It was not necessary to wait until 1982 when UNESCO designated Florence a World Heritage Site to know that it is an incredible place of beauty and history. Florence and Tuscany, the region of Italy in which Florence is the capital, have been admired for centuries as among the most influential places of global history. The inhabitants of this region have been leaders not only in the creative arts that define civilization, but also pioneers in many areas of human endeavor that led to the forming of the modern world. The appeal of Florence and Tuscany, however, is not dependent on any abstract claims, not even prior knowledge of their status; they appeal directly to the senses – the richness and beauty of the great works of art and architecture in Florence, the delights and diversions of the contemporary city, the serenity and harmony of the Tuscan countryside. One could spend a lifetime taking in all that Florence and Tuscany have to offer…it’s not too late to start!
Tuscany covers an area about the size of Wales or the American state of Vermont. Extending across much of northwest-central Italy, Tuscany is certainly one of the most beautiful and interesting regions in Italy offering incredible natural landscapes from the seaside to hilltop villages and through the stunning countryside of the Val D’Orcia. Tuscany is also known throughout Italy, and the world, for its unparalleled food and wine products. In fact, some of the best Italian wines are produced here, including Chianti and Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
Route 1: Discovering Florence - The City of Culture
Begin your walking tour of this magnificent city from the church of Santa Maria Novella located in the homonymous square near the train station. Built between the 13th and 14th century by Fra Jacopo Talenti, who also designed the bell tower, the Santa Maria Novella is a superb example of Italian Gothic art including works of leading artists of the Italian Renaissance such as Leon Battista Alberti, Masaccio and Brunelleschi.
From the church of Santa Maria Novella, walk along Via Cerratani toward Piazza del Duomo. The Cathedral, or Duomo, is dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore and was designed in charming Gothic architecture by Arnolfo di Cambio (1245-1302), one of the greatest architects and sculptors of his time. Completed around 1367, the Duomo was covered with coloured marble like the earlier Baptistery that sits opposite it, although the Duomo’s facade dates from the 19th century. Many of the sculptures originally located in the Duomo are now kept in the Museum of the ‘Opera del Duomo.’ Still in their original places are the lunettes by Luca della Robbia above the doors of the Sacristy, the bronze door of the Mass Sacristy, and the great Pietà by Michelangelo. The splendid stained glass windows are not to be missed – created between 1434-1445 from the designs of artists such as Donatello, Andrea del Castagno and Paolo Uccello. Also notable are the wooden inlays of the Sacristy cupboards by Brunelleschi and Antonio Del Pollaiolo.
Campanile di Giotto, or Giotto’s bell tower located by the huge dome of the Cathedral, is one of the most striking features of the city. Giotto only designed the lowest part of the tower, while the rest was completed after his death in 1337 under Andrea Pisano and then Francesco Talenti. Widely regarded as a masterpiece of sculpture worldwide, the Campanile di Giotto is one of the emblems of the Renaissance and a symbol of Florence.
From Piazza del Duomo follow Via dei Calzaioli south of the Cathedral all the way to Piazza della Signoria. This is Florence’s most famous square in the center of the medieval part of the city and the heart of the city’s social scene. Here too lays the seat of the civil power, with the Palazzo Vecchio a few dozen meters from the Ponte Vecchio and the Arno. The sculpture of ‘David’ by Michelangelo (1501-1504), where David portrays the biblical hero as he is about to face Goliath, is considered the ideal image of male beauty in art and is widely regarded as a masterpiece of art worldwide. The original sculpture is now preserved in the Accademia Gallery in Florence.
Palazzo Vecchio, or ‘Old Palace,’ is the most important civil building in Florence. Initially it was the seat of the Priors of Art and temporarily it housed the Grand Ducal family under Cosimo I de’ Medici before their transfer to Palazzo Pitti, while between 1550-65 Vasari sumptuously redecorated the newly reconstructed interiors as the seat of government and the official residence of the ruling family. The entire palace is a museum, especially the so-called Monumental Quarters. It is worth seeing the Salone dei Cinquecento, the study of Francesco I de’ Medici, the room of the Elements, and the Hall of the Lilies. The Loggia dei Lanzi overlooks and decorates Piazza della Signoria in front of the palace with its many valuable statues.
