Florence: Where antiquity jostles with romance
AFTER spending a night at the Alps in any small village near Chamonix, one takes the intimidating road tunnel that connects France with Italy and enters the Aosta valley, moving on to the Italian Riviera along the Mediterranean. The drive along the sea, passing through the picturesque town of Spezia where P.B. Shelley died and the town of Pisa, takes you to Florence.
There can seldom be any adequate preparation for a trip to Florence: No guidebooks or reading through the encyclopaedia, no lets-go-to-Europe tours can quite prepare a tourist for a city bursting with antiquity and romance. From the Duomo to the river Arno, from the Ponte Vecchio to the green neighbouring district of Fisole, a visit to Florence alone can succeed in fulfilling the desire for a taste of the Rennaisance charm of all those who want to tour this magnificent city.
Florence, one of Caesar’s
colonies, was founded by the Romans. It became a rapidly developing city because
of its location at the convergence of two streams, the Arno and the Mugnone. It
was also on the traders’ route from Pisa where merchants passed by. In the
process, they brought to the region both commercial activity and the cult of
Isis, followed by Christianity. The city was destroyed and rebuilt many times
because of the numerous invasions of the Barbarians, the Goths and the
Byzantines, in the early centuries.
After the 6th century AD, Florence was to witness its worst times. The Lombards conquered northern and Central Italy and breaking off from the usual trade route passing through Florence, they moved further West to reach Milan because of the threats posed by the constant forays of the Byzantines. In the next few centuries, feudal systems came into power, enabling Florence to become a part of the Holy Roman Empire. The city was to have intense rivalry with the nearby Fisole, until the 13th century when the Guelphs, the party supporting the Pope, and the Ghibellines who protected the interests of the Germanic emperors, emerged as the principal rivals.
It was during this factionalism that the famous writer of the Divine Comedy, Dante Aligheri, was forced into exile. It was in the course of his exile that he composed most of his monumental classic. This was the period when architectural marvels such as the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo were built in the new Gothic style. The square containing them is perhaps the most scenic. Palazzo Vecchio was supposed to house the Priors. Its prominent feature is the 94-metres-high Thrusting Tower, which provides a marked contrast to the austerity of the rest of the building. On the left hand is the famous Neptune Fountain by Ammannati. The sea god sits at the centre of his white chariot which is drawn by sea horses, amidst plenty of bronze figures which give grace to this ‘white giant’. The entire courtyard devoted to this square is replete with ancient buildings, each with its own unique and unforgettable history. Interestingly, a copy of Michelangelo’s David is placed outside Palazzo Vecchio which many take to be the original, so close is it in similarity to the masterpiece which was removed in 1873. The original statue stands in the Galleria Dell’ Accademia which is the major reason for the gallery’s fame. This colossal statue which is more than four metres high was once abandoned in the courtyard of the Duomo by its creator as unusable!
The Cathedral or the Duomo, the fourth-largest church in the world, is dedicated to S. Maria del Fiore and underwent many transformations until it was restored in white, green and pink marble in the nineteenth century. The Dome was raised in the 15th century by Brunelleschi and its interior has frescoes by Vasari and Zuccari. Part of the Cathedral is the bell tower called Giotto’s Campanile with its pleasing wound columns at five levels. An 18th century contribution to the Duomo is Michelangelo’s Pieta which remained until 1722 in the Church of S. Lorenzo which is the oldest church in the city.
A little south of the Arno river takes the tourist to the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce, built in the 13th and 14th centuries. This church, with all the simplicity is called the Pantheon of Florence because it holds the tombs of Michelangelo, the political philosopher Machiavelli, the poet and dramatist Conte Vittorio Alfieri, and the operatic composer Gioacchino Antonio Rossini.
It was during the Renaissance that Florence saw the completion of some of its most beautiful constructions. The Uffizi Gallery of the 16th century and its great treasures are a reminder of that period. The Uffizi is the most celebrated picture gallery in Italy and also of the world because it contains some of the famous masterpieces of world art. It was built, however, for government offices and law courts as its name, uffizi, well indicates. Some of the memorable art includes Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Annunciation’, Lorenzo di Credi’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’, Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ and Michelangelo’s ‘Holy Family’.
In a grand gesture, Grand Duke Cosimo I of the famous Medici family ordered the artist architect Vasari to construct a covered gallery starting from the imposing Pitti palace past the Church of Santa Felicita, over the jewellers’ shops on the Ponte Vecchio, along the Arno, and into the Uffizi by means of a stately stone staircase. On the other side of this great office building, a stone archway is connected with the Palazzo Vecchio. Thus, the Duke was able to stroll from home to work without getting wet.
By the end of the 16th century, Florence had greatly declined in vitality. The basic economic activity of the land was now agriculture rather than trade. Intellect suffered and so did architecture and art. The next hundred years was marked as a period of public works — hospitals, schools, libraries and parks. There was a marked increase in population as well. In the last 200 years, however, there has been a haphazard growth of industry and extensive construction leading to the division of the ‘old’ city from the ‘new’.
Florence faced further havoc during World War II when all its bridges, except Ponte Vecchio, were blown up. After restoration, Florence has ten bridges. Of them, Vecchio dates back to the 14th century. On either side of the bridge are antique shops, many of which sell gold ornaments, jewellery, cameos and art pieces.
In 1966, the Arno rose and a great flood engulfed the city. A part of Uffizi was full of the self-portraits of Raphael, Titian, Rubens and Corot. Only 20 of them could be rescued by the gallery supervisors and scholars who risked their own lives by venturing into the swirling waters. An hour later, when the superintendent arrived, he dashed into the flood waters and practically saved all the portraits. In the same building, 40 basement rooms of Archives which had 40,000 volumes were submerged in black mud. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s 15th century Baptistry doors which depicted scenes from the Old Testament and which Michelangelo had later described as the Gates of Paradise were also covered with the dirty waters of the flood. Florence was soon to rise out of the sea of water like Botticelli’s Venus.