Florence: A Bit of History

A bit of history:

Florence, Italy, is one of the world’s most beautiful and popular tourist destinations. With a long and eventful history dating back as far as 59 BC, Florence’s beauty is defined by its ancient buildings, cobblestone streets, museums, art, historical and eclectic architecture, and bustling city center. Florence has consistently been one of the most highly regarded and enjoyed tourist destinations in the entire world over the last decade.

So, let’s talk history. Way back in 59 BC, there was a Roman colony founded in the area we now call Florence. At the time, it acted as a settlement for soldiers under Julius Caesar and it was called “Florentina”.  Not a whole heck of a lot happened over the next couple hundred years.

Julius Caesar

In 405, this big event occurred: the Siege of Florence. Basically, German troops invaded the area and attempted to overtake the Romans. In the end, the battle was bloody and nothing significantly changed. The Romans held their own and killed the vast majority of the Germanic tribe folks. The bloodiness didn’t end completely, however. Over the next couple hundred years, Florence was controlled by alternating powers, the Byzantine and the Ostrogothics. They fought and fought and fought for control of the city; however, at the end of the 6th century, the city was under Lombard rule and peace was found for a little while.

Let’s jump ahead a little bit.  In 1078, the city of Florence was finally officially built.  In 1107, the nearby areas of Monte Orlandi and Prato were absorbed by the city and became a part of Florence. In 1115, a commune form of government was adopted and the Republic of Florence was established.

Tons of stuff happened in the 1200s. A few famous bridges were built, a public prison was established, and there was a big flood (1269). In 1284, the Tertio Cerchio wall (a big wall protecting the city) was erected. The Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova was founded (today, the oldest functioning hospital in all of Florence), and rounding out the 13th century, the Palazzo Vecchio was built in 1299. This was and is an important piazza near the Ponte Vecchio (built in 996), home to many shops and restaurants.

Santa Maria Nuova Hospital:

*Picture courtesy of http://www.laterrazzadimichelangelo.it

The 14th century rolled around, and all sorts of craziness (both good and bad) happened. Good: the University of Florence was founded, Ponte Vecchio was rebuilt after being washed away from numerous floods, a public clock was installed in Palazzo Vecchio, the Cathedral Campanile and the Basilica of Santa Croce were built, and the Medici Bank was established. Bad: The plague, which wiped out a huge portion of Florence’s population. And that wasn’t all.


We’re getting into a very famous and important time in Florence’s history involving a massive political turnover and change in power that lasted over three centuries. So, up until the late 14th century, Florence was led by the Albizzi family, or the “House of Albizzi”. During the 1300s, the city of Florence was expanding, and many townhomes were built by the merchant class that surrounded Florence’s previously prestigious palazzi (i.e., squares).

There was another important family during this time, the Medicis. The Medicis started as a common and poor family, farming and making wool. In 1378, one of the Medici family members, Giovanni Medici, led a strike on behalf of the wool workers; it was very left wing-ish, for lack of a better term (ok, ok, liberal may have sounded better there). After this protest, Giovanni began to gain a political following, as he was a natural and charismatic leader of the people.


*Picture courtesy of http://www.history.com

Giovanni and the rest of the Medicis continued to work hard and began to acquire political gain in the city. In 1397, the Medici family founded a bank; the Medici bank expanded and became one of the most powerful banks in all of Europe. They also owned many other enterprises in Florence and its surrounding areas. The Medici family control grew quickly under Cosimo Medici, Giovanni’s son. Cosimo would later be considered the founder of the Medici dynasty; he was also an instrumental individual in establishing and launching the massive chain of Medici banks. You can think of Cosimo as being a Bill Gates of his time: a self-made man who came from nothing and created sometime very important and powerful.


The Medici family produced many strong leaders and four popes in Rome. There were also two Medici daughters, both of which became Queens of France for over 40 years. Over time, the Medici family became royalty in Florence, acquiring the title of the “Dukes of Florence”, and they resided and ruled from Florence’s city center for over 300 years.

In 1478, rival wealthy families in the city conspired to assassinate the Medici leadership of the time, Lorenzo de’Medici, (ruled from 1449-1492) and his younger brother, Giuliano (sons of Cosimo). Both the Pazzi and the Salviati families were rival banking families who sought to end the Medici leadership. As a result of their efforts, Giuliano was killed and Lorenzo was injured. While this event caused much of a disturbance to the city, the Medici leadership did not dissipate, at least not yet. After the attack, Lorenzo adopted his late brother’s son, Giulio de’Medici (who later became Pope Clement VII). Lorenzo also had another son, Piero de’Medici, who took over power after his father’s death. He ultimately failed as a leader and was responsible for a temporary expulsion of the Medici family in Florence between 1494 and 1512.

