Florence – The Cradle of The Renaissance
Florence – the capital of Tuscany gets my vote as the most beautiful city in Italy. The small but perfectly formed city nestles on the banks of the Arno River with the iconic Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge on the river spanning over the water. The bridge was once occupied by butchers and fishmongers who stank the river up with their food waste so badly that led to the Medici, the rulers at the time, to replace them with goldsmith and jewellery shops that still exist today.
Dubbed as the “Cradle of the Renaissance”, Florence, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a living museum wall to wall with magnificent architectures and priceless artworks to satisfy even the most discerning art aficionado.
The provenance of this bejewelled city is steeped in intrigue and skulduggery among its historic power brokers of religious leaders, ambitious politicians and the merchant class who would literally kill for power. Out of this political power struggle Florence emerged as one of the most powerful and wealthy cities in Tuscany during the Renaissance era.
This travel article describes our visit to Florence, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and we stayed at 2 hotels which are in magnificently restored buildings built in the renaissance period.
The House of Medici
Florence owes its reputation as the epicentre of high Renaissance culture mostly to the powerful Medici family. Cosimo de Medici, the patriarch of the Medici dynasty was the first Medici to exert political power over Florence. The dynasty ruled the city from 15th to 18th centuries as Grand Dukes of Tuscany. The Medici’s great wealth came from banking and commerce and their invaluable patronage with many powerful people including the pope at the time elevated their status to the ruling class. This prominent dynasty produced four popes – Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV and Leon XI- in their family. The Medici were great patrons of arts, architectures and literature notably Lorenzo de Medici known as Lorenzo The Magnificent who commissioned famous artists such as Michelangelo, Leonard Da Vinci, Botellicelli and other great painters at the time leaving a treasured legacy of the world’s most famous paintings and works of art today.
A National Treasure in Florence
Today the Medici’s priceless collections can be viewed at the Uffizi Gallery, one of the most famous art museums in the world. It exhibits masterpieces of the world’s greatest artists such as Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Titian among other great Renaissance painters. Adjacent to the Uffizi Gallery, is the Piazza della Signoria, a massive square, flanked by several important buildings notably the Palazzo Vecchio, the imposing fortress palace, now use as a town hall.
By the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio stands an exact replica of the famous statue of the biblical David by Michelangelo. The original masterpiece is housed in the Accademia Gallery. The original statue of David is 5.16 metres tall and weighs over 5 tons, carved from one single block of marble. The statue is so spell-binding that it looks like as if Michelangelo had released the soul of David from the block of marble with every sinewy muscle and even the veins of his hands seem to pulsate with life.
Standing across the replica statue of David at the square are the amazing statues of Hercules and Cacus by Bandinelli, showing Hercules killing Cacus the fire-breathing monster in Greek mythology. It is no less impressive, so beautifully sculptured with exquisite detail of the muscular frame of Hercules and the horrifying feature of Cacus. In the Loggia dei Lanzi, adjacent to the statues, is an open-air sculpture gallery showcasing more magnificent statues by other renowned Renaissance sculptors.
Architectural Marvels of Florence
The plethora of magnificent buildings and sculptures bear testament to the great wealth of the city and the skill and talent of the Renaissance artists and artisans. The legion of glorious ecclesiastical buildings reflects the power of the church and the most emblematic religious buildings are in the Piazza de Duomo notably the Cathedral of Florence dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore.
It was designed by Arnolfo de Cambio in the 13th century as a vast Gothic church and the renowned architect Brunelleschi added the famous dome in the 15th century. The Duomo as it is more commonly known, is the most iconic landmark of the city along with the Baptistery of St. John and the Campanile bell tower by Giotto. The facades of these buildings are beautifully clad in pink, white and green marble in set patterns.
The interior of the Cathedral is surprisingly stark except for the beautiful fresco depicting the Last Judgement on the interior wall of the dome by the artist and architect Giorgio Vasari. Following the attacks in Paris and Tunisia by terrorists last year, security around the Cathedral is tight as armed soldiers and police patrol outside the buildings. It is quite unnerving to see them around yet reassuring.
