Florence is the capital of Tuscany. It has almost half a million inhabitants and lies on the Arno River at the foot of the Appenines
The cultural and physical impact of Florence is overwhelming, its museums, palaces and churches contain more art than perhaps any city in Europe. This is in a large part a result of the great explosion of artistic and architectural activity that occurred during the Renaissance (between the 13th and 15th centuries) that Florence still embodies. It annually attracts over a million tourists from everywhere in the world!
Originally Etruscan, then Roman, Gothic, Byzantine, and Lombard, Florence reached its peak of economic, political, and cultural splendor between the 13th and the 15th centuries as a free city (it became a free commune in 1115) overcoming the internal fights between Guelfs and Ghibellines. In the mean time, with a policy of expansion directed at other large Tuscan towns, the economic importance of Florence increased prosperously. In 1348 , more than 60 percent of the nearly 100,000 inhabitants were killed by the Black Death (Bubonic Plague), temporarily halting the city’s growth.
In the 15th century, Florence became a Signorina under the rule of the Medici family and became the most important European centre of Renaissance culture. Medici control was interrupted by the revolution of 1494-98, led by the Dominican religious reformer Savonarola. In 1527, Emperor Charles V restored the Medici, who became the Grand Dukes of Tuscany in 1569, bringing almost all of Tuscany under their rule. When the Medici died out, in 1737, the house of Habsburg-Lorraine gained power and in 1861 Tuscany became part of the new Kingdom of Italy of which Florence was the capital from 1855 to 1871.
It is impossible to mention all the countless important monuments and works of artistic attraction. Florence cannot possibly be seen in a day, however, with the time that you have, it is certainly worth starting to explore its treasures. To make life easier we have picked out the most famous and interesting features not to be missed.
For 1600 years now, the centre of Florentine religious life has been the area known, respectively, as “Piazza San Giovanni” and “Piazza del Duomo”. This large, irregular square contains: the Baptistery of Saint John, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the duomo) with excavations of Santa Reparata, Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Museum of Opera del Duomo, the Cathedral Canonries, the Lay Confraternity of Mercy, the Bigallo Portico, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Column of Saint Zanobius, and the Pisan porphyry columns.
In the last decades of the 13th century, the Florentine government decided to build a new cathedral. Florence wanted her Duomo to be grander in size and exterior adornment than the other rival Tuscan cities (Pisa and Siena) and to be dedicated to the Madonna, with the title “Saint Mary the Flower” (Santa Maria del Fiore). The cathedral we see today is a result of 170 years of work. Arnolfo di Cambio began the construction in 1296 to replace the old church of Santa Reparata. After Arnolfo’s death, the work was continued by Giotto. Later Francesco Talenti and Giovanni di Lapo Ghini continued its construction, enlarging the original plan. The gigantic dome was designed and completed by Brunelleschi in 1438 (after studying the monuments of ancient Rome), while the Lantern, again designed by Brunelleschi was instead completed after his death. The last part of Santa Maria del Fiore to be finished was the façade, done between 1871 and 1887 to Emiliode Fabris design with the result of a cold XIX century imitation of Florentine Gothic.
Limiting ourselves to the most important works, we point out the frescoed monuments to Sir John Hawkwood (by Paolo Uccello, 1436) and Niccolo da Talentino (by Andrea del Castagno, 1456), Dante’s painting by Domenico diMichelino, 1465, sculptural portraits of Giotto and Brunelleschi, the mosaic over the principal entrance by Gaddo Gaddi (early 1300s) and the stained glass window designed by Donatello.
An art lover’s dream, the most fabulous museum in Italy, a large and incomparably rich art gallery with its 1800 works of art. It was created by Francesco I de’Medici in 1581 on the top floor of a building originally designed by Vasari in the late 16th century to accommodate the administrative and judicial offices (“Uffizi”) of Cosimo I (father of Francesco I). When the building was constructed the old church of San Piero Scheraggio was incorporated into it and still today we can see important remains of it.
For information about booking tickets to the Uffizi gallery click here.
Dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, patron of the city, called by Dante “the beautiful Saint John”, the Baptistery is the oldest building of the square, a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture. It is believed to have been built for the first time between the 6th and 9th centuries. In the mid-11th century, the Baptistery was reconstructed in the larger scale we see today and between the 12th and 16th centuries, it was further enlarged and the exterior sculptural decorations put in place.
Its octagonal shape represents the “octava dias” or “eighty days” – the time of the risen Christ. Such symbolism was held to be prevalent to Baptism, the sacrament of initiation to the Christian faith. In fact, every 21 March, New Years Day on the old Florentine Calendar, all the children born over the last 12 months would be brought here for a great communal baptism.
