Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza Repùbblica and Or San Michele
The streets are now growing narrower as we enter the old town. Splendid palazzos stand aside even more splendid ones, with churches here and there. You shouldn’t miss the Palazzi Ruccelai and Strozzi. 15 houses had to be to be torn down in 1489 to make space for Filippo Strozzi’s palace, which belongs to the most important ones of the Renaissance in Florence. Directly beside the Palazzo Strozzi lies the Odeon cinema, which shows movies in original language with Italian subtitles besides the Italian films in its magnificent Art Nouveau atmosphere from 1928.
Only one block to the east the Piazza Repùbblica opens up the sea of houses. Since the foundation of Florence by the Romans it has been the very center of the city. The piazza we walk across nowadays was created in 1880, when Florence became the capital of Italy for a while, when it was altered and enlarged.
On the lower right end of the square we turn right, then on the first opportunity to the left and thus come to one of the most interesting Renaissance buildings of Florence: The Or San Michele, which combines Florentine Gothic and Renaissance.
The alcove statues, which are shown on the first floor nowadays and on whose copies we pass on the street, belong to the most significant sculptures of the Gothic and the Renaissance in Florence, which demonstrate the evolution of the Gothic to the Renaissance strikingly. Originally a church stood here, which had to give way to the building we still see in 1240, in the beginning used as a granary, later as an oratorio and a market hall.
Bargello and Piazza Signoria
After we have admired the statues amply, we follow the street above Or San Michele to the east, until we turn right into the Via del Proconsolo and come upon the Bargello on the left. The palace was built in 1254-61 for the government; the name dates back to 1502, when the police captain, in Italian bargello, moved in.
To help unburden the Uffici with its huge collection, the Museo Nazionale del Bargello was opened in 1859, with one one most prominent collections of sculptures in Europe.
Then we pass the Bargello on its left side in the direction of the Arno and follow the tower of the Palazzio Vecchio rising above the sea of roofs to the Piazza della Signoria, the grandest of the city’s squares. On its lower end stands the Palazzio Vecchio. The palace was begun in 1299 as a symbol for the freedom of the city and was expanded several times in the next three centuries. Nowadays the urban administration, the mayor and swarms of tourists come to see the inside reside here. You can also climb the the top of the tower, combined with a visit of the museum or without (different prices), from where you can enjoy a great view over the city, the Uffizi and the river Arno.
If front of the entrance of the palazzo stand copies of the two statues which have flanked the entrance since the 16th century, until they were moved to the museum: Bandinelli’s “Hercules kills Cacus” (1533) and Michelangelo’s most famous statue David (1501-04), the first monumental sculpture erected in public space since ancient times. You can find the original in the Galleria dell’Accademia (left photo).
To the right of the palace the Loggia dei Lanzi opens up to the square in three big arcades. Originally built for rallies and receptions, it exhibits different statues nowadays. The two most important ones are the bronze statue of Perseus by Cellini (1545-54) on the left side and the “Robbery of the Sabine Women” by Giambologna (1583) on the far right side. Take your time to get a closer look to really appreciate the masterful works.
Aside from that you will also find Donatello’s masterpiece “Judith and Holofernes” (1455-60), Giambologna’s equestrian statue of Cosima I. (1478-95) and the imposing Neptune Fountain by Bartolomeo Ammannati (1565) on the Piazza Signoria.
This public display and appreciation of art is characteristic of Florence, where art has become an integral part of the cityscape.
From Santa Croce to the Arno
After so much input it’s really time for a break, alone for letting all the impressions sink. And our body needs fuel. So we pass the Palazzo Vecchio on its right side, see the Uffizi in the right side already, where we will return later and follow the Via della Ninna, until it merges into the Via dei Neri and only a short walk after that we come to the most popular Panino shop of Florence, the All’Antico Vinaio. During midday long lines of people wait here, so better come earlier or later to try the famous Italian sandwiches with the best local ingredients for 5 Euro.
