‘And when I thought of Florence, it was like a miracle city embalmed and like a corolla, because it was called the city of lillies and its cathedral, St. Mary of the Flowers’ – Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
Florence! I love Florence! Who does not? This city is perfect for families, for couples, for single people, for old, for young…Am I being partial? Well, I admit it. It is simply to make you feel bad for not having been there already.
Florence, Firenze in Italian, is the capital city of Tuscany (a region in the North of Rome). Tuscany is often taken as the pure example of Italian’s landscapes and lifestyle. You know? The green hills scattered with pine trees and covered by vineyards adjoining ocre-coloured houses. Typical! Italy is far more complex than that. Nevertheless, you can’t obliterate the fact that Tuscany has marked characteristics.
Florence was founded by the Romans in 59 B.C. Due to its strategic position, it became a hub for business and transports. It also means that it was quite attractive to barbaric tribes (it can never be perfect…) Its Golden Age covers quite a large span of four centuries (from the 11th to the 15th). It coincidated with the end of the Middle Ages and the birth of the Renaissance in Italy (which have both different dates than in the rest of Europe). Art is to be found everywhere in Florence. Writers such as Dante or Machiavelli lived there. Botticelli and Michelangelo (not Mickey Langelo…) both worked as painters in the city. Leonardo da Vinci learnt his trade in Florence. The Capital of Arts is the birthplace of the Renaissance, and of Italian arts as we celebrate them today.
The city was ruled by a Signoria, a Council of the most powerful men from the most important families of Florence. THE most important family happens to be the Medici. There is currently a series on the soaring of the family. The dynasty raised itself from being bankers (not bonkers) to being one of the most powerful families in Europe. They offered one Pope to Italy and two Queens to France. Their blood is in all the European royal families. Originally, they may have had doctors in their ranks as ‘Medici’ means ‘doctors’. The Medici’s status sprang with Cosimo di Medici in the 15th century. He established himself and the family as the leaders of Florence. The second most important name is Lorenzo il Magnifico (greatest nickname ever) who gave the city its cultural aspect by being a generous patron to artists who, as a result, came to settle in Florence to work and earn a living.
My first chapter is dedicated to the most wonderful building in Florence: the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore. It can nicely be translated by Saint Mary of the Flower. Isn’t it cute? Florence, Flower…You can see the link pretty quickly, uh? Actually, the symbol of the city is the lily flower, and Florence is called the City of the Lily.
The Cathedral is very famous for its architecture, and especially for its Cupola (Dome).
Just to impress you even more, know that it is the third largest church in the world (after Saint Peter in Rome and Saint Paul in London). It started being built in 1296 by an architect called Arnolfo di Cambio, and was almost finished in 1421. The construction phase was delayed by the deaths of the several architects in charge of the project. Furthermore, the Cupola was expected to be grand and gigantic with the slight problem that no one had ever accomplished such an architectural prowess. So, after decades of stagnation, the Opera del Duomo, the Council in charge of the Cathedral, decided to open a competition in 1418 to find the best project to finalise the dome. Filippo Brunelleschi, an architect who was a former goldsmith, was finally appointed after endless debates, but had to work alongside Lorenzo Ghiberti, another goldsmith, who happened to be Bruneslleschi’s greatest rival. The project started in 1420.
His project was to build two domes nestled into one another. In short, he wanted to create a fake dome under the main one to support and solidify it. It proved to be a difficult endeavour, but it was finally achieved in 1434. Two years later, the Duomo was consecrated by the Pope. You think it is beautiful on the outside? It is as impressive on the inside!
Opposite the Cathedral, you can see the Battistero di San Giovanni. It is an octogonal baptistery flanked by three golden gates made out of Bronze. The most beautiful is the East Gate called la Porta del Paradiso (named by Michelangelo himself). It was created by Lorenzo Ghiberti (who had won against Brunelleschi that time). In former times (that is 3rd and 4th century), there was already a baptistery. The actual one was erected between the 11th and the 12th century which makes it one of the oldest buildings in Florence. The gates were created later on in the 14th and 15th century. A Battistero, like its name indicates, is used to baptise! Dante was baptised there actually.
Next to the Duomo, there is il Campanile, the bell tower. The term campanile comes from ‘campana’ that means ‘bell’. The project was Giotto‘s, one of the most famous Italian artists of the Renaissance. Sadly, in 1337, only three years after the beginning of the construction, Giotto died. Weirdly, the bell tower is called il Campanile di Giotto despite the fact that he did not even work three years on the project. It was finished in 1359, after the works were interrupted by the Black Death episodes which began in 1348. The exterior of the Campanile is richly decorated. It is ornamented of white, red and green marble, just like the Battistero and the Cathedral, with geometrical designs.You can find biblical scenes, representations of sciences, planets, the cardinal virtues, the seven sacraments (from the Catholic faith), as well as prophets and kings of Israel on the façades.
You will be surprised to learn that, like any bell tower, there are bells inside! There are seven bells in il Campanile di Giotto.They are called Santa Reparata, la Misericordia, l’Apostolica, l’Assunta, la Mater Dei, l’Annunziata and l’Immacolata. To visit the tower, you have to brave a long queue of visitors. I could not find enough courage in me to wait an hour (sometimes, it is even more).
These buildings form the Piazza del Duomo, the most impressive square in Florence. There is also la Loggia del Bigallo that you can visit and the Museum della Misericordia. The Loggia was built during the construction of the Duomo in the 14th century. It originally belonged to la Compagnia della Misericordia which had to be merged with la Compagnia del Bigallo in 1425. These two brotherhoods coult not get on though, and la Misericordia left the Loggia. It is why, nowadays, the house bears the name of the Bigallo. These two organisations of rich merchants and bankers were meant to help the poor and destitute by welcoming them in the house. Nevertheless, the Compagnia del Bigallo was accused several times over the centuries of doubtful finances and malversation. It was finally dispersed, but the works of art that the two brotherhoods had hoarded over the years were reunited in the Loggia which became a museum.
If you go around the Cathedral, you will find the statue of Brunelleschi, watching and studying his Cupola, and the statue of Arnolfo di Cambio, the first architect of the Duomo (remember?). Arnolfo surveys his work with a serious and focused look in the eye.
This is just the start, people! Some more wonders await you in Florence. Are you ready to (re)discover them?
Next time will be another very famous landmark of Florence. I am sure you can guess!
I M Gullivering.