In antiquity, Tuscany was known as Etruria, home to the Etruscans who were the most important power in pre-Roman Italy. After the Romans took over, Etruria benefited from a number of developments which, among others, included the extension of its existing road network and the construction of several public and private buildings. In the Middle Ages, its cities began to prosper thanks to the influence and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the advent of the new commercial class. In particular, Pisa, Lucca, Siena and Florence emerged as virtually independent city-states.
By the year 1000, Florence was fast becoming one of the leading cities in Tuscany, largely as a result of its wool processing industry. The city’s strong gold currency helped to curb the detrimental effects of the political upheaval that the city faced during much of the 13th century. After an anti-aristocratic movement culminated in the enactment of the Ordinances of Justice in 1293, control of the city shifted from the aristocrats to the mercantile elite and the members of the city’s organized guilds. Following the annexation of Arezzo in 1384 and the subjugation of Pisa in 1406, by the early 15th century, Florence had consolidated its role as the most powerful city
in Tuscany and its only remaining rival in the region was the city of Siena.
Though nominally a democracy, Florence was basically an oligarchy run by its most prosperous and powerful families. Thanks to the support of the Church of Rome, Cosimo de Medici effectively took control of the government of Florence in 1434. For the next 300 years, except for occasional periods when they were pushed out of power, the Medici family ruled Florence and much of Tuscany. Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo, who ruled from 1469 to 1492, had such an impact on Florence that he became known as Lorenzo the Magnificent.
From the 14th to the 18th century, Florence and its broader region emerged as the leading forces that pulled Europe out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Some of the most renowned painters, sculptors, and architects of the era like Cimabue, Fra Angelico, Giotto, Masaccio, Uccello, Ghirlandaio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Verrocchio, Donatello, Giambologna, Cellini, Alberti, and Brunelleschi either came from and lived in Tuscany or spent productive periods of their careers there. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio are arguably the wellspring of modern Italian literature, and the Tuscan Italian they employed has remained to this day the highest standard of the Italian language. The controversial political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli also spent the most prolific period of his life in Florence, while Galileo is known to this day as one of the many pioneers in the new sciences, technologies, and mathematics who were based in Florence. Italy’s dramatic tradition really began in Florence, while opera definitely originated here. The Medicis would often patronize the performing arts while Lorenzo the Magnificent was also a composer himself.
By 1737, with the end of the Medici dynasty, Florence and Tuscany came under the rule of Austria and then in 1807 they were annexed by France. With the fall of Napoleon in 1814, Florence and Tuscany returned to Austrian rule until finally joining in the new, unified Kingdom of Italy in 1861. In 1865 Florence became the capital of this new nation, but it was replaced by Rome in 1871. Florence continued to thrive in the upcoming years, and it became a major destination for international tourists until it as isolated by World War II. When Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, Germany took over Florence. As the Allies advanced, some fine buildings were destroyed, but, as Florence was declared an open city, It was spared from major bombing raids. The retreating Germans set about destroying the bridges across the Arno, but were persuaded to spare the Ponte Vecchio, the ‘old bridge’ lined with shops that had originally been erected in 1345.
Florence suffered one of its worst disasters in 1966 when the Arno flooded much of the old city and damaged a large number of buildings including churches, museums, and libraries with all of their contents. An international campaign provided the funds and personnel that helped to salvage and restore most of the damaged works.
In the decades since the Second World War, both Tuscany and Florence have thrived tremendously, attracting millions of tourists every year that come to discover the breathtaking land that gave birth to the Italian Renaissance and one of Italy’s most beautiful and influential cities.