Inspired by the marble masterpieces of Florence, Gabriella le Breton tries her hand at sculpting.
How to tackle Florence, a city with such a wealth of art that visitors run the risk of succumbing to "Stendhal syndrome", named after the French writer who was left sick and dizzy by the volume of art he saw during a visit in 1817?
I'm keen to avoid becoming similarly overwhelmed, so I've arrived in the cradle of the Renaissance with a plan. On this trip I'll concentrate on the city's sculptural treasures, in part inspired by the Hotel Savoy, a bastion of Florentine hospitality since 1893. It's working with the Galleria Romanelli, a long-established sculptor's studio, to offer guests the chance to join a two-day sculpture course during their visit.
What better city to admire the work of the world's finest sculptors – Donatello, Michelangelo, Giambologna and others – and then gain an insight into their genius with some hands-on sculpting?
After checking into the Savoy, I walk from Piazza della Repubblica, the city's former Roman forum, to the city's Oltrarno quarter. The name – "across the Arno" – reflects its location on the left bank of the river that bisects the city and is an area that has become synonymous with the artists, antiquarians and jewellers whose workshops and galleries line its streets.
Sculptor Pasquale Romanelli acquired his "studio" here in the mid-19th century, a deconsecrated church prized for its towering ceilings, which allowed for the creation of large sculptures. As I discover on entering the Galleria Romanelli, it still houses sculptural masterpieces five generations later – marble statues, whimsical bronze cherubs, monumental friezes – in the hands of Folco Romanelli and his children, Raffaello and Rubina.
Raffaello, dapper in tweed jacket and loafers and with faultless English, ushers me into a small workshop alongside the gallery – we need to capitalise on the afternoon light. Marble, of course, is the medium to which most sculptors aspire and students can progress to stone after a few lessons with Raffaello, though novices start with something "easier". But even eyeing the lump of clay Raffaello has laid out for me, I'm unnerved by the prospect of shaping anything worthy from it.
Raffaello is charming and humble but I know he is an acclaimed sculptor, commissioned to create busts of wealthy Florentines, royals, celebrities and international dignitaries. The fact he's asking me to replicate the work of the world's greatest sculptor does little to quell my nerves: my task is to copy the lips and chin of Michelangelo's David.
The clay is cool and smooth to touch and my inclination is to pummel it into submission but Raffaello advises calmly: "Keep stepping several paces away from your work and look at both objects from different angles." Despite being a keen (if infrequent) painter, I find the creation of a three-dimensional object a real challenge.
"Look at how shadows and light define shapes, rather than looking for lines and curves where you expect them to be," Raffaello says. I find myself looking at each of the contours of David's full, sensuous lips in a new light and, as I grow braver in building up my "sculpture", it starts to take shape.
We pack up for the night and, leaving the studio, I walk past the candlelit wine bars and restaurants of Oltrarno, cross the Ponte Vecchio and stroll along the cobbled Via Por Santa Maria towards the Hotel Savoy. In doing so, I am literally walking in the footsteps of sculptors such as Michelangelo and Donatello, for whom I now have an even greater respect. Having spent an afternoon creating a poor replica of David's lips out of soft, yielding clay, the task of carving his five-metre-tall body out of unforgiving marble is barely conceivable.
The next morning, on the recommendation of the omniscient Savoy concierge, Ruggero Vannini, I meet Maria Rosa Canale, a city guide with 30 years' experience under her Ferragamo belt. As I explain my wish to focus on sculpture, Canale nods and we're off.
While she provides a fascinating commentary on the history of Florence and its sculptors, we admire the austere beauty of the church of Orsanmichele, graced with 14 statues of the patron saints of Florence's craft and trade guilds, created by the finest sculptors of their day, including Donatello. There is more outdoor sculpture in nearby Piazza della Signoria, where I peer up at Cellini's bronze Perseus and the replica of Michelangelo's David to see the lips with which I'm now so familiar.
In the Basilica di Santa Croce, we marvel at the imposing tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini and others. Canale has to drag me away from the exquisite Madonna in Donatello's delicate Annunciation, a magical combination in gilded "pietra serena" (local grey stone) of the poised, timid Virgin and six mischievous cherubs playing on top of the altarpiece.
Moving on, we reach the Bargello, one of Florence's oldest buildings and a former prison, which now houses many of the world's finest sculptures. Michelangelo's louche Bacchus and handsome Brutus keep company with Donatello's precocious bronze David. The vaulted, frescoed arches of the inner courtyard shelter Vincenzo Gemito's innocent Pescatore (Fisherman), while bronze animals from the grotto of the Medici villa of Castello line the staircases.
After a restorative plate of pasta, Canale ushers me to the Basilica di San Lorenzo to see Michelangelo's extraordinary Laurentian library and staircase – architectural pieces so beautiful they warrant the title of sculpture. And then, perhaps Florence's sculptural non plus ultra: the New Sacristy in the Cappelle Medicee (Medici chapels). Michelangelo never finished the sacristy but its simple, geometric architecture provides the perfect backdrop for those statues he did complete, particularly his hauntingly powerful allegories of day and night, dawn and dusk.
