Florence, the Birthplace of the Renaissance

written by
Ties Lagraauw

updated 01.06.2023

With its illustrious past and timeless beauty, Florence continues to captivate visitors with its awe-inspiring masterpieces, charming cobblestone streets, and the lingering spirit of some of history's greatest artistic minds. Join us as we embark on a journey through this extraordinary city, tracing the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and other luminaries who shaped the course of Western civilization, and discover why Florence remains an unparalleled destination for art enthusiasts, history buffs, and seekers of inspiration alike.

Why is Florence the birthplace of the Renaissance?

Florence earned the title "the birthplace of the Renaissance" due to its pivotal role in the cultural and intellectual movement that swept across Europe during the 14th to the 17th centuries. The Renaissance, meaning "rebirth," marked a significant shift in human thinking, with a renewed interest in the arts, sciences, literature, and philosophy.

Florence became the epicenter of this transformative period, nurturing a flourishing artistic and intellectual community that laid the foundation for the Renaissance movement. The city attracted brilliant minds, including renowned artists, architects, scholars, and thinkers, who were supported by wealthy patrons such as the Medici family. Their patronage, combined with the city's vibrant trade and wealth, fostered an environment that encouraged innovation, creativity, and the pursuit of knowledge.

The groundbreaking works produced during this time, such as Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" and Michelangelo's "David," not only redefined artistic expression but also propelled Florence into an era of unrivaled cultural achievement. The city's architectural marvels, like Brunelleschi's dome atop the Florence Cathedral, showcased groundbreaking engineering feats that further exemplified the spirit of the Renaissance.

Thus, Florence's profound influence on art, literature, philosophy, and scientific thought has rightly earned it the prestigious title of "The birthplace of the Renaissance."

Going to Florence? Make sure to read our day-by-day weekend itinerary in Florence


Santa Maria del Fiore Duomo in Florence ©Shutterstock

The rise of Florentia

The Roman colony of Florentia was established in 59 BC and expansion was rapid, based on trade along the Arno. In the sixth century AD the city fell to the barbarian hordes of Totila, then the Lombards and then Charlemagne’s Franks. In 1078 Countess Mathilda of Tuscia supervised the construction of new fortifications, and in the year of her death – 1115 – granted Florence the status of an independent city.

Around 1200, the first Arti (Guilds) were formed to promote the interests of traders and bankers in the face of conflict between the pro-imperial Ghibelline faction and the pro-papal Guelphs. The exclusion of the nobility from government in 1293 was the most dramatic measure in a programme of political reform that invested power in the Signoria, a council drawn from the major guilds.

The mighty Palazzo della Signoria – now the Palazzo Vecchio – was raised as a visible demonstration of authority over a huge city: at this time, Florence had a population around 100,000, a thriving mercantile sector and a highly developed banking system (the florin was common currency across Europe). Strife within the Guelph camp marked the start of the fourteenth century, and then in the 1340s the two largest banks collapsed and the Black Death struck, destroying up to half the city’s population.

Rough Guides tip - make sure to check the best museums in Florence

David of Michelangelo in Accademia Gallery of Florence, Galleria dell'Accademia, Italy © Shutterstock

David of Michelangelo in Accademia Gallery of Florence © Shutterstock

The Medici family

The rise of Cosimo de’ Medici, later dubbed Cosimo il Vecchio (“the Old”), was to some extent due to his family’s sympathies with the smaller guilds. The Medici fortune had been made by the banking prowess of Cosimo’s father, Giovanni Bicci de’ Medici, and Cosimo used the power conferred by wealth to great effect. Partly through his patronage of such figures as Brunelleschi and Donatello, Florence became the centre of artistic activity in Italy.

The ascendancy continued under Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo il Magnifico, who in effect ruled the city at the height of its artistic prowess. Before Lorenzo’s death in 1492, the Medici bank failed, and in 1494 Lorenzo’s son Piero was obliged to flee. Florentine hearts and minds were seized by the charismatic Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola, who preached against the decadence and corruption of the city.

Artists departed in droves as Savonarola and his cohorts, in a symbolic demonstration of the new order, gathered books, paintings, tapestries, fancy furniture and other frivolities, and piled them high in Piazza della Signoria in a Bonfire of the Vanities. Within a year, however, Savonarola had been found guilty of heresy and treason, and was burned alive on the same spot.

Florence’s subsequent decline was slow and painful. Each of the later Medicis was more ridiculous than the last: Francesco spent most of his thirteen-year reign indoors, obsessed by alchemy; Ferdinando II sat back as harvests failed, plagues ran riot and banking and textiles slumped to nothing; the virulently anti-Semitic Cosimo III spent 53 years in power cracking down on dissidents; and Gian Gastone spent virtually all his time drunk in bed. When Gastone died, in 1737, the Medici line died with him.


Florence © Shutterstock

Florence after the Medici

Under the terms of a treaty signed by Gian Gastone’s sister, Anna Maria Ludovica, Florence – and the whole Grand Duchy of Tuscany – passed to Francesco of Lorraine, the future Francis I of Austria. Austrian rule lasted until the coming of the French in 1799; after a fifteen-year interval of French control, the Lorraine dynasty was brought back, remaining in residence until being overthrown in the Risorgimento upheavals of 1859. Absorbed into the united Italian state in the following year, Florence became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy in 1865, a position it held until 1870.

At the end of the nineteenth century, large areas of the medieval city were demolished by government officials and developers; buildings that had stood in the area of what is now Piazza della Repubblica since the early Middle Ages were pulled down to make way for undistinguished office blocks, and old quarters around Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella were razed. In 1944, the retreating German army blew up all the city’s bridges except the Ponte Vecchio and destroyed acres of medieval architecture.

A disastrous flood in November 1966 drowned several people and wrecked buildings and works of art, and restoration of the damage is still going on. Indeed, monuments and paintings are the basis of Florence’s survival, a state of affairs that gives rise to considerable disquiet.

The development of new industrial parks on the northern outskirts is the latest and most ambitious attempt to break Florence’s ever-increasing dependence on its tourists.

Ties Lagraauw

written by
Ties Lagraauw

updated 01.06.2023

Ties is a true world explorer - whether it be for work or leisure! As Content Manager at RoughGuides, and the owner of Dutch travel platform Reis-Expert.nl, Ties is constantly on the move, always looking for new destinations to discover.

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