Florentine Culture

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Florentine Culture
Florence is like an open-air museum. You will see art everywhere, but while the city's cultural heritage is apparent, there is also modern life here. Take it slowly and discover all that Florence has to offer.
By Nicky Swallow, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Javier Larrea/age fotostock
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    Architectural Genius
    For a bird’s-eye view of Florence, climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo, set above the south bank of the Arno. The city’s medieval and Renaissance skyline has changed little over the past six centuries. Brunelleschi’s immense cupola dominates, as it has done since 1436. Nearby, Giotto’s lofty campanile and the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio soar above the mass of red-tiled rooftops. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, inspired architects like di Cambio, Brunelleschi, Michelozzo, and Alberti shaped Florence into the city that we still admire today.
    Photo by Javier Larrea/age fotostock
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    Florence's Churches
    The great Duomo dominates the center of Florence—bursting out of its surrounding piazza, its celebrated cupola visible from miles around. There’s not much "great art" inside, but the sheer size of the building is awe-inspiring. The Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella houses fabulous frescoes by Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and Lippi, and has a magnificent swirling facade by Alberti. There are more superb frescoes in Santa Croce, the burial place of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and other important Florentines. Sprawling San Lorenzo has a rustic, unfinished brick facade and a pair of fabulous bronze pulpits by Donatello. For an extraordinary sunset, climb up to lovely San Miniato al Monte, where the monks chant at evening mass.
    Photo by Stefano Cellai/age fotostock
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    South of the Arno
    Across the Arno to the south is Santo Spirito, a boho-chic neighborhood that offers an atmospheric mix of authentic old Florence and a young, hip vibe. At its heart lies the Basilica of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito, one of the city’s most recognizable church facades—a design by Brunelleschi that was never completed. Nearby, there's a small daily market; after dark, there is a busy nightlife scene. For centuries, this area has been home to the city’s artisan community; although traditional craftsmen may be a dying breed, bookbinders, furniture restorers and painters, ironmongers, and wood turners still inhabit the workshops that characterize the network of old lanes between Via Maggio and Via Guicciardini.
    Photo by Nico Tondini/age fotostock
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    Sculpture in Florence
    The concept of Florence as an open-air museum is never more apparent than in Piazza della Signoria. Cosimo I stands tall at the entrance of the town hall, and the graceful Loggia dei Lanzi shelters more masterpieces, most notably Cellini’s fabulous Perseus and Giambologna’s spiraling Rape of the Sabine Women. Further evocative sculpture is on display in the Museo Nazionale Bargello, which showcases the work of giants Donatello and Michelangelo, reflecting Florence’s artistic prominence during the Renaissance. And then there is Michelangelo’s David. Perhaps the world’s most famous nude statue stands in the Galleria dell’Accademia, perpetually surrounded by admirers.
    Photo by Martin Newman/age fotostock
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    Fabulous Frescoes
    The technique of fresco painting—which involves painting on fresh or drying plaster—is closely associated with Italian Renaissance art, and Florence is an excellent place to view it. Historically, wealthy Florentines would commission artists to decorate their family chapels, thus Giotto’s early biblical scenes in the Bardi chapel in Santa Croce and Gozzoli’s colorful procession in the Magi chapel. Masaccio’s Trinità, in Santa Maria Novella, marked a new approach to perspective, and he developed this new realism in his frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel. Fra Angelico decorated the convent of San Marco with his ethereal work; his Annunciation is one of the most famous images in Christendom.
    Photo by Gianluca Moggi
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    Magnificent Museums
    Florence is home to one of the greatest collections of Renaissance art on the planet, much of which is housed in the Galleria degli Uffizi. Show up early to see works by Botticelli, Perugino, and Raphael. Michelangelo’s David is at the Accademia, but there is much more to see besides. The Galleria Palatina is hung floor to ceiling with paintings, and the Museo del Bargello is stuffed with superb sculpture by the likes of Donatello and Michelangelo. The new Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (recently reopened in late 2015 after expansion and major reorganization) showcases sculpture and artworks associated with the Duomo, Baptistery, and Campanile, and the fascinating National Archaeological Museum documents Tuscany’s ancient past.
    Photo by Juergen Richter/age fotostock
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    Traditional Festivals
    Tuscany’s colorful traditional festivals are a great way to catch a taste of local life, and most take place within easy reach of Florence. Many date from medieval times and some, such as the Saracen Joust in Arezzo, are rooted in historic events. The build-up can start days—even weeks—ahead of time, as local emotions are whipped up to a bursting point; the action itself is always accompanied by parades of costumed trumpeters and drummers and flag throwers, and there's plenty of eating and drinking. Other events to catch include Il Palio, a biannual bareback horse race in Siena; Pisa’s battle reenactment, Gioco del Ponte; and Giostro dell’Orso, or Joust of the Bear, which takes place in Pistoia.
    Photo by Giulio Andreini/age fotostock
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    Bridges over the Arno
    The Ponte Vecchio is one of the most famous river crossings in the world, and as much a symbol of Florence as the Duomo or the Uffizi. Spanning the Arno at its narrowest point, the present bridge (previous structures were destroyed and rebuilt) dates from the 14th century, when the occupants of the shops were a lively mix of butchers, blacksmiths, and tanners. These were evicted in 1593 and replaced with the more dignified jewelers that are still here today. To the west lie the three wide, graceful arches of the Ponte Santa Trinità, adorned with statues of the four seasons. Along with the Ponte alle Grazie to the east, it was destroyed by German troops in WWII but has been carefully reconstructed.
    Photo by Paul Shappirio
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    Parks and Gardens
    Look beyond Florence’s stern Renaissance facades and sun-baked piazzas and you will discover that the city is full of hidden gardens. Some are private, secreted behind locked gates; others, like the grandiose Boboli Gardens, with its statuary, fountains, and shady walkways, are open to all. Not many visitors know about the Bardini garden, which has magnificent views of Florence from its terraces, and even fewer find their way to the Giardino dei Semplici, one of the world’s oldest botanical gardens. Locals stroll, rollerblade, and picnic in Cascine park, an ex-Medici hunting ground hugging the north bank of the Arno.
    Photo by Gianluca Moggi
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    Beyond the Tourist Trail
    With millions of visitors piling into Florence’s diminutive centro storico every year, it can get to feel overcrowded. So bypass the lines waiting to see the Uffizi, David, and the Duomo, and concentrate on lesser-known museums and galleries such as Il Museo Horne, Michelangelo’s Casa Buonarroti, and the magnificent Etruscan collection at the National Archaeological Museum. Get away from the restaurants in the center of town and seek out the local trattorias instead, and rather than staying in a hotel, rent an apartment south of the river in the Oltrarno for a taste of local life. Most importantly, if you visit in the off-season you will get Florence to yourself.
    Photo by Sergey Skleznev/age fotostock