Next is the Uffizi Museum – one of the greatest museums in the world. The Uffizi (Italian for ‘offices’) were intended to house the offices of the famous Medici family. Today the Uffizi contain masterpieces by Italian and foreign artists from the 13th to the 18th centuries, such as Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, Beato Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Piero della Francesca, Raphael, Caravaggio, along with Rubens, Rembrandt, Dürer, Goya and many others. Most notably, the Uffizi Museum includes the famous paintings ‘The Birth of Venus’ by Botticelli, and ‘The Holy Family’ by Michelangelo.
The Vasari Corridor (Corridoio Vasariano) that connects the Uffizi Gallery with the Pitti Palace hosts a rich collection of self-portraits by past and present artists. Commissioned by the Medici and built by Vasari in 1565, it stretches above Ponte Vecchio and allowed the Medici to walk from Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti without having to go through the streets of Florence.
Be sure to catch an evening stroll on the Ponte Vecchio, or ‘Old Bridge,’ which was originally the only way to cross the river Arno. Dating back to 1345, this bridge miraculously endured during WWII when German troops destroyed all the bridges of Florence with the exception of Ponte Vecchio. It also survived the ‘flood of Florence’ on November 4th, 1966.
Just across the river Arno is Palazzo Pitti. Founded by Luca Pitti and built in the middle of the 400s by Luca Fancelli, Pitti wanted his magnificent palace to show his power to the Medici Family. In 1549, when the Pitti Family fell into misfortune, Cosimo I de’ Medici bought the palace and Palazzo Pitti became the Medici family’s residence. Today Palazzo Pitti houses many important Florentine museums, such as the Palatina Gallery (with Raffaello, Andrea del Sarto, Caravaggio, Bronzino masterpieces and more), the Silver Museum, the Modern Art Gallery and the Costumes Gallery.
Palazzo Pitti is also famous for the Boboli Garden. The gardens were not well known until the palace became the property of the Medici family, who called in Niccolo Pericoli (known as Tribolo) to design a masterpiece of landscape architecture between 1550 and 1558. The gardens occupy Boboli hill and include an Amphitheatre, a unique setting for theatrical performances, the cypress alley known as the the ‘Viottolone’ and the pool of the Isolotto. Boboli Garden has been an inspiration for all the royal gardens in Europe, including Versailles.
Route 2: Central Tuscany
Chianti ~ San Gimignano ~ Monteriggioni ~ Siena
Few areas like Chianti offer a landscape so rich and evocative: green hills decorated by miles and miles of vineyards and olive groves, villages squeezed between large medieval walls, and endless winding roads. The production of famous Chianti Classico wine stretches over the striking landscapes between Florence and Siena, including all of the municipalities of Greve, Panzano, Gaiole, Radda, and Castellina. Every area around these hills is covered with vineyards, olive groves, curving roads, and charming villages and towns; it is from here that the famous red wine is exported throughout the world.
In addition to its wines, the region is known for its wild boar, quail, pigeon, wild mushrooms, and most famous are its cold meats like Chianina beef and Cinta Senese pork. The countryside can also be characterized by its olive groves and the highly acclaimed olive oil that it produces. Among the popular events of the region is the Palio horse race of Siena, perhaps the most well-known, although numerous smaller scale festivals, markets and concerts are organized in the castles and should not be missed! Chianti is an unspoilt land with a patchwork of meadows and fields where the famous blue-violet Iris grows wild: this is the flower-symbol of Florence that has been used in perfumes for centuries!
Start your journey from Greve in Chianti, which is considered the gateway to the Chianti. Since medieval times, this lively town is famous for its unique square and has been the central market town for the villages and farms of the surrounding hills. The square is actually almost triangular in shape and is surrounded on three sides by wide porches, offering shelter from the rain. Be sure not to miss Santa Croce, which houses some precious works of sacred art, including a triptych with the Madonna and Saints Bicci di Lorenzo. Greve also offers an opportunity to taste traditional Chianti products. In fact, under the arcades of the main square there are many craft shops, wine bars and restaurants, each offering only traditional Chianti products. Also of interest just a few steps from the square is an interesting Wine Museum. Finally, if you are a wine lover a stop at the Vicchiomaggio Castle just three kilometers (~two miles) from Greve is definitely worthwhile! With its 130 acres of parkland, it produces a very good Chianti Classico Gallo Nero, and offers tastings for all palates.
