A history of Florence in 12 buildings

The origins of Florence are Roman, but it was during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that the city flourished as one of Europe’s greatest and wealthiest settlements – its wealth based on silk and fabrics, and on a series of immensely rich banking dynasties. And what those bankers and merchants liked to do best was to display that wealth as extravagantly as possible. They built churches, towers, palaces, bridges and offices and they were always attracted to the latest fashions and technologies. Such generous partronage meant that, for several centuries, Florence became a magnet for many of the most ambitious architects and artists of the time. The city’s art galleries tell the story in their own compact and accessible way. But it is the buildings themselves – from the tall defensive towers which attest to the social turbulence behind Florence’s early wealth and creativity, to the delicate patterns and angles of the baptistery, the soaring dome of the cathedral, the crenellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and the shop-lined parapets of the Ponte Vecchio – which still comprise the city itself, and which really express the history of Florence. Walking the streets of this compact city with your eyes open to these remarkable buildings is the best way to immerse yourself in that past. Here are a dozen which you musn’t miss.

The Baptistery of San Giovanni (mainly 11th to 13th century)

Dedicated to Florence’s patron saint, the Baptistery is the heart of the city’s religious history; over the centuries, countless Florentines were baptised here, including Dante. Its characteristic architectural style is splendid Tuscan Romanesque, clad entirely with white and green marble. Most of the present structure dates from a comprehensive modernization in the 11th century. The three famous portals (doors) were added in stages; the first, south, by Andrea Pisano, in 1330; the next, north, by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1403; finally, the famous golden east doors, the Porta del Paradiso, also by Ghiberti, 1425 – the orignals are now in Duomo musem. Its octagon plan has a great central space, designed to hold hundreds, and originally with a central font. The upper vaults are clad with magnificent mosaics, begun in 1225, and completed a century later.

The Palazzo Vecchio (first stage 1299-1314)

The heart of the city’s government since the era of the medieval free commune. The original fortified core, more castle than palace, was later enlarged in stages by the Medici, who retained the Palazzo as their seat of power. Cosimo I transformed the great Sala dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred) from a place of democratic assembly into a throne-room, lavishly decorated by Giorgio Vasari. He also extended the Palazzo, with private suites of rooms for his family and retinue, all richly decorated. Long after the demise of the Medici, the Palazzo retained political importance. The national parliament assembled here in 1865-70, and it still houses the city’s government today.

Santa Croce (1294- c.1320)

This great church represents the importance of the mendicant orders of friars in the Middle Ages, in this case the Franciscans. These orders, including the Dominicans and others, preached to thousands, and were patronised by many of the greatest and wealthiest Florentine families. The immensely wealthy bankers, the Bardi and Peruzzi, built chapels here, both decorated by Giotto. Santa Croce was later patronised by the Pazzi, with their family chapel (1430-73) by Brunelleschi, one of the key works of the early Renaissance. Santa Croce later became Florence’s pantheon, with tombs and monuments to Dante, Michelangelo, Alberti, Machiavelli and Galileo.

Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo (1296-1421)

Florence’s cathedral, and one of the largest churches in the world. Begun by Arnolfo di Cambio, it was completed in the 1400s, when Brunelleschi added the magnificent cupola and its lantern. The west façade was only added in the mid 19th century. The massive exterior is entirely clad with coloured marbles; by contrast, the interior is simple and austere, almost devoid of decoration, other than the splendid stained glass windows. Brunelleschi’s cupola, a remarkable feat of engineering, has become perhaps the most famous icon of the city, physically and metaphorically looming over Florence and its surrounding hills.

