Florence used to be a marshy area dominated to the North by the hill on which the Etruscan town Fiesole was built; it is crossed by the Arno River. The latter had been the border between Etruscans, Celts and Ligurians for a very long time. The city was officially founded after the agrarian law passed by Julius Caesar in 59 BC; the colony was then called Florentia. The urban layout was initially structured on a cardus and decumanus, still recognizable even today: the former is now via Roma and via Calimala, while the latter is formed by via Degli Strozzi, Degli Speziali and del Corso. At the crossroads between them used to be the Forum Square, large about a quarter of the contemporary Piazza della Reppublica (Republic Square). The brick city walls comprised circular protruding towers arranged in pairs at the four main gates: to the East the contemporary via del Proconsolo, to the North the alignment of the Northern flank of the Duomo (Cathedral) and of via de’ Cerretani and to the West via dei Tornabuoni. The city was quadrilateral-shaped and nowadays those vertexes can be identified in Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), S. Firenze, S. Trìnita and via de’ Cerretani. This area still represents the heart of the city. Florence used to have large blocks of aristocratic mansions divided by paved streets, with sidewalks and an excellent sewage system.
After the administrative reform of Diocletian (III - IV century) Florentia became the capital of the Regia Tuscia et Umbria and remained so until the end of the Empire. During the Roman period significant public buildings were erected, such as the large spa complex in via delle Terme, another colossal one in Piazza della Signoria (adjoined by a public latrine and an artisan district headed by a fullonica – where the washing and degreasing of wool and leather took place, but also copper, iron, stone and wood that came from the Casentino area by water on large barges - industrial-sized), the theater between via de’ Gondi and Palazzo Vecchio, and the Amphitheatre, of which the curved line is still visible, between via Torta, via de’ Bentaccordi and the houses of the Peruzzi family.
Christianity was brought to Florence by Saint Miniato, who died a martyr in the Amphitheater in 250 AD and was buried on the hill that bears his name. The first churches built outside the city walls are: San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence), which was consecrated as Cathedral by the bishop Ambrogio in 393 AD and, on the other bank of the Arno River, the church of Santa Felicita, which headed a thriving Greek-Syrian community. Then the Romanesque Cathedral of Santa Reparata was built, today Santa Maria del Fiore and the other the medieval little church of Saint Cecilia, now gone.
During the Carolingian era (late VIIIth - late IXth century) there was an urban recovery and the settlement came close to 5.000 inhabitants. The perimeter of the walls widened once again, first between the late IXth century and the beginning of the Xth century, then in 1078, when the Countess Matilda promoted the construction of new city walls - the ones defined by Dante as "the ancient perimeter" and commonly called "the first perimeter ", when in fact it is the fourth and includes the Baptistery and S. Reparata.
From the Xth century and throughout the XIth the political, economic and cultural lives also flourished in Florence. It was the great moment of Florentine Romanesque that stood out for its unique characteristics. The Baptistery is the best example, but the essential geometric and the original interpretation of the classic forms recur in other Romanesque churches: Ss. Apostoli, S. Pier Scheraggio, S. Stefano al Ponte, S. Salvatore al Vescovo (rebuilt in 1221 in Piazza dell’Olio – Oil Square), S. Margherita (St. Margaret), S. Jacopo sopr'Arno, S. Miniato.
The Florentine Romanesque does not search the example of sculptural shapes and the chiaroscuro of the masses, but selects the values of surface and color. In the Baptistery the wall module implements a new concept of circularity. In the design of the wall the values of dichromatic slabs of white marble and green – black serpentine are visible, calculated as a double effect: reversing and dimensional change. In S. Miniato the conscious reaffirmation of the typological structure of the Roman basilica results in a peculiar rhythmic and geometric articulation which organizes the whole and the details: the spatial volumes, the modulated surfaces that define them, the perfectly integrated architectural decoration. The overall effect is that of a frame in which light and dark are valid, also alluding to a derivation from the wooden buildings and infilled plastered walls.
