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Florence, Italy: A cultural, artistic and architectural gem.
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Florence, Capital of the region of Tuscany, was the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Politically, economically, and culturally it was the most important city in Europe for around 250 years; from some time before 1300 until the early 1500s. In 1300, Pope Boniface VIII said that Aristotle was wrong, the universe was made out of five elements, not four: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Florentines!
Florentines reinvented money in the form of the gold florin. This currency was the engine that drove Europe out of the "Dark Ages" a term invented by Petrarch, a Florentine whose family had been exiled to Arezzo. They financed the development of industry all over Europe, from Britain to Bruges, to Lyon, to Hungary. They financed the English kings during the Hundred Years War. They financed the papacy, including the construction of the papal palace in Avignon and the reconstruction of St. Peters and the Vatican when the papacy returned to Rome from the "Babylonian Captivity".
The Florentines, perhaps most notably Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1466) and Leon Batist'Alberti (1404-1472) invented both Renaissance and neoclassical architecture. These architectural styles revolutionised the way Rome, London, Paris and every other major city in Europe from Barcelona to St. Petersburg were built.
The western hemisphere itself is named after a Florentine writer who claimed to be an explorer and mapmaker, Amerigo Vespucci. Gallileo and other scientists pioneered the study of optics, ballistics, astronomy, anatomy, and so on. Pico della Mirandola, Leonardo Bruni, Machiavelli, and many others laid the groundwork for our understanding of political science.
Opera was invented in Florence. It can go and on.
We drove to Florence from Mestre via Bologna. It was a fast 250 km. drive, using the Austostrada for most of the time. Strictly speaking, the speed limit on Italian Autostradas is 130 kmph. I did not want to challenge that, despite the temptation. But Italians just zoomed past me in their Ferraris, Maseratis and Alpha Romeos. Probably, the locals knew where the cameras are and where the police are!
One has to be extremely careful whilst driving in Florence. There are numerous ZTLs (Zona Traffico Limitado) – simply means only cars with residential permits can enter these marked streets. The fines are heavy for breaking the traffic rules. Just so you know, traffic fines account for major income for the coffers of Florence!
We were booked at Starhotel Michelangelo sitting right on the edge of ZTL. Thankfully, we avoided the fine by carefully negotiating through side streets. We checked in our rooms and quickly got ready to drive to Pisa, which was an hour’s drive from the hotel. My experience in Pisa appears separately.
By the time we reached our hotel from Pisa, it was 10 PM. The next day we would be spending walking… exploring Florence.
From our hotel which was located quite rear the banks of River Arno, we walked along the river up to Ponte Vecchio – the most famous and an iconic bridge of Florence.
The Ponte Vecchio is a medieval stone closed-spandrel segmental arch bridge over the Arno River, noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common. Butchers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewelers, art dealers and souvenir sellers. The bridge spans the Arno at its narrowest point where it is believed that a bridge was first built in Roman times, when the via Cassia crossed the river at this point. The Roman piers were of stone, the superstructure of wood.
During World War II, the Ponte Vecchio was not destroyed by Germans during their retreat of August 4, 1944, unlike all other bridges in Florence. This was allegedly, according to many locals and tour guides, because of an express order by Hitler. Access to Ponte Vecchio was, however, obstructed by the destruction of the buildings at both ends, which have since been rebuilt using a combination of original and modern design.
Walking along Via De Guicciardini we visited Piazza De Pitti.
This enormous palace is one of Florence's largest architectural monuments. The original palazzo was built for the Pitti family in 1457, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and built by his pupil Luca Fancelli. The original construction consisted of only the middle cube of the present building. In 1549, the property was sold to the Medicis and became the primary residence of the grand ducal family. The palace was then enlarged and altered; from 1560, Bartolomeo Ammannati designed and added the grandiose courtyard and two lateral wings. Under Cosimo II de' Medici, the layout of the piazza and opening up of the view were begun. The facade then assumed its present appearance, except for the two projecting wings, added by the House of Lorraine in the early 18th century. Behind the palace lie the famous Boboli Gardens.
Today, the Pitti Palace houses some of the most important museums in Florence: on the first floor is the Palatine Gallery, containing a broad collection of 16th and 17th century paintings, and the Royal Apartments, containing furnishings from a remodeling done in the 19th century; on the ground floor and mezzanine the Silver Museum (Museo degli Argenti) displaying a vast collection of Medici household treasures; and the Gallery of Modern Art is on the top floor, holding a collection of mostly Tuscan 19th and 20th century paintings. In the separate Palazzina del Cavaliere on the upper slopes of the Boboli Gardens is the Porcelain Museum, while the Palazzina of the Meridiana contains the Costume Gallery, a showcase of the fashions of the past 300 years.
We turned back, and crossing the Ponte Vecchio, we proceeded towards the Duomo. On the way we visited Pallazo Vecchio; Orsanmichele and the Piazza Della Republica. Of course no visitor to Florence miss visiting the 3 very famous museums, namely Uffizi Gallery; Galileo Museum and Accademia. These museums are closed on Mondays. And guess what, we were there on a Monday! I was told that it’s wise to book tickets in advance for an entry into these museums. The lines at the ticket window can call for hours of wait. Since we already had plans to depart Florence the next day, we sadly had to miss the visits.
