Florence (Italian: Firenze) is the capital of the region of Tuscany in Italy, with a population of about 366,500. The city is a cultural, artistic and architectural gem, and is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Florence was the home to powerful families, creative geniuses and scientific masterminds who left their legacies in the city’s many museums and art galleries. The city also has a very rich literary history, being the birthplace of the famous poet Dante, and standard Italian today is primarily based on the dialect of Tuscan spoken in Florence.

For other places with the same name, see Florence (disambiguation).

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The Duomo, officially Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, is the fourth largest church in Europe, with the biggest brickwork dome in the world

Politically, economically, and culturally, Florence was the most important city in Europe for around 250 years, from some time before 1300 until the early 1500s.

Florentines reinvented money, in the form of the gold florin. This currency was the engine that drove Europe out of the “Dark Ages”, a term invented by Petrarch, a Florentine whose family had been exiled to Arezzo. They financed the development of industry all over Europe, from Britain to Bruges, Lyon and Hungary. They financed the English kings during the Hundred Years’ War. They financed the papacy, including the construction of the papal palace in Avignon, and the reconstruction of St. Peter’s and the Vatican when the papacy returned to Rome from the “Babylonian captivity”.

Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio pioneered the use of the vernacular — the use of a locally spoken language, rather than Latin, and in their case, it was Tuscan, which, because of them, became the standard Italian language. Because Dante, et al., wrote in Tuscan, Geoffrey Chaucer, who spent a lot of time in Northern Italy and who used some of Boccaccio’s little stories to inspire his Canterbury Tales, wrote in English. Others started writing in French and Spanish. This was the beginning of the end of Latin as a common language throughout Europe.

The Florentines, perhaps most notably Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1466) and Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), invented both Renaissance and neoclassical architecture. These architectural styles revolutionised the way Rome, London, Paris and every other major city in Europe, from Barcelona to St. Petersburg, were built.

Florentines were the driving force behind the Age of Discovery. Florentine bankers financed Henry the Navigator and the Portuguese explorers, who pioneered the route around Africa to India and the Far East. It was a map drawn by the Florentine Paulo del Pozzo Toscanelli, a student of Brunelleschi, that Columbus used to sell his “enterprise” to the Spanish monarchs, and which he then used on his first voyage. Mercator’s famous “Projection” is a refined version of Toscanelli’s map, taking into account the Americas, of which the Florentine was obviously ignorant. The western hemisphere itself is named after a Florentine writer who claimed to be an explorer and mapmaker, Amerigo Vespucci.

Bridges over the Arno

Galileo and other scientists pioneered the study of optics, ballistics, astronomy, anatomy, and so on. Pico della Mirandola, Leonardo Bruni, Machiavelli, and many others laid the groundwork for our understanding of political science.

Opera was invented in Florence.

And that is just a smidgen of what went on in this city, which never had a population above 60,000 from the first attack of the plague in 1348 until long, long after it became unimportant.

And there were the Medici, perhaps the most important family that ever lived. The Medicis changed the world more than any other family. Forget all the art for which they paid. They taught first the other Italians, and then the rest of the Europeans, how to conduct statecraft. For example, Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589) married Henry II of France (reigned 1547-1559). After he died, Catherine ruled France as regent for her young sons, and was instrumental in turning France into Europe’s first nation-state. She brought the Renaissance into France, introducing everything from the châteaux of the Loire to the fork. She also was, to 16th and 17th century European royalty, what Queen Victoria was to the 19th and 20th centuries – everybody’s grandmama. Her children included three kings of France, Francis II (ruled 1559-1560), Charles IX (ruled 1560-1574) and Henry III (ruled 1574-1589). Her children-in-law included a fourth king of France, Henry IV (ruled 1589-1610), plus Elizabeth of Hapsburg, Philip II of Spain (of Armada fame), and Mary Queen of Scots.

And that is without mentioning any “artists”. From Arnolfo and Cimabue to Giotto, Nanni di Banco, and Uccello; through Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello and Masaccio and the various della Robbias; through Fra Angelico and Sandro Botticelli and Piero della Francesca, and on to Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, the Florentines dominated the visual arts like nobody before or since. And this list does not include many who, in any other place, would be considered among the greatest of artists, but in Florence must be considered among the near-great: Benvenuto Cellini, Andrea del Sarto, Benozzo Gozzoli, Giorgio Vasari, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Fra Lippo Lippi, Buontalenti, Orcagna, Pollaiuolo, Filippino Lippi, Andrea del Verrocchio, Bronzino, Desiderio da Settignano, Michelozzo, the Rossellis, the Sangallos, Pontormo. And this list does not include the prolific Ignoto. Nor does it include the near-Florentines, such as Raphael, Andrea Pisano, Giambologna, the wonderfully nicknamed Sodoma and so many more, such as Peter-Paul Rubens, all of whom spent time in Florence and were educated by it.

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