Florence (in Italian Firenze), the old capital of Tuscany, called "la Bella", and now a provincial capital, a university town and the see of an archbishop, is picturesquely situated on both sides of the River Arno, surrounded by foothills of the Apennines.
While in ancient times the life of Italy was centered on Rome, from the Middle Ages to our own day Florence has been its intellectual center. Here the Italian language and Italian literature were created, and here Italian art attained its finest form. With its astonishing abundance of art treasures, its historical associations and its beautiful surroundings, Florence is one of the world's greatest tourist centers.
The Etruscan and Roman town of Florentina played no great part in history. At the beginning of the 13th century the fortunes of war and the industry of its people (wool, silk) made it the leading town in Central Italy, but the ruling noble families were weakened by continual internecine strife between Guelfs (followers of the Pope) and Ghibelines (followers of the Hohenstaufens). The town's craft guilds grew steadily in strength and in 1282 their leaders, the priori (convenors) gained control of the city's government.
In 1434 power fell into the hands of the wealthy merchant family of the Medici, whose leading members Cosimo (1434-64), the "father of his country" (pater patriae), and Lorenzo the Magnificent (1469-92), brought the republic to its greatest prosperity and made it a brilliant center of art and learning. In 1494 the Medici were driven out, and four years later, in 1498, the great preacher and reformer Girolamo Savonarola was burned at the stake in the Piazza della Signoria. In 1512 the Medici returned to Florence under the protection of Spanish troops, but in 1527 they were again expelled. Only three years later, however, after the capture of the town by Charles V (1530), Alessandro de'Medici was installed as hereditary duke. After his murder in 1537 he was succeeded by Cosimo I, who became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569.
After the house of Medici became extinct in 1737 the Grand Duchy passed to the house of Lorraine, which held it, with an interruption during the Napoleonic period (1810-14), until 1860. Tuscany then became part of the kingdom of Italy, and Florence enjoyed a fresh period of prosperity as temporary capital of the new kingdom (1865-70).
The city did not suffer much during the Second World War, except for the destruction of the bridges across the River Arno, which were blown up by the Germans, but the most beautiful one, the Ponte Vecchio, was not damaged and the other bridges have been rebuilt in their original style. In November 1966 flooding of the River Arno caused severe damage to many historic buildings and the flood cost many lives.
In literature Florence is associated with Dante Alighieri (1266-1321), author of the "Divine Comedy" and creator of the Italian literary language; Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), whose "Decameron" provided the model for Italian prose; and Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), who played a major part in preparing the way for humanism.
From the end of the 13th century Florence played a leading part in the development of art. Arnolfo di Cambio (d. 1302), the great forerunner of the architects of the Renaissance, worked on Santa Croce and the cathedral, and Giotto (1266-1337), father of modern painting, began his career here. Among his principal pupils were Taddeo Gaddi (d. 1366) and Orcagna (d. 1368), also noted as a sculptor.
The year 1402 can be regarded as marking the beginning of the Renaissance (competition for the north door of the Baptistery), although in architecture the new spirit did not find full expression until 20 years later. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) applied his knowledge of ancient architecture to meet new requirements, and was followed by Leon Battista Albert (1404-72).
The sculptors of the Florentine Renaissance included Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), Luca della Robbia (1400-82), noted for his glazed terracotta reliefs, and above all Donatello (1386-1466), the greatest master of the century. After Donatello's death the leading sculptor was Andrea Verrocchio (1436-88), also noted as painter.
The pioneers of Renaissance painting were Masaccio (1401-28), Andrea del Castagno (1423- 65) and Paolo Uccello (1397-1475). Outstanding in fervor of religious feeling was Fra Angelico da Fiesole (1387-1455), who influenced Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69) and Benozzo Gozzoli (1420- 97). The zenith of the Florentine Early Renaissance was reached in the work of Andrea Verrocchio, the brothers Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo (1429-98, 1443-c. 1495), Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510), Fra Filippo's son Filippino Lippi (c. 1459-1504) and Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94). Of the three great masters of Italian art the Tuscans Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo received their training in Florence, and here too Raphael shook off the trammels of his earlier years; from 1506 all three were working in Florence. About the same time Lorenzo di Credi (1459-1537), Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521), Fra Bartolomeo (1472-1517) and the talented colorist Andrea del Sarto (1486-1531) were also working in Florence, as were Franciabigio and Pontormo. Among painters of a slightly later period were Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72), Alessandro Allori (1535-1607) and Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), noted for his "Lives of the Artists". Leading sculptors of this period were Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71), also famous as a goldsmith, and Giovanni Bologne (c. 1524-1608; actually Jean Boulogne Duai).
The flea market, Piazza dei Ciompi, is open daily and features over 120 vendors selling antiques, jewelry, books and so much more.