In a large basin, enclosed by the enchanting hills and cradled by the silent pace of the Arno, there is the beautiful city of Florence. Cultural centre, home of the Renaissance, political seat of one of the families who mostly influenced the Italian and European history between the 15th and the 17th century, the Medici. The ancient Roman settlement of Florentia, not far from the Etruscan Vipsul (the current Fiesole) owns the most beautiful artistic and architectural works in the world. Overtime it hosted important peoples like Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci and many others.
It is pretty impossible to describe each historical place of the Tuscanian city, because of its giant and magnificent artistic and cultural influence. Nonetheless, we have tried to look into its events, places and celebrities, that are linked to the sense of mystery.
Origins of the city and first centuries
Origins and Roman period
The village of Florentia was founded by the Romans in 59 BC as a settlement for the army veterans, although the reasons of its construction are still debated. Some scholars state that Caesar ordered its construction for monitoring the near and rebel Fiesole. A few years later, in fact, Catilina gathered some men for organizing a conspiracy against the Emperor. The village of Florentia had been extending progressively and then it has become a city. To honor its military origins, the Romans dedicated the city to the god Mars.
The castrum structure presented a typical central core, whose perpendicular roads were cut by the two main paths: the cardo and the decumanus. A wall with several fortified towers enclosed the city center, that hosted among ten and fifteen thousands of inhabitants. Over time, the typical buildings of the Roman city arosed near the military camp, including a forum, the thermal baths, an aqueduct, a theater and an amphitheater.
Although Florentia had represented a crucial outpost, the visible evidence of its past are rather few. The rapid medieval expansion of the city has led to the lost of almost all its buildings, although it has preserved its original urbanistic structure. The few architectural finds are known as “the underground Florence“, since most of them are located below the ground level. Among them, there is the magnificent archaeological site under Piazza della Signoria, which is accessed through the internal part of Palazzo Vecchio. Here there are the remains of the ancient theatre of the 1st century AC, located at about four meters deep.
The first centuries
During the empire of Adrian, Florence was frequently subjected to the Barbarian invasions, like the Ostrogoths, miraculously rejected in 405 AC. Hence, the Romans reinforced the existent fortifications and built new ones. At the same time, the city faced a period of economic decadence, although this thesis is still debated. In this context the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrogio, went to Florence in 393, consecrating the Basilica di San Lorenzo and guaranteeing the subsequent defeat of the Ostrogoths.
The Basilica di San Lorenzo
Just after the victory of Florence in 405, the ancient cathedral of Santa Reparata, which now is a crypt of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, was built. The first evidences of the building date back to the early Christian period, despite the date of its foundation is rather uncertain. The building has been remodeled several times over the centuries, particularly during the Carolingian period, and in 1293 it was definitively demolished for allowing the construction of Santa Maria del Fiore. For several centuries all the traces of Santa Reparata were lost, until subsequent excavations, started in 1966, brought to light the rooms and the foundations.
The Basilica was originally composed by three aisles and fourteen pairs of columns, for a total lenght of about 60 meters.
The mosaic that cover the floor of the building is particularly important. In fact, it is rich of early Christian (the cross, the chalice) and Roman Imperial symbology (the Solomon’s knot).
Solomon’s knots in the center
Inside Santa Reparata the tomb of Filippo Brunelleschi was found. According to the tradition, the bodies of Giotto, Arnolfo di Cambio and Nicola Pisano are preserved inside the church, although scholars have not yet found the tombs.
The Baptistery of St. John
Another mystery refers to the origin of the Baptistery of St. John, a building located in front of the facade of Santa Maria del Fiore. According to some sources the construction dates back to the 5th century, whereas other ones affirm it relates to the Medieval period. According to the Florentine tradition based on Roman witnesses, the building was a temple dedicated to the god Mars. Nonetheless, scholars are critical about this: the Baptistery could have been built after the expulsion of the Ostrogoths in 406, and then it could have been consecrated to Mars as a celebration of a military victory. After, it could be become a Christian building. The late-Roman architectures are a testimony of the ancient origins.
