Florence: City of Art
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves with more of the best of Europe. This time we return for a closer look at the city that pulled Europe out of the Middle Ages Florence.
Fifteenth-century Florence was the home of the Renaissance and birthplace of our modern Western world. Within a few hundred yards of where I'm standing you can enjoy much of the greatest art anywhere.
And we'll do just that: Gaze into the eyes of David, enjoy Botticelli's Birth of Venus, delve into the 3D wonders of Gilhberti's bronze panels, feel Fra Angelico's serene beauty and climb the dome that kicked off the Renaissance. And beyond the art, Florence knows how to live — well. We'll cross the Arno to where Florentine artisans live and work, window-shop some of Italy's finest designer stores and side trip on a vespa to a sweeping view of this Renaissance city. But first, a little background.
After Rome fell, Europe wallowed in centuries of relative darkness. There was little learning, commerce, or travel. Then, in about 1400, right here in Florence, there was a Renaissance. This rebirth of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome started here and swept across Europe.
In architecture, the Renaissance brought a return to the balanced domes, columns and arches of the ancient world. In painting, it revived realism and emotion. Artists rediscovered the beauty of nature and the human body. Portraying beautiful people in harmonious surroundings, they expressed the optimism and confidence of this new age.
The suddenly perky Western civilization made up for lost centuries with huge gains in economics, science, and art. Florence was the center of it all — and for good reason. This was where capitalism was replacing feudalism. Being the middleman of trade between west and east, the city had money and it knew what to do with it.
Wealthy merchant and banking families — like the Medici who ruled Florence for generations — showed their civic pride by commissioning great art. And Florence — recognizing and paying creative genius like no one else — had plenty of great artists to turn this pride and money into beautiful art.
The Renaissance was an age of humanism, a time of confidence — when business was respectable and excellence was rewarded. The Church no longer put a ceiling on learning and the great pre-Christian thinkers — like Plato and Aristotle — were in vogue.
Before the Renaissance, art was legitimate only if it glorified God. It sat deep in the niches of churches and came with a Bible story.
With the Renaissance, man — now alert and standing on his own — steps out of the shadow of the church. This David by the early Renaissance Florentine sculptor Donatello is the first freestanding male nude sculpted in Europe in a thousand years. It's art for art's sake, adorning not a church but a rich man's courtyard. While the formal subject is still Biblical — David slaying the giant Goliath's severed head is at David's feet — in actuality it's a classical nude, a celebration of the human body. A generation before, this would have been shocking — but in the Renaissance, it's art.
Florence was long an economic powerhouse. While its church is big, it's the city hall — once the palace of the Medici family — that towers over the main square. Michelangelo's David originally stood here — this is a copy.
The original David is the centerpiece of the nearby Accademia Gallery, which feels like a temple to humanism.
David sizes up the giant he seems to say, "I can take him." The statue was an apt symbol, inspiring Florentines to tackle their Goliaths .
When you look at David, you're looking at Renaissance man.
Artists now made their point with realism. And art and science were no longer enemies. For instance, Michelangelo dissected human corpses to better understand anatomy. This humanism was not necessarily anti-religion. Now, rather than bow down in church all day long, people realized the best way to glorify God was to recognize their talents and use them.
Artists like Michelangelo even exaggerated realism to make their point: notice David's large and overdeveloped right hand. This is symbolic of the hand of God. It was God that powered David to slay the giant...and Florentines liked to think God's favor enabled them to rise above rival neighboring city-states.
The nave-like hall leading to David is lined with Michelangelo's unfinished prisoners — struggling to break out of the marble. Michelangelo believed these figures were divinely created within the rock. As he attacked the stone with his chisel, he was simply chipping away the excess. Here we see the Renaissance love of the body as Michelangelo reveals these inspirational figures. While these sculptures are called unfinished, perhaps Michelangelo was satisfied he'd set them free and he moved on to other challenges.
In Florence, art treasures are everywhere you turn. Here in the vast Gothic Santa Maria Novella you'll find the Holy Trinity — painted by Masaccio in the early 1400s.
