Florence, or as it's called in Italy, Firenze, is Europe's cultural capital. It is the birthplace of the Renaissance and practiced the art of civilized living while the rest of Europe was living in the mud and squalor of the Middle Ages. Literature, sculpture, painting, architecture and science were all revered by the Florentines of the 15th century. Florence is a small city, but has more artistic masterpieces per square mile then any other city.

    We arrived in Florence on the Eurostar from Rome on Saturday, June 21, 2003. The train left Rome around 40 minutes late, however, the trip was very smooth. We got a chance to enjoy the Italian countryside during the hour and half trip. We arrived in Florence, or as it's called in Italy, Firenze. After leaving the Santa Maria Novella Train Station, we walked along the Via dei Panzini toward the Duomo. The Duomo is the most recognized landmark in Florence and it's dome dominates the skyline. It's hard to get lost in Florence, all you have to do is head for the dome.

Short History of Florence

          Their were villages on this site during the Iron Age and later by Etruscans. However, the foundation of Florence date back to the Roman Republic when it was founded in 59 BC as Florentia by Julius Caesar as a place for retired Roman soldiers. 
          The city was seriously damaged during the barbarian Ostrogoth invasions of the Roman Empire during the 5th century and the barbarian Lombards conquest  in the 6th century. This was the beginning of what may be considered the darkest period in the city's history when it's population may have fallen to about 1,000. 
           It started to grow again in the 9th century, during the rule of Charlemagne, when it was part of the Holy Roman Empire. By the 11th century it was governed by a council composed of nobles, somewhat in the name of the people, thus making the city a republic. In the 12th century, the Florentines set out to control the Arno River valley. 
           Leading families in Florence vied for power which led, in 1300, to internal civil war. During this war, Dante Alighieri was exiled from the city. Despite the internal strife, the city prospered through wool manufacturing and banking making some Florentine families very wealthy. This made Florence one of the most powerful and prosperous in Europe.
           In 1333, a flood devastated the city, destroying almost all of her bridges and killing 300 people. By 1348, Florence had an estimated 80,000 inhabitants when Black Death arrived which killed about half of them.  
Cosimo de' Medici           Florence rebounded and continued to grow with powerful guilds controlling the city. However, the poor, who felt exploited by the rich merchants and bankers, helped Cosimo de' Medici, a wealthy merchant-banker (at right), to rule the Republic in 1434. This started, with the exceptions of a few brief exiles, three centuries of rule by the Medici family. Cosimo looks here like he enjoys being in charge.
           Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo de' Medici, called Lorenzo the Magnificent, was a great patron of learning and the arts. The Florentine gold coin, the florin, became the standard of trade throughout Europe, and the commerce of Florence embraced the known world. The great beginning of Renaissance art in architecture, painting and sculpture took place within little more than the span of the 15th century.
           In 1494, the Medici's were driven from power by a Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola, who hated the extravagance of the Medici's. Four years later,  Savonarola was burnt at the stake. The Medici, returned to power in 1512, were again exiled in 1527, and permanently restored in 1531. The title grand duke of Tuscany was bestowed on the head of the Medici family by the pope in 1569.
           The Medici ruled Tuscany until they died out in 1737. Florence was then ruled by the imperial Austrian Habsburgs. Archduke Leopold II, was finally deposed in 1859, during the struggle for Italian independence. Florence was the capital of the Kingdom of Italy from 1865 to 1870, until King Victor Emmanuel II moved to Rome. 
            In World War II, most of Florence's monuments escaped damaged, however all its bridges (except the Ponte Vecchio) were destroyed. In 1966, a major flood damaged numerous art treasures in Florence, however many were restored in succeeding years by the use of sophisticated techniques.

Duomo    The Duomo (which is Italian for 'dome') is the nickname for the large cathedral in Florence. It's official name is Santa Maria del Fiore (St. Mary of the Flowers). It is a Gothic building constructed in the Middle Ages by architects who left it unfinished. How was it unfinished you might ask? Well, they left a giant hole in the roof for a dome. Problem was that no one at the time knew how to construct domes. However, they figured that someday, someone would figure it out and build it, so they left a 130 foot diameter hole.

