Florence (Italian: Firenze) is Italy's greatest city of art — the whole of the Italian Renaissance in miniature. Here is where Michelangelo was born and raised, where Dante, Giotto, and Machiavelli were from, where the Medici family acquired power and influence, and where, indeed, much of western civilization first took shape. Florence was founded in 200 BC at the point where a Roman road crossed the Arno River — the site of the present Ponte Vecchio. The city was a colony of the Etruscan city of Fiesole (now a suburb of Florence!), but it was a maturing colony, so the Romans called the town Florentia (meaning "flourishing" or "flowers" for the blossoming city). It was a prophetic name. Its fortunes rose only after the fall of Rome, during the Middle Ages when powerful craft guilds dominated the city's commercial life. Florentine cloth, especially, acquired a reputation all over Europe. During this time, the city's politics were a battleground between two parties: the Guelphs (siding with the Pope), and the Ghibellines (siding with the Holy Roman Emperor, i.e., with Germany). Each had its victories and defeats, but the Guelphs finally won in 1266. They established the all-important Signoria (Council), which ruled the city from that time on. The city's greatest disaster occurred in 1348, when the bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, carried off 3/5 of the population.
Banking has long been a tradition in Florence. Florentine banks used to print their own money, which was recognized all over Europe, including England, and greatly enhanced the wealth and power of the city. Florentine bankers financed England's Hundred Years War with France. The famous Medici family, who came to power during the Renaissance, made its fortune in banking. The fortunes accumulated through banking were what financed the artistic activity of Renaissance Florence; without such fortunes, the Renaissance might have been very different.
One of the oddest episodes in the city's history was Savonarola. This fanatical monk preached against the worldliness and art of the city in the 15th century at the very height of the city's genius. He had a great following, and destroyed works of art, books, wigs, musical instruments, etc., in huge bonfires in 1493. A year later, the population turned against him, and he was burnt at the stake at the very spot where he had preached so forcefully.
The Medicis The Medicis were the single greatest influence on the city's history. They brought the internal strife of medieval Florence to an end, and created an environment of relative peace and prosperity, in which the Renaissance flourished. At the time, the leading Guelph party was torn into two factions — Black Guelphs and White Guelphs. In 1422, Giovanni Bicci de'Medici was elected head of the Republic of Florence, and thus began the period of Medici rule. Giovanni's son Cosimo consolidated the family's influence. Cosimo's grandson was Lorenzo Medici, known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, who brought the city to the height of its splendor in the 15th century.
Lorenzo established a large court, gathered around him artists like Michelangelo, and patronized the building of churches and palaces. But the Medicis, though the ruling force, were not of noble birth (they had been bankers and their coat of arms depicted pills, a reference to a probable medical activity in the early existance of the family). A later successor, Cosimo the Younger, at last acquired the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany, fulfilling an age-old family dream. The Medicis continued in power, on and off until 1737, when the lack of a male heir made the family extinct.
The City's Men of Genius
Modern Florence Towards the end of World War II, as the Allies were pushing the Germans north, there was some destruction in the city. The Allies were south of the River Arno, and the Germans controlled the city to the north. To slow down the Allied advance, the Germans blew up all the bridges on the Arno except the Ponte Vecchio. But they did put huge piles of debris on either end of the bridge. One of the bridges blown up was the Ponte Santa Trinita (Holy Trinity Bridge), a classic landmark, and the next bridge downstream from the Ponte Vecchio. After the war, the Florentines were determined to restore it; they retrieved all the pieces from the river to put the bridge back together again. All the pieces fit together except for the head of one of the statues, which was missing. Years later, the missing head turned up a short distance downstream. Almost the whole city turned out to see the last piece fitted into the puzzle. As you cross the city today, you can see where all the pieces are joined together with mortar.
Another disaster to the city occurred in 1966, the year of the great flood. Heavy rains in the Apennines swelled the River Arno, and water covered the streets. The "Doors of Paradise" were loosened and tarnished (restored since), priceless manuscripts stored in cellars were destroyed (the ink ran), and wall-frescoes in churches located in low-lying areas were damaged. World-wide appeals brought millions of dollars of contributions for restoration, which continue to this day.
Duomo The central square of the city is dominated by the Duomo, (the Cathedral), known technically as Santa Maria dei Fiore (St. Mary of the Flower). Its nave is one of the longest in Europe, and its dome was one of the first ever built. The building was started in early 1296, following designs by Arnolfo di Cambio. One hundred and forty years later, with the completion of the dome, the work was finished. The dome was designed by Brunelleschi, using engineering techniques which were then new, and radical. It's actually two domes, one inside the other; the lower gives support to the upper dome. Fourteen years were spent building the dome. The building was paid for by the medieval guild of cloth-makers.
