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.



Our orientation for school took place in a hidden building next to the Duomo.  You had to walk past the ticket office for the Baptistry and Campanile and to an old looking building that was very modern inside, all glass and metal.  Orientation started at some obscene time that was still the middle of the night for us, like eight in the morning or something.  They had pastries out for us, but there were so many hungry people that they were gone pretty fast.  The first morning was a safety orientation.  Like about pickpockets and not to walk alone at night if you’re a girl (a rule that I flagrantly disregarded).  After orientation, Emily, Polly, Nicole, Daniel, Rachel H. and I walked around the Duomo and had pizza at a place called Pizz’A.  We walked back across the Ponte Vecchio and got gelato again.  Then, I don’t know, I guess we all went back to our apartments and fell asleep. The second day of orientation was about our neighborhoods.  I will never understand why we didn’t have this orientation first.  All we had to eat for three days was chocolate wafers, pasta with meat sauce, and crackers with Nutella.  They told us about how our apartments work, what Vape is, what settings were best for our washing machines, not to walk around at night.  They also introduced some of the teachers.  I don’t think any of mine were introduced but they all seemed really nice. After orientation Emily, Polly and I walked to Gilli, which is the oldest caffe in Firenze (since 1733).  It’s very fancy looking in there, with gold railings and mountains of candy displayed in the windows.  In the displays inside the caffe there are all kinds of sandwiches and pastries.  I’m not really sure what I got, but it looked like this:


I got tea, but Em and Polly tried espresso, which is Italian coffee.  They let me have a sip.  Nope.  Just no.  I’m sorry, but no.  It’s the strongest stuff in the world and I was practically choking.

At Gilli, as in most Italian caffe, you have to stand at the bar with your drink and pastry, because if you sit at the tables outside, a meal that was only €1,50 will end up costing €4,50.  Don’t ask me why, Italians do crazy stuff.

After we had lunch, we walked across the Ponte Vecchio to the Oltrarno, the neighborhood across the river (oltrarno is Italian for ‘beyond the Arno”).  We walked up to the Palazzo Pitti, one of the Medici palaces.  We wanted to go into the Boboli Gardens but they were closed because of rain earlier that day.  So we went through the costume gallery instead.  It was basically a bunch of different kinds of clothes from 1800-2000.  It was fun to look at even though all the descriptions were in Italian.


Views from the Ponte Vecchio:



We walked around Oltrarno for a while.  It’s a lot quieter than the city center, where the Duomo is, and hillier, and it has more trees.

Also it has this view:


We walked back across a different bridge to Santa Croce, which is one of the most beautiful churches in Firenze.  What’s interesting about it is that on the facade there’s a Star of David, because the designer of the facade, Niccolo Matas, was Jewish.  We sat on the steps in front because we were tired from all our walking.


Later, we finally got a tour of the grocery stores in the Santa Maria Novella neighborhood, where my apartment was.  Our grocery store was called Conad.  It is a cramped place, with small sections for produce, bread, meat and dairy, and entire area dedicated to pasta, and some household supplies.  We also had the Vivi Market, which is the import market where they have stuff like peanut butter and soy sauce.  Surprisingly we almost never went there.  So Rachel H., our roommate Erica, and I all bought groceries and realized that we would have to take them up eight flights of stairs.  But at least we had food.


I won’t lie, I was pretty freaking scared when I left for Firenze (Italian for Florence).  My family met Emily’s family at LAX and we were all sitting in the International Terminal before security and eating Panda Express.  Part of me was like, I really want everyone to come with us and another part was like, Can we just go?  But we all sat crammed at this little table in the corner and talked about how excited we were and I was running everything I had learned in my Italian class the summer before through my head.  When we went through security and I couldn’t see our parents waving anymore, I really wanted to cry but I thought that might freak out the TSA people.  Our parents are all about getting to the airport obscenely early, so Emily and I walked around the duty-free shops and all the souvenir shops.  I probably got a travel magazine, and Em bought People Style Watch.  On the plane ride there, this guy sitting in front of us got drunk, and he was sitting in the emergency exit seat, so I couldn’t sleep because I kept imagining him grabbing the lever for the door and all of us getting sucked out of the plane before I ever made it to Italy.  Our TVs didn’t work, so we spent the first hour of the ten-hour flight going through People Style Watch magazine and either loving stuff we saw or making fun of people, because it is amazing what people will wear sometimes, and I wrote in my journal, and I guess we watched a movie or two on my computer.  I don’t remember what else we did, because there’s no way that all took ten hours. So I was basically catatonic when we got to the airport in Frankfurt, like I literally don’t remember anything about it except there was a tram to take us to a different terminal and we could see the exit and I could kind of see the street outside, and I was like, I wonder if all European cities look like that, which I realize is kind of stupid because airports are always in the middle of nowhere.  I think it was raining. There’s always that amazing burst of energy on the connecting flight to somewhere.  It was only an hour or an hour and a half, so Emily and I were basically bouncing off the walls and talking about all the things we wanted to do and what our apartments would look like and who our roommates would be.  The whole time we were wrestling each other to look out the window and we were like, Is this Italy Is this Italy? And then we began descending, and I wish I could have recorded the sound Emily and I both made.  It was like a high pitched gasp and a sigh at once, kind of Disney-princess-like and definitely a sound I’d made while watching Pride and Prejudice.  We were practically sitting on each other to see out the window at this point, and I was trying to see the Duomo, but I had no point of reference for where to look, so it just looked like we were descending into a sea of red roofs. The sun was just beginning to go down when we landed, and I don’t know what it is about Europeans, but something I learned while travelling is that there is always a mad rush to get off the plane.  Always.  We were pulled along the current of people to the baggage claim, and I just have to say that the baggage claim was terrifying once the carousel started moving.  There was yelling and hoping my bag didn’t get taken, and I was hoping so hard that I almost took the wrong bag and hit a woman in the knees with it before I realized it wasn’t mine.  We met a couple other study abroad students there, but none in our program yet.  We didn’t really have to go through customs, because we said we didn’t have anything to declare, mostly because it would have sucked if they were like, “Nope, no Clonopin allowed.” People from CEA, our study abroad program (pronounced cheya in Italian) were outside the airport to help us get taxis.  Emily left first, because she lived in a different apartment.    I was like, NO DON’T LEAVE ME, but it was okay because my taxi showed up about ten minutes later.  I was with one girl who talked a lot and another girl who didn’t ever say anything, so I guess I was kind of in the middle.  They dropped me off first.  I lived on via delle Belle Donne, and the taxi driver was like, “Do you know what that means?”  and I was like, “The street of…” and he said, “The street of BEAUTIFUL WOMEN!  You’ll fit in perfect there!”  So I was totally flattered.

