Florence has so many attractions it is difficult to know where to start. To help you make the most of your time in the city we have carefully picked what we think are the very top 20 attractions and listed these below. Not all of these are the obvious prime sites such as the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio – we have also included some lesser known gems which we hope will give you a deeper flavour of the city.
In addition, we can also recommend an excellent Guided Tour company that provide high quality guided tours of Florence (and indeed all of Italy) - City Lights Tours. Full details of what they offer can be found on their official website and they are highly recommended.
Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral)
- Piazza del Duomo. Open 10am to 5pm Mon-Fri, Thurs closes at 3.30pm,10am to 4.45pm Sun. Free except access to the dome which is €6.00.
The Duomo; symbol of the city and one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 15th or any other century. Its presence dominates the city like some all seeing, benign deity. No matter how many times you glimpse it along one of the narrow streets leading from the Piazza del Duomo, or from the viewpoints above the city’s skyline, its subtle colour, elegant simplicity and sheer vastness never fail to shock.
The story of the creation of the Duomo is almost as remarkable as the building itself. It was begun a Pisan, Arnolfo di Cambio, in1296 and took 170 years and three subsequent architects to complete. One of these architects, Francesco Talenti, was responsible for the vast size of the project, a decision which presented an inspiring problem to those later architects tasked with spanning the 43 metre wide with a dome befitting of such a magnificent building. No architect had ever spanned such a distance before and the traditional technique of ‘centering’, which used timbers to hold stonework in place, was unsuitable due to limitations in the length and strength of the timbers. Numerous suggestions were put forward including some very ‘lateral thinking’ solutions such as using pumice stone instead of marble and even building up a mound of earth containing coins. The idea being that once the project was complete the earth would be moved by eager Florentines digging for buried treasures!
Eventually, and amid much relief, Filippo Brunelleschi stepped up with a winning solution based on the construction of two shells, one on top of the other in ever decreasing concentric rings so the structure would support itself during its slow construction. Seemingly, this was not as easy as it sounds. Ghiberti, Brunelleschi’s great rival at the time, was co-architect on the project until, as the story goes, Brunelleschi feigned illness so as to put Ghiberti in the hot seat (suspecting he did not have the technical know how to complete the project). Brunelleschi turned out to be right and Ghiberti, perplexed by the engineering challenge, went back to work on his Baptistery doors. Brunelleschi took solo lead for the project and happily took all the accolades for conquering the problem of the dome. The Cathedral was eventually consecrated in 1436 after the completion of the dome but not entirely finished until the addition of the lantern and its gilded ball in 1460.
Whether you choose to climb the dome or the adjacent campanile depends if you prefer a view of the dome or a view from the dome. The climb to the top of the dome is more eventful than that of the campanile and offers some insight into Brunelleschi’s method of construction.
The interior of the church is surprisingly austere and bare, particularly if you are fresh from seeing the mosaics in the Baptistery. The main attraction is the view of the dome from the inside, but there are also some interesting works of sculpture and painting. The frescoed areas of the dome (1572-79) are by Vasari and Zuccari but are only really impressive in terms of their scale. More interesting are della Robbia’s ‘Ascension’ (1450) above the door of the Sagrestia Vecchia, and Paolo Uccello’s curious equestrian monument to Sir John Hawskwood (1436).
The Uffizi - Piazza della Signoria/Piazza degli Uffizi. Open 8.15am to 6.50pm Tues – Sun (occasionally till 10pm in high summer). €6.50 entry, free to over 65s and under 18s.
The Galleria delgi Uffizi is without question one of the most important art collections in the world and any trip of Florence would not be complete without a visit the ‘the offices’. The begun in 1560 by Vasari, a painter and architect who is now most famous as the author of ‘The Lives of the Artists’, a colourful if not always factual account of the great renaissance artists of the 15th and early 16th centuries. Vasari also built the famous corridor which runs from the Uffizi, over the Ponte Vecchio, to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno river. The Uffizi was used as local government offices for a time before becoming a museum in 1581. Interestingly, it encompassed the old customs building where Florence’s world renowned currency ‘the florin’ was minted.
It is unlikely that you will have the stamina to scrutinize every one of the thousands of works on display so we have suggested some ‘must sees’ below. It is also a good idea to spend the majority of your time in the first half of the gallery as many of the major works are concentrated here. That said, if you have a love of ‘high renaissance’ painting and the likes of Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt and Goya, save some head space for the later rooms.
Room 2. Contains ‘the three Madonna’s’ from the late 13th – early 14th centuries; Madonna Rucellai by Duccio the Sienese painter; the Maesta di Santa Trinita by Cimabue; and Giotto’s Madonna d’Ognissanti. These works were painted at the time of the transition from the Byzantine style into an entirely new naturalistic style which paved the way for the great masters of the 15th century such as Massacio, Botticelli and eventually Raphael and Michelangelo.