    Construction began in 1296, under the design of architect Arnolfo di Cambio and would take 140 years to complete. Construction stopped in 1302, when di Cambio died. Work resumed in 1334, under a new architect, Giotto. However, Giotto, spent most of his time (he died only three years later) on the belltower next to the cathedral. Construction was halted in 1348, the year the Black Death decimated the population of Europe. Work continued until 1375, when it was for the most part finished. Except that is for the giant cupola on top.

    In 1420, architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 - 1446) won the contest to construct the dome. It would take only 14 years and was the largest since the Pantheon in Rome. Brunelleschi's dome became the model for domes to follow, like St. Peter's basilica in Rome. When Michelangelo set out to build the dome of St. Peter's, he used the Duomo as his inspiration. He stated, "I will make her sister...bigger, but not more beautiful."

    The Duomo was consecrated by Pope Eugene IV on March 25th (the Florentine New Year) 1436. It is the third largest cathedral in the world after St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London. The finished dome, with the lantern on top, is 375 feet high. You can climb to the top, it's only 463 steps (St. Paul's Cathedral in London is 627 steps to the top and Debbie and I made that one). We didn't climb this one, however, we did climb the bell tower next to it.

top of the Bell Tower    The exterior of the cathedral is in white Carrara, green Prato and red Siena marble giving it a very colorful appearance. Construction began on the facade of the cathedral much later in 1876 and took ten years to complete. Some people, including myself, think the colorful facade is spectacular. Others have been more derisive toward it, actually calling it a 'cathedral in pajamas'. There was a long line to get in when we arrived that morning, so we didn't go inside. When we returned later in the day to climb the Bell Tower, we went in to find a place for Mom to sit down. She wasn't doing any climbing.

    Brunelleschi died in 1446 and was buried in the Duomo. However, the location of his tomb was lost and only re-discovered in 1972. Here we are at the top of the Bell Tower with the dome in the background.

Bell Tower    The belltower of the Duomo, one of the most beautiful in Italy, was an (extremely costly) invention of genius by Giotto which was created more as a decorative monument than a functional one. It is not connected to the cathedral, but is a few feet from the right of the facade. Construction began in 1334 and was completed in 1359 (long after Giotto's death). It is 277 feet high and 47 feet wide at any of it's sides. There are large windows all the way up that light the tower and you get a view on the way up. On top, there is a terrace with incredible views of the city and the dome on the cathedral. For the price of €6, you can walk to the top. Debbie and I paid the fee and climbed to the top - all 414 steps!

    We left Mom inside the Duomo, where she could sit in the cool air. Unfortunately, while we were climbing the Bell Tower, they were closing the cathedral. When we went down to the street, we found Mom relaxing on the front steps of the Duomo. The inside of the cathedral is not as impressive as the outside. The inside is still pretty empty since the flood of 1966 damaged much of the artwork. Since then, the artwork is kept in the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo (behind the cathedral). You can climb up into the dome, but since we already climbed the bell tower, we passed on this. If you want to go up the 463 steps (49 steps more then the tower), it will also cost you €6.

Baptistry           Across from the front of the cathedral, in the center of the square, is the Baptistry. It was built on the site of a Roman temple to the god of war, Mars (who else would a bunch of retired Roman soldiers dedicate their temple to). The foundations of the first Baptistery of San Giovanni (St. John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence), dated from 4th-5th century circa, was certainly built on top of these ancient buildings. It has an octagonal shape. New doors were built in the early part of the 15th century. The famous "Doors of Paradise", designed by the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (photo at left), were finished in 1424. In 1972, between the Baptistry and the Duomo, they have unearthed numerous Medieval tombs.

    We were not able to get to the Santa Croce Church. Many famous people of the Renaissance are interred here. The most famous of all, Michelangelo is buried here along with fellow sculptor, Lorenzo Ghiberti (Baptistry bronze doors). Renaissance author, Niccolo Machiavelli (creator of hard-ball politics who wrote The Prince). Poet Vittorio Alfieri along with Physicist/Astronomer Galileo Galilei (who was allowed in many years after he died). There is also a memorial dedicated to Dante Alighieri. He's not here, he was banished from Florence in 1302, and died in exile in Ravenna, Italy 19 years later, a bitter and lonely man. (here is a site with a picture of all of the famous peoples tombs)

Frank with beerMom & Debbie    We had a 1:00 o'clock appointment at the Uffizi Gallery (pronounced: oo-FEEDZ-ee). I called the museum the day before from Rome and made the appointment. It only cost an extra €1,55, but you can avoid waiting in the long lines. So we decided to have lunch before we went in. We bought some sandwiches at a store in the Palazzo Vecchio and ate in front of the museum. The panini sandwiches were very good, and I was able to get some more Italian beer (I look like I enjoyed it).