The interior of the Baptistery is decorated with mosaics which embody a magnificent example of crossroads of several Mediaeval Europe, evoking Romans, Islamic world and Byzantine. They were begun by Iacopo Francescano in 1225 and continued by Venetian and Florentine artists, among whom is believed to be the young Cimabue, who laid the basis of Florentine painting.
Begun in 1278 by Dominican Friars it was finished only in 1360. The façade was built with green and white marble around 1300 and completed by Leon Battista Alberti who designed the upper part. Inside the church there are splendid masterpieces, the most famous among them is Masaccio’s ‘Trinity’. The Strozzi Chapel on the right is one of the most evocative corners of 14th century Florence, entirely frescoed by Nardo di Cione and Orcagna (his brother). In the sacristy is the famous Giotto’s Crucifix, while in the Gondi Chapel is the wooded Crucifix by Brunelleschi. The charming fresco cycle in the Sanctuary representing “Lives of the Virgin” is a work by Ghirlandaio and his school, which was attended by the young Michelangelo. The Filippo Strozzi Chapel contains the finest work of Filippo Lippi and carved tomb of Filippo Strozzi by Benedetto da Maiano, while in the Rucellai Chapel are works by Nino Pisano and Ghiberti.
The museo is adjacent to the church. Here you can admire the Green Cloister, named after the colours of the famous fresco by Paolo Uccello on the walls. Next to it is the Spanish Chapel, created in 1350 by Jacopo Talenti as the Chapter House of the Convent, takes its name from the Spanish court followers of Eleanora da Toledo. Here you can admire the splendid cycle of frescoes by Bonaiuto.
This gallery was founded by Grand Duke Pietro Leoplold in 1784 to provide students of the Accademia d’Arte (which is still next door) with examples of art from every period. Today it is one of the most famous museums in Florence, for it houses some of Michelangelo’s most powerful sculptures as the gigantic “David”, originally in the piazza della Signorina where a copy now stands. Here you find other statues of Michelangelo: four of the Slaves, Saint Matthew and the Palestina Pietà, all unfinished. There are also several rooms devoted to Florentine gold ground paintings of the 13th and 14th centuries and to Renaissance paintings, with works of Fra Bartolomeo, Perugino and Botticelli.
The rich and ambitious merchant Luigi Pitti commissioned Brunelleschi to design the palace in 1448. It was built on the original plans in 1457 by Luca Foncelli. In 1549 ownership passed to the Medici family with Cosimo I and his wife Eleonora moving there from Palazzo Vecchio. They ordered Vasari to join the two palaces with the corridor that runs over Ponte Vecchio and for the next two centuries the palace was greatly extended and embellished (in typical Medici style). Pitti Palace remained the Medici’s residence until 1888, when it became the seat of the Lorraines. In 1911, the palace was given to the State and opened to the public. There are eight separate museums in the Pitti Palace and it is impossible to see all in one day. The most important museum is the Palatine Gallery, started by Cosimo II and continuously enriched by his successors with masterpieces dating from the 15th to 17th centuries including paintings by Titian, Giorgione, Raphael, and Rubens.
The garden rose on the hillside of Bobli at the request of Eleonora, wife of Cosimo I and has been for several centuries the private garden of Palazzo Pitti. Designed by Niccolo Tribolo in 1459, the garden was then enhanced by Ammannati, Buonatalenti and Alfonso Parigi. Beside the Pitti Palace entrance is a fountain of the chubby dwarf Morgante astride a turtle. Just behind lies the splendid Grotto of Buontalenti (1583), one of the architect’s most imaginative works that contains copies of Michelangelo’s Nonfiniti slaves and the “Venus” by Giambologna.
Originally built in the mid 14th century (the “Loggia” added in the XV century) for the Davizzi family, the house was bought by Bernardo Davanzati in 1578 and stayed in the family until 1904 when an antique collector purchased and restored it. Now a monument to the domestic architecture and lifestyle of early Renaissance Florence (“museo dalla Casa Fiorentina Antica”), it is one of the most delightful museums in Florence. Inside, as well as the frescoes, are carved furnitures, sculptures, tapestries, ceramics and painted chests. A visit is particularly recommended since it is the only example of a XV century Florentine home.
Considered one of the oldest of the city, this church was built by the Vallombrosian monks in the second half of the 11th century, lately enlarged and modified according to the Florentine Gothic style in the early 14th century, while the façade by Buontalenti was made towards the end of the 16th century. Among the major artworks inside the church we mention the Sassetti Chapel. Dedicated to the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, the fresco cycle it contains is a masterpiece by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Other splendid works can be admired in the Bartolini Chapel, frescoed by the Sienese Lorenzo Monaco, and in the Sanctuary, containing works of art by Alessio Baldovinetti, Mariotto di Nardo, Luca della Robbia and Benedetto da Maiano.