Room 3. Simone Martini’s ‘Annunciation’ is the highlight here. Painted in 1333, this shows all the hallmarks of the Sienese style characterised by light, delicate figures so very different to the solidity of Giotto and Cimabue in the previous room.
Room 7. This room is dominated by the Paolo Uccello’s ‘The Battle of San Romano’ (c1456). In his experiments with foreshortening and perspective effects, Uccello created what looks today like an almost modern, abstract work. Lorenzo il Magnifico was impressed though, he hung this work in his bedroom.
Room 8. This room also contains the famous pairing of the ‘Duke and Duchess of Urbino’ (c1468) by Piero della Francesca. Threatening to upstage even the great Piero is the sublime ‘Madonna and child with angels’ (c1440s) by Filippo Lippi. Lippi became obsessed with the model for the painting, a convent girl called Lucrezia Buti. They eventually had a son, Filippino Lippi grew up to create some of the great masterpieces of the later half of the 15th century.
Rooms 10-14. There should perhaps be a warning sign above the entrance to these, now merged rooms, not because of the throngs of people but because the art on the walls is so moving you might feel a little feint. No amount of image reproduction of Botticelli’s masterpieces ‘La Primavera’ (c1485) and ‘Birth of Venus’ (c1480s) will prepare you for the real thing. These paintings symbolise the spirit renaissance in a similar way to Brunelleschi’s dome. Their exact meaning has been debated for centuries but they are known to be inspired by neo Platonist ideas. There are many other serene Botticelli’s on display in this room along with some fine works by Domenico Ghirlandaio, who many critics believe to be a better technical painter than the hugely more famous Botticelli.
Room 15. Known as the Leonardo da Vinci room although there are only a few of his early works represented. They come as a jolt of realism after the ethereality of the Botticelli’s.
Room 21. This room contains some impressive Venetian masterpieces including the ‘Allegory’ (1487) by Giovanni Bellini and three works by Giorgione. There is technicality to these paintings as seen in the depth and realism of the landscape elements which was not seen in Florentine painting at the time.
Room 25. This room contains the unmissable ‘Holy Family’ (1506/8) by Michelangelo. It has the inevitable sculptural qualities and movement which he would later perfect when painting the Sistine Chapel.
Room 26. A perhaps less familiar masterpiece by Andrea del Sarto is the highlight of this room, though a number of technically brilliant Raphael’s run him a close second. Del Sarto’s Madonna of the Harpies’ (1517) has explosive colour, brooding darkness and almost seems to capture life and death in the same image.
Room 28. Titian is well represented here but it is the oddly erotic ‘Venus of Urbino’ (c1538) that catches the eye. Are the two ladies in the background deliberately ignoring the artist and sitter to preserve their modesty?
Room 43. Keep some energy for some spectacular Caravaggio’s in room 43. His ‘Bacchus’ (date unknown) is enough to tempt anyone into a nice glass of red, which is all you deserve after what will now have been many hours viewing in one of the world’s greatest art collections.
Piazza della Signoria
Florence’s famous asymmetrical square is the perfect location in to sit and people watch. The piazza is so packed with sculpture it is effectively a free outdoor art gallery, all overlooked by the huge fortress like structure of the Palazzo Vecchio, the centre if Florentine political life since 14th century.
The Loggia dei Lanzi (1376-1382) on the south side is confusingly known by two other names; the Loggia della Signoria and the Loggia dell’Orcagna (after the artist Orcagna who may have sketched the original designs). Originally used in proclamation ceremonies for political officials this brilliant example of the Florentine Gothic style it is now purely a decorative feature on the Piazza. The arcade contains two of the most stunning sculptures in all of Florence; Cellini’s ‘Perseus’ (1545) and Giambologna’s ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ (1582), a masterpiece of Mannerism with its mesmerising tangle of human forms. It was intended as a study of manly strength, womanly beauty and old age and was only given its dramatic title much later. Nearby the Loggia is Giambologna’s equestrian statue of Cosimo I (1587-94) and the famous Neptune Fountain (1565-75) which was designed as a tribute to Cosimo’s talents as a naval commander.
Two fine pieces by Donatello (replicas with the originals are in the Bargello Museum); ‘Marzzoco’ (1418-20) and Judith and Holofernes (1456-60) are nearby as is a replica of the famous ‘David’ by Michelangelo (the original being in the Galleria dell’Accademia). Next to David stands Bandinelli’s ‘Hercules and Cacus’ (1534), again sculpted for Cosimo, this time as a kind of personal motif. This work is sometimes unfairly critizised (Cellini called it a “sackful of melons”) and although it is clearly no David, it still contributes a certain drama to this great square.
Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) - Free.
The Ponte Vecchio is truly a venerable old bridge which has seen more repair and rebuilding over the centuries than any other bridge in the city. It is possible that the Etruscans had a crossing here where the Arno reaches is narrowest point in the city. It was certainly a crossing in Roman times when, as a wooden construction, the consular Roman road the Via Cassia crossed at this point. Florentines started putting up buildings on the bridge in the 13th century and it soon became something of a shopping hub. By the late 16th century it was becoming chaotic and foetid due to a number of butchers and tanners which had set up shop. In 1593, Grand Duke Ferdinando I, fed up with the stench, decreed that only goldsmiths and jewellers could occupy the bridge (a tradition which continues to the present day).
Vasari added took his ‘corridor of power’ over the bridge in 1549 to enable Cosimo I de Medici to avoid mixing with mere citizens of the city when walking to work from the Palazzo Pitti to the Palazzo Vecchio. The overhead passageway (mostly closed to the public without special arrangement) is lined with over 700 paintings including works by Raphael, Bernini Rembrandt and Velazquez.
For the best view of the bridge, head to the next bridge downriver, the more humble Ponte Santa Trinita.
If you are in town for a long weekend or more then head up to Fiesole, the charming little town which sits 295m above the city some 8km to the north east. The views over Florence are spectacular but there is also enough on offer to occupy a full afternoon’s site seeing – with a little less of the stress of Florence itself. Of the town’s attractions, the Cathedral (open daily 7.30am to 12am and 3pm to 6pm), the Museo Bandini (open10am to 7pm summer; 10am to 5pm winter; closed Tuesdays) and the Teatro Romano are the most interesting.
For of 15th century art enthusiasts, the Cathedral contains some interesting frescos by Bicci di Lorenzo from the 1440s but perhaps the most enjoyable way to experience the Cathedral is with sipping a cold drink in one of the many bars and restaurants in Piazza Mino, Fiesole’s main square, admiring its impressive campanile.
The Museo Bandini is mostly worth a visit for its collection of della Robbia style glazed terracottas but also has some 13th and 14th century Tuscan paintings (it is interesting to compare these minor works with the masterpieces of Cimabue and Giotto in the Uffizi).
The Teatro Romano (entrance to which also includes the Museo Archeologico) is an impressive 3000 seater theatre dating from the first century BC which is still used for performances today.
If you have enjoyed pottering around Fiesole then you might like to buy a map and enjoy the walk to the small village of San Domenico on which you will pass by the Villa Medici, once the home of Cosimo il Vecchio and designed by the famous renaissance architect Michelozzo. Nearby is a real hidden gem; a 15th century church and convent where Fra Angelico lived and worked. The church is home to his fine ‘Madonna and angels’ (1420) and the nearby monastery has one of his frescoes.
Battistero San Giovanni (Baptistery) - Piazza San Giovanni. Open 12am to 7pm Mon-Sat, 8.30am-2pm Sun. €3.00 entry.
The Baptistery was completed around 1128 and is a pivotal building in the history of western architecture and art. Its use of green and white marble was subsequently copied in numerous other Florentine buildings, including San Miniato al Monte, Santa Maria Novella and of course the Cathedral. The harmony and proportions of the architecture also provided the inspiration for many other buildings across Europe.
The interior of the Baptistery is an elegant octagonal dome completely covered with dazzling mosaics by Cimabue, Jacopo da Torrita, Andrea del Riccio and Gaddo Gaddi dating from the late 13th and possible early 14th centuries. These artists created what is still one of the greatest mosaics cycles of western art, depicting a massive figure of Christ as judge of the world during the last judgement surrounded by the resurrected and the dammed. Many believe Dante’s vision of heaven, purgatory and hell was inspired by these vivid mosaics. The interior also has a tomb designed by Donatello for Antipope John XXIII. One of Donatello’s many masterworks, the wooden statue of Mary Magdalene, also used to stand here but is now in the Museo dell’Opera dell Duomo.
Arguably the most famous attractions adorning this diminutive but stunning building are on the outside. By the end of the 14th century, the development of new artistic techniques, aided by a new humanism resulting from the rediscovery of classical writings, was paving the way for the great sculptural, architectural and artistic achievements of the 15th century. Florence was booming and with the money came ever more ambitious commissions. One such commission began as a competition held by the Calimala guild of cloth importers in 1401 to find an artist worthy of designing the northern doors of the Baptistery. The Seven artists who entered the competition each had to produce a relief panel depicting the Sacrifice of Issac. The judges couldn’t separate two of the panels and two winners were eventually announced; Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. The commission eventually went to Ghiberti after Brunelleschi refused to work with another artist on the project, a decision that changed the history of architecture for it was Brunelleschi who went on to develop the laws of linear perspective and create some of the greatest landmarks in Florence including Florence Catherdral with its famous dome (the ‘Duomo’) and the churches of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito.
