Travel: Why Florence is the perfect destination to let your creative juices (and fine wines) flow
Katie Wright heads to Tuscany in search of artistic inspiration...
SLIDING a large sheet of thin paper from a folder and smoothing it out on the table in front of him, Roberto Guarnieri is setting out the ground rules of art for amateurs.
“The first rule is to enjoy, you must smile,” the retired architect, artist and co-owner of Studio Iguarnieri (iguarnieri.it) tells the group of four gathered on the grass outside the peach and custard coloured walls of Villa La Massa, a historic hotel perched on a picturesque bend of the river Arno, just outside Florence.
The other rules? No judgement (of your own or others' work) and if you mess up, it's better to start again than try to correct it.
We begin the hour-long art class by taking it in turns to draw circles on the paper with thick marker pens, first with our eyes closed, then open, then with our non-dominant hand, and observing the difference.
Quickly progressing to simple ink sketches on paper, we're soon commencing our final pieces, spreading a dollop of white plaster on hard canvas boards with a trowel, to create a backdrop for our fresco paintings (a traditional style where the paint is applied while the plaster is still wet), inspired by Florence's most iconic flower, the iris.
After dabbing heavy splodges of bright blue on the plaster with a brush, I pick up the trowel again and smear the paint into what I hope are petal shapes, adding flecks of black in the middle and scraping vertically to create the stem.
The iris is greatly revered around these parts. It features on the Florentine coat of arms and the city is home to the spectacular Giardino Dell'Iris gardens (free entry; societaitalianairis.com), open for just one month each spring, when the grounds are blanketed in a rainbow of blooms.
No matter what time of year you visit, there's no shortage of jaw-dropping beauty and artistic inspiration to be found in the Tuscan metropolis.
“In Florence, there is a serious energy about art,” Guarnieri says, crediting the Medici family for “the proportions, the colours… beauty survives”.
The wealthy dynasty of bankers and politicians who ruled from the 1400s to the 1700s come up a lot during my stay.
Down in the crypt of the Cappelle Medicee (entry €9/£7.50; operamedicealaurenziana.org) a bronze statue honours the last of the noble clan.
“She was a very important woman for Florence – we thank her,” says tour guide Paola Di Felice, clasping her hands in prayer position and raising them up to Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici.
Why? Because before her death, the Electress Palatine signed a pact that ensured the family's many valuable treasures – painting, sculptures, reliquaries – must stay in Florence for public enjoyment, and they've been attracting visitors to the city ever since.
Case in point: the magnificent baroque funeral chapel above the crypt, a vast octagonal space lined with elaborate marble panels in dark green, grey, brown and red. And, next door, a smaller, more minimalist chapel, the work of Renaissance artist Michelangelo, where four other Medicis are buried.
The famous family was also responsible for Villa La Massa, which dates back to the Medici era and passed through the hands of a variety of aristocratic owners, before becoming a luxury hotel in 1953.
Comprising a cluster of buildings (including a former flour mill and farm house, and the tiny chapel where the late David Bowie married his wife Iman in 1992), the secluded property features opulent but modern décor, each room uniquely decorated in sumptuous colours.
Closure during the pandemic allowed the opportunity for major renovations, including a new outdoor heated swimming pool, and now staff are looking forward to a busy summer season.
The hotel is popular with guests who love not only the beautiful, leafy grounds and impeccable service, but the proximity to Firenze (to use the city's Italian name), just a 15-minute shuttle bus away.
Recently named the most visited cultural site in Italy for the first time, the Uffizi Galleries (uffizi.it) are usually the biggest draw in Florence for art lovers, but right now another exhibition is the talk of the town – amongst tourists and locals alike.
A co-production of Palazzo Strozzi Foundation and the Bargello Museum, Donatello, The Renaissance (tickets €15/£12.50) is billed as a once in a lifetime retrospective examining the greatest sculptor of his generation, and the impact he had on his contemporaries.
Open until July 31, the show traces the artist's earliest works in terracotta, through to chubby cherubs and gleaming golden religious figures, up until the last five years when his working life was wholly devoted to building projects commissioned by – you guessed it – the Medicis.
The culinary arts are also held in high esteem in Tuscany, as I learn when I sit down in the private kitchen of Casa Colonica, the former farmhouse where I'm stationed at Villa La Massa, for a cookery demonstration with head chef Stefano Ballarino.
Gently prodding and stretching a spongy dough into an undulating oval, chef douses it with olive oil and rock salt and slides it into the oven.
Fifteen minutes later we're savouring steaming chunks of focaccia topped with creamy goat's cheese, pecorino, salami and mortadella ham.
My epicurean adventures continue the next afternoon at Vallepicciola vineyard (vallepicciola.com), an hour from Florence in the Chianti Classico area.
Jumping in the back of an open-topped jeep, we zoom off on a tour of the estate, where the vines are still snoozing, only a few tiny green buds beginning to sprout. Agronomists are hard at work optimising growing conditions to ensure a plentiful and flavoursome harvest when summer comes.
Hopping out at the top of a hill, we duck into a deconsecrated chapel lined with barrels of Vinsanto dessert wine. Resting in the cool, high-ceilinged space, they're in the midst of a five-year aging process.
Most of the wine production here happens underground (the subterranean temperatures help to save energy). Gazing down from the overhead walkways, we see gleaming stainless steel vats awaiting the arrival of this year's freshly squeezed juice.
“It's quiet now, but from August to November, this area is always busy,” says tour guide Federico Gutierrez, leading us another level down, where rows and rows of Hungarian oak barrels lie in the dark, the only sound the gentle hiss of a humidity regulator.
Brandishing a long glass pipette, Gutierrez extracts samples of Migliore Rosso that hasn't yet reached its full potential (it still tastes pretty delicious to my untrained palate).
Back on ground level, we sup seven of the vineyard's top drops, from a lightly fizzing Spumante to a deep Cabernet Franc, and deliberate over which to take home.
Founded in 1999 on the grounds of an old nunnery, Vallepicciola is one of the youngest vineyards in Tuscany.
Committed to sustainable viticulture, the estate uses photovoltaic panels to power the cellar, and the buildings, constructed with local materials, designed to blend in with the natural surroundings.
Incredible architecture and modern techniques that honour the heritage of the region. No doubt the Medicis would approve.
How to plan your trip:
Rates at Villa La Massa (villalamassa.com) start from €520 (around £470) for a Double Deluxe Room per night, including breakfast. Price also includes use of the Arno SPA facilities (including gym, sauna, Turkish baths). Price includes VAT and service. City tax excluded.