Florence Duomo (Cathedral), Santa Maria del Fiore
Florence Duomo (Cathedral), Santa Maria del Fiore

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Florence in a Nutshell: All You Need to Know

Florence is the capital of Tuscany, the Renaissance, art.

Due to its cultural and historical importance, Florence was also for a brief time the capital of Italy in 1865, between Turin and Rome. Turin became the first capital of the newly-unified Italian state in 1861, and then eventually in 1871 Rome, after a war with the Vatican State which was then much larger than now, was taken, so to speak, from the hands of the Pope to become Italy’s capital and remain it to this day.

Between the mid-1100s and the mid-1200s Florence experienced a population explosion. The number of its inhabitants increased five times to become 50,000, as many people from the surrounding countryside established themselves in the city. Among those folks were the first of a then obscure, little-known family: the Medicis.

During that early period Florence became bigger than Rome and London, although still smaller than the great Medieval cities of Milan, Naples and Paris.

Provided you believe in the Medieval methods of census-taking, that is: in Florence, for example, births were registered by the family’s dropping a bean into the local census box. White for a girl, black for a boy. Despite this, the population figures were pretty reliable.

Florence is not a big city. It has around half a million resident population (without counting the flocks of tourists, obviously).
It’s simple to visit its historical centre, which is all contained in a relatively small area, easy to walk around.

The main railway station, Santa Maria Novella, is also in walking distance from the main sites and the heart of the city. The first thing to see coming from the station is the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria Novella (pictured right), one of the city’s major churches and Florence’s main Dominican church, which stands in the square by the same name just around the corner from the rail station.

Florence - The Arno River viewed from Hotel Bretagna
Florence – The Arno River viewed from Hotel Bretagna

The Arno river divides Florence in two parts. It separates the district called ‘Oltrarno’ (literally ‘beyond the Arno’), a traditionally poorer, working-class area, from the main, posher city. But that’s not entirely true. ‘Beyond the river’ you’all also find many great treasures, including the Palazzo Pitti, the Boboli Gardens, the churches of Santo Spirito and Carmine, San Miniato, a church on the hills that you can see from the Lungarno (Arno embankment), and the magnificent Piazzale Michelangelo, dominating the city from above, from which you have the best view of Florence, the one most traditionally pictured in cards and portrayed in films.

Florence has two main centres around which the life of the city has historically revolved: Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo. The first is associated with the political power, the second with the religious one.

Piazza della Signoria (which in Italian means ‘Lordship Square’) is the square where Palazzo Vecchio stands, the building which has always been the seat of government of both the city and, when Florence was the Medicis’ capital, the state.

Having always been the symbol of political power in the city, even today Palazzo Vecchio is the town hall of Florence.

The palace is a great masterpiece of architecture and is adorned by many works of art. It has a splendid first courtyard, which is accessed from the main door on Piazza della Signoria, named Cortile di Michelozzo after the artist who designed it in 1453. In 1565, for the wedding of Francesco I de ‘Medici, son of Cosimo I, with Giovanna of Austria, sister of Emperor Maximilian II, the courtyard was embellished on a design by the great Giorgio Vasari.

Florence - Michelozzo's Courtyard, Cortile di Michelozzo, in Palazzo Vecchio
Florence – Michelozzo’s Courtyard in Palazzo Vecchio

The vaults all around the courtyard are enriched with grotesque decorations, and in its centre, replacing an ancient well, is a porphyry fountain designed by Vasari, resting on a wide octagonal base, with a porphyry column holding a marble basin. A bronze statue of Putto with a dolphin by Andrea del Verrocchio was placed on it, later moved on the second floor of the building and now replaced in the courtyard by a copy.

In the square itself, Piazza della Signoria, are many other feasts for the eyes, including the Loggia dei Lanzi, an astonishing lodge with priceless sculptures like Benvenuto Cellini’s masterpiece ‘Perseus with the head of Medusa’, Giambologna’s ‘Rape of the Sabines’ and ‘Hercules fighting the centaur Nessus’ and others, the Fontana del Nettuno fountain, and a copy of Michelangelo’s David standing on one side of Palazzo Vecchio (the original is in the Academy Gallery).

On the floor of Piazza della Signoria you can see the exact spot where the Dominican friar and preacher Girolamo Savonarola, for his misfortune caught in the power struggle between the Republic of Florence and the Kingdom of France, was hanged and burned on 23 May 1498, marked by a plaque.

From one side of Palazzo Vecchio the Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s major art galleries, starts, connected all the way through the Vasari Corridor, a unique passage-way, over 1 kilometre long, linking Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery to Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river, passing across the Arno over the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). The Vasari Corridor is today an art gallery.

