This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.
What I find so evocative about the Renaissance is its desire to express what makes us human – emotion, pain, frailty and love. There is no better place to come face to face with this passion than in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance.
Florence sits at the heart of Tuscany, about halfway between Rome and Milan. Founded as a Roman military camp in the first century BC, the city reached its height in the Renaissance, from the 14th–16th centuries. The social mobility of the Florentine Republic meant that families from obscure or even peasant backgrounds could rise to the heights of power and wealth (the most notable example being the Medici, who ruled Florence from the 15th–18th centuries). These families needed to project their status and wealth and so patronised the artists and scholars of the Renaissance, turning Florence into the magnificent treasure-trove of culture it is today.
It is best to seek out these Florentine gems on foot, so find a historic little hotel near the centre and pack some comfortable shoes. You will want to dedicate a day each to the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace for some of the best art and sculpture in the world. Get timed tickets to these and the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (commonly known as the Duomo) to avoid long queues. Standing under Brunelleschi’s dome is an awe-inspiring moment not to be missed.
One of the splendid things about Florence is that its churches are not only beautiful historic buildings, but museums and art galleries in their own right. Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan church in the world, contains a crucifix by Donatello and funeral monuments for such notables as Galileo, Dante, Machiavelli and Michelangelo. Santa Maria Novella – the city’s first great basilica, with construction beginning in the 13th century – boasts some of the most masterful frescos of the Gothic and Renaissance periods, and a pulpit and crucifix by Brunelleschi (the latter rumoured to have been an attempt at bettering Donatello’s crucifix in Santa Croce).
I especially love San Marco, where you can enter the Renaissance cloisters, including those of Cosimo de’ Medici and Girolamo Savonarola, who sought to make Florence a ‘New Jerusalem’. San Marco also houses the works of Fra Angelico, including his fresco Annunciation, and one of Europe’s first public libraries with gorgeous illuminated manuscripts and detailed print books on display. Walking through the open columned space of the library, it’s impossible not to feel the presence of the scholars who have worked there in the past.
Lesser-known churches also contain some of Florence’s best hidden treasures. The church of San Salvatore di Ognissanti houses works by Botticelli (who is buried at the church) and Ghirlandaio. One of its true masterpieces is the 14th-century Giotto Crucifix, which was rediscovered in 2010 in a back room. Restoration has since revealed its vibrant and poignant beauty. Giotto was one of the first to humanise Christ on the cross, a hallmark of the Renaissance.
It is largely thanks to the Medici that we have all of this art and architecture, so it is worth visiting their home at Palazzo Medici Riccardi. It was here that the Medici organised their affairs, entertained guests and ran the city. In the chapel you will find frescos by Gozzoli, in which the Medici are humbly cast as the three Magi, journeying to lay their wealth at the feet of the newborn Jesus.
Once you’ve had your fill of art and history for the day, there are other ways to experience the passion of Florence. Dip in for some opera at St Mark’s Church, also home to the first sculpture by an American to be on public display in Florence – St Mark by Jason Arkles, which filled a niche that had been left open for 127 years.
Just around the corner is the Ponte Vecchio, the medieval bridge still busy with shops and with a gorgeous view of the Arno river. If you like views, from the Piazzale Michelangelo you can see the whole of the city, as well as a bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David – the original can be found at the Accademia Gallery.
No trip to Italy is complete without sampling its food and drink. You can get a taste of all that Tuscany has to offer at the Mercato Centrale, packed with stalls overflowing with meat, olives and cheese. Head to the area around the Basilica di Santo Spirito for dinner, where you’ll find exceptional pizza, coffee and gelato.
We all need a little passion in our lives, and a visit to Florence is good for the soul. As Mark Twain once wrote: “To see the sun sink down, drowned in his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of colour that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city into a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature, and make a sympathetic one drunk with ecstasy.”
Joanne Paul is a lecturer in early modern history at the University of Sussex with a special interest in the Renaissance. Her most recent book is Thomas More (Polity, 2016)
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Florence is always gorgeous but can be unbearably hot in the summer months of July and August. To experience something really special, visit around Easter or Epiphany and join in the church services.
There are regular direct flights from London to Florence with BA, Vueling and CityJet. To go very cheaply, you can fly into Pisa and take a short train journey (also allowing you to spend some time in Pisa as well).
What to pack
Comfortable walking shoes, light clothing that covers you in the sun and the churches. And don’t forget a camera.
What to bring back
Italian delicacies from Mercato Centrale. A hand-made journal or sketchbook from the Il Torchio workshop. A bottle of Frescobaldi wine.
Don’t miss San Marco monastery. It is full of Beato Angelico’s paintings @PatriziaFgn
The Duomo is breathtaking, also the statue of David is a must-see. I was in awe! @katemedwards
Visit Piazza Santo Spirito… one of the most beautiful and tranquil squares in the world @yesIcan121