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I must confess: my story with Florence was an inconditional love at first sight -and I still feel the same way-, so I probably cannot be unbiased when talking about it.
Florence doesn’t need to flaunt about its architecture or artistic richness. Florence just “is”.
It is the everlasting imprint of the Medici, the omnipresent legacy of Dante, Boccaccio, Michelangelo, and Donatello, and the cradle of the first artistic steps of a young Leonardo da Vinci.
It is the very place where the Italian Renaissance -perhaps Europe’s richest cultural period- began, and the home to some of the biggest churches in Italy, from Brunelleschi’s famous Duomo, to San Lorenzo, Santa Maria del Carmine, Santa Maria Novella, or -my favorite- Santa Croce.
And it is also the foreseeable scenario where countless number of tourists swarm through the streets attempting to fulfill their almost endless list of historic places to visit.
Yes, of course I will recommend you to visit the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Ponte Vecchio, the Galleria dell’Accademia, and most of the places mentioned in any city guide you have checked.
But will it still be possible to discover any hidden secret in a city so famous worldwide?
Will it still be possible to find other attractions outside of those famous routes, leaving behind the crowds?
Let’s find out …
1- Piazza Santissima Annunziata
Any Florentine guide will list the most famous squares of the city, but this one is worth to deviate from our main route.
A bronze equestrian statue of Ferdinand I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, stands looking through the ancient Via dei Servi towards the Dome.
The square is named after the church with a front porch of seven arches, located where once was the chapel of the Servants of Mary, and rebuilt between 1440 and 1481.
Following our way around, we’ll find the Ospedale degli Innocenti, a foundling Hospital and orphanage with a portico of nine arches that complements the facade of the church, crowned by one of the most beautiful architectural details: the small oval ceramic plates in blue and ivory, showing in their center a bass-relief of the Madonna or a child sometimes framed by grapes or cereals symbolizing the wealth of the city.
To the left of the porch is the “ruota“, a wooden wheel that is an important part of the history of Florence: until 1875, when the Hospital was closed, parents who were not able (or didn´t want to) keep their babies could place them inside the wheel. Once turned, the wheel carried the babies inside the orphanage, in an anonymous and silent process.
Yes, this practice was still common until the late 19th century …
2- Officina Profumo di-Farmaceutica
One of the oldest pharmacies in the world, founded in 1221 by the Dominican monks of Santa Maria Novella, making use of the produce elaborated for the monastery infirmary with the medicinal herbs from their gardens, products including ointments, balms and medicines.
While it is not easy to find – the only external signs are the name engraved on the glass panels of the door and a simple sign above it– it’s definitely worth to stop by for a visit, to find their ancient preparations, cosmetics, fragrances and spirits.
Tip: carry enough cash, you’ll likely be tempted with their extracts, soaps, cosmetics, etc., each with its own long history.
3- Beneath Santa Maria del Fiore
I know: it’s not what can be considered away from the crowds and famous sites…
But since you’ll surely make a visit to the Cathedral to see the famous dome of Brunelleschi, you can take advantage of the visit and discover something else.
Excavations done in 1965 under the floor of Santa Maria del Fiore revealed the remains of Santa Reparata, the original cathedral built when Florence was a Roman colony, with its spectacular decorative panels and mosaics, the remains of the Roman architecture, and its characteristic trace.
A unique opportunity to take a glimpse of an ancient Florence, disappeared long time ago.
4- Santa Margherita dei Cerchi
You may wonder why this small chapel, built in 1032 and hidden in an alley near the cathedral, got a place in our list.
It is not because it appears in the novel “Inferno” by Dan Brown, but because it is said that it was here where Dante Alighieri first saw his beloved Beatrice Portinari, who had been his inspiration to write the Divine Comedy.
While the popular version says that Beatrice is buried here along with other members of her family -and a stone references to her grave-, I find this highly unlikely since being married her grave should be -according to the uses of the time- along those of her husband’s family –which can be found in the Grande cloister of Santa Croce.
However, this is not an obstacle for popular belief, and the small church is still a destination for fans of Dante and his “angelic” Beatrice, who leave love and personal begging messages in a basket placed by her supposed grave.
Ah, just around the corner you can find the house where Dante was –allegedly- raised, now a museum dedicated to him.