They were gone, but not for long. In 1512, the branch of the family who were descendants of Cosimo, ruled intermittently until Alessandro de’Medici, the first official Duke of Florence, was successfully assassinated.

Why am I focusing so heavily on this family? Well, the vast majority of Florence’s historical buildings, museums, and its overall history directly relates to the Medicis’ rule and their contributions. For example, they were great promoters of art, sponsoring and collaborating with greats such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci; in turn, Florence is often considered the “cradle” of the Renaissance era. Their power and money also sponsored great works in Florence like the Uffizi gallery and the Pitti Palace, amongst many others.

That being said, let’s talk a little bit about Florence’s most important structures, buildings, and museums, most of which can be accredited in part to the Medici family influence.

Uffizi Art Museum and Gallery: The Uffizi Art Museum is one of the most comprehensive and famous art galleries in the entire world. It did not, however, begin as an art gallery; rather, Mr. Cosimo Medici (remember him from earlier?) ordered the building to be erected to house the administrative and judicial offices of Florence. “Uffizi” translates in English to “offices”. Created by artist Giorgio Vasari and completed by Bernardo Buontalenti, the gigantic U-Shaped building was created in an area with previous establishments, and therefore many homes and companies were demolished in order for the Uffizi to exist. Per Mr. Medici’s request, the Uffizi building was built with an above-ground corridor leading to many important establishments around the city (e.g., Pitti Palace, church of Felicita, and Boboli Gardens). This corridor was built to celebrate the marriages of Cosimo’s son, Francesco to Giovanna d’Austria. The gallery was completed in 1574. Because the Medici family had a strong love of art, they slowly started to collect beautiful and expensive works of art and place them in the Uffizi. Eventually, the collections became so immense, nearly every room was decorated with art works and became a gallery that became open to the public in 1769.

The corridor attached to the Uffizi:


The gallery:

Piazza Della Signoria: In the heart of Florence’s historical city center, this piazza remains Florence’s political, tourist, and local hub of the city. Many important buildings here. It is near Ponte Vecchio, Palazzo Vecchio (old place), town hall, Uffizi, and many other important historical buildings and structures. The piazza is also home to Michelangelo’s David, the Equestrian Monument of Cosimo I, and the Fountain of Neptune statues, amongst many others.

Ponte Vecchio: Built in 996, the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) was the only bridge to cross the Arno River into Florence until 1218. Ponte Vecchio is said to be the starting point for the Road to Rome, although it would take at least 5-7 days to walk the 280 kilometer path (back in the day, that is). There was a massive flood in 1345, and the bridge was rebuilt at that time. It was also the only bridge that the Germans did not destroy in World War II. There are shops located all along Ponte Vecchio and they’ve been there since the 13th century. At one point, fishermen lived and sold their products from the bridge; however, the Medici family became sick of seeing fish sales when they crossed the bridge via their above-ground corridor. They ordered that the fish shops were turned into gold and jewelry shops in 1575. High end shops remain all along the bridge today.

We enjoyed sightseeing in Florence. Read more about our trip HERE.


Piazza Santa Croce: This piazza is one of the two main squares in Florence’s historical city center. It is home to the Basilica of Santa Croce and is comprised of 16 chapels. The construction of the basilica began in 1294. This square is now a hub for nightlife.


San Lorenzo Church: This church is comprised of multiple chapels, the first dating back to 393 AD. It was the first Catholic Church in the entire region. As time went on, there were additions and restorations to the church, and in 1425 it underwent a massive reconstruction that lasted 40 years. Later, the Medici family hired Michelangelo to design the inside of the second chapel. The façade of the San Lorenzo Church was never completed due to the Medici family being exiled out of Florence for a time; this angered Michelangelo immensely as he had great plans for the church and had put forth great effort to create his ideas. Today, the façade remains unfinished. The citizens of Florence voted last year about what to do with the façade of the famous and historical church; the vote was 50% to restore it, and 50% to leave it alone; therefore, there will be another vote in the near future, which will determine the church’s fate.

Old Medici Palace: Almost immediately across from the San Lorenzo church is the first palace that the Medici family resided in. In 1537, the Medicis housed Michelangelo. At one time, the Medicis also housed Leonardo Da Vinci. They were lovers and promoters of art and often collaborated with the most famous artists of the time to design the palaces, churches, and offices that still remain in Florence.