Continuing toward Siena is Castellina in Chianti, whose ancient origins can be seen by the Etruscan tombs of Montecalvario. Its favorable location at the crossroads of four zones in Chianti made this city an important strategic and military location between Florence and Siena. As testimony of its function there is an imposing fortress dominating the central square and the picturesque walkways of Via delle Volte, which offers breath-taking views. Walking through the city you can admire beautiful mansions that belong to important families of Siena and Florence, while definitely worth a visit is the Archaeological Museum of the Sienese Chianti, which traces the early history of this area and of the Etruscan Montecalvario.
At Chianti’s western border is the charming town of San Gimignano. A UNESCO World Heritage site, San Gimignano is fascinating because of its medieval look and its utterly unique high towers. Built on a hill dominating the Val d’Elsa, San Gimignano preserves the charm and atmosphere of an isolated center. First Etruscan then medieval, its appeal also derives from its past as a vibrant center of artistic excellence, exemplified by the many works of art from artists such as Pinturicchio, Bozzoli, Fiorentino, and Mainardi, found in the museums and as adornments in churches.
There are many artistic highlights to see in San Gimignano: the Cathedral, Palazzo Comunale, the Museum of Sacred Art, the Archaeological Museum, the Apothecary of St Fina, and the Church of St Agostino. Also worth a visit is the Ornithological Museum, the Stronghold of Montestaffoli, the Church of St Bartolo, the Church of St Lorenzo in Ponte, and the remains of the Church of St Francesco. Interesting local events include the Messi Fair, the Giostra dei Bastoni and the Film Festival.
A quick – and highly recommended – stop along the way to Siena is the charming town of Monteriggioni. This small town is enclosed within ancient medieval walls and characterized by its 15 towers. Visit the center square and take a walk along the massive walls – once you have admired the incredible views of the Tuscan countryside you’ll understand why it’s worth the stop.
Siena is unique thanks to its maze of narrow streets, its numerous towers and elegant town houses, the immense central square of Piazza del Campo and the Cathedral which dominates the heart of this Medieval city, all encircled by impressive fortified walls. Piazza del Campo is renowned worldwide for its beauty and architectural integrity because of its especially unique shell shape.
Siena is most renowned for its tradition of the Palio di Siena (Siena horse race) that takes place here twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th. Contested by the 17 ‘contrade,’ which are similar to small ‘regions’ that divide this small city, the race consists of three laps around the track that surrounds the square, paved with slabs of stone and covered with a layer of dirt of suitable thickness to allow the horses to run, not without blatant slips on the curves of course! The winning ‘contrade’ enjoys a celebratory party in their ‘region’ of the city with lots of food, wine and music.
Those living in Siena enjoy an incredibly high quality of life. It is the first city in Italy to close its center off to traffic and as far as culture is concerned, Siena has been a city of great artistic significance since ancient times with internationally acclaimed institutions such as the Chigiana Musical Academy, the Accademia dei Fisiocritici and Accademia degli Intronati, as well as the University for Foreigners.
There are also numerous sites not to be missed while in Siena: the Dome of Siena, the Church of St Domenico, the Church of St Francesco, the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art, and Palazzo Salimbeni, which houses important frescoes. The surrounding countryside is superbly peaceful with vineyards, olive groves, medieval hamlets and castles. Finally, the gastronomic traditions of Siena have gained international fame with the sweet treats of Panpepato, Ricciarelli and Cavallucci being exported throughout the world.
