“Firenze la bella”, the pride of its natives, the dream of poet and painter and the delight of a multitude of travellers, lies amid graceful hills, clothed with olive gardens and dotted with white villas. In the clear distance are the splendid Apennines. Climb to the terrace of San Miniato, and you will gain a wide general view of this great and beautiful city of culture and the arts. The wonderful campanile of Giotto rises above the surrounding buildings, rivalling the height of the cathedral; the sunlight glows on dome and tower, and the valleys and glens lie in deep shadow, stretching away to the slopes of the mountains.
Very lovely, too, is the prospect from the Boboli Gardens, and finer still the outlook from Fiesole, whence the eye surveys the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Campanile, the noble churches of Bruneschi, the Pitti Palace, and many fair buildings of the Middle Ages.
Gazing over Florence from one of the elevations of the environs, a vast pageant of history seems revealed, and men of illustrious name pass in long procession in the vision of the mind. How numerous are the great thinkers and artists associated with the city from Savonarola to the Brownings! We recall Dante, Giotto, Boccaccio, Michael Angelo–the roll seems inexhaustible. Almost all the famous men of Italy are connected with the culture-history and the political annals of Florence. The city inspires and holds us with a spell; we are impelled to wander day after day in the narrow streets, to linger in the fragrant gardens, to roam in the luxuriant valleys of the surrounding country, and to climb the hill of classic Fiesole.
Rich and beautiful is the scenery between Florence and Bologna, with its
glimpses of the savage Apennines. The glen of Vallombrosa is one of the
loveliest spots in the vicinity, where the old monastery broods amid
beech and chestnut-trees. It was this scene that Milton recalled when he
wrote the lines:
“Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks
The history of the city is of abundant interest. Florence was probably
an important station in the days of the Roman Triumviri. Totila the
Goth besieged and destroyed the town, and Charlemagne restored it two
hundred and fifty years later. Machiavelli states that from 1215
Florence was the seat of the ruling power in Italy, the descendants of
Charles the Great governing here until the time of the German emperors.
In the struggle between the Church and the State, the city took sides
with the popular party for the time being. There were, however, constant
factions within Florence, due to the quarrels of the Buondelmonti and
Uberti families. Frederick II. favoured the Uberti cause, and with his
help, the Buondelmontis were expelled. Then came the remarkable period
of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, the former standing for the Pope, and
the latter siding with the Emperor. Florence favoured the Guelfs, and
the Ghibellines resolved to destroy the city; but the Guelf party again
won ascendancy in Florence. The trouble was, however, not at an end. For
years Florence was disturbed by the conflicting aims of these intriguing
Grandees and commoners warred in Florence in the fourteenth century, and
efforts were made by the aristocratic rulers to curtail the liberties of
the people. This was frustrated by the commoners, and the government
was reformed on a more democratic basis. Peace followed during a period
of about ten years, but calamity befell Florence in the form of the
pestilence described by Boccaccio. Ninety-six thousand persons are said
to have died from the ravages of this plague.
As early as the twelfth century there were many signs in Florence of
intellectual liberty. The doctrine of the eternity of matter was openly
discussed, and on to the days of Savonarola civilising forces were at
work in this centre of culture.
Girolamo Savonarola arose at the end of the fifteenth century, and his
reforming influence soon spread through Italy. “The church is shaken to
its foundations,” he cries. “No more are the prophets remembered, the
apostles are no longer reverenced, the columns of the church strew the
ground because the foundations are destroyed–in other words because the
evangelists are rejected.” Such heresy as this brought Savonarola to the
Greater among the mighty of Florence was Dante, born in a memorable age
of art and invention. “The Vita Nuova,” inspired by the gentle damsel,
Beatrice, was written when Dante had met his divinity at a May feast
given by her father, Folco Portinari, one of the chief citizens of
Florence. Beatrice died in 1290 at the age of twenty-four. Boccaccio
states that the poet married Gemma Donati about a year after the death
of Beatrice. Dante died in 1321, and was buried in Ravenna.
