The Italian apple of my eye

Katie Siebenaller

               After our Venetian adventure, my fiancé Tyler and I hopped on a rail to Florence — the reason I so badly wanted to return to Italy. In 2016 I had studied abroad for a month in the summer in Florence, and the city has held a special place in my heart ever since.
                My time as a student in the city taught me that Florence is a fantastic combination of past and present, integrating modern European living with the art and architecture of the Renaissance. There are many sites and attractions unique to the city that require little or no money to enjoy, including the following:
Piazza del Duomo
The center of Florence, the Piazza del Duomo (Square of the Cathedral) cannot be missed, thanks to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower). Known as the Duomo for short, it boasts as one of the largest cathedrals in the world (a title it once held at the time of its completion in the 15th century), and displays Renaissance and Gothic styles. The massive, octagonal cupola (dome), inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, was designed and created by Renaissance architect and Florence native Filippo Brunelleschi. While a dome doesn’t sound very exciting, I can assure you it’s a sight to behold. One look is all it takes to understand why the cathedral’s dome is considered Brunelleschi’s greatest work. (Fun fact: Brunelleschi’s tomb is in the crypt underneath the cathedral. This is considered to be a great honor.)
Accompanying the cathedral are the Campanile di Giotto (Giotto’s Bell Tower) and Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistry of Saint John). Giotto di Bondone, though his birth and much of his life is unknown, is widely recognized as the first of the Italian masters. His works and style of painting pointed to the Renaissance that would come a century later.
Travel tip: The Piazza del Duomo presents another unfamiliar sight: military presence. I give the warning because the armed guards and military vehicles were quite a surprise to me as a student and later to Tyler. After terrorist attacks in Paris, many European nations heightened security around national landmarks that drew large crowds, such as the Duomo in Florence.
Pieces of the Italian Renaissance
                Florence was home to many famous faces of the Italian Renaissance, including Michelangelo, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Botticelli and Machiavelli. From books and plays to architecture and sculptures, Florence is full of works from these creatives and more.
                Many famous pieces are still located in Florence. Michelangelo’s “David” can be found in the Galleria dell’Accademia — but be warned, the line for the museum often spans multiple blocks. So get there early! Another house of art history is The Uffizi Gallery, which showcases Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation.”
                Travel tip: You don’t have to be indoors to appreciate Florentine art. Architectural works like the Duomo can be appreciated simply by wandering the streets. Additionally, the Piazza del Duomo and other busy streets play host to street artists of all sorts: some recreating masterpieces in the street with chalks, others selling their crafts while working on more. If you’re looking for unique pieces to decorate your home or office, or even the perfect gift, Tyler and I recommend supporting these local artists.
Piazza della Signoria
                The Piazza della Signoria (Square of the Signoria) was named after the Signoria of Florence, which was the city’s body of government from medieval times through the Renaissance. Though today it serves as more of a historical site, the square has been the political center of Florence for centuries. “L” shaped, the Piazza della Signoria wraps around the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace), named as such by Cosimo I de’ Medici after he moved to a different palace on the south side of Florence.
                When it comes to the history of Florence, there are two aspects that cannot be avoided while touring the city: the Renaissance influence and that of the Medici dynasty. Members of the Casa de’ Medici (House of Medici) were de facto rulers of Florence for about 300 years, starting with Cosimo I de’ Medici in the early 1400s and ending with the death of Gian Gastone de’ Medici in the early 1700s. The Medicis originated from humble beginnings, growing into a powerful banking family, and then finally gaining political influence under Cosimo I.
The House of Medici was certainly loved and hated (co-ruler Giuliano de’ Medici was actually assassinated in the Duomo). Despite this, the Medicis were great patrons of the arts. Thanks to them — and their money — we enjoy the invention of the piano, beautiful architectural works like the Duomo and not to mention the achievements of Michelangelo, Galileo, da Vinci, Machiavelli, etc.
                Travel tip: The Piazza della Signoria is the site of many impressive statues — most notably, as I lovingly refer to him, “The Fake David.” This replica of Michelangelo’s marble masterpiece stands where the original was for hundreds of years, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Ponte Vecchio
The north and south portions of Florence are separated by the Arno — one of Italy’s most prominent rivers. As a result, the city is connected by a number of bridges, the oldest and most famous by far being the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). It is also the only Florentine bridge to survive the destruction of the Germans during World War II (the others being since rebuilt). This closed-spandrel segmental stone arch bridge was constructed in the Middle Ages, bearing some Roman architectural influence.
What makes the Ponte Vecchio unique is that it was built to hold shops, which it still does today, though fine jewelry, art and souvenirs have replaced butchers and fishmongers. Additionally, above the shops is part of Corridoio Vasariano (Vasari’s Corridor), an above-ground walkway commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici to create private access between the Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi (where he moved the seat of government), over the Ponte Vecchio to another Medici-owned palace, Palazzo Pitti.
Mercato di San Lorenzo
                In my opinion, a trip to Florence is not complete without experiencing the buzz of the Mercato di San Lorenzo (San Lorenzo Market). The market is made up of two parts, indoor and outdoor. The former is known as the Mercato Centrale (Central Market), providing two levels of food — groceries galore on the first floor and plenty of choices for a snack or meal on the second. Also inside is the Lorenzo de’ Medici cooking school, offering classes in Italian and English. (If Tyler and I had more time we would have definitely tried our hands at recreating some Italian cuisine!)
                The streets surrounding the Central Market are filled with vendor stalls, comprising the outside portion of the San Lorenzo Market. Sold here are leather products (Florence is famous for its leather), scarves, stationary and various souvenirs.
                Travel tip: Shopping the San Lorenzo Market and other similar stalls and shops throughout the city is not like what you find back home. Never pay full price on pricier goods! Before you buy, check the price and try your hand at talking the vendor down to a lower price. During both of my visits to Florence, I never paid full price for my leather goods. Many are purposely marked up. Tyler enjoyed haggling with the vendors too.
                Bonus travel tip: Don’t be afraid to walk away from an item or vendor. Shop around and get what you want for an affordable price. It’s a win-win!


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