Ghiberti’s fate was a very different one. He spent most of the rest of his life working largely on east and north doors of the Baptistery (although it should be noted he also contributed his architectural talents to contribute to the design of the Cathedral). His achievement with the doors was unsurpassed and took relief sculpture to new heights in the same way Giotto had done for painting 80 years before. Ghiberti’s doors were also significant for the way in which they used a new mathematical technique to create the illusion of depth on a near flat surface. Who first calculated the mathematical formula for this new perspective technique is not known but it has been suggested that Ghiberti’s rival, Brunelleschi may discovered it during his work on depicting architectural space. Michelangelo was so impressed with Ghiberti’s achievement on the east doors he dubbed them the Gates of Paradise (Porta del Paradiso).
The south doors of the Baptistery show relief panels from the famous Pisan sculptor Andrea Pisano dating from the 1330s. It is worth spending some time comparing these two great artists; it would be unfair to say Ghiberti is ‘better’ than Pisano, but what is clear is that he moved sculpture towards a new classicism characterised by a sense of grace not seen in previous centuries. This grace would permeate throughout painting, sculpture and architecture in the coming century.
Santa Maria del Carmine e Cappella Brancacci (Church and Brancacci Chapel)
Piazza del Carmine. Open 10am to 5pm; 1pm to 5pm Sun; closed Tues. €4.00 entry.
Of all the great frescoes in Florence, one stands out above all the others. In 1424, a silk merchant, Felica Brancacci, commissioned Masolino (1383-1447) and his younger colleague (then just 22 years old) Masaccio to decorate the chapel. Masaccio ended up taking on the bulk of the work when, two years later, Masolino left to become a court painter in Hungary. Five years later, Masaccio (who’s name translates ‘sloppy Tom’) died at the age of 27 and the frescoes remained incomplete until in 1480, Filippino Lippi spent five years completing the cycle.
The importance of Masaccio in the history of art cannot be over exaggerated. In the few short years of his working life, Masaccio went further even than Giotto in laying the foundations but a revolution in art by creating some of the most realistic representations of the world ever seen. Who knows what he might have achieved had he have lived through the 15th century. His frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel are his finest achievement and went on to inspire generations of artists, including Michelangelo who regularly used to sketch in the chapel to learn from the master (he even got his nose broken on the steps of the Church ‘discussing’ them with a contemporary)
The recent history of the frescoes is worth recounting. In 1932, an art historian moved part of an 18th century altar only to uncover near pristine paintwork. Sadly, it wasn’t until the 1980s when work to restore the whole cycle to its original glory began. This involved painstaking cleaning, but also the delicate removal of strategically placed leaves which were painted over Adam and Eve’s body parts so spare the blushes of 19th century viewers. The restoration revealed such vibrant, vivid colours it split the critics, but, rest assured, these frescoes are unmissable.
The themes of the frescoes are as follows. Top row from left to right: expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, the tribute money (regarded as the greatest masterpieces of Masaccio), St Peter preaching, Peter baptising the neophytes, Peter and John healing the lame and raising Tabitha, the temptation of Adam and Eve. Bottom row: Peter visited by Paul in prison, Peter raising the son of Theophilus, Peter preaching, Peter and John healing the sick, Peter and John distributing alms, crucifixion of Peter, Peter and Paul before the proconsul and finally release of Peter from prison.
Galleria dell’Accademia (The Academy) - Via Ricasoli. Open 8.15am to 6.50pm Tues – Sun. €6.50 entry.
Although there is now a replica of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ (1501-4) in Piazza della Signoria, there is no substitute for experiencing the real thing. Michelangelo intended for the 5 metre high statue to be viewed from below so made the upper torso and head relatively large in proportion to the lower half. The confined space of the Accademia is perhaps therefore more ideal for viewing than the open spaces of the Piazza della Signoria from where it was moved in 1873 to protect it from the ravages of the weather (originally it was to be mounted high on the Duomo). The David had important political significance for Florence in the early 1500s, symbolising the strength, steadfastness and quiet power of the city and inspiring its citizens to rally behind the emerging constitution. Michelangelo himself realised he had created something really special (even by his standards) with the David and it rightly has a reputation of being one of the greatest works of art ever created.
The other works in the collection are somewhat eclipsed by the David but there are some very interesting pieces. Michelangelo’s four ‘Slaves’ (1519-36) are half finished and perhaps all the better for it. They appear as haunted, eerie figures, enslaved in their blocks of stone for all eternity. Also worth seeking out are the mannerist painter Pontormo’s ‘Venus and Cupid’ (1532) and Botticelli’s ‘Madonna of the sea’ (1470).
