On the banks of the Arno River, Florence began to grow into a commercial and cultural center in the 13th century. During this time the wealthy merchants and tradesmen organized the guilds, which were to control the economy and the government for 150 years. These guilds supervised the construction of buildings and also commissioned works of art, which were to adorn the churches and palaces. This interest in art and architecture brought about the Italian Renaissance, which was a fantastic outburst of activity between the 14th and 16th centuries. The ruling merchants of Florence were the Medicis, and under their guidance Florence became the greatest repository of art treasures in the world. The list of greats who lived here is unreal...Dante, who invented the Italian language, da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and Giotto. Efforts to preserve Florence as "the Jewel of the Renaissance" have been successful. Today, the city appears much as it did during its period of greatness. Florence is a very "walkable" compact city.
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo): Open daily. This is a splendid structure of green and white marble arranged in geometric patterns and built in the Florentine-Gothic style. It was begun in 1296 and completed 150 years later. There was great controversy during construction over how to build the great dome, which must span 138 feet. The solution came from Brunelleschi who tied layers of concrete together in a herringbone pattern to absorb the strain of the inward curve. The Duomo is one of the most striking sights of Florence and is its most famous landmark. The inside is almost plain, but there are great treasures to look for... an unfinished sculpture of Descent from the Cross by Michelangelo, and several terra cottas by della Robbia. Recent excavations in the basement have revealed the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Peparata, which dates from the 5th century. Huge crowds.
Giotto's Bell Tower (Duomo): Roughly 9-5:30. Although better known as the most important early painter, Giotto was also a noted architect. He spent the last 3 years of his life working of this 292 feet tower. It was only partially completed before his death. The upper stories of marble in-lay and the Gothic windows were added later.
Baptistery of San Giovanni (Duomo): Facing the Duomo, this splendid example of Romanesque architecture dates from the 5th century. The south doors are the oldest and depict scenes from the life of John the Baptist. The greatest treasure, however, is the famous Gateway to Paradise doors, which were named by Michelangelo and created by Ghiberti. The Biblical themes carved on the doors are from the Old Testament. Inside the Baptistery, the ceiling is by Cimabue. Hours 1-6.
Accademia Gallery: Hr 8:15-6:50 Closed Mon. Reservations strongly recommended. If there's time for only one stop in Florence, it should be this one. This museum contains Michelangelo's original David, which you walk toward, through a long hall lined with several of Michelangelo's unfinished sculptures whose figures appear to struggle to get out of the stone. David is 17 feet tall and originally stood outside in the Piazza della Signoria. A copy remains on the original outdoor spot. Without reservations, the line is horrendous.
Medici-Riccardi Palace: 9-7 Closed Wed. Limits number of visitors. Built between 1444-60, this was the home of Cosimo and Lorenzo. There's an interesting small courtyard and a small chapel, plus paintings, busts and death masks of several of the Medici's.
Piazza SS Annunziata: Near the Duomo, this is the original square of Florence. On one side is the famous Foundling Hospital, which is the oldest in Europe and the first Renaissance structure in Florence. Above the arches are the world famous "Putti" or swaddling babies, in ceramic, by Della Robbia. In the center of the square is a statue of Ferdinand de Medici. The entrance to the Etruscan Museum is also on the square, and the Church of SS Annunziata, a place to which the brides of Florence, by custom, bring their wedding bouquets. Saturday is the day of weddings.
Museum of San Marco: Near the Accademia and the Piazza SS Annunziata. Tu-Sa 9-1. Sunday 9-1. Begun in 1437, this structure was built over a broken down convent and converted into a monastery for the Dominican Fathers. The artist and Friar, Fra Angelico lived here and left works decorating the bleak rooms.
Piazza della Signoria: Florence's largest plazza and an outdoor sculpture gallery. This square was the center of the city's political life from 1300 AD and was the scene of hangings, book burnings, and assassination plots. The religious fanatic, Savorarola, who greatly influenced the artist Botticelli, was burnt at the stake here, and a bronze plaque marks the spot. Among the sculptures around the square are a copy of David, the famous Fountain of Neptune, and Cellini's Perseus Holding The Head Of Medusa. Major museums also are on or near the square.
Uffizi Gallery: Hrs 8:30-6:50. Closed Mon. Reservations strongly recommended. This great museum is in a 16th century palace just off the Piazza della Signoria. The structure was built for Cosimo de Medici. It originally housed the personal art collection of the Medici and became "public" in 1737. Here, you'll find Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and Primavera, and many masterpieces by Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, and Rembrandt. Only small groups allowed in museum at a time. Without reservations the line is horrendous.