The layout of the Roman roads network remained fundamental. The open-air market was held in the area of the ancient forum. At the beginning of the XIth century between it and the southern gate of S. Maria (St. Mary) there already was another one on the site where the Mercato Nuovo (New Marketplace) still is. The class of artisans was already organized in guilds that subsequently gave rise to the Arts (Guilds). Florence is the urban center that records the highest population increase in Tuscany in the XIIth and XIIIth centuries. The new population was organized in borghi (districts): San Lorenzo district; district of Balla (from the traffic of bales of wool; the first stretch of via de’ Servi); district of San Pietro Maggiore (present-day Borgo degli Albizi); Borgo de’ Greci (district of the Greeks); district of San Remigio (now via de’ Neri); district of Porta S. Maria (St. Mary Gate); district of San Brancrazio (currently via della Spada); district of Parione; district of Campo Corbolino (via dei Conti, the first part of via Faenza). On the other side of the Arno River: district of Piazza (now via Guicciardini); San Jacopo district; Pidiglioso or Petecchioso district (now via de’ Bardi).
The new perimeter of walls, of the Commune, was built in a short time, between 1173 and 1175. This was the first time that the walls enclosed a part of the Oltrarno (the other side of the Arno River, the left bank), originally in wood and after the middle of the XIIIth century in brick. Large squares were beginning to appear and the whole medieval town was built on a level of 1.20 - 3 meters above the Roman remains. An administrative reorganization also took place, passing from four quartieri (neighborhoods) to six sestieri (districts), five on one side of the Arno and one on the other, divided into more peoples. In 1343 Florence returned to the four-district organization.
In order to increase the importance of the "people" and thus of the parish, the churches granted, especially in the districts, the construction land. While the major churches remained those of the previous century, the private building activity was intense. In the late XIIth century there were two types of buildings: the tower and the house with sporti (closed balconies that allowed the surveillance and threatening of possible enemies). The towers were built for military use, and only in time of danger the families took temporary refuge there, coming from adjoining houses. Later, during the XIVth century, the towers were converted to residential use (they had already been lowered and welded together). Some belonged to a single owner, but in the XIIth century the societies of the towers became widespread, a type of association that owned the same tower that belonged to a group of several allied noble families. These associations controlled the construction activities.
The expansion of both production and trade involved a demographic increase and the affected areas were along the two banks of the river affected by industrial and craftsmanship activities, particularly the textile ones, as they needed abundant water. The following bridges were built: Ponte Nuovo (New Bridge) and then Ponte alla Carraia (Carraia Bridge) (1218-20); Rubaconte Bridge and then Ponte alle Grazie (Graces Bridge) (1237); they were located one downstream and one upstream of Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge); this reflects the accelerating growth of the city. In 1252 Ponte di S. Trìnita (S. Trìnita Bridge) was built, the last of the four bridges that formed the connections between the two parts of the city until modern times.
During the XIIIth century the activity of the religious orders was clearly visible: in 1221, the Dominicans at S. Maria Novella; in 1226-28, the Franciscans at S. Croce (Holy Cross); in 1248, the Servites at Ss. Annunziata; in 1250, the Augustinians at S. Spirito; in 1250, the Carmelites at the Carmine. During the same years the Cistercians restructured S. Trìnita and S. Maria Maggiore; the Humiliati settled in the area of the nowadays complex of Ognissanti (All Saints); at the end of the century the Sylvestrines founded S. Marco (Saint Mark). Squares for preaching were created in front of the churches and convents of the great mendicant orders and the community life of the neighborhood was organized around them.
The links between convents and industrial activities are of major importance in the history of the city. The Humiliati handled the wool industry that had a remarkable development in Florence until the XVIth century. The production of wool, a highly complex process which involved about thirty stages, took place both inside the convent and around it, in a wide area of influence, while the square situated in front of the church itself was occupied by the wash houses and the fulling mills.
In addition to the churches and convents belonging to the orders, another key element in the process of restructuring of the XIIIth-century city was the presence of the hospitals, which tended to be located in the districts, especially along the lines of penetration corresponding to territorial routes: via S. Gallo; via Romana – via Guicciardini - Ponte Vecchio; via de’ Bardi – S. Niccolò (St. Nicholas) - S. Freddiano; via S. Egidio - Borgo la Croce. The hospital of S. Maria Nuova, founded in 1286 by Folco Portinari, exists even today.
