I was thinking to write an article on top ten Florence Italy attractions, but I realized that I would have been forced to leave many of them out of the list. Ten is a round number, but it’s really too small for this city… so I decided to split the article in three parts: architecture, sculpture and painting. Today I’ll try to make my very personal top ten of the architectural attractions. One of the reasons why tourists love Florence so much is that the historical city center is very small and after you’re done with a beautiful building, few steps away you get to the next one. The nice thing is the architectural attractions are free: you don’t need a ticket to see the magnificent buildings from outside. By the way, if you also want to see some artwork, you can follow my “Florence for free” itinerary. You can also read about my top ten paintings and top ten sculpture works in Florence.
Top Ten Florence Italy attractions list
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
Florence Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, is the largest historical building in Florence, and it’s basically the symbol of the city itself, making the skyline unique. It’s on top of my list of top ten Florence Italy attractions and one of the Florence must see. The building was started in 1296 by Arnolfo di Cambio and finished in 1436 by Filippo Brunelleschi with the wonderful dome. It’s an example of Tuscan Gothic architecture, much less extreme than the typical Northern-European Gothic style. The Bell Tower, Giotto’s Campanile, is a separate building (actually in origin it was linked to the church with an aerial passageway) and was partly designed by Giotto, more famous as a painter than an architect. Brunelleschi’s dome, completed between 1421 and 1436, is considered the greatest achievement of architecture during the Renaissance.
Palazzo Vecchio is the Town Hall, the symbol of political power in Florence. Together with the Cathedral, it defines the skyline of Florence and is close second in my top ten Florence Italy attractions list. It was (probably) designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and started in 1299 as Palazzo Dei Priori, to host the ‘priors’, representing the guilds in the government of the Florentine Republic. After the Medici became Dukes of Florence it became the Duke’s Palace, but when, in 1565, the Medici family moved to Palazzo Pitti, people started to call it the ‘old palace’ (Palazzo Vecchio). Palazzo Vecchio is built of ‘Pietra forte’, the typical gray/brown sandstone which is the most used construction material in Florence in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (for the simple reason that it was abundant in the surroundings of the city). In more recent times, between 1865 and 1870, Palazzo Vecchio hosted the Chamber of Deputies (when Florence was the capital of Italy). Today, along with the museum, it hosts the offices of the Mayor of Florence.
You can’t make a top ten Florence Italy attractions list without mentioning the most romantic attraction: Ponte Vecchio. A devastating flood destroyed all the bridges of Florence in 1333. The main bridge was rebuilt in 1345 by Neri di Fioravante and is sustained by three arches. On both sides of Ponte Vecchio there’s shops, all jewelers: most of the shops are projecting on the river, sustained by brackets. The East side of the bridge is decorated with a monument to Benvenuto Cellini, sculptor and goldsmith; on the other side, the shops are surmounted by the Vasari Corridor. Ponte Vecchio is the only bridge in Florence that survived World War II. A plaque on the bridge remembers Gerhard Wolf, German Consul in Florence in 1944: he saved many Jews from holocaust, many works of art from being sent to Germany, and he also saved Ponte Vecchio: all the other bridges of the town were torn down by the German Army in order to slow down the Allied Army.
Florence Baptistery stands right in front of the Duomo and, at first sight, they look similar because of the white and green marble decoration, but actually the Baptistery has little to do with the Duomo. The Baptistery is much more ancient: we don’t know exactly when it was built, but a document reports that it was there already in 898 A.D. The style is completely different: Gothic for the Duomo, Romanesque for the Baptistery. All the huge historical buildings in Florence were erected in the late XIII century: before this period, the Baptistery was the symbol of the city. During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Baptistery was under the patronage of the Merchants Guild, that changed the original doors with three wonderful bronze doors, one of which is the famous ‘gates of paradise’ by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
The Uffizi building was designed by Giorgio Vasari in 1560. Just 20 years before, Cosimo I Grand Duke of Tuscany decided to move, along with all the Medici family, in Palazzo Vecchio. In order to control the bureaucracy and any aspect of the public administration, he wanted a block of offices built very close to his new residence; that’s the meaning of Uffizi: offices. The Uffizi Gallery is a U-shaped building with a loggia on the ground floor. Apparently, the loggia sustains an architrave, but actually there are rounded arches hidden in the architecture. The part of the building facing the river Arno is a wonder of Architecture, ‘standing on air’, in Vasari’s own words. Later used as workshops for the artisans of the Medici family, also contained a theater, and after being used to store the Medici collections, the Uffizi Gallery became a Museum.
