The city of Florence (then known as Florentia) was founded by the Romans around 59BC on an important road linking Rome to France. Julius Caesar chose the area as a virtual retirement village for his veteran soldiers. The soldiers were allocated land in the valley where they built a village in an army camp style (what else!). Strategically located along the Arno River it wasn’t long before Florence flourished commercially as a centre for European trade and finance.
In AD 550 the city fell under barbarian invasions and was virtually destroyed. Relative peace returned under Lombard rule around AD570. In 774 the city was conquered by Charlemagne and became part of the duchy of Tuscany. The city having struggled under successive Byzantine, Goth, Lombard and Frankish rule were about to be set free.
Price of Freedom
In 1115, following the death of Countess Matilda (German house of the Marquises), the control of the city was passed to officials known as the ‘Good Men’and the city declared a free commune.Internal feuding between the Guelphs ( pro-papal) and the Ghibellines (pro-imperial) took its toll on the city during the 13th century dividing the city into two republics. Then came the plague!
Cosimo de’ Medici Inspires a City
By the mid 14th century the city was run by the merchant elite rather than by a divided commune. The powerful and rich Albizi and then the Medici families lead the way, even though their reigns were interrupted by spates of republican rule. Much of the city’s strong merchant base was founded on wool and supported by a strong currency. Finally after years of striving for top spot, Cosimo de’ Medici would become the city’s ruler and with his power, wealth and eye for art would turn Florence into a haven for artists such as Alberti, Donatello, Brunelleschi and Ghiberti. Florence knew no bounds under Medici, as great buildings were constructed and the arts flourished. It was a virtual explosion of intellectual energy which was encouraged on every level (including business and banking).
Birth of Renaissance
Following Cosimo’s death in 1464 his son Peter the Gouty took control and then grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo was in part responsible for the birth of Italian Renaissance encouraging the likes of artists Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Benozzo Gozzoli to the glorious city.
Bonfires of the Vanities
Unfortunately just before Lorenzo’s death in 1492 the bubble burst for the Medici family when the Medici Bank failed. The city eventually fell under the control of a Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola who dreamt of a puritanical republic (“bonfires of the vanity” guy). When he fell out of favour with the public, he truly fell out. In 1498 he was burned at the stake as a heretic. In the middle of the Piazza della Signoria there is a circular plaque that marks the spot. Meanwhile Lorenzo the Magnificent was doing deals with Pope Innocent VIII which resulted in the marriage of Pope Leo’s son to Lorenzo’s daughter. Lorenzo’s second son Giovanni would eventually become Pope Leo X (papal nepotism).
Rise of a Unified Italy
Following unrest during the Italian Wars, the Medici’s were eventually returned to power in Florence in 1529 (having been expelled in 1527). The family ruled until 1737 when power was passed to the House of Lorraine and then in 1799 to the French, under Napoleon. In 1814 it was handed back to the House of Lorraine until the Italians push for unification. Between 1865 to 1870 Florence was to become the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. In 1875 the title was given to Rome.
20th Century Hiccups
During World War II the city was severely damaged by retreating German forces as they blew up many buildings and all but the Ponte Vecchio (bridge). In 1966 the banks of the Arno River burst, sending torrents of water throughout the city.
The Florence floods of 1966 were a nightmare of mammoth proportions, leaving the city under nearly 7m of water and much of its artwork and books soaked in water, mud, and oil. The tragic aftermath still continues today with many great artworks and books still waiting to be restored. In 1993 a car bomb exploded outside the Uffizi Gallery destroying the west wing and amongst it paintings by Bartolomeo Manfredi and Gerrit van Honthorst. The explosion also damaged paintings by Ruebens, Giotto and Van Dyck.