Florence

Florence

The 19 episodes in our series on Florence will take you to all the city’s highlights from the iconic domed cathedral (the ‘duomo’) to the world-famous art galleries and palazzos. Travel through history and meet some of the city’s most famous inhabitants, including Dante, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo and, of course, the Medici family. Find out what they did in Florence and where in the city today you can find traces of them. We end with a selection of travel writing and of literature written in, or about, the city. In short, everything you need to know to make the most of your visit or to reminisce fondly about time spent there.


Florence Episode 01 Introduction

Benvenuto a Firenze! Welcome to Florence!

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Benvenuto! This opening podcast will give you an overview of Florence, historically, geographically and culturally, and an idea of the material to be covered in each of the remaining 18 episodes. We hope that after listening to it, you’ll be looking forward to the rest of the series and keen to reminisce about visits you have made to Florence, or to get down to planning a visit, knowing that what you have learned will help you get the most out of your city break and really appreciate what you will be seeing. And actually, even if you won’t be visiting any time soon, we hope you will love the ‘virtual visit’ anyway!

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Florence Episode 02 Inside the duomo

The dome, Dante and a devastating murder

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Florentines abroad who are missing their home city are not said to be ‘homesick’, but rather ‘sick for the dome’, and this podcast begins with a brief history of the ‘duomo'(cathedral) and some quotes from visitors through the ages. Then, there is a brief biography of Filippo Brunelleschi and the story of how he came to design the dome, followed by a description of one of the cathedral’s best known exhibits, Domenico’s 1465 painting, ‘Dante explaining the Divine Comedy’. Finally, hear the shocking story of the murder of Giuliano di Medici in front of the altar during mass on Easter Sunday in 1478. You’ll learn who did it, and why and what happened next.

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Florence Episode 03 Around the duomo

Art, architecture and tales of the plague in the Piazza del Duomo

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A wander round the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), taking in the 80 metre high Campanile (Bell Tower), designed by Giotto, and the Baptistery, where medieval Florentines posted a black or white bean to denote the birth of a new baby and which contains some of the finest artwork in the city: a glorious mosaic ceiling and the doors described by Michelangelo as ‘the gates of paradise.’ Then, a rundown of some of the must-see works in the Cathedral Museum (think Donatello and Michelangelo) and, to finish, some tales of the plague which ravaged the city in the 14th century, just as the cathedral was under construction.

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Florence Episode 04 Dante

Dante’s life, love and literature, plus where to find him in today’s Florence

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Discover the many places in Florence with connections to Dante and learn about his life in politics, his unrequited love for Beatrice, his travels and his eventual exile. Hear extracts from some of his well-known works, especially the ‘Divine Comedy’, the epic poem which is known as one of the foundations of European literature. Written not in Latin, but in the Tuscan dialect, yet enjoyed all over Italy and far beyond, it is viewed as the work which helped establish the spoken form of language as a suitable vehicle for literature and led to the development of the Italian language as we know it today.

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Florence Episode 05 Santa Croce

‘In the dust scattered in the temple of Santa Croce is written the history of Italian civilisation’

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The 19th century art historian who described Santa Croce as symbol of Italian civilisation was referring in part to the 270 tombs of well-known Italians, including Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo, to be found there. Hear about some of the key moments in the church’s history, and also about the vulnerability of this low-lying district to flooding. Discover a sample of the church’s best-known works of art, especially Cimabue’s crucifix, crafted in the late 13th century, but badly damaged in the floods of 1966. Meticulously restored, it is now not just a beautiful work of art, but also a symbol of the city’s recovery after devastation.

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Florence Episode 06 Santa Maria Novella

Exotic visitors and a trio of medieval painters

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When Dominican monks arrived in Florence in the 13th century, they built Santa Maria Novella and it has an exotic history. Hear how it hosted the 1439 Council of Florence, which attracted all manner of visitors from faraway lands and how in the 1560s Eleanor of Toledo arrived to marry Duke Cosimo di Medici. She promptly had the Friar’s Chapter House redecorated to make her feel at home and renamed it the Spanish Chapel. Many well-known artists are associated with the church and so here we end with short biographies of three of them – Cimabue, Giotto and Lippi – along with pointers to help you seek out their work in Florence today.

