A Brief History of Places in Firenze

As I’m writing, I’ll be referencing a lot of places in Firenze that have beautiful, rich histories, and I don’t want to stop my narrative to explain the history of a place, so I would like to take the time to write about the places I spent a lot of time in or around in Firenze.

Il Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore), Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni), and Giotto’s Campanile

Construction on the Duomo began in 1296 and was not completed as we see it today until 1887.  Work on the first stone façade, the nave and the radiating apses was finished in the early 1400s and in 1420, work on Brunelleschi’s famous dome began.  It’s amazing that it was completed in only 16 years, given the engineering challenges they faced.  A commitment had been made to reject the Gothic flying buttresses that are seen on many churches in Europe, like the Notre Dame in Paris.  They wanted the dome to be freestanding with a thin outer shell supported by the inner dome.  Brunelleschi looked to the Pantheon in Rome for a solution.  The Pantheon is built with solid concrete, that is, it’s all one piece.  Although a wooden frame had held the dome for the Pantheon, the dome in Firenze was way to big to be supported by a wooden frame, plus there wasn’t enough timber in Tuscany to make a frame that large.  It was also suggested that they make a giant pile of dirt and build the dome around that, and then remove the dirt, but that was rejected.  Brunelleschi decided to follow the double-shell design and found a way to reduce spreading, or hoop stress, which I guess I stress on the base of the dome.  He created “ribs” for each corner of the octogonal dome, with each rib curving towards the center or top of the dome.  These ribs, which are visible, are supported by sixteen concealed ribs between the two layers of the dome.  The hidden ribs had slits in them, still evident today, to support platforms, thus eliminating the need for scaffolding.

The Duomo

They finally finished the final façade of the Duomo in 1887 in a Gothic design by Emilio de Fabris to echo the design on Giotto’s Campanile (built 1334-1359).  It’s said that the statue on the far left of the façade is Abraham Lincoln because Italy supported the Union during the Civil War, which had ended 20 years earlier.

The most impressive piece of art in the Duomo today are the Last Judgment frescoes by Vasari.  They seem to go forever and are painted in a way that makes it look like there are tiers of people looking down at you.  A lot of the art that used to be in the Duomo is now in the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore Museum.  They have a lot of cool artwork in there, including Donatello’s Magdalene, which is a wood-carved statue of Mary Magdalene.  The museum is filled with decorative pieces that used to be in the Duomo, but over time were rotated out.  I always wonder why they did that, because the Duomo seems kind of big and empty on the inside.  The last thing in the museum are the original doors of the Baptistry.

The doors of the Baptistery were created in a competition between the seven leading artists at the time, including Donatello and Brunelleschi.  Ghiberti’s design was chosen.  Both his and Brunelleschi’s designs are so different from Florentine Gothic art at the time that they are considered the first products of the Renaissance.  The doors are made with bronze panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament.

Palazzo Vecchio, the Vasari Corridor, and Palazzo Pitti

The Palazzo Vecchio, completed in 1322, still serves its original purpose as Firenze’s town hall.  It is well known for the replica of Michelangelo’s David in front on, next to the Loggia dei Lanzi.  This is all part of the area surrounding Pizza della Signoria, one of the most beautiful piazze in Firenze.

Palazzo Vecchio is famous for the frescoes in the Salone dei Cinquecento, or Hall of Five Hundred.  While the whole building is full of amazing artwork, the frescoes in the Hall of Five Hundred are known for the secret they hold.  Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were both commissioned to paint the frescoes in the Hall, but they were never completed.  Vasari, another master at frescoes, was asked to complete the frescoes.  He painted over Michelangelo and da Vinci’s frescoes.  Recently, however, there has been a lot of work to find what might be da Vinci’s lost fresco.  We know there is a fresco there because before Vasari painted over it, artists and students would come to the Palazzo Vecchio and draw copies of the fresco, the Battle of Anghiari.  Apparently, Vasari put a layer of bricks over the wall on the side da Vinci was working on, and left a three-foot gap over the area da Vinci had painted.  Recent excavations were made behind the fresco.  The workers had to be very careful not to damage the Vasari fresco, and drilled tiny holes for cameras to go through.  Unfortunately, the area they got permission to drill over isn’t even where they think the fresco is.  However, they did find a particular white paint that da Vinci was known for using.  Most Renaissance artists didn’t use white paint because it didn’t mix well in their pieces, but da Vinci was good at using it.  The team that talked to my art history class about the Battle of Anghiari and their excavations are still waiting to hear if they can try again.