Using the mathematical laws of perspective, Masaccio seems to blow a hole in the wall — making the first three-dimensional fresco since ancient times. The classical architecture, symmetrical composition, and the people organized into a solid, unwavering pyramid all became standard features of Renaissance art. The couple at the bottom, who paid for the art, represents the faithful parishioners of their church.
Back then, wealthy Florentines like these made an art out of living well. This elegant perfumery is a reminder that the monks of this same church nurtured an herb garden. From this they concocted the finest natural medicines and perfumes.
Today, this place — air thick with the lingering aroma of centuries of spritzes — still provides Florentines and visitors alike with its fine products. In the dark days of medieval plagues and epidemics, people looked to monasteries for miracle cures and potions.
Woman: This is a smelling salt. It has a very strong scent. There is a legend called the Vinegar of the Seven Thieves. During the times of the plague, there were seven thieves. They spread this on their bodies and didn't catch the plague. After stealing from the dead and dying they revealed the recipe to the friars of the Santa Maria Novella. Each of the thieves only knew one of the ingredients. They shared this knowledge with the friars after they healed one of the thieves. In more modern times it was used as a remedy for fainting. The ladies needed this as they fainted often because of their dresses.
The Renaissance lasted roughly two centuries. The High Renaissance, or 1500s, is well-known for the work of Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. But the first half of the Renaissance, the 1400s, is often overlooked.
While the actual buildings of the Florence cathedral are medieval, its remarkable dome and much of the art decorating its facade, baptistery and bell tower define this first century of the Renaissance.
The Duomo — that's Italian for cathedral — is huge — one of the largest in the world. But it's stark and dark inside. The terrible flood of 1966 literally flushed the place out. The church's claim to fame is its dome — the first of the Renaissance and the first great dome built in Europe in over a thousand years. The church was built in Gothic times but rather than being given another spire, it was left with a gaping hole waiting for a dome to cap it. In 1420 Filippo Brunelleschi won the job and built the ingenious dome that began the architectural Renaissance.
And we're climbing it — nearly 500 steps.
Knowing the roof would collapse under too much weight, Brunelleschi devised a dome-within-a-dome, leaving this hollow space in between to make it lighter.
The immense dome — taller than a football field on end — rose in rings. First, they'd create part of the big white ribs, then fill in the space with interlocking bricks. When one ring was complete and self-supporting, they'd move the scaffolding up and build another.
Brunelleschi's dome — which inspired domes to follow from the Vatican to the American Capitol — showed how art and science could combine to make beauty. And today, it rewards those who climb to the top with a grand Florence view.
While the architecture of the dome and the statues of the bell tower are impressive, the Baptistery across from the cathedral, steeped in history and art, is centuries older. The Baptistery is separate because in medieval times you couldn't go into a church until you were baptized. Its interior glitters with Byzantine-style mosaics created long before the Renaissance.
Jesus overlooking creation on Judgment Day gives the ultimate thumbs up and thumbs down. On his right Angel Gabriel blows his trumpet, bringing good news to the saved and on the thumbs down side well, you don't want to go there.
Some say the Renaissance began in 1401 with the excitement over a city-wide competition to build new doors for the Baptistery. Lorenzo Ghiberti won this commission and others to follow — spending decades beautifying this building. These bronze panels - Ghiberti's so-called "Gates of Paradise," were revolutionary in their realism.
While the doors outside are copies, we're touring the Duomo museum for a look at the original panels and the other great art of the cathedral.
With Ghiberti, the art world acquired a whole new dimension — depth. He pulled out all the stops to give his panels maximum three-dimensionality. The architecture portrayed is mathematically correct. The tiles have lines which converge to a vanishing point. This table is foreshortened to extenuate its depth. A bench is added to establish a foreground distinct from the middle and background. The effect? As viewers we become part of the scene, standing in the presence of the holy prophets.
Along with realism, art was infused with emotion. The work of Donatello is a groundbreaking example.
Donatello invented the Renaissance style Michelangelo would later perfect. He was an innovative, eccentric, work-a-holic master who lit up his statues with an inner spirituality or soul.
