Elegant and luminous, Florence is located along the river Arno, between rolling hills. Unique in the world for its majestic buildings and the refined elegance of its centre, the city of Florence preserves completely intact the harmonious grace of the works of the Renaissance masters. The inhabitants are enterprising and introvert, but love practical jokes and are proud of their past and their town. The most important artists who reached the highest peaks of Art came from the Florentine hamlets, from the swarming local markets and from the artisans' workshops. Obviously it is impossible to describe all the immense artistic, historical and architectural heritage of Florence, but we will try to give you hint for the next time that you will visit the city.
The origins of the city is uncertain, but presumably the first human settlements date from the 10th century B. C., when some Italic populations settled down in the plain around the river Arno. At the end of the 8th century they disappeared, probably due to the arrival of the Etruscans who lived around the hills of Fiesole, controlling the Mugnone valley. Between the 3rd and the 2nd century B.C. the Romans conquered the Florentine territory by using the fortified centre of Fiesole and other Etruscan settlements.
In the 1st century B.C. Cesar's soldiers founded Florentia, which became an important commercial and military hub, thanks to its central location which made it a crossroad of great strategic importance. In this period Florence was embellished with imperial monuments and the chess-shaped streets were planned as we still today can see in the heart of the ancient part of Florence, around Piazza della Repubblica.
With the decline of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the Barbarians, Florentia, as many other Italian cities, was invaded and sacked, suffered from epidemics and famine and was so depopulated that the Byzantines degraded it to a sort of entrenched military zone. Only with the arrival of the Longobards who transferred the Marca from Lucca to Florence, the city experienced an economical and commercial upswing, a flourishing period which would last for a long time.
From the High Middle Ages, Florence's fast economical and commercial upswing also meant a military superiority, which after bloody battles, ended up in a political supremacy in Tuscany. The continuos wars against the other Tuscan cities only consolidated the Florentine wealth, thanks to the artisan manufacturing, the founding of the corporations and the financial power of the banks. The rivalry between the Gulphs and the Ghibellines, an emblematic sign of the hostility which has always characterised the city, ended up with the victory of the Guelphs when Matilde di Canossa decided to support Pope Gregorius VII, instead of Arrigo IV, for the Papal throne. Consolidated the power of the Guelph faction, the Florentine Republic was founded which let the consoles together with a citizen council and a Parliament govern the city, one of the first examples of civil and democratic institutions in Europe.
During the Middle Ages Florence was marked by the bloody fights between the pro-papal Guelphs and the pro-imperial Ghibellines. In this period the city managed to conquer the whole territory of Tuscany, dominating Arezzo, Lucca, Pistoia, Siena, Poggibonsi and Volterra.
In the 14th century the Florentine power was reduced by Lucca at Altopascio and by Pisa at the battle of Montecatini, but during the following century the supremacy of Florence reached its highest peak, thanks to the arrival and consolidation of a new governing class.
The 15th century is the century of the Medici family, who came from the Florentine banking system which had managed to give wealth to the city. Under the Medici family Florence became the world's art capital. Art, sculpture, literature and music flourished and the city played an important role as a cultural guide which nobody has been able to take away.
After the death of the last member of the Medici family, Florence passed to the Lorena family, a Napoleon parenthesis and the incorporation to the Kingdom of Italy.
Florence has been stroke several times by the violence in recent times: the bombings during the last world war did not spare the old part of the city, and in 1966 a terrible coincidence of bad luck and irresponsibility provoked a devastating flood of the river Arno, which inundated the city causing inestimable damages of the artistic and historical heritage.
In 1993 a TNT bomb planted by the Italian mafia exploded destroying the Torre del Pulci, the seat of the Accademia dei Georgofili, damaging the nearby the Uffizi Gallery. Florence has been hit hard and frequently, but nobody has managed to submit the city, not even to discourage the Florentines which with the hard work rolled up their sleeves without hesitating in order to restore the splendour that with violence of the evil enemy of beauty and art had tried to delete.
DISCOVERING THE CITY
Piazza del Duomo, San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapels.