The struggle for power between the Ghibellines (pro-imperial power) and Guelphs (proponents of papal power), led to the broadening of the social base of the government in 1244: it opened to the entrepreneurial and productive middle class (traders and craftsmen), creating the autonomous organization called "the People", which complemented the Podestà and his two councils. The economic and financial power of Florence was achieved: the spreading of international letters of credit, the improvement of the system of loans, the minting of the gold florin as the first stable international currency from 1252 on. Immediately after its formation the People ordered the demolition of some towers and the lowering of all the others (it is estimated that towards the middle of the XIIIth century there were about 150) to a maximum height of 50 Florentine arms (approximately 29 meters). In 1255 the construction of the Palace of the Captain of the People (later called Bargello) began. That was a very important initiative because the premises of the city magistrates had been adapted to the existing buildings that had other functions (houses or churches). In 1260 the battle of Montaperti between Guelphs and Ghibellines took place; the latter won, thus causing the destruction of the houses, towers and palaces belonging to the Guelphs and the organization of the First People was abolished.
The city of Arnolfo
It was the period of great economic and thus also demographic growth. The government of the Second People was even more impressive than the one of the First People had been between 1250 and 1260. The most important works of the period promoted by the government and implemented by the Arts, are of great interest due to the personality of Arnolfo di Cambio. The government of the Second People promoted significant measures in urban planning and construction. The principles of urban "decorum policy", regularity, order, organization, coordination and control, hygiene and straightness were implemented; they developed in the first half of the XIVth century. In 1300 Florence reached 100.000 inhabitants, number that was never reached again until the XIXth century. During the same period London had 50.000 inhabitants, while Paris had 200.000. The exceptional population growth was due to strong immigration from the countryside which therefore led to an extraordinary development of the city outside the walls built in the XIIth century. Borgo Pinti, Borgo la Croce, Borgo di Balla, Borgo San Lorenzo, Borgo la Noce, Borgo di Porta Faenza, Borgo San Paolo, Borgo d’Ognissanti are all names referred to the formations of this period. Between 1284 and 1333 a new circuit of walls was built. It was the sixth and last, largely corresponding to that of the existing ring road (created in the XIXth century when Florence was the capital of Italy, demolishing most of that perimeter). The walls were about 8.500 meters long, 11.60 meters high and included 73 towers and 15 gates. The towers of the gates were lowered by Clement VII in 1526 in order to avoid offering the enemy’s artillery a stable point of aim.
At the end of the XIIIth century a new architectural style was introduced in Florence: Gothic churches were built. However the peculiar Florentine style (that inserted classical features) was still used - a characteristic that has been renewed various times in Florentine history. In the last third of the XIIIth century a new social elite emerged. It comprised those families who brought together the economic power (due to international commerce) with the political one. Therefore a new type of building spread into the urban fabric, next to the ancient towers and tower–houses: the palazzo (palace).
At the beginning of the XIVth century there was a crisis in all the areas that culminated with the plague of 1348. In the thirties of this century Giotto was appointed superintendent of the construction site of S. Reparata and began to build the Campanile (Bell Tower). The most important new manufactures of the XIVth century are the main poles between religious and secular power. Via dei Calzaiuoli connected the Cathedral, the Loggia del Bigallo, the Loggia dei Priori, halfway between the grandiose building of Orsanmichele allocated to the grain market, and the Loggia dei Priori with the Palazzo Vecchio.
In the second half of the XIVth century two new architectural typologies became popular: the first one was the loggia in front of private buildings as well as in front of churches and hospitals, and the second one was the series of continuous ashlar arches at the ground floor of the houses, of which there are relevant examples in sections of via de' Benci. The Palazzo Davanzati, built by the Davizzi family in 1330, is an important and well preserved example of the culmination of the evolution of the typology of the building before the demographic crisis from the middle of the century. The materials generally used were Pietraforte (a kind of light brown limestone) and granite, used for the great churches and palaces, as well as for the normal houses. Only the religious nucleus Baptistery - Cathedral – Bell Tower was enriched with imported marble. The use of brickwork for the entire building was still very popular, or more often for the upper stories, while the ground floor was covered in stone. The brickwork was left exposed or, less frequently, plastered.
The streets were literally called "wrinkles" and were animated by a lively folk life. Many small artisan workmanships took place on the street, in front of the laboratories. The Arts determined the functional specialization of the various parts of the city. For example, the vast residential areas of Santa Croce hosted the labor force of the dye-works in corso dei Tintori and the tanneries in via delle Conce.
The XVth century was a period of crisis and social struggles that afflicted the city already during the XIVth century; they culminated in the Ciompi uprising in 1378. This led to the depletion of popular energies capable of interpreting a renewal of the city. It eventually produced an oligarchic government that managed power in a collegial form until 1434 when it passed into the Medici’s hands.
