Florence, the city of the lily, gave birth to the Renaissance and changed the way we see the world. For centuries it has captured the imaginations of travelers, who have come seeking rooms with views and phenomenal art. Florence’s is a subtle beauty—its staid, unprepossessing palaces built in local stone are not showy, even though they are very large. They take on a certain magnificence when day breaks and when the sun sets; their muted colors glow in this light. A walk along the Arno offers views that don’t quit and haven’t much changed in 700 years; navigating Piazza della Signoria, always packed with tourists, requires patience. There’s a reason why everyone seems to be here, however. It’s the heart of the city, and home to the Uffizi—the world’s finest repository of Italian Renaissance art.
Florence was “discovered” in the 1700s by upper-class visitors from everywhere making the grand tour. Today millions of us follow in their footsteps. When the sun sets over the Arno and, as Mark Twain described it, “overwhelms Florence with tides of color that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams,” it’s hard not to fall under the city’s spell.
POINTS OF INTEREST
MUSEO ARCHEOLOGICO NAZIONALE
Of the Etruscan, Egyptian, and Greco-Roman antiquities here, the Etruscan collection is particularly notable—one of the most important in Italy (the other being in Turin). The famous bronze Chimera was discovered (without the tail, which is a 16th-century reconstruction by Cellini). If you’re traveling with kids, they might particularly enjoy the small mummy collection. Those with a fondness for gardens should visit on Saturday morning, when the tiny but eminently pleasurable garden is open for tours.
In 1296 Arnolfo di Cambio (circa 1245–circa 1310) was commissioned to build “the loftiest, most sumptuous edifice human invention could devise” in the Romanesque style on the site of the old church of Santa Reparata. The immense Duomo was consecrated in 1436, but work continued over the centuries. The imposing facade dates only from the 19th century; its neo-Gothic style somewhat complements Giotto’s genuine Gothic 14th-century campanile. The real glory of the Duomo, however, is Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome, presiding over the cathedral with a dignity and grace that few domes to this day can match. Brunelleschi’s cupola was an ingenious engineering feat.
The space to be enclosed by the dome was so large and so high above the ground that traditional methods of dome construction—wooden centering and scaffolding—were of no use whatsoever. So Brunelleschi developed entirely new building methods, which he implemented with equipment of his own design (including a novel scaffolding method). Beginning work in 1420, he built not one dome but two, one inside the other, and connected them with ribbing that stretched across the intervening empty space, thereby considerably lessening the crushing weight of the structure. He also employed a new method of bricklaying, based on an ancient herringbone pattern, interlocking each course of bricks with the course below in a way that made the growing structure self-supporting.
The result was one of the great engineering breakthroughs of all time: most of Europe’s later domes, including that of St. Peter’s in Rome, were built employing Brunelleschi’s methods, and today the Duomo has come to symbolize Florence in the same way that the Eiffel Tower symbolizes Paris. The Florentines are justly proud of it, and to this day the Florentine phrase for “homesick” is nostalgia del cupolone (homesick for the dome). The interior is a fine example of Florentine Gothic. Much of the cathedral’s best-known art has been moved to the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Notable among the works that remain, however, are two massive equestrian frescoes honoring famous soldiers: Niccolò da Tolentino, painted in 1456 by Andrea del Castagno (circa 1419–57), and Sir John Hawkwood, painted 20 years earlier by Paolo Uccello (1397–1475); both are on the left nave. A 1995 restoration repaired the dome and cleaned the vastly crowded fresco of the Last Judgment, executed by Giorgio Vasari (1511–74) and Zuccaro, on its interior. Originally Brunelleschi wanted mosaics to cover the interior of the great ribbed cupola, but by the time the Florentines got around to commissioning the decoration, 150 years later, tastes had changed. Too bad: it’s a fairly dreadful Last Judgment and hardly worth the effort of craning your neck to see it. You can explore the upper and lower reaches of the cathedral. The remains of a Roman wall and an 11th-century cemetery have been excavated beneath the nave; the way down is near the first pier on the right. The climb to the top of the dome (463 steps) is not for the faint of heart, but the view is superb.
