Our Taxi from Firenza Santa Maria Novella Train Station drove past an open square with a single statue in the middle of a circle of trees – Piazza della Indipendenza.
It had changed very little in the preceding 12 years. The last time we were here the watchful gaze of Ubaldini Peruzzi’s Statue (He was a member of the Peruzzi Banking family and twice Mayor of Florence) kept watch over us as we were sitting on the steps drinking cheap prosecco from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags – a pair of jakeys if ever you saw them- sharing those steps with a band of other degenerates. Yet our excuse for attendance was different – it was our first real holiday as boyfriend and girlfriend and as working professionals – a couple of weeks in Italy, which was expensive back in 2008 and so all of our Euros were accounted for and tied up in the room rate for our awful awful hotel across the road.(*The room was so bad. Blood stains on the walls, dirty bed linen, unbelievably rude owners and the only time a hotel breakfast has ever been turned down.) It was so bad we had to give ourselves Dutch courage in the company of Ubaldini and his companions to set foot in there.
And so it was a dozen years later that we had returned to give Florence another chance at immortality in our mind’s eye. A shot at redemption for the birthplace of the Renaissance.
In fair Florence where we set our scene…
Where else in the world can you walk down the same streets and alleyways as Dante Alighieri, Galileo Galilei, Niccolo Machiavelli and Antonio Meucci? Is the birthplace of Florence Nightingale (surprise surprise) and the workshop of the famous four – Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Raphael. The man whom an entire hemisphere is named after – Amerigo Vespucci hails from these streets, and if they and the Florentine rooftops look familiar to you – then you really enjoyed Ubisoft video game Assassins Creed II.
Forbes has named it the most beautiful city in the world and a deep and rich history is soaked into every cobblestone you walk on. The florin – a 54 grain gold coin minted by the city’s bankers financed industrial revolution across Europe and was used to finance English Kings during the Hundred Years War and the Papacy. It was home to the Medici and the local dialect became the Italian we speak today. Molto Benne.
This time around we were staying in a wonderful apartment down the street from Piazza della Santissima Annunziata.
The sun was setting fast as we waiting for our host to arrive with the key on the back of a moped – so very Italian, before climbing 4 flights of stairs to our rooftop apartment – so very European. We had a few hours before Helen would land in Florence Airport so we spent the evening exploring the neighbourhood walking down to the Piazza di San Pier Maggiore and its collection of restaurants.
San Pier Maggiore used to be a church and then a Benedictine Monastery and was famous for hosting ceremonies for all the Bishops of Florence – in effect a marraige between Florence and the newly ordained Bishop. Today the church is no more – having been replaced in 1784 by the Florentine Government with a market keeping a small facade and three porticos as evidence of its former raison d’etre.
We dined al fresco at the Cucina in Torre while plans were discussed on how to tackle all the sights in this great city we found ourselves and a taxi was booked to the airport for later that evening.
The food was amazing – especially the Chicken Terrine. 100% recommend this on your next visit to Florence.
Take it to the Bridge
With Helen’s arrival we were now three musketeers. Our first full morning in Florence would be spent traversing the city from Piazza della Santissima Annunziata all the way to the Ponte Vecchio and exploring everything inbetween.
The Tuscan sculptor Pietro Tacca was responsible for the Mannerist fountains and finishing off the equestrian statue of Ferdinando I de Medici (Grand Duke of Tuscany) in the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata although it would be another day before we could get a proper look as it was market day today. The market was a hive of organic food stalls run by the Fierucola Movement and hosted in different squares on different dates.
- After having a look around we headed down Via dei Servi, deeper into the heart of Firenze itself. This is one of the principle streets in Florence and is drenched in history being home to a number of churches, merchant houses and palazzos or palaces – during the six year period when Florence was the capital of Italy (1865-1871) the British Embassy was located on this street. A lot of the buildings were owned by the Tedaldi Family and hosted a lot of artisans especially the Naldini Del Riccio Palace which had a workshop for Donatello.