With the transition first to the oligarchic government and then to the personal government of the Medici family, constructive businesses of the public initiative were increasingly rare and less relevant, while the private initiative became more important. The residential typology of the mercantile bourgeoisie grew to be of predominant importance. The Medici, the Rucellai, the Pitti and later the Strozzi and Tornabuoni families planned their residences as monuments, capable thanks to their size and originality of the design taken from the classical style, to impose the affirmation of the role and power of the family to which it belonged. The owners of large merchant enterprises received their clients in the loggias connected to the new houses, but the center of economic family activities remained in the heart of the old city. For the first time the residence was separated from the workplace.
The new standard of living of religious people, who were allowed to have personal cells for the first time, involved an important typological innovation. The traditional two-story dormitories were replaced by rows of cells that overlooked the loggias of the courtyard, leading to the evolution of the cloisters in a double superimposed row of arches. The first examples of this typical solution for the Renaissance monasteries appeared precisely in Florence.
Throughout the course of the XVth century the Medici family had chosen to organize the northern area of the city to their advantage. For this purpose via Larga (now via Cavour) was chosen as essential guideline. The palace of the Medici was also built there. The area of San Lorenzo became a nodal center of the Medici strategy; the church was completely rebuilt by Brunelleschi and the convent was renovated and enlarged by Michelozzo. The convent of San Marco (St. Mark) was a center of activities, not only strictly religious but mostly cultural, of primary importance in the organization of the Medici family. Next to San Marco Lorenzo the Magnificent built the free academy. Cosimo the Elder, universal man, founded in the family palace and in San Marco the first modern libraries of the Western culture. Another library was built in the complex of the Ss. Annunziata around 1450, designed by Michelozzo.
After the expulsion of Piero in 1494, and after the period of the Republic of Savonarola, the Medici returned to Florence by force in 1512. They finally abandoned the policy of formally keeping the republican institutions while in fact ruling the city. In the XVIth century the Medici church of San Lorenzo remained the focus of interventions. Leo X promoted a competition for the façade; Giulio de 'Medici (later Pope Clement VII) built the New Sacristy, planned as a family mausoleum, and then the Laurentian Library finished in the time of Cosimo I. Michelangelo started from the reflection on the Florentine architectural tradition (from Brunelleschi to Giuliano da Sangallo, to Cronaca) stating a very personal vision. The architectural elements in the New Sacristy do not follow the traditional rules, but are in inner contrast in continuous tension: central parts narrower than the side ones with a distancing effect, compressed niches and doors, dilated arches etc.
After the sack of Rome in 1527 the Florentines rebelled again against the Medici and restored the republican regime, which, however, after a terrible siege of eleven months (1529-1530) was forced to surrender. Alessandro de 'Medici, Duke of Florence by imperial concession (1531) imposed what the Florentines called tyranny. The fortress of San Giovanni, later called da Basso, was erected by Alexander not so much as the city's defense against external enemies, but as a means to control any internal revolt. Succeeding Alexander, Cosimo I had to govern a city badly damaged by the siege and with a population that dropped to 60.000 inhabitants.
With Cosimo I the organization of the absolute state coincided with the organization of the city. The residence of the Medici, as the ruling family, went from Palazzo Medici, first at the Palazzo della Signoria (which was since then called "Ducale" – of the Duke), then to the Pitti Palace, where the Boboli Gardens were created immediately after. The Uffizi were designed as an organism in which to concentrate the state functions in a continuous structure, clear statement of absolute power. A few roads were privileged (via de’ Servi, via Maggio etc.), while columns (placed in the squares of S. Marco, S. Trìnita, S. Felice), statues, monuments, emblems and tribute busts established visual and symbolic points of reference, structuring the sequences of preferential pathways. The theme of public galleries is due to this formal urban strategy. They were introduced in Florence which never had them as open, continuous, dynamic structures before (the Uffizi and the porch along the Arno River, under the Vasari Corridor; loggia del Pesce at the Mercato Vecchio (Old Market), rebuilt today in Piazza dei Ciompi, loggia del Mercato Nuovo). Later the loggias of the hospital of S. Maria Nuova (by Ferdinand I) and del Grano (Wheat) (by Cosimo II) were also built. In 1534 the first carriages began to circulate in the city.
The wedding of the son of Francis and Joan of Austria (1565) represents a fundamental moment of the reign of Cosimo I and marks the moment of maximum effort in the development plan of the urban form, both for a number of lasting changes in the structure of a central part of the city and for an operation focused on the transfiguration of the urban environment that is proposed as a kind of ideal city. The Vasari Corridor was built in just five months in order to allow the wedding guests from Palazzo Vecchio to arrive at Palazzo Pitti.
