Since the early nineteenth century FLORENCE has been celebrated by many as the most beautiful city in Italy. Stendhal staggered around its streets in a perpetual stupor of delight; the Brownings sighed over its charms; and E.M. Forster’s Room with a View portrayed it as the great southern antidote to the sterility of Anglo-Saxon life. The pinnacle of Brunelleschi’s stupendous cathedral dome dominates the cityscape, and the close-up view is even more breathtaking, with the multicoloured Duomo rising beside the marble-clad Baptistry. Wander from here down towards the River Arno and the attraction still holds: beyond the broad Piazza della Signoria – site of the towering Palazzo Vecchio – the river is spanned by the medieval, shop-lined Ponte Vecchio, with the gorgeous church of San Miniato al Monte glistening on the hill behind it.
For art lovers, Florence has no equal in Europe. The development of the Renaissance can be plotted in the vast picture collection of the Uffizi and in the sculpture of the Bargello and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Equally revelatory are the fabulously decorated chapels of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, forerunners of such astonishing creations as Masaccio’s superb frescoes in the Cappella Brancacci. The Renaissance emphasis on harmony and rational design is expressed with unrivalled eloquence in Brunelleschi’s architecture, specifically in the churches of San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito and the Cappella dei Pazzi. While the full genius of Michelangelo, the dominant creative figure of sixteenth-century Italy, is on display in San Lorenzo’s Biblioteca Laurenziana and the marble statuary of the Cappelle Medicee and the Accademia, every quarter of Florence can boast a church worth an extended call, and the enormous Palazzo Pitti south of the river constitutes a museum district on its own. If you’re on a whistle-stop tour, note that it’s not possible to simply stroll into the Cappella Brancacci, and that spontaneous visits to the Accademia and Uffizi are often difficult.
The greater Florence area has a number of towns and attractions to entice you on a day-trip from the city or even act as a base for exploring the region. City buses run northeast to the hill-village of Fiesole, while inter-town services run south into the hills of Chianti, Italy’s premier wine region.
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.
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.
After Savonarola, the city functioned peaceably under a republican constitution headed by Piero Soderini, whose chief adviser was Niccolò Machiavelli. In 1512 the Medici returned, and in 1516, Giovanni de’ Medici became Pope Leo X, granting Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci major commissions. After the assassination of Alessandro de’ Medici in 1537, power was handed to a new Cosimo, who seized the Republic of Siena and, in 1569, took the title Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany.
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 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.