His Mary Magdalene — carved out of wood — is shockingly realistic. The prostitute rescued from the streets by Jesus folds her hands in prayer. Her once-beautiful body has been scarred by the fires of her fasting and remorse. While her physical body is neglected and her eyes are hollow, her spirit stands strong.
After nearly 150 years of construction, the cathedral was almost done, and they began preparing the interior for its inauguration.
This balcony for the choir sums up the exuberance of the age. Dancing and swirling in a real space, oblivious to the columns, Donatello's happy angels enjoy the freedom and motion of this new age.
The museum's most famous piece — sculpted much later — is this pieta by Michelangelo. The broken body of the crucified Christ is tended by three mourners — his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Nicodemus. Michelangelo sculpted Jesus taller than life — notice the zigzag of his body. This accentuates its weight, making the theological point of the statue clear — Jesus is dead.
Nicodemus is thought to be a self-portrait of the 80-year-old Michelangelo. After spending a lifetime bringing statues to life, Michelangelo looks down sadly and tenderly at what could be one of his final creations.
I'm meeting my Florentine friend Manfredo at a little sandwich shop called I Fratellini — the little brothers. Locals have been serving rustic sandwiches and Chianti from this colorful hole-in-the-wall for ages.
Manfredo: Who comes here? Now everybody comes for a quick lunch, workers, top managers, students, everybody.
Let's go, we can leave the glasses here.
If you never leave its crowded center, you don't really see Florence. Cross the Arno River and explore the Oltrarno.
Manfredo: If you want to leave the tourists, you must cross the Arno, you have to go to the other side. That's where the Florentines really live.
There's more to this town than tourism. The majority of its people live and work — mostly in small shops — where tourists rarely venture. Pop into shops to see artisans at work.
You're welcome to drop in to little shops but remember, it's polite to greet the merchant. "Can I take a look?" is "Posso guardare?"
Many people of the Oltrarno share buildings that were once Palazzos. Today residents like Manfredo and his friends can still enjoy the good life with peaceful siestas and great views from private rooftop gardens.
Manfredo: It's so great with the campari and the view of the Boboli Gardens. It used to be the private gardens of the Medici family but now it's open to everyone. It's a great garden!
I just avoided a two-hour wait at the Uffizi Gallery tomorrow by calling today for an entry appointment. Something I stress in all my guidebooks is tricks for avoiding these long lines. Italy is really crowded. But Florence has a great system for this and many other cities are following suit.
Driving and parking in Florence is no fun — especially for visitors. I'm getting around local style — with Manfredo's help — and we're heading for Piazzale Michelangelo.
Perched on a hill overlooking the town, this is understandably the place to wind down your day. Enjoying a wonderful city view, a setting sun with a special travel partner becomes a prized memory.
We're staying at Hotel Loggiato dei Serviti. This spiffed up 16th-century monastery offers a good mix of character and comfort. From the understated elegance of its lounges and breakfast room, stone stairways lead to comfortable bedrooms. Once the cells of monks, the rooms — with air-conditioning, antique furniture, and mini-bars, wouldn't be recognized by their original inhabitants.
A block away is another monastery — with simpler cells than our hotel but better art.
The Monastery of San Marco, with its peaceful cloister, welcomes the public to enjoy the greatest collection anywhere of frescoes and paintings by Fra Angelico.
Fra Angelico — equal parts monk and painter — fused medieval spirituality with early Renaissance techniques.
In this painting, he creates a realistic scene set in the first great Renaissance landscape. Christ is mourned by both haloed saints and contemporary Florentines. The scene is holy, but rather than in heaven, it's set on a lawn in Tuscany among real trees and people.
The halls are lined with monk's cells, each with a meditation-enhancing fresco. Studying these religious scenes, we can see how Fra Angelico thought of painting as a form of prayer and why it's said he couldn't paint a crucifix without shedding tears.
This is the cell of Savonarola, the charismatic monk who, by giving fiery sermons denouncing the decadence of Renaissance Florence, threw out the Medici and, for a time, turned the city into a theocracy.
Ruling the city, he sponsored "bonfires of the vanities" — in which his followers would collect and burn jewelry, fleshy paintings, anything considered too modern, hedonistic and humanist. Even the Florentine painter Botticelli fell under Savonarola's spell — tossing some of his "decadent" paintings onto the fires.