For me the chief appeal in Seville, Antwerp, or any old Continental town
is in the human associations. In Florence, roaming in the ancient
quarters, the figure of Dante, made so familiar by many paintings,
arises with but little effort of the imagination, for the streets have
not greatly changed in aspect since his day. The atmosphere remains
Can we not see the moody poet, driven from his high estate by the
quarrels of the ruling houses, pacing the alleys, repeating to himself:
“How hard is the path!” Can we not picture him in company with Petrarch,
who, after the merry-making in the palace, remarked that the wise poet
was quite eclipsed by the mountebanks who capered before the guests? And
do we not hear Dante’s muttered “Like to like!”
Two great English poets, Chaucer and Milton, made journeys to Florence.
Giovanni Boccaccio was born in 1313, in Certaldo, a small town some
leagues from Florence. He spent a few years in France and in the south
of Italy, returning to Florence at the age of twenty-eight. Boccaccio
was the close friend and the biographer of Dante, and a contemporary of
In the time of Lorenzo de Medici, Florence was a prosperous city and a
seat of learning. Machiavelli writes of Lorenzo: “The chief aim of his
policy was to maintain the city in ease, the people united, and the
nobles honoured. He had a marvellous liking for every man who excelled
in any branch of art. He favoured the learned, as Messer Agnola da
Montepulciano, Messer Cristofano Landini, and Messer Demetrio; the Greek
can bear sure testimony whence it came that the Count Giovanni della
Mirandola, a man almost divine, withdrew himself from all the other
countries of Europe through which he had travelled, and attracted by the
munificence of Lorenzo, took up his abode in Florence. In architecture,
music, and poetry, he took extraordinary delight…. Never was there any
man, not in Florence merely, but in all Italy, who died with such a name
for prudence, or whose loss was so much mourned by his country.”
Machiavelli, the Florentine historian, lived for a while in retirement
in the outskirts of Florence. We may gain a little insight into his
character and tastes from a passage in one of his letters in which he
mentions that it was his custom to repair to the tavern every afternoon,
clad in rustic garments, where he played cards with a miller, a butcher
and a lime-maker. In the evening he dressed himself in the clothes that
he wore in town and at court, and communed with the spirits of the
“illustrious dead” in the volumes of his library.
Over the entrance to the Casa Guidi is the inscription: “Here wrote and
died Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who, in the heart of a woman, combined
the learning of a scholar and the genius of a poet. By her verse she
wrought a golden ring connecting Italy and England. Grateful Florence
erected this memorial in 1861.”
Mrs Browning passed away in the Casa Guidi just before dawn, in June
1861. Her remains lie in the beautiful grounds of the Protestant
Fierce old Walter Savage Landor lived for a time in Florence, and for a
longer period in Fiesole, where the Brownings often visited him.
Swinburne came just before Landor’s death to see the poet.
Shelley was in Florence in 1819. A son was born to him here, and he
records the event in a letter to Leigh Hunt. The poet writes of the
Cascine Gardens, where he loved to walk and to gaze upon the Arno.
Florence seems to have impressed Shelley almost as powerfully as Rome.
“Florence itself,” he writes upon a first visit, “that is the Lung Arno
(for I have seen no more) I think is the most beautiful city I have yet
seen.” With this tribute from the poet, we will begin our survey of
In a magnificent square stands the cathedral, the baptistery, and the
belfry. The oldest of the edifices is the baptistery, reared on the
ground whereon stood a temple of Mars. Parts of the building are said to
date from the seventh century. The glories of the baptistery are many,
but perhaps the most appealing of the external decorations are the
reliefs of the bronze door, which Michael Angelo so greatly admired.
They illustrate scenes from the life of John the Baptist. The exterior
of the Duomo or cathedral is the work of several great artists,
including Giotto and Andrea Pisano. A modern façade was added in
The Porta della Mandoria, one of the most beautiful doorways in
existence, is surmounted by a mosaic of Ghirlandaio, “The Annunciation.”