Another CEA person was waiting for me outside my apartment.  ImageShe had an envelope that had my keys and information about the apartment, like how to use the washing machine and how to use Vape (vahp-ay), which was a mosquito repellant thing (both mosquitoes and repellent ended up being a problem).  Right next door to our door was the Le Belle Donne, which is an osteria.  I’m still not sure what the difference between an osteria and a trattoria is, but we had an osteria.

So then the fun part.  Pulling a forty-pound suitcase, and eighteen-pound suitcase, and a ten-pound backpack up eight flights of stairs.  We were on the top floor of our building.  Technically that is the fourth floor, because the ground floor doesn’t count, it just has the mailboxes and the entrance to the kitchens for the osteria underneath us.

So this lady that was supposed to be helping was constantly standing on the landing above me, watching me carry up the smaller suitcase, then drag, Oh My God, I mean like a freakin game of Tug-O-War, my giant suitcase up eight flights of stairs, and she was all like, “It’s okay, just take your time.”  And never offered to help.  (Incidentally, Emily only lived on the second floor and had an elevator.) The apartment was beautiful.  Honestly, if I had a choice of where I could live when I move back to Firenze (fingers crossed), I would go back to that apartment.  It was so beautiful!  And I feel so bad because I never took any pictures of the inside!  I’ll draw a map.  But to describe: the floor was all red hexagon tiles, the table in the kitchen was big and wooden, there was a marble-topped island in the kitchen and marble-topped counters, a small fridge (I learned later that the refrigerators in Italy are really small because everyone buys their food fresh.  There’s no reason to keep it in the fridge like Americans do.  I think we should start doing that [re: moldy tomatoes I found yesterday]), and a huge cabinet full of pillows and blankets–that cabinet would save us from freezing later.  There was also a Welcome Bag on the table, with pasta, Bolognese sauce, crackers, and chocolate wafers.

One of my roommates, Rachel, was already there.  She had gotten the single room, so I was like Dang it! because I’ve never had an actual in-my-room roommate.  But I love the room I was in, because I had this view from my bed:Image

So then I unpacked.  There was a huge wardrobe in our room, so I took half, and took two of the four drawers in the chest of drawers.  I had, of course, brought about seven books to read over the course of the semester, so I set those up on top of the chest of drawers.  I swear to you, everything was marble-topped in that apartment.  There was a little cabinet next to my bed too that was helpful for storing stuff.  I am an organizer.  I can’t do anything else until I have settled everything where it’s going to be for the next four months. Anyways, skip ahead, Rachel and I decided to walk around, so we walked out in what we assumed was the general direction of the Duomo.  We lived in a really narrow-street area, they were more like alleyways, and it felt so historic and European.  Suddenly we walked around a corner and out of an alleystreet and bam, there was the Duomo.



We met up with Emily and one of her roommates Nicole, and walked to Piazza della Signoria, where Michelangelo’s David stands in front of Palazzo Vecchio, as well as several other statues in the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is filled with ancient Roman statues like The Rape of the Sabine Woman (Giambologna) and Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa (Cellini). They’re kind of violent, those Romans.



We walked around to the Ponte Vecchio, which is this beautiful bridge (there will be a history lesson on all these places later) and got gelato at a place right across the bridge.  They arrange their gelato so beautifully.  It’s in these wavy mounds with a piece of whatever the flavor is, like a slice of pineapple in the pineapple gelato, or a thin strip of chocolate in the chocolate gelato.


We all got really tired really quickly then, and decided to go back to our apartments.  We parted at the Duomo, where Emily and Nicole kept walking north, and Rachel and I headed back to our alleyways.  We weren’t totally sure which streets we were supposed to be going on, because there are so many tiny ones, but all roads lead home, I guess.  My last memory of the first night there was turning around to look back at the Duomo.  It’s so bright at night.  They have spotlights or something on it constantly, so it just glows white and is so beautiful.  Like this.