    After having our sandwiches, we strolled over to the museum. We had a little trouble at first finding the entrance. They are not much for informational signs here. However, we did find it and went in. The cost is not much, €8 for the ticket plus the extra €1,55. The Uffizi Gallery has the greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere. It features works by Giotto (builder of the Bell Tower), Leonardo, Raphael, Rubens, Michelangelo and Botticelli. They only let a certain amount of people in at a time, so it's a very good idea to call ahead and book an appointment.

          Construction of Uffizi Palace began in 1560 by Duke Cosimo I dei Medici as an administrative center for Florence. It was for the 13 magistrates (thus the name 'Uffizi'). The palace, and now the museum, is situated between the Signoria Palace and the Arno River. Cosmo died 11 years later in 1571 and the building still wasn't done yet (they must of had the same contractor that Debbie and I had). Cosmo's son, Francesco I, kept at it and it was completed ten years later in 1581. Francesco, who was into science, set up laboratories on the second floor. Gradually, they started compiling works of art on the second floor for display making the Uffizi one of the world's first art museums.. 

    The Uffizi Gallery is u-shaped and is only on one floor. You don't have to walk much, which is good on your feetzi (sorry). After climbing a lot of stairs, you come to the gallery on the top floor. You follow a tour that goes through the art in chronological order. I thought this was very interesting, seeing how art progressed through history.

    Realism in paintings (three-dimensional) developed during the Renaissance. In the first room, you can see pre-Renaissance paintings and how the artists were struggling with the concept of 3-D. Pre-Renaissance art almost always featured religious themes and the artist Giotto was no different. There are a number of "Madonna" paintings in the first couple of rooms. Giotto is considered the first of the great artists (along with designing impressive bell towers). He made great strides toward realism. After his death from the plague in 1337, the world went back to 2-D paintings.

    The next set of rooms take you into the Early Renaissance (around mid-15th century) with works by Uccello, Fra Filippo Lippi and Pollaiolo. Realism is much more evident and the Madonnas are disappearing. The latter part of the 15th century was when the Renaissance was at it's height in Florence. This is evident in the next room full of Botticelli's. Some of his more famous works are here, like the Allegory of Spring, Adoration of the Magi and the Birth of Venus. Created around 1485, Botticelli's Birth of Venus (Nascita di Venere in Italian), also known by it's nickname "Venus on the half-shell", is considered by many as the purest expression of Renaissance beauty.

Piazza Signoria    After leaving the museum, we walked around the square next to the museum called the  Piazza della Signoria (right). It is the largest square in the city and contains a lot of artwork. The south side is bordered by the Uffizi Museum and the west side by the Palazzo Vecchio. The Palazzo (or Palace) was once the home of the Medici family, it now houses Florentine art and history. Most guide books say it's really not worth going into. Though they recommend to step into the courtyard just inside the door to feel the essence of the Medici's. While we were there, the palace was covered in scaffolding while they do repairs to the exterior. While I am sure that is important to keep the building in the best of shape, it is annoying to photographers who are looking to take it's picture. There is a plaque on the ground in the piazza, in front of the Palazzo commererating the spot where the Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola, was burned at the stake. Next to the entrance of the Palazzo is a replica of the statue of "David" by Michelangelo. THE actual statue of "David" stood on this spot from 1873 to recentlty. Currently it is located in the Academia Museum which we didn't get into that day (after all, we were only in Florence for 10 hours).

Ponte Veccho    From the Piazza della Signoria, we walked down to the Arno River. About a block away from the Uffizi Gallery is the Ponte Veccho (Old Bridge). This famous Florentine bridge (pictured at left and below) is full of small shops which house gold and jewelry shops on both sides of the span. The only time you know you are actually on a bridge is in the middle of the span where you can look out onto the river or from a back window in one of the shops. In 1944, the German commander of Florence was ordered to blow up all of the bridges in Florence as they retreated north from the Allied armies. Arno RiverThe commander blew up all of the bridges except this one. He did destroy the buildings on either side making it unpassable, but he spared the bridge. In 1966, the bridge suffered heavy damage by a flood (pictures of the damage). The picture at right was taken from the back of the Uffizi Museum.