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Florence Episode 07 Palazzo Medici-Riccardi

Meet (some of) the Medici and their art collection

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Cosimo di Medici’s residence and business headquarters has a deliberately low key exterior, for, as he so pithily put it, ‘Envy is a plant one should never water’. Inside, away from prying eyes, it is much more splendid. Discover some of the famed works of art connected with this building, such as Donatello’s David, Filippo Lippi’s Madonna and Child and the stunning fresco ‘Journey of the Magi’, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli to decorate the family chapel. It depicts the biblical story in a Florentine setting, complete with ride-on parts for a number of the Medici family, patrons of the artist. You will also meet some of the earlier Medici, including the wonderfully named duo, Piero the Gouty and Piero the Unfortunate.

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Florence Episode 08 San Lorenzo

Cosimo di Medici and Donatello:friends for life

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Another church? Yes, because this one was the Medici family church and is the last resting place of many of them, and also of Donatello, the artist Cosimo di Medici befriended and sponsored. The two of them are buried side by side in the crypt. We start with a little history and an idea of the things you should look out for inside. Then there are brief biographies of Cosimo di Medici and of Donatello, whose friendship was one of the most important relationships in both their lives. Hear how Cosimo made sure that, after his own death, Donatello would have an allowance and see out his days in the Medici household.

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Florence Episode 09 Around San Lorenzo

A grand (Medici) library and an even grander mausoleum

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First, there is a description of the area around San Lorenzo in medieval times, and of the nearby busy Mercato Vecchio (Old Market). Then we move on to the Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana , or Laurentian Library, built to house the ever-growing collection of books amassed by several generations of the Medici family. And lastly, a visit to the Medici Chapel, where about 50 of the more minor family members are buried in the crypt downstairs. Upstairs the Grand Dukes lie at rest in the splendidly decorated mausoleum whose marble walls are embellished with jade, turquoise and gold. Opinion is divided on whether it is splendid or tasteless, and you will hear arguments on both sides.

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Florence Episode 10 Piazza della Signoria

The bonfire of the vanities

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We visit the Piazza della Signoria, the square from which Florence was ruled from about 1300 and take a peek at some of its artworks, such as the statue of Duke Cosimo I, the Neptune Fountain and a replica of Michelangelo’s David. Some tales from the square’s history include the story of Girolamo Savonarola, the fiery monk whose impassioned preaching captivated so many Florentines in the late 15th century. His ‘bonfire of the vanities’ saw the burning of a huge pile of objects which he deemed irreligious – pictures, books, items of clothing he thought frivolous – but not long afterwards, Savonarola himself was accused of heresy and burned to death at the stake in the very same spot.

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Florence Episode 11 The Palazzo Vecchio

Dante’s death mask and the prisoners in the tower

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Find out why Duke Cosimo di Medici moved his family into the Palazzo Vecchio, the building which was originally his office, and how he and his Spanish wife Eleonora di Toledo made it both a symbol of the power of the Medici family and a comfortable home for themselves and their numerous children. Hear too how Machiavelli worked from here and listen to descriptions of his death mask and his office. Learn about some of the unfortunates who were imprisoned in the Torre di Arnolfo, the high crenelated tower which rises above the Palazzo and can be seen from all over Florence. Discover what to look out for in the various rooms included in the tours open to the public.

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Florence Episode 12 Machiavelli

Some Machiavellian advice

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This episode takes time out from visiting the sights of Florence in order to get to know more about one of the city’s most famous inhabitants: Niccolo Machiavelli, one-time Secretary to the Council of Florence, but much better known to us for his writings. Hear about his life at the centre of Florence’s politics, his banishment to the countryside when he fell out of favour and the writing he left behind, from ‘perhaps the most famous letter ever written in Italian’ to his advice to a former boss on how to succeed politically, written up in ‘The Prince’. Learn from Machiavelli whether ruthlessness pays off and what you should do if you want to gain the respect of all the underlings who work for you.

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Florence Episode 13 The Palazzo Pitti

A grander palace and a spendthrift cardinal

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This episode takes us to the Palazzo Pitti, the must-see palace on the ‘other’ side of the River Arno, just across the Ponte Vecchio. Hear how the Medicis lorded it over the Pittis by buying up the grand palace which the latter could no longer afford. There are brief biographies of the later Medici, some who patronised the arts and sciences and others who murdered each other to ensure their own succession. Find out which one was the ‘spendthrift cardinal’ and which one was said to have ‘passed his brief life between luncheons, receptions and literary or scientific debates.’ Finally, hear about the most noteworthy things to look out for at the Palazzo, such as the Boboli Gardens and paintings by Raphael and Titian.

