The Genius of Florence
I visited Florence once before, in 2014, for six hours. I know.
You can put it down to poor planning and not knowing. My friend Jodi and I were on a Mediterranean cruise and we got to choose between Florence and Pisa for the first and second days the ship was docked in Livorno. We went to Pisa the first day because we thought we needed to see the Leaning Tower. Once we climbed to the top, we realized there wasn’t much more to see there. So we walked around, ate some bad pizza and headed back to the boat.
The next day, we took the train to Florence and immediately recognized our mistake. This was, of course, the day we had to be much more judicious with our time as we had to make it back to the boat before it headed out. Always up for a challenge, we visited David, the Duomo and the Uffizi at a brisk pace, seeing it all in six hours. As I’m sure you’re aware, this is not something that should be done at a brisk pace. So I vowed then I would come back to Florence and stay for at least a week.
Clay and I were there for ten days, and it was as magical as I’d hoped, though it didn’t start out that way.
Our Airbnb was about 20 minutes (by tram) outside of the city center, in a very residential neighborhood. It was loud, frenetic and there were so many cars. I’ll admit to being a little grumpy the first night as I wondered if I had oversold Florence in my head (and to Clay). We talked and realized that anyplace would be a difficult transition after Venice, a place with tiny streets and no cars. And while we enjoyed living in a residential neighborhood, the people we passed on the street seemed mostly annoyed at the addition of two more people on their very busy sidewalks.
Okay, finally, the point. While I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the history and art on that first trip, the reason I wanted to explore it more is that I realized just some of the people who either came from or through Florence. Here’s just a partial list: Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo, Leonardo, Donatello, Machiavelli.
How? How did so much authentic genius hail from one place that’s smaller than Reno?
As much as there is an answer, it seems to be the Medicis. There’s so much to learn about them and I am going to spend more time exploring this incredibly influential family. There is a Netflix show, Medici: Masters of Florence, that I had planned to watch when we had excellent Wi-Fi, but one of our guides, Bruce, told us that it was good entertainment, but mostly fiction. Instead, he recommended we read The Swerve: How The World Became Modern to better understand how this amazing civilization came to be. I have downloaded it and will share what I learn after I read it.
In the meantime, here’s the gist from Rick Steves:
The Medici, an art-loving family of wealthy bankers (and three popes), helped fund the Renaissance. They regularly hosted artists and commissioned art for their palace and their family tomb — the Medici Chapel — a masterpiece by Michelangelo.
In the space of a couple generations, Florence gave us Brunelleschi’s dome, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, and Michelangelo’s David. This remarkable town — with just 60,000 people in the 15th century — would help lead Europe into the modern age. You can’t have an art boom without money. And the Medici family, who ruled Florence for generations from palaces like this, was loaded.
It was the Medici wealth — they were bankers — along with their passion for art, and their super-sized egos that helped Florence fund the Renaissance and make this city the art capital of the western world.”
Bruce, who led us on a tour called The Secrets of the Renaissance, explained that the Medicis were new money and the old money people didn’t like them. In the city center, where you’ll find a replica of David where the original once stood, you’ll also find Hercules and Medusa, to represent this struggle between the rich and important.
A trip like this is a great reminder of the power of art, and why it matters, both in its own time and as a way to understand history.
We really enjoyed Bruce’s tour, which was three hours spent walking around the main square of Florence, which is 505 hectares, or 1.95 square miles. While there were some obvious marvels to explore, Bruce took us to see the not so obvious, which I’ll share more on in a bit.
But first, let’s talk about David
It was surreal spending the day at the Accademia Gallery with the most important sculpture in the world as well as other masterpieces by Michelangelo, to come back to our Airbnb to find out that David had gotten a principal fired in Florida.
