First published January 12, 2022 and reproduced here by permission of the Morning News and SCNow.com.
Although I have only been to Florence four times, it has long had an almost mystical appeal to me, even when I was a kid. I remember marveling and dreaming of its characteristic red, tile roofs and its bridges, and reading school histories of the Medici, the family so important to the history of Florence – as if the city was calling to me.
Florence, the capital city of Tuscany is called “the Athens of the Middle Ages” and the birthplace of the European Renaissance. The modern metro center has about 1.5 million people and remains an important center for art, architecture and culture; in fact, it was designated a World Heritage site in 1982 by UNESCO. The modern Italian language is based on the Florentine dialect. Forbes Magazine says it is the most beautiful city in the world. It remains an important center for art and fashion, but also now leads in tourism, finance and manufacturing. Clemson University and USC-Columbia have schools/classes in Florence.
Because of its location in a valley, between two rivers on the route north from Rome, it was named “Flowering” and became an important trade and tourist center, even in Roman times. It was founded by the Etruscans about 800 BC, destroyed in an 80 BC Roman mini-civil war and rebuilt 20 years later by Julius Caesar. It began to really flower about 1000 AD. Banking, textiles and the magnificent Basilica di San Marco propelled it into the Middle Age, governed by the Pisa family. The Pisa family power was broken by a group of industrialists and bankers, but sidetracked by the devastation of the Black Death of 1348, destroying one half of the city. Power was next gathered by the Albizzi family until the rise of the Medici in 1434 led by Cosimo, whose father was Giovanni. All the while Florence grew in numbers, wealth and power. The Medici came into power as bankers (double entry accounting, interest lending) and merchants (insurance), building with the working classes, the new immigrants and the popes a ruling coalition to arise to power (this political strategy based on the lower and middle classes was previously used by Julius Caesar), formalized by Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1469. The Medici were forced out of power by the French invasion of Italy in 1494, not returning until 1512. The friar Girolamo Savonarola, railing against Medici extravagance (the Bonfire of the Vanities), ruled Florence from 1494, until burned at the stake in 1498, undone by moving against Pope Alexander VI. Famed Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his famous treatise on political strategy and manipulation and the use of power, “The Prince,” during this time. The Medici would continue in power until 1737, except for another three year pause, ruling for a total of almost 300 years - amazing. The Medici era originated most of the art and architecture for which Florence remains famous. There were four Medici Popes (Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV, and Leo XI). Then Florence fell victim to the internal European wars, often ruled by the Hapsburg family (who intermarried with the Medici - see article on Vienna from August 25, 2021, SCNow) finally becoming a stable part of Italy from 1861 onward, well, but for many changes in leadership and form. Most combatants in both World Wars tried to preserve the city. Troops from the British Empire liberated Florence in August 1944 from the Axis Powers.
Most folks begin their tour of Florence at one of the main squares or plazas. Florence has over 70 museums and over 2000 important paintings, plus notable statues and artifacts, probably more than you see in one trip, over 100,000 items altogether. The ten most important paintings include “The Annunciation,” “The Holy Trinity,” The Birth of Venus,” “Primavera,” Venus of Urbino,” Madonna of the Goldfinch,” “ Madonna and Child,” Adoration of the Magi,” “Doni Tondo,” and “Medusa.”
Let’s start our tour at The Duomo, central to the Florence skyline. The Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore includes the Baptistry and a Campanile; the dome remains the largest dome ever built without steel or wood, after 600 years. Don’t miss the mosaic “Last Judgement” in the Baptistry, one of several “Last Judgements” in Florence, and multiple Michelangelo statues under the Dome, including another Pieta and several Donatello pieces. Admire the Cathedral with its own museum and magnificent stained glass windows and frescos.
Within about a four block radius of the Duomo, move counterclockwise, first to the Florence Synagogue and Museums with a lush garden and museum of Florentine Jewish history and upstairs, models of synagogues and Jewish homes, some life size. Next move northwestward to the huge complex of the Archeologico (Etruscan and Egyptian), Annunciation (Giambolgna and Ghirlandaio) and Accademia (Gozzoli, Michelangelo, Uccello, Botticelli, Lippi, Bartolomeo and Perugino) – worth half a day, and of course highlighted by Michelangelo’s amazing statue of David (maybe apocryphal, but the story goes that Leonardo da Vinci convinced the Florentines to give Michelangelo an inferior block of marble, forcing him to put David’s left arm up and bent, holding his sling). Briefly, move over to the San Marco Museum for a stunning collection of Angelico works.
