Standing at Piazzale Michelangelo, a strategic vantage point on a hill, you can see Florence below, in a cluster of cobbled streets, crowded stone houses and protruding towers with terracotta roof-tiles. The large cathedral with its distinctive marble cladding dominates the skyline in the centro storico (historic centre).
A handful of bridges line up beautifully on the Arno River, and to the south, the city extends just a bit in the oltrarno (other side of the Arno) before giving way to wooded hills dotted with sprawling villas and their tumbling gardens. Florence, or Firenze, as the Italians call it, is tiny.
Despite its small size, in medieval times it withstood threats from greater city-states such as Milan and Rome, and wielded enormous power, besides being the cradle of the Renaissance in the 1400s. Not surprisingly, Florence was represented as the clever and brave David from the legend of David and Goliath, which explains the innumerable renditions of David by Michelangelo, Donatello, Verrocchio and other sculptors sprinkled all over Florence’s squares, museums, palaces and villas.
The story of Florence is compelling; the insignificant, sleepy city-state became a part of the pilgrim route in the middle ages. People that stopped over bought leather shoes and wool clothes, stimulating commerce. Over time, Florence’s merchants and bankers became immensely wealthy, and the likes of the Medici family became avid patrons of art and architecture, commissioning skilled artists and workmen. A great number of writers, painters, thinkers and artisans congregated in Florence, attracted by the opportunities and the meritocratic guild system. Dante Alighieri, Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Ghiberti, Giotto, and Michelangelo lived within a century of each other.
The Renaissance explored the concept of the “rebirth” of mankind, awarding greater importance to our time on earth and finding ways of elevating everyday existence. It also focused on re-gaining the lost knowledge of science, math, literature and arts once known to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The Stendhal Syndrome
Florence’s great concentration of architecture, art and sculpture can be seen in places such as its open piazzas (squares), its Duomo (cathedral) the Uffizi Gallery, the Pitti Palace, Bargello Museum and Santa Croce, a Franciscan church with stunning frescoes by Giotto. It was on the porch of Santa Croce in 1817 that the French author, Stendhal, was so dazzled and overcome by the riches of the art he’d seen, that he experienced physical palpitations and light headedness. His condition became known as the Stendhal Syndrome. The number of visitors that line up to see Florence’s cultural gems is staggering, and many choose to skip the museums and explore the medieval streets instead, taking in the views of the piazzas, towers and bridges. The pedestrian Ponte Vecchio (the old bridge) is particularly charming, with its rows of jewellery shops over-hanging the water. It leads to Oltrarno, a homey neighbourhood where locals go about their business amid antique shops, restaurants, convents and gelatarias.
Lucia Lazic, our guide pointed out some lesser-known facts. “Florence is where gelato was first invented, the first pianoforte too was built here. This was the first capitalist city, with the first science and arts academy. The first opera, Daphne, was performed at a private home here, and the Florentine florin was the first European gold coin.” A proud denizen, she often rides out into the green hills beyond on her scooter, and feels a thrill each time she catches a glimpse of her beautiful city. When asked if there was anything she didn’t like about Florence, she said with a laugh, “This place really is small, everyone knows each other, so having an affair can be very tricky, you’d be found out in two seconds!”