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Florence Episode 14 Galileo

Galileo, the ‘father of modern Physics.’

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Amid all the art and culture in Florence, it’s important to remember that the city also has a special place in the history of science, most notably as the home of Galileo. This episode begins with a biography, including his links to the Medici family, his early successes, such as the design of a ‘state of the art’ telescope, his main work and his controversial dispute with the catholic church, whose doctrine was in direct opposition to Galileo’s teaching, the latter insisting, whatever his Holiness thought, that the earth moved round the sun. Hear about the resulting trial and sentence, and find out about the places in Florence today where Galileo is remembered, notably at his tomb in Santa Croce and at the Science Museum named after him.

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Florence Episode 15 San Marco

Frescos and medieval manuscripts, stored in delightful tranquility

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Perhaps one of Florence’s lesser-known pleasures, San Marco’s tranquil atmosphere and beautiful frescos are a delight. Hear a brief history of the building, including its connections to Cosimo de Medici and the ‘mad monk’ Savonarola, both of whose rooms you can visit. Find out too about the 43 monks’ cells, each with their own fresco, and the Pilgrim’s Hospice. Learn about the library, originally commissioned by Cosimo di Medici for his growing book collection and which today houses displays of medieval illuminated manuscripts and display cases telling you about this medieval technique. Lastly, there is information on the monastery’s two most famous artists – Fra Angelico and Bartolomeo – and on the works they left behind them here at San Marco.

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Florence Episode 16 Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s life and work in Florence

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Of course, Michelangelo deserves an episode to himself and this is it. First, hear about the Florentine museums which display his work, including the Bargello and the Accademia. Then, there’s a brief biography, focussing particularly on his Florence connections, especially his time as a youngster under the care and sponsorship of Lorenzo il Magnifico. Finally, there is a description of his funeral at Santa Croce Church and a mention of the pride the city of Florence takes in its Michelangelo connection. Even in the 16th century, Giorgio Vasari, author of ‘Lives of the Artists’, spoke of Florence as ‘the birthplace of this divinely endowed spirit’.

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Florence Episode 17 The Uffizi

Florence’s world-renowned art gallery

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This episode is devoted to the Uffizi, Florence’s world-famous art gallery, a must-see for 19th century visitors and equally unmissable today. First, there is a short history of the gallery and then an overview of its treasures. The main focus is then on a number of highlights by Italian painters, such as the three glorious Madonnas (by Ducio, Cimabue and Giotto respectively) displayed together in the first main room plus, of course, Botticelli’s Primavera and The Birth of Venus. Mention is also made of a well-known double portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca and in each case the descriptions are supplemented by useful background information.

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Florence Episode 18 History and Travel Writing

What historians and travellers made of Florence

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First, a brief account of several history books which give a useful insight into Florence and then some glimpses into the many different writings of those – famous and not-so-famous – who have travelled to Florence and then written about it. After a selection of quotes from travellers through the ages, the focus moves to three books of travel-writing on Florence. Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Stones of Florence’, erudite and beautifully written, David Leavitt’s ‘Florence: a Delicate Case’, with its entertaining asides, such as a description of Santa Maria Novella as ‘a handsome testament to Fascist atavism’ and Diana Athill’s ‘A Florence Diary’ which has all the breathless exuberance of a young woman on her first foray abroad in 1947.

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Florence Episode 19 Literary Florence

Discover the city through the fiction and poetry associated with it

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The final episode on Florence focuses on a selection of the many literary writings connected to the city, beginning with the Tuscan writers Petrarch and Boccacio whose works became the foundation of modern Italian literature and continuing with the English poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning who made their home in the city. Then four novels set in Florence are covered: Irving Stone’s biographical novel about Michelangelo,’The Agony and the Ecstasy’, ‘Galileo’s Daughter’ by Dava Sobel (2000), E M Forster’s ‘A Room with a View’ (1908) and finally Sarah Dunant’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ (2003), a vivid imagining of the life of a 15 year-old cloth merchant’s daughter, which paints a colourful picture of Florence in 1528.

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A Virtual Visit to Florence

A bonus episode to whet your appetite

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You can’t go to Florence right now. But there’s nothing to stop you going on a virtual visit and this episode will tell you all about the best resources to help you do just that. Hear about the websites, videos and books through which you can imagine yourself in Florence, and maybe reminisce a little, or start planning your next actual visit.

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