The Bargello Museum contains the most comprehensive range of medieval
and Renaissance sculpture in Italy. Notable works include Michelangelo's
drunken Bacchus, Donatello's David, the designs submitted by Brunelleschi
for the Baptistry Doors Competition (Ghiberti won that one) and Giambologna's
Mercury. The Bargello's heavily fortified exterior is a reminder of the
building's former life as police headquarters and prison where many people
were tortured in medieval times.Adjacent to the Museum is the Mary Magdalene's
chapel which contains frescoes by Giotto's workshop.
You will probably already have spotted Brunelleschi's sloping, red-tiled
dome - predominant on Florence's skyline – from afar but when you
first come upon the Duomo (cathedral) from the crowded streets around
its square (Piazza del Duomo) you will doubtless be taken aback by the
ordered vivacity of its pink, white and green marble façade.
Brunelleschi won a public competition to design the enormous dome, the
first of its kind since antiquity. Although now severely cracked and under
restoration, it remains a remarkable achievement of design.
The great temple's full name is Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore and
it is the world's fourth-largest cathedral. It was begun in 1296 by Arnolfo
di Cambio and took almost 150 years to complete. It is 153m long and 38m
wide, except the transept, which extends 90m. The cathedral it replaced,
dedicated to Santa Reparata, fitted into an area extending less than halfway
down from the entrance to the transept.
Piazza della Signoria
A massive holding tank for tourists (if you want space, bring a bicycle
bell), the city's most splendid piazza was created virtually by accident
in the 13th century and - lined with replicas of famous sculptures and
historical buildings - has been the hub of Florentine political life ever
In times of political crises, the public would be summoned here for popular
votes, which usually decided the fates of conflicting families and frequently
descended into frenzied riots. Emotions would be stirred up by political
speeches delivered from an arringhiera (oration platform) in front of
Palazzo Vecchio, from where we get the word 'harangue'.
Nowadays it's predominantly tourists who make up the mob, sipping coffee
at overpriced restaurants, snapping away at the famous scenes, or posing
in front of Ammannati's Mannerist Fountain of Neptune, a waste of a perfectly
good block of marble, according to Michelangelo.
Cellini's Perseus, holding Medusa's severed head, served to warn Cosimo
I's enemies of what would happen should they cross the line, and is the
finest original work on the piazza.
Piazza San Lorenzo
This lovely area recalls Florence in its prime, when Cosimo de' Medici
was king and cultural creativity abounded. San Lorenzo Basilica was begun
by Brunelleschi in 1425 and is regarded as one of the city's purest Renaissance
The eastern façade is especially interesting, as it is sparsely
decorated and reveals the antique brickwork. It was the Medici family's
parish church, and many of the members of the family are buried here.
Donatello designed the bronze pulpits, and he is buried in one of the
chapels. Passing through the cloister, you reach the Laurenziana Library,
commissioned to house the family's huge collection of books and featuring
a sublime staircase by Michelangelo. The Medici Chapels are sumptuously
decorated with precious marble and semiprecious stones; the most powerful
Medicis were buried here. The New Sacristy was designed by Michelangelo
and contains his Night and Day, Dawn and Dusk sculptures.
One of the most visited sites on the southern bank of the Arno, this palace
was designed by Brunelleschi for the Pitti family, rivals of the Medicis.
It's a huge and imposing building, and a treasure house of the Medici
family's massive art collection including works by Raphael, Filippo Lippi,
Tintoretto, Veronese and Rubens, all hung in lavishly decorated rooms.
The restored apartments convey the extravagant lifestyles of the Medicis,
and the Savoys who later usurped their position. The palace also houses
a gallery of modern art and a costume collection. If you're a palazzo
addict, don't miss the Strozzi Palace, one of the city's most impressive
Renaissance palaces; and the Rucellai Palace, designed by Leon Battista
Alberti, and today housing a photographic museum.