MUSEO DELL’OPERA DEL DUOMO
A seven-year restoration of this museum and its glorious reopening in October 2015 have given Florence one of its most modern, up-to-date museums. Exhibition space has doubled in size, and the old facade of the cathedral, torn down in the 1580s, has been recreated with a 1:1 relationship to the real thing. Both sets of Ghiberti’s doors adorn the same room. Michelangelo’s Pietà finally has the space it deserves, as does Donatello’s Mary Magdalene.
MUSEO DEL CENACOLO
This way-off-the-beaten-path museum (the name translates as the Museum of the Last Supper) has a stunning fresco by Andrea del Sarto. Begun sometime around 1511 and finished in 1526–27, the fresco depicts the moment when Christ announced that one of his apostles would betray him. Andrea has rendered the scene in subtle yet still brilliant colors. Also on display are a couple of lesser-known works by Pontormo and copies of other 16th-century works. (Down the street is the church of San Salvi, founded by John Gualbert and begun in 1048. Though it suffered damage during the siege of 1529–30, the interior has a modest but lovely Madonna and Child by Lorenzo di Bicci as well as a 16th-century wood cross on the altar.) To get here, take Bus 6 from Piazza San Marco and get off at the Lungo L’Affrico stop—it’s the first stop after crossing the railroad tracks.
Englishman Herbert P. Horne (1864–1916), architect, art historian, and collector, spent much of his life in his 15th-century palazzo surrounded by carefully culled paintings, sculptures, and other decorative arts mostly from the 14th to 16th centuries. His home has since been turned into a museum, and the jewel of the collection is Giotto’s St. Stephen. The rest of the collection is decidedly B-list (he owned plenty of minor works by major artists such as Masaccio and Bernini), but it’s still worth a visit to see how a gentleman lived in the 19th century. Many of the furnishings, such as the 15th-century lettuccio (divan), are exemplary.
If you really enjoy walking in the footsteps of the great genius, you may want to complete the picture by visiting the Buonarroti family home. Michelangelo lived here from 1516 to 1525, and later gave it to his nephew, whose son, called Michelangelo il Giovane (Michelangelo the Younger) turned it into a gallery dedicated to his great-uncle. The artist’s descendants filled it with art treasures, some by Michelangelo himself. Two early marble works—the Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Centaurs—show the boy genius at work.
MUSEO SALVATORE FERRAGAMO
If there’s such a thing as a temple for footwear, this is it. The shoes in this dramatically displayed collection were designed by Salvatore Ferragamo (1898–1960) beginning in the early 20th century. Born in southern Italy, the late master jump-started his career in Hollywood by creating shoes for the likes of Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino. He then returned to Florence and set up shop in the 13th-century Palazzo Spini Ferroni. The collection includes about 16,000 shoes, and those on exhibition are frequently rotated. Special exhibitions are also mounted here and are well worth visiting—past shows have been devoted to Audrey Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Marilyn Monroe.
Federico Stibbert (1838–1906), born in Florence to an Italian mother and an English father, liked to collect things. Over a lifetime of doing so, he amassed some 50,000 objects. This museum, which was also his home, displays many of them. He had a fascination with medieval armor and also collected costumes, particularly Uzbek costumes, which are exhibited in a room called the Moresque Hall. These are mingled with an extensive collection of swords, guns, and other devices whose sole function was to kill people. The paintings, most of which date from the 15th century, are largely second-rate. The house itself is an interesting amalgam of neo-Gothic, Renaissance, and English eccentric. To get here, take Bus No. 4 (across the street from the station at Santa Maria Novella) and get off at the stop marked “Fabbroni 4,” then follow signs to the museum.
The Strozzi family built this imposing palazzo in an attempt to outshine the nearby Palazzo Medici. Based on a model by Giuliano da Sangallo (circa 1452–1516) dating from around 1489 and executed between 1489 and 1504 under il Cronaca (1457–1508) and Benedetto da Maiaino (1442–97), it was inspired by Michelozzo’s earlier Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. The palazzo’s exterior is simple, severe, and massive: it’s a testament to the wealth of a patrician, 15th-century Florentine family. The interior courtyard, entered from the rear of the palazzo, is another matter altogether. It is here that the classical vocabulary—columns, capitals, pilasters, arches, and cornices—is given uninhibited and powerful expression. The palazzo frequently hosts blockbuster art shows.