There is not much to claim attention within the cathedral, except
Michael Angelo’s incomplete and last work, the “Pieta,” behind the chief
altar, a statue of Boniface VIII., and a painting of Dante reading his
“Divina Commedia,” by Michelino. Savonarola preached in this church.
The triumph of Giotto, the famed Campanile, adjoins the duomo. The work
was begun in 1335, and the structure and its decorations are a superb
achievement of Giotto’s genius. Ruskin has written a glowing passage
upon this wonderful example of “Power and Beauty” in decorative
architecture. The edifice is of variously coloured marbles, adorned with
splendid bas-reliefs, depicting the growth of industry and art in many
ages. Another set of bas-reliefs represent Scriptural scenes. The
statues are the work of Rosso and Donatello.
Giotto was born in the neighbourhood of Florence, and died in the city.
He was the friend of Dante, who wrote an eulogy upon his supremacy as a
painter. The bell-tower of Florence is his finest work in architecture
and the most treasured of all the monuments in the city.
Fra Angelico is intimately associated with Florence, and many of his
pictures are preserved in the city. He was born in the vicinity of
Florence, near the birthplace of Giotto. Vasari says: “Fra Giovanni was
a man of simple and blameless life. He shunned the world, with all its
temptations, and during his pure and simple life was such a friend to
the poor that I think his soul must now be in heaven. He painted
incessantly, but would never represent any other than a sacred subject.
He might have been rich, but he scorned it, saying that true riches
consisted in being content to be poor.”
The Academy of Arts in Florence contains many of Fra Angelico’s
masterpieces. There are six of his paintings in the Uffizi Palace, and
several in the Convent of San Marco. In this collection of pictures are
numerous works of the fourteenth and fifteenth century painters, all
claiming diligent study.
The Uffizi Palace and the Pitti Palace are rich storehouses of some of
the most famous of the world’s pictures, and of several great statues.
The chief pictures cannot even be enumerated. Let me only mention
Raphael’s “Madonna and Child,” Michael Angelo’s “Holy Family,” Titian’s
“Venus,” Durer’s “Adoration of the Magi,” Andrea del Sarto’s
“Assumption,” Ruben’s “Terrors of Wars,” and Velazquez’s “Philip IV.”
These are but few indeed of the treasures of these two noble palaces of
The wonderful Venus de Medici, one of the greatest of classic works of
art, is in this collection. In the seventeenth century the statue was
unearthed in the villa of Hadrian, near Tivoli. It was in eleven pieces,
and it was repaired and set up in the Medici Palace at Rome. In 1680
Cosmo III. had the treasure removed to the Imperial Palace at Florence.
In the north-eastern part of the city there are three buildings of
historical interest. One is the Church of Santissima Annunziata, founded
in the thirteenth century, but restored in modern times. Here will be
seen sacred pictures by Andrea del Sarto, in the court, while in the
cloisters is the “Madonna del Sacco.” The tomb of Benvenuto Cellini is
San Marco is now a repository of works of art. It was the monastery of
Savonarola, and the edifice is haunted with the spirit of the zealous
reformer. The fine frescoes by Fra Angelico adorn the cloisters, and in
the chapter house is his “Crucifixion,” one of the largest of the
Three of the cells were inhabited at different times by Savonarola, and
contain memorials of the pious ascetic, a coat of penance, a crucifix,
and religious volumes.
Sir Martin Conway writes, in “Early Tuscan Art”: “In Savonarola’s cell
there hangs a relic of no small interest–the handiwork of Fra Angelico
himself. It is stowed away in so dark a corner that one can hardly see
it. Eyes accustomed to the gloom discover a small picture of the
crucified Christ, painted on a simple piece of white stuff. When the
great preacher mounted the pulpit, this banner was borne before him. In
those impassioned appeals of his, that electrified for a time the people
of Florence, collected in crowded silence within the vast area of the
newly finished cathedral, it was to this very symbol of his faith that
he was wont to point, whereon are written the now faded words, _Nos
predicamus Christum crucifixum_.”