In the first chapel of this transept is Michelangelo's third Pieta (not to be confused with its more famous sister in St. Peter's), worked on when he was 80, and left unfinished. If you've seen the more famous Pieta in Rome, you can contrast the youthfulness, harmony, and polish of the Rome Pieta with the more anguished and shattered imagery of this one, truly the statement of an old and dying man. The Pieta was finished after Michelangelo's death by his pupil Calcagni.
Campanile It's a peculiarity of central Italy that the three main "parts" of its cathedrals are often made separate buildings, the nave (or central part), the bell tower, and the Baptistry. That's the case here too. This bell tower was begun under the direction of the great Giotto (who painted the famous pictures of the Life of St. Francis in Assisi). Giotto died in 1337, when only the first two levels of the tower had been built, and it took several decades more to finish the job. This campanile is considered the most beautiful bell tower in the world, one of the finest creations of Gothic art. The tower is 292 feet high and its straight lines balance nicely the rounded curves of the dome; the two structures go well together.
Bapistry The Baptistry of St. John, like the bell tower, is detached from the main building. It is shaped like an octagon, in keeping with the geometrical look of the buildings around it. It was begun in the 11th century on the ruins of a pagan temple. There are three "doors" to this building. The most famous is the east door, pronounced by Michelangelo worthy to be the Gates of Paradise. The bronze panels in this door were the work of Ghiberti, who spent 27 years (1425-52) on them. The panels show scenes from the Old Testament and on one of the panels is a little bald bronze head, which was Ghiberti's self-portrait. These panels are now restored, having been covered with slime after the disastrous flood of November 1966.
The north door of the Baptistry also has bronze panels by Ghiberti, and an interesting story is told about this door. It was typical of the times that the city of Florence offered a competition among the leading artists of the day for the commission to sculpt these bronze panels. Everyone, it seemed, took part in the competition, hoping to be selected. Ghiberti submitted sketches; so did Brunelleschi (designer of the dome). Ghiberti's designs were accepted, and he started work on the north door. Brunelleschi, outraged that his designs hadn't won, vowed to give up sculpture and turn to architecture instead. He did so, and designed the handsome dome of this cathedral.
The panels of the north door are less spectacular than those of the east door. They show the Life of Christ and also portraits of Evangelists and Church Doctors.
Opposite the south door is the 14th century Loggia del Bigallo, where lost or abandoned children used to be shown to the public in a
Church of Orsanmichele An interesting, if less spectacular, example of Florentine Gothic. This church used to be a storehouse for corn, and was turned into a church between 1337 and 1404. But even after the church was finished, it functioned for a time only on the first floor, and the upper story continued to be used as a granary. The church was a chapel designed to be used by guilds of craftsmen in Florence. Running around the outside are interesting decorations. A series of niches hold statues carved by the leading sculptors of the day, including Ghiberti. The variety of styles shows you how rich the art of Florence was during the Renaissance. The figures shown are the various patrons of the guilds.
Piazza della Signoria The city's largest square, and during the Renaissance, the political hub. The many statues show how proud the citizens were of their wealth and artistry. The figure on horseback is Cosimo the Elder. The Fountain of Neptune is one of the most famous works, executed by Ammanati. A round stone slab in the center of the square marks the spot where the fiery reformer/preacher Savonarola was hanged and then burnt as a heretic. The statue Marzocco shows the Lion of Florence leaning on a lily. Donatello's bronze statue of Judith and Holophernes is another treasure of the square. But of chief interest is the copy of Michelangelo's David. The original used to stand here. But war, civil strife, and sheer accident did damage to the statue; once a stone fell and knocked off an arm. The arm was put back on, but the statue had to be removed for safekeeping. The original is now in the Accademia, but this one is an exact copy.
Palazzo Vecchio This is the medieval-looking palace dominating the square. Technically, its name is Palazzo della Signoria — Palace of the Signoria. The "Signoria" was the council which ruled Florence at the time the palace was built. But its nickname, Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace), stuck and is now more common.
This castle-like structure was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (who began the Duomo). For decorative purposes only, the crenellations, battlements, and watch towers were never meant to be used in war. Florence in the 14th century was reaching its period of pride and power; there was little fear of an attack!
The palace was once the home of Cosimo I, of the Medici family. Much later, when Italy was united and its capital was in Florence, the building housed the Chamber of Deputies (the Italian parliament). It's now used by the City of Florence.
