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Eur First Trip to Florence

Revised March 22, 2006

Most Americans arrive in Florence to see the art and architecture. It is often considered the birthplace of the Renaissance where Galileo developed theories about physics, Michelangelo sculpted the enormous David and Brunelleschi built the huge domed cathedral in the center of town. You will be overwhelmed by the museums so plan your time wisely because there is more to see than you can do in a few days. And make time to visit the countryside...the hills of Tuscany will captivate you. Great day trips will take you Monteriggioni, San Gimiagno and Siena. You should also make a trip to the famed leaning tower of Pisa, only an hour away by car or a short train ride.

Florence has a population of about 400,000 which is about the size of Atlanta. The city is surrounded by the hills of Tuscany and the river Arno runs through it. You'll find congestion in the city and should opt for public transportation which is cheap and convenient. If you stay in the central city, most of the museums are only a walk away. There are a number of reasonably priced hotels located near the bus terminal, so if Florence is your first stop, take the bus from the airport and do not rent a car to drive until you head into the countryside.

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The streets of Florence are three-dimensional history lessons. To appreciate the city, it is helpful to know about both the Renaissance and the artists of that period. I will admit that my background in Rennaissance art is very limited--I enjoyed two PBS series on European art including the serries by Sister Wendy. I recount a brief history of the city on this page but if you need a refresher course in Renaissance and other European art, you should head to a local library or pick up a book or DVD on the great works of Florence.


Florence was once ruled by successful merchants, most notably, the Medicis. Their wealth financed many of the great works of art produced in Italy. It also financed construction of many great buildings. Scattered thorugh the city you will see the art and architecture that they contributed to the city.

The major attractions are

It is strange to say that we spent a day and a half in Florence but never saw Michelangelo's David. There was so much to see, and at the top of my list were the Duomo and the Bargello which houses my favorite piece of art on the planet, Donatello's ethereal young David. We wondered straight from the bus terminal to the Duomo and then walked further to the Bargello.

I am always aware that anticipation is a major part of the thrill of travel and that when you finally see a piece of art or a building, it may not be as significant as you expected. Donatello's statue of David is placed in a distant room in the Bargello and you get a mini-lesson in Renaissance art as you walk toward the bronze statue of the young hero. There were many pieces from members of the Della Robbia family, in their signature blues and yellows. Hall after hall was adorned with paintings more than 400 years old and then finally, we stepped into a room where the David was the central piece. It was not disappointing.

As you make your decision about which museums to visit, remember that art, like music, is subjective. Fortunately, my husband didn't have an alternative list to mine (he appreciates Van Gogh and had already been to important places in Provence and knew we would get to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) as we toured Florence. We were sated with art of period by the time we left the Bargello and put plans to see Michelangelo's David at the end of the day.

Following a lite snack, we headed toward the Ponte Vecchio which leads you across the Arno River past the stores of jewelry, souvenirs, and other tempting trinkets. It is unique because it is the oldest surviving bridge in Florence. It once housed blacksmiths, butchers, and tanners who saw the river below as a convenient sewer. By the end of the Renaissance they were evicted and goldsmith's and other artisans moved in. Fortunately this bridge survived W.W.II because no other bridges in Florence did.

The History of Western Art: 3PK DVD
The History of Western Art: 3PK DVD

The Duomo of Florence has become the symbol of Florence, is its tallest building and is as tribute to the wealth and civic pride of the affluent families of the city during the Renaissance. The church, on which construction began in 1299, is crowned by the massive dome designed by Brunelleschi almost two centuries later. This building did not have a roof for 175 years because it posed a major architectural challenge with the large area the dome had to span. You can climb 463 steps up the dome and view the city below. The artist Ghiberti spent 21 years creating the dramatic bronze doors that depict parts of the Old Testament and lead into the Baptistry. Seven of the great artists of Florence, including Brunelleschi and Donatello, competed for the opportunity to make these doors (and earn the stipend for the work). The doors have been moved into the museum for safekeeping and can be viewed every day except Christmas, New Year's Day and Easter. The art that decorates the Duomo is a mix of late Medieval and Renaissance. It includes 13th Century mosaics, 15th Century stained glass windows designed by Ghiberti, and 16th Century frescoes and marble inlay.

On almost the same status as the Louvre and Hermitage, Florence's Uffizzi is consider by some to be the most impressive art gallery in Italy. It holds The Birth of Venus, one of Botticelli's greatest work. Reflecting the humanist qualities of the Renaissance, Carvaggio made a work of the Roman god of wine, Bacchus, and shows Bacchus in a dark light, in a very accurate form of an adolescent without any cares . Another major painting is Michelangelo's The Holy Family, a painting showing Christ on his mothers lap.

In a city overflowing with art, the Bargello is a museum that houses many other famous works of art. One famous work of art is Donatello's David, again very human in form as Renaissance sculpture was. You can see Brunelleschi's entry in the Duomo door contest. Michelangelo also has a statue of Bacchus in the Bargello, reflecting the interest of the period in the art and ideas of the Roman Empire.

The Galleria dell'Accademia contains one of the most famous statues in the world, Michelangelo's David,. Outside the building is a model of the original while the original has been moved inside for safety. By contrast to the Donatello statue, Michelangelo portrayed David as a strong young man rather than the young adolescent Donatello rendered.

However pressed you may be for time, you should spend some of it in the beautiful wine country of Tuscany. In particular, the hilltop city of San Gimignano is famed for its surviving towers and spectacular architecture. Fillled with great restaurants and bakeries, a stroll through its curving cobbled streets is a step back into history. One of our most pleasant nights on our second trip to Europe was at the immaculately clean and reasonably priced Podere Montese which is about a mile outside of town. Its friendly owners provide a hearty home grown breakfast and you may never swim in a pool that has a better view than theirs. We enjoyed the opportunity to mingle with other guests at the farmhouse and had a memorable evening enjoying Montese's wine with folks from Austria and Germany.

Within a short day's journey from Florence, you can visit the city of Siena. It has a beautiful duomo that tourist visit but it is in July and August, when the people of each neighborhood compete with other neighborhoods in the Corsa al Palio. Waving brightly colored flags, the Siennese race their horses through the Piazzo del Campo hoping to earn bragging rights in the citywide event.

Most travellers will also take a trip to Pisa, to visit the town where the astronomer, Galileo, studied and taught and climb through the famous leaning tower that is now 16.5 feet off center. The leaning tower of Pisa was started in 1173. But as it began to rise skyward, the weight of the building began to compress the soft soils below. The construction continued, putting more weight on the soil below, and the tower tilted more. Over the years, the shifting has continued. A massive project was completed in 2002 that has stabilized the tower and, when we last checked, tourists were allowed to climb the tower. Be sure to bring a camera so that you can be counted among the many travelers who make this one of the most photographed sights in the world.

A longer trip, but worth the time, is to Orvieto. Located on atop a classic hill on the drive between Florence and Rome, the city is home ot one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Italy. The delicate sculptures lace the exterior that is painted with vibrant frescoes dating back 500 to 600 years. It is a pleasant stop along the way where you might want to visit the museum and grab a snack after touring the cathedral.