Florence is the capital city of the region of Tuscany, an important university town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is universally acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and home to some of its greatest art and architecture, to be found for example, in the Cathedral, the church of Santa Croce, the Uffizi and Pitti Palace Museums, and the Piazza della Signoria and Ponte Vecchio.
Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance, the extraordinary development in literature, art and scientific knowledge that took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. With its world-famous artists, thinkers, writers and scientists (among whom are Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Machiavelli and Galileo and many more) Florence benefited enormously both materially and spiritually from the Renaissance, and became the leading protagonist in this great new flowering of human culture.
The heart of Florence is the Piazza della Signoria, with its majestic Palazzo Vecchio, The Loggia dei Lanci with its masterpieces of sculpture, and the nearby Uffizi Gallery, one of the greatest art museums of the world. Not far away is Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral of Florence, with its magnificent dome, built by Filippo Brunelleschi. Next to the Cathedral stands Giotto’s Bell-tower, and the Baptistery of St John with its famous bronze doors, and the gold-plated ‘Door of Heaven’
The River Arno runs through the city; one of the bridges that cross it is the Ponte Vecchio, unique of its kind, with houses and jeweller’s shops built upon it. The bridge was the only one to survive the Second World War.
Besides the Uffizi, Florence boasts other museums that would take pride of place in any city of the world: the Accademia, the Bargello and the Pitti Palace, which contains eight separate museums, including the Galleria Palatina. Florence can also be said to be home to two of the best examples of human beauty: the Venus of Botticelli and the David of Michelangelo.
SOME PLACES TO VISIT IN FLORENCE
The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
Florence Cathedral is the fifth-largest church in Europe, after St Peter’s in Rome, St Paul’s in London, Seville Cathedral and the Duomo of Milan. It is in fact 153 metres long, while the dome, the largest ever built in brickwork, has a diameter of 90 metres.
The Baptistery of San Giovanni
The building is decorated magnificently both on its outside and in its interior, by various Florentine masters; the mosaics on the inside of the dome are justly famous, as is the Porta del Paradiso, called by Michelangelo the ‘Gates of Heaven’, sculpted by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Santa Maria Novella
The Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, on the square of the same name, contains priceless artworks such as the frescoes by Masaccio, Paolo Uccello, Filippino Lippi and Domenico Ghirlandaio. The upper part of the façade and the main entrance portal are masterpieces of artistic harmony, by Leon Battista Alberti.
The Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce is one of the greatest examples of Gothic architecture in Italy, and contains artistic masterpieces such as the Pazzi Chapel by Brunelleschi, where many of Italy’s most famous sons have their funerary monuments, including Donatello, Michelangelo, Leon Battista Alberti, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Galileo, Machiavelli, Luigi Cherubini, Gioacchino Rossini, Guglielmo Marconi, Ugo Foscolo, Enrico Fermi, and many others.
The Basilica of San Lorenzo was the church of the famous de Medici family throughout their history, and they embellished it with the masterworks of the most renowned of Florence’s architects, painters and sculptors, including Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and Donatello. The Capella dei Principi (the Chapel of the Princes) contains the tombs of almost all the members of the family.
The church of Santo Spirito stands across the Arno, and is the last work of Filippo Brunelleschi, completed after his death in 1446; it harmoniously combines open spaces with powerful architecture, all bathed in natural light. Among its artworks is a Crucifix by Michelangelo.
Palazzo Vecchio stands in Piazza della Signoria and is the Town Hall of Florence, after being the seat of the Italian Parliament in 1865 when the city was briefly the capital of Italy. The Palazzo served as the seat of Republican government until the reign of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, who made it his family palace. The museum houses among other treasures works by Donatello, Bronzino, Michelangelo and Giorgio Vasari.
Palazzo Medici-Riccardi is in Via Cavour, once known as Via Larga, and is the seat of the Provincial Council; it was the Medici’s main headquarters until the 1550’s. It is regarded as a masterpiece of Renaissance civil architecture, and its main attraction is the beautiful Cappella dei Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli, full of portraits of the Medici and other famous people of the time.
Palazzo Pitti was built in the 16th century and was also used as a government centre when Florence was the capital. It stands just outside the Boboli Gardens, and over the centuries it has been enlarged and enriched until today it is one of the most important cultural complexes in the city, containing eight important museums: the Galleria Palatina, the ceremonial Apartments, the Silver Museum, the Modern Art Gallery, the Gallery of Costumes, the Historical Coach Museum, the Museum of Porcelain and the Carriages Museum.
Palazzo Rucellai is in Via della Vigna Nuova, and is a masterpiece of 14th century Florentine architecture, designed by Leon Battista Alberti according to the principles set out in his De re aedificatoria.
Palazzo Strozzi stands in Via Tornabuoni and is an excellent example of Florentine Renaissance architecture, with its massive severe façade faced in rough-cut ashlar work.
