Art and history, a perfect trip to Italy’s Florence

By Angela Corrias Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/9 0:26:14

The Arno river in Florence Photo: Angela Corrias

Celebrated as the cradle of modern Western civilization and the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence will give you an art overdose like no other place can. It is a city where culture, literature and sciences have always been encouraged by local rulers, first among all Lorenzo "the Magnificent" de' Medici of the powerful Medici family.

Florence's almost entirely pedestrian historic center, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982, has kept its authentic elegance throughout the centuries. If you are skillful enough to isolate yourself from the ever-present crowd of tourists, you can travel in time and whirl back to medieval and Renaissance Italy.

Exploring the spiritual side

Kick off your Florence trip with a visit to today's Florence cathedral, Gothic-style Santa Maria del Fiore.

There you will see the Dome, designed by one of the most famous artists of the time Filippo Brunelleschi; the Baptistery, one of Florence's oldest churches where notable figures the likes of Dante Alighieri, Lorenzo "il Magnifico" de' Medici, Amerigo Vespucci and Niccolò Machiavelli were baptized; and Giotto's Bell Tower (Campanile di Giotto).

Santa Maria del Fiore is one of the largest churches in Europe. Construction on the church began in 1296, when architect Arnolfo di Cambio opened the doors of the newly created "Fabbriceria della Cattedrale di Firenze" (Florence Cathedral Works), founded by the Florentine Republic and responsible still today, after seven centuries, for the preservation of all the monuments that are part of the complex.

Built on the ruins of the early-Christian church of Santa Reparata (still available for visits in the crypt), the modern cathedral is different from Cambio's original project.

Over the centuries important parts were added and today it's precisely these new additions that give us the most spellbinding experiences.

Climb up Brunelleschi's spectacular Dome to admire from the inside the large fresco by Vasari and Zuccari that decorates the ceiling and then go up to the exterior for a view of the city's medieval rooftops and a close-up of the bell tower.

The ticket is valid for 48 hours from the first validation, so if you feel brave enough, the next day you can climb the 414 steps to get to the top of the 85-meter-tall Giotto's Bell Tower, one of the highest examples of Florentine Gothic architecture of the 13th century. From there you will have the best glimpse of the red-tiled dome.

Even though it's the city's main church, Santa Maria del Fiore is far from being the only sacred place worth a visit in Florence.

As a matter of fact, during the rule of the Medici family, the church that was meant to become their private chapel was the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Located in its namesake piazza, this church is one of the largest in the city.

On the site of an early church, Giovanni di Bicci, forefather of the Medici dynasty, commissioned the great architect Brunelleschi to carry out renovations, which were ended by one of his pupils Antonio Manetti, thus leading to the current look of the Basilica of San Lorenzo.

Wandering through the different sections of the complex shows how intertwined it was with Florence's most influential family.

On the right side of the austere-looking basilica is the entrance to the Medicea Laurenziana Library.

Designed by Michelangelo to represent the transition from darkness to the light of knowledge, it enshrined the family's precious collection of manuscripts.

The Medici family had a soft spot for art in all its forms, be it literature, poetry, painting, sculpture or architecture, and Lorenzo "il Magnifico" de' Medici was the most brilliant member of the family that ruled Florence for more than 300 years.

His accession to power took place in 1469 after his father's death. Lorenzo was only 20, but his political and diplomatic talents quickly earned him the status of "needle on the Italian scales."

To fully understand the value this basilica held for the Medici family, head to the cellar, once the seat of the Compagnia del Santissimo Sacramento confraternity and now Museum of the Treasure of San Lorenzo.

Here are displayed many reliquaries and the precious donations mainly from the Medici family.

This basilica was the place where the Medici organized their weddings, christenings and state ceremonies, and now it hosts the graves of all the members of the family, including the crypt of Lorenzo "il Magnifico," designed and realized by Michelangelo, and that of his brother, Giuliano De' Medici, killed in front of the altar of the Santa Maria del Fiore basilica during Easter Mass in 1478 by the Pazzi Conspiracy.

