The cultural and historical impact of Florence can be overwhelming but it is definitely the place to visit in Italy. Close up, Florence is one of Italy’s most atmospheric and pleasant cities, retaining a strong resemblance to the small late-medieval center that contributed so much to the cultural and political development of Europe.
Many of Michaelangelo’s greatest hits including David make Florence their home. While Rome is a historical hot-pot, Florence is like stepping back into a Fiat and Vespa-filled Renaissance: the shop-lined Ponte Vecchio, the trademark Duomo, the gem-filled Uffizi Gallery, the turreted Piazza della Signoria and the Medici Chapels. Thankfully, these unforgettables are all within walking distance of each other. This was by far our favorite city in Italy and not to be missed!!
Surrounding the rear of the Pitti Palace are some of Florence’s most precious and breathtaking parks: the Boboli Gardens. A perfect example of formal Renaissance landscaping, the gardens include pools, fountains, geometric borders, tree-lined vistas, a grotto and the star-shaped Forte di Belvedere.
If you’ve got the energy, it’s worth heading down Via del Belvedere to reach Piazzale Michelangelo, which offers one of the most beautiful views of magical Florence.
Piazza del Duomo
The remarkable Duomo, with its pink, white and green marble façade and characteristic dome, dominates the city’s skyline. The building took almost two centuries to build (and even then the façade wasn’t completed until the 19th century), and is the fourth-largest cathedral in the world. The enormous dome was designed by Brunelleschi, and its interior features frescoes and stained-glass windows by some of the Renaissance-era’s best: Vasari, Zuccari, Donatello, Uccello and Ghiberti. Take a deep breath and climb up to take a closer look, and you’ll be rewarded by fantastic views of the city and an insight into how the dome was so cleverly constructed – without scaffolding (though there’s plenty of that propping the dome up now!). The dome still defines the scale of the city, and no building in town is taller.
Giotto designed the cathedral’s Campanile, and Pisano and della Robbia contributed bas-reliefs. It too is clad in white, pink and green marble. The Baptistry is adjacent – it’s one of the city’s oldest buildings, and was originally a pagan temple. The building is most famous for its gilded bronze doors. Those on the south are by Pisano, but it is the doors facing east (and in the direction of the cathedral) that are most talked about. Created by Ghiberti, they are known as the Gates of Paradise (a moniker believed to have been dubbed by Michelangelo). Created between 1424 and 1452, their beauty and sophistication mark them as one of the first products of the Renaissance. The Baptistry’s ceilings feature gory 13th-century mosaics of the Last Judgment.
Behind the cathedral is the Duomo Museum, which features original panels taken from the doors of the Baptistry, Brunelleschi’s death mask, equipment used to build the dome and an impressive sculpture collection, including pieces by Michelangelo.
Piazza della Signoria
The piazza was at the hub of Florence’s political life through the centuries, and is surrounded by some of the city’s most celebrated buildings. With its famous group of sculptures, the loggia looks a lot like an outdoor sculpture gallery; Cellini’s magnificent statue of Perseus and Giambologna’s Rape of a Sabine are particularly striking.
Guarding the Palazzo Vecchio is a copy of Michelangelo’s oh-so-strokeable David. The palazzo has been Florence’s town hall since 1322. Its characterful tower is another of Florence’s symbols, and the interior of the palazzo was lavishly redecorated by Vasari. An elevated corridor called Vasari’s Corridor leads from the palazzo, through the Uffizi, across the Arno by way of the Ponte Vecchio, and all the way down to the Palazzo Pitti. The private walkway was used by the Medici family as a way of visiting their scattered palaces without having to mingle with the masses. The walkway is lined, as if merely as an afterthought, with works of art.
Backing onto the loggia, and leading all the way down to the banks of the River Arno, is the famed Uffizi Gallery. The gallery’s wonderful collection is arranged to illustrate the evolving story of Florentine art. Some of the most famous pieces are in rooms 7-18; they include Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Michelangelo’s Holy Family and Piero della Francesca’s Duke & Duchess of Urbino. Giorgio Vasari designed this palace in 1554 for Duke Cosimo and called it the Uffizi because it housed the offices (uffizi) of the Medici administration. Today it holds more great art per square inch than any other museum in the world. In May 1993, terrorists set of a bomb in the Uffizi, killing five people and destroying priceless works of art. So be prepared for a great deal of security.
The Ponte Vecchio
If you make it out of the Uffizi with any energy and concentration left to spare, wander along the banks of the Arno towards the Ponte Vecchio. The famous 14th-century bridge is lined with shops selling gold and silver jewelry – a step up from the butcher shops that lined the bridge before Cosimo I decided glitter was better than gore. The bridge was the only one in the city to escape destruction during WWII.