In 1059 the Baptistery was consecrated by the Pope Nicholas II, probably after the restoration works. In 1128 it became the city Baptistery and it was covered with the white Carrara marble and the serpentine from Prato.
The baptistery is octagonal, in line with the Christian and biblic tradition which identifies the 8th day with the eternal life.
The bronze doors of the Baptistery, the dome and the internal
Three bronze doors, carved between 1330 and 1452, constitute the access to the building. They were realized by Andrea Pisano (South door) and Lorenzo Ghiberti (North and East doors) and depict histories from the Old and New Testament and of St. John Baptist. A public competition was launched for the North door construction. Even Filippo Brunelleschi participated. According to some historians, the competition ended with an ex aequo between Lorenzo Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, but the latter declined the collaboration with the colleague.
The dome, that some scholars date to the 13th century, is internally covered by mosaics. They represent the Universal Judgement, histories from the Genesis or the Gospels.
The interior of the Baptistery of St. John hosts the tomb of the antipope: John XXIII, made by Donatello and Michelozzo (1422-1428).
Florence in the Middle Age
After centuries of conflicts between the Goths and Bizantines, Florence faced a renaissance starting from the year 1000. In this period the basilica of San Miniato al Monte (1013) was erected. It is told that San Miniato, martyr in 250 A.C., was beheaded during the reign of the Emperor Decio. After had taken his head, he went to the place where the church was constructed, generating the amazement of those present.
Landscape from Piazzale Michelangelo
One century later, the indipendent municipality of Florence faced a period of great economic, demographic and trade expansion. In fact, despite it hadn’t the same importance of other Tuscan cities like Lucca, Pisa and Siena, Florence developed thriving activities related to the production and trade of textile and artisanal items. The conflict between the Guelphs (supported by the Pope) and the Ghibellines (supported by the Emperor, who had sent Federico d’Antiochia, son of the King of Sicily Frederick II, to Florence) dominated the city history during the 13th century. These disagreements were also told by Dante Alighieri in the 6th canto of the Divine Comedy, where he narrates the story of the Ghibelline Farinata degli Uberti.
At the end of the 14th century some of the most important Florentine constructions have been built. The marble cover of the Baptistery of St. John was concluded and the construction of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (1296), by Arnolfo di Cambio, disciple of Nicola Pisano, began. In the same years the construction works of Palazzo Vecchio (1298), Santa Maria Novella (1279), Santa Croce (1294) started. The end of the 13th century was characterized by a fervent renewal with the pictures of Cimabue and his disciple Giotto.
The entrance to Palazzo Vecchio
Santa Maria Novella
Basilica of Santa Croce
Santa Maria del Fiore
The cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is one of the most magnificent monuments, enriched by a wonderful dome. Known as the Cathedral of Florence, it is the third largest church after the churches of St. Peter in Rome and St. Paul in London.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
The construction of the church started in 1296, over the ancient Early Christian church of Santa Reparata. This original project by Arnolfo di Cambio had three aisles. The Florentines tried to strictly follow the project, even though they have extended the width under the supervision by Giotto (1334). This artist has provided the major contribution to the project of the majestic bell tower. Nonetheless, the works stopped in 1348 due to the black plage. Only the following year the bell tower works restarted under the supervision by Francesco Talenti, and those of the basilica restarted 8 years later, concluding in 1436.
The Bell Tower by Giotto
The dome of the Cathedral and the mystery of its construction
Finally the dome was completed. Its construction works are one of the biggest mystery of architecture. The vault of the cathedral stayed uncovered for several years. Only in 1418 a competition for the covering of the dome was launched. It was a big issue, due to the structural difficulties. The raised drum has an octogonal and irregular shape and very large dimensions. When it was constructed, Santa Maria del Fiore was the biggest cathedral of the World. Then, the cover of the drum could not be a dome but an octogonal vault. However, this structure would not have been self standing, with the possibility that it collapsed during the raising.
The dome in the interior, to be noted the octogonal base
The 1418 competition ended with no winners. Filippo Brunelleschi presented a brilliant proposal, so in the following years the project was entrusted to him. The mystery is that no one can demonstrate with certainty how Brunelleschi could achieve the construction of the dome. It is hypothesized that the architect was forced to self-build giant tools and scaffoldings needed for the works. Brunelleschi realized a double cover, without the traditional rib. A particular arrangement of the bricks, “herringbone”, allowed the self-sustaining of the dome during its construction!