Via Santa Margherita
5- Bargello Museum
Seeming constrained between the narrow streets of the center, it is the oldest public building in Florence – its construction began in 1255-, and reportedly where the convicted spent their last night.
Today it is one of the most beautiful museums in the city dedicated to sculpture.
Calm and quiet, it allows to stay for a while admiring the beauty of the environment and the exhibited works.
The relaxed atmosphere of the courtyard is the setting for a permanent exhibition of sculptures by masters such as Michelangelo, Cellini and Donatello.
In the imposing 14th century hall on the first floor we’ll find some of Donatello’s finest works, including a young David in marble and the bronze David that –due to its nudity- scandalized the Renaissance Florence.
Via del Proconsolo 4
6- Corridoio Vasariano (Vasari corridor)
Like most of the attractions of the city, its history is directly linked to the Medici family.
Back in 1549, Cosimo I de Medici, second Duke of Florence, bought the Palazzo Pitti, considered at the time the most luxurious palace in Europe -at least until the completion of Versailles in France-.
To avoid crossing the Ponte Vecchio –back in the 16th century was the place for butchers and tanners- to move from their new home to the offices in the Uffizi or to the Palazzo Vecchio, the Duke opted for an ambitious solution, ordering in 1565 the construction of a 1+ kilometer long elevated corridor on one side of the Ponte Vecchio, which also crossed the upper balcony of the church Santa Felicita.
The passage currently houses one of the most important collections in the world of self-portraits, with more than 1,000 paintings from the 16th century to today, including artists like Rembrandt, Chagall, Velazquez, Rubens.
But… visiting it is not an easy task as it is closed to the general public.
Only tours with special reserve through private operators are permitted, for small groups permanently accompanied by staff of the Uffizi, while no photos are allowed.
Piazza della Signoria
7- Museum and Bardini Garden
While the Boboli Gardens are much better known by tourists, Museo Bardini’s Gardens -originally a medieval garden restored by the art collector Stefano Bardini in the early 1900s- offer a more intimate and relaxed alternative, with small caves and quiet nooks, which explode in color when blooming in spring.
During the summer season the historical café located in the upper part of the garden is the perfect place for an afternoon coffee, or to rest and recall all we’ve discovered throughout the day.
Since it’s near, stop by number 19 of this street: the house with a decorated front still standing there was one of the residences of Galileo Galilei.
Costa San Giorgio 2
8- Santo Spirito Church
What drives us to this church, located on the square of the same name, is the wooden crucifix carved by Michelangelo.
Built in the same time of Columbus’ first voyage to America, the crucifix was lost until the 60s, when it was recovered and its creation attributed to the hands of Michelangelo.
His talent to work in marble is more than famous, but this wooden crucifix is a unique example of his early work.
The naked Christ shows the talent of the young artist to reproduce the human body in detail.
A discrete place to discover an example of the art of Buonarotti, away from the long lines and crowds.
9- Cappella Brancacci
A beautiful small chapel within Santa Maria del Carmine Church.
It was almost a miracle that the Brancacci and Corsini Chapels survived the intense fire that in 1771 destroyed everything else in less than 4 hours.
This beautiful chapel – only accessible through the cloisters, not from the church- shows two layers of frescoes commissioned in 1424 by Felice Brancacci, a wealthy Florentine merchant.
The artist Masolino de Panicale designed the frescoes and began their painting with his pupil Masaccio, who took over from in 1428, but unfortunately died later that same year. The remaining parts were only finished in the 1480’s, by Filippino Lippi.
The frescoes were recently restored, renewing their intense radiance and making it possible to clearly see the contrast between the initial Masolino’s work and Masaccio’s mastery of chiaroscuro (light and shade) -which was copied with no shame by the Florentine painters of the 15th century-.
10- Museo La Specola
Opened in 1775 by Grand Duke Peter Leopold of Lorraine, and located in the old Palazzo Torrigiani, it initially exhibited objects from the extensive collection of natural history of the Medici-Lorraine and was one of the first science museums open to the public.
Currently the exhibition shows both a vast collection of dissected animals including the hippo that was –supposedly- kept by the Medici in the Boboli Gardens during the 17th century, and the world’s largest collection of anatomical wax figures.
Warning: these figures are remarkably realistic and can be quite impressive.
The entire collection configures a really unusual exhibit.
Via Romana, 17