Here is medieval Europe and the Renaissance period at its worst and its best, and it is impossible to do justice to its riches in a few hours as a tourist (as we have been), or in a few fragments of memory as I share now. But you have to go there, if only to savour the extravagant splendour of the buildings and the glorious and inglorious history which so many of them represent.
The centre of the city is dominated by the plazza del Duomo, the outer walls of the vast cathedral inlaid with green and pink marble, the massive cupola above the east end crowning the building with magnificence. I have a book about its architect, Brunelleschi. The intrigues attending the competition before he was appointed and the difficulties of building it,are examples of the intense rivalries that were typical of the Florentine Republic. The old city is divided by the Arno River bridged by the famous Ponte Vecchio, with its shops built on its edges and held up by stilts.
The history of the city is entwined with the accomplishments and scandals of the Medici family who at various times so dominated civic and religious affairs that at times the republicanism for which Florence was famed amongst the Italian states, faded into insignificance.
Their authority and influence extended from the 15th to the 18th centuries. We visited the mausoleum in San Lorenzo where various members of the family are entombed, a dark and forbidding place which to us breathed power and corruption.
But the family of course were wealthy patrons of every form of art, which made Florence a byword for the achievements of the renaissance. Many such works can be seen in the Uffizi gallery, one of the world’s finest, the opulence of many of the paintings in contrast to the bleakest moments in the life of Jesus, notably his death, which fill the ornately framed canvases of so many paintings of the period.
Michaelangelo’s David is perhaps the most famous statue in the world. Moved around quite a bit since its difficult journey from the sculptor’s studio, its present site is in the Accademia Gallery, whilst a convincing replica stands outside the Palazzo Vecchio. It is an astonishing work, the youthful David awaiting calmly his encounter with the giant Goliath, beautiful, confident and yet vulnerable. Out of proportion in some ways, we noticed the huge hands as they wait to use the young warrior’s deadly sling.