The first itinerary that we propose to you is the heart of Florence, Piazza del Duomo, which features an enviable architectural heritage in such a small district. The imposing complex of the Duomo and the bell tower show us how powerful and rich Florence was at the end of the 13th century and offers you a bit of the harmony of the components and chromatic lines of the Florentine artistic language, powerful and sober, imposing and always close to man.
A majestic example of Italian Gothic, the Duomo di FLORENCE, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, was raised on the antique chiesa di Santa Reparata. Arnolfo's project was continued by Giotto, Andrea Pisano and Francesco Talenti, while Brunelleschi in 1420 started to work on the dome, designing it with an extraordinary technical intuition. The dome without any reinforcement was completed in 1436 and the lantern in 1461. The exterior part of the Duomo was covered with coloured marble, following the example of the nearby and much older Baptistery. The main fašade was completed only in the 19th century.
Outside, it is worth to have a look at the beautiful porta della Mandorla (the Almond Door) (to the north), called in this way due to the big lunette which surrounds the Assunta figure, a great example of the passage from Gothic to Renaissance canons. The interior, austere and solemn, is lightened by the splendid glass windows by Ghiberti and preserves many important art works, such as the two frescoes by Paolo Uccello from 1436 and by Castagno in 1456. Paolo Uccello also decorated the clock located in the interior of the main fašade. The splendid PietÓ by Michelangelo has been removed and is today at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, while you can still find the Incoronazione (Incoronation) mosaic by Maria di Gaddo Gaddi, the bust of Brunelleschi by Andrea Cavalcanti, the dome frescoes begun by Vasari and completed by Zuccai and the wooden Crucifix at the altar by Benedetto da Maiano in the Cathedral.
The Campanile di Giotto (the Bell Tower) preserves the name of the artist who designed it, though it was completed by Andrea Pisano and Francesco Talenti. The exterior of the Bell Tower, a sublime example of the architecture of the 14th century is 85 m high, in polychrome marble in the same colours as the Duomo. The first tiers is adorned with bas-relieves by Andrea Pisano and Luca della Robbia, while further up you distinguish the statues with Prophets and Sybils by the same artist, Donatello and Nanni di Bortolo. The highest tiers of the Bell Tower is decorated with bifora and trifora windows which give the tower a slim and airy impression.
Without going to far from the Piazza del Duomo, you can visit the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, founded in the end of the 19th century to house all the art works from the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Baptistery. Here you can see the beautiful sculptures by Arnolfo which were supposed to decorate the fašade of the Duomo, the sketches for the dome made by Brunelleschi, the choirs by Donatello and Luca della Robbia, the PietÓ by Michelangelo, which alone is worth the entrance fee to the Museum, apart from the masterpieces of paintings, crucifixes and church ornaments. The collection also features sculptures by the Florentine school from the 16th and 17th century, while you find tools and material in another room, which were found during the restructuring of the Duomo and the Cupola. The equipment shows the input and the technical skill of the workers during the Brunelleschian period.
The origin of the Baptistery is still uncertain, one of the oldest monuments of Florence, which during the Middle Ages was believed to have been a pagan temple from the Augustian period dedicated to Mars. The external part is characterised by geometrical patterns of the white and green Prato marble, and is a great synthesis of Early Christian and Romanesque motives. The doors are three masterpieces in bronze: the North door, completed in 1424, was made by Ghiberti depicting scenes from the New Testament. The South door is the oldest one and on Andrea Pisano illustrated on the panels scenes from the life of John the Baptist. Very famous is the so-called Gates of Paradise, the eastern door, a consummate masterpiece by Ghiberti who depicted events from the Old Testament, a reminiscence of Late Gothic and Classic sculpturing.
The original gate has been removed , though some of the restructured panels are placed in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. Inside you can see the splendid intarsia floor and the big mosaics of the ceiling and apse, all in gold, made between the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century by artists with a Byzantine training from Venice.