If you experience a peculiar giddy feeling after visiting the Church of Santa Croce, don’t despair. It’s probable that you’ve succumbed to Stendhal’s Disease, an illness diagnosed in about 12 visitors to Florence each year, and dating from the French writer’s own feelings of culture shock and bedazzlement when he visited the church in the early 19th century.
Geometrically coloured marble decorates the building’s façade (added in the 19th century), but the real treats lie inside, where many famous Florentines lie in peace, hopefully immune to the tourist footfalls. The walls are lined with tombs, and 276 tombstones pave the floor. The church’s most famous inhabitants are Michelangelo, Macchiavelli, Galileo and Bardi. Its various chapels feature works of art by Giotto and della Robbia, and the serene cloisters were designed by Brunelleschi.
Santa Croce’s museum features a crucifix by Cimabue, which unfortunately was severely damaged by the 1966 floods. Other churches which shouldn’t be missed include the statue-filled Orsanmichele; Santa Trinità, featuring frescoes by Ghirlandaio; All Saints’, with frescoes by Botticelli and Ghirlandaio; Santa Maria Novella, which contains Masaccio’s groundbreaking Trinity, along with other significant artworks; the popular SS Annunziata; Giambologna’s San Marco; and the Church of the Holy Spirit, one of Brunelleschi’s last commissions, and featuring Filippino Lippi’s Madonna & Child. Just around the corner from Santa Croce you’ll stumble across Casa Buonarroti, a house which Michelangelo owned but never lived in. Today, you’ll find a collection of copies of the master’s work. You’ll find the real thing, however, at the Accademia Gallery: David in all his glory. There is also a leather school which has some interesting works.
Piazza San Lorenzo
This lovely area is redolent of Florence in its prime, when Cosimo was king and cultural creativity abounded. San Lorenzo Basilica was begun by Brunelleschi in 1425 and is regarded as one of the city’s purest Renaissance churches. The eastern façade is especially interesting, as it is completely bare of decoration and reveals the antique brickwork. It was the Medici family’s parish church, and many of the members of the family are buried here. Donatello designed the bronze pulpits, and he is buried in one of the chapels. Passing through the cloister, you reach the Laurenziana Library, commissioned to house the family’s huge collection of books and featuring a sublime staircase by Michelangelo. The Medici Chapels are sumptuously decorated with precious marble and semiprecious stones; the most powerful Medicis were buried here. The New Sacristy was designed by Michelangelo and contains his Night & Day, Dawn & Dusk sculptures.
Adjacent to the basilica are atmospheric palazzos, with interior courtyards glimpsed through ancient wooden gates, and the especially bustling central market – the place to find bargain woollens and leather goods, especially if you’re willing to bargain. Below are some pictures of the interior chapel and the Laurentian Library. This library houses one of the world’s most valuable manuscript collections. Michaelangelo’s famous entrance portico is shown above with me!
The Medicis were the richest family in the city and sponsored most of the local artists of the time. They were the “Godfathers” of the time!!
The Bargello Museum contains the most comprehensive range of medieval and Renaissance sculpture in Italy. Notable works include Michelangelo’s drunken Bacchus, Donatello’s David, the designs submitted by Brunelleschi for the Baptistry Doors Competition (Ghiberti won that one) and Giambologna’s Mercury. The Bargello’s heavily fortified exterior is a reminder of the building’s former life as police headquarters and prison. Not too far away from the Bargello is Dante’s House, a small museum that examines the famous Florentine’s life.
Michelangelo’s triumphant David stands in self-assured prefection under the rotunda designed just for him. He was moved here from P. della Signoria in 1873 after a stone hurled during a riot broke his left wrist in two places. If the real David looks different to you that the slightly top-heavy copy in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, there’s a reason – even though the statues are practically identical, in the Accademia, David stands on a higher pedestal.
Michelangelo exaggerated his head and torso to correct for distortion from viewing far below. In the hallway leading up to the David are Michelangelo’s four Slaves. The master left these intriguing statues intentionally unfinished. Remaining true to his theories of living stone, he chipped away only enough to show their figure emerging from the stone.
The loggia of the New Market have housed gold and silk traders since 1547 under their Corinthian-columned splendor. Today vendors sell purses, belts, clothes, fruit and vegetables as well as gold and silk, from dawn until dusk. Pietro Tacca’s pleasantly plump statue, Il Porcellino (The Little Pig), actually a wild boar, appeared some 50 years after the market first opened. Reputed to bring good luck, its snout remains brightly polished by tourists’ rubbing.
San Miniato Al Monte
One of Florence’s oldest churches, San Miniato al Monte gloriously surveys all of Florence. The inlaid marble facade and 13th-century mosaics provide a prelude to the incredible pavement inside, patterned with lions, doves, and astrological signs. Inside, the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal holds a collection of superlative della Robbia terra-cottas. Be sure to circle the church and spend a moment in the cemetery.