Basilica di Santa Croce
Santa Croce in Florence is a Franciscan convent, erected in 1294, probably by Arnolfo di Cambio. It is another example of Tuscan Gothic style, adapted to the typical feature of the Franciscan churches: the trussed roof. The facade of the church was added only in the late 19th century by the architect Nicola Matas, a Jew converted to the Christian religion. Maybe this is the reason for the big Jewish star on top of the facade, containing the monogram of Jesus Christ, as a symbol of ‘Jesus Christ son of David’. Santa Croce is dedicated to the Holy Cross: in the lunettes above the three entrance doors, sculptures represent the legend of the true cross, found by the mother of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who in 313 A.D. converted to the Christian religion. In the courtyard of the convent stands the Pazzi chapel, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the finest example of Renaissance architecture.
Basilica di Santa Maria Novella
On the opposite side of the city center in respect of Santa Croce, stands the convent of another important religious order: the Dominicans. Santa Maria Novella was started around 1273 and designed by two Dominican friars, Fra’ Sisto and Fra’ Ristoro. The church itself is yet another example of Tuscan Gothic style. The facade though is a mix of Gothic and Renaissance: the lower part was built during the 14th century in Gothic shapes, but was finished by Leon Battista Alberti in 1470, under the patronage of a rich merchant, Giovanni Rucellai, who made sure to let us know he paid the work, writing his name in huge letters almost on top of the facade itself, and also disseminating many sails (his personal symbol) in the decoration. On the tympanum of the facade, the marble decoration represents the Sun, symbol of the Santa Maria Novella convent.
The Bargello was built in 1255 to be the base for the Captain of the People: the ‘People’ were the merchants, organized in Guilds, as opposed to the noble families who had the government of the Republic until then. When the palace was erected, the Republic decreed that any private tower had to be cut so that the public palace was the tallest in town: it was a way to say that from now on, the single ‘Lords’ could never be more powerful than the Republic. When Florence became a Duchy, the palace was turned into a prison and became the base for the ‘Bargello’ (Captain of the police) assuming the name that is still used today. The prison will be moved elsewhere only in the late 18th century, and the Bargello palace will become a National Museum, containing some of the finest works of sculpture of the Renaissance. We are at 8 already… more and more difficult to choose what to exclude from my top ten Florence Italy attractions list.
Palazzo Pitti was built for the Pitti family starting around 1446; according to Vasari, the initial design is by Filippo Brunelleschi. In 1549, the Medici family bought the palace to use it as their new residence: the original cube designed by Brunelleschi was enlarged both on the hill behind, with two new wings and on Pitti square, during a period of four centuries. Despite the substantial change, the new additions respected the original sober facade designed by Brunelleschi, with no decorations, made in ‘Pietra forte’ with blocks of stone projecting on the square (so called ‘bugnato’). The Medici used the hill behind the palace, that once was the quarry of ‘Pietra forte’ used to build the palace, to create the beautiful Boboli Gardens.
I can’t leave this attraction out of the top ten Florence Italy attractions list. When the Medici family moved to Palazzo Pitti, Cosimo I Grand Duke of Tuscany decided to connect Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti with an aerial passageway, and ordered Vasari, his favorite architect, to build this wonder through the city center, in time for the marriage of Francesco, his legitimate heir. Vasari certainly had to hurry, and the corridor was ready in just five months. The tricks used to speed up the work included using the Uffizi as part of the path, using the shops on Ponte Vecchio as a base to build the corridor, and, after crossing Ponte Vecchio, using parts of several private properties. The large windows on Ponte Vecchio, added by Benito Mussolini in the late 1930s, give the tourist who is lucky enough to take a tour of the Vasari Corridor an unique view on the city.
More buildings would probably deserve to stay in the top ten Florence Italy attractions (architectural) list. What do you think of my top ten Florence Italy attractions list? Do you agree? Leave a comment or share your thoughts on social networks.