Benvenuto a Firenze: welcome to Florence. This Tuscan gem is one of Europe’s most-visited cities and no wonder: world-famous art galleries and many splendid examples of renaissance architecture such as the domed cathedral, the piazzas and palazzos. It’s the city of Dante, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and, of course, the Medici family. This Introduction to Florence will help you get your bearings and pick up the basic facts which underpin everything. See below for a full list of the episodes in our Florence series and for lists of reading ideas and useful links.
Get Your Bearings in Florence
Florence is a north Italian city, set amid the rolling hills and vineyards of Tuscany. Its position on a peninsula, bordered to the north by the Alps and on the other three sides by the sea, meant it developed originally as an independent city state and became part of Italy only in 1861 when the Kingdom of Italy was formed.
The city, which has Roman origins, sits on the River Arno and its main centre, compact and easily walkable, sits north of the river in the area around the Piazza del Duomo (cathedral square) and the much larger Piazza della Signoria. For great views of the city, take a bus from the main station to the former hilltop village of Fiesole.
The original city wall was built in 1173 and medieval Florence was a flourishing trading city, where the most influential Guilds included those for cloth merchants, wool traders and silk weavers. There were power struggles between the Guelphs who wanted the pope to rule them and the Ghibellines who favoured an emperor. By about 1300 big new churches like Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce were springing up and authors such as Dante and Petrarch were writing works still read today. 1348 was a key year, for the city was ravaged by the Black Death and 60% of the population died.
Trade and Troubles in the 15th Century
By the 15th century, Florence was a rich city with its own currency – the florin – being used all over Europe. It was dominated by a number of top banking families, notably the Medicis and rivalry between them led to much violence and murder, notably the stabbing to death of Giuliano di Medici in the cathedral on Easter Sunday, 1478.
It was also the century of religious fervour under Savonarola, known as ‘the mad monk’ and of Machiavelli, the statesman whose scheming ways led to his banishment from the city.
The Later Centuries
Renaissance Florence, the era of Michelangelo who died in 1564, was the city’s high point. In later centuries it came under foreign rule – by the Hapsburgs, then the French – and then in 1861 the Risorgimento meant the unification of Italy as we know it today and for the first 20 years, Florence was its capital. Wartime Florence came under German occupation and was bombed in 1943, then liberated in 1944. In 1966 the city was devasted by heavy flooding which destroyed many precious artworks.
Modern day Florence sees tourism as its number one industry, followed by fashion and the leather trade and the city is home to the Gucci Museum.
Art and Architecture in Florence
Florence is perhaps Europe’s top city of art, home to Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The top galleries – the Uffizi, the Academia and the Bargello – attract vast visitor numbers and to wander the city is to come across much impressive architecture, such as the numerous palazzi, cloisters and medieval streets.
On the walls of San Marco Convent you will see numerous frescos still on the walls, including The Annunciation by Fra Angelico. Indeed, it was in Florence that the fresco technique was perfected. Artists discovered that paintings done on wet plaster – plaster which was ‘fresco’ or fresh – lasted much better than those done on dry walls.
The main churches of Florence each have their own ‘flavour’. The cathedral, or ‘duomo’ is best-known for its stunning dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 15th century and the largest masonry dome ever built. It is said that the dust of Italian history lies in Santa Croce, where those buried in its tombs include Michelangelo, Rossini and Galileo. Santa Maria Novella, just opposite the train station which is named after it, was once a thriving artists’ workshop where Cimabue, Giotto and Lippi worked alongside their apprentices and where Giotto’s beautiful crucifix, dating from the late 13th century, still hangs in the nave..
In the next post, we’ll be visiting the cathedral to find out how the dome which was deemed an impossibility was finally built and who murdered Giuliano di Medici at mass and why. There’ll also be tips on what to look out for when you visit. Meanwhile, we can recommend some weblinks and guidebooks which proved useful in our research. And, if you fancy doing some reading around Florence in all its variety, you’ll find below a selection of history books, anthologies, memoirs and novels set in the city.
Listen to the podcast
other posts in the florence series
Inside the Duomo
Exploring Cathedral Square in Florence
Santa Croce in Florence
Florence’s Santa Maria Novella
Meet the Medici Family and their Art
San Lorenzo, Cosimo di Medici and Donatello
Around San Lorenzo and Lorenzo il Magnifico
Piazza della Signoria, Bonfire of the Vanities
Discovering the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
Advice from Machiavelli
The Palazzo Pitti in Florence
Galileo, the Father of Modern Physics
San Marco, Fra Angelico and Bartolomeo
Michelangelo’s Life and Work in Florence
The Uffizi Gallery in Florence
Florence: History and Travel Writing
Links and reading
3 history books and a guide to art and architecture
Florence, the Biography of a City by Christopher Hibbert
The Medici by Paul Strathern
The Medici by Mary Hollingsworth
Art and Architecture in Florence by Rolf C Wirtz
4 novels set in Florence
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone (Biographical novel about Michelangelo)
A Room with a View by E M Forster
Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel