Florence: Birthplace of the Renaissance in a Magnificent UNESCO World Heritage City

by | Aug 18, 2016 | Europe, Florence, Italy | 2 comments

Florence: This is where it all began

Florence is the epicentre of the Renaissance. Say goodbye to the dark ages. Say hello to a cultural rebirth.

Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus symbolizes a cultural rebirth where artists began to use light, shadow and perspective to depict beauty.

Masterpieces by all the heavy hitters of the Renaissance are in the Uffizi Gallery.

The Cultural Rebirth of the Renaissance started in the Florence Baptistery

Fittingly, the cultural rebirth of the Renaissance can be pinpointed to a precise time and place: the Florence Baptistery. This is a beautiful octagonal building just across from the Duomo.

In 1401, a competition was announced to design signature doors for the Baptistery. Many artists entered the competition, including two rival geniuses: Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. Ghiberti, at age 23, won.

Ghiberti spent the next 21 years on his doors. He became a celebrity and was showered with commissions, including a commission for another set of doors for the Baptistery. He used the newly discovered principles of perspective to give depth to these doors. When Michelangelo saw the doors, he said

These doors are fit to be the Gates of Paradise.

The doors have been called the Gates of Paradise ever since.

It took Ghiberti 27 years to complete the Gates of Paradise. He was a young man when he started the first set of doors; he was an old man when he was done.

Over 400 years later, Rodin was commissioned to create a monumental set of doors with a theme from Dante’s Inferno. Rodin’s inspiration came from the Gates of Paradise. Rodin created The Gates of Hell. Rodin worked on his doors for 37 years, until his death. You can find a photo of The Gates of Hell in an earlier blog when we visited Rodin’s Sculpture Garden in Paris.

If you want to see the doors, go the Baptistery. However, these are not the real doors. These are exact copies.

Ghiberti’s First set of doors for the Florence Baptistery

We set off to see the real doors. They are in a museum just around the corner from the Duomo, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.

This photo shows Ghiberti’s first set of door that took 21 years to complete. A replica of these doors in the Baptistery, but I didn’t get a photo….guess a photo of the real doors will have to do!

My photo got photobombed by a stranger but at least this helps to see the massive scale of the doors.

The Gates of Paradise

This is Ghiberti’s magnificent Gates of Paradise. It is just wondrous to see the real doors.

If you want to experience the artwork that started the Renaissance, it is great to see the replica doors in the Baptistery and then the real doors in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.


Can you top this selfie?

Ghiberti included the ultimate selfie in the Gates of Paradise. The central bust in the middle of the door is Ghiberti. No disappearing snap chat for Ghiberti.

The bust on the right is his father.

After seeing the Gates of Paradise, our next stop was to see the masterpiece by the man who coined the term Gates of Paradise: Michelangelo and his David.

Michelangelo is the quintessential Renaissance Man


David is his masterpiece


Michelangelo’s mother died when he was six years old. He was sent to live in a town near Florence with his nanny and her husband, a stonecutter. This is where Michelangelo found his love for marble.

Michelangelo returned to Florence when he was a teenager. A powerful patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici, sponsored Michelangelo’s education in art. Lorenzo de’ Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, was the de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic and a great patron of the Renaissance.

Michelangelo won the commission to sculpt David when he was 26 years old.

David’s Glare is a warning

The original plan called for the sculpture to be placed on the roof of the Duomo, with David’s glare turned towards Rome as a warning to respect Florence’s civil liberties. However, the plan to hoist a 6-ton statue to the roof was quickly abandoned. Instead, David was placed in front of City Hall. After centuries of damage from exposure to the elements, David was moved to the Accademia Gallery, where he stands today in all his glory and perfection.

The New York Times Magazine just published a wonderful feature story on David. The author, Sam Anderson, describes his first time seeing David

When I first saw the David in person, the only word that came to mind was “perfect.” Why hadn’t anyone ever told me he was perfect? I was 20 years old, exhausted, unwashed, traveling for the first time ever, ignorant of almost everything worth knowing. “Perfect,” I know now, is not a terribly original response to the statue, nor a very precise one, but in that moment it filled my mind.