- But all that pales in comparison to the occupant of the piazza on the other end of the Via whose famous veneer we had steadily taken in as we navigated the narrow street.
During the late Medieval period a number of city states in Tuscany underook vast reconstruction projects of their cathedrals due to rising populations. Completed in 1436, after 140 years of construction, changing patronage and 50 years of stagnation the Duomo dominates the centre of Florence and together with the Basilica and Giotto’s Campanile (Tower) form the cornerstones of the UNESCO Heritage Site for Old Historic centre of Florence. It’s central dome is still the largest brick dome ever constructed. We will talk more about the Duomo in our next post.
From there we continued down Via Roma and came to the next square – Piazza della Repubblica (Republican Square) – the site of the former Roman Forum and the centre of the settlement. This used to be a series of hovels and formed part of the ‘old ghetto’ before being cleared in 1865 as part of city planning. There is a sole surviving monument to the old market in the form of a simple stone column – the Colonna dell’Abbondanza (Column of Abundance) that marked the exact centre of the settlement. It has a couple of chains on it – one to ring the bell for the start and end of the market and the second one to chain swindlers and insolvent debtors for public shaming.
From there we headed east and followed the sound of music playing until we arrived at a much larger L-shaped piazza – The Piazza della Signoria – the political centre of Florence. The Piazza is dominated by the presence of the Palazzo Vecchio, the ‘Old Town Hall’, a 14th Century Romanesque fortress with a crenelated tower. It was built like this to protect the magistrates during the more turbulent times in Florence. The tower contains two small prison cells that had the honour of holding Cosimo De’ Medici and Friar Girolamo Savonarola.
Today it is a museum that contains among many things a copy of Michaelangelo’s David statue. We wandered past the orchestra and up the steps to take a look at the courtyard inside. The First Courtyard was designed by Michelozzo in 1453, columns and lunettes surround a central small statue called The Putto with Dolphin – it was originally placed in the gardens of the Villa Medici in Careggi.
The square has a number of statues – with the most prominent being attached to the outside wall of the Town Hall, the Fountain of Neptune. Built to celebrate the marriage of Francesco de’ Medici and Grand Duchess Joanna of Austria.
Next to the Town Hall is The Loggia dei Lanzi – which consists of wide arches open to the street and a number of statues acting like an outdoor gallery. Lanzi is taken from the term landsknechts or German mercenary pikemen who served Duke Cosimo de Medici as a personal guard – it was here that they were lodged. In between these two buildings and down a side street towards the river is the Uffizi Gallery.
We had at this point reached the Arno river and yet another Florentine masterpiece – the Ponte Vecchio. The current bridge was rebuilt in 1345 and consists of three segments with a small piazza in the middle. It is lined on either side with shops – only goldsmiths and jewellers since 1595. Above the shops is a pathway, the Vasari Corridor that connects the Palazzo Vecchio with the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno.
It is the only bridge in Florence that was not destroyed by the German Wehrmacht during their retreat in World War II as Adolf Hitler apparently liked it – having visited the city with Mussolini a few years earlier. Every other bridge had been demolished so this sounds fairly legitimate and on that earlier trip modifications were made to enlarge the windows to give a better view of the river.
A sudden downpour allowed a parting of the army of rambling tourists and a rare quiet photo of the bridge to be taken. You can see right across the bridge to the packed warren of streets beyond.
During this small period the only people earning gold were the merchants selling ponchos and umbrellas. We took shelter in a nearby ice cream shop and waited out the rain. After that it was shopping time as we were in the shopping district – with a nearby market – the Mercato del Porcellino, and of course H&M.
The Mercato del Porcellino was built in the 16th Century and used to be for luxury silks and fabrics but today it caters in leather goods and other souvenir items. It is named after The Fountain of the Piglet (Porcellino) – a copy of a wild boar bronze statue by Pietro Tacca. The concept is that you donate a coin and rub the nose for good fortune.
What an action packed day – Piazzas, Palazzos, Mercatos, Pontes, Via this and Via that and more statues and arches than you would know what to do with.
It was time tick kick back and have an Aperol Spritz