And yet, you’ll have to tear your eyes away from the shops every once in a while if you want to take in all the richness of Florence. With many of the city’s treasures viewable in churches, gardens and other public places, it’s possible to gain a decent art history education just walking from one neighborhood to the next. But for those truly on the trail of excellence, it’s the museums — of which there are a staggering number — that you’ll have to carve out time for. The three at the top of my list? The Galleria degli Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti and the Galleria dell’ Accademia.
Situated on the colorful Piazza della Signorio, the Galleria delgi Uffizi is one of Italy’s most famous museums, constructed in the late 1500s by Cosimo I de’Medici, whose family ruled Florence. Now the Uffizi houses the majority of the Medicis’ vast art collection and, consequently, some of the most exquisite works of art — Renaissance and otherwise — anywhere in the world. Be on the lookout for such famous paintings as Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” (in which the goddess covers her nude body with her long blond hair), Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciazione,” Michelangelo’s “Tondo Doni,” and more by Titian, Caravaggio, Raphael, Ruben and Rembrandt. The Uffizi, however, is just as famous for its long lines, crowds and overwhelming atmosphere as it is for the 1,500 works spread chronologically across its 50 rooms, so buy tickets in advance and either make more than one trip, or commit to concentrating on specific artists or time periods.
Another Florentine treasure chest, Palazzo Pitti, lies just across the Arno. Purchased by Cosimo I from a rival family, it was expanded many times over and today houses not one, but six museums. One, the Galleria Pallatina, superbly displays additional 16th- to 18th-century works collected by the Medicis, including creations by Raphael, Titian, Ruben, Van Dyck and others. And if the weather’s agreeable — or even if it’s not, but you’re a die-hard like I was — consider also purchasing admission to the Giardino di Boboli, the gardens behind the palace. Exploration of this labyrinth (take a map!) provided me with the opportunity to wander among cypress and citrus trees, ornamental ponds and interesting sculptures. Finding a well-preserved section of the city’s Roman wall at one end, I followed it around to Forte di Belvedere and then into the more intimate Giardino di Bardini. In these smaller, sloping gardens, you can enjoy wonderful elevated vistas of Florence from a modest outdoor cafe, where I gratefully gulped down some iced tea and a few more scoops of gelato.
A far cry from the polycentric Palazzo Pitti is the Galleria dell’ Accademia, built in the 19th century with Michelangelo’s “David” as its focal point. Although the museum houses other works, including a number of fascinating unfinished sculptures attributed to Michelangelo, most visitors have eyes only for “David.” Originally commissioned for the roof of the cathedral, the biblical figure (he of Goliath-defeating fame) was to be carved from a block of Carrara marble more than 17 feet tall. After seeing unsuccessful starts by two different artists, the “hunk” of marble sat abandoned for more than two decades until a 26-year-old named Michelangelo Buonarroti persuaded the Opera del Duomo in 1501 that he was the right man for the job. Three years later, the completed work was considered too artistically groundbreaking — and too heavy — for its intended location. Instead, “David” was placed outside Palazzo Vecchio (at that time, city hall) where it remained until 1873, when it was moved to the Galleria dell’ Accademia. The copy of the sculpture standing in Piazza della Signoria, however, remains heavily photographed, as taking photos of the real one is forbidden.
The only public space in Florence more famous than Piazza della Signoria is San Giovanni Square and the adjacent Piazza del Duomo — the spectacular views of which nothing could have prepared me for. When I reached Via della Oriuolo, the street opened up to reveal a scene much larger than life: Before me was the magnificent octagonal Baptistry of St. John, and beyond it, the elaborate facade of the enormous Duomo, Florence’s world-famous cathedral, with its splendid red dome rising over the city. Giotto’s Campanile, the bell tower, rounds out the legendary trinity at the heart of Florence, whose city center was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
The baptistry, one of the oldest buildings anywhere in the city, is where all Florentine Catholics were baptized from about 1100 through the 19th century. Particularly famous are its bronze doors, which feature relief sculptures depicting scenes from the Bible. The north and east doors were designed by Ghiberti and took 20 years to complete. Michelangelo dubbed the east pair “the gates of paradise” — a phrase by which they are still known today.
Officially named the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower), the Duomo is certainly a sight to behold. At 502 feet long and 380 feet tall, it was the largest church ever built at that time, and today, is the fourth largest in all of Europe. The colorful facade, completed in the 1800s, features striking patterns of white, green and pink marble, as well as incredible detail in the religious sculptures and carvings around the doors, arches and windows.
Construction began in 1296 in the Gothic style by Arnolfo di Cambio, a Tuscan architect and sculptor who also designed Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio and the Basilica of Santa Croce (where the exalted Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli are buried). After di Cambio’s death in 1302, many different architects contributed their expertise and by 1418 — more than 120 years after the first stone had been laid — only the dome remained unfinished. Filippo Brunelleschi, fresh from studying architecture in Rome with his good friend Donatello, was to have the honor of designing the cathedral’s most glorified feature.
At the time, no one knew how to construct a dome of such unprecedented size. Brunelleschi, however, showing extraordinary skill in the areas of mathematics, architecture, physics and engineering, managed to complete the job using ingenious methods, including the invention of a contraption to hoist the more than 4 million necessary bricks upward into the dome. Completed in 1436, the octagonal dome was considered so brilliant that upon Brunelleschi’s death 10 years later, the Florentines buried him in the church’s crypt alongside the popes and Florentine bishops.
Venturing inside the Duomo, I discovered the interior to be sparse in comparison to the grand exterior, but I was told this is because many of the original decorations have been relocated to the adjacent Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo (Museum of the Works of the Cathedral). Nevertheless, there are still some prominent features, namely the lovely stained glass windows and oversized clock above the church’s entryway. Unusual to modern viewers, the timepiece tells time in a 24-hour format according to a single hand.