Route 3: Central Tuscany
Val D’Orcia ~ Pienza ~ Montepulciano ~ Chianciano Terme ~ Bagno Vignoni
Val D’Orcia, or Valdorcia, is a renowned area in Tuscany for its stunning landscapes and excellent wine. Gentle hills spotted by dark cypresses and yellow sunflowers make this region the perfect postcard to send back to your friends. Valdorcia offers plenty of cities and villages that deserve a visit, from Montepulciano, Montalcino, Pienza, San Quirico D’Orcia to the small towns of Bagno Vignone, Buonconvento, and Radicofani. Many wineries and farms in this area produce red wine and offer wine tastings. Wine tradition is strongly related to this area and the Brunello di Montalcino is one of the most appreciated Italian wines worldwide alongside Chianti.
A town and commune in the province of Siena between the towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino in the Val d’Orcia, Pienza is the ‘touchstone of Renaissance urbanism.’ In 1996, UNESCO declared Pienza a World Heritage Site and in 2004 the entire valley of Val d’Orcia was included on the list of UNESCO’s World Cultural Landscapes.
Pienza is known for its historical ties with Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who became Pope Pio II in 1458 and transformed Pienza from a small Medieval village into an elegant Papal residence with architecture typical of the Renaissance period. If even for a short visit, be sure to include a walk along the town walls and an exploration of the historic center with its perfectly preserved Renaissance buildings, such as Palazzo del Tesoriere, Palazzo Lolli, the Cathedral of the Assunta, Palazzo Piccolomini, Palazzo Borgia and Joffroy, Palazzo Comunale, Palazzo Ammanati, and the Parish Church of Corsignano. Local delicacies include the tasty Cacio pecorino cheese that can be tasted and bought in almost all of the shops in town.
Fourteen kilometers (~seven miles) east of Pienza is Montepulciano, one of the most beautiful medieval towns of Tuscany; resting at 600 meters above sea level it is still protected still by its impressively intact walls. Montepulciano is known for its noble Renaissance town houses and for the elegant architecture of its churches. Among the many monuments to be admired are the Palazzo Budelli, the Palazzo Comunale, the Temple of the Madonna of St Biagio, and the Church of St Agostino. All of the buildings in Montepulciano are of great artistic significance and are linked to Michelozzo, Antonio da Sangallo and Pietro Budelli.
Montepulciano is also known for its internationally acclaimed fine wine, Vino Nobile, which is produced in the surrounding countryside. It is home to many traditional events such as the summer Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte, the Bruscello, and the Bravio with period costumes and tournaments that evoke the history of Montepulciano.
Driving approximately ten kilometers (~six miles) south of Montepulciano, amidst unspoilt countryside near the border with Umbria, you will reach Chianciano Terme, whose fame is linked to its centenary thermal baths. One of the most striking features of Chianciano Terme is that it is home to a great many green spaces and parks or public gardens. It also features a number of elegant boutiques, but for those interested in the town’s history, be sure to visit the archaeological sites of Etruscan origin, including Necropoli de la Pedata, the Etruscan-Roman spa of Mezzomiglio, the Necropoli of Tolle, and the Poggio Bacherai farmstead. The Etruscan Museum of Chianciano Terme is one of the most important in Italy as it houses the Tempio dei Fucoli, the Canopi, the Pedata Bronzes, as well as gold and ceramics from the Terrosi collection. Whether on foot – or horseback riding! – visitors can enjoy this incredibly beautiful countryside to the fullest.
Bagno Vignoni is a small village in the heart of the Val D’Orcia where time seems to be at a standstill for centuries. Situated on the Via Franchigena, the historic pilgrim route leading to Rome, Bagno Vignoni is centered around a large pool of thermal water. Bordered by a 14th century wall, the pool is continually replenished with warm water from the village’s thermal springs. The health inducing properties of the water have been known since ancient times, and today this water is used in spa therapies performed in the various wellness centers in Bagno Vignoni.
Many of the medieval houses and palazzi of Bagno Vignoni have been transformed into attractive bars, restaurants, and shops – with the buildings overlooking the three sides of the central pool being particularly charming. Legend has it that Saint Catherine, after whom the loggia takes its name, used to bathe in these waters, as did members of all the great noble families of Siena. On cold winter nights, the contrast between the external temperature and that of the warm thermal water produces steam that rises up from the pool and envelops all of Bagno Vignoni. The resulting magical, almost surreal atmosphere has been immortalised by the Russian director Andrej Tarkovskij in the film “Nostalgia.”
