The Renaissance was a period from the 14th to 17th Centuries that was characterized by advancements in learning, the arts and trade. It origins lie in a cultural movement that began in Italy, and within Italy this movement was said to have been born in the city of Firenze, or Florence. Founded in Roman times, during the Middle Ages it changed hands between barbaric overlords until it was secured by the Christian king Charlemagne in 774 AD. At the turn of the Second Millennium (1000 AD) Florence developed as a commune that engaged in trade and banking, and was the site of the earliest evolutions of art.
History for Florence is significantly tied to that of a family of bankers who rose to a position of dynastic power over the city-state: the House of Medici. The third Medici ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent, was a mighty patron of the arts who commissioned some of the most well-known masters of the times, among them Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli. It was around this general time that the ideas of the Renaissance began to take shape, where the superstition and ignorance of the Middle Ages gave way to the start of modern thought and understanding.
Today Florence is still widely known to learned travelers to Italy as one of its major centers for arts and architecture, with it numerous stately palazzos, solemn churches and chapels, and museums full to the brim of the essential artworks of the Renaissance, There is little wonder then for the whole city to be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tourists will also find modern-day Florence to be a formidable fashion mecca thanks to its internationally famous homegrown talent like Guccio Gucci. And food trippers will never regret a taste of the local cuisine and fine wines to be had.
Needless to say, the easiest touristy elements to be spotted in a visit to Florence are those that have something to do with the Renaissance. The city is also home to one of Italy’s twenty Academies of Fine Arts, and adjoining the academy campus is the separate yet similarly named Galleria dell’Accademia art museum, which houses perhaps Michelangelo’s ultimate masterpiece in the field of sculpture. Standing at 17 feet tall, it is an iconic image of a male nude youth with a sling and a stone: Michelangelo’s immortal statue of “David.” The Galleria has been its home since 1873, when it was moved from its original spot at the Piazza della Signoria where it stood since 1504.
The Museum of San Marco is the go-to place for the local religious artwork, which is just as well: the complex used to be a Dominican friary designed by the Renaissance architect Michelozzo. Inside are the works of priest-artist Fra Angelico and his contemporaries Fra Bartolomeo, Bernardino Poccetti and Giovanni Antonio Sogliani.
But the mother-lode of Renaissance art in Florence, most of which come from the massive collections of the Medici family, is housed in the larger Uffizi Gallery. The museum complex originally had been the offices of the Florentine magistrates (hence “Uffizi” or “offices”), that was repurposed to house the Medici-owned artworks after the last heir of the house, Anna Maria Luisa, donated them to the city. Again, Michelangelo has some of his work presented there, but also Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Giotto, Botticelli, Caravaggio. Notable non-Italian artworks include Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt.
Edifices to the Catholic Church include the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Florentine Duomo, which boats a magnificent dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and a campanille (bell tower) by Giotto. Just as magnificent is the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, which is an example of Gothic and Early Renaissance design. Among secular buildings the most impressive would be the Palazzo Vechio. Built as the seat of government for the Republic of Florence, it is still in active use today as the City Hall, with most of its interiors now reserved as a museum.
The city may not have always loved their Medici overlords, but the villas erected by the scions of the family have been preserved to this day. While the various villas are scattered all over Tuscany, there is one within Florence itself, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. It was designed as a visible reflection of the family’s immense wealth and power during their heyday and featured the requisite Renaissance art innovations like its “kneeling windows” by Michelangelo.
Lest we forget, Florence was also the birthplace and home of businessman and fashion designer Guccio Gucci, founder of the House of Gucci. The global brand’s primary headquarters remain in the city, and they have a fashion museum at the Palazzo de Mercanzia.
Florence, the Cradle of the Renaissance, remains a lively and vibrant place where ideas are born and art is made. Such is its symbolism that any person with some knowledge of the city, it history and its treasures, is stereotypically depicted in pop culture as being, well, cultured. You cannot blame pop culture for doing that, for it is indeed true of the city of Florence.
Photo courtesy of telegraph.co.uk