Firenze’s recorded history began with the establishment in 59 BC of a settlement for Roman former soldiers, with the name Florentia. Julius Caesar had allocated the fertile soil of the valley of the Arno to his veterans. They built a castrum in a chessboard pattern of an army camp, with the main streets, the cardo and the decumanus, intersecting at the present Piazza della Repubblica.
This pattern can still be found in the city center.
Florentia was situated at the Via Cassia, the main route between Rome and the North. Through this advantageous position, the settlement rapidly expanded into an important commercial center.
Of a population estimated at 80,000 before the Black Death of 1348, about 25,000 are said to have been supported by the city’s wool industry: in 1345 Florence was the scene of an attempted strike by wool combers (ciompi), who in 1378 rose up in a brief revolt against oligarchic rule in the Revolt of the Ciompi.
Cosimo de’ Medici was the first Medici family member to essentially control the city from behind the scenes.
Although the city was technically a democracy of sorts, his power came from a vast patronage network along with his alliance to the new immigrants, the gente nuova. The fact that the Medici were bankers to the pope also contributed to their rise. Cosimo was succeeded by his son Piero, who was shortly thereafter succeeded by Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo in 1469.
Lorenzo was a great patron of the arts, commissioning works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli.
Following the death of Lorenzo in 1492, he was succeeded by his son Piero II. When the French king Charles VIII invaded northern Italy, Piero II chose to resist his army. But when he realised the size of the French army at the gates of Pisa, he had to accept the humiliating conditions of the French king.
These made the Florentines rebel and they expelled Piero II. With his exile in 1494, the first period of Medici rule ended with the restoration of a republican government.
During this period the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola had become prior of the San Marco monastery in 1490. He was famed for his penitential sermons. He blamed the exile of the Medicis as the work of God, punishing them for their decadence. He seized the opportunity to carry through political reforms leading to a more democratic rule.
His monomaniacal persecution of the widespread Florentine pederasty and of other worldly pleasures both influenced and foreshadowed many of the wider religious controversies of the following centuries. But when Savonarola publicly accused Pope Alexander VI of corruption, he was banned from speaking in public.
When he broke this ban, he was excommunicated. The Florentines, tired of his extreme teachings, turned against him and arrested him. He was convicted as a heretic and burned at the stake on the Piazza della Signoria on 23 May 1498.
Restored twice with the support of both Emperor and Pope, the Medici in 1537 became hereditary dukes of Florence, and in 1569 Grand Dukes of Tuscany, ruling for two centuries.
In all Tuscany, only the Republic of Lucca (later a Duchy) was independent from Florence.
The extinction of the Medici line and the accession in 1737 of Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine and husband of Maria Theresa of Austria, led to Tuscany’s inclusion in the territories of the Austrian crown. Austrian rule was to end in defeat at the hands of France and the kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont in 1859, and Tuscany became a province of the United Kingdom of Italy in 1861.
Florence replaced Turin as Italy’s capital in 1865, hosting the country’s first parliament, but was superseded by Rome six years later, after the withdrawal of the French troops made its addition to the kingdom possible. After doubling during the 19th century, Florence’s population tripled in the 20th with the growth of tourism, trade, financial services and industry.
During World War II the city experienced a year-long German occupation (1943-1944).
The surge in artistic, literary, and scientific investigation that occurred in Florence in the 14th-16th centuries was precipitated by Florentines’ preoccupation with money, banking and trade and with the display of wealth and leisure.
Points of Interest:
· Pitti Palace is lavishly decorated with the Medici family’s former private collection: Palatine Gallery, Royal Apartments, Museo degli Argenti, Galleria del Costume.
· Boboli Gardens adjoining the Palace, elaborately landscaped and with many interesting sculptures. Amphitheatre, La Grotta Grande, L’Isoletto
· Brancacci Chapel houses frescos depicting The Life of St. Peter. Masolino started the frescos around 1424. Many of the scenes are by his pupil, Masaccio, and finished by Filippino Lippi.
· Ponte Vecchio, whose most striking feature is the multitude of shops built upon its edges, is held up by stilts. The bridge also carried Vasari’s elevated corridor linking the Uffizi to the Medici Palace. First constructed by the Etruscans in ancient times, this bridge is the only one in the city to have survived World War II intact. Corridoio Vasariano if Giovanni can get a special appointment.
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