Florence, and the birth of Renaissance
Florence… is the place of my dream. As a kid, my mother once showed me a photograph of a beautiful cathedral (with a giant orange dome) standing among a sea of houses with color-matching roofs. It was so beautiful and it captured me. I was told the cathedral was in Florence, and my mother was there before. Then the image remained in my mind that it defines stunning beauty. I remember that it was my first art project in high school to create some architecture models with cardboard, paper, and any other materials; I grabbed a plastic shaved ice cup lid and painted it orange – as the dome for the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and my art teacher loved it. She displayed my work in the art classroom for years until the watercolor paint finally peeled off.
Well, art was supposed to be inspiring, not to mention that Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance and nurtured many, many great names in European art.
The final decades of the 15th century are traditionally seen as the pinnacle of the Florentine Renaissance, sealed by the figures of Lorenzo the Magnificent, de facto ruler of Florence, a politician committed to diplomacy and a splendid patron, and Sandro Botticelli, the painter who, more than any other, successfully depicted the theories of Quattrocento philosophical though. The concepts discussed in the cultural environment that revolved around Lorenzo were promoted through the Platonic Academy.
Founded in the Medici villa at Careggi, the academy advanced a theology that bound ancient thought to Christianity and was driven by philosophers and theologians such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico Della Mirandola, and Agnolo Poliziano. Their ideas were reflected in painting in the figure of Sandro Botticelli and his famous depictions of the realm of Venus, a pagan deity reinterpreted as the driving force behind the universe. The death of Lorenzo of Magnificent, the expulsion of his son Piero from Florence, and the preaching of Savonarola, who was hostile to the Medici and urged moral rigor, upset that delicate equilibrium and caused a crisis that brought politics and consciences into play.
Today, Florence is a popular travel destination with waves of tourists every day. Bustling restaurants, overpriced souvenir stores, street hawkers of cheap knock-offs, and “pleather” handbags could be found everywhere in between the old town pedestrian roads… among all commercialized activities, the old city managed to keep its architecture and beauty in Gothic times like a time capsule. The old town was still compact and packed with countless fine arts – cathedrals, churches, mansions, palaces… it takes days, or even months, for a visitor to look at them all in an area within walking distance.
Here, I have a two-day itinerary for a walking tour that covers all the highlights of Florence!
Day 1: From the Duomo to the Plaza
Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore >
Giotto’s Campanile >
Florence Baptistery >
Repubblica Square >
Basilica of Santa Maria Novella >
Accademia Gallery >
Look! The largest cathedral dome in the world.
Upon arrival by train, I quickly navigate through the streets and checked into a clean, cozy, and cheap hostel merely a 2-minute walk away from the Duomo and started my day. It was emotional for me to realize that I could one day, climb the plastic shaved ice cup lid and had a bird-eye view of the romantic city…
There are a lot of spectacular cathedrals in the world, yet few of them have the softness and tenderness of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. Laid by marble stones in a combination of white, pink, and green, the cathedral manifests the value of the Renaissance to the utmost – classic, elegant, and free. The cathedral took 175 years to build, and the most impressive structure is the dome – a striking and eye-catching part of the cathedral that dominates the city’s skyline.
Built by a goldsmith, Filippo Brunelleschi, who had no prior architectural training, the architect managed to add a giant dome to the cathedral in the 15th century, and it remained to be the largest cathedral dome, and the largest brick and mortar one, in the world. It’s even more fascinating to learn that the architect left no sketch or evidence behind about how the architectural wonder was done, and so his technique of building a dome remained a mystery. Filippo’s tomb is in the cathedral, too; and there is a sculpture of him pointing upwards to his work. Not only was it an architectural wonder, but the dome was also a remarkable artistic achievement with the fresco of “Last Judgment”, painted by Giorgio Vasari and completed by his student Frederico Zuccari. The complexity of the dome deserves a closer look, and I would recommend visitors climb the 463 staircases to the top of the cathedral. On route, visitors could get real close to the paintings and enjoy a spectacular and unobstructed panoramic view of the city of Florence.
Another option is to climb the Campanile di Giotto, the bell tower that is on the other end of the cathedral, the great thing about the bell tower is that it is possible to take a good look at the cupola from the outside, yet I would still recommend the cupola if you can only choose one among the two.
Giotto’s Campanile, Florence Baptistery, and Repubblica Square are all a stone’s throw away from the Duomo. The Florence Baptistery is right in front of the Cathedral and “The Gates of Paradise”, praised by Michelangelo, is a must-see. The gate is 4.6-meter in height with so many extraordinary details on each panel and trim… just amazing.
Check out more about my favorite cathedrals at the Top 16 Most Spectacular Cathedrals in the World!
