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    In Florence, geniuses of place: art, fashion, and wine

    The Gates of Paradise on the east doors of Florence's Baptistery are hard to approach when tour groups are in the vicinity.
    David Lyon for The Boston Globe
    The Gates of Paradise on the east doors of Florence's Baptistery are hard to approach when tour groups are in the vicinity.

    FLORENCE - College art history class almost ruined Florence for me. Every tale about a struggling artist of the 15th century eventually came around to the largesse of the Medici clan. Irrational or not, I began to see Lorenzo de’ Medici as the George Steinbrenner of the Renaissance: the guy with deep pockets who always got the best talent that money could buy. That made Florence the New York Yankees of art, so I had resisted its charms for years.

    When I finally visited last fall, I fell for the city, Medici and all. What won me over was seeing that Florence’s creative genius didn’t end when Michelangelo moved to Rome. It persists in the city’s sense of fashion and flair, and in the gastronomy. What convinced me were a humble cobbler made good and a noble family of winemakers turned restaurateurs.

    I had read that approximately 1.7 million tourists visit Florence every year; if so, they were all there when I was. With only a few days, I was frustrated on my first afternoon to find long lines at the Uffizi Gallery and the Duomo (cathedral). And the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge famous for its goldsmiths’ shops since the Middle Ages, was a barely shuffling mass of tourists.


    Two strategic decisions saved me. I bought a reserved ticket for the first entry to the Uffizi on the following day. Then I took my welcome letter from the Gallery Hotel Art, where I was staying, for a free admission to the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, practically around the corner. (The Ferragamo company also owns the hotel, it turns out.)

    David Lyon for The Boston Globe
    Marchese Lorenzo de' Frescobaldi shows off the small wine cellar at the new tasting center at Tenuta di Castiglioni.

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    Going in, my knowledge of Ferragamo was limited, although my wife once scored a Ferragamo purse at a tag sale.

    What I did not know was that Salvatore Ferragamo got his start in Boston when he came as a teenager to work in a shoe factory with one of his brothers. I also did not realize that many of the iconic women’s shoes of the 20th century were his designs - from the cork wedge and its 1939 version, in which he covered the cork in tiny mirrors for Carmen Miranda, to the peaked suede ankle boot from 1938 that looks like it walked down last season’s runway. Invisible straps on 6-inch heels? That was Ferragamo in the 1950s.

    Ferragamo is often credited as the co-creator of the stiletto heel because he was the first to engineer shoes with a steel shank that distributed weight evenly across the sole. Probably his most famous stiletto was the gray suede, crocodile-covered heel that Marilyn Monroe wore in “Some Like It Hot.’’ The museum exhibits include that shoe model - and a few hundred others. The overall collection chronicles all the Ferragamo designs from 1927 (when he returned to Italy) to his death at 62 in 1960, and also holds the designer’s private collection of historic footwear.

    David Lyon for The Boston Globe
    Salvatore Ferragamo designed these shoes for Brazilian entertainer Carmen Miranda.

    Art for the ages

    Since guided tours of Florence tend to start around 9 a.m., I headed out the next morning shortly after 7 to see the public statuary, the gorgeous squares, and even the Ponte Vecchio before most tourists got out of bed. I marveled at my leisure over the details of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise’’ on the east side of the Baptistery. Given the beautiful high-relief modeling, I could see why Michelangelo (who worked on them as an apprentice) gave them that nickname. I took far too many photos of the classical sculptures outside the Palazzo Vecchio. As I walked the vast, empty expanses of the piazzas surrounding the Duomo, I appreciated why the Renaissance version of vanishing-point perspective had been developed on this very spot in the 1430s.


    As I waited in line at the Uffizi for my admission time, I studied my guidebook to strategize my visit. In a museum so rich with Renaissance art that you could spend all day just comparing different versions of the “Adoration of the Magi,’’ I decided I would rather have a few moments up close with a handful of masterpieces than hours of walk-by viewing from across the room. I plotted my path to Raphael’s “Madonna of the Goldfinch,’’ Titian’s voluptuous “Venus of Urbino,’’ and Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.’’ (A footnote: Botticelli’s Venus had such large, flat feet that she could never have squeezed into a pair of Ferragamos.)

