Since early in the nineteenth century FLORENCE has been celebrated as the most beautiful city in Italy. Stendhal staggered around its streets in a perpetual stupor of delight; the Brownings sighed over its idyllic charms; and E.M. Forster's Room with a View portrayed it as the great southern antidote to the sterility of Anglo-Saxon life. For most people Florence comes close to living up to the myth only in its first, resounding impressions. The pinnacle of Brunelleschi's stupendous cathedral dome dominates the cityscape, and the close-up view is even more breathtaking, with the multicoloured Duomo rising behind the marble-clad Baptistry . Wander from there down towards the River Arno and the attraction still holds: beyond the broad Piazza della Signoria, site of the towering Palazzo Vecchio , the river is spanned by the medieval shop-lined Ponte Vecchio , with the gorgeous church of San Miniato al Monte glistening on the hill behind it.
Yet after registering these marvellous sights, it's hard to stave off a sense of disappointment, for much of Florence is a city of narrow streets and heavy-set, oppressively dour palazzi that show only iron-barred windows and massive, studded doors to the outside world. The alienating effects of this physical entrenchment are redoubled both by an unending tide of mass tourism. You'll find light relief to be in short supply.
The fact is, the best of Florence is to be seen indoors. Under the patronage of the Medici family, the city's artists and thinkers were instigators of the shift from the medieval to the modern world-view, and churches, galleries and museums are the places to get to grips with their achievement. The development of the Renaissance can be plotted in the vast picture collection of the Uffizi and in the sculpture of the Bargello and the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo . Equally revelatory are the fabulously decorated chapels of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella , forerunners of such astonishing creations as Masaccio's superb frescoes in the Cappella Brancacci , and Fra' Angelico's serene paintings in the monks' cells at San Marco . The Renaissance emphasis on harmony and rational design is expressed with unrivalled eloquence in Brunelleschi's architecture, specifically in the churches of San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito and the Cappella dei Pazzi . The full genius of Michelangelo, the dominant creative figure of sixteenth-century Italy, is on display in the fluid design of San Lorenzo's Biblioteca Laurenziana and the marble statuary of the Cappelle Medicee and the Accademia - home of the David . Every quarter of Florence can boast a church or collection worth an extended call, and the enormous Palazzo Pitti south of the river constitutes a museum district on its own.
Greater Florence now spreads several kilometres down the Arno Valley and onto the hills north and south of the city, but the major sights are contained in an area that can be crossed on foot in under thirty minutes. A short walk southeast from...
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