It’s hard to imagine a prettier setting for an historic city than the heart of Tuscany; that’s where you’ll find Florence, a grand old city, birthplace of the Renaissance and the modern world. So great is the historic influence of Florence that many of its citizens believe the city can’t seem to escape the past to transition into the 21st century….but I’m not into such lofty concepts as I wander these cobble-stoned streets — the same streets that Donatello, Michelangelo, Galileo and da Vinci walked — I’m just visually transported to the fifteenth century as not much seems to have changed. In my wandering and daydreaming I retain a sense of gratitude to Florence for what it has contributed to modern civilization. The Renaissance it birthed represents a truly monumental leap from the stifling medieval ages into a vibrant freer world of color, texture, emotions and self-expression.
A Brief History of Florence
Florence was a military outpost during the days of the Roman empire and became an increasingly important city over the centuries. This was especially true in the 13th and 14th century when it developed into a major center of manufacturing, trade and banking. Capitalism was replacing feudalism and the emerging wealthy class (many of them bankers) began investing in art. During the 15th century the most notable art patrons in town were the Medici’s whose gigantic mark on Florence still lingers. With the growing prosperity and encouragement of their patrons, artists expanded their focus beyond traditional flat two-dimensional religious art (all they were allowed to create during the Dark Ages) into new areas of expression — especially with new colors, a sense of movement and balance, three dimensions, a focus on the human body and its expression. You can see the birth and legacy of this Renaissance in Florence’s museums, like the Uffizi, Duomo Museum, Accademia and Bargello. As statues and paintings changed, so did architecture. During the same period Brunelleschi created the magnificent dome on the city’s cathedral (Duomo) — the first dome built since the Pantheon and one that inspired many more to follow, including the Capitol Dome in Washington D.C. From Florence the Renaissance headed south and over time Florence’s importance fizzled, though the legacy of these years remain.
There’s a treasure trove of old churches, great streets and alleys and wonderful shops, restaurants and museums to explore. Here’s some of what we did during our visit to Florence which we’d enthusiastically recommend to others:
1) Walk through the old city. The historic core of Florence is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is best explored on foot (It does not lend itself to bus, taxi or car travel). You’ll find, as we did, that strolling the narrow roads and ancient facades is like going back in time hundreds of years. There are some memorable Piazzas worth visiting, including the Piazza della Signore with it’s wonderful art and historic buildings. Shop at the market (Mercado Centrale) for some of Florence’s fine leather goods or visit the south shore of the Arno (where most Florentines actually live), hike up the hill for the memorable views of the old city and Tuscany countryside from Piazzale Michelangelo. The city will be crowded during peak months so its best to travel during shoulder seasons. Still, it’s Florence so don’t let a crowd discourage you. Learn how to work around it.
2) Explore the area around the Arno River and especially the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge on the river. The bridge was of such significance that even the Nazis did not destroy it when they blew up the rest of Florence’s bridges. The bridge is lined by shops on both sides which used to house meat and produce markets but which now sell mostly gold and silver jewelery. Above these shops is a “secret” passage the Medici’s had built to allow escape to the opposite site of the Arno River if needed.
3) The Uffizi gallery has the finest collection of Italian Renaissance art anywhere and is one of the world’s great art museums. Housed in a former office building, the Uffizi is home to thousands of paintings ranging from medieval times to the modern era, as well as a vast collection of ancient sculptures, miniatures, and tapestries. Most of the exhibit is on a single U-shaped floor and as you walk from room to room you progress from Medieval art to the Renaissance and beyond. Enjoy the great paintings of Botticelli, including the brilliant & fresh ‘Birth of Venus’ and ‘Allegory of Spring’, two Leonardo da Vinci paintings (‘Annunciation‘ and ‘Adoration of the Magi’), works by Giotto, Raphael, Caravaggio and Titan. See Michelangelo’s only easel painting, ‘Holy Family’. The lines waiting to get in are long so be sure you’ve reserved your tickets in advance on-line so that you can bypass them.
4) Accademia — The highlight and main reason for visiting this collection is Michelangelo. It is in this collection you can see the wondrous statue of “David” crafted from a narrow piece of marble (many had though unusable) when Michelangelo was 26. Standing 17 feet tall and captured in polished white marble as he’s preparing to sling a rock at Goliath, this sight is one of the highlights of any visit to Florence. Originally displayed in Piazza della Signoria, it has been moved here for it’s protection. As you walk towards David you will pass Michelangelo’s “Prisoners”, a series of partially completed statues evocative of people trying to escape their marble prison (includes an unfinished Pieta). The gallery also features some paintings, including a few by Botticelli, and an interesting collection of antique musical instruments..
5) Bargello Museum — Housed in a former prison, this museum has one of the best collection of statues anywhere including the best works by Donatello, several by Michelangelo and some of the Medici collection. Highlights include a nude bronze of “David” as a boy by Donatello — the first nude crafted in a millennium and as such of great historic importance; the bronze of ‘Mercury’ by Giambologna; the Baptistery door contest panels by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi.
6) The Duomo (red domed cathedral with colorful Tuscany marble facade) is one of the largest churches in the world. It was the first great dome built in 1000 years, designed and executed by Brunelleschi, and it began the Renaissance in architecture. Climbing to the top of the Dome or to the top of Giotto’s bell tower (Campaneli) is popular but we never had the time for it on this trip.
The Baptistery is a separate structure which predates the Renaissance. You had to be baptized before you could enter the cathedral. The panels (crafted by the brilliant Ghiberti) in the door are wonderfully detailed and were among the first works of art to give the illusion of 3d on a 2d surface. Michelangelo described them as “the Gates of Paradise”. The originals are now in the Duomo museum (but excellent detailed copies have taken their place).
7) Duomo Museum, situated immediately behind the cathedral, has a diverse collection of art including many pieces by Donatello and many works of art from the cathedral. Three of the main highlights are Michelangelo’s last Pieta (featuring a self-portrait of the artist as Nicodemus), Donatello’s haunting wood carving of Mary Magdalene, and Ghiberti’s original “Gates of Paradise” Baptistery doors (which were being refurbished when we were there). We found our visit here to be well worth the time and money and that the museum is underrated.
Visit some of the smaller churches in Florence:
i) The church of Santa Croce is where Dante, Machiavelli, Rosssini, Michelangelo and Galileo are buried. Behind the church is Florence’s leather school where you can see and buy some extraordinary (and expensive) crafted leather.
ii) The Basilica of San Lorenzo has a partially completed exterior (Pope ran out of money) but is well worth visiting; designed by Brunelleschi, it features some bronze doors by him.
iii) The Medici Chapel is an opulent chapel built as a tomb for the wealthy banking patriarchs of Florence, the aforementioned Medici family. It sits immediately behind the Basilica of San Lorenzo and has a large extravagant domed “Chapel of the Princes”, but is most notable for it’s tombs in the “New Sacristy” which were designed and have carvings executed by the great Michelangelo (whom they sponsored). It is one of the few places that Michelangelo designed, built and decorated and this alone is worth the time and price of admission.
iv) Santa Maria Novella has a fine collection of Renaissance art but is best known for having what is thought to be the world’s first three-dimensional painting, “The Trinity” by Mascassio.
v) Orsanmichele Church. Ninth century church, originally a granary, the niches outside proudly displayed Donatello’s statues, such as of St. George and St. Mark.
And eat, eat, eat. Many Italians believe the best gelato is in Florence. I wouldn’t argue. We tried it often and it was always great. We had excellent pizza and especially memorable was a dinner we had at Il Latini, one of the finest restaurants we’ve ever eaten at. I’d highly recommend it.
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