Florence – Tuscany, Italy – The Top Ten Sights

“The god who created the hills around Florence was an artist. No! He was a jeweler, engraver, sculptor, bronze founder and painter: He was a Florentine. ”—Anatole France

Cradle and heart of the Renaissance, Florence is a proud, aristocratic city whose warren of cobbled streets and piazzas is lined with medieval towers, historic cafes, and fortress-like palazzi. Sensory overload is a real concern. Then there’s the other problem: What to do for an encore?

Bargello Museum—Housed in a Gothic palazzo built as an arsenal and fortress in 1255, the Bargello later served as an administrative hall and a jail before being transformed into a museum in 1965. Today it houses Florence’s greatest collection of Renaissance sculpture, with works by Michelangelo (among his earliest), Donatello, Cellini, Giambologna, and Luca and Giovanni della Robbia.

Highlights include Michelangelos Apollo, Bacchus (looking slightly tipsy), and Madonna-and-child Pilti Tondo and Donatello’s David and Saint George. The museum also includes collections of medieval weaponry, oriental rugs, ivory sculpture, 16th-century majolica porcelain, frescoes of the school of Giotto, and historic Renaissance medals.

Church of Santa Croce—Built by the Franciscans between 1294 and 1442 but with a 19th-century facade, cavernous Santa Croce is chockablock with 14th-century frescoes and the tombs of famous Florentines, including Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli, and Galileo, as well as a memorial to Dante, who died in exile in Ravenna.

In the right transept you’ll find Giotto’s frescoes in the Cappella Peruzzi and the Cappella Bardi, the latter famous as a setting in A Room with a View, and featuring The Death of Saint Francis and Trial by Fire Before the Sultan of Egypt, among Giotto’s best-known works.

In the left transept, you can see Donatello’s famous crucifix. Taddo Gaddi’s frescoes in the Cappella Baroncelli depict scenes from the life of the Virgin, while in the right transept, the Cappella Castellani, Gaddi’s son, Agnolo, designed the stained-glass windows in the high altar sanctuary, and painted the saints and the Legend of the True Cross cycle on its walls

Church of Santa Maria Novella— Built for the Dominican order in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, Santa Maria Novella is the only one among Florence’s major churches to boast an original facade, a multicolored marble design that seamlessly mixes Roman and Renaissance styles. Frescoes fill its interior, executed by Domenico Ghirlandaio (the church’s highlight, directly behind the main altar), Filippino Lippi, and Nardo di Cione.

Other attractions include the pulpit from which Galileo was denounced for saying the earth orbited the sun; Masaccio’s Trinita, the first painting created using perfect linear mathematical perspective; and two famous crosses—one by Giotto, hanging in the sacristy, and one by Brunelleschi in the Cappella Gondi (behind the main altar), carved as an example to Donatello after the latter unveiled his less traditional interpretation in the Church of Santa Croce.

Galleria dell’Accademia—Founded in 1784 as an artists’ academy, the Accademia has been the home since 1873 of Michelangelos famous David, sculpted between 1501 and 1504 and standing for almost four centuries as the centerpiece of the Piazza della Signoria. (A copy now stands in its place outdoors.)

In addition to this masterwork, carved from discarded marble when the artist was twenty-nine, the museum also houses Michelangelo’s Saint Matthew and the four unfinished Prisoners, their forms struggling to break free from the marble around them. No one knows if they are unfinished or intentionally left half emerging from the raw stone blocks. Pieces from the 14th through the 19th centuries fill the other galleries.

Il Duomo (the Cathedral of Santa Maria Dei Fiori)—Designed originally in 1296 by Arnolfo di Cambio, Florence’s Duomo was actually the work of several architects, who overcame enormous technical challenges to design what is probably the central achievement of Renaissance architecture.

Finally consecrated in 1436, the cathedral boasts Filippo Brunelleschi’s enormous octagonal dome (the largest in the world when it was built and now the very symbol of Florence), whose interior features an enormous Last Judgment fresco by Vasari and Federico Zuccari; stained-glass windows by Lorenzo Ghiberti; and Paolo Uccello’s huge clock in the entrance wall.

