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Florence and the Birth of the Renaissance

Desiree Michels

Visitors: 85

The Tuscan city of Florence is renowned as the birthplace of the Renaissance. It was from this beautiful city on the banks of the River Arno that many of the 15th century Early Italian Renaissance artists rose to prominence.

For anyone who wants to gain a deeper insight into this historical artistic rebirth, a Florence walking tour with ArtViva takes in a host of important sites and works that were instrumental in raising the city to the high echelons of culture.

The Incubator of the Renaissance

Before the Black Death decimated half its population in the 14th century, Florence was a wealthy city, buoyed not just by the proceeds of the wool trade but also by its role as the base of the Papal bankers. After a shaky period (and attempted domination by both Milan and Naples) the city returned to its former glory and established itself as a centre for the arts, attracting scholars, philosophers, artists and writers.

The name Medici is, of course, synonymous with Firenze and this family of former wool merchants rose to become the most powerful bankers in its history. As benefactors of the arts, their influence over, and patronage, of the city's civic development was immeasurable. They commissioned the architects and artists who worked on the iconic projects that have become the defining face of the city. In doing so, they wrote themselves a place in history as virtually the sole financiers of the early Renaissance movement.

Walk the Road of the Renaissance

One of the most iconic points on a Florence walking tour is the site of Lorenzo Ghiberti's cast bronze doors on the Baptistery of St John (adjacent to the Duomo). As was the practice of the time, a juried competition was held to appoint the designer. The sculptor Ghiberti won out over goldsmith Filippo Brunelleschi and spent the next 20 years working on the 28 panels of the doors. (Incidentally, Brunelleschi turned his skills to architecture and the rest, as they say, is history. ) As soon as they were finished Ghiberti began work on a new set of doors for the east façade and, 24 years later, “The Gates of Paradise" were unveiled. These exquisite doors were unprecedented in their detail and realism and secured the artist's place in the history of Renaissance art.

Considered one of the greatest sculptures of the early Renaissance, Donatello's David was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici and originally held pride of place in a courtyard of the Palazzo Medici. Today it can be seen on a Florence walking tour that takes in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. The sculpture of David was the first nude work to be created in a round figure for more than a thousand years, so was highly significant. In fact, it was considered so controversial that it took some time before other artists began to replicate the style.

Those who encounter the Carmelite Santa Maria del Carmine Church on a Florence walking tour find an unassuming exterior that belies the importance of what lies within. Much of the church was destroyed in a fire in the 1700s, but, miraculously, the Brancacci Chapel survived. Its magnificent frescos, commissioned by Felice Brancacci, in 1424, are from the designs of Masolino da Panicale, who worked on them with his apprentice, Masaccio. (After Masaccio's death Filippino Lippi went on to complete them. ) The intense detail and radiance of the frescos is attributed to Masaccio's supreme execution of chiaroscuro and perspective and, despite his youth and untimely death (he was just 27), he is considered one of the most important artists of the time. His work went on to influence many Florentine painters.

The Convent of San Marco is another Medici commission, this time from Cosimo the Elder, where Michelozzo created a space of astounding light and shade through his use of vaulting. With each scene depicting an event in the life of Christ, Fra Angelico's frescos that decorate the individual cells of the cloister were not intended as adornment, but were created for the brothers as an aid to gentle contemplation. These exquisite, spiritual works are now considered masterpieces of Western art, and Vasari described Fra Angelico as having “a rare and perfect talent".

Discover History

A Florence walking tour that takes in these and many of the other artistic treasures for which the city has become so famous, goes a long way to showing just why it is, and ever will be, considered the model of the Renaissance culture.

Rose Magers is an Australian-born Italophile and the founder of ArtViva. With an international reputation for excellence and creativity, ArtViva are at the forefront of escorted day tours in Italy. Rose has indulged her own passion for history and the arts by designing an innovative range of exceptional small group day tours and experiences, whether a Florence walking tour , an unforgettable Tuscan cookery class, or an afternoon grape stomping.


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