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Like Rome, but on a slightly smaller scale, Florence is a true epicenter of art and architecture (often combined). Artists, sculptors, metalworkers and architects have left an indelible mark on Florentine buildings, which are known worldwide. Famous artists who lived and worked in Florence include Michelangelo (statue of David) and Botticelli (Spring, the birth of Venus), among many others.
Florence flowered particularly in the Renaissance – creating much of the aesthetic of Renaissance architecture – because of its position as a center of trade and influence. Florentine merchants, of whom the Medicis are a great example, consolidated their power and influence in part through creating an architectural legacy of great buildings where they worked and lived – often in partnership with the Roman Catholic Church, which exerted a significant influence as well.
If you see nothing else in Florence, the most significant set of buildings, located next to one another, are the Duomo, Florence’s cathedral, its baptistery and bell tower (campanile). All are part of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (St. Mary of the Flowers).
Construction of the massive octagonal dome (Duomo) signified the beginning of early Renaissance architecture, blending the old with the new. Although the dome was begun by someone else, Filippo Brunelleschi is famous as its architect – he’s even buried there, in a crypt – with significant contributions by Donatello, the sculptor. Work was begun at the end of the 13th century and not finished until the 15th. The cathedral is one of Italy’s largest churches, and the fourth largest in Europe. It’s also the largest brick dome ever constructed, taking almost 200 years to build. It’s possible to climb to the top of it, from the interior, and see a marvelous view of the city from its summit.
The stonework on all three buildings of colored marble (in tones of green, white, and pink) comes from quarries all over Italy. The Gothic interior of the cathedral includes 44 stained-glass windows. The doors of the Baptistery feature “The Gates of Paradise,” a massive biblical work by Lorenzo Ghiberti, a famous metalworker and sculptor.
The Ponte Vecchio or “The Old Bridge,” spans the River Arno, famed home of goldsmith shops, souvenir-sellers, and art dealers. History indicates that this bridge, at the narrowest part of the Arno River, was first built in Roman times, and was later destroyed by a flood before being rebuilt. It's the only bridge in Florence to have escaped destruction by German troops during their retreat in 1944. The bridge was severely damaged in the major Florentine flood of 1966, but has enjoyed a vibrant tourist trade both before and since. (White stone markers elsewhere in the city indicate how high flood waters rose.) It’s one of six bridges spanning the Arno but is one of the city’s most enduring images.
The Palazzo Vecchio, or “old palace,” is an imposing Romanesque brick structure that looks like a fortress with a tall clock/bell tower. Commissioned in 1299, it served as a governmental seat, until the Medicis moved their operations to the Pitti Palace. Today it houses several galleries and museums, and has a replica of Michelangelo’s famous statue of David in the Piazza della Signoria just outside (the original has moved across town to the Accademia Gallery).
The Pitti Palace was home to the ruling Medicis, grand dukes of Tuscany and also a king of Italy. It's located near the Ponte Vecchio on the South side of the Arno River and tradition says it was designed by Brunelleschi (known for constructing Florence’s famous Duomo).
The Uffizi a large, horseshoe-shaped museum made of limestone, originally built by one of the Medicis in the 1500s to house governmental offices (hence the name, Uffizi.) it's now one of the most famous and important art galleries in the world, housing such renaissance masterpieces as Botticilli's 'Birth of Venus'. From the Uffizi it's possible to walk along the 'Vasari Corridor', an elevated enclosed passageway connecting the Palazzo Vecchio with the Pitti Palace almost a kilometre away. The corridor was commissioned in 1564 by Cosimo I de' Medici, who felt vulnerable in public.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, one of the first Florentine basilicas, is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance design. Famous in history as where Galileo was denounced indirectly when the Copernican system (the earth revolves around the sun) was railed against from the pulpit here. Located in the piazza of the same name, directly across from the railway station.