Route 4: Exploring Northeast Tuscany
Pistoia ~ Montecatini Terme ~ Lucca ~ Pisa
About forty kilometers (~twenty five miles) north west of Florence and en route toward Lucca is the lovely town of Pistoia. Its origins are linked to the Roman Empire, but like all main Tuscan towns, Pistoia’s real development dates back to the medieval times. Of primary importance for its accumulation of wealth was its strategic position along the Trans Pennine Route.
Pistoia offers visitors a vast number of monuments: the series of three city walls, the Piazza del Duomo, Palazzo Pretorio, Palazzo Comunale, Palazzo Vescovile, the Capitolare Museum, the Forteguerriana Library, the Clemente Rospigliosi Museum, the Diocesan Museum, and Palazzo Fabroni. Important ecclesiastic sites include the Baptistery, the Cathedral, the Church of St Bartolomeo, the Church of St Pier Maggiore, and the Church of St Paolo. The legacy of the artistic heritage is continued in two centers for study and artistic experimentation, the Marino Marini Center of Documentation and the Casa Studio Fernando Melani. Also worth visiting are the Cattedrale di San Zeno, Palazzo dei Vescovi, Palazzo del Comune, and Palazzo Prestorio.
Montecatini Terme & Collodi
Driving approximately seventeen kilometers (~10 miles) west from Pistoia you will reach the enchanting Montecatini Terme. Situated in the heart of Tuscany within easy reach of all the surrounding cities this well-known tourist destination holds centuries of history. More specifically, Montecatini Terme is known for its historic center with the ancient castle and the area dedicated to the baths and the healing powers of the natural spa, Gioacchino Rossigni, Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi were regular guests there at one time! Most notably, the Montecatini Baths are housed in buildings of great architectural importance, such as the Tamerici and the Excelsior establishments, and are set within the splendid green area of Parco delle Terme. The city is also home to a prestigious Academy of Art, the Accademia d’Arte di Montecatini, beyond which can be found the wooded Parco delle Panieraie. And if you’re travelling with children, definitely make a stop at the town of Collodi (home of Pinocchio) and visit Pinocchio Park and Collodi Butterfly Park!
Often referred to as the city of a hundred churches, Lucca is an open-air museum. Approaching Lucca you will be struck by the incredibly well preserved walls that surround the city and date back to the 1500s. Once an Etruscan settlement and later a Roman colony, Lucca preserves the ellipse of the Roman amphitheatre and traces of Roman walls. The city’s Medieval appearance has hardly changed over the years; with an urban architecture of narrow roads, towers and small squares overlooked by numerous churches such as the Cathedral of St Martino, the Basilica of St Frediano, the Church of St Michele in Foro, the Farneta Charter House and the Palazzo Arcivescovile. The natural landscape of Lucca is enchanting, dotted with splendid country mansions built between the 17th and 19th century. Finally, Lucca is known for centuries of commercial activities ranging from the production silk to local gastronomic specialties such as the traditional sweet buccellato.
Just seventeen kilometres (~ ten miles) south of Lucca is Pisa. Since ancient times Pisa has been a flourishing city, a colony in the Roman period known as one of the four Maritime Republics of Italy, and powerful during the Middle Ages under the rule of the Medici, who invested in Pisa with splendid architecture that survives in all its glory until today.
The most prevailing image of Pisa is its Piazza dei Miracoli, where one can admire not only the Baptistery, but also the Cathedral, the Walls of the Monumental Cemetery and the famous leaning tower, a unique artistic treasure that has become an icon throughout the world. Pisa has many more treasures worthy of note, such as the numerous churches, the Porta di S. Maria, the Museum of the Sinopie, the Cathedral Museum, the National Museum of St Matteo, Piazza della Sapienza, and the Botanical Gardens.