The Palazzo Vecchio is the town hall of Florence. This massive, Romanesque, crenellated fortress-palace is among the most impressive town halls of Tuscany. Overlooking the Piazza della Signoria with its copy of Michelangelo's David statue as well as the gallery of statues in the adjacent Loggia dei Lanzi, it is one of the most significant public places in Italy. Originally called the Palazzo della Signoria, after the Signoria of Florence, the ruling body of the Republic of Florence, it was also given several other names: Palazzo del Popolo, Palazzo dei Priori, and Palazzo Ducale, in accordance with the varying use of the palace during its long history. The building acquired its current name when the Medici duke's residence was moved across the Arno to the Palazzo Pitti.
Orsanmichele is a church. The building was constructed on the site of the kitchen garden of the monastery of San Michele, which is now gone. Located on the Via Calzaiuoli in Florence, the church was originally built as a grain market in 1337 by Francesco Talenti, Neri di Fioravante, and Benci di Cione. Between 1380 and 1404 it was converted into a church used as the chapel of Florence's powerful craft and trade guilds.
Piazza della Repubblica, first of the city's forum and then of the city's old ghetto, which was swept away during the city improvement works initiated during the brief period when Florence was the capital of a reunited Italy. The work also created the city's avenues and boulevards. The ghetto has disappeared from the square, and the Loggia del Pesce from the Mercato Vecchio was moved to Piazza Ciompi. Among the square's cafes, the Giubbe Rosse cafe has long been a meeting place for famous artists and writers.
The exact present site of the Colonna dell'Abbondanza marks the intersection of the axes of the cardo (now via Roma, via degli Speziali and via degli Strozzi) and decumanus (now via il Corso). Foundations of a thermae complex on the south side and a religious building were found in the 19th-century demolition of the warren of medieval streets that had encroached upon the site. Via del Campidoglio and Via delle Terme, for example, were named after the archaeological remains beneath them. The chronicler Giovanni Villani reports an oral tradition that there was a temple to Mars on or near this site, and writes that Mars was the city's patron god and so determined the city's warlike character. According to Villani a statue of Mars was in the Middle Ages placed on the predecessor to the Ponte Vecchio, along with which it was swept away in the flood of 1333.
Piazza del Duomo, Cathedral Square in English, is located in the heart of the historic center of Florence. It is one of the most visited places in Europe and the world; here we can find the Florence Cathedral with the Cupola del Brunelleschi, the Giotto's Campanile, the Florence Baptistery, the Loggia del Bigallo, the Opera del Duomo Museum, and the Arcivescovile and Canonici's palace. The west zone of this square is called San Giovanni square.
Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, is the fourth church of Europe by size. Its length is 153 metres and its height is 116 metres. Entry in the cathedral is free of cost. The interior was awe inspiring, especially the painting on the ceiling of the dome. Vasari's fresco begun in 1568, and completed by Federico Zuccaro in 1579.
The Giotto's Bell Tower stands adjacent the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Baptistery of St. John. The tower is one of the showpieces of the Florentine Gothic architecture with its design by Giotto, its rich sculptural decorations and the polychrome marble encrustations. Visitors can visit the top. There's a ticket and there are no lifts. The climb has about 500 steps.
The octagonal Baptistery of St. John stands across from the Duomo cathedral and the Giotto bell tower (Campanile di Giotto). It is one of the oldest buildings in the city, built between 1059 and 1128. The architecture is in Florentine Romanesque style.
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo: in front of the Florence Cathedral, commits to the conservation of the Dome and other art works. It stores great masterpiece of Michelangelo, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia, Arnolfo di Cambio and many others.
It was almost 5 in the evening. We walked back to Ponte Vecchio and took a cab to take us up to Piazzale Michelangiolo… a location overlooking the city with panoramic views. It’s a must do site at sunset. There are also buses that take you all the way up. Since time was short (from a sunset perspective), taking a cab made more sense. It cost us Euro 15.
The square was built in 1869 and designed by architect Giuseppe Poggi on a hill just south of the historic center, during the redevelopment of the left bank of the Arno (the South side of the river). At that time, Florence was the capital of Italy and the whole city was involved in an urban renewal, the so-called "Risanamento" or the "Rebirth" of the city's middle class. On the right bank, the fourteenth-century walls were removed and turned into the Viali di Circonvallazione referencing the French "boulevard" design, six lanes wide and lined with trees. On the left bank winding up the hill of San Miniato the Viale dei Colli was built, a tree-lined street over 8 kilometers long ending at the Piazzale Michelangelo which was built as a terrace with a panoramic view of the city. The square, dedicated to the great Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo, has copies of some of his works found elsewhere in Florence: the David and the four allegories of the Medici Chapel of San Lorenzo. These copies are made of bronze, while the originals are all in white marble. The panorama embraces the heart of Florence from Forte Belvedere to Santa Croce, across the lungarni and the bridges crossing the Arno, including the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, the Bargello and the octagonal bell tower of the Badia Fiorentina. Beyond the view of the city itself are the hills of Settignano and Fiesole.
Dinner that night was at an Indian restaurant – Haveli, a short walk from our hotel. The restaurant has my recommendation for lovers of Indian cuisine.
The next morning we would leave for our last destination – The Italian Riviera via the rolling hills and vineyards of Tuscany.
Florence Image Gallery Photo viewer
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