The History of Florence in 10 Buildings

One of the wonderful things about living in a city like Florence is the feeling that history is present everywhere – even in the buildings that you walk past, visit, or just see in the distance. This city is best known, of course, as the birthplace and glorious home of the Renaissance, but it has had a lot more history than that, written in the very stones of the buildings themselves. So, what do those stones say? Let’s see.

1. Fiesole

OK, this one isn’t actually a building, but a village. It occupies a saddle in the hills just above Florence, and it is the natural starting point for our history tour because it was here that it all began. Fiesole is the site of the original Etruscan and then Roman settlement of Faesulae. After Lucius Cornelius Sulla did the traditional Roman sacking thing in 80 BC, the town moved down to the plain by the River Arno, where it was renamed Florentia (‘flowering’). Today, Fiesole is a pleasant 15 minute bus trip from the centre of Florence and a charming day out to escape hot Florentine days and have a look at the fairly extensive remains of the Roman city.

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The well preserved Roman Theatre at Fiesole

2. The Piazza della Repubblica

Next stop on our tour is the very formal and grandiloquent Piazza della Repubblica. Dominated by an enormous arch and colonnade one one side, and surrounded on the others by trendy (and expensive) cafes where young upmarket Florentines go to see and be seen, this was the original Forum of the Roman city. Like most Roman cities, Florence was laid out like a military camp, a broad oblong within which the streets were laid out in a grid pattern. At the intersection of the principal north-south and east-west streets was the Forum, home to the law courts, government offices, and markets.

The Piazza’s function as a market continued after the end of the Roman Empire, and the old forum became the Mercato Vecchio, or ‘old market’. In 1865 Florence became the capital of the new kingdom of Italy. That prompted the wholesale destruction of the old Mercato and its surrounding area in favour of the present square, which celebrates the Risorgimento. Many fine buildings were lost in the process, so it wasn’t entirely a popular move. Some things never change, it seems.

Piazza Della Repubblica
Piazza Della Repubblica

3. Ponte Vecchio

Together with the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio is probably Florence’s most iconic sight. It is the oldest bridge in the city – hence the name, the ‘old bridge’ – and there has been a crossing here since Roman times. What is less well known is the fact that, throughout the middle ages and into the early modern period, crossing the Ponte Vecchio would have subjected you to something of an olfactory assault, for the bridge was lined on both sides by butchers’ shops. They weren’t all that hygienic in those days, and all the unused offal and carcasses were simple tossed into the river.

The old bridge itself has almost disappeared under the weight of the various accretions that have been added over the centuries. First came Giorgio Vasari’s famous Corridor, which was constructed in the 16th century at the behest of Grand Duke Cosimo 1st of Tuscany, so that he could go from the Pitti Palace into the city without having to mingle with the commoners, and  then in the 17th century the retrobotteghe, or back-shops, were added onto the side of the bridge, overhanging the river below.

The butchers, incidentally, were banished by the same Grand Duke Cosimo, and replaced by the goldsmiths who occupy the shops to this day.

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An unusually deserted Ponte Vecchio

4. Palazzo Vecchio

By now you have probably caught on to the fact that vecchio in Italian just means ‘old’. You might therefore deduce that the Palazzo Vecchio is the old palace, which indeed it is, having been renamed when the Medici became Grand Dukes of Tuscany and decided that they needed to have a much grander palace across the river, and so this became the ‘old’ palace.

But before that it was, for centuries, the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of government of the Florentine Republic, and the place where the governing council, the Signoria, met and deliberated.

In a world of kings and emperors, the republican form of government was something of an anomaly, and in Italy there were only two cities that managed to sustain a republican system for any length of time – Florence and Venice. By the 16th century, Venice had pretty much subsided into an institutionalised oligarchy; Florence, on the other hand, retained a fairly vigorous democratic spirit, and the Florentines were proud of their city’s self-governing independence.

Mind you, the actual mechanics of the republic were, to modern eyes, rather bizarre, involving various processes of selecting electors by means of a lottery, and then appointing officials for very short periods of time – usually only a few months – so as to limit the possibility that any of them might set themselves up as dictators.

And then the Medici came along.

Palazzo Vecchio
Palazzo Vecchio

5. Palazzo Medici-Ricciardi

This imposing palace was designed by Michelangelo Michelozzo, who was the business partner of the great sculptor Donatello. It was built for Cosimo de’ Medici, the patriarch who was one of the city’s greatest patrons of the arts and its wealthiest man.

Michelozzo’s design was simplicity itself – a square building around a central courtyard, a rusticated, fortress-like ground floor, with a further two graceful window-lined floors rising above, the whole overhung by a projecting roof to provide protection against sun and rain. It soon became the template for Florentine palazzi, and imitations can be seen all over the city (the most splendid example being the Palazzo Strozzi).

The Medici were originally wool traders and merchants who started a bit of a banking business; they hit paydirt when Cosimo’s father Giovanni, betting on the return of the papacy to Rome after a long period of schism, ended up becoming the papal bankers. This was a pretty good gig, because it allowed the bank to collect the tithes paid by all every church in Europe, on which they received a percentage in commission. Needless to say, they soon became very rich indeed.

Though Giovanni hadn’t been much interested in politics, he soon realised that in order to protect his wealth he needed to make sure he could control the Republic’s institutions, something he achieved (and his son perfected) by manipulating the various electoral processes so that his friends and supporters filled all the important offices. Thus the parade of the great Medici began – Cosimo, Piero ‘the Gouty’, Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’, and finally a second Piero, known for reasons that will become obvious, as ‘the Unlucky’.

