Firenze

Back in October I returned to this famous Italian city overflowing with history and culture (and the one that kickstarted my fascination for the rest of Il Bel Paese).

My first experience of Italy was at the age of 15 with a class trip to Florence. With the risk of sounding cornily sentimental, I have to say that it was during our five days there that I really realised a love for Italy. Returning 5 years later, with a greatly improved command of Italian, gave me a real sense of satisfaction and of course lots of excitement!

For anyone that is yet to visit this amazing city, I would definitely recommend it. I would also say that anyone interested in history should do a bit of research before their trip – Florence was one of the most important Renaissance cities and unsurprisingly has huge cultural, political and architectural significance worth knowing a bit about. Moreover I find trips far more rewarding when you know a bit about the sights you’re visiting!

There’s a plethora of information sites, books and tourist offices that can give the complete lowdown on this city, so I thought that I would share just four of my favourite Florentine finds (the first of which is less about the place and more about the story of what happened there).

Savonarola 

The Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola was one of the most important characters in Renaissance Florentine politics and even ruled the Republic for a few years. Following Charles VIII’s invasion into Italy, the Medici family lost their position as city rulers and Savonarola, who had become an influential puritan preacher, took over the family’s role. The friar’s apocalyptic preaching called for Florence to become a city of God, criticising the immorality, corruption and extravagance that it had taken over the city. Although initially revered by the people, when food shortages and outbursts of plague then took over the city, the blame came to lay on Savonarola. Thus, and as with many historical figures, the friar’s ascension to great influence and power was followed by his fall – May 1498 the Florentine people gathered once again in the Piazza della Signoria, this time to watch his torture and execution rather than to hear his sermon.

This painting was completed in 1650 by an unknown artist. It depicts Savonarola’s execution in the Piazza della Signoria in the centre of Florence that still looks the same today. The piazza is named after the building that sits on it (also known as the Palazzo Vecchio), where the ruling political body of the Republic of Florence, La Signoria, used to meet. Today the Palazzo Vecchio is still the political centre of the city as it is the town hall of Florence and you’ll most likely pass it on the way to the Galleria degli Uffizi close by. The statue that you can see here of the friar is not actually in Florence but in the Piazza Savonarola in Ferrara, the town where Savonarola was born. It’s one of my favourite statues here in Ferrara, I think it really reflects the powerful effect that his apocalyptic sermons must have once had on the people of Florence and the drama of his tragic ending that came afterwards.

Chiesa di Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross)

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Chiesa di Santa Croce and statue of Dante Alighieri

A large statue of the poet Dante Alighieri stands outside the Santa Croce church but he is just the first of many great Italians remembered in this impressive building. It is the resting place of the artist Michelangelo, whose tomb designed by Giorgio Vasari shows the allegorical figures of the arts he mastered – architecture, sculpture and painting. The polymath Galileo Galilei is also buried here and has a grave of similar style to Michelangelo’s. Niccolò Machiavelli, the Florentine that wrote the political treatise Il Principe (The Prince) is remembered with a funeral monument, as well as Da Vinci and these are alongside a second monument to Dante on top of his statue outside. Furthermore, works by some of the most important Renaissance painters decorate the church, including frescoes in the Peruzzi and Bardi Chapels by Giotto. With so many big names in Italian studies to be found one place, the Chiesa di Santa Croce should be a definite on the tourist’s to do list.

Piazza Michelangelo

This is the place where you can take that post-card worthy picture to show friends and family back home. The piazza wasn’t actually built until 1868 by the Florentine architect Giuseppe Poggi. It’s around one kilometre from the Ponte Vecchio and there’s a nice pathway all the way up to the piazza – we walked but for those that would rather take a lift, buses also run regularly. Either way it is definitely worth the trip and there’s a bar at the top to refresh yourself before heading back down.

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View of Piazza Michelangelo

San Miniato al Monte (Saint Miniatus on the Mountain)

If you carry on up the hill past Piazza Michelangelo, you’ll come to the Benedictine monastery and basilica built in the name of Saint Miniatus. It’s believed that the martyr saint, who had lived in the 3rd century, came to be buried here and that the relics now held in the church crypt belonged to him. It has been one of my favourite churches to visit so far in Italy and I can see why it has been called one of the finest and most beautiful Romanesque buildings in the country. Not only is the inside fascinating, with examples of iconography varying from the 12th to the 15th century, but you can really feel the age of the building (construction started in 1018). With it being on the top of the hill overlooking the city it also feels incredibly peaceful and the crypt underneath the church, with its many pillars, was particularly memorable for me.

