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Truly a city of the past, Florence is an Italian city that is rich with history and art – every street and building has its own story and significance. Art and creativity from hundreds of years ago is everywhere! Here are ten of the most important and impressive pieces of architecture throughout Florence, ranging from the Middle Ages and all the way up to the time of Italy’s independence and unification during the second half of the 19th century.
By far one of the most impressive pieces of architecture in Florence, Fillipo Brunelleschi’s breathtaking cathedral proudly holds the title of the largest ‘Duomo’ in Italy. In fact, it is so big that it took 140 years to finish. Florentine architects started planning the massive structure in 1294, and they knew that they wanted the dome of the cathedral to be bigger than any other existing cathedral in the Italian peninsula at the time; only they hadn’t yet developed the engineering and technology to produce and support such a colossal structure. They began the construction of the building anyway, but had to stop in the middle, leaving the cathedral dome-less for nearly 124 years; that is until Brunelleschi won a competition against his life-long rival Lorenzo Ghiberti and devised an ingenious plan that would make the construction of the enormous dome possible. It was finally completed in 1436; its facade went under a series of restorations and additions in the 1870s and is continually being maintained; but it is definitely as stunning as it was almost 600 years ago.
The original structure of the church is one of the oldest in Florence; this is visible in its rusticated, bare stone façade that has been left untouched. The Basilica was the parish church of the wealthy Medici family in Florence throughout the Renaissance, and in the early 1400s Giovanni de Bicci de’ Medici commissioned a new church (originally designed by Fillipo Brunelleschi) that has since been altered and changed by a number of different artists. Perhaps the most famous additions were the New Sacristy by Michelangelo Buonarotti and the Medici Chapel, which was added much later. The Basilica of San Lorenzo boasts some of the most impressive examples of Renaissance architecture in its symmetry and harmony. Michelangelo’s New Sacristy is a perfect example of the innovative, modern, almost Mannerist style of architecture that was becoming more popular in the 1520s.
The Santa Maria Novella Church is one of the oldest Basilicas of the Dominican Order in Florence, dating back to the late Middle Ages. It started off as being built in the Gothic style, which was popular during the 13th century. The main structure was completed, but the façade was left unfinished; nearly 200 years later, Leone Battista Alberti designed the inlaid black and white marble façade, adding elements of architecture of the Antiquity that would soon dominate Renaissance architecture such as Romanesque columns, arches and pediments. Today, the Santa Maria Novella Church is situated right next to the main train station under the same name, and it is home to Masaccio’s masterpiece The Holy Trinity.
Originally commissioned as the home of Florentine banker Lucca Pitti in 1458, the Palazzo Pitti is a beautiful example of Renaissance architecture with its sturdy, symmetrical structure; heavy, wide arches; and rusticated stone pillars and walls. It was later bought by Eleonora di Toledo, a wealthy and powerful duchess and wife of Cosimo I de Medici. The palace stayed in the Medici family for centuries, amassing countless treasures and priceless works of art that the Medici had purchased and commissioned over the years. Today, it is the biggest museum in Florence, housing a number of different art galleries, the beautiful Boboli Gardens and even Eleonora di Toledo’s famous gown from her portrait by Agnolo Bronzino in the costume gallery.
The Palazzo Vecchio, or the ‘Old Palace’ is the town hall of Florence, and is one of the most impressive in Tuscany. It was built as a fortress-palace in 1299 during a time of political turmoil, its monumental size and structure and tall Gothic-Romanesque bell tower are supposed to show off the Florentine Republic’s strength and power and to intimidate any potential enemies. It is one of the first signs of a form of democracy in Medieval Florence, as the commune, or worker’s guilds of Florence voted to have the palace built to serve the purpose of town hall. On the front of the palace are the shields and emblems of the most influential and important workers guilds in Florence representing the diversity and wealth of the Florentine Republic. Located in the Piazza della Signoria next to the Loggia dei Lanzi, The Palazzo Vecchio remained both politically and artistically important throughout the history of Florence; at one point housing the study of Niccolo Machiavelli.
Started in 1255, the Bargello is similar in style to the Palazzo Vecchio with its weighty fortress-like base and tall slender bell tower. It too was originally built as a civil building to house the City Commune of Florence and is the oldest public building in Florence. In the late 16th century, the Medici family turned the Bargello into a police headquarters and prison, which it remained until 1859 when it was turned into an art museum. Today it houses some of the most important statues and sculptures from both the Antiquity and the Renaissance, including Michelangelo’s Bacchus and Donatello’s David.
The basilica of Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan Church in the world, and it houses an impressive 16 different chapels. For a while it was the rival Church of the Dominican Santa Maria Novella, and it was very popular amongst the poorer peasants of Florence during the late middle ages. Many of the most influential and culturally important Florentines and Italians have memorial monuments in the Santa Croce Basilica including Dante, Galileo Galilei, Machiavelli and Michelangelo. The façade of the Church was greatly damaged during the devastating 1966 flood, but it has since been restored and its inlaid marble façade from the 19th century is still quite remarkable.
The Basilica of Santo Spirito is also an example of Renaissance architecture, though unlike Santa Maria Novella or Santa Croce, the façade of Santo Spirito was left bare, without decoration of marble and sculpture. Today it is painted completely white and it has a modest, almost angelic quality to its plain exterior. The interior houses a number of frescoes in it’s many side-chapels as well as Michelangelo’s wooden crucifix. When Michelangelo was 17, he was given permission to make studies of the bodies coming from the hospital, even though this practice was illegal, and so he based this tiny wooden figurine of Christ on his anatomical, true-to-life drawings.
The Ponte Vecchio, or ‘The Old Bridge,’ is the oldest bridge in Florence; traces of a bridge at the same point (the narrowest) of the Arno river date as far back as Roman times. Tiny quaint-looking, colorful shops along the bridge poke out precariously over the water and make this bridge so unique. It is also the only bridge in Florence that survived the Nazi bombings of WWII.
The Piazza della Republica is one of Florence’s newer architectural monuments Amongst a city of Renaissance architecture, this large and spacious square definitely stands out. The site of the square was previously a Jewish ghetto, dating back to medieval Florence. Shortly after the unification, Florence was briefly named capital of Italy, and it was during this time that Florence underwent a series of modernizations. Following the Parisian model of the Haussmanization of Paris in the 1880s-1890s, the Piazza della Republica was built to evoke the ‘modern’ European city, with open spaces, large Neoclassical arches and patriotic statues to embrace Italy’s newfound independence.
By Naomi Lubash
Naomi Lubash is a second year Art History and Italian Studies student at NYU and is currently spending a year in Florence, following her love for Renaissance painting. She comes home to Tel Aviv, and is very much interested in the contemporary art scene, she herself paints whenever she gets the chance, you can check out her own art on her Instagram page: @NaomiLubash