Introducing Florence

Cradle of the Renaissance, birthplace of Gelato, home to the salty victory of unsalted bread, Florence is one of those cities synonymous with the very spirit of Italy herself. Surrounded by rolling green hills dotted with villas and vineyards entrenched with the trademark Italian experience, it is no surprise that the 19th-century French author Henri-Marie Beyle coined the term, “The Florence Syndrome”, to describe the condition of being overwhelmed by great beauty. Of course, Mr. Beyle was a tad bit prone to dramatics when he used the term to encompass feelings of heart beating, confusion, fainting, and even hallucinations. Heart-stopping or not, Florence is certainly guaranteed to be a showstopper of a destination, brim with history, boasting one of the best-preserved historical centers in Europe.

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Florence Skyline_©Zodebala-GettyImages

Early Origins

Florence was initially established as a Roman town in 59 BCE by Julius Caesar and quickly grew as an important center for commerce owing to its strategic location near the River Arno. Little remains of Florence’s Roman legacy; remnants of Florence’s Roman roots can be seen in traces of the defensive wall found in the historic center. Following the fall of the western Roman Empire, Florence eventually became a part of the Holy Roman Empire, and the city maintained close ties with the nearby Papal States which were controlled by the Pope from Rome. 

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City wall of Florence Italy_©studentsville

Romanesque and Gothic Period of Florence

In 1115, the city of Florence rebelled against the Margraviate of Tuscany and established itself as the republic of Florence and mainly democratic society that was one of the largest by medieval standards. The early Florentine republic was a wealthy mercantile ruled system, with many guilds representing craftsmen and trades which played a part in the city government. The competition for wealth and status between different noble families led to the patronage of artisans, like Dante Alighieri and Lorenzo Ghiberti, who would go on to fashion the image of Florence as we know it today. The early Florentine Republic was marked by Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

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San Miniato al Monte painted Rafters_©Kotomi-Flickr

The city’s most important Romanesque Basilica style church, San Miniato al Monte, is also from this period. Its defining features include its characteristic blue and white marble arranged in geometric patterns and the wooden roofing structure capping the central nave that is adorned with beautiful painted designs that are a testament to craftsmanship. 

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Palazzo Vecchio facade_©Sailko-Wikipedia Commons

The Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of the Medici rulers of Florence, is an excellent example of political prowess and its influence on architecture. The building itself is entirely made of bricks and features many elements of Gothic Revival architecture. The facade is also decorated with the crests of other Italian nations, such as Genoa, Naples, and the Papal States. The tower was built around 1310 and it was once the highest point in the entire city at one point all of Tuscany-establishing Florence’s economic power and significance in medieval Europe. 

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Basilica of Santa Croce_©Flickr

The Basilica of Santa Croce is an excellent example of Gothic-style architecture and went on to house 16 different chapels, boasting artwork from every period of the Renaissance movement.

Florentine Renaissance

After the black death, noble families emerged the least scathed and amassed power, the strongest of which became the Medici family which emerged as the political head of Florence and established a hereditary line of rulers spanning over centuries. The Medici were huge patrons of the arts, and they commissioned works by many famous artists which in turn spurred one of the biggest artistic movements in history – the Renaissance.

Many of the earliest examples of the Renaissance style were built by Florentine Artists starting in the 15th century. Early Renaissance artists like Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), Donatello (1386-1466), and Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) started to emerge. In 1487, the ancient texts of Vitruvius were among the first books printed and responsible for the revival of the classical style-architecture became more than a continuation of practical tradition handed on through mason’s lodges and gained dimensionality as a literary idea. The Renaissance-style emphasized symmetry, proportion, and geometry and was inspired by the orderly arrangement of columns, pilasters, lintels, and semicircular arches seen in Roman Buildings, which replaced the more complex proportional systems and irregular facades of medieval buildings. An excellent example of early Renaissance architecture in Florence is the Florence Cathedral dome constructed by Filippo Brunelleschi.

