This brief history of Florence takes a look at one of the most influential cities of Northern Italy.
Located in the central Italian region of Tuscany, Florence is one of the most breathtaking cities in Europe. Celebrated as the birthplace of the Renaissance, The city is home to many of its most famous artistic treasures. Consequently, it’s a popular destination for tourists and students of art and culture.
While Florence is best known for its achievements during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was by no means a young city when this era began. It was founded in 59 BC by Julius Caesar, who named the settlement Florentia (meaning “flourishing”), and designated it a haven for retired military veterans. In fact, the city was designed in the manner of a military camp, a pattern that’s still evident in the city center today.
Because Florence is situated on fertile, farmable land, and located on a major travel route between northern Italy and Rome, it grew steadily from a small Roman settlement to a bustling commercial center. By the 3rd century AD, it was established as the capital of Tuscany (then called Tuscia), but its growing significance soon became a detriment. Around the beginning of the 4th century, the Byzantines and the German Ostrogoths were competing for the control of Italy, and Florence was one of the cities they continually fought over, causing such destruction that the population was, according to legend, reduced to fewer than 1,000 people.
But in the 6th century, peace was restored under Lombard rule, and the population continued to increase and prosper under the rule of Charlemagne in 774.
A Rise To Power
By the 10th century, Florence was on a strong and steady ascent towards prosperity. The first stirrings of artistic activity began during the reign of Margrave Hugo, who moved to Florence in 1000 AD. Despite the political strife of the early 14th century, Florence continued to prosper, and in 1252, minted its own gold currency – the ‘florin’. The city became a powerful banking hub, with many Florentine banks opening branches across Europe. The powerful Medici banking family ruled the city from behind the scenes, and also found fame as prominent patrons of the arts.
This economic strength fostered the growth of mercantile guilds and attracted an influx of immigrants, setting the stage for the creative movement known as the Renaissance. The city maintained its reputation for innovation throughout the 14th to 16th centuries. There were a dozen artists’ guilds throughout the city, and Florence exported massive amounts of high quality wool and other textiles to Italy and Europe.
Many of the era’s most influential artists flocked to the city to create their masterpieces, including Michelangelo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Leonardo da Vinci. Their frescoes, sculptures, architecture and paintings are still preserved throughout the city and are major points of interest to visitors from around the world.
Florence And The Medici
No brief history of Florence can ignore the extensive influence of the Medici family. They had been entrenched in Florentine politics from around the 1430s. In 1520, the family commissioned the politician and philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli, to write a history of Florence, but it wasn’t published until after his death because it revealed too many details of their activities. In 1527, the Florentine government finally expelled the Medici and re-established a republic.
But the family employed the support of both the Emperor and the Pope to declare war on Florence, and, and after two attempts to regain power, became hereditary dukes of Florence in 1537. In 1569, they became the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, ruling the territory for the following two centuries.
Becoming Part Of Italy
In 1737, Tuscany became a territory of Austria, and was later ruled by France and the kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont. After unification in 1861, Tuscany became a province of the Kingdom of Italy. Florence enjoyed a short period as the capital of Italy, replacing Turin in 1865 and hosting the country’s first parliament, but was superseded by Rome in 1871 following its addition to the kingdom.
Today Florence continues to thrive as a banking power, as well as a city of great historical and artistic significance. Finance and tourism fuel the city’s economic growth, and despite a flood that damaged thousands of important pieces in 1944, Florence boasts an unparalleled quantity of Italian Renaissance art that attracts millions of tourists each year.
Originally published on Italian Legacy.com