Florence: The Cradle of the Renaissance

Florence: The Cradle of the Renaissance

Florence is a magnificent city, considered the birth place of the Italian Renaissance, and a must see while in Italy.  It is the capital of its province, with a population of about 450 thousand inhabitants.  It lays in a valley in central Tuscany, along the Arno River surrounded by beautiful hills, including those of the ancient Etruscan city, Fiesole.  It is a short train ride to other famous cities such as Pisa, Siena and Lucca, and it is well equipped with a public bus system to travel easily around town, although most of the attractions are quite accessible by foot in the historic center.  Florence, also a university town, receives visitors from around the globe every year, which enjoy not only the art and history, but also the many excellent restaurants and stores, and a lively night life.
Florence was built by the Romans after conquering Fiesole in the 1st century BC.  It flourished in the middle ages and then bloomed under the rule of the Medici family, becoming the center and birth place of Renaissance Europe.  As a center of art and culture first in the middle ages and then more so in the Renaissance, writers such as Francesco Petrarca, Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio and artists such as Giotto, Filippo Lippi, Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Michelangelo Buonarroti, to name only a few, called the city home and filled it with their works of art.  In fact, there is so much to see, there are endless possibilities to explore.

Just walking down the streets of Florence is breathtaking.  The sights and sounds of the city vividly help the visitor imagine what the city must once have been like in the past.  One should walk along the Arno River, on to the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence and the only one spared during World War II, and enjoy the sights of its many jewelry shops. If you continue up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, there is a breathtaking view of the entire city below you.  Just strolling through the city one encounters numerous works of art at every corner.  Be sure to take a bus up to nearby Fiesole where you can enjoy not only the view, but visit the Roman ruins and the church of Saint Francis as well. 

Main Attractions

There are numerous museums to visit in Florence, appealing to a variety of interests, offering an extraordinary panorama of the art and history of the city.  One can find examples of the ancient times, Etruscan and Roman, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, modern and contemporary art, not to mention science and fashion.  Below are listed just some of the many possibilities to be explored.  Be sure to check with the Visitors Information Center to see about the visiting shows and concerts that happen throughout the year.  Just walking along the Arno River, through the streets of historic Florence, across the Piazza Signoria, and on to the Duomo, the city’s famous Cathedral, one is struck by numerous sights and sounds, and gets a hint of what the city has to offer.
Palazzo Vecchio
The dominant figure in the Piazza Signoria, the Palazzo Vecchio, or “old palace” remains the center of Florentine government even today as it has been since its construction, which began in 1299. It is still used as the city hall now as it has been for hundreds of years.  It was once the royal residence as well as the center of government under the Grande Dukes beginning with Cosimo I de’ Medici.  It is referred to as “old” since the acquisition of the Palazzo Pitti in the 1540s, where the Duke then moved his family’s residence.  In fact one of the most interesting things to do in Florence is to meet the “Duke” or “Duchess”, especially if you have children.  Interactive tours bring families around the private rooms in the palace and then take them on a journey through time. Tours, which should be arranged ahead of time and are held in various languages, are well worth the effort.
 
The Galleria Degli Uffizi
Located just off the Piazza Signoria in the center of historic Florence, this museum had originally been built by Giorgio Vasari, who had been commissioned to build it for the State Offices for the Medici family in 1560.  In fact, there is even a passage, called the Vasari Corridor, which leads from the home of the Medici, the Palazzo Pitti, through the Uffizi, on to the Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall, allowing the family to travel to work without having to mix with the throngs of citizens below.  Built in a U-shaped layout, one follows through two wings of the museum, the connecting center of which overlooks the Arno River.
The museum houses an amazing collection of paintings arranged in chronological order starting with the 14th century with paintings by Cimabue and Giotto, among many others.  The galleries progress featuring works up through the 18th century.  Among the most famous are Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation (c. 1472), Botticelli’s Primavera (c. 1481-1482)  and The Birth of Venus (c.1484), and many other works by famous artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael.  In addition to paintings, there are many examples of sculpture, not to mention that the building itself is worth seeing.  Much of the collection was owned by the Medici family and many were created by Florentine artists of various periods.

Palazzo Pitti
In the mid 14th century, Luca Pitti, a wealthy Florentine banker, commissioned the building of the palace that is named for him.  Unfortunately, this commission marked the beginning of his political undoing, as many Florentines found the palace ostentatious, and this fact eventually led him to bankruptcy.  In 1540 the Medici family bought the long empty palace themselves making it one of their many family homes.  Much of the collection found within belonged to the Medici family’s personal collection, as can be seen in many Florentine galleries, since the Medici were the principal patrons of the arts.  The original building of the palace is said to have been designed by the architect Brunelleschi, who also designed the famous Dome of Florence’s Cathedral.
Within the palace there are many small museums with different points of interest.  In the Galleria Palatina, one finds paintings by such famous artists as Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, Titian, Raphael, and Botticelli, to name just a few, all hung along the galleries as if just to decorate the walls.  In addition, there is the Galleria d’Arte Moderna where one finds Italian paintings mostly of the 18th and 19th century, including examples of impressionism, divisionism and surrealism.  If one tires of paintings, there is also the Carriage Museum, the Porcelain Museum, the Silverware Museum and the Costume Museum, which displays amazing examples of period clothing.  One can also tour the private rooms of the ducal family, including the Throne Room and the Palatine Chapel.  Behind the Palazzo Pitti, one finds the Giardino di Boboli, the formal gardens of the ducal family.

