Chronological / Destinations / Europe

Seven Essential Architectural Wonders of Florence, Italy

Florence. Perhaps no other city in the world evokes as many cultural, artistic and architectural visions as the capital of Tuscany in Italy. Home of the Renaissance, this city filled with museums, palaces and churches holds a huge number of the world’s cultural treasures. Perhaps, the most important of Florence’s sites are the Baptistery, the Ponte Vecchio and the Cathedral, but the San Lorenzo library is certainly the finest example of Michelangelo’s architectural gift and should not be missed.

The basilica in Florence by Vago Damitio

Those who are on cultural holidays or seeking the Italian Renaissance need only look upon the palaces, buildings and squares of Florence, for each of them are masterpieces, many built by the most admired artists of all time. In Florence, when you want to see the work of Michelangelo or Brunelleschi, there is no need to go indoors to a museum.

  1. Piazza della Signoria is an L-shape plaza in the heart of Florence that serves as the historical and cultural center of the city. While unremarkable in terms of design itself, it is the surroundings and the history of this piazza that make it a must-visit location. Surrounding the piazza you will find The Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzao Vecchio, the replica of Michelangelo’s David, statues by Donatello, Cellini and others — and as if that isn’t enough, the Piazza is the site of the return of the Medicis and the famous Bonfire of the Vanities. The radical priest, Girolamo Savonarola who burned the books and treasures of the Florentine elite was later himself burned in the square; the exact spot is marked.

    Florence Architectural Gems

  2. Palazzo Vecchio, which literally means “Old Palace,” is still the focus of the piazza. It was built in 1302 as the seat of Florentine government and is still used for the same purpose. As such, only portions of it are open to the public. This was the original palace of the Medici family. The classic castle-like architecture is not centered on the tower for a reason; it was actually built around a tower which is far older and which served as the substructure of the current tower. This is a Romanesque building with many Gothic elements. Inside is a treasure trove of courtyards, salons and more than a few priceless artistic works.
  3. Ponte Vecchio is a wonderful closed spandrel bridge which crosses the Arno at its narrowest point and is believed to have been first built in Roman times, though it is first mentioned in the year 996. The bridge still has shops along the side and a hidden walkway along the top so that the Medici didn’t have to expose themselves to the public when crossing. It was originally constructed in wood but was destroyed by a flood in 1333 and rebuilt of stone in 1345.

    Culturally interesting is that right on the bridge is the place where the concept of bankruptcy was born. The statue of Cellini in the center is surrounded by a small fence festooned with padlocks. Lovers will lock the padlocks and throw the key in the river to bind them together forever. A sign surrounded by locks forbids the practice. Urban legend says that the tradition was started by a padlock shop owner on one side of the bridge. Smart move.

    Bridge of the Arno Florence

  4. Torre della Pagliazza is also called the Byzantine Tower and the Straw tower. This is regarded as the oldest building in Florence (7th century) though there are several other candidates that might fit that description better, but none of them quite so wonderful as Pagliazza Tower. The tower today has been incorporated into the very nice Hotel Brunellesci but was once accommodation of a different sort – a female prison. This is the origin of the name “Straw Tower” – female prisoners were given a bit of straw, a luxury denied to male prisoners.
  5. The Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of St John) is also said to be the oldest building in Florence, though it was built in the 10th century and so is not. Still, it is old and the stories of it being the oldest are based on the fact that it sits atop earlier structures, one even rumoured to have been a Roman temple to Mars. It is particularly famed for its three sets of wondrous bronze doors which have only recently been put back in place after extensive restoration and preservation work. The three sets were made by Pisano, Ghiberti, including the famed East doors which Michelangelo called “The Gates of Paradise.” The Bapistery is built in a Florentine Romanesque style that served as inspiration for the later Renaissance styles to emerge in Florence.
  6. The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, also simply called the Duomo of Florence, was built from 1296 when the first stone was laid.The dome, with its exquisite facing of polychrome marble panels, was created by Brunelleschi; the cathedral itself was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (who also designed Palazzo Vecchio). The dome is the largest brick dome ever constructed (completed in 1496) and the cathedral remains one of the largest in the world.

    The competition between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi was fierce to see who would get the commission for the dome. When it was awarded to both jointly, Brunelleschi feigned sickness until Ghiberti bowed out, thus leaving full credit to Brunelleschi. The drama between the two is the stuff of great film and literature. The dome itself is made of more than four million bricks and pre-saged the mathematics that were later used to define it. Brunelleschi’s innovations served as inspiration to a young apprentice who worked on the dome’s lanern: Leonardo da Vinci.

  7. The Basilica of San Lorenzo Library is in the center of Florence’s straw market district and is where most of the Medici family are buried. This building is also claimed to be the oldest in Florence and has a pretty good claim since the church was consecrated in the year 393. The building was designed by Brunelleschi and contains Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. The entire complex serves as an important bridge between the old architecture (pre-Renaissance) and the new architecture which followed it.

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Story and Photos by Vago Damitio


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