    I came away with a grudging appreciation of the Medici. After all, it was the last Medici who bequeathed the family art collection to the Tuscan state when she died in 1743. Her only condition? That none of it ever leave Florence.

    Glories of the vine

    I was beginning to understand why people so love the city. Even the noble clan of Frescobaldi, who retired to the countryside to make wine when they lost a Florentine power struggle (partly with the Medici) in the 14th century, have been taking a more public role in Florence these days. One of the largest producers of high-end wines in Tuscany, they showcase their bottles at Dei Frescobaldi Ristorante & Wine Bar. (A little English in the name conveys the same cachet that Americans seek by using a little French.) Their wine bar in the Rome airport had soothed my travel-frazzled nerves on several occasions, so I was curious what a full-fledged restaurant would be like.

    The straightforward Tuscan fare was beautifully prepared, served in generous portions, and perfectly complemented the Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi wines. I gravitated to the inexpensive Castello di Pomino white for a pasta course of thick spaghetti with a light goose ragu, and to the fruity Pinot Nero for my hearty main dish of beef cheek braised in Chianti and served with big white beans.

    The Frescobaldi have made wine since the 12th century. They have made often unconventional wines in and around Florence since the early 19th century, when they began planting grapes more traditionally grown in Burgundy and Bordeaux. It would be 150 years before anyone coined the term “Super Tuscan’’ to describe wines made from these “international’’ grapes, but the Frescobaldi were way ahead of the curve. The restaurant manager suggested that if I was really curious, I should visit the closest Frescobaldi property, a tasting room that had just opened on the 11th-century ancestral family farm in the Florentine countryside.


    Name notwithstanding, Tenuta di Castiglioni, as they call the vast farm and winery, is no castle, but it is a stunningly sited manor house overlooking acres and acres of vineyards. Marchese Lorenzo de’ Frescobaldi, one of three brothers who own and operate the wine company, lives on the property and sometimes even greets visitors. Though the vineyards lie well within the Chianti Colli Fiorentini district, the Frescobaldi choose not to make Chianti here because the regulations would limit the grapes they grow.

    “Most of the soil is wrong for growing Sangiovese grapes,’’ the marchese said as he showed off his brand-new cellar. I could see his point when I sampled the wines upstairs in the tasting room. The namesake red, Tenuta Frescobaldi di Castiglioni, is a Bordeaux-style blend with just 10 percent of the local Sangiovese grape. The ultrapremium Giramonte is a huge, elegant Merlot that gets some sass and spice from 12 percent Sangiovese.

    They were the perfect expression of Florence’s creative genius: Making great wine with great grapes, and then injecting a little local tradition to make it stand out from all the rest. They didn’t tell me about that in art history class.

    Where to stay

    Gallery Hotel Art

    Vicolo dell’Oro 5


    Stylish hotel with its own contemporary art gallery is located steps from the Ponte Vecchio. Ultracontemporary rooms are large, quiet, and elegant. Double with breakfast from $177.

    Where to eat

    Dei Frescobaldi Ristorante & Wine Bar

    Via dei Magazzini 2-4/R


    Closed Sunday and Monday lunch. Main courses $24-$32, pasta courses $13-$17.

    What to do

    Museo Salvatore Ferragamo

    Palazzo Spini Feroni, Piazza Santa Trinita 5/R


    Wed-Mon 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Adults $6.50, children ages 10 and under and seniors 65 and older free.

    Uffizi Gallery

    Piazzale degli Uffizi 6

    011-39-055-294-883 (tickets)

    Tue-Sun 8:15 a.m.-6:35 p.m. Adults $14.30, students and seniors $7.15, plus $5.20 for advance reservation.

    Tenuta di Castiglioni

    Montagnana Val di Pesa

    Via Montegufoni 39 Montespertoli


    David Lyon can be reached at