Canale takes her leave as I approach sculptural saturation point, suggesting I clear my head with a stroll in the 16th-century Boboli Gardens, full of panoramic views, open meadows, grand avenues, grottos, fountains and thickly planted groves named ragnaie (spiders' lanes).
Staying true to the Medicis' wish for the gardens to be an outdoor museum, the Boboli Gardens are dotted with Roman antiquities and sculptures from artists spanning three centuries, including Stoldo Lorenzi's dramatic fountain of Neptune (affectionately known as the Fountain of the Fork). Standing in the Grotto Grande, I discover another Michelangelo foursome, the replicas of his unfinished, roughly hewn Prisoners peering from the gloom.
I leave the gardens just in time to watch the sun cast its last rays on Giotto's slender campanile. I'll return tomorrow morning to the Galleria Romanelli for my second class with Raffaello, during which I'm due to "graduate" to a copy of David's foot. Hopefully inspired rather than defeated, I'll visit the Galleria dell'Accademia to spend time with the real David and Prisoners.
After lunch at the Mercato Centrale, where I'll pick up some truffles to take home, I'll spend the afternoon in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo admiring Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise (the bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery) and another of Michelangelo's Pieta sculptures, supposedly intended for his own tomb.
So much sculpture but still so much more to see. I'm already consoling myself with the thought that you should always leave something unexplored, keeping something to return for.
Swiss International Air Lines has a fare to Florence from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2280 low-season return including tax. Fly to Hong Kong with a partner airline (about 9hr), then to Zurich (13hr 11min), then to Florence (70 min). This fare allows travel via a number of Asian cities and back from another European city. See swiss.com.
Staying and sculpting there
The Hotel Savoy Firenze has a two-night "It's all about Art!" package from €1311 ($1610) for a double room, including two nights' bed and breakfast and two three-hour sculpture classes at the Galleria Romanelli (raffaelloromanelli.com). The package is available until April 30. The hotel has an unbeatable location on Piazza della Repubblica, two minutes from the Duomo. Discreet, personal service and calming decor provide an oasis amid the city's exuberance. Double rooms with breakfast cost from €444 a night; see hotelsavoy.it.
Even if you spend only a couple of hours with Maria Rosa Canale, her encyclopaedic knowledge of Florence will make a world of difference to your enjoyment of the city. Phone +39 55 422 0901.
From March 25 you can buy a Firenze Card (€50), valid for 72 hours with free admission to 50 museums, villas and gardens in Florence and the surrounding area. It's expensive but it enables you to jump queues, which in high season at the Uffizi or Accademia can involve waits of several hours. See firenzecard.it.
Don't miss a visit to the Palazzo Davanzati, a wonderful example of a Renaissance family home with stunning frescoes. Pre-booking tickets, particularly for the top floor, is essential. Via Porta Rossa 13; phone +39 55 23885.
Join the locals at Nerbone, a simple yet deservedly famous stall that has operated in the Mercato Centrale since 1874, best known for its panino con bollito, a succulent beef sandwich dipped in meat juices. Mercato Centrale 292, by the Via dell'Ariento entrance.
In San Lorenzo, don't neglect the crypt, which houses a staggering collection of silver, gold and bejewelled reliquaries and altar cloths.
Walk to San Miniato al Monte for views over Florence and to hear the Gregorian chants of the resident monks (daily at 4.30pm in winter). Cross the Ponte Vecchio, follow Costa San Giorgio east to Via di Belvedere and up Via del Monte alle Croci.
Caffe Paszkowski is an atmospheric cafe and restaurant dating from 1846, favoured by locals for informal lunches. Order pasta inside at the counter to avoid paying the a la carte prices. Piazza della Repubblica 35; phone +39 55 210 236.
Fusion Bar & Restaurant is a small, trendy venue in the Gallery Art Hotel, which provides a genuinely Italian take on fusion cuisine, such as Mediterranean sushi and miso ham soup with spinosini pasta. Vicolo dell'Oro 3; phone +39 55 2726 6987.
Borgo San Jacopo at Hotel Lungarno is one of Florence's finest restaurants, with views across the River Arno. Try the Quartet, a mini four-course menu presented on one dish with a focus on meat, fish or vegetables. Borgo San Jacopo 62R; phone +35 55 281 661, see lungarnocollection.com.
Florence has wonderful opportunities for a drink with a view at any time of day. At 9am, try espresso overlooking the Ponte Vecchio at Golden View Open Bar, Via de' Bardi 58R. At 11.30am, have elevenses on the rooftop Uffizi Gallery Cafe, Piazzale degli Uffizi. At 4pm, tuck into afternoon tea and Tuscan pastries in the nautical Lounge Bar Picteau, in Hotel Lungarno, overlooking the River Arno. And at 6.30pm, order aperitifs on the terrace of Il Salviatino, a hotel set in tranquil olive groves above the city; salviatino.com.
- Telegraph, London