The magnificent city of Florence! It’s the center and source of the Renaissance age, which makes it a very popular place to visit when in Italy. Florence is a pedestrian friendly city, so slip on your most comfortable shoes and walk with me. My name is Paul Scopel and I will be your guide through this majestic venue that seems to be frozen in time with all its art and romance.
At the same time Christopher Columbus was in search of America, Henry VIII was seeking wives in Italy’s romantic capital. The residents of this mighty city were under the influence and support of the powerful Medici and other banking families. Florence, Italy has been notably called “the Athens of the Middle Ages” where creative sculpturing, paintings, and architecture stands proudly everywhere you look. All these incredible attributes have withstood the destruction of wars and natures unforgiving disasters.
Starting with the city’s centerpiece, the Duomo (shown above & left) is one of the city’s most distinguished treasures with its towering peaks. My advice is if you ever get lost, go home to the dome and try again. This amazing complex from the 1300s, consists of three main parts and they are the domed cathedral, the Campanile or bell tower, and the separate Baptistery. The buildings are magnificently clad in pink, green, and white marble.
The grand dome was created by the Italian architect Brunelleschi, which was the largest in its time and constructed without the use of any scaffolding. Originally the Duomo was built with a huge gaping hole in the roof awaiting a dome yet to be designed. It is the prototype of Michelangelo’s design for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the United States Capital building. To the right of the cathedral is the 276 foot tall bell tower. From atop of either the dome (460 steps) or the bell tower (414 steps), you can see all the way across Florence and Tuscany. Which steps will we run up first?
Across the piazza in front of the Duomo stands the octagonal Baptistery. Michelangelo described its three dimensional bronze doors (shown right) as being the “gates of paradise”, which eventually became the door’s namesake. Ghiberti designed these 17 foot high doors to tell the uneducated masses through its carved illustrations the stories of the Bible.
The Duomo complex heralded the birth of three Renaissance generations before Michelangelo. However, he is often considered to be the greatest artist ever. After growing up in Florence, the young Michelangelo Buonarroti was accepted as a live-in artist in the household of the wealthy Medici family. Eventually Michelangelo set up shop in a humble studio (shown right) on the street behind the Duomo.
We will continue our tour with the treasures of Michelangelo and other Renaissance greats. But before we go on, I would like to advise anyone who visits Italy to use an experienced and knowledgeable tour guide who speaks English with an acceptable accent. It is difficult enough to absorb the data and culture presented in a 3 to 4 hour tour without the complication of a guide’s distorted linguistics. For various cities in Italy on this and other trips we use both Walks of Italy – www.walksofitaly.com and ArtViva – www.artviva.com. Both firms offer comparable tours on different days and times. I was able to find a tour convenient to our schedule. Other tour leaders may also be found in popular guidebooks. It is important to understand exactly what features the tour is offering so that your itineraries and expectations are met.
Moving on with the tour, we walk the cobblestone streets to the Accademia Museum while dodging the multitude of Vespa motorcycles. The Accademia is a mausoleum of artworks including some major pieces by and about Michelangelo. Greeting us at the entrance is Volterra’s ‘Bust of the Master’ (shown left).
Michelangelo’s adopted Medici family produced 4 popes and 2 queens of France. This is an indication of their power and influence. With these ties, Michelangelo was literally on call by many influential people to produce sculptures, paintings, architecture, poetry and even fortification around Florence to holdback Spain’s aggression. In the Accademia, an example of this are the four separate “prisoners or slaves” that Michelangelo sculptured from blocks of marble with the intent to adorn the never finished tomb for Pope Julius II. The stone status line the hallway as if to salute Michelangelo’s signature work; “David”.
Starting with a 17 foot high block of marble, previously rejected by other sculptors, Michelangelo breathed life into one of his most dramatic creations (shown right). The shepherd boy gazes intently at a distant Philistine Goliath in anticipation of their pending battle. By many, this is considered to be Michelangelo’s greatest sculpting work. Although, his Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica is its rival in my opinion.
Moving on to the town center, we arrive at the majestic Town Hall. The Palazzo Vecchio (shown right) is guarded by the equestrian statue of Cosimo de Medici and is the first of many Medici’s whose political dynasty lasted 300 years.
Connected to the Town Hall is the second “must-see” sight in Florence, which is the Uffizi Museum (see below right). While Cosimo initially created the Uffizi as the administrative headquarters of the Medici’s family empire, he kept adding artistic artifacts to create the splendid museum.
The Uffizi contains 93 rooms of some of the worlds most enriched Renaissance art. It would take several months to see the magnificent collection of Italian masterpieces from northern Europe. The huge ‘U’ shape gallery is overwhelming. Among my favorites are Michelangelo’s painting of ‘The Holy Family’ and Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ (shown below left & right). Both are very significant works marking breaks in art tradition. The famous, and not-so famous artists and sculptors are exhibited in the Uffizi, including a separate room for Leonardo da Vinci’s works. In addition, there are several more museums in and around Florence which focus on Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and other famous artist and their works.
The Academia and the Uffizi are the top two sights in Florence for viewing artwork. Advance reservations are highly recommended and can be obtained online, by telephone or from your hotel in advance. We took yet another easy way out and let our tour company arrange for the tickets.
Just a few steps beyond the Uffizi is the city’s third “must-see” sight. The Ponte Vecchio (shown left) is a store-lined bridge spanning the Arno river that dates back to 1345. Originally the stores were butcher and tanning shops (animal hides, not humans). The Medicis needed a way to traverse the river directly from the Uffizi to their huge Pitti Palace across the river. To avoid the stench of the butcher shops, the Medici family kicked out the occupants and added an upper floor passageway to ensure private and safe commuting – away from the general population.
Because they were able to pay higher rents, the banking family allowed gold and silver and specialized jewelry shops (see below right) to replace the butchers and tanners. Centuries later in WWII, the bridge was the only passage in and out of the city. It was spared from destruction by the Axis troops who needed it for their escape from the opposing armies.
We watched the shop keepers peel away the protective walls as customers gathered for their day’s shopping (See above right). My cousin Starla (shown left) ponders which necklace will be her next purchase. There are so many beautiful pieces to chose from.
As the day’s adventure comes to a close, we have only touched on a few of Florence’s small gems in its vast treasure chest of historical attractions. I know that I will return as the allure of the Renaissance period beckons. From the spans over the Arno to the Uffizi and Accademia, and literally hundreds of other sights around the city – combine all this with the romantic aroma of Italian cuisine simmering in the air, you will not be disappointed by revisiting this cultural destination!
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