Florence, like Paris or New York, is the kind of city that everybody thinks they know. And maybe they do. But even though it is full of famous works of art, Florence (like those other cities) reveals its secrets slowly. It’s one of the reasons why, perhaps more than in any other city in Italy, taking a guided walking tour at one or more points during your trip is a good idea. Consider a few things that you probably didn’t know about Florence…
1) Florence has several Last Suppers.
No kidding. Cenacoli is the Italian way to say Last Suppers, and while the most famous depiction of the Last Supper is Leonardo da Vinci’s in Milan, Florence has some beautiful renditions of its own. In fact, there are no fewer than seven! Check out artist Taddeo Gaddi’s Cenacolo in the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce, a former cloister in Piazza Santa Croce. Gaddi, a follower of Giotto, painted it around 1340. There’s an even more evocative Cenacolo in the Monasterio di Sant’Appollonia, by the Renaissance artist Andrea del Castagno. It’s dramatically three-dimensional and features a notably diabolical Judas – scary!
Near Santa Maria Novella, in the former convent of the Franciscan order of San Onofrio there’s yet another Cenacolo – this one’s by Perugino, who was Raphael’s master teacher. The work dates from about 1495 and is famous for its bright Umbrian background which features a garden and forest of pillars.
2) Dante didn’t love the Arno.
In fact, the great writer called Florence’s iconic river a maladetta e sventurata fossa (cursed and unlucky ditch). The fact that it has overflowed its banks more than 70 times since 1177 might have something to do with it. On November 4, 1966, the Arno rose more than 16 feet and in the aftermath of that flood, mud and fuel oil from basement storage tanks damaged paintings, sculptures and more. Most of the art was rescued by volunteers which Florentines dubbed “angels of the mud.”
3) Michelangelo did more in Florence than David.
There is perhaps no more famous work of art in Florence than Michelangelo’s 15-foot tall David, which he completed in 1504 at the age of 26. But there’s much more, such as Apollo and Bacchus and a Satyr, both in the Bargello, the 14th-century palace that served as Florence’s first town hall. In the Uffizi, you’ll find Michelangelo’s Doni Madonna from 1503. It celebrates the marriage between two powerful Florentine families, the Doni and the Strozzi, and is the only preserved panel painting by Michelangelo in existence.
Then there’s architecture: Michelangelo did important work in the Sagrestia Nuova (New Sacristy) in the Cappelle Medicee (Medici Chapels). The sacristy is the central work of the “Mannerist Crisis” art movement. Also, Michelangelo designed the Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana at the Cloisters of San Lorenzo. He drew the model for the library’s famous interior staircase, but it was completed by Vasari and Ammannati.
4) The Stendhal Syndrome started here.
Florence houses the densest concentration of medieval and Renaissance art and architecture in the world. The effect of so much beauty can be quite literally dizzying. That’s what prompted a Florentine psychiatrist to coin the term “Stendhal Syndrome,” named for the French writer who was famously passionate about Italy.
5) You don’t have to visit a museum to experience amazing art in Florence.
If you see an imposing looking building, try entering it and see you what you find. Case in point, the Palazzo Portinari-Salviati on Via del Corso in the city center. This 16th-century palazzo is home to a bank, but this is Florence, and that means history. Inside there’s a 14th-century fresco of Madonna and Child with Saints, and more recent frescoes by Alessandro Allori. By recent, we mean 16th-century!
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