Fall in love with Florence

 Guest post by Damien Martin, Italy Specialist, Great Getaways Travel

 

“C’è tanta storia,” I said to my guide, Cinzia, and really to anyone else who asked my impressions of Florence. “There’s so much history.”

Florence is rich in history

And you can’t help but walk though it every day you spend there. Founded by Julius Caesar and the Cradle of the Renaissance, Florence absorbed Roman culture and was the first to replicate civilization as Europe awoke from the middle ages, bursting with art and international commerce.

Boboli Gardens

Boboli Gardens

Florence means “flowering”

The name means “flowering,” and that’s just what Florence did, going from a town of 50,000 at the start of the 13th century to a city of 120,000 (plus another 300,000 in the surrounding countryside) by the 14th century. Through banking and trade, Florence fast became an international power, allowing its leading families to patronize such artists as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Brunelleschi and Botticelli. The most powerful family, the Medici, established themselves as dukes of Tuscany and built the magnificent Boboli Gardens to showcase their wealth and the talent of Florentine sculptors.

Florence and the Medicis

The gardens stand behind Palazzo Pitti, the last of three Medici palaces in the city, across the Arno River from the heart of the city. Legend has it that the palace was commissioned specifically by Luca Pitti to surpass Palazzo Medici, the first Medici palace. But Luca Pitti died with the house unfinished, and his family eventually sold it to the Medici, a testimony to their unrivaled status as Florence’s top dogs. The sheer number of buildings featuring their family crest proves their legacy lives on.

Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo’s David

The second Medici palace occupied the most important address in medieval Florence. Named Palazzo Vecchio — “the old palace” — ever since they moved out, it serves as Florence’s city hall to this day. Before it was moved inside after centuries of exposure to the elements, Michelangelo’s David stood out front. Today, a replica statue stands in place of the original, and David gazes out with the famous combination of fear and confidence in his eyes. There’s plenty for you to look at, too, as cafes line the Piazza della Signoria surrounding the palace, providing first-class people-watching. Watch out for the plaque marking the spot where Savonarola was burned at the stake in 1498.

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How jewelry shops came to adorn the Ponte Vecchio

Around the corner, the Medici kept their business offices, the Uffizi, now home to one of the world’s pre-eminent art museums. The Medici didn’t like that fishmongers hawked their wares on the bridge near their offices, so they kicked them out in favor of goldsmiths. This is why the Ponte Vecchio (which was thankfully spared when the Nazis blew up all the other bridges in the city) is now adorned with jewelry shops. That still wasn’t enough for the Medici, who had Giorgio Vasari build them a private suspended corridor across the river over the bridge to the Pitti Palace.

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The Duomo – an engineering marvel

A few steps in the opposite direction from Palazzo Vecchio, and you come out in front of the Duomo, with its massive engineering marvel of a dome and separate bell tower and baptistery. As Cinzia explained, only the baptized could enter the Duomo, so believers first had to enter the baptistery through the golden doors Michaelangelo dubbed the Gates of Paradise to be christened.

Birth of Venus

Birth of Venus

That barely scratches the surface of the myriad places of historical significance in Florence, and contributions the city has made to modern times. The language I spoke to Cinzia, now recognized as Italian, is the language spoken in Florence in the middle ages, popularized by native son Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy. But you need only walk around to be transported back in time to — as a plaque in the Pitti Palace describes — “that beautiful but turbulent city” which Medici patriarch Cosimo I “found and left peaceful and resplendent.”