Europe is full of historic sites that date back as far as the Roman Empire. Many of these sites are found in what is now Italy. Florence, in the Italian region of Tuscany, is considered to be the home of the Renaissance, the period of time when Europe transitioned from the Dark Ages and began moving toward its more modern period.
During the Renaissance, Florence was ruled by the Medici family. The Medici got their start with banking, and were even bankers to the Catholic Pope. One of the passions of the Medici family, something passed from generation to generation, was the arts, and the family spent money freely to support a number of artists in Florence.
The beauty that the Medicis paid to have created in paintings and sculptures is found all across the city. If you have the time, a several-day visit to Florence will allow you to see nearly all that the city has to offer. But if you only have a day to spend in this remarkable city, here are ten things that should not be missed.
10 The Duomo Cathedral
The Duomo Cathedral is a medieval architectural wonder. The official name of the Cathedral is Santa Maria del Fiore, or Saint Mary of the Flower. The Duomo was built on the destroyed fourth century Cathedral of Santa Reparata. The building itself was designed in the late thirteenth century by Arnolfo di Cambio, and the massive dome was designed by the revolutionary thinker Filippo Brunelleschi.
While the Cathedral itself is homage to the Catholic culture of late medieval Europe, it is the dome of the Duomo that attracts all the attention. When it was completed in 1436, it was the largest free-standing dome in the world.
After you have gained access to the Cathedral, which is free, you will be able to climb to the top of the dome, a trek up 463 stone steps that wind their way around the inside of the dome. From the cupola, you will be able to look out across Florence.
9 The David
Michelangelo is considered to be one of the greatest artists in history. He is most known for the Sistine Chapel in Rome, but despite his success as a painter, he considered himself to be a sculptor first and foremost. His medium of choice was marble, and what he could do with a solid block of this white stone is beyond comparison to any other sculptor.
In the realm of sculpture, Michelangelo’s greatest achievement was his David. This 17-foot tall nude shows the Biblical hero standing ready with sling to topple the giant Goliath. Carved over four years from a single block of marble, the statue is a must-see for anyone who appreciates art.
Something most people do not know is that there are actually two David’s in Florence. There is a copy in the Piazza, which is what most tourists will see. The original statue, however, is located in the Academia (Academy) Gallery, along with some of Michelangelo’s other works and works by several other Renaissance artists.
8 Uffizi Gallery
The Uffizi Gallery was originally built by the Medici family as offices for the government of Florence. Construction of the offices began in 1560 and was completed in 1581. Over time, the Medici family, who exemplified the term “patron of the arts” exactly, began to fill the space with their growing collection of Renaissance art.
After the Medici family faded from power, the Uffizi was converted into the first modern museum, beginning with the collection of art already there. The museum was opened to the public by request in the sixteenth century, and fully opened to the public in 1765.
The collection of art in the Uffizi includes the first portrait ever painted, a collection of paintings so small one almost needs a magnifying glass to see the intricate detail, and countless other examples of Renaissance paintings and sculpture. The collection of art has grown so large that the museum is expanding from its 64,000 square feet to some 139,000 square feet to allow for more of the collection to be displayed.
7 Boboli Gardens
While much of Florence may be experienced outdoors, the Boboli Gardens are truly a gem that cannot be missed. These gardens are at the Pitti Palace, one of the residences of the ruling Medici family. While the palace may be toured, the Boboli Gardens should be the destination.
The Boboli Gardens is more of a park than an actual garden, and the Medici family paid careful attention to its arrangement. As a part of the Medici residence, the garden was started in the sixteenth century as a way for the family to enjoy their passion for art outside.
Of course, the best time to visit any garden is during the summer when everything is in full bloom, but the Boboli Gardens will be spectacular at any time of the year as they are much more than just flowers and plants. These gardens incorporate numerous statues and fountains that lead visitors through from one part of the garden to another.
6 Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio was originally built as the Palazzo del Signoria at the beginning of the fourteenth century by the people of Florence in an effort to show the world the importance of the city. Since then, the palace has had several different functions with names to match those functions.
Currently, the Palazzo Vecchio serves as the town hall of Florence, and it sits overlooking the Piazza. The three courtyards were designed and built at different times, with each serving its own function. The second floor of the palace is full of history, with each of its rooms having its own special purpose and story.