Architectural tools of the period
A curious episode
When the dome was completed, the only part to be finished was the decoration of the external part of the octogonal drum. Baccio D’Agnolo was directing the works, but he decided to leave them when Michelangelo affirmed “It looks like a cricket cage to me”. For this reason the drum is still incomplete.
The Knights Templar in Florence
In the 13th century Florence hosted a church pertaining to the Knights Templar: San Jacopo in Campo Corbolini. After the dissolution of the Congregation, the church was owned by the Maltese Knights. Today the building is not consecrated, but it still preserved the ancient effigy.
During the 14th century Florence faced many events: the financial collapse, due to the insolvency of the king Edward III of England, to whom the Florentine bankers had lent a lot of money. The English King, in fact, had to sustain the military expenses of the Hundred Years War. Moreover, several city riots broke out in Florence, for obtaining better living conditions. Another issue concerned the demographic reduction, due to the famous black plague, which had forced many families to escape from the city.
In 1345 the famous Ponte Vecchio was constructed and later enriched with the “Vasari corridor” (1565). This last, made by Giorgio Vasari, is a long path of one kilometer, which links Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti, crossing the Galleria degli Uffizi.
Veduta da Ponte Vecchio
The core of Ponte Vecchio is represented by ancient goldsmith shops, although once there were also butchers. At the center there is the statue of Benvenuto Cellini, a famous Florentine goldsmith, enriched with disturbing masks and bizarre friezes.
Florence faced the period of maximum splendor in the 15th century thanks to the Medici patronage. During this period the Renaissance originated, so that the city was denominated the “cradle” of this historical period, thanks to artistic and architectural masters like Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello e Masaccio. After the first phase other three took place: during the government of Lorenzo il Magnifico (1450-1492), during the coming to power of Girolamo Savonarola and, finally, until 1520 there is the “mature” Renaissance, characterized by artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaello Sanzio and Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Donatello, Maria Maddalena. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
The Medici dinasty was established with the advent of Cosimo I and lasted for three centuries. After the institution of the land registry in 1427, aimed at collecting taxes from the wealthier families, Cosimo wanted more political power, in order to protect his economic. Then, in 1434 the people hailed Cosimo I as the Pater Patriae. However, he never held any direct position in the control of the city, but he managed his politics through trusted men. Cosimo I loved art: he invested most of his personal heritage for the embellishment of Florence and he founded the Accademia Neoplatonica.
After the death of Cosimo I Piero il Gottoso became the Lord of Florence. Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as the Magnificent, took the power in 1469. After the Pazzi conspiracy (1478), which led to the murder of his brother Giuliano, Lorenzo becoming the point of reference of the political balances of that period.
A conspiracy was organized by a family of Florentine bankers, Jacopo and Francesco de’ Pazzi who, with the help of the Pope Sixtus IV, the Republic of Siena and of the Reign of Naple, wanted to break the Medici egemony in Florence.
The Pazzi conspiracy
The conspiracy would have taken place the Saturday 25th of April 1478, day when the Pazzi would have poisoned Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici during a buffet at the Villa Medicea of Fiesole. Nonetheless, due to sudden health problem of Lorenzo, the conspiracy was postponed the next day.
During the solemn mass in Santa Maria del Fiore, a bloody ambush took place inside the church. At the moment of the consecration, when everyone were kneeling as a sign of worship, a hitman jumped against Giuliano de’ Medici, stabbing him repeatedly and mortally wounding him. However, the attempt failed in its intent, because Lorenzo the Magnificent had time to barricade himself in the sacristy and suffered only a few minor injuries. In the meanwhile a popular uprising was launched against the conspirators in favor of the Medici, crying “balls” in reference to the coat of arms of the regent family. Francesco de’ Pazzi and Jacopo de’ Pazzi were lastly hanged in Piazza della Signoria.
