#TravelTuesday: A guide to exploring Renaissance Florence
The sunkissed Italian city of Florence is famous for being the cradle of the Renaissance. It was in these storied streets that Donatello and Michaelangelo thrilled the art world; Machiavelli and Dante intrigued with their literature; and the Medicis and "Mad Monk" preacher Savonarola wielded their political machinations. Modern-day Florence is a far cry from this exciting time of cultural change and achievement, but you'll find plenty of Renaissance remnants. Anyone can spend hours queuing for the Duomo, but visit these leftovers of the Florentine Renaissance and you'll not only beat most of the queues, you'll dive straight into the heart of this momentous period of history.
Running above the east flank of Ponte Vecchio, the Vasari Corridor was built for Cosimo de'Medici in 1563 so he could move safely between his private residence, Palazzo Pitti, and the seat of Tuscan Power, Palazzo Vecchio. Book ahead to gain access, and walk in storied Medici footsteps while taking in the more than 1,000 paintings that line the walls. Don't miss the comprehensive collection of self-portraits by major artists from the 16th through 20th centuries, including Renbrand, Van Gogh, Velazquez and Delacroix.
Built for banker Luca Pitti, Palazzo Pitti was sold to the Medicis in 1550. Though much changed since then, the aristocratic residence still houses the best of the Medicis — their unmatched, enduring collections of objets d'art. The indisputable highlight here is the splendid Palatine Gallery, which features over 500 Renaissance paintings - think Raphael, Titan, Correggio and Rubens — amidst stunning frescoed walls and ceilings, as well as the Royal Apartments. Complete the experience by visiting the Medici jewellery in the Museo degli Argenti, the history of Italian fashion at the Galleria del Costume, and the magnificent, Boboli Gardens, an impressive example of Renaissance-era formal gardens.
Piazza della Signoria
Along with the gothic-looking Palazzo Vecchio that sits next to it, Piazza della Signoria was the heart of Renaissance Florentine politics. Citizens gathered here for public meetings; and Savonarola went on his intellectual witch-hunt — also known as the Bonfire of the Vanities —here, before being burned at the stake himself in 1498. These days, this alfresco art gallery is dominated by Ammannati's Neptune Fountain, a copy of Michaelangelo's David, and Giambologna's statue of Cosimo, the first Medici grand Duke. To the side, the cozy Loggia dei Lanzi acts as an open-air sculpture gallery filled with grand examples of Renaissance statues, including Cellini's Persus, and Giambologna's Rape of the Sabines. Duck into the imposing Palazzo Vecchio — built in 1322 — to peek at the impressive Salone dei Cinquecento, Vasari's beautifully-restored frescos, and a tour of the building's secret passages.
Basilica San Lorenzo
Rendered in classic Renaissance style, the Basilica di San Lorenzo was the parish church of the Medicis. The family poured their wealth into decorating the church, and it shows. Brunelleschi was commissioned to rebuild the church in 1419, and in 1520, Michaelangelo was brought in to create the imposing Capella dei Principi — the resting place of the Medici Grand Dukes — and Lorenzo di Medici's lavish Laurentian library. The church hides plenty of surprises like Donatello's intricate bronze pulpits — among the artist's last works - the Medici Chapels created by Matteo Nigetti, and grandiose artwork like The Martyrdom of St Lawrence by Bronzino. Notorious preacher Savonarola used to rule here, and gazing up at the detailed fresco above the altar, surrounded by the trappings of wealth and genius, you can almost hear him preaching his fiery, disapproving sermons.
Formally titled the Museo dell'Antica Casa Fiorentina, this palazzo takes you inside a typical aristocratic residence of 14th century Florence. Officially opened as a private museum in 1910, the sandstone building features three large portals, mullioned windows, and on the top floor, a four-columned loggia which was added in the 16th century, and on the façade, the Davanzati coat of arms is prominently displayed. Visitors enter into a spacious interior courtyard — full of arches and vaults. You'll find well-preserved bedrooms, the audience hall exhibiting a rare painted cabinet by a Siennese artist, a bust by Antonio Rossellino, 16th century ceramics, and The Game of Civettino, a wooden painting by Giovanni di Ser Givanni, nicknamed Scheggia. Be sure to book ahead to access the upper floors, which can only be seen on a guided tour. Here, you'll find the stately bedroom lashed with frescoes inspired by the medieval romance of The Chatelaine de Vergy; the Camera delle Impannte, a bedroom hung with the impannate textiles popular during the Renaissance; and get a look at quotidian life in the kitchens.
Complete your Renaissance Florence experience by staying at the stunningly atmospheric Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo. Built on the site of Donatello's sculpture workshop, most of the palazzo dates from the 18th century. Still owned by the aristocratic Niccolini family, the palazzo feels like stepping into the home of a friend — if that friend were a Renaissance-era Florentine Marquis. Luckily, that's exactly what this property is — the owner is the Marchesa Ginevra Niccolini di Camugliano - so you'll find plenty of lovingly restored frescoes, period furniture, and plenty of Niccolini family portraits and heirlooms. All rooms here come with cable TV, minibars, custom amenities, vintage damask drapes and bedspreads, but book one of the suites for a truly exclusive experience — and if you're lucky, views of the Duomo. Make time to kick back in the regal lounge where breakfast is an elegant affair and tea, coffee and pastries are on hand all day.
If you have time
Santa Maria Novella – a stunning pharmacy and perfumery dating from 1612 with products as delicious as the décor.
Casa Buonarroti — once owned by Michaelangelo, this home pays tribute to the Florentine sculptor.
The Bargello — a fantastic collection of Renaissance sculptures set in one of Florence's oldest buildings.
Basilica di Santa Croce — Franciscan church in the style of the Duomo, and the resting place of Renaissance luminaries including Michaelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini.
Museo Galileo — houses one of the world's greatest collections of scientific instruments, and showcases the Medicis' contributions to science.
To view last week's #TravelTuesday story, click here.
- Image: Gayatri Bhaumik, Getty Images
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