Surrounding the rear of the Pitti Palace are some of Florence's most
precious and breathtaking parks: the Boboli Gardens. A perfect example
of formal Renaissance landscaping, the gardens include pools, fountains,
geometric borders, tree-lined vistas, a grotto and the star-shaped Forte
di Belvedere. If you've got the energy, it's worth heading down Via del
Belvedere to reach Piazzale Michelangelo, which offers one of the most
beautiful views over Florence.
If you experience a peculiar giddy feeling after visiting the Church of
Santa Croce, don't despair. It's probable that you've succumbed to Stendhal's
Disease, an illness diagnosed in about 12 visitors to Florence each year,
and dating from the French writer's own feelings of culture shock and
bedazzlement when he visited the church in the early 19th century. Geometrically
coloured marble decorates the building's façade (added in the 19th
century), but the real treats lie inside, where many famous Florentines
lie in peace. The walls are lined with tombs, and 276 tombstones pave
the floor. The church's most famous inhabitants are Michelangelo, Macchiavelli,
Galileo and Bardi. Its various chapels feature works of art by Giotto
and della Robbia, and the serene cloisters were designed by Brunelleschi.
Santa Croce's museum features a partially restored crucifix by Cimabue,
which was damaged by the 1966 floods. Other churches which shouldn't be
missed include the statue-filled Orsanmichele; Santa Trinità ,
featuring frescoes by Ghirlandaio; All Saints', with frescoes by Botticelli
and Ghirlandaio; Santa Maria Novella, which contains Masaccio's groundbreaking
Trinity, along with other significant artworks; the popular SS Annunziata;
Giambologna's remodelled San Marco; and the Church of the Holy Spirit,
one of Brunelleschi's last commissions, and featuring Filippino Lippi's
Madonna & Child.
Make a date to see Michelangelo's David at Accademia Gallery. It's extraordinary
to see in the flesh, along with the other masterpieces; Botticelli, Fra
Bartolommeo and Giambologna, to name a few.
Off the Beaten Track
Nestled in the hilly valleys between the Arno and Mugnone rivers, beautiful
Fiesole offers spectacular views of nearby Florence (8km to the south)
and is a welcome fresh-air retreat from the city bustle. The city readily
reveals its Etruscan, Roman and Renaissance past, and in summer it has
attracted the likes of Boccaccio, Proust, Gertrude Stein and Frank Lloyd
Wright. Fiesole has a duomo, an impressive art museum and an archaeological
site featuring an Etruscan temple and the remains of a Roman theatre and
baths. It is especially popular as a picnic spot, and its fascinating
winding streets offer atmospheric walks.
The Medicis built several opulent villas throughout the countryside around
Florence during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Villa della Petraia,
about 3.5km north of the city, is one of the finest. It was commissioned
by Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici in 1576, and features magnificent gardens.
The Villa Medicea di Castello, farther north, was the summer home of Lorenzo
the Magnificent, and the Villa di Poggio a Caiano was a more permanent
base, built for Lorenzo by di Sangallo about 15km from Florence.
The Mugello features some of the most original villages in Tuscany. The
Sieve River, which winds through the grape-filled valley, is popular with
canoeists. The Mugello is very popular with walkers, trekkers, climbers
and horse riders. Sights to look out for include the strategically positioned
Montesenario Convent and the wine town of Rufina, with its viticulture
Although relatively distant, Prato has been caught up in the urban and
industrial sprawl of the big city. Prato was founded by the Ligurians
but was taken over by the Etruscans and the Romans. In the 11th century
it was an important wool-production centre, and today it is still one
of Italy's major textile producers. The old, walled city is fortunately
an intact historic island in the industrial surrounds. It features palaces,
the impressive municipal art gallery and a magnificent cathedral, with
a façade by della Robbia and frescoes by Filippo Lippi, Uccello
and Daddi; the cathedral houses the Virgin's girdle, which in the painting
by Daddi looks similar to a hippie's handbag. The centre also features
an imperial castle, built during the 13th century.