Florence Sightseeing

On The Road Travel Essays

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Florence Sightseeing

(COURIER: This brief walk concentrates on the Cathedral, Baptistry, Piazza della Signoria, and the Ponte Vecchio. You should be able to do it in about an hour, less if you move the group along swiftly.)

Duomo  This central square of the city is dominated by the Duomo, the Cathedral, known technically as Santa Maria del 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.

History: The building was started early: 1296, following designs by Arnolfo di Cambio. 140 years later, in 1436, 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. 14 years were spent building the dome. The building was paid for by the medieval guild of cloth-makers.

Exterior: Compared to the riot of color outside, the interior seems stark and gloomy. The Gothic vaulting is high, and the pillars are massive, so that only four huge arches are needed to support the roof. Looking up at the dome, we see the huge fresco, The Last Judgment, by Vasari and Zuccari.

The North transept: 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). But Giotto died in 1337, when only the first two levels of the tower had been built; 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; its straight lines balance nicely the rounded curves of the dome: the two structures go well together.

Baptistry  The Baptistry of St. John, like the bell tower, is detached from the main building. The Baptistry 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 bronze head, bald, 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 an effort to find their parents — a sort of human "lost and found" service.

(COURIER: Proceed south, along the Via Calzailoli, to the Piazza della Signoria. On the way, you'll pass two churches facing each other across the street. The one on the right (i.e. west) is the Church of Orsanmichele.)

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: 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 was the art of Florence 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 center. 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 (1576) 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 (1498). 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. It's now in the Academy Museum, but this 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: 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 a siege! (Of course, violence continued, but it was internal, between different factions in the city.)

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": here the Medici family administered the affairs of the city; courts of law were held, trade bargains sealed, 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 is Botticelli (Birth of Venus, The Spring), the Medici Venus (Greek sculpture), Michelangelo's only canvas (The Holy Family), and scores of others.

(COURIER: Proceed west, out of the square, to the large street going down to the river. Continue until you reach the covered bridge.)

Ponte Vecchio  Everything around here is "vecchio," old. 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.


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