Standing in front of the David was, by far, the most powerful experience I had ever had with a work of art. The statue is gigantic: 17 feet tall, three times the size of an actual man, the height of a mature giraffe — another fact that no one had ever told me. I had always assumed, based on the images, that the David was life-size.


He was a giant marble god, except he wasn’t a god; he was a man, but then of course he wasn’t really a man either; he was white stone — but the stone looked somehow soft, like flesh, and the hard-soft marble curved and rippled into muscles and vein.

There is a replica of David in front of City Hall. There is another that overlooks Florence in Piazzale Michelangelo. It is much better to experience the real David.

Is David holding a stone?

There is a buffer zone so that visitors cannot get too close to David. In 1991, a man attacked David with a hammer, damaging the toes of his left foot.

Apart from the glass barrier, you can walk all around the statue.

Our guide told us that there is some controversy over whether David is about to throw a stone or has already thrown the stone. I wanted to see for myself if David is holding a stone.

Here is my photo of David’s hand. Is he holding a stone?

You can click on the image to enlarge it.

A selfie by Michelangelo

Michelangelo carved David out of a giant and imperfect block of marble that had been neglected for 25 years.

For all future statues, Michelangelo personally selected the marble. To ensure that his piece was actually delivered, he carved a selfie in it. Our guide told us where to look for one of Michelangelo’s selfies on a piece of marble.

The Renaissance was almost derailed

The Bonfire of the Vanities almost destroyed the Renaissance. A Dominican priest, Girolamo Savonarola, came to work in Florence at the request of Lorenzo de’Medici, the great patron of the Renaissance. Savonarola turned on his benefactor and used his power to campaign against what he considered to be excesses of the Renaissance.

In a deeply religious society, it was easy for Savonarola to point to examples of what would happen to the damned. The photo here shows a small section of the stunning mosaics in the Baptistery. This vision of Satan shows hell, in gory detail.

Savonarola became a foremost enemy of the Medici house, leading to their downfall. He regularly held Bonfires of the Vanities, burning irreplaceable artwork, books, musical instruments and other priceless works from the age of enlightenment.

The creator of the Bonfire of the Vanities was burned to death

Savonarola was burned to death in 1498. This plaque in the main square of Florence in front of City Hall marks where he was engulfed in flames.

The death of Savonarola opened the door for Michelangelo to create his masterpiece and for the Renaissance to flourish.


Michelangelo is interred in Santa Croce

Michelangelo died in Rome at the age of 88. His final request was to be buried in his beloved Florence. His tomb is in the Basilica of Santa Croce.

Santa Croce Basilica is the Temple of Italian Glories

Santa Croce is known as the Temple of Italian Glories because of all the famous Italians buried there.

Santa Croce was built at the height of the Renaissance. A new facade was added in the 19th century, designed by Jewish architect, Niccolo Matas. He included a beautiful Star of David in his design.

If you are in Santa Croce Square, ask a local to point out the high water markers from a devastating flood in 1966 that killed 101 people and damaged or destroyed millions of masterpieces. At its worst, the waters rose 22 feet in Santa Croce Square.

Many people and organizations came together to save and restore Florence’s masterpieces. A group dubbed the “Mud Angels” rallied around a professor to help clean mud and oil from the city and its masterpieces. One of the Mud Angels was on our tour.

Many great works of art have not yet been restored. Lack of funding is a major obstacle.


Go to Florence if you can.

See the great masterpieces of the Renaissance.

Experience a rebirth.


Next week: All Roads Lead to Rome





Rose Ann MacGillivray

Rose Ann MacGillivray

World Heritage Traveller at BoomerVoice.ca
I love visiting World Heritage Sites, celebrating the world’s most fascinating places and cultures, and most of all, having fun on a trip. Join me on the road to fun and fascinating places. Thanks for reading – and remember to add your e-mail below for updates!
Rose Ann MacGillivray

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