Aside from mysterious frescoes, the palazzo has work by Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo, and Verrochio.  There is a beautiful room that I only remember as the jewel box.  It was a private room painted blue-green with paintings dominated by the colors blue and green, and held a lot of precious art.  There is also a room full of old maps, which are amazingly accurate for what they knew of the world.

On the third floor (I believe) is the entrance to the Vasari Corridor.  Cosimo I had Vasari design a passage for him because he didn’t want to walk among the people.  The Vasari Corridor stretches from Palazzo Vecchio to the Uffizi, over the Ponte Vecchio, across the tops of houses in the Oltrarno, and ends in the Boboli Gardens behind Palazzo Pitti.

Here’s picture of the Corridor between Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi:

Vasari Corridor

The Palazzo Pitti was originally built for the banker Luca Pitti, but the building costs bankrupted the Pitti family, so the Medici bought the palazzo.  In 1550 it became the main Medici residence.  This is where the Costume Gallery and Galleria d’Arte Moderna are held today.  The palazzo is huge, and at least twice as big as the Pitti family had originally planned for it to be.

Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio is one of my favorite places in Firenze.  There are performers and artists, but the best part is, the bridge is lined with jewelry shops.  It was built in 1345 and is the oldest bridge in Firenze.  All the shops were originally butcher shops, and the butchers would throw meat out the windows into the Arno River (they weren’t too concerned about the environment back then).  Cosimo I and the rest of the Medici family found this disgusting, and it did smell quite bad, so in 1593 Duke Ferdinand I ordered that all the butcher shops be turned into goldsmith or jewelry shops, and those shops still stand today.

Ponte Vecchio

Here is my favorite story ever–EVER–about Firenze.

In World War II, German soldiers were ordered to bomb all the bridges crossing the Arno in Firenze.  They set everything up, and when the time came, all the bridges were bombed.  Except the soldier who was supposed to blow up the Ponte Vecchio couldn’t do it.  He thought it was too beautiful to blow up.  So he saved it, and it’s the only medieval bridge that remains.

Piazza della Repubblica

Our school was in a building on the north side of Piazza della Repubblica.  The piazza was first a Roman forum, then the Mercato Vecchio (Old Market) until 1890.  Via Roma runs right by in to the east, between the piazza and Rinascente, the department store.  Via Roma is the original road that went to Rome.  I don’t know if you could still follow it all the way to Rome, but today it takes you through the Oltrarno to Porta Roma, the old city gates south of the city.  There is an 18th century statue of Abundance, from the days when the piazza was a market, and on the west side is a huge arch celebrating Firenze as the capital of Italy.  The inscription at the top says, “The ancient center of the city/restored from age-old squalor/to new life.”

the arch

Piazza della Repubblica always has something going on.  There are caricature artists, or chalk artists, or bands playing in the square.  A lot of people played “Time to Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli–like seriously, I was getting kind of sick of that song–but there was this one band that played their own stuff.


Behind them is the bookstore Edison, which sadly went out of business while I was there.  I think it’s becoming an Apple store, which no one was happy about.  It was a beautiful bookstore with a cafe and three floors of books.

CEA was located on the third floor above Gilli, the cafe I went to the first morning with Emily.  We had a little view of the Duomo from the corner classroom, a small library, an AMAZING vending machine where I got hot chocolate every morning, and some couches where I slept between classes when I was still jet-lagged.  There was a student lounge with bookshelves full of guidebooks, and usually I would sit there before class with my hot chocolate and read the 2011 Rick Steves’ Europe book for ideas of where to travel.