It is difficult to believe Florence began as a rough and ready settlement for battle-scarred veterans of the Roman army. In the two thousand years since its founding in 59 BC, Florence has quickly developed from a quite little town into one of the great cultural centres of Italy, filled with some of the most spectacular artistic achievements in the country and perhaps even the world. For a visitor curious about the city, even a cursory examination of its most popular attractions — the Duomo, the statue of David and the Ponte Vecchio — would say much about the city, its history and the people who once walked its streets.
The Duomo: the Spiritual Heart of Florence
Coming over the crest of the hills surrounding the city, a visitor arriving by car is greeted by a panoramic view of Florence spread out over the Tuscany landscape. If you look closely enough, you’ll be able to see the bulbous roof of one of the city’s most popular attractions — the Duomo. The Duomo’s dominance of the Florence skyline is nicely symbolic of the building’s physical presence and its place in the lives of the people.
The Duomo was originally designed by architect Arnolfo di Cambio, and work on the project began in 1294. The construction of the cathedral would be carried out over the next six hundred years or so, as successive architects died, fell out of favour or simply ran out of money. As a result, parts of the cathedral are over seven centuries old, while the newest bits, in particular the facades, are a ‘mere’ two to three centuries old!
The Duomo is not only the spiritual heart of the city, but also the bearer of civic pride in what was once the country’s most powerful state. Everything about the grand edifice visitors see today was built not only to glorify the name of God, but also to impress viewers with the wealth, might and sophistication of the city. It was begun 1294, right after the construction of magnificent cathedrals in rivals Pisa and Siena, and was intended to be the largest Roman Catholic church in the world. The design were later reduced in size, but still the building which resulted is so great, there is no one vantage point in the city where the entirety of the structure can be seen. The formal name of the cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore (Holy Mary of the Flower), is a clear allusion to the lily symbol of the city. Most strikingly of all, almost every artist of note in this city of arts contributed some artwork to the exterior or the interior of the Duomo.
The most famous single feature of the cathedral, like its counterpart the Pantheon in Rome, is the dome. Also sometimes referred to as a cupola, the dome was the work of Filippo Brunelleschi, one of two participants competing in a contest held to pick the new architect for the Duomo. Brunelleschi’s original octagonal cupola was the first such dome to be created in history. At the time of its construction, it was the largest dome of its time and today still holds the record as the largest masonry dome in the world. It was a masterpiece, and over time became not only a symbol of the Duomo, but also of the city itself.
Inside the cathedral, visitors can admire the splendid stained glass windows, designed by such artists as Donatello, Andrea del Castagno and Paolo Uccello, the great Pieta by Michelangelo and the wooden inlays of the Sacristy cupboards designed by Brunelleschi and Antonio Del Pollaiolo and many other beautiful pieces of art. Many of the artworks which once graces the Duomo are now kept for safekeeping in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, but even without many of the sculptures and decorations in place, visitors can still experience the sense of overwhelming luxury and sophistication the proud Florentine fathers strove to create so successfully.
The Statue of David: A Symbol of Florence
A short distance away from the Duomo is the Gallery of the Accademia, Florence’s answer to Rome’s Uffizi Gallery and proud home of the city’s most famous nude: Michaelangelo’s David. In a spacious apse near the front of the Gallery and protected from the curious by a Plexiglass barrier, this statue has become one of the city’s most popular attractions, both for its remarkable beauty and its history.
Practically everything about the statue marked it as unique. The giant block of marble from which the statue was carved had been rejected by every other sculptor as being too too difficult to work with. The stone was so flawed that few believed even Michelangelo, who was rapidly gaining a reputation
for being a superior sculptor, would be able to create anything from it. To the chagrin of his critics, Michelangelo thumbed his nose at their opinions and proceeded not only to choose the ‘impossible to sculpt’ marble, but to successfully utilize a whopping 85% of it.
Observant visitors standing in front of the statue may notice itspeculiar proportions: the arms are too long and the hands too large, as is the upper chest. Given the Renaissance artist’s preoccupation with the ideal form. The discrepancies may at first seem surprising, but they are cunningly deliberate: Michelangelo knew his commission was meant to adorn the façade of the Duomo, which meant viewers would have to look up and from a distance to see the statue — and in such a position, these trompe l’oiels compensate for the distortions created by distance and height and trick the human eye into believing it is seeing a perfectly proportioned figure.
When he finally revealed the finished sculpture however, it was unanimously held to be a masterpiece. In a city of cantankerous, fiercely territorial artists, that was itself something of a miracle. Though Michelangelo originally carved the statue for a commission from the Duomo, it wasn’t long before the city fathers appropriated the statue. A commission of artists (including Michelangelo’s rival Leonardo da Vinci) quickly formed and secured the transfer of the statue of David from the Duomo façade to a place just in front of the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio (at the time known as the Palazzo ). The statue’s prominent placement before the city’s most powerful institution quickly gave it civic overtones and like the Duomo, the statue also became a symbol of the city, as well as of the extraordinary artistic achievements of the Renaissance.
The Ponte Vecchio: The Pathway of A Tyrant
On the edge of the city centre and near the Palazzo is thePonte Vecchio (literally, the Old Bridge), which crosses the River Arno at its widest point. As with most things in Italy, the bridge visitors see today is only the latest reincarnation of a similar structure first built by the Romans, which was washed away in one of the periodic floods the river Arno conjures up. The subsequent bridge was sensibly built of stone and has stood ever since.
The Ponte would probably have been a very different sight today if not for the orders of Cosimo de Medici, paramount ruler of Florence, who in 1565 desired a secure passage from his residence in the Palazzo Pitti to the Palazzo Vecchio and ordered Girogio Vasari to build his now-famous ‘Vasari corridor’ atop the bridge. The fact that Medici found it necessary to build a secure passage says a great deal of his relationship with the Florentines. Visitors can note the heavy bars on the small windows overlooking both sides of the corridor.
Like most bridges of the day, the Ponte Vecchio hosted along its length a row of shop houses, which in days past would probably have sold everything from meat to wool to fine jewellery. By 1442 however, the shops had become monopolized by the guild of butchers. Since few supreme rulers cared to have their progress perfumed by the smell of fresh blood, in 1593 Medici prohibited butchers from operating on the Ponte, leaving the way open for the more respectable gold merchants to take their place.
Ever since Medici had the corridor built, the Ponte has enjoyed special treatment not accorded to the other unfortunate bridges in the city: in WWII, it was the only one not destroyed by the Germans, allegedly on the direct orders of Hitler; and in 1966, when the river Arno flooded the city in one of its greatest disasters, the gold merchants on the Ponte Vecchio were the only ones who received a call from the authorities warning them of impending danger, which says a fair bit about the the merchants’ relationship to the city.
Unlike the Duomo or the statue of David, the Ponte Vecchio never acquired any particularly proud civic overtones. Like many of the attractions in Florence however, it has a story or two to tell of the people and events which once occurred in this city, and no visit to these historic attractions would be complete without taking a moment to contemplate the very human histories behind them.