In the church of San Marco are the tombs of Sant Antonino and the
learned Pico della Mirandola.
Among the other churches of note is Santa Trinita, originally an example
of the art of Niccolo Pisano, but it has been modernised. It contains a
monument by Luca della Robbia, and some splendid mural paintings,
depicting the career of St Francis, by Ghirlando. There are more
paintings by this master in the Franciscan church of Ognissanti.
Santa Croce is a great burial-place, rich in monuments of illustrious
Florentines. Michael Angelo’s tomb is here, and near to it is the
resting-place of Galileo. A monument to Dante, the tomb of Alfieri, by
Canova, the memorials of Machiavelli, Aretino, Cherubino, and many
others are in this building. My necessarily scanty description of the
splendours of this church are offered with an apology for want of fuller
space to describe them.
Donatello’s “Crucifixion” is in the north transept, and the Capella
Peruzzi and the Capella Bardi are decorated with frescoes by Giotto.
Agnolo Gaddi’s paintings are in the choir. Reluctantly, one leaves this
great treasure-house. A mere catalogue of its works of art would fill
We have glanced at two of the palaces. Let us now visit the stern
Palazzo Vecchio, once the Senate House of the city. The building dates
from the thirteenth century, and was the home of the Medici.
Verrochio’s fountain beautifies one of the courts. Inside the palazzo
are mural paintings by Ghirlando.
Another of the interesting buildings is the Bargello, an important
museum. Michael Angelo’s “Dying Adonis” and “Victory” are in the court,
and there are more works of the great artist within. Dante lectured in
one of the halls of the Bargello. Benvenuto Cellini’s design for
“Perseus” is in one of the rooms, and there are reliefs by Della Robbia.
The Riccardi Palace is redolent with memories of Lorenzo. It stands in
the Piazza San Lorenzo, and in the same square is the church named after
him, containing some very beautiful monuments. Donatello was buried
here, and a stone marks the grave of Cosimo de Medici. Lippo Lippi’s
“Annunciation,” and Michael Angelo’s works are the glories of this
church. The New Sacristy contains Angelo’s “Day and Night” over the tomb
of Giuliano Medici, and that of Lorenzo de Medici adorned with statues
of “Dawn and Twilight.” These are among the most magnificent examples of
Michael Angelo’s statuary.
Near to the railway station is the Church of Santa Maria Novella, a
glorious specimen of Gothic architecture, with a fine façade. In this
church are paintings by Orcagna, Lippi, Cimabue Ghirlando, and other
artists. The frescoes in the Strozzi Chapel, and the Spanish Chapel of
this Dominican church are of great interest. Orcagna’s paintings in the
Strozzi Chapel are of the fourteenth century. The chapel was dedicated
to St Thomas Aquinas, who was greatly honoured by the Dominican order.
Modern Florence is a bright populous city, with wide main streets,
squares, and pleasant gardens
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old Continental Towns, by Walter M. Gallichan
- APT Firenze, Florence Official Tourist Office
The APT Firenze website is filled with useful information, including Things to Do (with a long list of cooking classes), Where to Stay, Itineraries, and Events. This is an excellent resource.
Firenze by Net
his site provides excellent information for museums, art itineraries, music organizations. The response time is excellent.
This site is the main Italian tourist office web site, based in Italy, which provides an English version. The performance can be frustratingly slow but the detailed information is excellent. By choosing the region of Tuscany, then the province of Firenze, then the city of Florence, you can display a list of all the museums (with opening hours, which vary from museum to museum), or all of the events for a month, or all the hotels.
This comprehensive website, available in English, is an excellent source of information but at time of writing the performance is quite slow. It provides up-to-date news of interest to tourists.
This website provides excellent information about the attractions of Fiesole, including its villas, museums, churches, and fountains. It also has brief descriptions of hotels and restaurants and an events section. The villa section (ville) lists some villas where you can visit the garden by appointment.