After we have strengthened us this way we follow the Via dei Neri further with new-found energy (or have an ice cream in the close-by Gelateria dei Neri as desert first) until we reach the Via Giuseppe Verdi, where we turn right and reach Santa Croce after a few blocks.
The giant church was built between 1294/95 until 1385 after the plans of Arnolfo di Cambio; it received its marble front only in 1857-63. Let’s sit down on one the benches one the huge square and look closer at the magnificent building, before we enter the spacious inside with the graves of Michelangelo, Ghiberti and Galileo. No other church in Florence hosts as many artworks as Santa Croce.
Later we step out of the twilight of the nave into the bright wide city again and follow the Via Giuseppe Verdi back the way we came. And follow the street further, until it reaches the river Arno. Those who want to enjoy the atmosphere of the river like me, want to read or meditate a little, should turn left and walk for a while along the Arno until they come upon a little frequented park right on the water. If you don’t want to do the detour, just turn right on the river in the direction of the Ponte Vecchio, which dominates the river scape.
Shortly before the bridge, the passage of the Uffici opens up on the right side. The building which hosts the most important museum of Italy nowadays, was built in 1559 as an administration building; hence the name Uffizi, for departments, offices.
The fantastical collection, which mainly traces back to the treasures of the the Medici family, stretches from Giotto, Fra Angelico, Raffael and Leonardo Da Vinci over Michelangelo, Botticelli, Tizian, Caravaggio and Dürer to Rubens and Rembrandt. To appreciate the Galleria degli Uffizi even roughly, you need time.
Oltrano: The other side of the river
Back on the Arno it’s only a stone’s throw to the Ponte Vecchio through the arcades of the Vasari Corridor. The bridge was built in 1342 and stands as the last example of the historical bridges of Florence covered with houses. The Nazis blew up all others in the Second World War; Ponte Vecchio still stands because Hitler thought it was beautiful.
Past the gold and jewelery shops on the bridge we reach the Oltrano, the other bank of the Arno, where you will still find countless craft shops and where the stream of tourists ebbs away a little bit.
Once we are on the other side, we just follow the broad street a few meters until the Palazzo Pitti rises behind the big, sloping square on the left side. The biggest Florentine city palace was built in 1457 as the family palace of the Pitti and was expanded several times later. Nowadays the palazzo hosts different museums, the most important one being the Galleria Palatina with great paintings by Raffael and Tizian. Regularly concerts are being performed inside the palace, which are worth it already because of the ambience.
Behind the palazzo the vast Boboli garden, the Giardino di Boboli, sprawls over the hills. Out of the narrowly built city into a green idyll, where statues, fountains and hidden corners are to be discovered; from where you watch the city stretching in between the hills from afar.
We leave the Boboli garden again through the Palazzo Pitti, walk down the piazza, enter one of the side alleys and find our way to the closeby church Santo Spirito. The church was built in 1445 after a design by Brunelleschi and the front, in case you wonder, was not planned white and empty, but was never finished. Around the picturesque piazza you will find many cafés and restaurants for a coffee break or other refreshments.
From here we pass the church on its right side back to the Arno, back to Ponte Vecchio and a little further along the river, until we reach the Via de Bardi, which leads through one of the old city gates up into the hills around Florence. Just before the street leads steeply to the stairs, we turn left into the Rose Garden, the Giardino delle Rose, from where you can enjoy your first view on the city. We leave the garden on its upper end and climb the stairs leading up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, where we want to be a little bit later for the sunset. Before that there is still time to climb a little further to one of the oldest churches of Florence, San Miniato al Monte. It was built from 1150 to 1207 and shows the typical Florentine green-white front design, just like the Baptistery.
To finish our walk in a fitting manner we descend back to the Piazzale Michelangelo, with the city we walked through sprawling beneath us. We sit on the steps and let the impressions of the day sink like the sun sinks behind the horizon.