This splendid renaissance palace was built in 1444 by Michelozzo on commission of Cosimo the Elder. The palace is square with an open loggia on each side of the street corner, it was the home of the Medici and the heart of Renaissance Florence until they moved to the Palazzo Vecchio. In 1659 the Riccardi purchased the palace. Today it is used as the city’s prefecture. Inside there is an elegant courtyard, a small Italian garden and the famous tiny chapel with Benozzo Gozzoli’s fresco “the procession of the wise kings” and others that glorifies the Medici family, amoung which is the adolescent Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Piazziale Michelangelo is known to be one of the most panoramic sites of Italy. It was built in 1869 to plans made by Giuseppe Poggi and it really offers a surpurb view of the city and the hill of Fiesole. Looking down you can admire the various bridges of the Arno River flanked in th distace by the Cascine Park. To the left of the Piazzale are the walls of San Girogio and the Forte Belvedere. In the Middle of the Piazza stands bronze copies of Michelangelo’s “David” and the four statues on th tombs in the Medici Chapels: “Night, Day, Dusk, and Dawn”.
This is the largest Franciscan Basilica in Italy. Planned by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1294 and built on the site of an older church, Santa Croce was completed by the 1450s by Vasari. The Neo-Gothic façade was made in 1857- 63 by Nicocolo Matas and contrasts with the simple and austere construction. Originally the walls inside the church were frescoed by the most famous 14th century artists (Orcagna in particular), but with Cosimo I, the frescoes were covered and Vasari added the two altars. For centuries, before the church was declared “Pantheon of the nation’s glories”, it was the custom to install monuments to noble or illustrious men buried in Santa Croce, examples are the Tomb of Alfieri by Canova, the Tomb of Leonardo Bruni (the famous “Madonna de Latte”) by Antonio Rossellino, the Tomb of Carlotta Bonaparte by Bartolini and the Tomb of Michelangelo by Vasari.
This is a wonderfully eccentric church. It was originally designed and built as the “Loggia del Grano” (Grain Market) by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1290, but destroyed by a fire in 1304. Rebuilt by Francesco Talenti and Neri di Fioravanti, it finally became a house of worship: the loggia arcades were closed off in order to make the famous niches embellished with Florentine Gothic Sculptures and ediculas.
The oldest statue is Ghilberti’s bronze St John the Baptist erected in 1416 for the Arte di Calimala. You can also admire works by Donatello, Michelozzo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Luca della Robbia, Giambologna and Nanni di Banco. The church has been conserved in its original structure, illuminated by XV century stained glass windows, in the interior you can admire works by Orcogna, Pietro del Migliore, Daddi and Francesco da Sangallo.
Founded in 1255, the church was rebuilt by Michelozzo in 1444, on commission of the Medici who saw the need of a bigger church to house the pilgrims attracted by the miraculous image of the Virgin and today is still one of the most important churches in Florence. Michelozzo also designed the Chiostrino dei Voti, and atrium in front of the church that contains several frescoes, most of them are by Andrea del Sarto, others are by Baldovientti, Pontrmo, Rosso Fiorentino. Michelozzo’s marble Tempietto contains the image of the Virgin Mary that is considered miraculous. The next chapels contain works of Andrea del Castagno, Baldovinetti, Bandinelli. The Chiostro dei Morti is noted for Andrea del Saro’s “Madonna del Sacco”.
The church of Santo Spirito gives its name to the picturesque area in Oltrarno populated by craftsmen, restorers and antique dealers. The simple, geometric 18th century façade hides Brunelleschi’s last and perhaps greatest church. Designed and begun in 1444, it is one of the most beautiful examples of Renaissance architecture. Along the walls of the church are 38 semi-circular chapels containing works of art by several artists of that time, among them Filippino Lippi, Verrocchio, Lorenzo di Credi, Botticini, Cosimo Rosselli. The fine marble altarpiece is by Sansovino. The vestubule and the octagonal Sacresty are by Giuliano da Sangallo. In the refectory of the 14th century on the left of the church there are still fragments of the “Last Supper” and “Crucifixion” by Andrea Orcagna.
The Brancacci Chapel is located in the 13th century church Santa Maria del Carmine. It is famous throughout the world and constitutes some of the most solemn monuments to Italian Renaissance painting. Three artists worked on the Chapel’s frescoes. Masolino was commissioned to do the frescoes and he designed the cycle in 1424, when he left for Hungary, his pupil Masaccio worked on them for a year and it was Filippino Lippi who completed the frescoes in 1480.
