Image: PANTHEON
Laura VanDeventer
Architect Filippo Brunelleschi, inspired by Rome?s Pantheon, built Florence?s famous cathedral-capping dome in only 14 years.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 10/13/2010 2:58:41 PM ET 2010-10-13T18:58:41

Geographically small but culturally rich, Florence — two hours northwest of Rome — is home to some of the greatest art and architecture in the world. In a single day, you could look Michelangelo's David in the eyes, fall under the seductive sway of Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and climb the modern world's first dome, which still dominates the skyline.

After Rome fell, 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 at the end of a long, nave-like hall in Florence's Accademia Gallery, David is the god of human triumph. Clothed only in confidence, his toes gripping the pedestal, 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 policewomen clip-clop by on horseback.

Next door to the palace were the Medicis' offices, or Uffizi. Now these offices hold the finest collection of Italian paintings anywhere, sweeping through art history from the 12th through 17th centuries, with works by Botticelli, Raphael, Giotto, Titian, da Vinci, and Michelangelo. In the long, arcaded courtyard, a permanent line of tourists waits to buy tickets (advance reservations are a must to avoid these lines).

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, where they swooned in ecstasy before the cold beauty of this goddess of love.

Classical statues like this clearly inspired Sandro Botticelli, my favorite Florentine painter. According to myth, Venus was born from the foam of a wave. In Botticelli's Birth of Venus, this fragile, newborn beauty with flyaway hair floats ashore on a clamshell while flowers tumble in slow motion. For me, the Birth of Venus represents the purest expression of Renaissance beauty.

In Florence, art treasures are everywhere you turn. The small, uncrowded Bargello features the best collection of Florentine sculpture anywhere, including works by Michelangelo, Donatello, and Ghiberti. And hiding out at the underrated Duomo Museum are Michelangelo's Pieta, the centerpiece he designed 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 to build new doors for the Baptistery, an event that some say kicked off the Renaissance.

Across the street from the Duomo Museum is 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 from the Vatican to the American Capitol). Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the immense dome -- taller than a football field on end — rose in rings. First, he created part of the big white ribs and then filled in the space with interlocking bricks. When one ring was complete and self-supporting, he moved the scaffolding up and built another.

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Today, the artistic legacy lives on in Florence's Oltrarno neighborhood, home to small artisan shops with handmade furniture, jewelry, leather items, shoes, and pottery. Craftsmen bind books and make marbled paper. People who've become curators of the dying techniques of gilding, engraving, etching, enameling, mosaics, and repousse metal work refurbish antique pieces. If you want to see a slice of today's Florence, this is the place to go.

At the end of the day, I like to unwind at my favorite hotel, Loggiato dei Serviti, a stately former monastery. From my bedroom I can see the Accademia across the way. The courtyard in between is gravelly with broken columns and stones set up for students to carve. Like creative woodpeckers, I hear the happy pecking and chirping of chisels gaining confidence, cutting through the stone. Hundreds of years after the Renaissance, it's comforting to know that the spirit of creation remains alive and well in Florence.

(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2010 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: Rome, “The Eternal City”

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  1. Open for business

    Tourists walk in the Colosseum near the hypogeum (underground) on October 14, 2010, in Rome. The underground, never before available to the public, is now open for visitors. (Franco Origlia / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Underground tour

    Gladiators, wild beasts and ... tourists? Yep. People visiting the Colosseum can now walk around the underground chambers where lions and tigers were caged and gladiators waited to hear their fate. (Ettore Ferrari / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Roman hot spot

    More than 18,000 people visit the amphitheatre every day. The newly opened areas will be accessible to guided tours of a maximum of 25 people at a time. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Colosseum

    The Colosseum is one of the most recognized structures not just in Rome, but in all of Europe. The building, which was inaugurated in 80 A.D., is visited by several million tourists each year. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Papal Basilica of St. Peter

    The Papal Basilica of St. Peter is illuminated in Vatican City, an enclave of Rome. The basilica, until recently, was the largest church ever built. The holy place stands where St. Peter was crucified and buried. (Miguel Villagran / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Roman Forum