Orsanmichele (1337-1404)

This unique structure (‘San Michele in Orto’) has a long, complex history. Originally built as a single-storey warehouse for grain and flour, it was later turned into a church, the base for the city’s numerous and powerful trade guilds. The two upper floors were added after 1367, again as a grain store. The exterior was richly decorated with statues in niches around the four facades, representing the arti (guilds) with sculptures by Donatello, Ghiberti and others. The church contains a splendidly rich tabernacle by Orcagna

The Ponte Vecchio (1345) 

The oldest surviving bridge in the city, rebuilt after a disastrous flood in 1333. The little shops that line it on both sides are supported on jetties over the river, and were intended to raise revenue for the bridge’s maintenance. The bridge formed a vital link to the district of Oltrarno, across the river, and the road that led to Rome. In 1565 the Corridoio Vasariano was built on top, to provide a safe passage linking the Uffizi to the monumental Palazzo Pitti, across the Arno, the new home of the Medici court.

Palazzo Medici, later Riccardi (1444-69)

Designed by Michelozzo for Cosimo il Vecchio, Palazzo Medici is the archetypal Florentine Renaissance palazzo. Rigorously disciplined and imposing externally, it expresses directly the power of the dynasty, incorporating essential security requirements in the barred windows and thick, rusticated stone walls. The continuing need for security was exemplified by the attempted assassination of Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ in 1478. The palazzo’s interior is quite different, built around an elegant colonnaded courtyard; the family’s private chapel is richly decorated by Benozzo Gozzoli.

San Lorenzo (church 1419-60; Sagrestia Nuova 1519-34; Cappella dei Principi 1604-50)

San Lorenzo, only 100 metres from the Medici palazzo, was their own family church, patronised over more than two centuries. Their first work was to sponorsor a new sacristy, Brunelleschi’s Sagrestia Vecchia (1420-29), followed by the rebuilding of the church itself, also by Brunelleschi, and continuing with another sacristy, Michelangelo’s Sagrestia Nuova and his Biblioteca Laurenziana. The last phase of Medici patronage here is the imposing Cappella dei Principi, the dynasty’s mausoleum, in which all later family members are buried. Its great cupola is consciously modelled on that of the cathedral.

The Palazzo degli Uffizi (1559-80)

The Uffizi have been called the world’s earliest purpose-designed office buildings. Begun by Giorgio Vasari, for duke Cosimo I, following his defeat of Siena, and the subsequent annexation of Sienese territories, doubling the size of the Florentine state. Thirteen magistracies were accommodated here, in two long parallel wings, linked to each other at the south end, and with a bridge to the Palazzo Vecchio. On the top floor, a long series of galleries was built to house the Medici’s remarkable collections of classical sculptures and paintings; these are the present Uffizi galleries, first opened to the public in 1591, and today one of the world’s finest art collections.

Palazzo Pitti (1457-70, extended 1558-77)

Begun for Luca Pitti in 1457, it was acquired by Eleanora of Toledo, wife of Cosimo I, in 1549, and thereafter expanded in stages, initially by Ammannati, to become the largest palace in the city. The Medici court moved here from the Palazzo Vecchio, leading to notable development of the Oltrarno district by his courtiers. In conjunction with the expansion of Palazzo Pitti, the Boboli Garden was laid out on the hillside behind the Palazzo, and became one of the most important gardens in Italy. Today the Palazzo contains several museums, including a fine picture gallery.

Piazza della Repubblica (1883-96)

Today the centre of city life, the Piazza was formed in the late 19th century, following massive demolitions in the historic centre, including the Ghetto and the Mercato Vecchio. The Piazza is surrounded by typically self-confident 19th century palazzi, that on the west side, with the Arcone, being the most monumental. The inscription on the entablature, though, praising the ‘bringing back to health’ to the city, became notorious, since it involved so much destruction of the historic centre.

Stazione Centrale di Santa Maria Novella (1933-5)

Florence’s main railway station is the finest 20th-century building in the city; designed by the Gruppo Toscano, whose members included the remarkable Giovanni Michelucci, following a competition. The exterior is uncompromisingly modern, with a dramatic glazed entrance, inside which is the impressive ticket hall, clad with yellow marble. The main concourse, the Galleria di Testa, has no internal columns, and is covered with a daring folded concrete roof, with a great glazed north-light window.