Campanile (Bell Tower) - Piazza del Duomo. Open 8.30am to 7.30pm daily. €6.00 entry.
Work on the Campanile was begun by Giotto in 1334 and continued by Andrea Pisano after Giotto’s death just three years later in 1337. It was eventually completed in 1387, though not exactly to Giotto’s original design. The lower stories contain bas reliefs by Pisano (to designs by Giotto) and Luca della Robbia showing the ‘creation and the fall of man’ (look out for a drunk Noah!) and ‘redemption through industry’. The sculptures on the second storey niches, including one by Donatello, are all replicas with the originals in the Museo dell’Opera dell Duomo.
The climb to the top is a steep 414 steps but at 82 metres high it provides unparalleled views of the Duomo.
Santa Trinita (Church) - Via de’ Tornabuoni. Open 8am to noon & 4pm to 6pm; 4pm to 6pm Sun. Free
Originally built in the 11th century this a favourite church of the Florentines themselves and makes for a quick and rewarding visit when shopping in the famous, but pricey Via de’ Tornabuoni. Though the exterior, designed by Buontalenti in 1593-4 is Baroque, the interior is austerely Gothic in style and contains many important renaissance works. Chief amongst these are the frescos by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1463-6) of the ‘Life of St Francis’ in the Cappella Sassetti. Ghirlandaio’s frescos are always entertaining as he often includes personalities of the day in his crowd scenes – in this case Lorenzo the Magnificent, the humanist Poliziano, Lorenzo’s sons, Sassetti (the banker who commissioned the work) and Ghirlandaio himself (he’s the one with hand on hip) are all present. Notice the scenes set in Piazza Santa Trinita (the church was then without its Baroque facade) and Piazza della Signoria. An altarpiece by Ghirlandaio, ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ (1485) is also on display, a fascinating blend of renaissance classicism - all triumphal arches and columns – within a traditional Christian setting. This painting sums up the paradox of late 15th century renaissance art which was at once humanist yet also deeply Christian.
There are many other notable works packed into this relatively small church which are explained on the interpretation boards inside the church. Be sure not to miss Luca della Robbia’s tomb of Benozzo Federighi, bishop of Fiesole (1454-7).
Santa Maria Novella (Church) - Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Open 9am to 5pm Mon-Thurs & Sat; Fri & Sun 1pm to 5pm). €2.50 entry.
Overlooking the once seedy but now rather spruced up Piazza of the same name, Santa Maria Novella is, even by Florentine standards, a pivotal place in the history of western art. The famous upper façade was added in 1456-70 by Leon Battista Alberti. It was commissioned by the Rucellai family whose family crest – the billowing sails of fortune – form the architrave half way up.
Inside well proportioned Gothic interior is packed with important renaissance treasures so do put some time aside for your visit. The works are interpreted inside the church but it is worth pointing out some particular highlights. Amongst the most important frescoes ever painted is Massacio’s remarkable ‘Trinity’ (1427) which pioneering use of perspective makes it appear as if is receding into the wall on which its painted. The Florentines had never seen anything quite like it, and flocked to see what must have seemed like a piece of magic in the early 15th century.
A crucifix (c1288-90), almost certainly by Giotto, hangs above the nave and demonstrates perfectly the singular vision of this greatest of all 13th century artists. Much more naturalistic and intense than works up to that date, like Massacio’s ‘Trinity’ this was another work which changed art forever.
The frescoes depicting the life of St Philip covering the Cappella di Filippo Strozzi are by Filippino Lippi. Much of their content was inspired by Filippino’s time in Rome; note the classical architecture so typical of the late 15th century.
The Chancel (Cappella Tornabuoni) contain a massive fresco cycle by Domenico Ghirlandaio. These are some of the most technically adept and historically most interesting frescoes in the city, ostensibly about the life of St John the Baptist but most fascinating for depicting life in 15th century Florence. Among the cast of characters are of course Ghirlandaio himself and many members of the Tornabouni family, present at the funeral of John the Baptist.
Orsanmichele - Via dell’Arte della Lana. Open 9am to noon, 4pm to 6pm daily). Free.
You could be mistaken in thinking this extremely well preserved 14th century church is a church at all, given its unusual square, tall proportions. Stepping inside can be a real respite from the throngs of tourists outside and you will be rewarded by the sight of Orcagna’s splendid Gothic tabernacle framing a brilliantly executed early ‘Madonna’ (1347) by Bernardo Daddi. The church is perhaps most famous for the sculptures in the niches on the outside, each commissioned by a different Florentine guilds in the city to show their patron saints. All the sculptures are now replica’s of the originals but that doesn’t detract from the effect.
