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Notes on the Geography of Italy: Florence: Panorama

Five hundred years ago, Florence had 200 or more workshops weaving woolen cloth, and it had 1,500 foreign traders. The city is still active in the design and manufacture of high-end textiles, and its population has risen from 50,000 to almost 400,000, but tourism dominates now, with the city getting five million visitors every year.  

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Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 1

 In English the city is "Florence," in Italian it's "Firenze," but to the Romans who built a town here at the head of navigation on the Arno it was "Florentia." In the second century, the city had a population of perhaps 10,000, but by the sixth it had shrunk to one thousand.  Steady growth saw the population rise to 2,500 in the eighth century, 20,000 in the 11th, 30,000 in the 12th, 45,000 in the 13th, and 90,000 in the fourteenth.  Mid-century, the plague cut the population in half, and Florence's population didn't reach 90,000 again for another 500 years. During the 19th century, the city more than doubled, to 200,000.

The Ponte Vecchio--the "old bridge"--has just about seen it all.  Rebuilt in the 12th century from Roman origins, it survived the 1945 retreat of the Nazis, who blew every other bridge in town but left this one out of respect.  The tidy upper story is the Corridoio Vasariano, which connects the Pitti Palace, on the other side of the river, with the Uffizi, which (as the name suggests) was once an office building, for  Florentine officials.  This picture was taken from one of the windows in the museum that now occupies most of the Uffizi.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 2

Before we look more closely at the city, maybe we should put on some historical boots.  If you want to get a sense of the depth of human occupance, try this Etruscan wall, just a few miles away at Fiesole, Roman "Faesulae."

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 3

Close by is Fiesole's Roman theater, built in 80 B.C. but obviously still a venue today.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 4

The city's Roman origins are also visible in the downtown street grid, which marks the roughly square Roman townsite, six blocks north-south and seven east-west. Via Tornabuoni, shown here, is one of those Roman streets and has been the most stylish shopping street in Florence for more than 500 years. Other street names are corruptions of their original Latin names: the central north-south street, for example, is Via Calimala, originally "Cardo Major."

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 5

This picture was taken from the Piazzale Michelangelo.  The three buildings rising above the skyline are the Palazzo Vecchio, which flanks the Uffizi, the cathedral's campanile (partly blocked by the tower of the Bargello), and the nave and great dome of the cathedral, which is located at the northeastern corner of the Roman grid.   This was the dome which Alberti thought "so great, rising above the skies, [that it is] large enough to shelter all the people of Tuscany in its shadow."  It may not seem so great from this distance, but wait a bit until we go inside. The word duomo, by the way, is an Italian shorthand for cathedral and is related to the English "dome" only indirectly.  The origin of both is the Latin domus, referring in the case of a duomo to "the house [of God]." The English sense of the word arises only because many of these cathedrals did have cupolas--domes.

Christopher Hibbert's Florence: The Biography of a City (1993) points out that the fine road in the foreground was a project of the Florence Land and Public Works Company, an Anglo-Italian Bank affiliate. Maybe that seems odd, but Hibbert also mentions some of Florence's 19th century visitors.  Even restricted to Americans, it's an amazing list, including James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry James.  By 1910, according to Hibbert, 35,000 Britishers were permanent residents in Tuscany. Some of them apparently had an eye for money as well as culture.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 6

We're panning now: in the center is the vast church of Santa Croce, which holds the tombs of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo among others. 

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 7

Santa Croce is on the left and the city's unheralded, green-domed mosque has come into view.  The hills in the background are Fiesole.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 8

We've come down into the city and climbed a great many steps to this vantage point atop the cathedral dome.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 9

A good view of Giotto's famous campanile.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 10

Northwards, we can look down on the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, the archetypal Florentine palace.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 11

We can look east across a cityscape from which only Santa Croce stands out.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 12

If we swing to the south, the tower of the Bargello comes into view.  In the background, atop a hill, is the Church of San Miniato al Monte, which goes back to the start of the 11th century.  It was from near that church that the earlier pictures were taken at the Piazzale Michelangelo.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 13

The Bargello is on the left now, with the architecturally similar Palazzo Vecchio on the right.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 14

We've zoomed in a bit. The Palazzo Vecchio is on the left; just to its right, in deep shadow, is the courtyard of the U-shaped Uffizi.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 15

The same view, but this time stepping back to take in the Pitti Palace, which is the immense structure on the far side of the river and the one connected to the Uffizi by the corridor atop the Ponte Vecchio.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 16

A zoomed view of the Pitti Palace; behind it are the Boboli Gardens, which were originally quarries for the hard sandstone--pietra dura--employed in the facades of many Florentine palaces.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 17

Looking west from the duomo: the huge church of Santa Maria Novella.

Italy: Florence: Panorama picture 18

Yet another church: San Lorenzo, whose dome houses the Medici chapel.  This is the second-highest dome in Florence, but who remembers the second man to step on the moon?


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