Our Walking Tour of Florence, The Birthplace of the Renaissance
Who wouldn’t want to visit Florence to look upon some of the most famous sculptures in the world: Michelangelo’s sculpture David, Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Fountain of Neptune, and Donatello’s heraldic lions? The artistic and architectural heritage of Florence goes far beyond those sculptures and led to this city, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region, being called the birthplace of The Renaissance.
A sunny autumn day greeted us upon awakening at our vineyard retreat near Gaiole, so we made plans right away to drive to Florence.
About 1 1/2 hours later, Bob nudged our vehicle into the maze of one-lane alleys and traffic circles bristling with signs in the Old Quarter of Florence. Thanks to the GPS unit on our cellphone, a parking spot was located in no time, and moments later, we found ourselves looking out over Piazza di Santa Maria Novella.
Basilica of Santa Maria Novella was the first great basilica to be constructed in Florence, with construction beginning in 1246 on the site of a previous 9th-century oratory that shared a similar name. The word “Novella” was incorporated into the updated name because it means “new”.
The lower part of the façade constructed in the Romanesque style is attributed to a Dominican Friar, Iacopo Talenti,
and he also oversaw the building of the Romanesque-Gothic bell tower that signified completion of the work on the Basilica in 1360.
It was not until 100 years later that architect Leon Battista Alberti was charged with completing the Basilica’s façade, and his resulting masterpiece fashioned in black-and-white marble is now looked upon as one of the most important examples of early Renaissance architecture in the whole of Italy.
I was smitten with the intricate designs in pink, green and white marble and marveled at Alberti’s ability to harmonize the medieval elements of the Basilica with his more modern designs. The façade of Basilica of Santa Maria Novella is the oldest among all the churches in Florence, and the Basilica is the only church to retain its original façade.
It was a pleasant walk to Piazza del Duomo though the narrow streets were clogged with enthusiastic tourists. And then we got our first glimpse of the Florence Cathedral. We were flabbergasted! Going by several names, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower) and Il Duomo di Firenze, the magnificent cathedral rose to such heights and was so exquisitely decorated that we just gazed at it in awe.
As part of the Historic Centre of Florence, Il Duomo is one of the magnificent structures that led to UNESCO declaring the Old Quarter a world heritage site in 1982, and with good reason. The dome of Il Duomo, even after 600 years, is still the largest dome in the world constructed out of brick and mortar.
For their work on the complex of buildings that includes the Florence Cathedral, the painters and architects, designers and engineers, Giotto, Brunelleschi and Alberti, are considered the founding fathers of Italian Renaissance architecture.
There is so much history associated with Il Duomo that we couldn’t possibly come to grips with all of it when visiting Florence. If you are interested in more details in that regard, we have composed a separate blog post about the Florence Cathedral.
Bob and I continued our walking tour which brought us next to Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall that began life as an ancient medieval fortress. It overlooks Piazza della Signoria.
Also known as the Palazzo della Signoria, this castle stronghold is the seat of civil power in Florence and once housed the Signoria of the Florentine Republic who governed in the 14th century.
It seemed to me that Palazzo Vecchio had the best view in town. It stands guard over a most impressive collection of incredible statues that are strategically situated in Piazza della Signoria. The first one capturing my interest was that of Michelangelo’s David.
It flanks the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio with another equally amazing sculpture, that of Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus.
We hardly knew where to look first when there was so much exquisite art to be appreciated. Surrounding us in every direction were masterpieces such as this Fountain of Neptune and
Perseus with the Head of Medusa.
It is hard to imagine that such fine detail and likeness of the human form can be accomplished when working with a material as hard as marble.
Back as far as the 1300s, it was thought necessary to protect a lot of the art treasures under a roofed structure, so the Loggia della Signoria was built. This open-air gallery served to showcase ancient works to the general public and acted as a place for ceremonies.
The graceful arches of Loggia della Signoria are an architectural style sharp in contrast to…
the severe crenellations that top Palazzo Vecchio.
Of particular interest to both Bob and me was the famed medieval stone bridge known as Ponte Vecchio.
This arched bridge spans the River Arno at its narrowest point where the original Roman bridge first stood in 996. Despite being severely damaged from raging floodwaters on several occasions, it is the fact that Hitler ordered the bridge left untouched when retreating near the end of WWII that aided in the structure surviving the ravages of time.
Our walking tour through Florence brought us next to another famed church, Basilica of Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan church in the world. Built outside the city walls for the Franciscan order in 1294, the land upon which it stands was once marshland that left the church vulnerable to flooding. Severe damage was inflicted in 1966 when River Arno overwhelmed its banks.
This wonderful baroque church is magnificently adorned with pastel shades of marble fashioned into neo-Gothic designs.
The original bell tower was struck by lightning and replaced by a new one in 1842.
The real claim to fame for Basilica de Santa Croce are the tombs housed within of some of Italy’s most illustrious dead. In fact, it has been nicknamed the Temple of Italian Greats because it is the final resting place of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini, and Fermi.
As we continued to ply the streets of Florence’s Old Quarter, Bob and I just had to sample the world-renowned gelato. Almost every shop selling this icecream treat professes to have won some award for excellence. With showcases brimming with lofty mounds of gelato, the hardest decision was knowing what flavour to try.
After one last pass by Il Duomo, Bob and I crossed the River Arno, located Piazza Michelangelo and enjoyed panoramic views of Florence.
In Bob’s and my opinion, the view of Florence from across the River Arno is the best to be had in that medieval city. From Piazza Michelangelo, we could see how the sweeping sea of tiled rooftops culminates in the city’s most iconic landmark, The Dome of the Florence Cathedral, Il Duomo.
Standing on the elevated lookout also allowed us to appreciate the location of this one time garrison settlement there on the banks of the river. Nestled in a basin formed by several hills and facing River Arno, Florence soon became the cultural, economic, political and artistic centres of the Italian Peninsula.
We had to wait awhile, but eventually the metal grey clouds parted giving way to a few brief moments of sunlight. It certainly was a special moment for us seeing the whole bottom of the valley bathed in sunshine.
When it came time to leave Florence, Bob and I relied on the GPS to guide us back to the highway. We could not believe the cramped lane that passed for a road. At the corner we met an oncoming vehicle, and there was no room for it to pass by.
As the sun slowly sank behind the Tuscan hills, we basked in the last of its warm rays and reflected on all that we had seen and learned in the marvelous city of Florence.