The history of Florence: Italy's Renaissance powerhouse
Founded as a retirement home for Roman legionaries, in the Middle Ages the Tuscan capital became a cultural and political powerhouse. Catherine Fletcher explores a history stretching back some two millennia
What's in a name? In western Italy, you can learn a lot from place labels. The word Tuscany, for example, derives ultimately from the tribe known as the Etruscans, who arrived in the region around the ninth century BC. Their land, Etruria, was known to the Romans as Tuscia – hence Tuscany.
For several centuries, a federation of Etruscan city-states was the dominant power on the Italian peninsula. One of its major cities was Fiesole, set strategically on a hilltop overlooking the Arno River, about five miles north-east of the site of modern Florence.
From around about the fourth century BC, though, Etruria came into conflict with the burgeoning Roman republic. Over the following centuries, the Etruscans were slowly absorbed into the Roman world. And in 59 BC, so tradition says, Julius Caesar founded a settlement on the Arno called Florentia – a sort of retirement colony for army veterans.
Not much substantial physical evidence of Roman Florence survives today. The shape of the old amphitheatre is clear in the layout of streets that lie west of Piazza di Santa Croce, and you can get a sense of the Forum underneath the Piazza della Repubblica. In contrast, a beautiful Roman theatre survives up at Fiesole, as well as an Etruscan temple and a baths complex.
Rise of Christianity
In the later centuries of the Roman empire, Christianity took root in Florence. Remains of early Christian basilicas linger beneath several Florentine churches – for example, the original church on top of which the magnificent 15th-century Basilica di San Lorenzo was built was consecrated in AD 393.
The fifth century saw the collapse of the western Roman empire following successive attacks by Germanic peoples. A scramble for power followed in Italy, with the remains of the Roman empire – and, to an extent, the popes – hanging on in Rome.
In the late seventh century, the Frankish leader Charlemagne invaded, after which a degree of political stability returned to Florence, which grew to become an important regional centre over the next few centuries.
One of the major surviving landmarks from that period is the Church of San Miniato al Monte, founded in 1013. This beautiful Romanesque basilica, with its remarkable geometric-patterned marble facade, is perched on a hilltop south of the Arno, with spectacular views across Florence.
Florence the city-state
By the 12th century, Florence was a prosperous independent city-state, governed by a council largely comprising local merchants. But the following century, tensions between the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy flared up in the city.
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Though the situation was more complicated than a simply binary split, in simple terms there were two dominant factions: the Ghibellines, backing imperial power, and the Guelphs, who were more or less loyal to the papacy. This rivalry became important in city politics, and often flared into violence between families.
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To get a sense of how this played out at the time, read Dante Alighieri's Inferno – part of The Divine Comedy in which the 14th-century Italian writer depicts members of these different factions fighting in hell.
The Museo Casa Di Dante (Dante House Museum) in Florence, in his medieval family home, also does a fantastic job of explaining the ins and outs of that era.
Despite these power struggles, Florence remained very wealthy. Italy benefited from being at the crossroads of Mediterranean trade, and Florence had a strong wool trade, as well as wealth derived from banking, based on the strength of the florin – the local gold coin – as a major currency.
The middle of the 14th century was also, of course, when the Black Death swept across Europe, devastating populations; perhaps half of the inhabitants of Florence died. In the aftermath, the city was wracked by more political turmoil.
In 1378, the Ciompi (wool-carders) revolted, launching a kind of industrial dispute that turned political. That uprising was defeated, and the Albizzi family took over, dominating Florentine oligarchy for half a century.
However, other rival families were accruing huge wealth – and, therefore, influence in city politics – through banking and trading. Chief among these were the Medici.
Florence and the papacy
In the late Middle Ages, the pope wasn't just a religious figurehead – he was ruler of the Papal States, which encompassed a large swathe of central Italy. Popes needed access to credit, in the same way that governments today borrow money, so the Medici lent to the papacy, and set up branches across Europe, becoming hugely wealthy.
Within Florence, the family established a political network that brought them power – not as absolute rulers initially, though Cosimo de' Medici (1389–1464) – sometimes called the 'Father of Florence' – is described in one source as "a king in all but name". The city's government shifted gradually from a more collective medieval commune, involving varied groups of people, to the consolidation of power under one family.
One key site associated with this shift is the Palazzo Vecchio – the old town hall, founded in 1299. Originally the Piazza della Signoria, the palace of the ruling councils, it's topped with a clock tower and battlements, decorated with the coats of arms of city families. In the mid-16th century, it became the official seat of the Medici, confirming their hegemony.