The Medici coat of arms
There is a particularity about the number of “balls” (more correctly bezants) which characterized the coat of arms of the Medici. Cosimo I adopted a particular coat of arms with eight semispheres, the son Piero wanted seven and Lorenzo … six! For this reason it is possible to identify the period of belonging of buildings, friezes, tombs, thanks to the number of “balls” on the coat of arms. There was a theory according to which the origin of the balls was connected to coins, a fact that could be linked to the bank activities of the Medici.
A Medici coat of arms with six bezants
The name of Lorenzo the Magnificent is indissolubly linked to the Renaissance that, during his rule, had its most fertile period. During those years Lorenzo hosted artists like Botticelli and the young Michelangelo.
Michelangelo, Pietà Bandini. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
Michelangelo, Tondo Doni. Galleria degli Uffizi.
After the death of Lorenzo in 1492, Firenze had a period of great uncertainty. Piero lo Sfortunato was overthrown in favor of one of the most controversial figures of the Italian history: Girolamo Savonarola.
During the last years of the Lorenzo the Magnificent’s rule, Florence saw a spread of a rigid current of moral censorship, whose most important exponent was the Dominican friar Savonarola. He preached from the pulpits of the Florentine churches that “nothing good is in the Church…from the sole of the foot to the top there is no good inside it”. He had a great success, above all from the poor. Moreover, Savonarola often attacked the leaders of the city, considered as corrupted and superb. The friar wanted a convent reform, supported also by the newly elected pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia). Girolamo preached a mendicant order: he sold all his goods and distributed the proceeds to the poor.
The words of Girolamo Savonarola led the dissatisfied Florentines to rebel against Piero de’ Medici. So, when Charles VIII was coming to Italy, the city of Florence rebelled and a new republic was established. The city was divided among those people who supported the friar (the Frateschi) and those ones who were against him (the Palleschi).
The preaching by Savonarola reached its climax in 1497, when the famous “bonfire of the vanities” had taken place. Several literal and artistic works belonging to the Florentine Renaissance were burned. Some months later Alexander VI excommunicated the friar, although some recent sources have proved that probably the friar had been excommunicated by a forged hired by Cesare Borgia. Th following year the Palleschi people ordered the arrest of Girolamo Savonarola, who was processed for heresy. After several tortures, the friar was burned at the stake in Piazza della Signoria.
The mystery of the Battaglia di Anghiari
A last period of the Florentine Republic was characterized by an artistic and architectural richness, thanks to artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaello Sanzio and Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Annunciazione by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria degli Uffizi
Madonna del Cardellino, Raffaello Sanzio. Galleria degli Uffizi.
Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were the protagonists of a great mystery which still today fascinates many scholars and also divides critics. In 1503 the Gonfaloniere of Florence, Pier Soderini, decided the decoration of two internal walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento, inside Palazzo Vecchio.
Michelangelo Buonarroti should have represented “La Battaglia di Cascina” on a wall, whilst Leonardo should have realized “La Battaglia di Anghiari”. For several reasons, neither of them has finished the work. Nowadays the drafts are the only authentic copies available.
Battaglia di Anghiari, copy by Rubens, 1603
Nonetheless, although it is known that Michelangelo had never realized his works, some doubts regards the “Battaglia di Anghiari”. It is known with certainty that Leonardo da Vinci had completed the painting, but after some decades it got ruined due to an unsuitable painting technique. In fact the artists hadn’t realized a fresco but he decided to make a new experiment.
The Renaissance genius tried to use a technique similar to Pliny’s encaustic technique: a draft of oil paints on the wall. It required a very intense color source that fixed colors as quickly as possible. However, during the realization of the “Battaglia di Anghiari” this wasn’t completely possible. Leonardo set up large braziers which, according to his intentions, should have provided the necessary temperature. Nevertheless, the heat given off by the flames did not reach the upper part of the painting and it deteriorated over time.
The investigations about the Battaglia di Anghiari
Nobody is certain if the remains of the painting are still inside the Sala dei Cinquecento, or have been delayed. Sixty years later, in fact, Giorgio Vasari frescoed the new Sala dei Cinquecento. It is not known if he has completely destroyed the previous Leonardian fragments or if he has hidden them under a layer of plaster or an insulating walls. However, the location of the “Battaglia di Anghiari” inside the Sala is still debated.
