This city of Florence is well populated, its good air a healthy tonic; its citizens are well dressed, and its women lovely and fashionable, its buildings are very beautiful, and every sort of useful craft is carried on in them, more so than any other Italian city. For this many come from distant lands to see her, not out of necessity, but for the quality of its manufactures and arts, and for the beauty and ornament of the city. Dino Compagni in his Chronicle of 1312
The precocious capital of Tuscany began to slip into legend back in the 14th century, during the lifetime of Dante; it was noted as different even before the Renaissance, before Boccaccio, Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, the Medici…
According to the tourist office, 706 years after Dino, nearly 10 million visitors come to Florence every year.
Some, perhaps, had orthodontist appointments. A large percentage of the others came to inhale the rarefied air of the cradle of Western civilization, to gaze at some of the loveliest things made by mortal hands and minds, to walk the streets of new Athens, the great humanist ‘city built to the measure of man’.
Calling Florence’s visitors ‘tourists’, however, doesn’t seem quite right. ‘Tourism’ implies pleasure, a principle alien to this dour, intellectual, measured town; ‘pilgrims’ is perhaps the better word, cultural pilgrims who throng the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Bargello to gaze upon the holy mysteries of our secular society, to buy postcards and replicas, the holy cards of our day.
Someone wrote a warning on a wall near Brunelleschi’s Santo Spirito, in the Oltrarno: ‘Turista con mappa/alla caccia del tesoro/per finire davanti a un piatto/di spaghetti al pomodoro’ (Tourist with a map, on a treasure hunt, only to end up in front of a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce). Unless you pack the right attitude, Florence can be as disenchanting as cold spaghetti. It only blossoms if you apply mind as well as vision, if you go slowly and do not let the art bedazzle until your eyes glaze over in dizzy excess (a common complaint, known in medical circles as the Stendhal syndrome). Realize that loving and hating Florence at the same time may be the only rational response. It is the capital of contradiction; you begin to like it because it goes out of its way to annoy.
Few cities in the world can equal the dense concentration of art and monuments in the heart of Florence, in a tight web of streets under the dome of the Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiore, Filippo Brunelleschi’s stunning tour de force. In only 10 minutes (if the streets aren’t too crowded) you can walk from the Baptistry, the seed of the Florence miracle, to the Uffizi, where Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings bring the Renaissance into full flower. Much of it would have been familiar to Dante, who was born in the shadow of the Badia Fiorentina and the medieval Bargello, now transformed into an Uffizi of sculpture, where Michelangelo and Donatello hold pride of place. The Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florence’s government, were the centre stage for its tumultuous history. Its powerful guilds lavished sculptures on their church, Orsanmichele; its gold merchants still deal along the picturesque Ponte Vecchio. And two blocks east, is the great art church and Florentine pantheon, Santa Croce.
In the early 15th century, the city’s west end became the favourite address of its merchants and bankers; the Medici built the first Renaissance palace here, and the others quickly followed suit, each grander than the next. The Medici took over the parish church, San Lorenzo, and paid the greatest artists of the day to decorate it – Brunelleschi, Donatello and Michelangelo, who contributed the famous tombs in the Medici Chapels and library. Santa Maria Novella, close by, is another high shrine of Renaissance art, with landmark frescoes by Masaccio and Paolo Uccello; then there’s Santa Trínita, with its charming works by Domenico Ghirlandaio. The richness in the churches here is matched by the wares displayed in sleek windows along Florence’s fanciest shopping street, Via de’ Tornabuoni but you’ll find plenty of other places around here to spend money too, from the old Straw Market, the Mercato Nuovo to the lively Mercato San Lorenzo.
‘Over the Arno’, Florence’s left bank, is a pleasant place tucked under the pretty hills that close the south of the city. It offers no respite for the art pilgrim: the vast Palazzo Pitti, the last residence of the Medici Grand Dukes, has eight museums all by itself, although the lovely Boboli Gardens just behind wait to cure any symptoms of art glut. Much of the rest of the Oltrarno maintains a neighbourhood feel rare in Florence’s centro storico. Its major churches each have a masterpiece: at Santa Maria del Carmine, Masaccio’s precious frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel pointed the way to generations of painters; the elegant interior of Santo Spirito was Brunelleschi’s last important work; while Santa Felicità houses two masterpieces by the great Mannerist painter Jacopo Pontormo.
Much of Florence beyond the centre has been engulfed in rather nondescript sprawl – much, but not all. Some of the hills overlooking the city, especially to the south, have changed little since Michelangelo planned Florence’s defences, and offer splendid views over the city – from Bellosguardo you can see every church façade in the city. Another attraction are the many Medici Villas and their lovely gardens – the one at the Villa Medicea di Castello is considered the very first giardino all’italiano. And then there's love Fiesole, the ‘mother of Florence’ up on her hill.
Images by: lanur, Public Domain