Our friend Kimberly used the word “gobsmacked” to describe how she felt seeing this amazing sculpture in real life and I can’t think of a better word. Michelangelo was not only a genius artist, he trained himself in anatomy, which shows in every line of David. His weight is on his left foot as he prepares the slingshot to take out the giant, Goliath. The veins in his arms and the sinewy muscle in his leg — all of it is anatomically accurate. And this was made out of marble. Think about that for a second – he chiseled this out of stone. And it wasn’t even good marble – this was abandoned by two other artists who said it wasn’t any good. I know there’s a metaphor in there, but I’ll leave it for you to find.
There are some things you have to experience in person to fully appreciate them — the Grand Canyon, the Duomo di Milano and David. I’m not super religious, but this piece feels like it was made by God through Michelangelo’s hands.
On the walk up to David, you get to experience some of his other work — the Prisoners. Though these are labeled as unfinished, they look finished to me (admittedly I’m not an art expert). The prisoners are trying to break free from the stone, much of which is still in place. Bruce explained to us that Michelangelo, a devout Christian, was portraying man’s struggle to break free from his body to go to Heaven to be with God.
While David is phenomenal all on his own, we highly recommend taking a guided tour to better understand everything that has gone into his creation, as well as the other artwork at the Accademia. We recommend the Accademia Gallery Guided Tour through Get Your Guide.
We saw more of Michelangelo’s work at the Museo del Bargello, where we also got to experience sculptures from the 12th to 14th century, by the likes of Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Verrocchio and Cellini. This included two more sculptures of David by Donatello, that took a very different approach — one was made out of marble and the other bronze. These were closer representations to what a 14-year-old boy would actually look like (as depicted in the biblical story) and they took place after the battle with Goliath where Michelangelo’s creation was of David preparing for the big fight.
As with most buildings in Florence, the structure itself is also a piece of art. Built in 1255, it served as the headquarters of the Captain of the People (Capitano del Popolo), a position created to balance the power of the noble families. Bruce explained that the person who held that position was brought in from another region and could only stay for one year so they would avoid being influenced by the people of the town.
The best part about the Bargello? No lines. People don’t seem to know about this place and we wouldn’t either if Bruce hadn’t told us we must visit it. And so should you.
More from Bruce
On our walk with Bruce, he told us more about the Medici family, while also explaining about the Guilds, which represented different city interests (banking, agriculture, art, butchers, shoemakers) and who were responsible for organizing the social and economic structure of the city from the 12th into the 16th centuries
He showed us the different buildings representing the different guilds, explaining how the sheep symbol on the side indicated it was the headquarters for the wool manufacturers and merchants. And the building with the star that looks like a sand dollar was home to the judges and lawyers.
It seems that eventually the Medicis bought off the Guild members, essentially neutralizing them so they could take full control. I’m definitely over-simplifying this, but you get the gist.
For much of my life, I wasn’t interested in tours, thinking I could get what I needed on my own and from reading the plaques. Now I wonder about just how very much I missed with that approach. Our tour with Bruce took place about a week after we arrived in Florence, after many hours spent wandering through the city center. Three hours with him showed us all the things we missed, including the corner of Purgatory and Hell, and later Paradise and Heaven.
He also showed us the building in the Piazza San Giovanni, which houses the Misericordia di Firenze, the city’s first volunteer ambulance service established in the 13th century and continues to provide volunteer services to the city.
Not too far away, is the San Martino del Vescovo, a Catholic church that serves as headquarters for Twelve Good Men. Founded in 1442 by St Antonino Pierozzi, the group continues to meet in secret to provide financial support for the poveri vergognosi or shamed poor.
Since our tour was just us, we had a chance to have many fascinating conversations with Bruce. Here is just some of what we learned:
- The Giglio of Florence (Florentine Lily) is not a fleur-de-lis (like the one found in France). Instead, it’s an iris. There are many theories on why this became the symbol of Florence and you can find some of them here.
- Fettuccine Alfredo is not Italian. While there are so very many delicious Italian pasta dishes, Alfredo was created in America.
- We figured this one out on our own, but if you need to use the bathroom, you have to be a patron. So buy the espresso or cappuccino before you ask where the toilet is.