Florence and the Renaissance
The source of the city's wealth was also a factor in its role as an epicentre of the artistic Renaissance in Italy. At that time, lending money at interest was, in Christian thinking, perceived to be a sin. Many bankers attempted to secure some discount on time spent in purgatory by making donations to churches and monasteries, and investing in religious art.
As a result, much of the great art in Florence isn't in museums and galleries – it's in churches. For example, in 1437 Cosimo de' Medici rebuilt the Convent and Church of San Marco and commissioned Fra Angelico to paint its frescoes, which feature famously gorgeous, multicoloured angel wings. Shortly afterwards, he commissioned the building now known as Palazzo Medici Riccardi, again with beautiful frescoes depicting the journey of the Magi painted by Benozzo Gozzoli.
Artists such as Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo – all the big names of Florentine art – worked in the city on government or private projects. And the Medici competed with other Renaissance rulers for the services of the best artists. The rule of Lorenzo de' Medici, known as 'the Magnificent', marked the peak of the family's power in the late 15th century. When he died, in 1492, the family's grip became rapidly more shaky.
In 1494, French king Charles VIII invaded Italy to claim the throne of Naples. En route, his army attempted to take Florence – and as a result its people kicked out the Medici, who were seen as trying to cut a deal with the French.
Meanwhile Girolamo Savonarola – a firebrand preacher from the Convent of San Marco – established a very austere regime in Florence, banning paintings, books and playing cards, policing women's make-up, and clamping down on anything perceived as sinful.
Eventually, Pope Alexander VI – a member of the Borgia family – excommunicated Savonarola. The city had fallen on hard times, afflicted with severe food shortages, and the people turned on their former leader, who in 1498 was burned at the stake; a marble plaque marks the spot.
The Medici were in and out of power over the following decades, but from about 1530 they were firmly back in control. In 1532, Alessandro de' Medici was made duke of the city, with the backing of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
During this tumultuous period, there was an incredible flourishing of later Renaissance art and architecture, with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo working here; both men were also involved with military engineering projects.
The Medici continued to flourish. They became grand dukes of Tuscany, took over the neighbouring city of Siena, and increasingly lived and ruled more like princes. They acquired the Palazzo Pitti, where they installed enormously grand apartments; nowadays, it's a good place to experience the wealth and opulence of the later Medici.
The renowned Uffizi Gallery was built at this time, too, originally commissioned by Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici as government offices.
Florence after the Medici
Eventually, though, the Medici succumbed to the common challenge of dynastic families – the need to keep producing heirs – and, in 1743, the line died out. The will of the last member of the Medici specified that the art collection should stay permanently in Florence. The city we see today, almost three centuries on, is very much shaped by that decision.
Rule then passed to the House of Lorraine, which continued to patronise artists. For example, the Accademia Gallery was founded in 1784 by Pietro Leopold I (later Leopold II of the Holy Roman Empire); today it's famed for its collection of Michelangelo sculptures, notably his David.
At the end of the 18th century, many Italian states fell briefly to Napoleon – who borrowed several Italian art treasures for the Louvre, before being forced to return them – followed by a restoration of sorts the following century.
After Napoleon's downfall, unrest and revolution rumbled across much of Europe. In Italy, a movement pushing for unification of the entire peninsula achieved its goal in 1870 – and briefly, before Rome joined the new kingdom, Florence was its capital.
Also in the 19th century, the expansion of the railway network brought Florence and other Italian cities within reach of middle-class tourists from Britain and elsewhere, spawning a modern version of the Grand Tour taken by wealthy young men since the mid-17th century.
English businessman Thomas Cook launched rail tours to Europe, and many British and American visitors moved to live in Tuscany – including Mark Twain – seeding a substantial Anglo-American community in Florence. For a glimpse into this milieu, visit the Museo Stibbert, the villa of 19th-century Florence-born British art collector Frederick Stibbert, which houses a huge collection of art and armour.
Florence in the 20th century
The impacts of the First World War were felt most keenly along the northern borders of the young kingdom, where it met the Austro-Hungarian empire. Florence wasn't affected too much during the conflict itself – but the social turbulence that followed shaped the political future of Italy. After two years of struggle and factory occupations, in 1922 Benito Mussolini's fascists marched on Rome and seized power.
This history can still be seen by visitors travelling to Florence by train, who arrive into a station built in the modernist architectural style that was the signature look of the fascist regime's interventions. On platform 16, you can also see a monument to the deportations of Jews during the Second World War, made possible by the racial laws introduced by the Italian fascists.
During the Second World War, fascist Italy allied with Nazi Germany – till 1943, when Mussolini was forced from power. In response, Germany invaded Italy – an occupation resisted by partisans fighting a guerrilla war from their bases in the hills. You can see monuments to this resistance effort, and Nazi atrocities, in many villages around Florence.
