Florence was founded as a Roman settlement but it wasn’t until the 14th century that it rose in prominence as the birthplace of the Renaissance. Fueled by trade and located on an important trade route between Venice and Rome, Florence had become a wealthy city and the emergence of the Medici family seeded this process. The Medici family were the bankers of Europe and made their fortune by loaning money to important clients, including the Church and the Popes, and became the most politically prominent family in Florence from 1350 to 1743 when the last family member died.
The Renaissance is thought to be the beginning of our modern world and also the rebirth of two important ancient cultures, Greek and Roman, which had been lost for more than 1000 years over the middle ages. It was period of rediscovery of classical texts and artifacts as well as a period of innovation in the arts, engineering, mathematics and literature. What amazes me are the artistic and scientific genius’s who were born in the area within the same century, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi and Machiavelli.
At this time the Medici’s were one the main contributing patrons of art in Florence. It is thought they viewed the patronage as a sort of payment of taxes to the church and thereby increasing their chances of getting into heaven. The “Godfather” of the Renaissance was Lorenzo “The Magnificent” de Medici who lived from 1449-1492. The list of artists he discovered, supported or encouraged reads like a who’s-who of the Italian Renaissance.
Florence is a wonderful city to visit. While there are no ancient Roman sites, the Renaissance period is literally all around you without standing in line or paying admission and it is a delight to walk around and take it all in. There are numerous restaurants, gelato shops and watering stops to in which to have a glass of wine and watch life go by. If you like art, 67% of the most visited Italian museums are in Florence. Some of my highlights from my trips to Florence are as follows.
The Duomo & Campanelle
If you are in Florence, you can’t miss it as it dominates the skyline of the city. The Duomo is the red brick dome on the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiori. The Dome was designed and built by Brunelleschi. Completed in 1436 it is still the largest brick and mortar dome in the world. The main attraction is the outside of the Cathedral and the adjoining structures, the Baptistery and Campanelle. The outside of the Cathedral is covered in green, pink and white marble panels from the local area. It is striking and unique coloring that I have only seen seen in Tuscany. Admission to the church is free but, in my opinion, is less impressive than the outside. You can pay admission to climb the 436 steps to the top of the dome, (there is no elevator) and I understand the view is great. but I did not climb the steps-maybe next time. Next door the to the Cathedral is the Campanelle or bell tower. You can also pay admission here and climb to the top (only 386 steps) but that is also on my future list.
Baptistery of San Giovanni
This is another must see, both inside (which requires a ticket) and outside which is free. It is an octagonal building opposite the Cathedral and is one of the oldest buildings in Florence, dating back to Roman times. It really wasn’t until the 11th century that is assumed it present form. It is also decorated with marble similar to the Cathedral and Campanelle but is older than either. On the outside are two sets of bronze doors, by Ghiberti, known as the Gates of Paradise. These are copies, the originals are in a nearby museum, but the copies are spectacular. You should also visit the inside to see the ceiling mosaics. The mosaics were done by Venetian craftsmen in the 1200’s and depict the last judgment and history of the world-really nice.
We visited two of Florence’s great museums, the Academia, which houses a Michelangelo collection including the famous David, and the Uffizi museum, which houses an impressive collection of Florentine art. In Piazza della Signoria, right outside of the Uffizi, is the marble sculpture “Fountain of Neptune” by Ammanati from 1565, which is situated at the terminus of a still functioning Roman Aqueduct.
Piazza di Santa Croce
About a half mile from the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria is the Piazza de Santa Croce. This Piazza is anchored by Basilica Santa Croce, another white, green and pink marble covered church, that is that it is the burial place for some of the most illustrious Italians, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Marconi and Dante. The square is interesting and, in addition to the church, there are restaurants and shops around the square to visit.
Spanning the River Arno near the heart of the city is one of the world’s famous bridges, the Ponte Vecchio. Built close to the old Roman crossing, the old bridge was documented as early as 966 and was the only bridge over the Arno until 1218. Destroyed by a flood in in 1345, it was rebuilt. Lined by shops, the original merchants were butchers and fishmongers, but since 1600 have been exclusively jewelry merchants.
A couple of miles from the center of town is an overlook called Piazzale Michelangelo and is well worth the cost of a cab ride. It offers a great overlook of the city. A popular tradition is to gather at sunset to view the sun setting over Florence (kind of like Key West and Mallory Square). While we were there at the right time, the sun failed to make an appearance, but was still worth it.