- In a goal to cut down on plastic bottles, the city of Florence provides free refrigerated water — plain or sparkling — in Piazza della Signoria, close to Palazzo Vecchio and behind the statue of Neptune, and in via dell’Agnolo in the area of Sant’Ambrogio.
- The Fishing Lab is not only a great seafood restaurant, the building includes many original frescoes, including the first known portrayal of Dante Alighieri.
I wish we had started our week with him, as it would have helped to put everything into perspective earlier. It really is incredible to consider all of the history (architecture, art, services) that continue to pervade different aspects of Florentine life.
The Florentine Duomo
We also spent that week circling the Florence Cathedral aka Duomo di Firenze, marveling at its architecture from all sides. Bruce explained that building began in 1296 and took 72 years to finish. Once it was done, they couldn’t figure out how to complete the dome, as there were not enough trees to build the necessary scaffolding. The Medicis hosted a competition, which was won by architect Filippo Brunelleschi, who had spent time in Rome, and was able to provide a plan to create two domes, an interior shell inside the exterior top.
As Duomo.Firenze.it shares, “The dome is an absolute masterpiece of art, enchanting the world since the moment of its creation: the symbol of Florence, of Renaissance culture, and of all Western humanism.”
While we were in awe of the exterior, when we finally got inside the Duomo, I was underwhelmed. It’s gorgeous of course, but it’s possible I built it up by waiting too long to see it. The interior of the dome is decorated with a painting of different Florentine leaders, including God, Jesus and Mary. It also has depictions of hell on each corner, I’m guessing as a constant reminder to follow the rules. Definitely plan in advance to see this building, and book a tour to ensure you hear about the art, architecture and history involved in creating the third biggest church in the world.
Clay has always been pretty patient, but it’s something I’m continually working on. He reminds me to lean in and that has come in very handy, particularly when I’m standing in lines while waiting to see something amazing. While waiting in the skip-the-line line to see the Duomo, we got to meet Ray and Tamires, who were visiting from Ireland. We ended up having lunch with them and plan to meet them for the best Indian food when we get to Dublin at the end of May.
Speaking of Food
I’m guessing you already know (as we did) that Florentine food is delicious. Wanting to go deeper than that, we started our week in Florence with a food tour with Sandro. He took us to Mercato Centrale, which “opened in the spring of 2014 to celebrate the 140th anniversary of the iron and glass architecture erected in 1874.” It was filled with all kinds of food, fresh and prepared. You can buy a t-bone there to prepare at home, while you can also find biscotti, gelato and hundreds (thousands?) of varietals of wine.
Sandro promised to take us only to the places where he ate or bought food, and he introduced us to arancini, a deep-fried ball of rice filled with all kinds of goodness. We shared one with eggplant and mozzarella, but we went back to buy more later and enjoyed them with meat and ragu (the meat-based Italian sauce, not the jar).
He also introduced us to the most magical biscotti in the world. We bought some to take home with us, ate it a week later and it was still soft and chocolately. When we left the market, he took us to Nino & Friends, where we got to taste chocolates, cookies, truffles and candies. While I haven’t spent much time thinking about balsamic vinegar in the past, now I will, as we tasted some that was five, ten, 15, 25 and 30 years old. That last one could be used on ice cream, it was so sweet. Since we’re living out of suitcases, we bought a plastic spray bottle of the newer one and we’re using it on salads everywhere we go. I discovered my love for limoncello during our Milan cooking class, but that did not prepare me for the candies they shared with us – that burst sweet limoncello when you bit into them.
When we met up with our Reno friends, Dave, Jessica and Olivia Santina, we made sure to bring them to all of these places so they could experience them for themselves.
From here to there
Sandro had told us that Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge not blown up in World War II, and Bruce gave us more information. The bridge, which now holds millions of dollars in jewelry stores, was originally home to many of the city’s butchers, tanners and blacksmiths as they would throw their scraps into the river. Eventually Duke Fernandino decided they made too much noise and stench and sent them away in favor of the jewelers.
