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FLORENCE (FIRENZE), EUROPE’S PREMIER ARTISTIC CAPITAL, IS CRAMMED with paintings, frescoes, and sculptures from the richest cultural flowering the world has known. Renaissance treasures fill a host of museums, churches, and galleries, while the roll call of famous names from the city’s past—Dante, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo among them—are some of the most resonant of the medieval age. The large number of galleries make this a predominantly indoor city, but the lively markets, pretty piazzas, and Italy’s most visited garden provide ample outdoor respite from the surfeit of art.
Florence was founded in 59 B.C., superseding an earlier Etruscan settlement (present-day Fiesole) in the hills above the modern city. The colony owed much of its prosperity to the Arno River, navigable to this point and crossed by the Via Cassia, one of the Romans’ strategic road links to the north. The city emerged from the Dark Ages as an independent city state and quickly prospered as a result of its banking and textile industries. During the 13th century, it enjoyed a sophisticated form of republican government, but in the 14th century fell prey to a powerful banking family—the Medici.
The Medici fortune was established by Giovanni de’ Medici (1360-1429) and consolidated by Cosimo de’ Medici, also known as Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464). Its fruits were enjoyed by Cosimo’s heir, Lorenzo de’ Medici, better known as Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492). The enlightened patronage of the Medici and others, together with an upsurge in classical and humanist scholarship, provided the spur for the Renaissance, a long-flowering artistic reawakening that found a fertile breeding ground in Florence, then Europe’s most dynamic, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated city.
Medici power faltered in the 1490s with Lorenzo’s death, leaving the way clear for Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), a charismatic monk eventually removed by the papacy in 1498. By 1512, the Medici were back, albeit with reduced power, only to be ousted again in 1527 by Emperor Charles V. Just two years later, the family had returned again, this time in the person of Cosimo I, who took control of Tuscany and assumed the title of grand duke. The last Medici died in 1737, after a succession of increasingly inept rulers, the city passing by treaty to Francesco of Lorraine, the future Emperor Francis I of Austria. The city remained under the Austrian yoke—bar 15 years of Napoleonic rule—until Italian unification in 1860. Since then, its most publicized event was the catastrophic flood of 1966 that killed several people and destroyed or damaged thousands of works of art. Today the city is as wealthy as ever, grown fat from tourism and its still-thriving textile industry.
Start your artistic odyssey with the two main squares: Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo, the latter home to the cathedral, Baptistery, and Campanile, making sure you climb the cathedral dome or Campanile for some fabulous views of Florence and its surroundings. From the squares, you can tackle three of the city’s main galleries: the Uffizi (paintings), Bargello (sculpture), and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (sculpture).
Next come two major churches, Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, and then the sights with one-off attractions: the Galleria dell’Accademia (Michelangelo’s “David”); the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi (a fresco cycle by Benozzo Gozzoli); the Museo di San Marco (paintings by Fra Angelico); and the Cappelle Medicee (sculptures by Michelangelo).
At some point, cross the river, preferably via the celebrated Ponte Vecchio, and explore the district known as the Oltrarno. Here you can discover the Palazzo Pitti, whose art gallery is second only to the Uffizi, and the Cappella Brancacci, filled with the city’s most important fresco cycle. You will also find the Giardino di Boboli, the city’s loveliest garden, as well as numerous artisans’ workshops, antique stores, and quieter, more traditional streets and squares. Finally, don’t miss the only sight beyond easy walking distance of the center—the superb church of San Miniato al Monte.