Everyone knows David, and make no mistake we have a number of Davids all around town, from art displays to travel souvenirs. For example, we have one David standing oh-so-proudly outdoor in the Piazza Della Signoria, yet that one is not the original David. The “David di Michelangelo”, the “Original”, or the “real” David that everyone wants to see is displayed in the Accademia Gallery (Gallery of the Academy of Florence) – and David has been standing there since 1873. It is “the thing” in the gallery people (meant me) would pay to see. The queue outside the Academy could be impressive, so pre-purchase tickets online to save the hassle! Another two David that most tourists can see are the ones from Palazzo Vecchio and Piazzale Michelangelo, and they are replicas.
As I remember, I was asked to select a particular time slot for my visit. Apart from David, the gallery also features some impressive marble sculptures, some of which were created by Michelangelo.
Something you may not know about Michelangelo’s David
The statue was created depicting the scene of David facing down the vicious giant Goliath. Although it is a naked man, it is indeed a religious statue of a biblical hero.
As life-like as the statue is, it is actually 17 feet tall in real – three times the height of the average man. If you are detail-minded, you will notice that David is a leftie because he was holding the slingshot with his left hand. However, it is suggested that his standing postsure looks close to a rightie.
This giant statue was carved out of a single clock of unwanted marble. The same block of rock was used by two former sculptors, Agostino di Duccio and Antonio Rossellino, who respectively abandoned their projects, leaving the rock untouched for over a decade, until Michaelango picked up this unwanted piece of marble and turned it into a masterpiece.
In fact, the statue had received raving reviews from critics when it was completed and it has further defined Michelango’s reputation as a master of sculptures, at the age of 29 years old. Four years later after the debut of David, he was signed off to work on one the most important painting in the entire world in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican.
Wow, Firenze and the sunset
After a few turns in the allies and some quick visits to the Italian fashion boutique (Some of them had museums like Ferragamo Museum and Gucci World Flagship store). I ended my first day in town with a beautiful sunset view of the city at another place named after Michelangelo. Michelangelo Square is a place in the city that requires public transportation uphill. The square had another duplication of “David” standing in the middle of the space, but everyone on site was too busy admiring the gorgeous view of Florence’s old town over the Arno River.
Day 2: From Old Bridge to Uffizi
Basilica of San Lorenzo >
Capelle Medicee > Palazzo Medici-Riccardi >
Antique Street / Fashion Street > Pitti Palace / Palatina Gallery > Boboli Gardens > Chiesa of Santa Croce >
Piazza Della Signoria > Uffizi Gallery and beyond…
The Medici experience
There is no way you don’t hear something about the Medici as you are exploring Florence. The Medici family is the ruler of Florence throughout the Renaissance period and played a predominant role in the development of the art of the city.
It only makes sense that the family had quite a collection in their mansion. Palazzo Medici Riccardi had been the residence of the Medici family for a hundred years since 1460. The exterior of the building was, in fact, quite low-key and execute their family power behind the scene. Inside, however, was filled with surprises and amazing artwork. More, the Cappelle Medicee and Basilica di San Lorenzo were also landmarks linked with the Medici family with impressive history and art. The Green Cloister in Chiesa di Santa Maria Novella is also something not to miss.
What do we know about the Medici Family
The Medici family is the ruler of Florence throughout the Renaissance period, and undoubtedly they are greatly influential in the development and the art of the Florenced in that period of time. With their financial and political power, most of the built and art prodject are comissioned or funded by the family. But how much do you know about them?
First of all, the ruling of the family began in the late 1300s, and lasted for three cenutries. Started off as poor farmers in the farmland, they gain fortune for being merchants and carefully arranged marriages. They worked up their social ladder and eventally became Dukes of Florence in 1532.
Due to their rise to power, the Medici owned a huge portion of Florence. Lorenzo de’Medici came to power in 1469. he was an excellent politicianm but was faced with a huge debt inherited from his family.
At their prime, four Popes and two queens were from the Medici family: Pope Leo X, Pope Clement VII, Pope Pius IV and Pope Leo XI, plus Catherine de Medici and Marie de Medici due to the royal marriage.
The family was “fallen” when there was no male heirs left in the family in 1718, the lands and fortune were split up and the lost their power.
Interstingly, many members of the Medici family spent their time in exile. Piero II was exiled from Florence in 1494, and in five years, most of the family was also banished, returned in 1512, and than they were exiled again in 1527.
Walked through the Piazza Della Repubblica, both Via Della Vigna Nuova (Fashion Street, designer brands, boutiques, cake shops..) and Via de’ Fossi (Antique Street, old toys, books, etc.) led strollers to the riverside of the Arno River.
I enjoyed the walk along the river towards the oldest bridge in Florence, Ponte Vecchio, which connects to the other side of the city to Palazzo Pitti. You will probably find there’s a long, elevated enclosed passageway connecting the Palazzo Vecchio with the Palazzo Pitti. The Vasari Corridor used to be the private walkway for the Grand Dukes to move freely between their residence (Palazzo Pitti) and the government palace (Palazzo Vecchio), with the office (Uffizi) in the middle. The corridor is now opened to the public.