Palazzo Medici
Palazzo Medici-Ricciardi

6. Monasterio di San Marco

Just up the street from the Medici palace is a big open piazza that today echoes to the roar of buses coming and going. On the far side of the square is the church and monastery of San Marco, and it was here that Fra Girolamo Savonarola took up residence in 1490. This strange firebrand preacher was to unleash forces that would eventually cause the fall of the Medici (which happened on the watch of the second Piero – hence the nickname), and lead to the infamous ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’, when Florentines, in the grip of religious fervour, were encouraged to burn their fripperies, including many valuable art works. Inside the fascinating monastery museum, you can still see the cells where the monks, including Savonarola, lived and prayed.

Savonarola was pretty much an out-of-control maniac, defying everyone from the pope down, and giving out wild prophecies that had all sorts of political impacts. Eventually his luck ran out and he was executed in the Piazza della Signoria in May 1498. But though he didn’t leave behind him the kingdom of God that he had been aiming for, he and his supporters, having tossed Piero de’ Medici out, did set up a new Republic that was to endure for nearly 15 years, and in whose service another Florentine great, Niccolò Machiavelli, was to labour tirelessly until his luck too ran out, and the Medici returned once more.

Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco

7. Palazzo Pitti

If there is a single building that speaks to the grandiose self-regard of the later Medici dynasty, it is the Palazzo Pitti. Begun in 1458 by Luca Pitti, a friend and supporter of Cosimo de’ Medici, it was steadily expanded by the Pitti family, who held it until 1549.

By this time, the Medici had returned to Florence, and having entrenched themselves as the leading family of the city, took the next step by getting themselves made into Dukes. The second Duke of Florence was called, inevitably, Cosimo, and since he needed a grander palace than the old Medici palace in the city, he decided to buy the Palazzo Pitti and make it his principal residence.

After more extensions, the addition of a dark and forbidding rear courtyard, and the establishment of the extensive gardens rising up the hill behind, the palazzo emerged as the vast and rather pompous complex we see today. Inside, it houses a series of excellent and fascinating museums, state rooms, and of course the beautiful Boboli gardens. It isn’t difficult to imagine the formal court of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany (as Cosimo and his successors eventually became), swanning around in this magnificence.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the Medici finally ran out of puff in 1737, when Tuscany was absorbed into the territory of Duke Stephen of Lorraine. That nice little arrangement was interrupted by Napoleon in 1801, but in 1815 the Lorrainers (by now married into the Habsburgs) were restored and stayed put until they were finally deposed in 1859.

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Pitti Palace from the Boboli Gardens

8. Piazza Massimo d’Azeglio

OK, again not a building but a piazza. It is a particularly elegant one, rather Parisian in feel, surrounded by elegant three and four story townhouses and palazzi. Like the Piazza della Repubblica, it is very much a product of the Risorgimento, the movement that led eventually to the unification of Italy.

In 1865, the capital of the new kingdom was moved from Turin to Florence, where it stayed until the pope finally surrendered control of Rome in 1871. The piazza d’Azeglio and the surrounding streets were developed to house the growing population of bourgeoisie who were required to run the national government, and the square itself became particularly popular with the foreign embassies who had to set up shop in Florence.

Piazza Azeglio
Lovely Piazza d’Azeglio

9. Stazione Santa Maria Novella

If you arrive in Florence by train, you arrive here. It is always incredibly busy with people hurrying off to jump on the commuter services that run out to the various towns of the Arno Valley, and tourists and business people jostling to get on and off the Freccia fast trains that connect Italy’s main centres.

In all this chaos, it’s hard to stop and take a look around the building itself. But it’s worth doing so, because this is a fabulous example of the kind of architecture characteristic of Italy’s Fascist period.

Mussolini, it is said (apocryphally), made the trains run on time. He also encouraged the development of a kind of brutalist architecture that was a real break from the fashionable neo-classical ‘liberty’ era buildings that dominated the first fifty or so years of the Italian Republic’s existence. Designed in 1932, following a competition to replace the city’s aged train terminus, it was controversial at the time, but was seen as a symbol of the new, modern Italy, and as such was a source of considerable pride.

Station Santa Maria Novella
Brutalist SMN Station

10. Santa Croce

Our last stop, the vast barn of a church that faces onto the equally vast open space of piazza Santa Croce, is also one of the oldest buildings in the city. St Francis himself is supposed to have founded the monastery that has stood on this site since the 13th century. The church was commenced in 1294, consecrated in 1442, and it is the burial place of many famous Florentines – a walk around the church is mostly an exercise in posthumous people-spotting. It is a serene place, and the adjoining cloisters and gardens are equally peaceful (most of the time – this is Florence, after all, and there are tourists…).

But it is a very modern event that makes this a fitting place to end our tour. In 1966, the River Arno indulged itself in a catastrophic flood. For various reasons, the extent of the flood was neither predicted nor planned for, and as a result a large part of the city was inundated, including Santa Croce. The flood killed over a hundred people, and destroyed millions of masterpieces of art and rare books. At its highest, the water reached an incredible 22 feet in this area.Nearly 600,000 tonnes of mud, rubble and sewage flowed through the city’s streets.

This was a terrible tragedy, but like so many events, it brought out the best of human nature, and the city still celebrates the angelo del fango, the ‘Mud Angels’ who came from all over Italy and the world to help with the critical tasks of cleaning up and rescuing damaged artworks.

Santa Croce Flood
Piazza Santa Croce – and this was after the floodwaters had receded!

So there it is, ten buildings that encapsulate the history of Florence. No doubt our friends who live here could come up with another ten, or more – for example, I haven’t included the Duomo, or the Bargello, or the Badia Fiorentina, all of which could easily have been substituted for one of my choices as representatives of their respective points in Florentine history. But there you go.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this little survey. There are a few more like this one the way.

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