The cathedral’s red, white, and green marble facade was a late addition in the 19th century. To complete your trip, visit the piazza’s other two landmarks’, the baptistry, with its famous bronze Doors of Paradise by Ghiberti, and Giotto’s slender bell tower, with a view of Renaissance Florence from the top of its 414 steps.

Medici Chapels—Forming part of the monumental San Lorenzo complex (the Medicis’ parish church, worth seeing but largely ignored by tourists), the Cappelle Medicee were Michelangelo’s first architectural projects, begun in the 1520s and designed to hold the remains of Lorenzo the Magnificent and three other members of the ruling clan. The chapels are famous for the reclining, allegorical statues of female Dawn and male Dusk that adorn the tomb of Lorenzo II, Duke of Urbino (grandson of Lorenzo II Magnifico), and for the figures of male Day and female Night on the tomb of Giuliano, Duke of Memours.

Ironically, Michelangelo didn’t complete the two most important tombs—-those of Lorenzo II Magnifico and his brother, Giuliano, who lie in a plain tomb opposite the altar. Later (and lesser) tombs hold the remains of the Medici monarchs who ruled till the end of the line in 1737.

Museo San Marco—The most celebrated friar of this 13th-century monastery (expanded in the 15th century) was Fra Angelico, and today San Marco holds the largest collection of his work in Italy. His 1442 masterwork The Crucifixion is found here, as are a number of painted panels, altarpieces, and a series of frescoes that grace many of the plain cells where the monks lived and prayed. (Savonarola, the fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist who won and then lost favor with the Medicis, was prior of the monastery and resided in cell eleven.)

Of a half dozen beautiful Last Supper frescoes found in Florences various monasteries, the one in San Marco’s refectory, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, is one of the most important. Ghirlandaio taught a young Michelangelo the art of fresco painting, something that would serve him well decades later in the Sistine Chapel.

Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio—The civic center of Florence for more than 700 years, the Piazza della Signoria is now a popular outdoor sculpture gallery, drawing tourists to its cafes and round-the-clock street life. Some of the sculptures are originals—such as Giambologna’s bronze of Grand Duke Cosimo on horseback—while others (notably Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Marzocco and Judith Beheading Holofernes) are replicas, their originals now residing in Florence’s various museums, sheltered from the elements.

In front of Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Neptune fountain is a plaque marking the spot where Savonarola held his Bonfire of the Vanities in the 1490s, encouraging Florentines to burn their mirrors, books, games, wigs, paintings, and other symbols of decadent irreligion. The Florentines’ zeal for his brand of puritanism lasted only so long, and in 1498, after hanging Savonarola, they burned him on the very same spot.

Looming over one side of the piazza, the Gothic, Arnolfo di Cambio-designed Palazzo Vecchio was built between 1299 and 1302 to house the Signoria (ministry of the city government) and to this day serves as Florence’s town hall. Inside, the Sala dei Cinquecento was the assembly hall for the Florentine Republic’s 500-man congress. Against one wall is Michelangelo’s 1533-1534 statue Victory. On the second floor are the Quartiere degli Elementi, frescoed by Vasari; the apartments of Eleonora di Toledo, home of Duke Cosimo dei Medici and his Spanish wife for ten years, until they moved into the Palazzo Pitti across the river; and Donatello’s original Judith and Holofernes statue.

Palazzo Pitti and the Galleria Palatina—Built by wealthy Florentine merchant and banker Luca Pitti in the late 15th century, the Pitti Palace was bought by the Medicis in 1550 and substantially enlarged, becoming the official residence of the ruling dukes. Today it contains some of the most important Florentine museums, especially the Palatine Gallery whose twenty-six rooms display High Renaissance and later-era art, including Titian, Raphael, Rubens, Murillo, and Caravaggio.

It’s the most important museum in Florence after the Uffizi. Other museums include the Silver Museum, the Gallery of Modem Art, the Porcelain Museum, and the Costume Gallery. Most of the interior decoration seen today was created during the 17th century, including the Pietro da Cortona frescoes that adorn the Medicis’ main apartments. Bring a picnic for apre­viewing and head for the Medicis’ famous 16th-century Boboli Gardens, which climb the hill behind the palazzo.

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