Palazzo Vecchio: 9-7PM. Closed Thursday. Next to the Uffizi Gallery and on the side of the Piazzi della Signoria. This palace is a great stone mass topped by a 308 foot tower, and was originally the seat of the Florentine government, and still later a palace of the Medici. It now houses many fine sculptures which include Donatello's Judith Slaying Holofernes, and near the entrance, Michelangelo's Victory. See, also the famous Hall of the 500 with frescoes and sculptures by Vasari.
Bargello: 8:15-1:50. Closed 1st-2nd-5th Sun, 2nd-4thMon. This is the National Museum, located at #4 Via del Pronconsolo. The palace, begun in 1254 was once a military fortress. Today it exhibits arms and armor. The real attraction is sculpture, including another David by Michelangelo, and Donatello's St. George, and Leda and the Swan.
Medici Chapels: 8:15-6:50 Closed 1st-3rd-5th Mon, 2nd-4th Sun. These famous chapels adjoin the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Commissioned in 1520 by Cardinal Guilio de Medici (later Pope Clement VII), the chapels were designed as a mausoleum for the wealthy of Florence. When you enter the Chapels via the Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini, you'll find a huge room containing tombs of the Medici decorated to the hilt in a Baroque style. While this is impressive, the real reason you stop here is to see the tombs downstairs. There, you'll find some of the most impressive work by Michelangelo on two tombs of two lesser Medici. Among the sculptures on the tombs are his famous Dawn, Dusk, Night, and Day. Lorenzo de Medici is entombed in another chapel near an unfinished Madonna and Child. Recently, a previously unknown room was discovered behind the tombs. There are drawings on the wall by Michelangelo. It is felt that he used these rooms as living space and studio during the work on the tombs.
Casa Buonarroti: 9:30-2 Closed Thursday. Located at #70 Ghibelina. This is the only home Michelangelo ever owned. It contains some of his early sculpture and some drawings.
Church of Santa Croce: A Gothic church with interior frescoes by Giotto. This church is visited primarily for the Tomb of Michelangelo. Also buried here are Machiavelli, Galileo, and Rossini. Very crowded.
Ponte Vecchio: This is the only ancient bridge over the Arno River which was not destroyed by the Germans in 1944. It is lined with interesting shops. Foot traffic only.
Pitti Palace (Palatine): 8:15-6:50 Closed Mon. Across the Ponte Vecchio, this palace and art museum was begun in the 15th century. It was the home of the Medici clan, and later the Royal Palace of Victor Emmanuel II, King of Italy. The museum is devoted mainly to works of the Renaissance and is especially rich in Raphael's (Madonna of the Chair, and portrait of his mistress La Fornarina). There are also works by Titian, Botticelli, Tintoretto, Rubens, Van Dyck, Velasquez and Murillo. Behind the palace are the extensive Boboli Gardens with many fountains and statues. If you'll walk to the end of the gardens, you'll see part of the ancient wall, which used to surround Florence.
Piazzale Michelangelo: Take bus #13 from the Train Station or anywhere along its route. This hill overlooks Florence and the entire Arno Valley. It is 340 feet high and has a marvelous view of the city and the old wall that used to surround it and protect it during earlier times. There's also another copy of David on the crest of the hill.
Church of Santa Maria del Carmine: A Baroque church with frescoes by Masaccio and Fillippino Lippi. Somewhat out of the way.
Church of San Lorenzo: (See Medici Chapels). This church was begun in 1442 and completed in 1460... is shaped like a Latin Cross and was the favorite of the Medici. The library was designed by Michelangelo. The Medici Tombs are entered behind this church.
Church of Santa Maria Novella: A large Dominican structure built between 1278 and 1350. Its marble in-laid facade was added in the 15th century. It's interesting for the frescoes by Fillippo Lippi and Giotto, and for a room called the Spanish Chapel.
Orsanmichele: Via de Calzaluoli. 7-12,1-6 This unusual Gothic building was originally built as a grain market in 1337. Between 1380 and 1404 it was converted into a church. On the ground floor are the 13th century arches that originally formed the loggia of the grain market. What's most famous about Orsanmichele are its outer walls which feature niches containing statues of the patron saints of the various Guilds. Included are works by Donatello (St. George), Ghiberti (John the Baptist), and Verrochio (St. Thomas). The originals have now been moved inside. Most tourists miss this one!
Great Synagogue of Florence: Via Farini 4, 6 blocks east of Duomo. Built during 1874-82, this magnificent Synagogue is one of the most beautiful in Europe. The design was inspired by Costantinople's Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia, and presents a dome-crowned drum, with barrel vaults over the four equal parts that terminate in four round gables. Two octagonal turrets topped by domes, flank the central dome. The horseshoe shape of all the arches and windows create a definite Moorish effect.