“Everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine.” – Henry James

Firenze in Italian, Florence in English is a historic centre. “The city has remained an important cultural, economic, political, and artistic force into the modern era, setting trends in political administration and even cultural. […] Among the most famous of the city’s cultural giants are Leonardo da VinciMichelangeloDanteMachiavelliGalileo, and its most-renowned rulers, generations of the Medici family. “

Located 145 miles (about 230 km) northwest of Rome.

“Florence was founded as a Roman military colony about the 1st century BCE, and during its long history it has been a republic, a seat of the duchy of Tuscany, and a capital (1865–70) of Italy. During the 14th–16th century Florence achieved preeminence in commerce and finance, learning, and especially the arts.”

The rise and full expression of the social and cultural movement known as the Renaissance occurred in Firenze from 1401 to 1504. The Renaissance refers to a rebirth of the humanism of Ancient Greece and Rome in 1400’s Italy. In Firenze, the Renaissance is decidedly associated with the rise of the Medici family. The Medici were a family of bankers that funded and fostered the greatest artistic expressions of the Renaissance.

“The Medici didn’t start out as the most powerful family in Italy. Other families were just as rich, and just as ambitious. But no one knew more about getting ahead – and staying ahead – than the Medici. They clawed their way to the top, sometimes through bribery, corruption and violence. Those who stood in their way could end up humiliated – or dead. And the Medici exploited a network of “friends of friends” – hangers on who would do anything to stay close to the family. For the Medici, this network of amici degli amici – the magic words in Renaissance Italy – was the key to fame, fortune and survival. The power of the Medici stretched all the way to Rome, where even the papacy was something to be bought and sold. They were the Godfathers of the Renaissance.”

“The history of society’s elite using art to solidify their power isn’t short, but it’s possible that members of the Medici family are among the most innovative figures in that lineage. In 15th- and 16th-century Italy, during the height of the Renaissance, the Medici established themselves as the greatest art patrons of their day… Members of the Medici family forged close relationships with artists like Michelangelo and Jacopo da Pontormo, and used their deep connections to commission major works that would signify their vast influence.”


“these are so beautiful that they should be the Gates of Paradise” Michelangelo on seeing Ghiberti’s second set of doors.

The era known as the Renaissance begins in Firenze in 1401, with the competition for the Baptistery Doors between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. Ghiberti wins the competition and proceeds to introduce illusions of depth associated with the painting of linear perspective into sculpture. Ghiberti’s two sets of Baptistery doors radically redefine how space is represented in sculpture. Ghiberti’s competition doors are on the north side of the Battsitero. The second set of commissioned doors by Ghiberti are facing the Cathedral. These ten panels completely revolutionize sculpture and the ability to create an illusion of depth.

Dante was baptized in the the Battistero…looking up at a medieval mosaic.

There is only the tomb of one person in the oldest and most revered building in Firenze…and he is certainly most unworthy of the honor. Antipope John XXIII was a pirate before pursuing a life in the church. Spiritually John XXIII was a quite lacking, but he decidedly changed the course of history by awarding the Papal banking contract to the Medici. The Medici therefore needed to rehabilitate his image after his charges of simony, heresy, and affairs with 200 women.

Brunelleschi for his part, bitter at his defeat, leaves Firenze for Roma to study the architecture and sculpture of Ancient Roma. In particular, Brunelleschi is fascinated with the Pantheon and its wide dome. The Pantheon was built in 120CE during the rule of Hadrian. No dome of the height or width of the Pantheon had been constructed for 1300 years…until Brunelleschi built the dome of the Cathedral of Firenze.

The Cattedrale was the scene of the Pazzi conspiracy, in which members of
the Pazzi family tried to assassinate Lorenzo and Giuliano Medici. Giuliano was
stabbed to death on the cathedral floor, but Lorenzo survived. Retribution was
swift and vicious, with the Pazzi and co conspirators hacked to death and
dragged through the streets.

Midway between the religious center and the civic center of Firenze is the Orsanmichele church. A former granary, Orsanmichele captures the chapters of development of humanism is sculpture. One of the earliest works is Nanni di Banco’s Four Crowned Saints from 1408-1409. The figures make a reference to Classical Rome in subject and pose. It is Donatello, however, who infuses stone with life more than any other artists of the 1400s. Donatello’s Saint Mark and Saint George reflect a Renaissance humanity in both pose and expression. The contrapposto of Saint Mark was the first utilization of this pose since antiquity. The expression of Donatello’s Saint George reflects the simultaneous confidence and doubt that heroic acts require. Michelangelo will capture this rise of the individual to greatness in David. The High Renaissance comes into full expression in Orsanmichele in Verrocchio’s Christ and Doubting Thomas. Christ pushed back into the niche in the realm of spirituality and art. Thomas, each one of us, is the profane world, the street, this earth. The two worlds meet as Thomas’s foot bridges the realms by extending into the street. The abstract world of spirituality and the figurative world of humans becoming one in the world of art is the quintessential embodiment of the Renaissance.

Firenze’s experiment with a rule by elected officials and laws, rather than a divine monarchy, played out in its successes and failures on the Piazza de la Signora in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. Art on Piazza de la Signora was not art: art was the expression of the political will of Firenze. Michelangelo’s David, a replica here in the original placement of the Gigante, symbolized young Firenze’s (David) opposition to older Roma (Goliath). David’s eyes firmly staring in the direction of the Eternal City. Savonarola led the religious reawakening that swept Firenze here with the Bonfire of the Vanities, a ritual in which Florentines threw their worldly possessions into fires. According to some accounts, Botticelli threw some of his own paintings into the Bonfire of the vanities. The Christian revival led by Savonarola came to a dramatic end after Savonarola himself was burned at the stake on the very spot marked by a purple disc.

Palazzo Vecchio was the civic center of Firenze. Cosimo the Father was once imprisoned there. The priest complicit in the Pazzi conspiracy was hung from a Palazzo Vecchio window.

Le Galerie degli Uffizi was designed by Vasari and funded by Cosimo I. Originally the offices of the Uffizi, it is now the greatest Renaissance museum in the world.

The Ponte Vecchio is the oldest bridge in Firenze. It was spared destruction in 1944. The shops on the bridge are all jewelers.

John William Bailly 25 April 2022


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