Later, Botticelli painted this metaphor of the times — showing Renaissance heroes being dragged before a court of medieval morality. The classical statues look out of their niches in dismay. And Venus looks up at God as if to say, "How can you do this to us?"
Finally, when Florence decided it preferred the Renaissance to a Church-sponsored return to the Dark Ages, Savonarola himself was burned.
Modern Florence could provide plenty of decadence for a Savonarola rant, but if you want to enjoy a splash of materialism or just appreciate the fine symmetry of Italian window displays, this is the place to be.
For shoppers, Florence means high quality and top fashions. Wandering through medieval streets while being tempted by a seductive array of fine jewelry, leatherwear, and Italian design can make for a delightful afternoon.
The Ponte Vecchio, or old bridge, has been busy with shoppers since before the Renaissance. Jewelry is a Florentine specialty. The bridge is lined with gold and silver shops — a tradition that goes back centuries.
The city's appetite for things of beauty spills over into food. Even a sandwich shop in Florence can be elegant. Cantinetta dei Verrazzano is a long-established bakery/café/wine bar serving delicious sandwich plates in an stylish old-time setting. As office workers pop in for a quick bite, it's tradition to share tables at lunchtime.
The waiter describes the plate. No trip to this city of art is complete without a visit to its greatest museum.
When the Medici family ruled Florence from this palace, their offices — or Uffizi — were next door — connected by a skyway. Now, these offices hold the finest collection of Italian paintings anywhere — the Uffizi Gallery.
Each day, here and throughout Europe, frustrated tourists waste precious hours in museum lines. Meanwhile, travelers who made a reservation as we did yesterday show up at their appointed time and are allowed right in.
The Uffizi's collection — displayed on one comfortable floor, takes you on a sweep through art history from the 12th through the 17th century.
These altarpieces are Gothic — being pre-Renaissance they simply tell their story through symbolism rather than realism. The gold leaf sky isn't realistic, but it implies a rich and holy setting. The angels are stacked — like a totem pole. On this altarpiece these panels tell the story of the crucifixion, but they don't create any sense of depth. Yet artists were trying to show Jesus' head leaning out — it actually does.
Giotto, often considered the first modern painter, is still Gothic. But notice the progress. A more realistic setting places Mary and baby Jesus on a throne occupying a believable space. The kneeling angels in front and peek-a-boo saints behind create an illusion of depth.
If the Renaissance was a foundation of the modern world, a foundation of the Renaissance was Classical art. Sculptors, painters, and poets alike turned to ancient work for inspiration.
This 2,000-year-old classical goddess — a Roman copy of the much older Greek original — stood in the Medici family garden.
It was considered the epitome of beauty. Louis 14th made a copy. Napoleon stole it. In the 19th century young aristocrats on the grand tour stood right here and swooned.
In the Renaissance — as in the ancient world — people saw the glory of God in the beauty, order, and harmony of the human body — God's greatest creation.
Classical statues like this clearly inspired Sandro Botticelli. For me, his Birth of Venus is the Uffizi's purest expression of Renaissance beauty. The goddess of love, born from the foam of a wave, is just waking up.
Botticelli combines the beauty of nature and the human body — the hands, wings, and robe mingle with the wind. With Venus' flyaway hair, the airy spaciousness of the distant horizon, and the flowers — caught at the peak of their beauty, tumbling in slow motion — the world itself seems fresh and newborn.
Botticelli's Primavera, or Springtime, shows the Renaissance finally in full bloom. The warm winds blow in, causing Flora to sprout flowers from her lips. While the figure of Spring spreads petals from her dress, the Three Graces dance, a blindfolded cupid happily sprays his little arrows, and in the center stands Venus, the classical goddess of love.
Visiting Florence leaves lovers of art and good living with rich memories. And while much of the great art of the Renaissance remains here, the influence of that cultural explosion — the Florentine Renaissance — reverberates throughout the world, and for that, we can be thankful.
I hope you've enjoyed our look at the artistic splendor of Florence. Let's explore more of Europe together again soon. Until then, I'm Rick Steves. Keep on travelin'. Ciao.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.