If you take Via Cavour towards Piazza San Lorenzo, you will find on your right hand-side the entrance of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, a splendid example of renaissance architecture, by Michelozzo for Cosimo the Old, the patriarch of the Medici family. It is the first Renaissance palace in Florence, characterised by the austere ashlar in the lower part of the fašade and elegant bifora windows further up. Entering the two asymmetric doors you get to a courtyard which was built according to the modules of Brunelleschi and decorated originally in graffiti, and a typical Italian garden. In the 17th century the palace was bought by the marquis Riccardi who built a room with frescoes by Luca Giordano, one of the most significant example of Baroque art in Florence. Visit the Chapel of the Palazzo, adorned with a splendid fresco by Benozzo Bozzoli, dedicated to the Arrival of the Three Wise Men. Continuing along Via Cavour, passing the entrance of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, you turn to your left towards the Chiesa di San Lorenzo.
You get to the Chiesa di San Lorenzo by crossing the picturesque and lively market with the same name as the church, the most loved market by the Florentines where you find a vast range of handicraft and a friendly and noisy atmosphere. The church faces a small picturesque square and the external fašade was never executed. The interior was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, who also entrusted the best artist of the period to decorate the church. The old Sacristy is very beautiful, adorned with works by Donatello and his pupils. Crossing the suggestive courtyard you get to the library Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, a real coffer full of miniatures. It allows you to admire closely the extraordinary staircase by Michelangelo., who designed the whole building. Just a few steps from the Chiesa di San Lorenzo you find the Cappelle Medicee (the Medici Chapels), not to miss due to the inestimable artistic heritage hosted here. From the crypt by Buontalenti you access the Cappella dei Principi (Princes' Chapel), a splendid example of Florentine Baroque. In the chapel there are the tombs of Donatello, Cosimo the Old, the Lorena family, while the New Sacristy, in semiprecious stones and white plaster is one of Michelangelo's masterpieces. Michelangelo designed the incomparable tombs and the allegoric statues of Dawn, Dusk, Day and Night.
Via de' Calzaioli, Museo del Bargello, Piazza della Signoria, Palazzo Vecchio, Ponte Vecchio, Galleria degli Uffizi
If you have little time but you do not want to miss any of the sites that you can see on the postcards, you can follow this second itinerary which privilege the most famous monuments of the city, apart from the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore .
Even the second itinerary starts from Piazza del Duomo, but goes to Piazza della Signoria taking Via de' Calzaioli, probably the most known street of Florence. A porphyry-paved street lined with shops and elegant palaces. Along the street you find the Chiesa di Orsanmichele, originally raised as a loggia for the grain and further on transformed into a church in the 14th century. In the interior, apart from the works by Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti and other artists, it preserves a splendid tabernacle by Orcagna, a masterpice by Andrea di Cione.
If you at the church turn to the right towards Via de' Tavolini, you will realise that you are close to the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. The Museum hosts one of the most important collections of sculptures and decorative arts in the world. It is almost impossible to point out each single work of this inestimable heritage, but just to mention some of them: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Donatello and Giambologna, Verrocchio and Cellini, Bernini and the members of the family della Robbia. If you do not like museums, you can just stroll down along Via de' Calzaiuoli which ends in Piazza della Signoria. No description is complete enough for Piazza della Signoria, the star of the postcards and the TV services from Florence. The atmosphere that you breath here has never changed during the centuries. Imposing Medieval buildings line one of the most beautiful squares in the world, giving it an austere appearance that arouses respect. Palazzo Vecchio dominates the square, still today the Town Hall, a stone building crowned with merlons and over them the Tower of Arnolfo. The interior of Palazzo Vecchio definitely is worth a visit, and hosts prestigious rooms such as the Salone dei Cinquecento, adorned with tapestries, fine examples of art from the 14th century and the statue Genius of victory by Michelangelo. Also visit the Salone dei Dugento, the Studiolo of Francesco I (Francesco's study), the Sala dell'Udienza and the room with the maps, the apartments of Eleonora da Toledo.