Florence has a long history as a centre of fashion, one of the most vibrant in Italy. Apart from its craft shops, especially of leather goods (many to be found between Piazza Santa Croce and Borgo de’ Greci), high fashion is also very much in evidence – there are fashion houses of Gucci, Enrico Coveri, Roberto Cavalli, Salvatore Ferragamo, Ermanno Scervino, Patrizia Pepe, Emilio Pucci, Roy Rogers, Conte of Florence, and many others. The main boutiques can be found in the up-market shopping district of Via de’ Tornabuoni and Via della Vigna Nuova.
Florence has also a museum dedicated entirely to fashion, the Galleria del Costume, which traces the history of fashion throughout the ages with a collection of more than 6000 items, including historical clothing, accessories, theatre and movie costumes, plus many splendid examples of clothes by major Italian and international designers. There is also the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in the Palazzo Spini-Feroni in Via de’ Tornabuoni. Florence held the first runway show of Italian high fashion in Via dei Serragli in 1953, and every year hosts a series of fashion events that are among the most prestigious of the international scene – the Pitti Immagine. The events involve vernissage, galas, presentations, fashion shows and exclusive parties in venues all over the city.
The city of Milan is the economic and financial heart of Italy, and along with Turin and Genoa, formed the ‘industrial triangle’ that powered the economic boom of the mid-20th century. In cultural terms, Milan is Italy’s major publishing centre and has a worldwide reputation for music, thanks to La Scala Opera House. The city is also a main trade fair centre, famous for industrial design and especially for fashion.
SOME PLACES TO VISIT IN MILAN
The “Fashion district”
Milan is one of the four world capitals of fashion, along with London, Paris and New York. It hosts four fashion weeks a year with events and shows all over the city, coinciding with the four principal international runway shows. In Milan are to be found most of the major Italian fashion houses, such as Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Trussardi, Armani, Valentino, Prada, Krizia, Breil, Costume national, Missoni, Moschino, Fratelli Rossetti, Ferrè, Zegna, Luxottica, Etro, Moncler, Dsquared², Alviero Martini, Miu Miu, Marni, Panerai, Frankie Morello, Pomellato, and Buccellati, as well as the most important foreign houses, including Maison Martin Margiela, Viktor & Rolf, Abercrombie & Fitch, Church’s, Cartier, Yves Saint Laurent, Jean-Paul Gaultier, LesCopains, Givenchy, Christian Lacroix, Dior and Calvin Klein. Most of the stores can be found in the ‘fashion district’, on prestigious streets like Via Monte Napoleone, Via Della Spiga, Via Sant’Andrea, Via Borgospesso, Via Manzoni, Via Santo Spirito, Corso Venezia, Corso Matteotti, Via Bigli, Via Senato, and Via Bagutta. Other shopping locales include the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, described as ‘the oldest shopping centre in the world’, Corso Buenos Aires, one of the longest shopping streets in Europe, and also Piazza Duomo, Via Torino, Corso di Porta Ticinese, Via Vittorio Emanuele II, Piazza San Babila, Via Dante, Corso Vercelli and Corso Genova.
This church, the emblem of Milan, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, stands on the Piazza del Duomo in the city centre. It is the third largest Catholic church in the world, after St Peter’s in Rome and the cathedral of Seville in Spain.
This is Milan’s main opera house, and one of the most famous in the world. For over 238 years it has hosted most of the greatest opera singers and classical music performers and conductors.
The Vittorio Emanuele II Gallery
The Gallery is a covered pedestrian precinct running from Piazza del Duomo to Piazza della Scala, filled with elegant shops, bars and restaurants, which since its construction in 1876 has been the haunt of the Milanese bourgeoisie, and was nicknamed ‘the salon of Milan’. It is built in a neo-renaissance style, and is a splendid example of 19th century iron-frame architecture.
The Castello Sforzesco
The Sforza Castle encapsulates six centuries of Milanese history. It was built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza, who had just become the Duke of Milan, and in the following centuries became one of the great military fortresses of Europe. It was carefully restored to its original appearance in 1905, and is now a major tourist attraction and events centre
The Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio
The Church of St Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan, is one of the oldest in the city and is considered to be the second in importance after the cathedral. Its chief treasure is the ciborium, the altar canopy decorated in Byzantine ornamentation and supported by four Roman columns,
which protects the Altar of Gold, a masterpiece of Carolingian art, and the only surviving example of its kind.
The Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper is a famous wall painting by Leonardo dating from 1498, in the Renaissance ex-refectory of the convent next to Santa Maria delle Grazie. The painting was painstakingly restored over a period of twenty years from 1977. This was one of the major works of art restoration ever carried out, involving scientists, art critics and restorers from all over the world, and the original appearance of the work was brought to light after the many subsequent retouchings had been removed. The restorers found a hole, for example, from a nail in the head of Christ, from which Leonardo traced the perspective of the painting; the face of St John and the feet of the apostles under the table were also revealed. This famous painting has been the subject of many studies, as well as having a central part to play in Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’.
The Brera Art Gallery
Just inside the entrance to the Gallery stands the grandiose bronze statue of Napoleon dressed as the god Mars the ‘peacemaker’, welcoming visitors to the vast and magnificent artistic contents of the art gallery. Here are works by Raphael, Caravaggio, Mantegna, Bellini and Canaletto and many more, testifying to the unequalled artistic wealth of Milan and Italy in general.