L’Accademia
Although filled with many works that might attract attention elsewhere, people flock here only to see the original David by Michelangelo.  The sculpture has been a symbol of Florence since it was made in 1504, as Florentines saw themselves as the underdogs among larger states.

Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Construction began on the Bargello in the 1250s, and it was used as a medieval fortress and palace before the Palazzo Vecchio, which is larger, was built a good fifty years later.  It was then converted to be used as a prison by the Medici family, but now it is used to house an extraordinary collection of sculpture.  What the Uffizi is to painting, the Bargello is to sculpture.  Within, one finds works by Michelangelo, Bernini, Cellini, Brunelleschi, and Ghiberti, not to mention many others.  One of the most impressive is the sculpture of David by Donatello, a far cry from Michelangelo’s interpretation.

Museo di Storia della Scienza
If you need a break from art and enjoy science, this is a great place to visit.  Galileo himself studied the stars from the observatory on the hills overlooking Florence during the Renaissance, and the Museum of the History of Science has a great collection of the actual instruments he used.  There is also a planetarium and wax sculptures of the human body among the collection.

 

The Stibbert Museum
Frederick Stibbert, the son of an English father and Italian mother, who lived from 1838 to 1906, founded this museum which celebrates his fascination with armor from around the world.  The museum has a wonderful collection of European, Islamic and Japanese armor, not to mention paintings, porcelains and historic costumes from Asia and Europe alike.  The building is itself fascinating and is surrounded by a beautiful park.  Kids will love it! Although not in the historic center of Florence, the museum is easily accessible by bus. 
Throughout Florence there are countless churches filled with amazing works of art, and most are worth a visit for their architectural achievements alone.  The churches below are all located within walking distance of the historic centre and represent the art of the past.  Many also hold concerts open to the public.  Although they are not all listed below, most churches you stumble upon will be worth a peek inside.
 
Piazza del Duomo
Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral of Florence, was begun in the 1290s, and is often referred to as Il Duomo, meaning Cathedral, and is famous for its “Cupolone” (big dome) designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. It was the largest dome built at the time.  Next to the Duomo sits the bell tower, called il Campanile di Giotto, designed by the artist Giotto around 1334 when he was made director of the Cathedral, under construction at the time. In the same piazza, one finds the baptistery, built between the 6th and 9th centuries, and in which the poet Dante himself was baptized.  Within, one finds mosaics of the 13th and 14th centuries, and outside can be viewed the famous bronze doors commissioned to Lorenzo Ghiberti in 1401.    In the same piazza, behind the Cathedral, is the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, which houses an interesting collection of relics from the construction of the Cathedral and also works that were once in it.

Santa Maria Novella
Construction of this church began in 1246, long before the nearby train station invaded its space.  Despite its location, it is one of Florence’s cherished treasures with frescoes and paintings by Giotto, Masaccio, Botticelli and Filippo Lippi within, to name only a few.   It was the church featured in Boccaccio’s The Decameron.

San Marco
A Dominican convent filled with amazing frescoes by Fra Angelico, painted from 1436 to 1455.

San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapels
Located in the Piazza San Lorenzo, this church was built to glorify the Medici family.  It was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 1420s, and has works by Donatello within.  The façade had been designed by Michelangelo, but was never realized, leaving the stone structure forever visible.  Below, through a separate entrance in the back, one finds the Medici Chapels, with its famous sculptures by Michelangelo.  In the chapels are the tombs of several of the Medici Dukes. Just outside the church, one finds the Mercato Centrale, which includes the outdoor stalls selling local goods to tourists as well as an indoor complex selling cheeses, meats and fresh vegetables to tourists and locals alike.

Santa Croce
Begun in the 1450s, this Franciscan church was built on the site of an earlier church originally founded by St. Francis himself in the 1290s.  It is filled with many frescoes, but also with numerous tombs of famous Florentines, such as Galileo, Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Dante, who is actually buried in Ravenna, after being exiled for political reasons by his home state of Florence.  This church is featured in the film, A Room with a View.

Santo Spirito
Across the Arno, one finds this church built and designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 15th century in a modest piazza.  Outside it doesn’t seem much, but going within, one finds a sense of peace that is inherent to the church that was designed to mathematical perfection based upon the dimensions of man.  Inside you will also find paintings by Filippo Lippi .

Santa Maria del Carmine
Works by Masolino, Masaccio and Filippo Lippi cover the walls of this 15th century church.  The most famous is the Expulsion of Adam and Eve by Masaccio in the Cappella Brancacci.

San Miniato
One of the oldest structures in Florence, this church which sits above Piazzale Michelangelo, over looking the city below, was built in 1015 over an earlier church that had been built where Saint Minias had been beheaded by the Romans.  It is worth a visit for its art, architecture and the view.

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