There was a meat market on Ponte Vecchio, and because the smell reached into the Vasari Corridor, the meat vendors were moved and replaced by goldsmith shops. Today, the shops on both sides of the bridge sold antiques and jewelry… more like a window-shopping experience for me, yet this is also a place you have to be alert for pickpockets.
The beautiful Pont Vecchio is another important landmark in Florence. It is a medieval stone closed-segmental arch bridge over the Arno River, and it was believed that the bridge was built in Roman times, across the narrowest point of the River. The bridge leads to the opposite of the old town, including the Pitti Palace, and Michelangelo Square, which I just mentioned on Day one. After that, I returned to the bridge and headed to the Uffizi Gallery.
The Uffizi Gallery
Literally the birthplace of the Renaissance, The Uffizi Gallery was Italy’s most prestigious art gallery of Renaissance art (and one of the oldest galleries in the world). It is located on the Arno riverbank, around the corner of the Piazza Della Signoria. They include the building built by Vasari between 1560 to 1580 for Duke Cosimo I to accommodate the offices of the florentine Magistrates, hence the name “Uffizi” (which means “offices”), the Vasari Corridor, Palazzo Pitti, and the Boboli Gardens, the residence of the grand dukes.
The original of the Uffizi Gallery date back to 1581. In that year the Grand Duke Francesco I de Medici set up a Gallery on the last floor of the East Wing of the building. It is currently one of the most famous museums in the world for its extraordinary collections of ancient sculptures and paintings, from the Middle Ages to the modern. The collections of paintings of the 14th century and of the Renaissance contain some absolute masterpieces of the art of all times; just remember the names of Giotto, Simone Martini, Piero Della Francesca, Beato Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Mantegna, Correggio, Leonardo Raffaello, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, as well as masterpieces of Italian art is the collection of statuary and busts from the antiquity of the Medici family. The collection graces the corridors of the Gallery and includes ancient Roman sculptures and copies of lost Greek Original.
Purchased in 1550 by Cosimo de Medici and his wife Eleonora di Toledo to transform it into the new grand-ducal residence, Palazzo Pitti soon become the symbol of the consolidated power of the Medici over Tuscany. The Palace of two other dynasties, that of the Habsburg-Lorraine (successor of the Medici from 1737) and of the Savoy, who lived there as royals of Italy from 1865, Palazzo Pitti still bears the name of its first owner, the Florentine banker Luca Pitti, who wanted to build it in the mid-15th century – perhaps to a design by Brunelleschi – beyond the Arno, at the foot of the Boboli hill. It is currently home to four different museums: The Treasury of the Grand Dukes on the ground floor, the Palatine Gallery and the Imperial and Royal Apartments on the noble floor of the Palace, the Gallery of Modern Art, and the Museum of Fashion and Costume on the second floor.
The well-lit corridors and galleries were quite different from the other museums that I have seen and it is a “must-see” whenever you are in Florence, Italy.
Born in the Aegean Sea, Venus is the goddess of love and eternal beauty. The Venus depicted by Botticelli epitomized the ideal female figure and the essence of humanism. in Botticelli’s work, Venus has a graceful and elegant shape, with a long, slender neck, and shoulder that taper downwards. Botticelli often painted Venus with a frail and delicate appearance, with a melancholic expression, which made her divine beauty more accessible to people. Such works reflected the humanist idea focusing on the portrayal of humans, in which Venus was transformed into a living, breathing mortal goddess.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and different eras in history are marked by unique notions of beauty. Neoplatonists during the Renaissance advocated the idea that beauty encompassed love and God, the three of them equal.
God made us in his image. And as his creation of love, we seek beauty out of our affection and admiration for God. The exquisite depictions of humanity fell into a celebration of the grace of God and the dignity of humankind. Our idea of beauty may be different now, but these artworks remain timeless in their ability to captivate us and inspire our imagination to this day.
Other important artwork showcase:
- Maesta – di Bondone, 1266-1336
- Madonna with Child and two Aggles – Filippo Lippi, 1406-1464
- Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino – Piero Della Francesca, 1415-1492
- La Primavera – Sandra Botticelli, 1446-1510
- The Calumny of Apelles – Sandra Botticelli, 1446-1510
- Adoration of the Magi – Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528
- Sacred Allegory – Giovanni Bellini, 1427-1516
- Doni Tondo – Buonarroti Michelangelo, 1475-1564
- Madonna of the Goldfinch – Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520
- Flora – Vecellio Tiziano, 1489-1534
- Self-portrait – Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520
- Self-Portrait – Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669
- Portrait of Isabella Brandt – Rubens, 1577-1640
- Bacchus – Caravaggio, 1576-1610