Florence Travel Guide


Bargello Museum
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 since.

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 churches.

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.

Pitti Palace
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.

Santa Croce
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.

Medici Villas
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.

Mugello Region
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 museum.

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.

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