The home of Renaissance art and much more besides, Florence is one of Italy"s most beautiful cities. Dana Facaros takes us on a quick tour of this culturally rich Tuscan treasure trove
Every piazza and every church has its masterpieces – even the city orphanage is a superb work of art. Florence has a reserved, very Tuscan beauty that perfectly matches its role as the humanistic, intellectual counterpart to cities such as sensuous Venice and imperial Rome
Medieval Florence was a city of bankers and merchants – but it was also a city with such outrageous genius and energy that it single-handedly gave birth to the Renaissance. Seven centuries later, the brilliance is still reflected in the home of Dante and Boccaccio, Michelangelo and Leonardo. Every piazza and every church has its masterpieces – even the city orphanage is a superb work of art. Florence has a reserved, very Tuscan beauty that perfectly matches its role as the humanistic, intellectual counterpart to cities such as sensuous Venice and imperial Rome. And, as such, it inspires like no place on earth.
Meet the Medici
As you take a stroll through Florence’s compact, pedestrian centre, the ‘pills’ – that is, the six balls of the Medici coat of arms – are everywhere. Fabulously wealthy bankers who became Grand Dukes and popes, the Medici were the godfathers of Florence and of the Renaissance itself. Their presence fills the medieval city hall, the Palazzo Vecchio (now a museum) in statue-filled Piazza della Signoria, from heroic frescoes to the bizarre alchemist’s studio of Francesco I de’ Medici.
Next door are the Medici’s offices, the Uffizi, now home to the world’s finest collection of Renaissance art, including Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Leonardo’s ethereal Annunciation and Michelangelo’s only oil painting, the Tondo Doni. You’ll need to book ahead if you are hoping to see the famous collection of self-portraits in the Corridoio Vasariano, the covered catwalk on top of the Ponte Vecchio that links the Uffizi with the sprawling Pitti Palace, home of the Medici Grand Dukes. The Medici were known to be obsessive collectors, and the Pitti has no fewer than seven museums filled up with their gems, paintings, carriages and more. The lush, rolling Boboli Gardens behind the palace are a welcome oasis and the only park in central Florence.
Even the Medici’s final resting place is packed with art. The Medici Chapels, which are linked to the church of San Lorenzo (back on the north bank of the Arno) are unbelievably opulent and form a contrast with Michelangelo’s sublime, contemplative Medici tombs inside.
Works of art
Florence’s busiest hub is the Piazza del Duomo, the square surrounding its majestic 14th-century polychromatic cathedral. Its crowning glory is Brunelleschi’s dome, an ingenious tour de force and symbol of Florence. Equally important in the history of art are Ghiberti’s remarkable Baptistery doors, as they jumpstarted the Renaissance; Michelangelo called them ‘the Gates of Paradise’.
Michelangelo’s own masterpiece, the David, resides just north inside the Accademia. As a giant killer, he was a favourite symbol of Florence and Michelangelo’s 17ft version is a stark contrast to Donatello’s earlier androgenous boy, the first freestanding bronze since antiquity, which resides in the Bargello in Via del Proconsolo. The Bargello (the medieval prison) is Italy’s top museum of sculpture, although it only sees a fraction of the visitors enjoyed by the nearby Uffizi.
Michelangelo and Machiavelli, along with other famous Florentines, are buried in Florence’s own ‘Westminster Abbey’, the church of Santa Croce, founded by St Francis himself. Santa Croce houses some of the city’s earliest treasures – Cimabue’s Crucifixion, chapels frescoed by Giotto, the first great artist of the Renaissance, and Orcagna’s unforgettable fresco of the Triumph of Death.
But Florence does have an intimate side, too. The Palazzo Davanzati in Via Porta Rossa is a beautifully preserved medieval house that offers a charming domestic view of the city in its heyday.
Florence claims to be the world capital of rich, creamy gelato and there is nothing sweeter than testing its proud boast. Stick to gelaterie promising produzione propria (homemade) and you won’t go far wrong. Standards were set high back in 1930, when Vivoli opened at Via Isole delle Stinche just north of Piazza Santa Croce. The gelato here is made from scratch every morning and is pricier than average, but many aficionados rate it the best on planet earth.
Another Florentine standby, Perché No? (‘Why not?’) has been on Via dei Tavolini since 1939, celebrated for its irresistible creamy gelato, sorbets (including green tea and ginger) and semifreddi whipped creams. Compare it to the offerings at the nearby Festival del Gelato in Via del Corso. It looks flashy, but don’t be put off by the neon; there are 72 delicious flavours to choose from. Grom, near the Duomo in Via del Campanile,
is worth a lick as well – its dense and intensely flavoured gelato is the result of an almost insane dedication to the finest seasonal ingredients.
Souvenirs of the city
Florence’s medieval centre gleams with tantalising shops. The city made its fortune in textiles, and gorgeous silks, linens and woollens still fill Casa dei Tessuti on Via de’ Pecori, where you can pick up bespoke shirts and jackets. Chic Via Tornabuoni is a showcase of Italian design, home to Florence’s own houses of Gucci and Pucci. A third Florentine, Ferragamo, displays some of Italy’s most stunning shoes (along with a museum of Ferragamo’s work) in Palazzo Spini-Feroni in Piazza Santa Trinità. Elsewhere, the Ponte Vecchio is famous for jewellery and glitters with gold and silver shops. Marbled paper is the perfect lightweight souvenir and is a Florentine tradition that goes all the way back to the 12th century; at Il Torchio, in Via dei Bardi, you can even watch it being made.
If you just want a T-shirt for the children, try the covered Mercato Nuovo, near Piazza della Signoria. While you are there, make sure that you rub the snout of the market’s famous bronze boar, Il Porcellino (or ‘piglet’), and some day fortune will bring you back to this endlessly fascinating city.
This feature was first published in The Portunus Club Magazine and all information was checked at the time of its original publication.
Featured cruises visiting
|Ventura||N016||19 Jun 10||View|
|Oceana||E017||7 Aug 10||View|
|Ventura||N026||8 Oct 10||View|
|Cruises are part of the April Cruise Collection benefitting from fantastic savings plus money to spend on board.|