    The Roman Forum is located between the Palatine Hill and Capitoline Hill. The ancient city's most important and oldest structures were situated in or near the Forum, including many shrines and temples. (Doug Pearson / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Piazza del Campidoglio

    The Piazza del Campidoglio was designed during the 16th century by Michelangelo Buonarroti. The piazza is located atop Capitol Hill in Rome. The structure seen today dates back to 1560. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. City hall

    Two tourists rest next to a statue in front of the Campidoglio, Rome's city hall. The statue, one of a set of two, was built by Italian artist Matteo Bartolani in 1588 and is meant to represent Rome's Tiber River. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Castel Sant'Angelo

    Castel Sant'Angelo, sitting above the Tiber River, was built by the Emperor Hadrian as a tomb for himself and his successors. The Mausoleum was later completed by Antoninus Pius in 139 A.D. (Robert Harding / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Trevi Fountain

    Legend has it that if a visitor throws a coin into the Trevi Fountain in Rome, he or she is ensured a return. About 3,000 euros are tossed into the fountain each day, according to the BBC. (Sharon Lee / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Capitole Museum

    Antique statue fragments sit inside the Capitole Museum yard, located at the Square of Campidoglio, in Rome. The Capitole Museum contains an antique collection began in 1471 by pope Sixte IV. (Gerard Julien / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Basilica's interior

    Shafts of light fill the interior of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Tourists who plan to visit the basilica should take note of a strictly enforced dress code, which includes no shorts, bare shoulders or miniskirts. (Kazuyoshi Nomachi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Sistine Chapel

    The ceiling of Sistine Chapel was painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Images on the ceiling depict scenes from the book of Genesis, and the walls are covered with Renaissance frescoes created by other artists. (Jim Zuckerman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Vatican Museum

    The main staircase of Vatican Museum forms a tightening spiral as it descends. The museum is located in the Vatican Palace, which popes have called home since the 1300s. (Peter Adams / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The Pantheon

    The Pantheon, according to the Web site italyguides.it, is the Roman monument that holds the most and best preserved records, and is "the most copied and imitated of all ancient works." (Glenn Beanland / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Museo D'arte Contemporanea Di Roma

    The Museo D'arte Contemporanea Di Roma (MACRO) houses a permanent art collection that includes "some of the most significant expressions characterizing the Italian art scene since the 1960s," its Web site claims. (Paolo Cordelli / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Villa Medicis

    Villa Medicis is a 16th Century garden located on the Pincian Hill at the top of the Spanish Steps. The gardens are complemented by statues and fountains. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Villa Borghese

    The area now known as Villa Borghese was originally started as a vineyard in the 1500s, but was purchased by cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, in 1605 and turned into a park. Rome obtained Villa Borghese in 1903, and it was opened to the public. (Will Salter / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Piazza Navona

    People take a freshly brewed espresso at a cafe terrace on Piazza Navona in Rome during the "Espresso Italiano day 2009." Italians drink some 70 million cups of coffee at the bars every day, according to the figures given by the National Institute of Italian Espresso. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Rome from above

    This aerial shot of Rome shows the Vittoriano Monument, dedicaded to the Italian king Vittorio Emmanuelle II, in the background. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Via Condotti

    Italian shoppers browse at Via Condotti, which is the home to some of the world's most famous designer boutiques, in Rome. (Franco Origlia / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Spanish Steps

    The Spanish Steps connect Piazza di Spagna to Trinita dei Monti, a French church. Once a gathering place for beautiful men and women hoping to be chosen as artists' models, the Spanish Steps are now used as a catwalk for an annual summertime fashion show. (Tony Burns / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Altar of Peace

    The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Peace, dates back to 9 B.C. The altar was built to celebrate the advent of peace under the reign of Augustus, Rome's first emperor. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Vittorio Emmanuele II monument

    The Vittorio Emmanuele II monument is seen at sunset. With nearly 3,000 years of history, Rome continues to live up to its motto of "The Eternal City," being one of the founding cities of Western civilization. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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