Florence: Introduction

  • © dea, marcopolo.de

    © dea, marcopolo.de

Discover Florence!

Florence is a miniature metropolis and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Young and old, singles and couples, art lovers, gourmets, shopaholics and globetrotters – everyone loves Florence!

The city centre is largely pedestrianised. Almost all major sights are easily reached on foot, without the sound of car engines disturbing your stroll through the picturesque streets and alleyways. This may sound like a lot of walking, but it really is worth every effort to see the many varied delights of this city.

After Venice, Florence has to cope with the largest number of tourists per square metre of its centre. It is not difficult, though, to escape the stream of visitors. Be courageous and turn a corner into one of the side streets or tiny alleyways either side of the main thoroughfares. The city centre is small. And if you should ever get lost, you can ask any Florentine the way to the duomo, the cathedral. It is never far away – and, before you know it, you are back among the tourist masses once again! 

A work of art, centuries in the making

Florence has something for everyone, regardless of interests or tastes. Young people soak up the sun on the squares and gather round to listen to street musicians in the evening, stand around chatting outside the bars and trattorias, or party in the clubs. Gourmets throng to the restaurants and enoteche (wine bars) to make their informed selection of ham, cheese, wine and olive oil. Well-to-do Asians, Americans and Europeans gladly bear the burden of their purchases acquired on the elegant shopping streets. And, sooner or later, they all end up together in the queue to get into the Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzo Pitti or the Galleria dell’Accademia.

After all, Florence is all about art. The ensemble of churches and palaces, squares and alleyways, fountains and statues is a gigantic work of art, which has grown over centuries and is unequalled the world over. The finest sculptures, paintings and tapestries are on display in the churches and over 70 museums in the city. The palaces have been transformed by generations of residents into veritable treasure chambers, the majority surrounded by magnificent gardens. Many of them are open to the public. Every palace door, window ledge or roof gutter is a work of art in its own right. Let your gaze roam as you pass through the streets. You will discover much that is beautiful and interesting – things which don’t even get a mention in the travel guides! 

Seven million overnight stays per year

Florence’s situation is also without equal. The River Arno flows through the centre of the city, and the surrounding hills are dotted with spectacular villas encircled by cypress trees. In winter and spring you can see the snow-capped peaks of the Pratomagno and the Apennines to the east and north of the city. During the building boom of recent years, wise urban planners have seen to it that the centuries-old face of the city has not changed too much.

Today, only a small proportion of the 370,000 inhabitants of Florence actually live in the centre, as housing prices are among the highest in Italy. You are more likely to meet Florentines here on their way to work or – a rare enough occurrence – shopping in the expensive boutiques. The heart of the city is in the hand of the tourists; Florence has little industry and lives to a large extent from its foreign guests. Numbers of visitors have risen again in the last few years, since now the Chinese, Russians and Eastern Europeans have discovered the city as a holiday destination.

In 2010, almost seven million overnight stays were registered. On average, tourists stay in the city for three days – enough time to put together a varied programme including the most important sights yet still leaving room to soak up the city’s flair. Don’t rush things: plan to look at only one of the large museums and no more than two churches per day, to allow time for just strolling along and taking in your surroundings. And then look forward to the evenings, when you can savour the famous Tuscan cuisine and the region’s no less famous wines at one of the many trattorias and restaurants. 

What makes Florence so fascinating is, above all, its wealth of unique artistic and architectural treasures. There is scarcely another place in which so many world-famous artists have lived and worked. It is almost impossible to list all the painters, sculptors, architects, poets and philosophers who have helped to shape the face of the city down the centuries and thus contributed to its fame. The first artistic highpoint was during the 14th and 15th centuries, for example, when Dante wrote his Divine Comedy and Giotto, Orcagna and Masaccio painted their stunning frescos in the churches. Brunelleschi built the magnificent cathedral dome and Alberti formulated the theoretical principles of Renaissance art. Many others were to follow; the city flourished once again in the 16th century, thanks to the activities of Michelangelo, Raphael and Vasari.