5 Ponte Vecchio
The Ponte Vecchio was, at one time, a major piece of life in Florence. Translated to English, the name is “Old Bridge”, and this bridge is certainly that. Dating from medieval times, this bridge crosses the Arno River, giving Florence access to the rest of Tuscany.
Constructed of stone, the covered bridge has had a storied past. It was originally constructed by the Roman Empire, but floodwaters destroyed it twice before the current bridge was built in the mid-fourteenth century.
Visitors to Ponte Vecchio will be able to shop along the length of the bridge at any of the various shops and merchants who have been setting up to sell their wares since the beginning of the bridge’s history. The bridge is constructed of three segments, with the longest being close to 100 feet.
4 Fountain of Neptune
There are numerous fountains dotting the city of Florence, but the Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza is certainly one that visitors to Florence need to see. You will probably already find yourself meandering past the Piazza, so be sure to take note of this remarkable fountain.
Carved by Ammannati and his assistants in the middle of the sixteenth century on commission for a Medici wedding, the statue of the Roman god Neptune was created from a single block of Apuan marble. Ammannati took great care to incorporate symbols of the Medici family into his work, including Cosimo Medici’s face on Neptune. The fountain took ten years to complete.
3 San Giovanni Baptistery
The San Giovanni Baptistery is one of the oldest buildings in the city. It was originally built in the late-eleventh and early-twelfth centuries. Visitors who have visited other Baptisteries in Italy will note that Florence’s Baptistery looks different than many others. That is because it was built in the Florentine fashion, which was not adopted in most of the rest of Italy.
The San Giovanni Baptistery was where Florence’s elite went to be baptized. As with countless other religious buildings, the Baptistery is a testament to the devotion the Florentines had to the Catholic Church and God.
The most prominent feature of the Baptistery is its doors. There are three sets of bronze doors with relief sculptures, and each set was created by a different artist. The inside is heavily decorated with a mosaic ceiling and countless paintings.
Being in Italy, Florence has always been a very “Roman Catholic city”. This is evidenced by the numerous Churches and Basilicas that are spread across the city. These houses of worship were built for two functions. The first was to give the people of Florence a place to worship. The second was to give glory to God through the beauty of the Church.
Visiting even a handful of the Churches and Basilicas in Florence will give any visitor an appreciation for how central a role religion played in the lives of the people of Florence during the late Middle Ages and on into the Renaissance period. The Catholic Church was certainly a driving force in the life of Florence, and the people paid architects, craftsmen, and artists to create and adorn the places that represented the Catholic Church in Florence.
It is suggested that a visitor choose three or four Churches and Basilicas that they would like to visit, and dedicate a portion of their tour of Florence to admiring their beauty. Here are a few Basilicas to help you get started with your tour:
- Basilica of San Lorenzo
- Santissima Annunziata
- Santa Maria del Carmine
- San Marco
- Basilica of Santa Maria Novelta
- San Miniato al Monte
- Basilica of Santa Croce
- Santa Spirito
- Santa Trinita
1 Michelangelo’s Tomb
The artist Michelangelo defined the Renaissance. This was a period when Europe shook off the shackles of the Middle Ages and looked to the future. Michelangelo exemplified what Europe was moving toward with his art.
The artist died in 1564 and is buried at the Basilica of Santa Croce. A trip to the Basilica will allow anyone to gaze on a number of funerary monuments, but special care should be taken to view the monument to Michelangelo.
While there is nothing particularly fantastic about Michelangelo’s tomb, there is something to be said about standing at the tomb of, arguably, the greatest artist of the Renaissance. Looking at the statues that represent his life, one can almost imagine they are there on the day he died and the world lost a true artistic genius.
Florence has a lot to offer any visitor. By visiting the city you will be stepping back in time to a period when Europe began to emerge from a period of stagnation that had lasted for over a thousand years. The Renaissance period was alive in Florence unlike anywhere else in Europe.
The art that the Medici family paid to have created is a lasting testament to what the Renaissance period meant to Europe at the time, and how it impacts the world, today. A visitor to Florence will have hundreds of possible sites to visit, but these ten things should certainly not be missed.
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