Footloose in Florence, the Birthplace of the Renaissance

Florence's rich, seemingly endless artistic and architectural treasures make this city one to visit again and again

Credit: John Thomson

Florence’s red-tiled skyline is part of its allure

Florence, Italy, has the greatest concentration of Renaissance art in the world. But trying to see it all at once can be overwhelming

Blame it on the Medicis. The Medicis were wealthy bankers who used patronage and inter-marriage to dominate Florentine political and artistic affairs throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. They may have been guilty of many sins, but skimping on the arts wasn’t one of them.

Patriarch Cosimo de Medici got the ball rolling by hiring artists and architects to design his buildings, but it was his grandson Lorenzo de Medici who topped it all off by engineering commissions to Michelangelo, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. Thanks to Medici largesse, Florence is the art capital of Italy.

Florence: One of the Most Beautiful Cities in the World

Ponte Vecchio in central Florence (Image: John Thomson)

Florence is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Its red-tiled skyline is dominated by a solitary cathedral, the Duomo, still the largest brick and mortar dome in the world.

The Ponte Vecchio, originally built by the Etruscans then re-built in the 14th century to cross the Arno, is arguably Florence’s most famous structure. Florence was a financial centre even in Roman times, and banking is still an important part of the local economy, but modern Florence is also known for its fashion and design industries attracting attention and capital to this part of Italy.

Florence also Houses one of the Most Important Art Museums in the World

Ah, but it’s those darn Medicis who continue to draw the tourists to the Tuscan capital. The Uffizi Gallery, which was originally built in 1581 to house Medici records and expanded to house the family’s art treasures, is one of the most important art museums in the world. Its 45 rooms are chronologically arranged according to the artist and the period.

One can trace the evolution of western art from Giotto, who painted religious icons in the 13th Century, through to Caravaggio, who pioneered the dramatic, even theatrical, use of light called chiaroscuro, through to Rembrandt who perfected portraiture. They’re all here – Ruben, Raphael, Titian and the others – the giants who influenced western art for centuries.

See Michelangelo Throughout Florence

Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti or fine arts academy is another must see. Another Medici commission, it houses several Michelangelo sculptures including his most famous work, David, which stands in a room all by itself. It used to be outside. Tourists who think they’re seeing the real thing in a public square, the Piazza della Signoria, the historical and spiritual centre of Florence, are looking at a replica. The original was moved from the Piazza to the Accademia in 1873.

Other Michelangelo pieces can also be found at a former prison and army barracks called the Bargello. His Bacchus and Brutus sculptures sit here alongside Donatello’s own version of David. Still crave Michelangelo? The Basilica of San Lorenzo, the Medici family parish, features Michelangelo sculptures above the Medici family crypts. 

Florence is more than painting and sculpture though. The decorative arts are featured too. The Museo dÁnthropologie has a huge collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman ceramics. Its Egyptian collection is one of the largest in the world. There is so much art in Florence it’s staggering.

Contemporary Culture in Florence

Florence is famous for its Old Masters, but let’s not forget contemporary art. The Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina is a brand new exhibition centre dedicated to showcasing established and emerging modern artists.

The city also hosts the Florence Biennale, an international juried art show that draws the brightest and the boldest to the city every two years. The next one is November 2013, off-season to be sure, but the crowds will be gone, accommodation will be cheaper and the weather will be a tolerable 12 degrees Celsius.

Plan Ahead to Avoid Disappointment and Fatigue

Weather is an issue in Florence. It can get hot and humid in the summer and battling the crowds only makes matters worse. Tickets to all the museums, and especially the Uffizi quickly sell out and travellers are advised to purchase tickets in advance, preferably online.

Guided tours of the major attractions are a good way to hit the highlights without dying of exhaustion. The Uffizi tour, for instance, lasts a breezy one and a half hours.

Bridges across the Arno River (Image: John Thomson)

It’s impossible to see everything Florence has to offer in one fell swoop but remember this is Florence, home to fine Italian cuisine. Take a break and enjoy traditional Tuscan fare such as wine-braised boar, deer or rabbit washed down with Chianti.

Florence is surrounded by vineyards, and Italian winemaking, as any sommelier will tell you, is an art in itself.