Art and Architecture in Tuscany

Ancient Etruscan frescoes, Hellenistic-style Roman bronzes, gilded royal palaces, works by names like Donatello, Michelangelo, and Botticelli—there’s no shortage of extraordinary art in Tuscany. In Florence you’ll find churches and palazzi aplenty and a museum for every interest, from medieval artillery to Ferragamo shoes, while the smaller towns boast their own cultural and artistic gems. Here are some of the highlights.

Piazza del Duomo, 56126 Pisa PI, Italy
Pisa’s famous leaning tower (the campanile of the adjacent Duomo) is part of the Piazza del Duomo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that also includes the Duomo, baptistery and cemetery. Begun in 1173, the tower began to lean almost immediately thanks to soil subsidence. To try to halt the tilt, cables and counterweights have been inserted. A spiral staircase with nearly 300 steps leads to the top of this unique, iconic building.
Via Ricasoli, 58/60, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
Most people head to this ex-art school to ogle the world’s most famous nude statue. Michelangelo’s David was carved from a single five-meter-high block of milky-white marble in 1504 and originally stood in Piazza della Signoria. Don’t neglect the other artworks in the gallery, however. They include Michelangelo’s four unfinished Slaves, straining to escape their stone prison, and a fabulous collection of early musical instruments. To avoid endless lines, advance booking is advised.
6 Piazzale degli Uffizi
Ideally you’d have a whole day to appreciate the world’s foremost collection of Renaissance paintings, housed in the 16th-century headquarters of the Medici court. But for those with less time, highlights include the three great Maestà altarpieces in Room 2, Gentile da Fabriano’s glowing Adoration of the Magi (Rooms 5 and 6), Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino (Room 7), Fra Filippo Lippi’s ethereal Madonna and Child with Two Angels (Room 8), and the celebrated Botticellis in Rooms 10 to 14. Advance booking is advised.
Via dei Servi, 66, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
Even with all the noted thinkers, artists, politicians, and powerful families who’ve called Florence home, Leonardo da Vinci is arguably the city’s most famous son. This homage focuses less on his artwork and more on Da Vinci’s forward-thinking inventions and theories. The exhibits are separated into five themes, with each including models based on Da Vinci’s instructions. The Earth section includes pieces like printing machines and an oil press; Water has hydraulic saws and water floats; Fire boasts military artillery inspired by the Atlantic Codex; Air has Da Vinci’s parachute, flying machine, and “winged man” paragliding prototype; and Mechanisms includes items based on Da Vinci’s codexes, to demonstrate their principles. Most items are hands-off, but kids will have fun learning how to operate the rotating crane and other models. Most of the pieces are made of wood, so you really get a feel for their bones—and for Da Vinci’s genius.
Piazza de' Pitti, 1, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
The Uffizi Gallery might get more attention, but the Palazzo Pitti across the river is the largest museum complex in Florence. The vast Renaissance palace itself has been owned by the Medici family, used by Napoleon, and repurposed as home to King Victor Emmanuel III. Today you can visit rooms that house Renaissance paintings by Titian, Raphael, and Rubens; a lavish Medici silver and jewelry collection; a collection of fine European porcelain; and a costume collection. An all-in-one ticket grants entrance to each of the museums: Museo Argenti, Galleria Costume, and Museo Porcellane, as well as the Boboli and Bardini gardens.
Via S. Pietro, 29, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Active from the 13th to 15th centuries and considered an influence on the pre-Renaissance movement, the Sienese School of painting is identifiable by its themes—always religious, and usually with a focus on Biblical miracles—and its signature style, a dreamy mix of Roman, Gothic, and Byzantine influences that often feature dazzling gold backgrounds. Opened in 1932, this museum boasts one of the world’s largest collections of Sienese School works, as well as a number of Renaissance and late-medieval pieces from Italian artists. Wander through the impressive building—a combination of two 14th- and 15th-century noblemen’s palazzi—to find works like Duccio’s Madonna and Child, Michelino da Besozzo’s Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine (celebrating the “calling” of Siena’s native daughter), and Bartolo di Fredi’s expansive Adoration of the Magi. Paired with a visit to Florence’s Uffizi, coming here offers insight into the differences—and longtime rivalry—between the two cities.
Piazza del Duomo, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
The cathedral, usually called the Duomo, is Florence’s most recognizable building. You are able to catch glimpses of its magnificent red-tiled cupola from just about anywhere in the city center. Construction on the church complex began in 1296 and the work—Brunelleschi’s dome and his Baptistery, and Giotto’s bell tower—was completed in 1426. The interior of this architectural is reserved in contrast with the exterior’s marble Gothic facade and its green, pink, and white stripes. Climb the 463 steps up into the dome for a close-up look at Giorgio Vasari’s fresco, The Last Judgment, and a bird’s-eye view of the city.
Piazza del Duomo, 1, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Founded in the 9th century, Santa Maria della Scala was one of Europe’s first hospitals. It was also one of the first hospitals anywhere to disinfect its equipment and only stopped taking in patients in the 1980s. (The writer Italo Calvino died here in 1961.) The early history of the hospital is illustrated in the 15th-century frescoes decorating the walls of the Pilgrim’s Hall, and there is a fascinating archaeological museum housed in the labyrinthine basement rooms.
Piazza del Duomo, 9, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
Florence’s wonderful Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Cathedral Works Museum) is open to the public with double its original floor space and a new contemporary look. The unique collection of works by masters such as Donatello, Michelangelo, Luca della Robbia, and Lorenzo Ghiberti includes statuary from the Duomo, bell tower, and Baptistery as well as models and other exhibits relating to the building of one of the world’s largest cathedrals. Showstoppers include the bronze panels from the Baptistery’s doors, gleaming from their recent cleanup; Donatello’s emotive Mary Magdalene; the two exquisite cantorie (choir lofts) by Donatello and della Robbia; and a vast scale replica of the Duomo’s original facade, ripped down in 1587.
Piazza di Santa Trinita, 5R, 50123 Firenze FI, Italy
What began in pre-war Italy as two small workshops in the Palazzo Spini Feroni on Via Tornabuoni has grown into a fashion empire and a brand synonymous with Hollywood glamour. A museum dedicated to the craftsmanship of Salvatore Ferragamo opened in this grand palazzo in 1995. The collection includes the wooden lasts, or forms, that Ferragamo used to shape shoes for stars like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren. Glass cases display some of the company’s colorful and iconic creations—many that seem more sculpture than shoe. There is also a small space that hosts contemporary art exhibitions.
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