Start on the Via Calzaiuoli side with Lorenzo Ghiberti’s ‘St John the Baptist’ (1414) which was the earliest large bronze statue of the renaissance. Moving clockwise, next comes the ‘Incredulity of St Tomas’ (1480) by one of Michelangelo’s teachers, the painter and sculptor Verrochio, followed by Giambologna’s ‘St Luke’ (1600). Moving round onto Via Orsanmichele is ‘St Peter’ (1408-13) attributed to Brunelleschi, then two works by Nanni di Banco from the early 15th century and finally the famous ‘St George’ (1416-7) by Donatello. Moving round to the main façade are two more Ghiberti’s; ‘St Stephen (1425-8) and ‘St Matthew’ (1419-22) proving that he didn’t just work day and night on the Baptistery doors. Finally on the Via de’Lamberti there are works by Nanni di Banco, Simone Talenti and Donatello’s ‘St Mark’ (1411-13).
Casa Buonarroti (Michelangelo’s House) Via Ghibellina 70. Open 9.30am to 2pm Mon, Wed-Sun. €6.50 entry. www.casabuonarroti.it
Michelangelo never actually lived in this house which he bought for his nephew Leonardo di Buonarroti. Leonardo’s son, Filippo, then made it into a memorial to the great man and to this day it remains a museum. It contains two interesting early sculpture by Michelangelo entitled ‘battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths and the ‘Madonna of the steps’ which he completed when he was just 16 and 17 years old. The genius of his later works can already been seen in the sense of space and balance of these works.
Other notable items in Casa Buonarotti include Michelangelo’s wooden Santo Spirito crucifix (1494) and an array of mementos from the artist’s life.
Badia Fiorentina (Church) - Via del Proconsolo (accessed from Via Dante Alighieri). Open Monday 3pm-6pm and for prayer at other times. Free.
This Benedictine abbey was founded in 978 by Willa, the mother of Ugo, Margrave of Tuscany. It was enlarged by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th century and then modified again in the 17th century by Segaloni. The church is famed for its “Madonna appearing to St Bernard” (1485) by Filippino Lippi which alone is worth visiting the church for. The peaceful 15th century cloister is known as the Chiostro degli Aranci because of its orange trees.
Casa di Dante (Dante’s House) - Via Santa Margherita. Open 10am to 6pm Mon, Wed and Sat, 10am to 2pm Sun in summer; 10am to 4pm Mon, Wed and Sat, 10am to 2pm Sun in winter. €2.60 entry.
Just as Michelangelo never lived in Casa Buonarotti, Dante, Florence’s famous poet, never lived in Casa di Dante. That said, for the relatively modest admission price, it is worth visiting this museum which dates from 1910 even if it is just to see Botticelli’s illustrations for the Divine Comedy.
There are also lots of different versions of the famous poem on display, including a bizarre poster containing the entire text of the (very long) book in the tiniest type imaginable.
San Lorenzo (Church) - Piazza San Lorenzo. Open 10am to 5pm Mon-Sat. €2.50 entry.
Reputedly founded by St Ambrose in 393, San Lorenzo is probably the site of Florence’s oldest Church. It is also one of the most important housing priceless treasures by some of the great names of the renaissance; Michelangelo, Donatello and Brunelleschi. The quality and quantity of works in San Lorenzo is largely due to the fact that this was the parish church of the Medici, who lavished their wealth on commissioning works from only the best artists of the day.
Brunelleschi helped reshape the church from 1419 onwards with his final designs being completed after his death by Antonio Manetti. Inside is a clear cut articulation of renaissance architecture with Corinthian columns supporting broad arches, all with Brunelleschi’s perfect sense of harmony and proportion. In the main nave you will see two bronze pulpits by Donatello (c1460), the final masterpieces by one of the greatest sculptors of all time. In the left arm of the transcript be sure to linger a while on Filippo Lippi’s ‘Annunciation’ (1440); one of his greatest works. Continuing onto the Sagrestia Vecchia (Old Sacristy) you will see further examples of Brunelleschi’s immaculate sense of balance and space in what was one of his very first completed architectural projects. The sacristy is enhanced by more works by Donatello which include the bronze doors and the medallions under the dome depicting the life of Christ. Not also the fine painting of ‘The Marriage of the Virgin’ (1523) by Rosso Fiorentino in the right ailse.
The Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (8.30am to 1.30pm Mon-Sat; free) was built onto the church from 1524 to a design by Michelangelo who was by then at the height of his powers. The vestibule if recognised as one of his greatest Mannerist masterpieces and was yet another defining moment in art history; going on to inspire rule breakers in later centuries. Its importance lies in the three dimensionality of the façade combined with novel reinterpretations of architectural features including receding columns; brackets supporting space; and a monumental staircase that is an epic sculpture in its own right. Michelangelo also designed the adjacent reading room, an altogether more tranquil space after the busy eccentricity of the vestibule.