The multi-purpose, multi-faceted activities of Bernardo Buontalenti were typical for the cultural moment of the years of the reign of Francis I (1574-87). He is perhaps the extraordinary personality of the group of artists known as mannerists. The tendency of Mannerist art and architecture is part of the taste for elaborate gardens, caves, nymphaea. They mix fantastic with abstract and naturalistic elements. Between the mid XVIth and early XVIIth century, a current of aesthetic taste was dominant: the one in which the invention was conducted until it reached an allusive hermeticism, through a transposition of human - feral forms or otherwise of organic, plant, animal or mixed elements, in architectural stylizations, especially thanks to Tribolo, Ammannati, Cellini, Buontalenti, Giambologna and Zuccari. Besides the busts paying homage to the reigning prince or the Medici coat of arms with six balls, emblems and cartouches freely populated by sometimes disturbing presences on the city streets started multiplying. The presence of painted façades (at which worked painters like Poccetti) also proliferated.
The cultural policy of Ferdinand I was the renovation of the façades and the introduction of elements of furniture (statues, busts on portals etc.), generally focusing on the roads already privileged by Cosimo and Francesco.
During the XVIth century an interesting evolution of the urban residential typologies developed: some urban villas were introduced (Pitti, Medici casino in via Larga); palaces of new size and decorations spread, almost always thanks to the courtiers of Cosimo, to the favorites of Francesco or otherwise personalities closely related to the Grand Ducal politics (palaces Mondragone, Grifoni, Ramirez de Montalvo etc.). There was a new balance between architecture and open spaces; this phenomenon led to the choice of smooth plastered or engraved façades, with simple perimeter elements and divisions; new wide and straight streets were created, like via Maggio, Ginori, dei Servi, Borgo Pinti and generally the streets between the last two city walls.
Florence started to have a difficult time at the beginning of the XVIIth century. The plague of 1631-33, the agricultural crisis and the even more serious one affecting the wool industry, definitely marked the decline of the city. During the time of Cosimo II (1609-21), the most important works within the city walls were those at the Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes) in San Lorenzo (Matteo Nigetti), the Loggia del Grano (Giulio Parigi, 1619), the expansion of Palazzo Pitti and the arrangement of the square (Giulio Parigi in 1620), as well as that of the Boboli Gardens (Giulio and Alfonso Parigi).
During the reign of Ferdinand II the renovations and expansions followed one another; Matteo Segaloni restructured the interior of Badia Fiorentina. In 1659 the Medici sold the building in via Larga to the Riccardi family, who enlarged it and had it decorated by Luca Giordano. The mannerist abilities of Matteo Nigetti or Gherardo Silvani and later Giovanni Battista Foggini conferred special qualities to the Florentine Baroque. Marvelous examples of this are the façades of Ognissanti (All Saints) and the Theatine church of St. Gaetano.
Cosimo III was known for his craving for luxury and pomp, which fit even his religious zeal that led him, among other things to create new convents. Among the most important works of his period are the Palazzo Corsini, the Granary on Lungarno Soderini,S. Frediano in Cestello with the beautiful small dome of Antonio Maria Ferri, the reconstruction of S. Paolino that overturned the original east - west orientation in that north - south.
In the second half of the XVIIth century chapels with Baroque decorations as those of Foggini and Pier Francesco Silvani (Corsini Chapel at Carmine) began to spread. Among the buildings of the end of the century and the beginning of the XVIIIth century the one that was commissioned by the Marquis Alessandro Capponi in 1705 (perhaps on a design by Carlo Fontana) stands out.
The Grand Duchy of Lorraine: the Medici dynasty began to weaken in their recklessness and bigoted stupidity. Gian Gastone had no heirs, and after his brief government Tuscany passed to the Lorena (Lorraine) family, as decided by the great powers at Vienna in 1734. To accommodate the new Grand Duke Francesco and his wife the triumphal arch designed by the architect of the Lorraine Jean - Nicolas Jadot was constructed outside the St. Gallo Gate. The successor of Francis Lorraine was Peter Leopold who managed to bring Florence and the region at a remarkable level of civic and cultural life, which made Tuscany an exemplary model of modern state. In 1737Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici created the Family Pact to defend the treasures of the family and she made a deal with the new Lorraine's dinasty.