Move a bit south to one of several Medici palaces in this area, this one de Ricardi, now the City Hall of Florence. Continue a bit southward to St Lorenzo Church complex with its magnificent architecture and frescos; the original Medici crypts - the original Cosimo is buried here, as is Donatello. Then move westward to the huge Novella complex. The Basilica was the first in Florence, built about 300 by St Ambrose ( a follower of St John and St Clement, of the Bible) and is amazing for its architecture, its Giotto frescos and its two crosses by Giotto and Brunelleschi. A huge Dominican Monastery lays to the west. A bit southwest, visit the Ognissanti Palace and Chapel for a view of the Ghirlandaio fresco, the “Last Supper.”
Finally, before launching into the several Medici primary palaces and museums, visit to the east along the Arno River the National Library and the Basilica of the Holy Cross, founded by St Francis and the largest Franciscan church. The Basilica is famous for its architecture and frescos; it is the burial place of some illustrious Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, the poet Foscolo, the philosopher Gentile and the composer Rossini, thus it is known also as the Temple of the Italian Glories. It also contains another Medici chapel and crypt
Tired yet? The Best is yet to come. Turn now to the Arno River and the Pont de Vecchio. The grand Plazza del Signoria on the north side of the river holds the Vecchio Palace (one of the original Medici homes before they moved across the river to the Pitti Palace) and its adjoining museum, the Uffizi. For a time, the Palace was the political home and chambers of the Florentine Republic and its merchant leaders, continuing through the Medici era. You could spend a full day, just here. The Palace is particularly famous for the Vasari frescos depicting Medici history. The Galleria degil Uffizi is the major museum of Florence. The Uffizi is in two large buildings facing each other and has 45 rooms with Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, Impressionism, Baroque and modern art. It’s must- see pieces are Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.” Just across the street from the Uffizi is the significant National Museum of Art in the Bargello Palace, famous for its magnificent sculptures by Donatello, Michelangelo, Giambologna and Cellini. And that is not counting the bronzes, painted ceramics, medals, busts, seals, wall hangings and furniture coming mostly from private collections. Tucked in nearby is the more recent Horne Museum, named for its owner Herbert Percy Horne, an Englishman coming to Florence to study art, who left to the city the building including his Renaissance and old English art collection; it holds important works by Giotto and Bernini.
Now we are ready for the Medici. Cross the bridge to the Pitti Plaza and its looming Palace, the Medici home for hundreds of years. The Ponte Vecchio was built of stone in Roman days, rebuilt in the mid 1350’s and of course changed over the years; it always carried shops and homes along its span. The Medici did build an upper level to connect the Pitti to the Vecchio palaces as in Dan Brown’s novels. The Palace was also used by the Kings of Italy in the more modern era, donated to the Public by Victor Emmanuel III in 1919. The Palace is home to several important museums and art collections: in particular the Palantina (important portrayals of Venus, Apollo, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, Zeus and Iliad scenes by Titian (1488/90–1576), Correggio (1489-1534), Parmigianino (1503-40), Caravaggio (1573-1610), and Raphael (1483-1520)), the Modern Art Gallery, the Medici Treasures (several fabulous jewel and silver service collections) and the Museum of Porcelains. Take a room tour: the opulence and beauty are stunning, rivaling Versailles, the Sanssouci or the Hermitage’s Winter Palace, but the number of steps will wear you out – these Florentine rich folks were in great physical shape! Maybe even more impressive are the Boboli gardens (about 120 acres) and Cavalier gardens and parks behind the Palace to the east, about 1000 acres, almost impossible to entirely explore, full of Statues, fountains and another Medici mausoleum: Buontalanti’s Grotto, the Roman Amphitheater, an Egyptian Obelisk, Neptune’s Fishpond, the Statue of Plenty, the Duke’s Casino (this Medici home on the park grounds is now part of the Porcelain Museum) and Parigi’s Fountain of the Ocean.
My favorite restaurants are not as many as other cities since I patronized several Florentine restaurants more than once, but I couldn’t resist Les Trattoria Bordino and the restaurants of the Pitti Hotel (the Palagio); also consider Osteria Vecchio, Trattoria Bargello, Crown of India, Kungfu Lamian, Brandolino, Matto and the Adagio.