There are a number of other important works by Michelangelo in the Cappelle Medicee (check for opening times as they vary) which are entered from the back of the church (Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini). The chapels are divided into three: the crypt, the Cappella dei Principi and the Sagrestia Nuova (New Sacristy). The octagonal design of Cappella dei Principi was inspired by the Baptistery but its effect is far less dazzling despite its great expense (the Medici were still paying for it in 1743). The Sagrestia Nuova is a different proposition containing as it does, not only some superbly articulated architecture by Michelangelo, but also three grand Medici tombs, two of which are by Michelangelo. On the left is Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino’s tomb and opposite, the tomb of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours (Lorenzo de’Medici’s youngest son). Both these characters died young having achieved very little in life and some have suggested that Michelangelo’s portrayal of Lorenzo’s in his bizarre hat was reference to his subject’s weak will. The other tomb by Michelangelo contains a fine sculpture of the Madonna and Child and was completed to his design after his death.
Palazzo Pitti and Giardini di Boboli (Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens) - Piazza Pitti, Via Romana. Opening times vary for different parts of the palace. Gardens open Nov-Feb 8.15am to 4.30pm; March 8.15am to 5.30pm; April, May, Sept and Oct 8.15am to 6.30pm; June-Aug 8.15 to 7.30pm. Closed last Monday of the month.) €6.00 entry which include entry to Pitti Palace museums.
The Palazzo Pitti is the largest palace in Florence, commissioned in the 1450s by the merchant Luca Pitti. Brunelleschi, architect of the dome, is thought to have had a hand in the original design which is as solid looking as any building you’ll see, partly due to its rough hewn ‘rusticated’ exterior, a technique pioneered, like so many, in 15th century Florence. The Pitti’s fell on harder times financially after the palace was completed and eventually sold it to the Medici who used it as one of their principal residences thereafter. The palace contains no less than eight museums and there are some hugely important works on display, including (in the Galleria Palatina which is the pick of the eight) a staggering eleven Raphael’s, fourteen Titian’s and seventeen Andrea del Sarto’s.
The main reason why people flock to the palace however, is not for its architecture, or indeed its unrivalled collection of high renaissance masterpieces, it is the Boboli Gardens which lie behind the imposing frontage. The gardens offer a welcome escape from the busy streets of Florence, especially if you have spent days wandering from museum to museum without seeing so much as a street tree. Opened to the public in 1766, this 111 acre garden attracts over five million people every year. One of the highlights of the garden is the bizarre Grotta del Buontalenti (1583-88) replete with some fake Michelangelo ‘slaves’ (see entry for Galleria dell’Accademia) and a Giambologna sculpture of ‘Venus Emerging from her Bath’ which, weirdly, can usually only be seen from a distance. Also worth seeing are the 17th century amphitheatre which served as an arena for performances to entertain the Medici, and the central avenue of cypress trees (‘the Viotolone’) with its collection of original Roman statues.
Santo Spirito (Church)- Piazza Santo Spirito. Open 8.30am to noon & 4pm to 6pm Mon, Tues, Thurs-Sat; 4pm to 6pm Sun). Free.
Many architecture critics view this as one of Brunelleschi’s crowning achievements. The interior is a perfectly balanced, airy composition, so typical of the great renaissance designer. Among the notable works contained within the church are Filippino Lippi’s ‘Nerli Alterpiece’ and a wooden crucifix by Michelangelo only rediscovered in 1963 and restored to its rightful position in 2000. Also worth a look in the north transept is the very unusual, almost black and white, painting of ‘St Monica and Augustinian Nuns’ (1460-70). It has been attributed to either Verrocchio or Botticini and goes rather well with Brunelleschi’s colour scheme for the church’s interior.
San Miniato al Monte (Church)- Monte alle Croci. Free.
To get a real feel for the beauty of Florence, head up to this charming little church overlooking the city near Piazzale Michelangelo. Its 12th and 13th century façade predates those of its bigger cousins, Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, in the city below, and it more than rivals them for its beauty and harmony. Inside, the plain aisled interior is amongst the finest in the world. The architectural features, including inlaid floor, painted roof beams, columns and vaulting, alternating green and white marble all combine into a serene and harmonious whole. Many of the works inside the church are interpreted but it is worth mentioning the four glazed terracotta medallions and the crucifix by Luca della Robbia which are some of the finest examples of his work. You also won’t fail to miss the stunning mosaic in the apse (1297), probably created by the same unknown artist who created the mosaic above the central window on the church’s famous façade.
Santa Croce- Piazza Santa Croce. Open 9.30am to 5.30pm Mon-Sat; 1pm to 5.30pm Sun. €4.00 entry.
