There was plenty of domestic strife in medieval Florence but little interference from foreign invaders. The Florentines were therefore able to develop an economy based on silk and wool manufacture and a stable banking system. They flourished while Rome and the cities of Lombardy were tearing themselves apart. They resisted the tyranny of both Pope and Holy Roman Emperor and they enjoyed the nearest thing to a democracy that any city state had known since ancient times. An enlightened business class built itself airy palaces with inner courtyards instead of fortifying their dwellings, setting an example for the graceful urban plan of subsequent ages. Under its leader Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464), a banker and the father of a line of energetic administrators, Florence recovered the classical virtues and managed to reconcile Christian dogma with pagan wisdom and the natural sciences. Look down on Florence from the surrounding hills and you see, side by side, the two pivots of the citizen’s existence: the political centre of Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio; and the religious centre round the green-and-white-marbled Giotto tower and Baptistery and Brunelleschi’s pink-and-grey cathedral dome, the most beautiful in the world, spread like an immense umbrella to protect the spiritual values of the people, as the city walls protected their persons. (The walls of Florence were demolished when she briefly became capital of Italy, 1865-1871, but there are a couple of surviving gateways.)
Cosimo de’ Medici and his grandson Lorenzo (‘II Magnifico’) encouraged the phenomenon we call Renaissance Man: the intellectual all-rounder. Florence ushered in the Renaissance, an unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated upsurge of painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and intellectual enquiry. The Old Masters whom we revere today were considered surrealistic or downright pornographic during their working lives. Donatello got into trouble for restoring classical nudity to sculpture – see his David in the Bargello museum. The key to Botticelli’s symbolism is his ingenious dovetailing of pagan and Biblical themes – see his Annunciation, Primavera and Birth of Venus in the Uffizi gallery. In the earliest Florentine painters, those we call Gothic – Mabuse, Cimabue, Giotto, Duccio – there are hints of geometrical study. Paolo Uccello, whose amazing battle-piece The Rout of San Roman was kept in Lorenzo’s bedchamber and a section of which is also in the Uffizi, dabbled in perspective. Piero della Francesca, Masaccio and Leonardo da Vinci carried ‘scientific painting’ to the major art centres of Italy, Donatello and Verrocchio advanced sculptural techniques, and they all learned their trades in Florence.
It was not only art that this city, one-tenth the size of Rome, gave to the world. The financiers of Florence taught Europe banking and invented the florin, the first stable currency. Her physicians turned alchemy into chemistry and biology. (Artists like Leonardo and Michelangelo profited from their anatomical discoveries.) She was the metropolis of mathematics and astronomy: Amerigo Vespucci, who gave his name to continents, was Florentine; Columbus in 1492 carried a chart drawn up by a Florentine which would have told him, had he examined it, that the Atlantic Ocean was only 2,500 miles wide. She was the cradle of Italian literature: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio. Centuries later, the language of Italy is basically the language of Florence.
By train: local, national and international trains terminate at Santa Maria Novella station, the city’s transport hub.
By air: Meridiana, Italy’s largest private airline, connects London Gatwick with Florence airport (Amerigo Vespucci). Most airlines fly into Pisa, 85 km away, linked by a fast shuttle train with the Air Terminal at Santa Maria Novella. An Alitalia Airport Train runs nonstop twice daily between Florence (SM Novella station) and Rome (L. da Vinci airport), connecting with principal international flights. For holders of Alitalia airline tickets only.
Florence is served by six bus companies, the main one being A.T.A.F. (www.ataf.net) with an information office at Piazza del Duomo 57. Most services terminate at the Duomo or Santa Maria Novella. No. 7 buses link Santa Maria Novella and Fiesole; No. 13 the Duomo, Santa Maria Novella and Piazzale Michelangelo south of the river. The tourist information office at Santa Maria Novella distributes free maps with route details. Information on a programme of morning and afternoon city bus tours is provided by local travel agents, who also accept bookings.
Neighbourhoods to avoid
Florence is a safe city compared with Rome or Naples, but do not relax all guard. Wherever tourists are found en masse, there too are pickpockets and bag-snatchers. Trouble is most likely to occur at the main railway station and Piazza Santa Maria Novella around it, and in dark churches.
Using this section
Either discover the city on foot by doing these walks, or parts of them, or absorb the information in an armchair.