Loggia dei Lanzi Next to the Palazzo Vecchio is an arcade with two rows of world-famous statues. Among them are the Rape of the Sabine Women, by da Bologna; Benvenuto Cellini's Perseus, a masterpiece showing the head of Medusa, and other statues in the classical tradition, featuring mainly Greek mythological figures. The word "Lanzi" in the name of this arcade refers to the lancers who were the personal bodyguard of the Medici leader, Cosimo the Younger. This was their guardroom! The statues were added much later. The fact that a bodyguard had to be housed nearby shows something of the civic violence of the times — if you had power and influence, your life was in danger from jealous rivals. You might be stabbed at Mass, or waylaid in your coach on a dark street; your food might be poisoned by servants bribed by your enemies, even your wife might stab you, Lady Macbeth-like, in your sleep. One wonders if the wealth and glitter were really worth it.
Uffizi Gallery The building huddling up next to the Palazzo Vecchio and separated from it by a narrow alley is the most famous art museum in the world for Renaissance works. The name "Uffizi" means "offices." It was here that the Medici family administered the affairs of the city, courts of law were held, trade bargains sealed and political plots hatched.
The collection inside is so vast that it would be impossible to see it in a short period of time. Art students come here from all over the world to spend weeks and months going from room to room. Among the masters represented are Botticelli (Birth of Venus, The Spring), the Medici Venus (Greek sculpture), Michelangelo's only canvas (The Holy Family) and others too numerous to mention here.
Ponte Vecchio Everything around here is old (vecchio). This bridge spans the River Arno, and dates from the 13th century. The sides of the bridge are lined with shops of goldsmiths, silversmiths and jewelry dealers. It gives you a picture of crowded city life centuries ago, when land in the city was scarce, foundations were expensive to build, and a bridge furnished a convenient, foundation-provided location for shops and even houses.
The Accademia The "David" is located here and is Italy's single greatest tourist attraction. Sculpted by Michelangelo as a young man, it stands as the supreme symbol of Renaissance confidence.
San Marco After visiting the "David," visit this museum located on the same square (Piazza San Marco), for the city's finest collection of Fra Angelico paintings. The building was the very monastery in which the gentle friar lived and worked.
The Bargello This building was built in 1255 and served as the town hall. In the 16th century, it became the residence of the head of police spies or "Bargello," hence the name. Throughout the 18th century, it became a prison where executions took place until 1786. The most famous execution was of Bernardo Baroncelli, who was involved in the failed conspiracy to assassinate Lorenzo the Magnificent. Since 1859, the Bargello has been a national museum, housing masterpieces by artists such as Brunelleschi, Donatello, Michelangelo, Cellini and Giambologna.
San Lorenzo Believed to be the oldest building in Florence, it was consecrated by St. Ambrosia in 393 and rebuilt in the Renaissance Classical style in 1419 by Brunelleschi as a mausoleum for the Medici family. In 1521, Michelangelo began work on the New Sacristy and designed the Biblioteca and the funeral chapel, as well as sculpting the Medici tombs. Because the Pope summoned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, he was never able to finish the work he had started on San Lorenzo. To this date, the façade of the church remains unfinished.
Medici Chapel This chapel is situated in the heart of the open market and is adjacent to the San Lorenzo. In the chapel's New Sacristy are four of Michelangelo's last sculptures; Day, Night, Dawn and Sunset.
Palazzo Pitti Built by the Pitti family to outdo the Medicis, it is the most magnificent palace ever built in Florence. Ironically, the Pitti family was eventually forced to sell it to the Medicis when it went bankrupt. Today it is the city's second largest art complex, housing precious silver, porcelain, apparel, artwork, and much more. While here, wander through the manicured Boboli Gardens behind the palace.
Although winters in Florence can be very cold, summers are hot and humid, particularly in July when temperatures may exceed 100º F. Spring and Autumn tend to be the mildest and most pleasant months to visit as the humid heat gives way to mild breezes. Rain is common in the Spring when the countryside again becomes fragrant with the emerging new growth. The grape harvest (vendemmia) takes place in Autumn when the leaves begin to turn vibrant shades of red and gold.
March Temperature 45ºF to 58ºF
Monthly Rainfall 2.3"
July Temperature 65ºF to 85ºF
Monthly Rainfall 0.5"
October Temperature 54ºF to 70ºF
Monthly Rainfall 3.8"
January Temperature 38ºF to 54ºF
Monthly Rainfall 2.5"
Synchronize your watches Local time is 6 hours ahead of E.S.T. If it's 2:00pm in New York City, it's 8:00pm locally. Please note that Italy changes to and from daylight-saving time a few weeks before the U.S., so time differences still vary in March and October.