During the war, Florence was bombed by the Allies, targeting key transport links. It then suffered significant destruction by retreating German forces, which bombed most of its bridges – though the Ponte Vecchio, the medieval span lined with jewellery shops, was spared.
Postwar reconstruction was funded in large part by the Marshall Plan, the European recovery programme launched under US president Harry S Truman. But just two decades later, Florence was devastated again by the flood of 1966. The Arno River broke its banks and inundated the city centre, killing more than 100 people and inflicting huge damage on Florence's cultural heritage.
The National Central Library is close to the riverbank, along with other cultural institutions such as the Uffizi. An estimated three to four million books and 14,000 artworks were damaged or destroyed. A huge rescue operation followed, pioneering important innovations in restoration techniques. The historic American community played a key role in international fundraising for the rebuild.
The result of these centuries of social, political and cultural growth and turbulence is a city that's not today only a huge tourist attraction, but also a vibrant student city. That focus, as a European centre of art, learning and culture, very much reflects Florence's long and colourful history.
Catherine Fletcher was talking to Paul Bloomfield, travel journalist and host of our podcast series History's Greatest Cities
What to see: Florence in five places
The home of the Medici dynasty was the epicentre of the Italian Renaissance. Catherine Fletcher highlights five spots to explore in the Tuscan capital
1. Palazzo Medici Riccardi
The original Renaissance palace of the Medici family, a groundbreaking structure commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici in 1444, stands just north of the city centre.
Visitors can roam the serene courtyards and gardens outside, but the real jewel lies inside: the Cappella dei Magi, or Magi Chapel. This tiny space is famous for the frescoes painted by Benozzo Gozzoli that adorn its walls.
These depict the Three Kings from the Biblical nativity story (one of them said to represent Lorenzo de’ Medici) and also feature identifiable members of the Florentine court, as well as hunting scenes incorporating leopards, falcons and other animals.
A religious space that also glorifies the Medici as rulers, the Cappella encapsulates the intersection of politics, power and religion in Renaissance Florence.
In the days of the Medici, entering the chapel would have been an enormous privilege – it was accessible only to the family and their invited guests – so here you get a sense of being very close to power.
A short bus ride up the hill north-east of the city centre is the ancient town of Fiesole.
Probably founded as early as the ninth century BC, it was an important city-state of the Etruscan federation, and was later conquered by the Romans in 283 BC.
Today you can visit important ancient sites including an Etruscan temple and a Roman amphitheatre and baths, as well as the Duomo (Cathedral of Saint Romulus), which dates from the 11th century, and the attached Museo Bandini, which houses magnificent Renaissance art.
If you take a short walk south from Fiesole’s main square, you can enjoy spectacular views across to Florence.
3. Museum of Santa Maria Novella
One of the few 16th-century female artists about whom we know much was Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588).
Her Last Supper, in the museum at the Church of Santa Maria Novella, is a rare early example of a large-scale painting by a woman.
Most female artists that were active in the 16th century tended to paint portraits or other domestic pieces, but Nelli – who was a nun – painted this work for her own convent.
It was quite common in this period for young Florentine women to join convents, especially those from respectable families that could not afford to raise a dowry. Nelli turned to art, producing a number of superb paintings.
Her Last Supper, one of the most spectacular, has been restored and opened up for public viewing quite recently. It provides an intriguing insight into the later Renaissance Baroque period.
4. Vasari Corridor
In 1565, a few years after the wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici bought the Palazzo Pitti south of the Arno, her husband decided to link it with the Uffizi (the former government office building that housed his art collection) and the Palazzo Vecchio (the old city palace) with a private corridor.
That way, they could stroll from palace to palace without ever being confronted by the hoi polloi of Florence.
Stretching over half a mile and crossing the river via the Ponte Vecchio, this secret passage is now lined with paintings from the 17th to 20th centuries, including portraits of the Medici.
Accessible only on guided tours that must be booked in advance, and not always open, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the slightly secretive side of the city – the parts that you can’t just wander into as a tourist.
5. Church of San Marco
The church of the Convent of San Marco is closely associated with the Medici family, who used it as a retreat.
The cell used by Cosimo de’ Medici and Lorenzo the Magnificent is famous for the extraordinary frescoes painted by Fra Angelico in the 1440s, as part of the restoration of the convent that Cosimo commissioned in 1437.
Fra Angelico’s painting of the Annunciation is known for the multicoloured wings of the angels and the Roman-style arches with little Corinthian capitals.
That’s just one of the treasures in the cells, each of which is decorated with a different fresco. Some are surprisingly ‘modern’ in style and almost slightly abstract – an example of Renaissance art that’s rather different from the more famous works.
Catherine Fletcher is professor of history at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her books include is The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance (Vintage, 2020).
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