The Best of Tuscany

Florence, the great Renaissance city of Europe in the heart of Tuscany, invites anyone who comes to open your eyes, your imagination and your spirit to new possibilities. Every time I’ve come to Florence, Italy, I’ve walked through old doorways into new discoveries, encouraging growth of creativity, innovation, and wonder. I came to Europe, including to Tuscany and her capital city of Florence, to study church history and vineyards. We were blessed with an abundance of riches during our few days on pilgrimage in Tuscany.

Tuscany: Florence

We moved into an artist apartment (booked through Airbnb) on the fourth floor of a building across the street from the Duomo. Our spacious Florentine two-bedroom apartment with tall wooden shutters opening onto an amazing view of Brunelleschi’s wonder at the heart of Florence. Several years ago, I read an excellent book by Ross King, Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, about the brilliant career of Filippo Brunelleschi who took on the challenging task of designing and constructing the largest free-standing dome on planet earth, the dome of the Florence cathedral, completed in 1436. The interior of this amazing place of worship can welcome up to 20,000 worshippers at once. Florence breathes night and day with creativity. Florence is a walking city and the best way to explore the art of Florence is on foot. While walking in Florence, we visited an art studio where students learn to restore old artwork and gild fine art frames. We walked into medieval paper shops. We watched a leather worker making a new leather wares for sale. We saw dozens of street artists painting plein-air art, hanging their newly created works for sale as they were drying. We visited several world-class art museums, including the Bargello and the Uffizi, with such renowned works of art as Botticelli’s Primavera and Madonna of the Magnificat, Michaelangelo’s bas-relief sculpture Madonna with Child and painting Tondo Doni, Donatello’s David, Gerard van Honthorst’s Adoration of the Child, and El Grecho’s St. John and St. Francis. Our souls were richly feasted with the creativity of the Renaissance masters. We visited churches to pray, including Santa Croce with frescos on the life of Saint Francis painted by Giotto, and also the burial site of such amazing people as Michaelangelo, Dante, and Galileo. Finally, what is not to love about Italian cuisine. We feasted on Florence, in body, mind and spirit.

Tuscany: Siena

Florence is the capital city of Tuscany. Because I’ve been studying viticulture, and because Tuscany is one of the world’s most famous regions for making wine, we decided to explore the countryside around Florence. We booked a delightful day-tour called “The Best of Tuscany”, boarding the tour bus at 8:30 in the morning in Florence for a journey across Tuscany. Our first stop was the medieval hilltop city of Siena, home to Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) who wrote, “All the way to heaven is heaven because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’” Catherine was born during the time of the Black Death plague which devastated Europe. She lived during a tumultuous time of wars, corruption, and church division. Early in her life, she spent three years enclosed in her room in prayer, constantly troubled by doubts and taunting voices. Finally, she banished these dark spirits with laughter, asking Jesus where he had been all those years. His answer was simply “I was in your heart.” She is a phenomenal woman of faith who devoted her life to Christ, to the unity of the Body of Christ, and to service to others out of her deep love for Christ. We spent a little time in the piazza, location of the twice-annual famous horse race known as the Palio, in which ten horses race for the honor of bringing the “palio” banner back to their section of the city. Since the time of the renaissance, Siena has been divided into 17 different neighborhoods, each symbolized by a different animal. These 10 of these 17 districts are selected by drawing to participate in the three-lap horse race around the piazza, which is crammed with cheering viewers. We also enjoyed an hour in the Siena’s Duomo, one of the most beautiful sacred spaces I’ve ever seen, with artistry from floor to ceiling, literally. The marble floors of Siena’s Duomo are covered with biblical scenes intricately laid out with inlaid marble in multiple colors and great detail. These scenes are only uncovered a few weeks of the year to preserve them over time. We were in Siena during one of the days they were available for viewing, with each scene roped off. For worshipers who do not read, and for all who bow their heads in worship, there beneath your feet are more reminders of the holy history of God from Scripture. Whenever I enter a church or cathedral overseas, I take a little time to sit in a pew, pause, rest, and pray. I pray for the ongoing life of the Body of Christ who worships in that space weekly, as well as give thanks for Christ’s faithfulness to be present to us in worship, year after year, century after century. Siena’s Duomo also includes one of the the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever entered inside a church buildings, a little side room off the sanctuary, used as the church library, featuring illuminated manuscripts and colorful frescos by the Florentine painter, Pinturcchio.

Tuscany: Chianti Vineyards

Our tour then led us to a vineyard-farm where a family grows grapes and makes wine, raises beef cattle, grows olives and produces extra virgin olive oil, grows fields of crocus flowers to make saffron spice, among other products. We toured this organic, working farm, then settled down for a fantastic three course lunch featuring products grown on the farm, with wines made in the vineyards spread out before our eyes from the outdoor terrace dining area. Across the valley, perched upon a hill like a fairytale was the hilltop town of San Gimignano, our next stop along this Tuscan tour.

Tuscany: San Gimignano

After lunch, we walked up the steep streets into this medieval-walled city, through arched towered gates, past local artisan shops, into the heights of San Gimignano, the ruined castle, for a view across Tuscany. Everywhere we looked, we saw orchards of Olive trees and vineyards of Sangiovese grapes. The hills around this area are known as the Chianti mountains, which gives its name to the famous wine from this region. Grapes are featured commonly in local artwork, including ceramics. One of the unusual aspects of San Gimignano is her tall, stone towers. At one time this small town had over 70 of these towers. Though only 14 stand today, they are a lasting tribute to local competition and one-upmanship, with local merchants seeking to outdo each other by building more impressive and taller towers than the tower next door. The other historical note I found fascinating about San Gimignano is that along with Siena, this hilltop town was another stopping place along the medieval pilgrimage way path known as the Via Francigena, the ancient walking path from France to Rome.

Tuscany: Pisa

Our final stop across Tuscany took us into the northwest corner of the region, near the Mediterranean Sea to Pisa. We visited the “Field of Miracles” to see the Duomo, the Baptistry, and of course, the famous leaning tower where hometown hero, Galileo performed some of his physics experiments. Once again, we paused for a few moments inside the Duomo to pray, offering our thanks for the opportunity to explore the sights, tastes, history and wonders of Tuscany.

Tuscany: Florence by Night

We arrived back to Florence 12 hours after we had left at 8:30pm. We walked across town to enjoy a late dinner of Tuscan pasta with porcini mushrooms and with a lovely local chianti. On our walk back to our apartment, we stepped into a brightly lighted artist’s studio to watch a 70-year old artist paint the Duomo in acrylics at 11pm at night. Then we walked on down past the Duomo, the Cathedral Church of Florence, beaming brightly in the dark night, just as the Church of Jesus Christ has done for centuries, bringing the hope and help to millions upon millions through the ages.