Maurizio Seracini, with the help of Carlo Pedretti, who studied the life of Leonardo affirmed that the Vasari could have frescoed the same wall which hosted the masterpiece of Leonardo. The ancient painting would be located at the current location of the Vasari “Battaglia di Marciano in val di Chiana“. Moreover, according to Seracini, Giorgio Vasari haven’t destroyed the “Battaglia di Anghiari“, but he could have preserved it with a plaster and insulating wall. Then, the painting of Leonardo still could be there, inside the Salone dei Cinquecento. In other terms, although it is not possible to observe it, it could be under the plaster of the “Battaglia di Marciano in val di Chiana“.
Seracini has reported a clue supporting his thesis. In fact, under a flag it is possible to observe the writing “search find”. Is it possible that Giorgio Vasari wanted to leave a clue about the current location of the “Battaglia di Anghiari”?
The thesis is debated: some scholars have attributed the “search find” to historical motivations. The battle represented by Giorgio Vasari saw the conflict between the Florentines against the Republic of Siena and a group of refugees from the Medici city. Florence won during the Scannagallo Battle, so called by the place where the two armies fought. The words by Vasari could then be a mockery to those Florentines who had fought against their city with their historical rivals, in the name of “Freedom I am looking for, which is so dear”, as Dante Alighieri remembered. The Vasari “search find” could originate from this.
From 2011 Maurizio Seracini has obtained permission to probe with radar, and subsequently an endoscope, the wall where the “Battaglia di Anghiari” is hypothesized to be. Scholars have realized little holes on the Vasari picture of the “Battaglia di Marciano in val di Chiana“, taking the underlying material. The endoscopy reveals the presence of a narrow gap, supporting the thesis that the Leonardo’s picture has been preserved.
The analysis on the collected materials indicates the presence of a red and a black pigments. In fact, this last has the same chemical composition (especially the metal ions) used fro the realization of the Gioconda and San Giovanni Battista, masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci. Could be the “Battaglia di Anghiari” have been finally found? The searches continue.
The exoteric Florence
Florence is not only the city of Renaissance and the several artists who have marked its art and history, but it is famous also for its extraordinary mysteries linked to the alchemical and exoteric sciences.
From 1574 to 1587 Francesco I de’ Medici was the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He was a controversial character who is remembered for the foundation of the Galleria degli Uffizi and the extravagant scientific studies. The construction of the Studiolo Alchemico, inside Palazzo Vecchio, is attributed to him. It was a “secret” room which had to accommodate the most various oddities Francesco I was interested to.
Another example of the Exoteric Florence with its bizarre statues and decorations typical of the Mannerism is the Boboli Garden. Located behind Palazzo Pitti, it is characterized by an incredible series of masks and artistic works of controversial significance.
Boboli’s garden in Florence
The Boboli Garden could be considered as an alchemical and philosophical path. The Grotta del Buontalenti and the Fountain of Neptune are of particular importance. Inside the building an Egyptian (original) obelisk is placed. It is the only one in Tuscany and it dates back to the Ramesses II period (1297-1213 a.C.).
Fountain of Neptune
Obelisk of the Boboli Garden
The life of Girolamo Segato was extraordinary. Egyptologist and scientist of the first years of the 19th century, he is remembered for the invention of a particular technique concerning the body conservation after death, known as “petrification”.
During his youth he had participated to several shipments in Egypt. There he learned the art of mummification. When he had come to Florence, he started bizarre experiments during which he realized a particular technique, based on the mineralization of the organic tissues. Nonetheless, today we have only few examples at the Museo di Anatomia Normale of the Università di Firenze. In fact, Segato has never revealed his secrets and, after the rejection by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to finance his study, he burned his notes.
He died in 1836 and is buried in the Basilica di Santa Croce, with the secrets he has never shared. For this reason his cover slab says: “Here lies unmade Girolamo Segato, who would see himself petrified whole, if his art did not perish with him. It was the unusual glory of human wisdom, a not unusual example of unhappiness”.
Samuele Corrente Naso and Daniela Campus
(Translation by Daniela Campus)