On a recent visit to Florence, I remember thinking, “I’ve seen more great art in a few hours than many people see in a lifetime.” If I could drop into any city in Europe right now for a day of museum-hopping…it might just be Florence.
Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I just published a collection of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels. My new book is called “For the Love of Europe” — and this story is just one of its 100 travel tales.
Geographically small but culturally rich, Florence is home to some of the finest art and architecture in the world. In that single day, I looked Michelangelo’s David in the eyes, fell under the seductive sway of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and climbed the first great dome of the Renaissance, which gracefully dominates the city’s skyline today as it did 500 years ago.
After Rome fell in AD 476, Europe wallowed in centuries of relative darkness, with little learning, commerce, or travel. Then, around 1400, there was a Renaissance: a rebirth of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Starting in Florence, it swept across Europe. Wealthy merchant and banking families — like the Medici, who ruled Florence for generations — showed their civic pride by commissioning great art.
With the Renaissance, artists rediscovered the beauty of nature and the human body, expressing the optimism of this new age. The ultimate representation of this: Michelangelo’s David. Poised confidently in the Accademia Gallery, David represents humankind stepping out of medieval darkness — the birth of our modern, humanist outlook. Standing boldly, David sizes up the giant, as if to say, “I can take him.” The statue was an apt symbol, inspiring Florentines to tackle their Goliaths.
Until 1873, David stood not in the Accademia, but outside Palazzo Vecchio, the former Medici palace and now Florence’s City Hall. A replica David marks the spot where the original once stood. With goony eyes and a pigeon-dropping wig, this David seems dumbfounded, as tourists picnic at his feet and policemen clip-clop by on horseback.
Next door to the palace were the Medicis’ offices, or uffizi. Now the Uffizi Gallery holds the finest collection of Italian paintings anywhere, sweeping through art history from the 12th through 17th centuries, with works by Botticelli, Raphael, Giotto, Titian, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. In the long, arcaded courtyard, a permanent line of tourists (who ignored my guidebook’s advice to book reservations online in advance) waits to buy tickets.
For me, a highlight of the Uffizi is Venus de’ Medici. Revered as the epitome of beauty, Venus is a Roman copy of a 2,000-year-old Greek statue that went missing. In the 18th and 19th centuries, wealthy children of Europe’s aristocrats made the pilgrimage to the Uffizi to complete their classical education. They stood before the cold beauty of this goddess of love and swooned in ecstasy.
Classical statues like this clearly inspired Sandro Botticelli, my favorite Florentine painter. His greatest paintings, including the Birth of Venus, hang in this gallery. According to myth, Venus was born from the foam of a wave. This fragile Venus, a newborn beauty with flyaway hair, floats ashore on a clam shell while flowers tumble in slow motion. For me, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus represents the purest expression of Renaissance beauty.
In Florence, art treasures are everywhere you turn. The small, uncrowded Bargello Museum features the best collection of Florentine sculpture anywhere, including works by Michelangelo, Donatello, and Ghiberti. And hiding out at the underrated Duomo Museum, you’ll see one of Michelangelo’s Pietàs (which he designed as the centerpiece for his own tomb) and Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise panels. Revolutionary in their realism and three-dimensionality, these panels were created in response to a citywide competition in 1401 to build new doors for the Baptistery, an event that kicked off the Renaissance.
Across the street from the Duomo Museum towers Florence’s famous cathedral. Boasting the first great dome built in Europe in more than a thousand years, the Duomo marked the start of the architectural Renaissance (later inspiring domes ranging from the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica to the US Capitol). Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the immense dome is taller than a football field on end.
As if inspired by the centuries-old, greatest art of our civilization, Florence’s artistic and artisan community lives on today. To find it, I simply walk across the fabled bridge, Ponte Vecchio, and explore the Oltrarno neighborhood, home to small shops with handmade furniture, jewelry, leather items, shoes, and pottery. Craftsmen bind books and make marbled paper. Antique pieces are refurbished by people who’ve become curators of the dying techniques of gilding, engraving, etching, enameling, mosaics, and repoussé metalwork.
After a day filled with so much great art, I retreat to a stately former monastery and unwind in a Renaissance-era cell. It’s my favorite Florentine hotel, Loggiato dei Serviti, and that cell is my bedroom.
Directly across from my window is the Accademia, filled with tourists clamoring to meet David. The peaceful courtyard in between is gravelly with broken columns and stones that students are carving like creative woodpeckers. I hear the happy chipping and chirping of their chisels gaining confidence, cutting through the stone. Five centuries later, it’s comforting to know that the spirit of the Renaissance remains alive and well in Florence.
(This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. It’s available now in our online Travel Store and in bookstores across the US. Pick up a copy and enjoy 400 pages of happy travels. You can also find clips related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Florence.)