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Florence Cathedral_©Grueslayer-Wikipedia
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Interior Dome of Florence Cathedral_©Grueslayer-Wikipedia

He employed a gothic pointed arch cross-section instead of a semicircular one and reduced dead load by creating a double-shell structure similar to that of the pantheon, putting the dome at the highest point in the city’s historic center today. Today, Florence Cathedral is encircled by the Piazza del Duomo, one of the city’s most lively public spaces. The cathedral is so important and influential, that it was one of the first buildings to be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, along with the rest of the historic center of Florence. In the 1500s, the Renaissance reached its peak. Legendary artists such as Michelangelo (1475-1564), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), and Raphael (1483-1520) began getting commissions from Florence’s wealthy patrons. 

Florence’s Baroque Period and City Planning

The Medici’s financial services to several popes earned them the title of Grand Duke in 1569, establishing the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. This led to the birth of many Baroque architectural pieces commemorating this status, including the Cappella dei Principi (Medici Chapel), complete with dramatic Baroque style fresco paintings on the ceiling. 

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Capella Dei Principi_©Benjamin Janecke-Flickr
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Giuseppe Poggi’s Map Of Florence_©Giuseppe Poggi

From 1867-to 1871, Florence became the short-lived capital of the newly unified kingdom of Italy. During this time, Neoclassical architect Giuseppe Poggi, was charged with creating a city plan reflecting the new status of the city. The urban fabric was to be designed to accommodate a fast-growing population while maintaining an internationally recognizable image. Its key feature was a new boulevards ring that replaced the ancient walls of the Arno northern side. Boulevards on the southern side was along the hills romantically punctuated by the wide terrace, Piazzale Michelangelo, which was specially designed to offer the most stunning view of the Renaissance city with its jagged towers and unique skyline capped with Brunelleschi’s dome-inspiring both national pride of the newly established capital and international envy.

WW2 and Its Aftermath

In 1922 the National Fascist Party, led by Benito Mussolini, gained control of Italy. From there Italy entered WWII on the side of the Axis Powers, and Florence endured a German occupation in 1944 during the later stages of the war. At the end of World War II, most destruction caused by the German troops during their northwards retreat took place along the riversides in their attempt to prevent Americans from crossing Arno. All bridges were blown up by mines, except Ponte Vecchio, whose ends were blocked by the ruins of the surrounding medieval buildings. Gerhard Wolf canceled the destruction orders because he thought the Ponte Vecchio was “too beautiful to be destroyed. As an award for his efforts, the city of Florence posthumously granted him honorary citizenship.

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Ponte Vecchio_©Sean Shen-Getty Images

Florence Today

Modern Florence has spread outward from the historic center, and many new and contemporary buildings exist within the city limits. But thanks to strict zoning laws, most of the historic center remains void of buildings built after WWII. 

Florence continues to be an excellent example of living history and has not lost its architectural relevance with time. The nostalgic Florentine skyline with its gorgeous sunsets, enticing aromas peppered by the fashionable suburbs, and chic shops lining Via Tornabuoni, continue to make Florence relevant for all ages to come and a must-see architectural destination.

Tourists going to Piazzale Michelangelo for views of city_©Kino-Alyse-Getty-Images

References:

  1. 2022. [online] Available at: <https://travel.usnews.com/Florence_Italy/Pictures/#gallery> [Accessed 21 January 2022].
  2. Architecture of Cities. 2022. Architecture of Florence, Tuscany, Italy – Architecture of Cities. [online] Available at: <https://architectureofcities.com/florence> [Accessed 21 January 2022].
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2022. 9 Historic Buildings in Florence, Italy. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/list/9-historic-buildings-in-florence> [Accessed 21 January 2022].
  4. Passport Symphony. 2022. 35 Fun Facts About Florence You Probably Didn’t Know. [online] Available at: <https://passportsymphony.com/35-fun-facts-about-florence/> [Accessed 21 January 2022].
  5. The Telegraph. 2022. 48 hours in . . . Florence, an insider guide to the cradle of the Renaissance. [online] Available at: <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/italy/tuscany/florence/articles/florence-travel-guide/> [Accessed 21 January 2022].
  6. Visual-arts-cork.com. 2022. Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi: Italian Renaissance. [online] Available at: <http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/architecture/florence-cathedral.htm> [Accessed 21 January 2022].
Author

A self proclaimed literary geek, Aiman Shahid has a soft spot for all things archeological. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she is currently surviving her third year as a student of architecture at N.C.A. She hopes to make her fellow architects feel less at sea ,one article at a time.

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