The leaning tower shares Piazza dei Miracoli with the magnificent Cathedral and Baptistery. The Cathedral, which was built between the 11th and 12th century, is a splendid example of Romanesque architecture. The leaning tower is a monument in Romanesque style that excites the imagination due to its peculiarity. Its construction began in 1174 by Bonanno Pisano and the building had reached the third floor when there was a land subsidence. Many believe that its inclination was original or intended, but in fact this is not the case. Construction was suspended for 90 years and was finished after 99 years by Giovanni di Simone. The tower’s belfry has seven bells representing the seven musical notes, the oldest of which is the ‘Pasquareccia.’ From the top of the tower, Galileo Galilei performed his many famous experiments, including the one on gravitation. The tower’s beauty is such that it is a masterpiece of architecture and one of the Seven Wonders of the World, while its particular inclination continues to increase of about one millimetre per year!
Route 5: East Central Tuscany
Arezzo ~ Monterchi ~ Aghiari ~ Cortona
Arezzo is the birthplace of many illustrious Italians such as the poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca), Piero della Francesca, and Giorgio Vasari, while for centuries the area has produced ceramics, fabrics, leather goods, and woodcarvings. Situated on a varied terrain of lowlands, hills and mountainside, Arezzo has ancient origins, as it became an important Etruscan center and subsequently a strategic point for the Romans; after many battles, Arezzo fell under the control of Medieval Florence. The numerous monuments testify to Arezzo’s past: the Roman Amphitheatre, the Basilica of St Francis, the House of Petrarch, the Bacci Chapel, the Cathedral of St Donato, the Church of St Maria delle Grazie, the Church of St Annunziata, the Medici Fortress, the Town Walls, the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Medieval and Modern Art, Palazzo Comunale, Palazzo Vescovile, Palazzo Pretorio: these are all wonderful sites well worth a visit!
If you have some extra time, be sure not to miss the Basilica of Saint Francis with the stunning frescoes depicting the Legend of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca, the Church of San Domenico displaying the wooden Crucifix by Cimabue, the magnificent Loggias by Vasari in Piazza Grande, and the Archaeological Museum Clinio Mecenate.
On the first weekend of every month, some 500 exhibitors from all over Italy set up shop in Arezzo’s Piazza Grande, Piazza San Francesco, and the Logge Vasari, which are transformed for the occasion into a massive, medieval-style market place. The ancient roads of the historic center are lined with stalls selling every genre of antique, from precious period paintings to curious old knick-knacks, worth little more than a few Euros. The lively atmosphere is so contagious that it infects even the most casual of bystanders, few of whom leave the fair empty handed. The success of this event has led to a proliferation of antique shops in the city and their displays of furniture, paintings, jewellery and antique textiles now vie with those of the monthly exhibitors to attract the attention of visitors.
A legend told by Virgil says Cortona was founded by the mythical Dardano, in the place where the hero lost his helmet during a fight. Its striking historical center rests on the sharply terraced slopes of Monte Egidio, about thirty five kilometers (~twenty two miles) south of Arezzo. In recent years, Cortona has become very popular following the book and subsequent film“Under the Tuscan Sun.” The center is built around the main square of Piazza della Repubblica, over which is the Palazzo Comunale. Don’t miss the Diocesan Museum (Museo Diocesano), which displays a beautiful Annunciation of Cortona by Beato Angelico, and the Museum of Etruscan Academy of Cortona (MEAC), where you will admire important Etruscan and Roman findings.
Cortona hosts many cultural and popular events linked to past traditions, such as the National Copper Fair, as well as numerous exhibitions, conventions, and performances organized by the Etruscan Academy Library. Worthy of mention are the Festival of Cortonese Gastronomy, the Consiglio dei Rioni, the National Chianina Cattle show, and the fairs organized for the gastronomic promotion of bruschetta, snails, frog, trout, and liver.
Florence & Tuscany through the Centuries
In the ancient world, Tuscany was known as Etruria, the core territory of the Etruscans, the most important power in pre-Roman Italy (approx. 1000-350 BC). It is believed that the Etruscans had migrated here from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Whatever their origins, their distinctive culture has left many remains throughout Tuscany.
After the Romans pushed out the Etruscans, Etruria became a player in the great drama of the Roman Empire, and in the Middle Ages, Tuscan city after city began to prosper thanks to the influence and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church and the new commercial class. In particular, Pisa, Lucca, Siena and Florence emerged as virtually independent city-states. With their works of art and craftsmanship, the great churches and public buildings, the intellectual achievements, the popular traditions – any one of these cities would be the pride of a nation.