Medieval heyday – even the banks are a Florentine invention

At the height of its fortunes, Florence influenced politics, trade and art in the whole of Europe. Even then, the city was able to look back on more than 2000 years of history. Archaeological discoveries prove that a settlement must have existed here as early as the Villanova era around 1000 BC. In 59 BC, the Romans founded a veterans’ colony in the Arno valley which they called Florentia. The forum was on the same spot as the Piazza della Repubblica today. The Romans were succeeded by the Lombards and the Carolingians, and in the year 845 AD, Lothar, grandson of Charlemagne, united the earldoms of Florence and Fiesole.

Back in 1115, Florence was to all intents and purposes already an autonomous community, and the foundations for its rise to glory had already been laid. The Baptistery and the San Miniato and Santissimi Apostoli churches were built and from the 13th century onwards, Florence developed into a major European trading centre. The city had become rich and powerful, not least thanks to its flourishing textile trade and the minting of the fiorino in 1252. This first gold coin was to become the principle means of payment in the whole of Europe.

The banking system as we know it today also has its roots in Florence. The banco, or money lenders’ table, gave rise to the term ‘bank’, and it was in Florence that the first bills of exchange and cheques were issued. Florentine bankers financed the activities of popes and kings. In the city itself, a veritable building boom ensued, as churches and palaces sprang up  everywhere. In 1296, following construction of the Bargello and the Palazzo Vecchio, the ruling council of this city-state of 100,000 inhabitants decided to build the mighty cathedral. 

At around this time, the rise began of the family which was destined to control the fate of the city for the next 300 years: the Medicis. Their wealth, and their appreciation and sponsorship of the arts determined to a considerable extent the development and appearance of the city. Florence owes the Medici many of its most important buildings, for example, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, residence of Cosimo il Vecchio (the Elder) with its wonderful Gozzoli Chapel. Similarly, the Basilica San Lorenzo, including the Cappella dei Principi, the family mausoleum which is entirely decorated in frescos and semi-precious stones.

The Galleria degli Uffizi, too, with its world-famous collection of paintings, and the Palazzo Pitti and the treasures it contains are the fruits of Medici patronage. Their spectacular villas in the immediate vicinity of the city are crowd-pullers to this day. And it was a woman, Anna Maria Luisa (1667–1743), the last of this powerful dynasty, who laid down in her will that, ‘of the things which are for the decoration of the city, for the benefit of the public or a source of curiosity for outsiders (!), none should ever be sold or removed from the confines of the Grand Duchy’. As if she had foreseen the attraction the city would exert and the significance of the collections as a source of revenue in the future. 

In 1737, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany fell to the house of Habsburg-Lorraine, which ruled the region, apart from a short Napoleonic intermezzo (1799–1815) until 1859. In 1861, Tuscany became part of a united Italy and between 1865 and 1871 Florence was the capital of the newly founded kingdom. This was the beginning of a second Renaissance for Florence. In order to underline the city’s new prominence, the buildings in the old market quarter and the ghetto, which had been in existence since the Middle Ages, were torn down to make way for the Piazza della Repubblica. The massive city wall was razed to the ground and the broad ring road constructed in its place – still one of the most important thoroughfares to this day. Bourgeois quarters were founded outside this former city boundary. The course of today’s Florence was charted. 

Modernity with a historical backdrop

For many years, the city lived exclusively from the prestige of its past. Increasingly, however, modernity is gaining a foothold. Many of the more recent exhibitions focus on the present or future. There is a sense of ‘blowing away the cobwebs’ and daring to be a little more experimental. Nowadays, anything goes – from avant-garde theatre to diverse performances – and is actively encouraged. The historic squares form the stunning backdrop to modern installations and street festivals. Considering the degree of artistic sensitivity the city has developed down the centuries, Florence is sure to keep on thrilling its visitors in the future. After all, Florence is a metropolis – albeit a small one – but one with class and flair. And it’s fun – for everyone!


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