From defensive fortress to Renaissance residence – la brutalità e la bellezza del Castello Estense

From the dark eeriness of the dungeons in its belly to the extravagantly embellished rooms at its top – walking through the castle takes you on a journey that reflects its evolution from military fortress to beautiful palazzo.

The original Palazzo Ducale Estense is today found in the Palazzo Municipale, opposite the main cathedral. This building dates back to 1135 and was the position from which the Este family grew its political power over Ferrara, before the construction of the castle over 200 years later. During this time, the palazzo connected to a stronghold tower (Torre dei Leoni) that dominated the wall defences of the city and stood next to the Porta dei Leoni gate. Whilst the watchtower helped to protect the Este family home attached to it, it was first and foremost a defence for the whole of Ferrara and its people. That was all to change in 1385 however, with a revolt by the people against Nicolò II d’Este and when the gritty history of the ferrarese castle begins.

The revolt was the consequence of high taxes being put on the people. On top of being devastated by severe flooding in the area, they had eventually had enough and marched as an angry mob to the Palazzo Ducale on the 3rd May 1385. Fearing for his own safety and for that of his family, the Duke Nicolò II d’Este decided that the only way to immediately appease the crowd and avoid serious danger was to throw the Estense official unfortunate enough to have been in charge of collecting Nicolò’s taxes from the people, Tommaso da Tortona, from the window of the palazzo and into the enraged mass below. If the fall alone didn’t bring da Tortona to his end, being the merciless middle ages the people simply tore the official to pieces, of course.

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Palazzo Ducale Estense – from where Tommaso da Tortona was thrown

It’s therefore not such a surprise to hear that the Duke deemed the Palazzo Ducale an inadequate defence against any future revolts by his people… thus he ordered the extension of the Torre dei Leoni to begin on Saint Michael’s Day 1385 (which explains the castle’s other name – Castello di San Michele). From this year until 1450, the castle was the epitome of a medieval military fortress and home to the Este militia with three new towers, canons and dungeons. Furthermore, the physical dominance of the castle over the Ferrarese landscape also symbolised the hegemonic power of its inhabitants. Other noble families knew they could no longer challenge the Este dynasty and the locals were sent a clear warning not to repeat the events of 1385 as the castle fortified itself and even turned its cannons towards the city.

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Cannonballs on display within the castle walls – the Estensi were once renowned for their military prowess

The dungeons of the castle and the stories of those unfortunate enough to have been incarcerated there made me feel very unnerved on my visit. The first cell on the left after taking the steps down from the ground level once belonged to Don Giulio d’Este. Giulio was given the sentence of life imprisonment for conspiring to murder his half-brother Duke Alfonso I d’Este and remained in the same cell for 53 years until he was pardoned by his grandnephew Alfonso II d’Este. At the age of 81 he finally walked the streets of Ferrara again, in robes that were now five decades out of fashion. Reading Don Giulio’s story whilst stood in his cell, I was definitely relieved to duck through the tiny doorway again soon after. I won’t reveal any more of the stories, to save some excitement for future visitors to the castle that may be reading this, but it’s safe to say that they don’t get any jollier. Clearly the dukes of Ferrara took no mercy on their foes and it didn’t matter if they happened to be family too.

At this point on my visit I welcomed leaving the dungeons and taking the stairs up to the higher level of the castle. It’s here that the building goes from military fortress to Renaissance residence. From around 1450 some rooms of the castle first began to be used for non-military purposes and were therefore updated to be worthy of the title of ducal residence. Work continued  under the Este dynasty as the family commissioned artists and architects to keep their court amongst the most revered of the time.

Besides the beautiful frescoes that cover almost every room, my favourite part of the ducal residence is the Garden of Oranges. Particularly having come from the dark dungeons, stepping out onto the terrace of orange trees reminds you of how incredibly different the consequences of being in, and being out, of the duke’s favour could be. The garden also reflects the Renaissance interest in being able to control nature and manipulate it through landscaping. This idea was also a metaphor for the ideals of political power at the time and a concept that I find fascinating (in Dante’s Inferno you can find numerous references to this renaissance preoccupation with man’s command over nature).

The final thing to do on a visit to the castle, if you’re good with heights that is, is to climb the Torre dei Leoni to get a view of the whole of Ferrara. From here, at the top of the oldest part of the fortress-turned palazzo, you can see both parts of the city I spoke about in my last post. To the south you can see the part built during the Middle Ages, when the Castello Estense served as a warning to anyone thinking of challenging its owners. To the north you get a view of the Renaissance expansion of the town, built over the same period in which the castle transformed from military fort to ducal palace and allowed the Este dynasty to show off its cultural and political hegemony over the land.