The cathedral museum is one of Florence’s finest, with a magnificent collection of Florentine sculpture and masterpieces that once adorned the cathedral, the Baptistery and the Campanile. In the first room, devoted to Arnolfo di Cambio, is the statue of Pope Boniface VIII and other works of the artist. The small rooms nearby are dedicated to Brunelleschi and contain material from the construction of the Dome. A short staircase leads to the famous “Pietà” by Michelangelo (1550), originally intended to be placed on his tomb. On the first floor are the two “Cantorie” (choir lofts) made in 1430s by Luca della Robbia and Donatello together with other sculptures executed by Donatello: “Magdalen”, “Jeremiah” and “Habbakuk”. Here also are two panels of the “Door of Paradise” and the famous silver altar, once in the Baptistery, a masterpiece by XV century Florentine artists.
The original heart and the history of the city of the Florentine Republic, the square still conserves its character as the political centre of the city and contains several very important works of art. The first two statues to be placed on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio are Donatello’s bronze “Judith and Holofrenes” and the world known Michelangelo’s “David”, together with “Hercules and Cacus” by Bandinelli (who tried unsuccessfully to surpass the “divino” Michelangelo) and Vincenzo de Rossi. Other statues in the square are Ammannati’s “Neptune Fountain” (dubbed “Il Biancone”) and colossus “Equestrian Monument to Cosimo I” by Giambologna.
The “Loggia della Signoria” or “dei Lanzi” or “dell’Orcagna” overlooks the square. Completed in 1382, it represents a notable example of Florentine Gothic architecture and is the symbol of the Republic’s capacity for beauty. Under the Loggia are the famous Cellini’s bronze “Perseus” and the “Rape of the Sabines” by Giambologna.
This splendid example of a 16th century military fortress was designed and built by Bernardo Bountalenti on order of the Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’Medici. Forte Belvedere, erected on the bastions of the Porta San Giorgio, dominates the Boboli gardens and the entire city. Since 1958, the forte has been used for art exhibits and other manifestations. Even if the fortress is closed, one can always enjoy the magnificent panoramic view of Florence and countryside from the terrace. The fort can be reached from the Boboli gardens, or by ascending the suggestive Costa San Giorgio, which begins in Piazza Felicità, just beyond the Ponts Vecchio.
Michelangelo never lived in this house, he only purchased it in 1508. His nephew inherited it in 1564 and used it to start a collection of works of the Great Master with the purpose of enhancing his art. In 1859 the house was donated to the city and opened to the public as a Michelangelo Museum. The ground floor is dedicated mostly to imaginary portraits of the artist and works of art collected by his nephew’s descendants. Many attractions, beginning with Michelangelo’s earliest works are upstairs, on the first floor, where you can admire the famous “Madonna of the Stairs” and the wooden “Crucifix” of Santo Spirito. The next rooms were painted in the 17th century by other artists on commission by Michelangelo’s great-grandson to illustrate the great Master’s life. The second floor is now reserved for the “ Michelangelo Study Centre”.
Designed by Brunelleschi in 1421, this was the first institution of its kind in Italy and Europe and it still serves as an orphanage today, as well as the local nursery school. The Spedale was Brunelleschi’s first complete work, its fine loggia was decorated in terra cotta by Andrea della Robbia. Brunelleschi also designed the two beautiful cloisters of the convent: the “Chiosto delle Donne”, reserved for hospital nurses, and the small “museo dello Spedale”, which contains works by Alessandro Allori, Piero di Cosimo, Luca dell Robbia, Giovanni del Biondo, Neri di Bicci, and the brilliant “Adoration of the Magi” by Ghirlandaio.
This is the most important civil building in the city and sums up the political history of Florence throughout the centuries. Designed in 1299 by Arnolfo di Cambio as the seat of the Priori della Arti, it has been remodeled several times over the centuries. The 14th century courtyard, with the famous fountain with the “Putto” (original by Verrocchio on the second floor of the building) makes a charming contrast to the forbidding exterior. Vasari’s grand staircase leads to the largest rooms of the palace, the Salone dei Cinquecento, built in 1494 by Simone dei Pallaiolo on commission of Savonarola to accommodate the Grand Council (consisting of 500 elements) and decorated by Michelangelo and Leonardo.