Florence is in a class by itself, a city with a history of achievements that can match those of many a nation. Although the Etruscans had a small settlement on this site, it was destroyed around 80 BC when Rome founded a colony here for veterans of its wars. For the next 1000 years, Florence became the prey of all manner of powers such as the Ostrogoths, Franks, Lombards and other peoples from outside Italy. Yet situated as it was on a main route between Rome and the north, along the Arno River, Florence gradually grew into a fairly prominent commercial center. Starting around the year 1000 AD it began to truly flourish, based in large part on its dominance in processing wool and producing woolen textiles.
Florence and the Medici Family
Inevitably certain families prospered more than others, and among these was the Medici family (the name is the Italian word for ‘doctor’ but nothing is known of the origins of the family name). By the late 1300s, the Medicis had extended their activities from basic trading to investing, and in 1397 the Medici bank was established in Florence. During the next few decades, the Medici opened branches not only in Rome and Venice and Milan, but eventually in many of the major cities across Europe – Geneva, Bruges, Lyon, London and others. Incidentally, the Medici family’s symbol or ‘logo’ consisted of three bronze spheres suspended from a bar. There is no agreement as to how they came to adopt this, but eventually it became part of their coat of arms and you will see this symbol on various Medici buildings around Florence. These three spheres long ago became the sign used by pawnbrokers in Europe and the Americas; it serves both to link pawnbrokers to the reputable profession of banking and to link banking to an age-old way for people to obtain loans.
Florence, meanwhile, although nominally a democracy based on the order of ancient Athens, was basically an oligarchy run by the most prosperous and powerful families. Thanks to the support of the church in Rome and various wheelings-and-dealings, Cosimo de Medici effectively took control of the government of Florence in 1434, and for the next 300 years, except for the 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. It was at the end of his rule that one of the more bizarre episodes in Florence’s history occurred. Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican monk in Florence, had by 1490 become notorious for his fiery sermons denouncing the immorality and materialism he saw around him.
Claiming to have prophetic powers beyond those of the church’s hierarchy, he even attacked Pope Alexander VI for his decadence. Then in February 1497, Girolamo presided over a ‘bonfire of the vanities’ in the Piazza della Signoria, the great central piazza of Florence, a fire into which various cosmetics and fashion, works of art and books were thrown. The Pope had by then excommunicated him and turned him over to Florence’s government, which convicted him of heresy and in May 1498, hanged him and then burnt his body in that same piazza. Today a round plaque in the square marks the place where he was hanged.
During the years between about 1300 and 1700, Florence and Tuscany emerged as the leader in the transition of Europe from the Middle Ages to what is known as the Renaissance. To name the painters and sculptors and architects alone who either came from and lived in this region or spent productive periods of their careers here is to virtually list the greatest creative artists of those centuries: Cimabue, Fra Angelico, Giotto, Massaccio, Uccello, Ghirlandaio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Verrocchio, Donatello, Giambologna, Cellini, Alberti, and Brunelleschi. 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. Whatever people think of many of his prescriptions, Machiavelli is regarded as an indispensable political philosopher, while Galileo is the best known to this day 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. Of course –and not so incidentally–the Medicis were often the patrons of these individuals and their work; in the case of Lorenzo the Magnificent, even a creator himself.
Post-Renaissance Florence & Tuscany
By 1737, with the end of the Medici dynasty, Florence and Tuscany fell under the rule of Austria and then in 1807 they were annexed by France. With the fall of Napoleon in 1814, they returned to the rule of Austria, until finally joining in the new United Kingdom of Italy in 1861. In 1865 Florence actually became the capital of this new nation, but in 1871 it was replaced by Rome. Florence continued to thrive and became a major destination for international tourists until World War II isolated it. When Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, the Germans took over Florence; as the Allies advanced, some fine buildings were destroyed, but it was declared an open city and spared 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 large numbers of buildings including churches, museums and libraries as well as 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, Florence has thrived to such an extent that it is almost too attractive. Often crowded with both Italian residents and foreign visitors, the inner city has been closed off from automobiles and visitors can stroll about as they take in both the historic and contemporary Florence.