The Rough Guide to Florence 2 (Rough Guide Mini Guides)

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9781858287287: The Rough Guide to Florence 2 (Rough Guide Mini Guides)
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INTRODUCTION

Florence (Firenze) has long been celebrated as Italy’s most captivating city: Stendhal staggered around its streets in a perpetual stupor of delight; the Brownings sighed over its idyllic charms; and E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View portrayed it as the great southern antidote to the sterility of Anglo-Saxon life. For Shelley, the Tuscan capital was simply the "most beautiful city I have ever seen."

Today Florence lives up to the myth in its first, resounding impressions, most notably in the Piazza del Duomo, with the multicoloured Duomo rising behind the marble-clad Baptistery. Wander from there down towards the River Arno and the attraction still holds – beyond the Piazza della Signoria, site of the immense Palazzo Vecchio, the water is spanned by the shop-laden medieval Ponte Vecchio, with the gorgeous church of San Miniato al Monte glistening on the hill behind it.

Yet after registering these marvellous sights, it’s hard to stave off a sense of disappointment, at least as far as the city’s physical appearance is concerned. Away from the beaten track, much of Florence is a city of narrow streets and dour, fortress-like houses, of unfinished buildings and characterless squares. Restorers’ scaffolding is endemic, and almost incessant traffic provides all the usual city stresses. Just roaming the streets is a pleasure in Venice, Rome, Verona – but not in Florence.

The fact is, the best of Florence is to be seen indoors. Under the rule of the Medici family – the greatest patrons of Renaissance Europe – Florence’s artists and thinkers were instigators of the shift from the medieval to the modern world-view, and the churches, galleries and museums of this city are the places to get to grips with their extraordinary achievement.

The development of the Renaissance can be plotted stage by stage in the vast picture collection of the Uffizi, and charted in the sculpture of the Bargello, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and the church of Orsanmichele. Equally revelatory are the fabulously decorated chapels of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella – the city’s key churches – forerunners of such astonishing creations as Masaccio’s frescoes at the Cappella Brancacci, Fra’ Angelico’s serene paintings in the monks’ cells at the Museo di San Marco and Andrea del Sarto’s work at Santissima Annunziata.

The Renaissance emphasis on harmony and rational design is expressed with unrivalled eloquence in Brunelleschi’s interiors of San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito and the Cappella dei Pazzi. The bizarre architecture and sculptures of San Lorenzo’s Sagrestia Nuova and the marble statuary of the Accademia – home of the David – display the full genius of Michelangelo, the dominant creative figure of sixteenth-century Italy. Every quarter of Florence can boast a church or collection worth an extended call, and the enormous Palazzo Pitti contains half a dozen museums, including an art gallery that would be the envy of any city.

To enjoy a visit fully it’s best to ration yourself to a couple of big sights each day, and spend the rest of your hours or days exploring the quieter peripheral spots, such as the Giardino di Boboli behind the Palazzo Pitti. You could head out to the pretty hill-town of Fiesole, just outside Florence, or – if you’ve time for an hour or so on a bus or train – make an excursion to one of Florence’s great medieval rivals, Siena and Pisa.

Allow some time, too, to involve yourself in the life of the city. Though Florence might seem a little sedate on the surface, its university – and the presence of large numbers of language- and art-schools – guarantees a fair range of nightlife. The city has some excellent restaurants and enjoyable café-bars amid the tourist joints, as well as the biggest and liveliest markets in Tuscany, and plenty of browsable, high-quality shops.

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About the Author:

Tim Jepson is a travel writer for The Telegraph and is the coauthor of Rough Guides to Canada, the Pacific Northwest, and Tuscany and Umbria. A graduate of Oxford University, he frequently travels around the world.

Jonathan Buckley was editorial director at Rough Guides, where he wrote several guidebooks, including for Tuscany and Umbria, Florence, and Venice. He has also contributed to The Rough Guide to Classical Music and The Rough Guide to Opera. Buckley published his first novel, The Biography of Thomas Lang, in 1997, and has written several more, including the critically acclaimed Xerxes and The River Is the River. 

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WHEN TO VISIT

Summer is not the best time to visit: the heat, and the log jam of tour groups, make viewing the major attractions a purgatorial experience – a two-hour queue for the Uffizi is not unusual. It’s also worth noting that many restaurants, and some hotels, are closed throughout August. To enjoy your visit to the full, go there shortly before Easter or in late autumn, when the crowds become bearable and the city resumes its normal life. If you stay on for Easter itself, you can witness the Scoppio del Carro – the spectacular detonation of a cartload of fireworks in the Piazza del Duomo. Not that there’s any shortage of special events during the rest of the year, from the high-art festivities of the Maggio Musicale to the licensed bedlam of the Calcio Storico, a series of rough-and-tumble football matches played in sixteenth-century costume during the last week of June.

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