The Calcio in Costume or Football in “Livery” had its earliest beginnings in ancient Greece and was brought to Florence by the Roman Legionnaires as a military exercise. The game reached its height of popularity in Republican Florence and the Florence of the Medici, where in the squares of the city, the players struggled for goals often adopting harsh aggressive tactics in order to win. Calcio was played at Carnival but also on other occasions, including anniversaries, festivals and weddings of the nobility. The players themselves were generally of the nobility. There are four teams of 27 player, each team representing one of the four “quarters” of the historical centres and each team is known by the colour of the bright decorative costumes worn by the players. Green is the colour of San Giovanni, red for Santa Maria Novella, white for Santo Spirito and blue for Santa Croce.
Every game is preceded by a procession in historical costumes beginning at the church of Santa Maria Novella, continuing past the Duomo and ending at the football field. The procession includes pipers and drummers, soldiers in medieval armour, officials representing their districts, flag bearers and horsemen in costumes of the nobility. Once the game is over, the procession reassembles, a salute is given, drums roll and then it returns to Santa Maria Novella.
It is a good idea, especially if you are travelling in the summer, to pre-book tickets to the Florence museums. Here is the local booking office number +39 055 294883, the staff speaks English.
Follow A11 towards Florence, exit at sign for A1 Roma, take this highway in the direction of Roma. Exit at Firenze Signa, pay the toll. Follow Firenze Centro signs onto the dual carriageway. Follow from ** below.
FROM PISA/FIRENZE SUPERSTRADA
Join the Pisa/Firenze superstrada in the direction Florence, proceed to the outskirts of Florence. Follow ** below.
** On reaching the outskirts of Florence go straight passing through 4 sets of traffic lights. At the 5th set follow the traffic round to the left and onto the bridge; keep in the right hand lane. Immediately after having crossed the bridge (Ponte La Vittoria), continue to the traffic lights. Turn right at the lights and follow the road to the left. Here there is free parking around the square and two pay car parks further in the opposite direction. Over the bridge take the first right, and then proceed straight on through 4 sets of lights coming out automatically onto the Pisa/Firenze superstrada.
Note: parking is severely restricted on Tuesday mornings due to the local market.
FROM THE SOUTH
FROM THE A1 HIGHWAY
Leave the highway at the exit Firenze Impruneta; pay the toll. Go around the traffic circle to the left, following Firenze signs. Continue from *** below.
FROM SIENA /FIRENZE SUPERSTRADA
*** Go straight through Galluzzo, then past the petrol stations. At the next traffic lights turn right following yellow Piazzale Michelangelo signs. Continue through a set of lights. At the next lights keep in the right hand lane and go straight, still following the yellow signs. Proceed straight on then turn right at the next junction. Keep going straight until reaching the square of Piazzale Michelangelo on the left. The square is divided into two areas. Blue lines for pay parking and white lines for free parking. (Note: at busy times of the year it is all pay parking). From here there is an excellent view of Florence below. To reach the centre it is a 20-minute walk, or catch bus number 13 to the station. Tickets must be bought from the nearby bar before boarding and validated on the bus.
Note: on Sundays and Holidays (Festivi) parking is FREE in Florence, BEWARE of unofficial park attendants who demand money.
Supermarkets - There are a few large supermarkets which have the usual opening hours of 8.00 to 13.00 and 16.00 to 19.00. Florence is also filled with small corner grocery stores.
Banks - There are many banks with cash dispensers that accept Credit Cards. Banks are open in the mornings.
Mass - There are many churches in Florence which have regular masses. There are also masses held in the Cathederal.
Petrol - There are many petrol stations that operate a 24 hour machine service, you will need a 5, 10 or 20 Euro note when they are closed. They are normally open Monday to Saturday 07.30/12.30 and 15.30/19.30
Chemist - There are a number of chemists in Florence. On Sundays and holidays there will be only one open, you can find out which by checking a notice that is found outside all chemists.
Market - The San Lorenzo market is open every day, there are also smaller local suburban markets on different days of the week.
Museums - For further information about Florence museums, including on-line ticket booking, click here. Or for the direct booking office call +39 055 294883
A website providing information about top boutiques, outlets, shops, hotels, restaurants, tourist services and more in Florence.
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- Florence Introduction
- Florence history
- Cathederal square
- The duomo (cathederal)
- The uffizi
- The Baptistery
- Church of Santa Maria Novella
- Pitti palace
- Palazzo Davanzanti
- Church of Santa Trinita
- Palazzo medici
- Piazale Michelangelo
- Santa croce
- Church of Orsanmichele
- Santo Spirito
- Cathederal museum
- Loggia della Signoria
- Forte Belvedere
- Casa Buonarroti
- Osepedale degli innocenti
- Palazzo Vecchio
- Calcio storico
- Museum tickets
- Parking in Florence
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