To the left of the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio you find the fountain dedicated to Neptune, called Biancone by the Florentines which is a work by Ammannati from the 16th century. To the right of Palazzo Vecchio you see the Loggia de' Lanzi or della Signoria. A Late-Gothic building raised in the late 14th century which houses Perseus by Cellini, the Rape of the Sabine Women and Nessus by Giambologna, the Rape of Polissena by Pio Fedi.
Next to the Loggia della Signoria you find a vast area with the main entrance to the Uffizi Gallery. Before entering the Gallery "par excellance", continue walking straight forward and cross the street. At this point, turn around. You have Ponte Vecchio to your left and in front of you probably the most beautiful scenographic sites in the world, a view of Florence that you will not forget. Now you can enter the Uffizi, but remember that one day will hardly be enough to see all the artworks housed here. The complex of the Uffizi, designed by Vasari and ended by Buontalenti, features 45 rooms on the third floor, while on the second floor you find the rooms with drawings and printings. In the second room you find the works by Giotto, Cimabue and Duccio di Buoninsegna, the following room features Simone Martini, Piero and Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the fourth room houses Florentine paintings from the 14th century. The rooms cover the Italian art history: Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, Beato Angelico, Botticelli, Antonio del Pollaiolo, Leonardo, Mantenga, Pontormo, Raffaello, Tiziano, Caravaggio and Tintoretti are only the most famous names. It is an inestimable heritage which makes Florence the jewel of the art in the world., an inestimable treasure which perhaps will make you understand, at least partly, why the Florentines are so proud.
To complete a short visit in Florence, but without excluding any of its most famous and fascinating symbols, just a few steps from here, you find Ponte Vecchio. It is a very old bridge, perhaps even of Etruscan origins, but was rebuilt in the 14th century by Neri di Fioravante. Damaged by the bombings during the second world war and by the flood in 1966, Ponte Vecchio was restructured and houses jewellery shops and two panoramic terraces. The Corridoio Vasariano linking Palazzo Vecchio, the headquarter of the Florentine government, with Palazzo Pitti, mansion of the governors since the Grand Duchy, passes over the bridge.
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CHURCHES IN FLORENCE
Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce, San Marco, SS. Annunziata, Santa Maria del Carmine, Santo Spirito
A walk to discover the most beautiful Fiorentine churches will lead you to the most suggestive squares of the city, where you also find the most known and famous religious temples.
The Piazza (square) and the Church dedicated to Santa Maria Novella are just a few steps from the Central Railway Station of Florence. The building, raised between 1246 and 1360, is a splendid example of Florentine Gothic architecture.
The main fašade is divided into two sections: the lower part looks like the Romanesque style of the Baptisery while the strict geometrical patterns of the higher part were designed by Leon Battista Alberti, the most important perspective theorist of the 15th century. The splendid Chiostro Verde (Green Cloister) of Santa Maria Novella is also worth a visit. The name of the cloister comes from the fact that green is the predominant colour of the fresco cycle painted by Paolo Uccello, still visible and in perfect shape. Piazza Santa Croce is probably the most scenographic and picturesque square of Florence, a perfect square lined with elegant Renaissance palaces. The main attraction of the square is the Basilica di Santa Croce, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and completed in the middle of the 14th century, apart from the fašade and the bell tower which were completed in the 19th century. Crossing the Cloister of Arnolfo you get to the Cappella dei Pazzi, (the Pazzi Chapel), an excellent example of Renaissance architecture, built by Brunelleschi on behalf of the Pazzi family, which went to the records for the conspiracy against the Medici family.
The Chiesa di San Marco is located on the square of the same name, at the end of Via Cavour. It is a simple and elegant complex, with a Renaissance base but with a main fašade which dates from the 18th century. Beside the church you have the Convento di San Marco (the Convent of San Marco) which houses the Museum: here you find numerous masterpieces by Beato Angelico, such as the famous Annunciation, and works by Paolo Uccello and domenico Ghirlandaio. If you want to explore the area around San Marco you can not miss the Galleria dell'Accademia, in Via Ricasoli. Founded in the 18th century, the Gallery offers a vast sample of paintings from the 16th century, but the real treasure are two sculptures: the Prigioni by Michelangelo (the two others are housed in the Museum of Louvres), and the masterpiece by the Florentine artist, the David statue. A copy of is still locared in Piazza della Signoria. The David, the symbol of the city, was made by Michelangelo to celebrate the return of the Medici family to Florence, after having been driven out in 1494.