Duomo/Basilica/Cathedral: The Duomo complex was built on the remains of the fourth century cathedral, Santa Reparata. There are multiple sections to the complex: the Duomo (i.e., “dome”), the cathedral, and the basilica. The cathedral itself was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296. A bell tower was added and completed in 1359 with a balcony towering over 85 meters high.  The famous dome, however, was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, after winning a design competition funded by the Medicis. Work on the dome began in 1420 and it was finally completed in 1436. At the time, the task of building such an intricate and vast dome was thought to be impossible; however, Brunelleschi had an in-depth understanding of physics and geometry which allowed him to ultimately create an incredibly unique and impressive structure for the time. This dome was attached to Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, and it was the world’s largest dome until Saint Peter’s Basilica was created in Vatican City in 1615.  The dome is 150 meters high. The entire structure (i.e., dome, basilica, cathedral) was created in an elegant design of green, white, and red marble. Utilization of these colors in a certain pattern are indicative of Florentine design. The white symbolizes purity, the green symbolizes the hope of salvation, and the red symbolizes Christ and faith. The marble is only found on religious buildings. The same design can be found in towns throughout the Tuscan region.

Learn more about getting tickets to the famous Cathedral complex HERE – what you need to know before you go.

City Hall: The palace in Piazza Della Signoria is now the city hall of Florence. It contains three parts. The front castle is a medieval looking portion that was built in 1296. The middle portion was left unfinished. It was built during the time that the Medicis were exiled out of the country and was left uncompleted for years. By the time the Medicis returned, they decided to leave the structure unfinished to signify the total anarchy that occurred when they were exiled, a reminder that nothing got done when they were not present. They wanted to send a message to Florence that Florence would not even be able to complete a simple task without the Medici. It was meant as a warning, a political message for the future. Before their exile, the Medicis had lived in city hall, close to Florence’s main offices and amongst the people.


*Picture courtesy of http://www.onedaycitytour.wordpress.com

Pitti Palace: After 35 years of living in city hall, the Medicis relocated to the Pitti Palace. Along with its creation, the Medicis had a corridor built that connected all of the city’s major buildings, and ran over one kilometer long (touched on this in the Uffizi information). The corridor was separated from the common people and was tall enough that one could even ride a horse through the above-ground corridor. Some of the famous buildings it connected were the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, and city hall. It even went all the way across the Ponte Vecchio which led to the Pitti Palace. The family resided here for 150 years starting in 1575. Behind the palace one will find beautiful gardens, one dedicated to the Renaissance and one deemed a “romantic park”, as well as another Medici fortress and an open air theatre. The palace was strategically placed on top of a little hill, representing power and separation from the city. As you can see, the Medicis’ relationship with the common people changed drastically over time.


The famous and powerful Medici bank closed in the 1600s. The ruling Medici family member at the time did not believe that a ruling family should be doing something as meager as running a bank; therefore, the Medici bank closed. This severely damaged the Tuscan economy and the Medicis became even less popular with the people.

The 17th century was a very difficult time for Tuscany, with agriculture and economics at an all-time low. During this time, the Medicis were still in power, residing in the Pitti Palace; however, the family and their palace essentially served as a symbol of tyranny to the people. They weren’t popular at all. The ruler at the time, Gian Gastone Medici, attempted to improve the situation, but he became mentally ill and isolated during his time as a leader. He did not marry, nor did he have any children. He was said to have lived the last three years of his life without leaving his bedroom. He died in 1737, and the people were apathetic.

His sister, Anna Maria, had married a German priest and moved to Germany. After her husband passed away, she came back to Florence to live. When she died on February 18th, 1743, she left the entirety of the Medici residences (e.g., Pitti Palace and Palazzo) , properties (e.g., the Uffizi, city hall), art collections, Palatine treasures, and any other Medici belongings to the city of Florence; she was the last of the ruling Medici family members. 1743 marked the end of the Medici leadership, as there were no more surviving members of the main Medici branch. There are still distant branches of the Medici family residing in both Florence and Rome.


Overall, the Medici were great protectors of science and promoters of art; however, they monopolized the city of Florence and left Florence in turmoil by the end of their rule. That being said, the vast majority of Florence’s remaining historical buildings and artifacts are intact as a result of the Medici family. Most important buildings were sponsored and founded by the Medici family, and they have therefore left a lasting legacy and have contributed to the thriving, beautiful, historical, important, and art-centered city that Florence is today.

Of course, there was much history that occurred after the fall of the Medici; however, I will save that for another day. I absolutely loved Florence and anticipate visiting again as soon as possible to acquire more knowledge about Florence and its eventful history after the fall of the Medicis.


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