Travel: Florence versus Venice

Dan Brown's forthcoming novel, Inferno, is set principally in Florence. Picture: PA
Dan Brown's forthcoming novel, Inferno, is set principally in Florence. Picture: PA
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DAN Brown’s forthcoming novel, Inferno, is set principally in Florence, and already the city is gearing itself up for an even greater influx of tourists than usual after the book’s publication on Tuesday.

My own recently-released thriller, The Abomination, is set in Venice. So how do I think the two cities compare?

Grande Canale, Venice. Picture: AP

Grande Canale, Venice. Picture: AP

The Duomo versus the Basilica

Florence’s Duomo is a gorgeous, elegant testament to the power of the Medici, its soaring dome the first since antiquity, while the doors of the Baptistry are so splendid Michelangelo declared them “the doors of Paradise”.

In Venice, the Basilica of St Mark’s is a more curious confection – a multitude of domed arches that resemble the minarets of Byzantium more than classical temples. That’s no accident, but a reminder that Venice’s power came from the East, not the past.

• Score: Florence 8, Venice 6

Piazza della Signoria versus Piazza San Marco

Florence’s Piazza della Signoria may not be the city’s largest square, but it can certainly claim to be the epicentre of Florentine politics, and therefore of the Renaissance. It’s already a place of pilgrimage for thriller fans – the balcony overlooking the square is where Hannibal Lecter disembowelled and defenestrated the corrupt policeman Rinaldo Pazzi.

Piazza San Marco was dubbed by Napoleon “the drawing room of Europe” for its elegance. Today it often feels more like the sixth-form common-room of Europe, so crammed is it with schooltrippers. It’s also the lowest point of the city, so the first to flood when high water strikes. Still, at least it washes away the schoolkids.

• Score: Florence 8, Venice 5

Palazzo Vecchio versus the Palazzo Ducale

It was within the Palazzo Vecchio that Hannibal did his disembowelling, and where he whispers to Pazzi, “I will eat your delicious wife.” The palazzo also features in the sample chapters of Dan Brown’s Inferno: “An imposing stone fortress with a notched parapet and a three-hundred-foot tower that swells near the top, bulging outward into a massive machicolated battlement.”

The Palazzo Ducale in Venice may not have much in the way of machicolations but it’s where Casanova escaped over the roof with the aid of a renegade priest. Book the fascinating Secret Itineraries of the Doge’s Palace tour, and you’ll see his cell, along with the secret passages, spymasters’ offices and torture chambers that kept this most secretive of republics going.

9 Score: Florence 6, Venice 8

The Vasari Corridor versus the Grand Canal

So smelly and crowded were Florence’s streets, the Medici had the artist Vasari knock up a walkway from the Palazzo Vecchio to their new home, Palazzo Pitti. The streets are still just as smelly and crowded, although the Corridor isn’t fully open.

Venice, by way of contrast, has the Grand Canal. Take a vaporetto from Santa Lucia Station, and you’ll chug past extraordinary gothic palace after extraordinary gothic palace, wondering how those dazzling, floral façades, and those windows that seem to be made of twists of barley-sugar, can possibly be supported on oak pilings driven into the seabed.

• Score: Florence 2, Venice 10

Mercato Centrale versus La Pescheria

Florence’s food market is a must-see, must-buy, must-taste feast. Hams from cinta senese pigs, pecorino from Grosseto… and stalls selling the city’s favourite fast food, lampredotto, tripe in a roll.

Step off the Rialto into the Shakespearian loggia of Venice’s La Pescheria, and you’ll have a completely different experience. You’ll recognise sea bass, bream, mullet and slabs of tuna. A heap of swordfish, their swords tipped with polystyrene to protect the arms of passers-by, glitter in the sun. A step away, in the vegetable market, you’ll encounter tiny artichokes grown in the sandy, salty soil of Sant’ Erasmo, and the striped radicchio of nearby Treviso.

• Score: Florence 7, Venice 9

Bistecca alla Fiorentina versus Fegato alla Veneziana

In the hills around Florence, they rear white Chianina cattle, huge T-bone steaks of which are brought to the table with nothing more than a sprinkling of salt, a glug of olive oil and a side of fava beans.

In Venice, they take the liver of a young calf, slice it thin, and toss it in slow-cooked onions. Even people who don’t like liver go crazy for it – but bistecca alla Fiorentina, properly cooked, is one of the world’s great dishes.

• Score: Florence 8, Venice 7

Michelangelo versus Marino Marini

When it comes to sculpture, Florence should win by a mile. You’ve got masterpieces by Donatello and Bernini before you even get to Michelangelo, and the awesome experience at the Galleria dell’ Accademia of walking past his Captives, struggling to emerge from stone, before finally standing beneath the magnificent David.

And yet, and yet… There may be no great Renaissance statues in Venice, but visit the Peggy Guggenheim Museum where the heiress indulged her love of modernist art in the 1950s, and you’ll see something almost as striking. On a jetty overlooking the water stands Marino Marini’s extraordinary, enigmatic Angel of the Citadel – a bronze horse bearing a rider whose arms and face are uplifted to the sky, and whose exuberant, prominent phallus also points skyward. In her autobiography, Guggenheim recalls that the addition of the erection was her idea: she also asked that it should be cast separately “so that it can be screwed in and out at leisure.” You don’t get that with the David.

• Score: Florence 9, Venice 6

Aeroporto Galileo Galilei versus Aeroporto Marco Polo

There are no direct flights from Edinburgh to Venice’s Marco Polo, which makes costing a short break tricky. A watertaxi costs around £85, an unforgettable way to approach the city. Florence, meanwhile, doesn’t even have an airport – you’ll have to fly to Pisa’s Galileo Galilei with BA or Ryanair, from £60 one way, then transfer.

• Score: Florence 4, Venice 8

Overall score: Florence 52, Venice 59

So there you have it: on this evidence, Venice narrowly beats Florence. As for the battle of the two thrillers – well, I may be at number four in the Italian bestseller list today, but I think we all know who’ll go straight to number one on Tuesday. Now I come to think of it, I’m with John Donne: comparisons are odious.

• Jonathan Holt’s The Abomination, is published by Head of Zeus at £16.99. To read a sample chapter, visit

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