Hospitals, Synagogues, and Walls: Italy, Weekend (Florence)

We slept in, missing morning services at the synagogue, but planned to attend mincha and Havdalah. (The most devout Jews pray three times a day: morning, afternoon, and evening. Havdalah is the ceremony that ends Shabbat and returns us to the world of the secular.)

We walked around, with no particular goal. Around the corner is a hospital, we noticed its exterior was decorated in frescos and there was a note for a tour of the art in the hospital. We inquired, but learned that we would need to come back on Monday. Next to the main entrance was a chapel. It was, by Italian standards nothing remarkable, but it had a dramatic ceiling fresco and some fine paintings. Looking it up later we learned it is the oldest public hospital still active in Florence, Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova and was founded by in 1288 by Folco Portinari, father of Beatrice – the great love of Dante. About two centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci did research there. Florence is a remarkable place.

We walked. We wandered by the Florence Duomo, which we had tickets to visit on Monday. We’d seen pictures, but the exterior is fantastic. The closest comparison I could think of in its combination of scale and richness of detail and color was the Taj Mahal. We admired the accompanying Campanile (bell tower) and the copy of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise on the Baptistry. No pics, because it was Shabbat where we strive to refrain from electronics, machinery, handling money, and work in general. We walked further to San Lorenzo and the Cappella Medici, the local church of the Medici family which includes family tombs and great works of art. Alas, it charged admission, so we could not enter.

The Great Synagogue is Pretty Great

After lunch and a nap, we headed to the synagogue for afternoon and evening prayers. The day before we had sent our information over. Synagogues in Europe (and around the world) are guarded and cannot simply have open doors. (I had a similar experience in the summer in Buenos Aires). The Great Synagogue of Florence is monumental, but expensive to heat. Since the service was small, it was held in a room of the community center. I attend services semi-regularly, but the siddur (prayer book was unfamiliar). The word siddur means order, the great meal at Passover is called the Seder, and is derived from the same meaning. There is an order to the prayers and to the festival meal. There are however  variations in different places, so between that, the Italian rather than English accompanying the Hebrew, and the different tunes to the prayers I was lost a fair amount of the time. My detail-oriented wife, whose fluent Spanish makes the Italian less alien, followed along more closely. This synagogue was Orthodox, however, which meant that men and women were seated separately, so I couldn’t benefit from her wisdom.

We chatted with the other attendees, who told us a bit about the Jewish community of Florence. They also asked if we would like to see the Great Synagogue, which we answered affirmatively. After Shabbat ended, we were taken to the sanctuary, and it is stunning. I don’t have any pictures and lack the skill to describe the rich colorful patterns decorating the walls or beautiful marble floors. It was built as a Jewish companion to the great churches of Florence. It was one of many great synagogues built (or at least considered) from the mid 19th century to the early 20th. The term ghetto originated in Venice and referred to the area of the city where Jews were forced to live. It was established in 1516. The concept spread throughout Italy, and Europe. In 1570 Cosimo I de’Medici established a ghetto in Florence, he was currying favor with the Pope, hoping to be named Grand Duke. In the 19th century, Jews across Europe began to achieve social and political freedom. Some Italian kingdoms and city-states disestablished their ghettos and granted Jews equal rights. The disestablishment of the ghetto removed the legal requirement the Jews reside there, but often the communities continued. In 1870, Italy became an independent and unified nation and gave equal rights to Italian Jewry.  Jewish communities throughout Italy built great and beautiful edifices in celebration of their new status as full citizens of the new nation. The planned great synagogue of Turin outstripped the community’s resources and became the Mole Antonelliana – named for its architect. When it was completed in 1889 it was the tallest brick building in Europe at 550 feet. It was also an inspiration for Giorgio de Chirico’s mysterious towers.

We wandered the city looking for a good dinner. We tried to find a place we had seen on our walk earlier that advertised local beer, it was closed. We found another place, I had a good red beer and tried grappa – which is pretty good.

Sunday in Lucca

Our plan was an excursion to one of the many other towns of Tuscany. We chose Lucca because there was a direct train and an obvious attraction. Lucca is an ancient walled city with beautiful churches, architecture, and museums. It was originally a Roman military camp and there are traces of Roman construction still. Lucca has also played an outsize role in music history. What is remarkable about Tuscany and Italy a whole is that there are so many towns, large and small that have remarkable local histories and art. It would be a lifetime to visit them, let along give them their proper due.

Tuscan countryside from the train.

We got up later than was prudent and then our train was delayed, there was a protest on the tracks and we sat for an hour. I couldn’t follow the conversations around us, but I enjoyed their gossipy tenor. On my phone, I read Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio: A Novel, by Amara Lakhous. It is about a murder in an apartment building in Rome, but it is really about the perspectives of the people in the building, nearly all of whom are immigrants to Rome either from elsewhere in Italy or beyond. It is a funny and sad short novel that gives a hint as to the clashing identities within modern Italy.

Off the train and very hungry we found a great vegetarian place just inside the walls for a late lunch. One small, nice thing, besides the terrific food, the water is free. In Europe restaurants typical charge for water, it isn’t much but rankles Americas. Here it was free, and we could refill our water bottles and prepare for Lucca’s main attraction.

Crowded Sunday on the wall
Lucca seen from the walls

We had a train back to catch, so we didn’t have time for Lucca’s many sites – we walked along the walls. Lucca has converted its old fortifications into a park. It’s a three-mile loop affording great views of the old city and the Tuscan countryside. Plus, I love scrambling around old battlements. We walked, but others bike or jog this unique tree-lined park. It was very pleasant, but we had to hurry a touch to catch a train back to Florence. 

Lucca’s Walls
Tuscan countryside seen from walls of Lucca

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