi galleries, the David, or the inside of the Duomo! That definitely doesn’t mean they aren’t worth visiting, but it does mean that a visit to Florence can be just as great with the rest of the art and culture this amazing city has.

Thank you to the Fondazione Florens for hosting my trip to Florence, and a very special thank you to my husband for supporting my time away by taking care of two very crazy children in my absence.

Please check out the rest of the ArtSmart bloggers’ favorite travel and art experiences:

The Keeper of the Castle from The Daydream Tourist

Unforgettable Moments at the Vatican from Eurotravelogue

How Ireland Brought Me to the Basilica of San Clemente from A Sense of Place

The Staffordshire Potteries from Culture Tripper

Fresco Feelings in Milan! from CG Travels


  • Enjoyed this post, Jenna, though sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; it’s one of my favorites and has been undergoing a reno in preparation for celebrating Vincent’s 160th birthday in 2013.
    I think people really need to evaluate what it is they want to see before they pick and choose where to spend their time in a city. For instance, many people will automatically visit the Tate Modern in London because it is newer and received a lot of recent press as being the hip place to hang out. I actually found it plus the art inside rather dingy and blah and hardly worth the miles and miles I had to walk inside to see it. Tate Britain, on the other hand, is overlooked by many travelers but holds a spectacular collection of Turners and masterworks by the Pre-Raphaelites, in a much more appealing, accessible building.
    In Paris, too: much of the Louvre’s collection was ‘bled off’ into other, more specialized collections back in the 80s. Depending on the century of art you’re interested in, or the age group of people you’re traveling with, the Louvre may be more of an ordeal than pleasure.
    Deciding what is a must-see is a very personal thing and there’s no substitute for knowing oneself and doing a bit of research beforehand.
    I’ve really enjoyed your new photos of Florence, Jenna. Florens2012 sounds a very exciting experience!

    • Jenna says:

      I would love to give the Van Gogh museum another try. It was just too crowded and we have just 4 days in Amsterdam, so I really wanted to be outside exploring its beautiful streets. Thanks for the Tate tip 🙂

  • Oh, my love affair with Florence will never end my Renaissance BFF!! What a fantastic time you must have had as a member of Team Florens and I love the pic of you and Alexandra at Santa Croce. My only wish is that I had your experience of being an insider in my favorite city and had seen all that you enjoyed during your week in November. Give me more Florence anytime…I am in love!

  • ehalvey says:

    I’m glad to hear other art history buffs being underwhelmed by art museums; I thought the Picasso museum in Barcelona wasn’t worth it.

    I love the dichotomy of contemporary art in historic spaces like your photo of the photography exhibit in the Palazzo Vecchio. Those always grab my attention.

    Sounds like Florens2012 was a great time! So glad you got to go!

    • Jenna says:

      Art museums have their time and place…sometimes when I’m traveling, they just don’t make the list!
      There was a lot of that dichotomy of contemporary + historic, especially in front of Santa Croce with the Mimmo Paladino installation.

    • Alexandra says:

      Hi erin! I also was disappointed by the Picasso Museum, which I went to in part because they won the Museums on the web prize for social media some years back – I expected a more interactive experience.

      Jenna, lovely post. A simply written, visual way to explain a feeling. I agree in full (actually the post that your comment luv system is linking is of a similar ilk – sometimes the experience is all about how you see things, under what light, with what mental frame.)

      • Jenna says:

        🙂 and the reference you make to how we see things under what light, with what mental frame is so fitting here. This could not have been a better trip as far as quality, timing, anticipation, purpose, interaction with you all, etc.

  • Leslie says:

    I really liked this post – particularly because it brought up a couple of very excellent points. I agree with Lesley’s comments re: the Tate, and what both of you mentioned in that people (and I include myself in this) should be more careful & selective in what they choose to spend their brief time in another city seeing. I’ve been disappointed several times after going out of my way to investigate a museum or sculpture because I thought I had to; on the flipside I’ve also been very pleasantly surprised at times.

    Regardless…I loved your constant Instagrams the whole time you were in Florence, and love the tips on a few extra things to see that aren’t necessarily the ones we always hear about. Sometimes I feel like I’ve “done” Florence…and I realize I definitely haven’t yet at all.

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks, Leslie. Yes, definitely being selective is important for everyone, art lovers or not. I’m glad you enjoyed the Instagrams and I agree, Florence has so much that it’s very hard to see it all!

  • Hasan Niyazi says:

    Thank you for this post Jenna. It is always great to read how the experience of Florence impacted the other bloggers in our team. I made it to the Uffizi once, because I wanted to see the new arrangement of their Raphaels. I saw a few other things – including that wonderful time spent with you. Yet overall, I did nowhere near as much museum gazing as I had originally envisaged. I would just find that I did not feel altogether up to it – I seemed so caught up in simply being there, and by what we were doing for Florens2012.

    It was my second time there and I was grateful to be part of the unique TeamFlorens experiment. I was very conscious that we were making history in an historic setting by being the first “official” bloggers for the Fondazione Florens – and it made me wonder about the city’s preparedness to embrace the future, and how responsive it was to young people – who seem ever-present yet do not really have a voice in how cultural institutions are run.

    There was a refreshing, youthful vibe at the Palazzo Strozzi courtyard, I was glad I got to see it – and it provided some hope that other museums would follow their example. I loved the display they had downstairs where you could type a tweet, and I was glad to contribute a little poem to it. Being back in Australia now, and the routine of a different life, I do feel like part of me is still there, waiting to continue a journey started long ago.

    Cheers Jenna – and thank you for the cool time at Santa Maria Novella. It is truly a magical place full of many innovative works – a wonderful microcosm of ingenuity!

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks, Hasan, for the thoughtful comment. One day you should go back to Santa Maria Novella to spend more time with that church’s works, including some of the older ones there. Sorry to hear that you didn’t have time for more visits to the Uffizi, but it was a busy week (busy in a good way), and our time was spent doing much more than we probably envisioned before coming there.

  • Christina says:

    Thanks for discussing the street life of Florence and the Florens2012 conference as art experiences. I love the idea of art as something you interact with. We can appreciate the beauty of an altarpiece in a museum but without the religious context is don’t evoke the same emotional reaction from the viewer. I think this is why I like contemporary art installations and street art so much; they meet us as we walk about and are purposefully there to be provocative. That marble garden outside Sante Crocce is awesome!

    This is also the great thing about the growth of digital media and art history. I like the new ability to communicate with words and images and to examine art in ways that probably isn’t even possible in real life. (I’m thinking specifically of the digitized Ghent altarpiece and how closely you can zoom into it.)

    And of course I love Florence so pictures of that gorgeous city are always a good thing! 🙂 Glad you had a good time living in the Palazzo Vecchio!

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree about the importance of background…disseminating information about the purpose and meaning behind art in an easy-to-understand way is a goal of mine.

  • Michi says:

    I loved, LOVED Florence when I went two years ago, but unfortunately did not explore the art scene very much, other than visiting the statue of David, and doing my statue poses at the Piazza della Signoria. But both you and Monique have been such inspirations to me when it comes to learning about the art scene. 😉

    • Jenna says:

      Of course, I know why you loved Florence so much. You will have to go back and see more another time!

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