For art, history, or architecture lovers, no trip to Italy is complete without a visit to the city of Florence. This is one of the most visited cities in the world, due to its role in being the birthplace of Europe’s Renaissance movement. The city was originally built as a garrison settlement in the Roman era, but its age allows different examples of baroque, medieval and neoclassical architecture.
Florence holds a grand yet dubious history with some of the greatest artists of the renaissance era, as well as some of the time’s most dubious characters as well. It was the home of Dante when he was in exile, as well as the wealthy and deadly Medici family. It is the home of great works like Michelangelo’s statue of David, in one of its dozens of art museums.
The life and burial of many of Italy’s most famous artists took place in Florence, and is one of the main reasons that people visit the city today. This large city now boasts over half a million people, and offers with it all of the modern conveniences that tourists and travelers alike could want.
Yet art, art history, architecture and tourism are still the main economy of this city, as its expansive history continues to give it a place in the forefront of the world’s most valuable collections of art. Of course, its other gift to the world is a great diversion for tourists, as the countryside is full of wineries that boast Italy’s own Sangiovese grapes, and the flavorful wines that they produce. Wine tours on the outskirts of Florence are a great way to spend a few extra days after seeing the best of the sights in this Tuscan capital. If time is short, here is a description of four of the must-see locations in Florence:
This bridge across the Arno River is of the once-common closed spandrel segmented arch design. The bridge contains shops along it, which was once common with many bridges, and usually occupied things like butchers who were given easy access to dump their waste into the river and keep a clean shop to sell their wares from. Today, souvenir, art and jewelry stores occupy the bridge instead. Once, all shops had tables displaying some of their wares out in the open like a modern day farmer’s market. A second row of back shops was added in the seventeenth century.
The bridge crosses the narrowest point on the Arno, and was originally constructed during Roman times. It is a part of the famous Via Cassia route. The center of the bridge holds a small dedication stone with worn Italian lettering. Translated it used to read, “In the thirty-third year following thirteen hundred, the bridge fell from a watery flood: ten years later, at the pleasure of the Commune, it was rebuilt with this adornment.”
The Ponte Vecchio has had some surprising supporters. During WWII, Hitler gave express orders that the Ponte Vecchia remain standing, even when other bridges throughout the region were being bombed to prevent tank traffic from moving easily across the countryside. One of the most unique customs on this bridge is the presence of many locked padlocks found throughout the structure. A legend exists that if a couple locks a padlock to this eternal structure and throws the key into the river, they too will be locked together. Unsurprisingly, there is a lock shop ready to sell lovers their own padlocks that can be found right on the bridge.
This “old palace” serves as the town hall for the city of Florence. It is a Romanesque crenellated fortress that was built as a protection for the city in the 1200s. It was constructed on the ruins of two even older palaces, called Palazzo dei Fanti and Palazzo dell’Esecutore di Giustizia. The palaces were once owned by the notorious Uberti family, and some believe that this site was constructed to prevent them from ever building on their Florentine homestead again.
The palace clock tower once served as a prison, and is built into the building’s facade, which is why it is not centered on the building. The purpose of the building changed in the 1500’s when Duke Cosimo changed the capital of Medici power from Larga to Florence, and changed his home to the Palazzo di Signoria.
Today, the palace is not only the town hall and the home of the mayor and city council, but also a museum. Guests will enjoy sightseeing the many parts of this enormous structure. It contains an entrance, three separate courtyards, many ornate rooms and an enclosed walkway that passes over the Ponte Vecchio to the Pallazo Pitti across the river.
The most majestic is the Salone dei Cinquecento, which was commissioned to hold the grand council. It is large enough to hold 500 people, and has ornate murals and golden ceiling accents. Over two dozen second-floor rooms named for gods and the elements, as well as rulers at the time can be seen, and a splendid mezzanine level full of priceless artifacts.
This famed art museum began its life as an office building for the magistrates under Duke Cosimo di Medici. This is the source of the name, Uffizi, which translates to “offices.” Because the hallway was open at one end to the street, many historians consider this to be the first architectural urban streetscape in Europe.
The Palazzo degli Uffizi created a change in the governmental structure of 16th century Florence. It brought together under one roof the administrative offices, the Tribunal and the Archivio di Stato, the state archive. Over the years parts of the palace evolved into a display place for many of the paintings and sculpture collected by the Medici.
Its multipurpose function as a gathering place for beauty, art and recreation had many admirers and visitors, including Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, who would come here to visit the beautiful artwork as an inspiration. It has been a gallery open by request since the sixteenth century, and became officially open to the public in 1765.
The fall of the Medici family came with it an uncertainty about the future of this art, but Florence was able to keep this town treasure intact. Today it is one of the world’s most famous fine art museums with collections of sculptures from classical antiquity and Renaissance paintings including The Birth of Venus by Sandro Boticelli.
Plans are underway to increase the size of exhibition space, which has become more necessary after recent flooding has damaged some of the current portions of the museum. However, the sheer size, quality, variety and number of artifacts on hand in the Uffizi makes this one of the world’s most important art museums, and worth the trip every time.
Santa Maria del Fiore
Translated as the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower, this gothic church is considered the main church of the city of Florence, and is also called Florence Cathedral. The cathedral was originally built in the 1400’s by Arnolfo Di Cambio.
The church is part of a three-building complex with the baptistery and Giotto’s Camponile located in the Piazza Del Duomo. It has beautiful green and pink marble walls, a bell tower and a spectacular golden dome engineered by Fillipo Brunelleschi. The dome and bell tower are iconic pieces of the Florentine skyline, and can be seen from most high points in the city.
The original façade, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and usually attributed to Giotto, was actually begun twenty years after Giotto’s death. The church got a facelift in the 19th century with a gothic revival facade.
Inside the cathedral’s buildings are a number of invaluable art pieces that are both decorations, and in many places, an actual part of the building. Some of the most known art pieces that can be found inside the cathedral include a painting called Dante Before the City of Florence which provides a view on Florence in 1465.
A one-handed liturgal clock with four massive paintings, a whopping 44 stained glass windows, including the circular one entitled Christ Crowning Mary as Queen are some of the other highlights. Crypts of devoted bishops and the architect Bruneschelli were excavated in the 1960’s, and can be seen in part by the public today as well.