Not far from the entrance of the Gallery you find Piazza Santissima Annunziata, a big, elegant square, rationally designed accompanied by the church with the same name and the Spedale degli Innocenti. The Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata was rebuilt by Michelozzi in the 15th century, on an already existing building. The most important characteristic is the splendid Renaissance portico and the chapels inside which preserve many art works. The Spedale degli Innocenti also features a beautiful portico, a suggestive example of Renaissance architecture designed by Brunelleschi, embellished with the ceramics by the Della Robbia workshop. Its linear architecture defines the harmonious style of all other buildings in the square.
The churche Santa Maria del Carmine and Santo Spirito are located at the other side of the river, Oltrarno. If you take Ponte Santa Trinita you get right on Via di Santo Spirito. Also in this case the square and the church have the same name and are both an admirable example of the Florentine Renaissance. The Chiesa di Santo Spirito was designed by Brunelleschi, the main fašade dates from the 18th century and the bell tower was built by Baccio d'Agnolo. Sober and refined, the interior is a Latin cross and preserves a beautiful crib by Ghirlandaio's pupils, apart from other paintings from the Florentine school.
You reach the Church and the Square of Santa Maria del Carmine by walking along Via di Santo Spirito. The church has Romanesque-Gothic origins but was rebuilt in the 18th century due to a devastating fire. The Brancacci Chapel is a masterpiece of renaissance painting, with frescoes by the maestros of this period such as Masaccio, Filippino Lippi and Masolino da Panicale.
THE PALACES OF FLORENCE
Palazzo Strozzi, Palazzo Rucellai, Palazzo Corsini, Palazzo Davanzati, Palazzo Pitti, Giardino di Boboli, Piazzale Michelangelo e Basilica di San Miniato al Monte
The Florentine Renaissance architecture did not only leave traces in the public buildings or in the churches, but also designed the private mansions that still today line the main streets of the old part of Florence. From Piazza Santa Maria Novella you only have to walk a few steps to get to Via dei Tornabuoni, the most elegant street of Florence, where you find the high-class shops, all important fashion and jewellery brands.
A nice experience is Palazzo Davanzati which, contrary to the other buildings described so far, houses a very original Museum dedicated to the old Florentine home. Palazzo Davanzati is located along Via Porta Rossa and is easy to find thanks to its loggia from the 16th century. The mansion is a noble and sober example of private architecture in Florence from the 14th century, the beginning of a more austere period which reflexes on the private noble houses during the following century. The Museum features a vast and complete view over he daily life in Florence during the 14th century, thanks to the collections of furniture, household goods, ceramics and even towels and bed linen. But the most important Florentine palace Palazzo Pitti, , easily reached by walking over Ponte Vechio to the other part of the river Arno. Imposing ashlar building, it was designed by Brunelleschi for a rich merchant and was successively enlarged by Ammannati when Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo I de' Medici, bought it. The Grand Dukes of Tuscany lived here, followed by the Lorena family and the Savoy royal family organised memorable theatrical performances and other events here worthy a regnant house. In the interior of the Palace you should visit the Museo degli Argenti (the Silver Museum) and the Galleria Palatina (Palatine Gallery), while the outside features the marvellous Giardino di Boboli (the Boboli Garden). A typical example of the Italian garden, Boboli offers green open areas designed with a theatrical and scenographic consciousness, adorned with statues, caves and marvellous panoramic locations over Florence. A walk in the Boboli garden will allow you to breath the fresh and relaxing air of a city which has was designed for the wealth of the inhabitants, but will never loose the chance to surprise you, as for example the cave by Buontalenti in the garden, embellished with statues and sculptured stables.
