Florence is a city that experienced a huge expansion during the late Middle Ages, and Florence wall was rebuilt several times in history to contain the growing metropolis that, in the late 13th century, became the largest town in Europe. This seemingly unstoppable expansion ended with the black death hitting the city in 1348. Only in the late 19th century the size of the city exceeded the space inside the most recent Medieval Florence wall. What remains today is visible in the Oltrarno area and in Palazzo Vecchio, where a permanent exhibition, free to visit, shows some ancient views of Florence and the original keys of the city doors.
Ancient defensive walls
The Roman village of Florentia had his defensive wall. It was more a tradition than a real need: when the city was founded in 59 b.C. by Julius Cesar, the Roman Empire included France and part of Germany… for sure, it was impossible to attack Florence. The wall included the area between Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, which still is the heart of Florence, and the center of the town was in Piazza Della Repubblica. With the city starting to expand in the 12th century, houses were built in the streets that came out from the doors of the Florence wall: these groups of buildings were called Borghi, and we still use this name for some street of Florence, like Borgo San Lorenzo, which once was outside of Florence wall.
Another wall was erected around 1186 to contain these new villages. It was about double the size of the original Florence wall but left out many places that later will become important like, for example, the churches of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella. This wall was the first to include the Oltrarno (the district South of the river).
Arnolfo di Cambio and the new Florence wall
The wall built in 1186 didn’t last long: the exponential growth of Florence forced the authorities, less than 100 years later (1282), to call Arnolfo di Cambio to design another larger wall. This is the age of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Arnolfo di Cambio was by far the most famous architect in Florence at that time. He was hired to design Palazzo Vecchio, the Duomo, and the Basilica di Santa Croce… not bad I would say… most probably, Florence wall was a minor commitment to him, and indeed the construction was quite slow, ending only in 1333. When this new Florence wall was finished, it was the most amazing in Europe. There was a lot of space inside because with the city expanding so fast, they didn’t want to face the same problem for a long time. There were 16 doors to enter in the city, and each door was opened at dawn and closed at the sunset. Being late at the sunset was not a good thing, and farmers used to throw stones at the doors when this happened, in order to enter back in the city. Florence wall was not only a defensive facility: it was very important to check who entered in Florence, also because the entrance was subject to the payment of a tax. Today, tourists pay a tax for each night they spend in Florence, so we can safely say not much has changed in 700 years…
Most of the wall was destroyed in the late 19th century. For a short time, Florence became the capital of Italy and underwent a renovation process that involved the destruction of many historical buildings. What survived were the doors (not all of them) and a small part of the wall in the Oltrarno area. Part of the wall is visible from Piazzale Michelangelo, as shown in the picture to the left (click to enlarge).