        The tile covered passageway, called the Vasari Corridor, leading out of the museum and across the Arno River is a fortified escape route that connects the Palace Vecchio through the Uffizi over the river to the fortified Pitti Palace. This way the Medici's could escape in times of attack (it happened sometimes back in the day). The passageway is open by request only and you have to pay €8. We didn't bother.

ante Alighieri lived in Florence (here is a great website on Dante) from his birth in 1265 until he was exiled in 1303. He never returned to Florence. His real first name was Durante, Dante was kind of a nick-name. On a side street in Florence, you can visit his home. We walked and looked at the outside, but the interior museum was closed the day we were there.

Bizarre Story of Dante's Body 

          Dante died in Ravenna, Italy in 1321 and was buried in San Pier Maggiore’s Church (today called San Francisco or St. Francis). Shortly after his death, the city of Florence, who had exiled him 18 years earlier, asked that his body be re-interred in Florence. The people of Ravenna rightfully refused. A 150 years later, they asked again. This time they had the support of Pope Leo X (who by strange coincidence was from Florence). It was tough to say no, when the pope wanted Dante moved. So the citizens of Ravenna told the people of Florence to come and get him.
Dante       A group of people from Florence showed up to collect the 150 year old corpse. When they got there, to their surprise (and no one elses), the tomb was empty. The people of Ravenna said the tomb must have been robbed or perhaps Dante had himself come back from the dead in order to continue his roaming around. Needless to say, the people of Florence went home empty handed (with the good citizens of Ravenna snickering behind their backs).
        But, what happened to Dante's body? In 1865, a worker digging in the church found a partially decomposed box containing a skeleton. In the box was a letter stating that they were indeed the 544 year old bones of the poet hidden there so the Florentines wouldn't find him. Dante was given another burial. Unfortunately, for the next 55 years after the reburial, small bones of Dante started turning up. As people turned in these "souvenirs", they decided to dig him up and re-construct Dante's skeleton to make sure they had all of his bones. 
       In 1999, it appeared in the news that an envelope containing Dante's ashes had been found by chance in the National Central Library of Florence. This caused quite a stir in Italy. It was found among some century old books and was thought to contain a few ashes of the now long dead poet. Some Dante experts claimed that it couldn't be his ashes since Dante was never cremated. What were they? It is believed that it was dust from the carpet that the partially decomposed box of remains, found in 1865, was placed on after they were dug up.
       Today, Dante is resting finally, after over 680 years, in his own tomb built next to the Church of San Francesco (St. Francis) in Ravenna, Italy.

restaurant          We started getting hungry and looked for a place to have dinner. Of course, being in Florence, the problem is not if we could find one, but which one do we choose. We were very lucky to discover a smaller out of the way restaurant at Via de Tavolini 12, off Via Calzaioli halfway between the Uffizi and the cathedral. Mom, Debbie and I were really looking forward to some Tuscony food and the Ristorante Paoli (left) looked like the place (we never did find out why they have a different name above the door.) We had to wait until 7PM when they opened for dinner.We were the first people in their for dinner so we were able toDebbie get a table.They had reservations, but since we would be leaving before 9PM, they gave us a good table. The interior is outstanding. It has vaulted ceilings and frescos on the walls. What I thought were coat hooks running down the walls turned out to be old candle holders from the days before electricity (you can some of the decorations in the photo at right).

Our waiter was great, though I think he was trying to fatten us up. They bring out the appitizers and salads on a cart next to the table. They mix the salads right there in front of you. The waiter wanted us to try everything. Dinner was exceptional. Debbie had the veal Milanese while Mom had risotto.Of course, I knew this guy wasn't going to let us leave without dessert, which also comes out on a cart. As you can see by Debbie's expression, we all enjoyed our dinner and desert.

After dinner, we walked around a little. I took a couple of great pictures of the sun setting on the Arno river. Eventualy, we had to start walking back to the train station to catch the EuroStar back to Rome. Who knows, they may actually be on time, but we doubt it.

Links: The Florence Art Guide

Arno at sunset

Sunset on the Arno River

Sunset on the Arno River