Orchestrated from Rome by Pope Sixtus IV himself, the conspiracy was aimed at assassinating both brothers but was repressed by the people of Florence who immediately stood by the Medici family and hastily executed the conspirators by hanging them from the windows of Palazzo della Signoria.

Before starting to explore the secular power of medieval and Renaissance Florence, independent from religious rule yet always tightly entangled, make some time for the Santa Maria Novella Basilica, a beautiful Gothic-Romanesque church decorated with carvings and colorful stained-glass windows that possesses rich side chapels and a monumental cloister.

The Santa Maria Novella basilica Photo: Angela Corrias

Florence's secular power

From the Middle Ages through all of the Renaissance, Florence was home to countless workshops where the best artists produced the artworks that we still admire today.

Stroll gently along the Arno river then explore the maze of narrow alleys in the historical areas of San Frediano, San Niccolò or Santo Spirito to unearth the authentic spirit of Florence.

Back when the city was an important political and trading hub, the streets were lined with traditional botteghe (workshops) where artisans would create sculptures, paintings, ceramics, objects using gold, silver, terracotta or marble.

All major artists, from Michelangelo to Giotto to Leonardo, shaped their talent in one of the many botteghe, and under the patronage of the rulers of the time, mainly the Medici family, produced the artworks now on display in churches and palaces.

Delve into the secular power that ruled Florence from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance by visiting some of its most important palaces. Among these, the Palazzo della Signoria (now Palazzo Vecchio) was the center of power for centuries.

In the 16th century it was the residence of Cosimo I de' Medici. However, in 1550 when his wife bought Palazzo Pitti and the family moved out, Palazzo della Signoria was renamed Palazzo Vecchio, the Old Palace.

Between 1865 and 1871 Florence was the capital of Italy and the Palazzo Vecchio was the seat of the government. Today it hosts the local council and a museum.

The moniker of cradle of Western civilization wasn't given lightly to the city.

Everywhere you visit, you will always have the chance of stumbling on a masterpiece by artists the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Titian or Donatello.

If you associate Florence with elegance, beauty, and immortal art, then the place to be is the Uffizi Gallery, one of Italy's and the world's most famous museums. Standing tall and aware of its value right behind the Piazza della Signoria, the Uffizi is a must-have experience for anyone traveling to Florence for the first time.

Appreciate the graceful strokes of Botticelli in his ever-green Spring and Birth of Venus, the elegance of Raphael's art, the humble figures of Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci, and, before the Stendhal Syndrome makes you dizzy, round off your long day with a rewarding meal at l'Brindellone, a traditional restaurant that serves one of the best bistecca alla Fiorentina (T-bone Florentine steak).

Stroll around the Arno

If Italian holidays are synonymous with walking around cobbled medieval alleys and imposing bridges, Florence will meet all the clichés, but this is also part of its charm.

The Ponte Vecchio bridge is not just one of the many bridges over the Arno but also includes a collection of jewelry shops lined up in two rows facing each other.

Walking along the river invokes different emotions depending on the time of the day. Quiet and silver-c0lored in early morning, its balmy waters reflect the sunlight during the day eventually turning into a golden stretch of calm at sunset, the perfect time for a romantic dinner.

Don't limit your Florence trip to an art overdose. Live the city, drink in the street scenes and linger in the same atmosphere that produced some of the world's best artists.

A plate of pasta Photo: Angela Corrias

Rules of thumb

What to wear: To enter churches and sacred places modest clothing is required, so no mini-skirts or shorts, and keep your shoulders covered.

Summer is very hot while in winter the temperatures range from 1-15 C. The best times to visit are spring and fall.

Where to stay: In Florence you will find any type accommodations, from high-end hotels to B&Bs to cheap hostels, so you have a great option.

Prices are higher than the average Italian city, especially in spring and summer. Fall and winter are usually cheaper and less crowded.

Transportation: Florence is to be explored on foot, as its historic heart is not huge and mostly pedestrian. If your hotel is far from the city center you can use the efficient network of trams and buses, many of which stop around the very central Santa Maria Novella train station.

If you have some more days in Florence, take the train to visit some other cities in Tuscany, such as Pisa, Siena and the walled city of Lucca.
Newspaper headline: Cultural vacation


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