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Tuscan Stakeout

Born two generations after Dante, Boccaccio was a fan of the Divine Comedy. On display in his stone house are photocopies of his letters to Dante, as well as many editions of his own Decameron. In Certaldo's isolated streets, I got a sense of what it meant to exile oneself from the big city, as the characters in the Decameron did when they fled plague-ravaged Florence. Boccaccio's house, however, was rebuilt after its destruction in World War II and seemed too new to evoke the 14th century.

Our next stop was Siena, once home to Saint Catherine. In contrast to the secular superstars in this story, Catherine, born in 1347, is an actual saint, who received visions and the stigmata. In its museum incarnation, her house—a stone building that once sheltered her, her parents, and her 24 siblings—looks more like a collection of chapels than a private dwelling (frescoes in one chamber celebrate the supernatural aspects of her life, such as the time that the young Catherine climbed stairs without touching them). Yet aspects of Catherine's legacy are pointedly political. Although she was illiterate, she was able to correspond through a secretary with emperors and popes, including Gregory XI, whom she visited in Avignon as part of a successful campaign to return the papacy to Rome.

As we left Siena for Arezzo, we were caught in an afternoon thunderstorm. We motored cautiously through sheets of rain at first, but lost our nerve when the lightning started and pulled off the road to eat a simple lunch: bread, cheese, and panforte, Siena's sticky traditional confection. We ate in the front seat, watching droplets pound our windshield, grateful—as we had not been on the streets of Pisa—for the car's spaciousness.

Later, with our car safely garaged in Arezzo, we walked to Vasari's house, which turned out to be the antithesis of Saint Catherine's (Vasari didn't live in Arezzo himself; he installed his wife there while he chased glory in Florence as the court artist of Cosimo de' Medici). With the exception of a closet-like chapel, the second-floor dwelling is entirely dedicated to earthly celebrity. The most dramatic room contains a mural about fame on the walls and ceiling. In it, Vasari paints himself on the same symbolic level as his mentor, Michelangelo.

We left Arezzo for Florence. A few weeks earlier, Christine had secured opening-night tickets to Verdi's Otello at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the city's famous spring festival. So we zoomed up the A1 autostrada, a terrifying superhighway, to ensure that we would make the 8 p.m. curtain. In Florence we ditched our car at the rental agency, changed into evening clothes, and had an early dinner, arriving in time to observe a glittering crowd venerating conductor Zubin Mehta, evidence that the Florentine obsession with celebrity did not end with the Renaissance.

Not all our plans, however, went so smoothly. The next morning, I sought out Dante Alighieri's house, but it was closed for restoration, as was the dwelling in the hills outside Florence where Galileo was kept under house arrest. I sneaked a peek over the wall at the loggia where the astronomer used to walk, feeling an illicit thrill, like a star map-clutching stalker.

Happily, though, Casa Buonarroti, Michelangelo's townhouse, was open. There we met art historian Elaine Ruffolo, who told us that the notoriously miserly artist did not live there, but merely "collected real estate." His nephew would later adorn many of its walls with murals of scenes from his uncle's life.

Although I enjoyed seeing the austere cell in the museum of San Marco where Savonarola, the notorious anti-pleasure priest, hung his rosary, my favorite Florence house museum was Casa Guidi (even though it is associated with the 19th century rather than the 15th). Poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning set up house in this second-floor apartment near the Pitti Palace. Spacious but not grand, the apartment retains a few objects from the Brownings' occupancy, including, tellingly, a mirror. The drawing room's battery acid-green walls are a testimony to the couple's fashionable eccentricity.

The Browning shrine seemed a fitting finale for our tour (and a destination for a future one). Not all of its rooms are on view; some of them are occupied by paying guests. Currently run by the Landmark Trust of Great Britain, the Brownings' apartment can be rented for overnight stays, making it the last word, if not the last circle, in vicarious celebrity.

ITINERARY
Day 1 12.5 miles. Pisa to Lucca; visit Puccini's house.
Day 2 86 miles. Lucca to Siena by way of Vinci and Certaldo. Stop at the museums dedicated to Leonardo and Boccaccio.
Day 3 40 miles. The Siena-to-Arezzo leg includes the museums of Vasari, Saint Catherine, and Petrarch.
Day 4 49 miles. Arezzo to Florence; see Casa Guidi and Michelangelo's house.

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