Sandro told us about the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens at the beginning of our Florence visit, but there were so many things to see that it took us until the end of the week to make it to Boboli and we were very happy we did.
The Pitti Palace, which we did not have time to visit, became home to Cosimo I de’ Medici and his wife Eleanor of Toledo in 1550. It is now divided into five museums: the Treasury of the Grand Dukes and the Museum of Russian Icons (with the Palatine Chapel) on the ground floor, the Palatine Gallery and the Imperial and Royal Apartments on the first floor, the Gallery of Modern Art and the Museum of Costume and Fashion on the second floor.
What we did have time to stroll through are the Boboli Gardens that flank the Palace. The gardens, which were originally designed for the Medici family and opened to the public in 1766, are considered an open air museum. While the landscape architecture is incredible, it’s also a welcome respite from the crowds of people in Florence. There was also no line there, which is probably because it’s so big they can let in multitudes of people at once. That no line thing might also change as tourist season gets closer.
it wasn’t just art
Obviously, Florence didn’t bring about the modern age by art alone. It was also a capital for science and literature.
We knew Dante Alighieri had written the Divine Comedy while in exile from Florence. What we didn’t know until Bruce told us, is that he is considered the “Father of the Italian Language” that helped unify the Kingdom of Italy because he wrote in the local dialect instead of Latin. Until then, each different province had its own language, making it difficult to unify.
According to Poets.org: Due to the monumental influence the work (Divine Comedy) has had on countless artists, Dante is considered among the greatest writers to have lived. As the poet T. S. Eliot wrote, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them, there is no third.”
Born in Pisa, Galileo Galilei lived in Florence for most of his life. While most of us know that his scientific discoveries got him in trouble with the church, I learned so much more by visiting the Museo Galileo. Here’s what FlorenceTips.com shares:
- He learned that fall acceleration depends on mass.
- He discovered that a swing is dependent on the length of the wire.
- He improved the telescope of Dutch inventors and then made discovery after discovery in astronomy, such as the Galilean moons of Jupiter.
- He is also the founder of heliocentricity, the knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun.
Because he dared to suggest the universe didn’t revolve around the earth as had been commonly thought up until that point, he came into conflict with the Catholic Church, which put him under house arrest until he died in his Florence home in 1642. This museum didn’t have a line, which is a shame as it’s a fascinating look at not only Galileo, but other inventors and the science behind astronomy and physics.
Since we made the mistake of not visiting the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, we took the Santinas to the Leonardo Interactive Museum in Florence, where they had created prototypes of the machines described in his drawings. There was also one of these in Venice, and it’s a fun experience for kids, and, well, me, as I was once again overwhelmed by the genius of Leonardo. If you plan to go, you should probably get your tickets in advance as they only allow a certain number of people in at a time and there were several field trips while we were there.
While Florence is full of historical geniuses, we were able to spend time with actual living geniuses as it was time for haircuts after nearly two months on this adventure. Our Milan tour guide, Ruth, had recommended Hairforce Firenze so we made appointments when we got there.
Our last full day in Florence ended with a fantastic haircut for Clay and a lovely cut and color for me. At least four (maybe five, I had my eyes closed) people worked on my hair, with one coloring, another washing, another cutting and still another blowing it dry. While it was a bit of a risk getting our hair done by people we didn’t know, I figured the worst case scenario would be not posting photos for awhile. Instead, we both have new, great hair and the posting will go on!
What about the rest of Tuscany?
After spending ten days in Florence, my curiosity was still not satisfied and we spent very little time exploring anywhere else. As the Santinas were raving about their homebase of Lucca, we did spend a day there, where I worked in a cafe and Clay took a run around the city walls.
We’ll definitely return, and make it a point to visit the other amazing cities in Tuscany — Chianti, Siena and Arezzo — as well as the other half of the country we still need to explore.
But for now, all roads lead to Rome.
If you’re planning a visit, consider downloading our Florence Scavenger Hunt to explore the sites!