Piazzale Michelangelo is the panoramic terrace over the city of Florence and, even though it is almost always crowded with tourist buses that dump groups of tourists, it still offers a unique possibility to have a look over the centre of Florence. In the middle of the square you can see the Monument dedicated to Michelangelo, a reproduction of David and of the sculptures that are in the Medici Chapels. From Piazzale Michelangelo there is a flight of stairs leading to the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, excellent example of the Florentine Romanesque architecture which repeats the geometrical patterns of the Baptistery, in white and green Prato marble. The Basilica di San Miniato was raised between the 1000 and 1200 and preserves intact its sober and moderate fascination of its origins.
EVENTS IN FLORENCE
The most famous event in Florence is the Calcio Storico (Old Soccer), a precursor to the less suggestive soccer games that are played each Sunday. The city, true to its factious and hostile vocation, is divided into four teams; the white from Santo Spirito, the green from San Giovanni, the red from Santa Maria Novella and the blue from Santa Croce that play against each other on 23 and 24 June. The historical pitch of this sport, so violent that the game risks to degenerate in a brawl and to be interrupted, is Piazza Santa Croce, but sometimes it is played around Piazza Signoria or in the Giardino di Boboli. During the Renaissance it was the young men from the noble families of Florence who played, while in recent occasions the teams have used ex-prisoners, perfect players for a game based on violence. The aim is to score. It is a unique event which is worth to be seen at least once.
On 24 June Florence celebrates San Giovanni, the Patron and protector: the celebrations end in the evening with the fireworks from Piazzale Michelangelo, which illuminate the city from above, creating a suggestive scenario.
If you spend Easter in Florence you can not miss "The Explosion of the Cart", an event from the 16th or 17th century which has never been interrupted. In the morning a parade with people in Renaissance costume takes the wooden cart, a sort of adorned and coloured tower, along the streets of the city, to Piazza del Duomo. A rope is placed from the square to the high altar of the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, through the central nave. After mess a small rocket with the "dove", a figure representing hope and peace, is set off. The Florentines hope that the dove "flies" along the line to the cart, setting off a mechanism of fireworks. If everything goes as it should, it means that it will be a good year and the Florentines can start celebrating.
A typical Florentine event, as it is not known in any other Italian city, is the Rificolona which is held on 7 September. It has religious origins, as it basically is a procession dedicated to the Madonna. But during the centuries, it has become a festival for children. The girls carry the "rifocolone" (colourful and extravagant paper lanterns with a lightened candle inside) in procession. The "rificolone" set on 1 Ż metre long staves are carried in procession: the boys traditionally armed with pea-shouters and paper staves, today more probably with tile plaster, try to hit the candle in order to put the "rificolona" on fire.
But the girls have become more and more cleaver, putting a electrical lamp instead of the candle inside! The funniest part of the event is to make the Rifocolona by yourself, with some paper and glue and lots of creativity and a fantasy: especially for the youngest kids.
The most famous Florentine dish is certainly the "Bistecca", a huge bloody T-bone steak, grilled on fire, not on a gas flame. To appreciate it you should drink one of the good red wines from the hills around the city, for example a Chianti Classico. But the Florentine cuisine offers other specialities too. The roasts will make your lunch unforgettable and the first courses, especially the soups are worth to try. Try Ribollita and pappa al pomodoro with some local extra virgin olive oil over at least once. The members of the Medici family enjoyed eating and the chefs experimented new exquisite dishes to serve at the meals. Caterina de' Medici, Lorenzo il Magnifico's nephew, loved drinking and eating and ordered her chefs to let their creativity flourish.
When Caterina, in 1533, departed to France in order to marry Enrico di Orleans, she also brought her kitchen staff and so the French learnt from the Florentines how to cook Orange Duck and bechamel sauce, and how to make ice-cream and cream puffs and how to fry pancakes. The French not only took Mona Lisa to the Louvre, they also robbed some of the masterpieces of our cuisine, giving the dish new refined French names. If you want to experience the fascination of Florence, do not forget that cooking is an art and that the arts have been cultivated with care and love since ancient times in this city. So, end your visit in Florence with a meal in one of the numerous "trattorie". Your appetite will certainly appreciate it.