Santa Croce was built in 1294 on the site of a smaller chapel reputedly founded by St Francis of Assisi. This, the largest of the Franciscan churches is a solemnly beautiful edifice, full to bursting with tombs and monuments of the great and the good (there are 276 tombstones on the floor alone). Among the ‘A listers’ of the past buried or commemorated here are Michelangelo, Galileo, Leonardo Bruni, Machiavelli, Alberti, Dante (monument only as Dante was actually buried in Ravenna).
Of the hundreds of artworks on display, the most important (and arguably the most impressive) are the fresco cycles by Giotto in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels. The Bardi cycle depicts the life of St Francis. These are considered amongst Giotto’s most mature works and capture the emotion of grief in a way which had never been seen before. The frescoes in the Peruzzi chapel depict the life of St John the Baptist and Evangelist and are equally impressive. It was here that Masaccio and Michelangelo drew inspiration and technical tips for their ground breaking works in the 15th century. It is also worth spending some time examining the superb frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi in the Baroncelli chapel. Gaddi was a pupil of Giotto’s and clearly took his master’s teachings seriously as his frescoes almost rival those of the man himself.
The Pazzi chapel (1442-1470s) is entered through a door in the south aisle and should not be missed. Here is yet another example of Brunelleschi’s sense of architectural harmony and balance. It contains some beautiful terracotta detailing by Luca della Robbia.
Museo Nazionale del Bargello (The Bargello) Via del Proconsolo. Open 8.15am – 1.50pm Tues-Sat. €4.00 entry.
The Bargello palace, built after 1250, houses a quite astonishing collection of sculpture and assorted objets d’art. Many of the replica statues you may have seen in the city’s streets and piazza’s have their originals in the Bargello, including many by the two giants of the renaissance; Michelangelo and Donatello.
There are so many sculptures, non experts may soon get statue fatigue. It is perhaps best to focus on really examining a few of the more acclaimed pieces, rather than glancing at all of them. On the first floor we suggest Michelangelo’s ‘Dunken Bacchus’ (1497-9), his first major sculpture and Cellini’s enormous ‘Bust of Cosimo I’ (1557). Giambologna’s ‘Mercury’ (1564) is also rightly famed as is Ammannati’s candidly erotic Lady and the Swan (1540-50).
On the first floor there are two works by Donatello of pivotal significance in the history of sculpture. His St George of 1416 took sculpture to new heights, raising the bar so high that his contemporaries must have felt they could never match such realism and emotion in their own works. A couple of decades later, Donatello upped the bar again, sculpting his ‘David’ (1430-40), the first nude figure carved since the classical period.
On the second floor there are a selection of fine works by Giambologna, the della Robbia family, Pollaiuolo. Verrochio’s ‘David’ is worth a look if only to demonstrate how influential Donatello was on later sculptors of the 15th century.
Replete with its own life sized replica David by Michelangelo, this huge Piazza located above the city to the south affords unparalleled views over Florence with all the great landmarks - the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio and Ponte Vecchio - all clearly visible.
The Piazza was designed by Giuseppe Poggi between 1865 and 1870. Be sure to combine a trip up to the viewpoint with a visit to the church of San Miniato al Monte just a few minutes walk away.
Piazza della Santissima Annunziata
One of the most beautiful piazza’s in the city and at the centre of the Florence’s intellectual life. Clustered around the piazza are some glorious buildings including the church of Santissima Annunziata and the Spedale degli Innocenti (both worth a visit if you have time). Brunelleschi laid out the original designs of the piazza in the 1420s and it was later added to by Ammannati and Antonio de Sangallo. Don’t miss the bizarre fountain (1629) by Pietro Tacca with its inexplicable aquatic monkeys and whiskered sea slugs!
Rotunda del Brunelleschi - Via degli Alfani. Free to view only.
This perfectly formed rotunda forms the centre of an octagonal church which Brunelleschi began around 1433 but would never complete. The rotunda is an architectural gem and was the first renaissance building to be built to a central plan so has a significance belying its small size. The buildings around it were demolished in 1936 so the construction is now free standing.
Santa Felicita - Piazza Santa Felicita. Open 9.30am to 12.30pm & 3pm to 6pm Mon-Sat. Free
Built on an early Christian cemetery, this may be the oldest church in the city although it has been much modified since including major rebuilds in the 11th, 14th and 18th centuries. Vasari’s corridor passes through here on its way between the Palazzo’s Pitti and Vecchio. The church is notable for two important works by the high renaissance Mannerist painter Pontormo in the Capella Capponi (originally designed by Brunelleschi). The ‘Deposition’ is particularly odd, in terms of its warped proportions and weird colour. The man in the brown cloak on the right hand side is thought to be Pontormo himself.