Florence 2: the historic central city

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The historic city of Florence is centered on the Piazza della Repubblica. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)

In my first post about Florence, I described Santa Maria Novella and the area around it. Before proceeding to tell you about some of the other remarkable historic sites in Florence, I want to take a minute to talk about the city itself, or at least the part I am familiar with.

The city was founded in 59 B.C. as a settlement for former Roman soldiers in the fertile valley of the River Arno. It was mostly uninteresting until about the year 1000 A.D., and thence only marginally less so until about 1200. Sometime in the 13th century, the city (then an autonomous medieval commune) became embroiled by internal conflict between the Ghibellines, who supported the German empire, and the papist Guelphs. Like any good medieval story, the simmering conflict was brought to full flame with the murder of a nobleman after he reneged on his promise to marry a daughter from another prominent family. The Guelphs eventually came out on top but then split into two factions, the Black Guelphs and White Guelphs. After some back-and-forth, the former triumphed and evicted the latter from the city. Dante Alighieri was an important member of the White faction; his sentence of exile wasn’t rescinded until 2008.

In spite of the political conflict, Florence rose to become one of the most important cities in Europe during this time. The city was particularly noted for its currency, the gold Florin, which became the de facto currency of trade in western Europe. In this environment arose the Medici family.

(Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)
The Piazza del Limbo is thusly named because it was once a burial site for unbaptized children. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)

Born in 1389, Cosimo de’ Medici parlayed his father’s banking business into control of the Florentine political system (and a bigger banking business). He was also a liberal patron of the arts, commissioning major works from artists like Donatello and Lippi, and architects like Brunelleschi. Cosimo’s descendents, particularly his grandson Lorenzo, continued the trend of patronage while in power, as they built and decorated palaces befitting their station.

The Medici controlled Florence from the early 1400s until 1494, when King Charles VIII of France took control (by treaty) en route to claim the throne of Naples. Unimpressed with how Piero II had just signed over their city, the people of Florence exiled the family. The intermission was short-lived, however, and the Medici family was running Florence again by 1512.

That rule, too, would prove short-lived as the people of Florence drove the Medici out and proclaimed a republic in 1527. But powerful people have powerful friends and, with the help of the Spanish and a 10-month siege, the republic was defeated and Alessandro de’ Medici took charge in 1530. In 1537, the Medici were made hereditary dukes of Florence, and the title was expanded to Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. The family would maintain that position well into the 18th century, when their lineage and treasury ran dry.

That brief history lesson is the backdrop of the Florence seen by tourists today.

(Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)
Not the narrowest street in Florence. (Photo by Matthew Ginn © 2014)

Apart from our brief stay near the airport at the outset of our trip, like most tourists we didn’t really see anything of modern Florence. I imagine that it is fairly similar to other regional centers in Italy. The historic center of Florence, on the other hand—and this is probably true of Venice as well—is basically like Disneyland for art history buffs, with museums and galleries instead of rides.

Even in the shoulder season when we visited, I think it’s fair to say that tourists outnumber the locals downtown by at least 4:1. In the summer, it must be more like 20:1. Everyone is either a tourist, or there to serve them. And almost every building is either an historic attraction, a restaurant, a hotel, or a shop catering to tourists. Over a full square mile (2.5 sq. km) of tightly packed, narrow streets. It’s really hard to fathom.

It’s actually kind of fun walking around the narrow streets with buildings of three to five stories (limited primarily, I imagine, by the number of stairs an inhabitant might wish to climb regularly) built cheek-to-jowl right up to the edge of the sidewalk, itself sometimes less than two feet wide. You never know what you will find around the next corner. The only open spaces are the piazzas, some grand like the Piazza della Signoria, others (like the Piazza degli Antinori) little more than a vehicular aneurysm. Trattorias and ristorantes abound, as do souvenir shops and hotels, and don’t forget the jewellery shops (concentrated near the Ponte Vecchio) and high-end fashion houses (mostly around via Tornabuoni). Just about every block has a museum or gallery of some kind, and there are more churches than you can shake a stick at (who ever shook a stick at a church?).

The plan of the central city is more grid-like than you might expect (it was originally a Roman settlement, after all), with the Piazza della Repubblica at the center of a roughly 8 x 6 array of streets. That said, there are a lot of exceptions, and things get more arbitrary outside of that core. By the end of the trip I was feeling pretty comfortable walking around the town, but I was still checking the map in my pocket regularly. As for driving? Let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t.

Click the thumbnails below for additional photos from around Florence.

[You can find all of my stories and pictures from Florence here.]