A brief history of Florence

The Romans were the founders of Florence. Realizing the importance of a thoroughfare towards the Po plain, Ceasar in 59 B.C. ordered the establishment of a colony on the north bank of the Arno. The foundation is thought to have taken place in the spring, during the Floral Games, or Ludi Florales: hence the name Florentia, which was given to the city. Flora was the goddess of flowers and gardens, and the mother of spring in Roman mythology. Tuscan dialect turned the Latin Florentia into Fiorenza — a name which is to be found on Renaissance frescoes, and which was later shortened to Firenze. Practically nothing now remains of the original Roman city, with its forum and four gates, which was situated on the site of the present Piazza della Repubblica. This square, which is perhaps better known to Florentines than to tourists, is bordered by some rather severe architecture. Outdoor cafes reach all the way into the middle of the piazza, where it is possible to stroll and relax without worrying too much about traffic which, as in other tourist spots, is limited to buses and taxis.

Duomo florence view from above

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (English, “Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower”) is the main church of Florence, Italy.

The Piazza della Repubblica is a meeting place and thoroughfare for busy people. In ancient times it was the Roman forum, where citizens debated the fate of the city. Under the arcades, people still talk about business or politics or watch the well-dressed throngs go by. The men and women of Florence, who are renowned for their elegance, were described for us by Andre Suares in his Journey of the Condottiere: “Florentines tend to be good-looking, refined and lively, with flashing eyes and quick gestures. They are also well-dressed, with neat clothes, shining shoes, and soft clean felt hats. Their speech has a throaty, singsong quality to it: there is certainly nothing bland about their mocking, caustic and full-bodied accent.”

The ordinary people of Florence can be seen at work not far from the piazza, under the loggia of the Mercato Nuovo, with its abundance of small businesses. Knickknacks, cheap souvenirs, engravings and scarves are all on display in the midst of flowers, fruit, vegetables and the red watermelons which Florentines are so fond of.

bronze horse statue florenceThe loggia of the Mercato Nuovo was built in the 16th century. According to tradition, visitors wishing to return eventuality to Florence are supposed to rub the snout of the Porcellino, the bronze statue which stands guard near the Mercato Nuovo. Apart from their aesthetic pleasures, the markets are also a rich source of information. There are at a more popular level, particularly that of San Lorenzo, which is quite close to the central market.

And, as one might expect in a city whose emblem is the red lily, there are flowers everywhere. While one finds housewives in the markets, the cafes are the place to go to see people, from all segments of Florentine society. Like Rome or Paris, Florence has its own literary coffee houses. These are the Michelangelo, on Via Cavour, and Gmbbe Rossi, which was patronized by Gide, Unamuno, Papini and the opponents of fascism, as well as Eugenio Montale, Elio Vittorini and others.

There is an abundance of restaurants, trattorias and pizzerias throughout Florence. From the Duomo to San Marco, from the station to the Oltrarno, visitors will find exactly the kind of eating place they need, and the variety of cooking of their choice, including a number of dishes which are specialities of Florence.

Florence, the birth of a city

florence piazza statuesFlorence is a place to be stayed in, not merely visited. The sheer abundance of interesting monuments and the extraordinary treasures to be found in churches and museums alike could easily overwhelm any visitor who tried to ‘do’ Florence in a hurry, and could lead to severe cultural indigestion, in the midst of a feast of beauty. Like Venice, Florence is certainly not a dead town. The centuries have been kind to it, so that it can now show us the past in a living context. The emotions we feel in certain other historic places, such as Carthage or Pompei, derive from memories which live on only in dust and ruins. But here the lifeblood of the city is still circulating around the monuments built by so many past generations, and the most delicate works of art — frescoes and paintings – make a symphony of colour which is still as vivid as ever. Florence has been shaped by history and art. This artistic gem was also the scene of numerous and bloody conflicts.

The Roman period was followed by the northern invaders whom Byzantium was powerless to stop: the Huns of Attila, who are mentioned by Dante, the Ostrogoths of Totila, and lastly the Lombards. It was not until the coming of the Carolingians that Florence began to emerge from several centuries of stagnation.

Having saved Europe from the Hungarian peril and triumphed over the princes, Emperor Otto was crowned Emperor of the West by Pope John XII. However, the title which was conferred on him was the source, almost immediately, of a conflict of authority, both spiritual and temporal, which was to dominate the entire history of the peninsula for almost three centuries. It was not until 1183, after the comprehensive peace treaty signed by Pope Lucius III and Frederick Barbarossa that the independence of Florence was assured. The town was then controlled by a college of consuls, whose term of office was renewable every two months, and who were chosen from among the nobility as well as the general population, or rather the middle classes. Commerce was already the cornerstone of the town’s life, bringing it its wealth, power and prestige.

Seen from any of several vantage points, Florence is an imposing sight, with its graceful domes and towers. One’s eye is first caught by two pairs of structures, which stand like beacons overlooking the city: the campanile and dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, and the two towers of the Palazzo Vecchio and the Bargello. They represent the city’s religious and civic aspects, in a mutually complementary rather than conflicting relationship. Indeed, both were from time to time enmeshed in each other’s passions and moments of high drama.

These two architectural clusters also reflect the dual nature of Florence’s destiny: beauty mingled with horror, the two contradictory faces of its past. In fact, the whole history of the city is recorded within this perimeter between the Duomo and the Palazzo, where pedestrians now casually stroll.

Have you been to Florence? What was your favourite thing about this beautiful city? Drop a comment below!