MUSEO MARINO MARINI
A 21-foot-tall bronze horse and rider, one of the major works by artist Marini (1901–80), dominates the space of the main gallery here. The museum itself is an eruption of contemporary space in a deconsecrated 9th-century church, designed with a series of open stairways, walkways, and balconies that allow you to peer at Marini’s work from all angles. In addition to his Etruscanesque sculpture, the museum houses Marini’s paintings, drawings, and engravings.
The incredible Carthusian complex was largely funded in 1342 by the wealthy Florentine banker Niccolò Acciaiuoli, whose guilt at having amassed so much money must have been at least temporarily assuaged with the creation of such a structure to honor God. In the grand cloister are stunning (but faded) frescoes of Christ’s Passion by Pontormo. Though much of the paint is missing, their power is still unmistakable. Also of great interest are the monks’ cells; the monks could spend most of their lives tending their own private gardens without dealing with any other monks. To get here, you must either take Bus 37 and get off at the stop marked “Certosa” or have a car. Tours, which are mandatory, are given only in Italian, but even if you can’t understand what’s being said, you can still take in the sights.
This enormous palace is one of Florence’s largest architectural set pieces. The original palazzo, built for the Pitti family around 1460, comprised only the main entrance and the three windows on either side. In 1549 the property was sold to the Medici, and Bartolomeo Ammannati was called in to make substantial additions. Although he apparently operated on the principle that more is better, he succeeded only in producing proof that more is just that: more.
Today the palace houses several museums: The Museo degli Argenti displays a vast collection of Medici treasures, including exquisite antique vases belonging to Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Galleria del Costume showcases fashions from the past 300 years. The Galleria d’Arte Moderna holds a collection of 19th- and 20th-century paintings, mostly Tuscan. Most famous of the Pitti galleries is the Galleria Palatina, which contains a broad collection of paintings from the 15th to 17th centuries. The rooms of the Galleria Palatina remain much as the Lorena, the rulers who took over after the last Medici died in 1737, left them. Their floor-to-ceiling paintings are considered by some to be Italy’s most egregious exercise in conspicuous consumption, aesthetic overkill, and trumpery. Still, the collection possesses high points, including a number of portraits by Titian and an unparalleled collection of paintings by Raphael, notably the double portraits of Angelo Doni and his wife, the sullen Maddalena Strozzi. The price of admission to the Galleria Palatina also allows you to explore the former Appartamenti Reali, containing furnishings from a remodeling done in the 19th century.
Villa Gamberaia was the 15th-century country home of Matteo di Domenico Gamberelli, the father of Renaissance sculptors Bernardo, Antonio, and Matteo Rossellino. This excursion takes about 1½ hours.
To get here by car, head east on Via Aretina, an extension of Via Gioberti, which is picked up at Piazza Beccaria; follow the sign to the turnoff to the north to Villa Gamberaia, about 5 miles from the center. To go by bus, take Bus 10 to Settignano. From Settignano’s main Piazza Tommaseo, walk east on Via di San Romano; the second lane on the right is Via del Rossellino, which leads southeast to the entrance of Villa Gamberaia. The walk from the piazza takes about 10 minutes.
VILLA LA PETRAIA
The gardens of Villa La Petraia sit high above the Arno. The villa was built around a medieval tower and reconstructed after it was purchased by the Medici sometime after 1530.
Allow 60 minutes to explore the park and gardens, plus 30 minutes for the guided tour of the villa interior.
To get here by car, follow directions to Villa di Castello, but take the right off Via Reginaldo Giuliani, following the sign for Villa La Petraia. You can walk from Villa di Castello to Villa La Petraia in about 15 minutes; turn left beyond the gate of Villa di Castello and continue straight along Via di Castello and the imposing Villa Corsini; take Via della Petraia uphill to the entrance.
Francesco I de’ Medici commissioned the multitalented Bernardo Buontalenti in 1568 to build a villa and a grandiose park to accompany it. The park, particularly the colossal and whimsical sculpture of the Fontana dell’Appenino (Fountain of the Appenines), executed by Giambologna in 1579–89, is worth a visit. Besides providing a nice excursion from Florence, the villa is an excellent picnic spot.
To get here by car, head north from Florence on the SR65 toward Pratolino and follow signs to the villa. Or take Bus 25 from Piazza San Marco and get off at Pratolino.