Florence, the regional capital of Tuscany and widely acknowledged cradle of the Renaissance, owes its splendor and unique influence on the development of the western world in great part to the dominant ruling family of the period, the Medici. Staring in the mid-fourteenth century their far-reaching patronage of the arts left an indelible mark on the city. The emulation it encouraged in other powerful families created an environment where artists could thrive. The evolution of this profound architectural and artistic movement that was to shape Europe over the next two centuries can be appreciated here like nowhere else.
The daily tidal wave
Understandably, the city attracts close to ten million visitors per year. Each morning, a tide of tourists from around the world floods the narrow cobbled streets of the historic center in the wake of efficient guides that shepherd them along an established itinerary of the most iconic landmarks before receding at nightfall toward their next destination. “They start at the Ponte Vecchio,” a Florentine friend once lamented, “on a one and a half kilometer march that takes them by the Uffizzi, the Piazza della Signoria, Palazzo Vecchio and Duomo to end at the Galleria dell’ Accademia for a look at Michelangelo’s David. Work in time for lunch and a gelato break, and if the group has sufficient stamina a quick detour by Santa Croce or the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata for glimpse at the Brunnelleschi arches and ecco, they have seen Florence.” And, she added with a hint of regret, “they have missed most of it.”
Yet we both agreed that although it barely scratches the surface of its treasures, this guidebook itinerary provides a good introduction to the historic and cultural past of the city that shaped the evolution of Europe.
A good place to start
The Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence, spans the Arno at its narrowest point. While it is believed there has been a succession of bridges in that spot since Roman times, the current structure lined with shops as was customary then, dates back to the early fourteenth century. But for me its most intriguing feature sits above the row of garish jewelry storefronts that run the length of the bridge. It is the enclosed private corridor commissioned in 1565 by Cosimo I de’ Medici to connect the Palazzo Vecchio, then seat of the ruling body of the Republic of Florence, with the Palazzo Pitti, his own residence immediately across the river. Designed by Giorgio Vasari, it is a stark reminder of a time when assassination was considered an expedient way to solve political differences.
The Uffizi Gallery Built in the mid-sixteenth century for Cosimo I de’ Medici to house magistrates, administrative offices and state archives, the Palazzo degli Uffizi (Italian for offices) is located between the Arno and the Palazzo Vecchio. The third floor holds a mind-boggling collection illustrating the evolution of Italian art, displayed chronologically from Gothic to late Renaissance and beyond, in rooms opening onto a large gallery that runs the length of the building. The gallery is lined with antique marble statues. It also offers a superb view of the Ponte Vecchio and the Arno. The rooftop terrace coffee shop is worth a visit for its close up view of the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and the dome of the Duomo.
Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio. The political center of the city since medieval times, the Palazzo Vecchio opens onto the Piazza della Signoria (or Government Square), which remains to this day one of Florence’s most famous and busiest squares. The visit of the Palazzo Vecchio includes the elegant private apartments as well as the internal courtyard and the grand public rooms with their frescoed walls and elaborate coffered ceilings to give an interesting insight into the life of the aristocracy of the time.
La Galleria dell’ Academia is part of the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence. A number of Michelangelo’s masterpieces are displayed here, including his four unfinished Prisoners, intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II, and his world-famous 5.20 meter (17 foot) white Carrara marble statue of David. Originally set on the Piazza della Signoria, the David was moved in the nineteenth century to a specially constructed gallery in the Accademia. A copy now stands in its place outside the Palazzo Vecchio. The remainder of the art collection, mainly works from the Gothic and early Renaissance periods, was originally assembled to educate students.
Duomo The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Duomo is one of the largest churches in Italy and one of the major tourist attractions in Tuscany. The exterior is faced with white marble panels outlined in green and pink. Started in 1296 in the Gothic style, it was completed in 1436 with addition of the Brunelleschi dome, which remains today the largest brick and mortar dome in the world. The façade was left bare until the nineteenth century when it acquired its elaborate Gothic Revival marble design.
The Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents or Foundling Hospital) on the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, just a short walk behind the Duomo, was Fillipo Brunelleschi’s first architectural commission. Its gracious loggia of nine semi-circular arches facing the piazza set the stage for the development of an architectural style based on classical antiquity.
La Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) is the principal Franciscan church in Florence. Located on the Piazza di Santa Croce, about half a mile south-east of the Duomo, it houses the burial chapels of some of the most illustrious figures of the Renaissance, including Galileo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli, as well as nineteenth century musical great Gioachino Rossini. It acquired its Gothic Revival marble façade in the nineteenth century.
While I enjoyed these “guidebook musts” on my first visit to Florence, I also developed a yearning to return. Florence has become a frequent destination for me in recent years. Along the way, I have discovered my own personal favorites among the less frequented architectural and artistic gems as well neighborhood markets and local eateries. I’ll share these next. Stay tuned for the sequel.