Money, money, money The Italian unit of currency is the Euro. As throughout Europe, there is no better way than to use your ATM card to withdraw money in the local currency whenever you need it. You will never have a problem locating a suitable ATM machine. If you do need to change dollars (cash or traveler's checks) into Euros, try to do so at a bank. You can expect a slightly higher rate of exchange for traveler's checks and you should always keep your passport handy. Bureaux de Change tend to give a slightly worse deal. Some shops, especially tourist ones, will accept American currency or traveler's checks as payment but be advised that you will almost certainly be getting a much worse rate than you would from a bank. The same goes for hotels that are willing to change money for you, and even if they will do it, it's usually cash only, not traveler's checks. Bank opening hours are 9am to 1:15pm and 2:30pm to 3:30pm Monday through Friday. During non-banking hours, head for the Cambio in the main train station.
The joy of servitude Restaurant checks almost always include a service charge, but it is often customary to round up to the nearest Euro or 5 Euros or leave 10% on top of the service charge already included.
The mailman cometh Mail service to and from Italy is reliable and inexpensive (unless you are sending a parcel overseas). You can purchase postage stamps (francobolli) at post offices or Tabacchi. Hours are generally 8:30 am to 1:30 pm. The main post offices (via Pelliceria, 3) and 8 Post office (via Pietrasanta 53) are open 8:15 am to 6:00 pm.
Please wait while we try to connect you As usual, the golden rule is to never call home from your hotel. It will cost a fortune. Telecom Italia public telephones are easy to find. They accept telephone cards (carta or scheda telefonica) that can be bought at any newspaper kiosks or tobacco shops.
The access code to put you through to an ATT operator from Italy is 172 1011. For MCI it is 172 1022.
The city of Florence has a confusing dual address system. Numbers on residential addresses are a different color (black or blue) than numbers on business addresses (red). Because each set of numbers has its own sequence, a red street number will not be next to a blue or black number even though each street has a double set of numbers. For example, on the same street a restaurant with a street number of "10" will not be the neighbor of a residence with a street number of "10". Always remember when writing to a business that the address requires an "r" after the street number.
Walking Florence is a small city, and most everything of interest is easily accessible on foot. Tour coaches are not permitted in the center of Florence.
Buses The hub of the bus system is at the right side of the main railroad station in Piazza Adua. Dozens of orange buses have their starting point here. Buy the tickets at tobacco shops and kiosks. You enter at the back and validate your ticket in the machine. You exit from the center door.
Olive oil is essential to Italian cuisine, especially in the central and southern regions. Crostini are bruschetta rounds topped with either olive, tomato or liver paste. An appetizer may consist of a simple pasta or a stuffed pasta such as cannelloni or ravioli. Meat and fish are most often served as a main course, together with some kind of contorni (side dishes) which are assorted vegetable dishes or salads. Another popular pasta dish is pasta all'amatriciana, served with a sauce of bacon, tomatoes and onions. Dried salt cod prepared with parsley tomatoes and garlic is called Baccalà. Fagioli all'Uccelletto is a popular vegetable dish. Try a torta di riso (rice cake) served with a fruit sauce or a castagne ubriache, baked custard accompanied by chestnuts in a red wine sauce. Visit Vivoli, the best place to purchase a cone of genuine gelato — see if this isn't the richest, creamiest and most flavorful ice cream you have ever tasted.
Most shops follow government-set hours, approximately 10:00 am to 1:00 pm, then a "riposo," and open again from about 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm. Everything is closed Sunday and (in summer) Saturday afternoon. In August, Italy in general is on skeleton crews and many shops lower their shutters for the whole month.
Leatherworking is a Florentine specialty. You'll find jackets, shoes and such inexpensive items as leather-covered photo albums, jewel boxes, compact cases, address books, wallets and desk sets.
After leather, Florence is most famous for gold jewelry. Stop at the shops on the Ponte Vecchio (the old bridge), which have been in operation since the 16th century! All gold jewelry sold in Italy is 18 karat and must be stamped accordingly.
Be prepared to do some haggling at markets. The markets are in the Medici Chapel area, and extend the entire length of Via dell'Ariento — everything from sportswear to table linens to alabaster statuary. A rule of thumb is to beware of items which are inordinately cheap. For quality goods, you're better off in the stores. Concentrate here on things like T-shirts, posters and vintage clothing.
In the stalls under the arcades of the Uffizi Gallery are magnificent reproductions of artwork; prints, slides, albums, even calendars. But most of all, full-color books priced at a fraction of their U. S. counterparts.
New Year's Day (Jan 1)
Epiphany (Jan 6)
aster Sunday/Monday (late March/early April)*
Liberation Day (April 25)
Labor Day (May 1)
Ferragosto (August 15)
All Saints' Day (Nov 1)
Immaculate Conception (December 8)
Christmas Day (December 25)
Santo Stefano (December 26)
* These dates will change according to the date on which Easter falls.
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