A Tale Of Two Palaces in Florence
In its golden era, Florence had many wealthy families who lived in palaces and palatial homes. Today they are converted into public buildings, shops and hotels. We have the honour of staying in two fabulous hotels converted from old palaces. The first two nights, we stay at the Antica Torre di Via Tornabuoni, a splendid 13th century palace once belonging to the Gianfigliazzi family until the end of the 18th century. It became the “Pensione Piccioli” in the 20th century favoured by famous English aristocrats and artists and a mandatory stop on the itinerary of the luxury Grand Tour of well-heeled visitors at the time. Today the historic building, known as the ‘house tower” is lovingly restored to its former glory without compromising its historical features and harmoniously designed with modern facilities for the comfort of their guests. All the rooms are uniquely designed with heritage chic. Our Renaissance suite with a view of the Arno River is spacious and beautifully furnished. The bar terrace commands a splendid view of the city affording all the main landmarks.
The last two nights we move to Leone Blu or Blue Lion, another historic palatial residence belonging to the Ricasoli Firidolfi family who are wine merchants. The Palazzo Ricasoli as it was called then, dates back to 1470 and has remained in the family seat. In the 19th century it became the Grand Hotel of New York attracting celebrity clienteles from Europe and America. The owner Maria Teresa Ricasoli, a descendant and heiress of the family is passionate about preserving the heritage of the building where she was born and spent her childhood. A graduate in History of Art from the University of Florence, she has converted the entire first floor into nine marvellous suites and two commodious salons all uniquely and stylishly designed in a harmonious blend of heritage splendour and modernity. Each room is like a work of art with antique objet d’art procured from her ancestral castle in Brolio in the Chianti region in Tuscany. Our delightful two-floor suite has a playful theme of brightly painted multi-coloured ceiling with a large modern print of a dancer surrounded by male admirers while portraits of ancient figures look on disapprovingly across the room.
A Florentine Feast
Italian cuisine has always been my favourite and what better place than Florence to feast on its famous dish, the Florentine Steak. One night we dine at Osteria della Pagliazza at the Hotel Brunelleschi, another wonderful hotel converted from historic building. They serve the most delicious Florentine Steak beautifully cooked to perfection. This famous dish was said to originate from the Medici family who used to offer the people in the city large amount of ox meat cooked over great fire to celebrate the feast of St. Lorenzo in the city square. Its ritualistic preparation adheres to its traditional recipe of a large T-bone veal steak weighing at least 1kg and three fingers’ thick from the Chianina cattle from Tuscany. It has to be grilled for about five minutes on each side and rare on the inside and seasoned only after it is removed from the grill. It is served on a wooden board and carved at the table. Delish!
A great place to enjoy street food and specialities of Italy is at the Mercato Centrale or Central Market, a lovely period building with glass and cast iron façade built between 1870-74 in an eclectic blend of classic and modern style. The ground floor is a market with butchers, fishmongers, fruit and vegetable vendors and small artisan stalls selling olive oil, cheese, smoked meat, dried mushrooms and other local delicacies. On the first floor is a delightful array of stalls selling speciality dishes and food from various regions of Italy. There are gelatos, chocolate, pastry, pizza and pasta stalls cheek by jowl with seafood, hamburgers and other regional dishes. One the most popular specialities is the lampredotto, a typical Florentine peasant dish made of tripe, tongue and stomach of the cow stewed in a broth flavoured with tomatoes, onions, parsley and celery until tender. It is served on a crunchy bun briefly dipped in the broth, topped with a parsley and hot chilli sauce eaten like a sandwich. It may not sound appetising but it is actually delicious. The street leading to the market is lined with many stalls selling leather goods and clothing at the San Lorenzo Market.
On our last evening we head to Piazalle Michelangelo, about 15 minutes’ bus ride to a hill overlooking the city. We have come to join a large crowd to see the spectacular sunset. A large bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David stands on the square surrounded by stalls selling souvenirs. As the sun bathes the city in a technicolor extravaganza of resplendent glow of scarlet orange, the magic of Florence is revealed in all its glory with the Arno River meandering through the city like a giant golden serpent.
The Historic Centre of Florence is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For information on Florence http://www.firenzeturismo.it/en/
and on Tuscany: http://www.turismo.intoscana.it/site/en/
All rights reserved © 2015-2016 MyFacesAndPlaces.co.uk