Florence - Ponte Vecchio, Old Bridge
Florence – Ponte Vecchio, Old Bridge

Piazza del Duomo is the Cathedral Square. The cathedral church is called Santa Maria del Fiore, and has an enormous, magnificent octagonal dome designed by Brunelleschi (Cupola del Brunelleschi), the arduous and audacious architectural feat that can be seen from a long distance anywhere in Florence and nearby. Next to the main church is the bell tower designed by Giotto (Campanile di Giotto), and in front of it the Baptistry with its golden and bronze doors of spectacular beauty.

Santa Maria del Fiore Basilica is probably the fourth largest church in Christendom after Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London and Milan Cathedral. Its building, commissioned to architect Arnolfo di Cambio, the master of Italian Gothic who designed it, began in 1296 and was completed in 1436.

Florence skyline at sunset, with Palazzo Vecchio on the left and the Cathedral right: the closest we have to a dream city
Florence skyline at sunset, with Palazzo Vecchio on the left and the Cathedral right

Among the many other artistic and architectural gems of Florence is also worth seeing Basilica di San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence), one of the main and oldest churches in Florence, located in the square by the same name where is the busy street market Mercato di San Lorenzo, which extends snakelike to the surrounding streets and squares. The Basilica is the burial place of all the main members of the Medici family including Lorenzo il Magnifico (Lawrence the Magnificent) and Cosimo il Vecchio.

Because it is lying on a plain surrounded by hills, Florence is not suited for a large airport. Although it has an international airport, Peretola, it is small and the number of its airlines and destinations is limited. In 1990 Peretola Airport was called Amerigo Vespucci Airport, after the great Florentine explorer whose Christian name was chosen for the new continent of which he helped the discovery, America (from the Latin version of his name, Americus). The other airport in Tuscany, larger and with more traffic, is Pisa’s Galileo Galilei International Airport, which is directly connected to Firenze Santa Maria Novella rail station by frequent and regular trains.

Florence is the birthplace of an endless number of great men, including painters, sculptors, architects, statesmen, writers, poets, thinkers, too many to list here. I will just mention the author Vasco Pratolini, whose novels, set in early 20th century Florence, are probably the most suited to give a feeling of the life of the city among its common, working class people with their everyday dreams and feelings.

Every year on Easter Sunday, Florence celebrates the famous “Scoppio del Carro” (Explosion of the Cart), a historical ceremony whose origins go back to the First Crusade, involving a procession with figures in Medieval and Renaissance costumes, culminating in fireworks in Piazza del Duomo, the Cathedral Square.

Next year’s Explosion of the Cart will be on Sunday, March 27, 2016.

Another of the greatest Florentine traditional pageants is the Festa della Rificolona, Festival of the Paper Lanterns, takes place every year in the evening of September 7th, the eve of the Nativita’ di Maria, the birthday of the Virgin Mary, as part of the celebrations for that special day.

It has ancient origins, dating to the 1600s or before.

In Florence, the large basilica of Santissima Annunziata, in the square by the same name, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Many farmers and other people living in Florence’s surrounding countryside and on the further mountains of Casentino and Montagna Pistoiese came to the city to celebrate the 8th of September, Mary’s Nativity, in this basilica.

The devout pilgrimage which was the reason for these people from the provinces’ visit to Florence was also accompanied by their participation in the market fair held in the basilica square and its neighbourhood. In order to arrive to the religious services on time, and to ensure for themselves a good place from which to sell their textiles, fabrics, dry mushrooms the season’s vegetables and other produce, they left home very early, often before the break of dawn. During the night, they lit their path by lanterns of different shapes carried at the end of sticks, canes or rods.

With these multicoloured candles protected by a frame made of thin cloth, with these paper or canvas lanterns, open at the top to allow the candle or the tallow on the dish to burn, they arrived in Florence on the eve of the festivity, spending the night in the loggiati of the Santissima Annunziata basilica and of other buildings in the square where, at the tremulous light of the lanterns, they would sing praise to the Virgin Mary until late into the night.

Today, at 8pm on the 7th of September of every year, a procession, led by the Cardinal, of Florentines and others carry paper lanterns (“rificolone”) at the end of a stick as they walk through the streets of Florence, from Piazza Santa Felicita passing through Piazza Signoria, which is with Piazza Duomo the heart of the city, at 8.30pm, then Piazza San Giovanni at 9pm, and finally reach Piazza della Santissima Annunziata in front of the old children’s home Ospedale degli Innocenti around 9.30pm. Here the mayor will greet the city, the Cardinal will bless the crowd and, before dancing, folk singing and the fair begin in the square, the best crafted rificolona will be awarded a prize.

The entry to the festival is free.

The origin of the word “rificolona” goes back to when the country dwellers would make the pilgrimage to Florence in their best clothes, but, overdressed by city standards and rustically clothed, they were derided. Women were particularly targeted. Florentines have always been renowned for their sense of humour, witticisms and quips. Today Florentines call a woman tastelessly, showily dressed and excessively made-up a “rificolona”.