If you’re among those who plan ahead of time, you might want to combine a vacation and pilgrimage to Florence, Italy. Most people visit Florence for its cultural attractions. Strictly speaking, Florence is not a place of pilgrimage in the way Assisi is. Yet so much of Florentine culture is embedded in Renaissance religious history that the city can serve as both a vacation and pilgrimage. In Florence, there is hardly a street or avenue that does not reveal some aspect of faith, whether in its many churches or museums, galleries, libraries, monuments, and even outside private residences. Proud Florentines take all this for granted and in stride. Theirs is a city of sheer beauty.
Florence’s Cultural History
Florence is known as the “Athens of the Middle Ages,” the Italian city shaped by Greek culture. Another of its title, the “cradle of the Renaissance,” is well deserved since ancient culture was re- born there. Florence is the home of the Medici’s who actively promoted and supported the arts in the Renaissance. The city has known turbulence from the provincial wars with other Tuscan cities to the religious tirades of Savonarola and the intrigues of Machiavelli, two famous Florentines. And Galileo lived most of his life in Florence.
Santa Maria Del Fiore, the Brunelleschi Dome, and the Baptistery
There are so many religious sites to take in that only a few can be highlighted in this brief essay. By the end of the fourteenth century, the Florentines were determined to outshine the other Tuscan cathedrals in size and grandeur. This is evident on arriving in Florence by air or by land. One is totally unprepared—taken off guard—by the dome of the main cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore. It dominates the landscape. No matter where you stand in the city, it towers over your shoulder. It is the “largest masonry dome on earth, the masterpiece of Renaissance ingenuity and an unending source of mystery.” These are the opening remarks of the PBS program, “Great Cathedral of Mystery,” presented by Nova.
One of the greatest architectural feats of any historical period, the dome symbolizes power and might from the outside and from within, the vault of heaven. It was built under the supervision of Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). According to modern architects and engineers, the early Renaissance would not have had the materials to permit its building. Yet, Brunelleschi embarked on a feat shrouded in mystery. He left no plans behind him.
Imagine! The cupola has more than four million bricks, weighs 40,000 tons, the size of an average cruise ship, and it is taller than the Statue of Liberty, forty stories above the Cathedral’s floor. Brunelleschi’s laborers worked without scaffolding or safety net using only the tools at hand but followed his untried and novel methods. He was a mere goldsmith who had never built anything. Brunelleschi’s dome hastened the advent of the full Renaissance.
At the site of the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, one can stand before Michelangelo’s Pietà, the statuary he sculpted in his eighties. Wearing a monk’s robe and cowl, he hovers over the Mother of God who tenderly holds the body of her deceased Son. Instead of beholding a young Mother and Divine Son, as he sculpted them in his mid-twenties, Michelangelo’s figures in this statuary reveal elderly characteristics. The statuary invites the visitor to pause before it for several minutes in prayer to contemplate the depth of meaning carved into its very stone.
The cavernous octagonal-shaped Baptistery a few feet from the Cathedral proper is another marvel of architecture that invites meditation. It is about a few hundred years older than the dome and cathedral proper. The most impressive part of the building is its three sets of bronze doors, with biblical relief sculptures by Andrea Pisano and Lorenzo Ghiberti.
The Monastery of San Marco
The Dominican monastery of San Marco draws visitors for one special reason. Each of the monks’ cells in the monastery has on its wall a fresco painted by Fra Angelico, a fifteenth-century Dominican friar. With their unrivalled coloring and naturalism, Fra Angelico brings out the drama of each scene whether of the Annunciation or the meeting of Jesus and Magdalene at the tomb. Each fresco is a work of supreme beauty, a beauty that can come only when the artist is working for the glory of God.
Firenze’s Streets and Avenues
An observant tourist walking along the streets of Florence will notice a few externals that define the city’s identity as “the city of flowers.” One sees not only decorated flower pots adorning the facades outside the homes but also freestanding statues of the Mother of God and Divine Child or of a favorite family saint with fresh flowers honoring them. Florence boasts of many gardens where visitors may enjoy the full array of foliage—shrubs, tall, stately cypress trees, and flowers, especially honeysuckle. These sanctuaries of natural beauty are also places for meditation and prayer.
The city streets are organized according to a definite pattern, named after distinguished Florentines. Streets adjacent to each other bear names of painters such as Masaccio, Cimabue, and Fra Angelico, while other adjacent streets bear the names of sculptors. Likewise with other streets and avenues named after poets, philosophers, and political figures.
Fiesole is the charming village just north of Florence. There are several churches and monasteries in this quaint mountainous setting that deserve exploring. Villas formerly belonging to the Renaissance aristocracy have been transformed into welcoming hotels. Villa I Tatti, The Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, is located on the border between Florence and Fiesole. In addition to its scholar’s library and art collection, the estate is set on beautiful olive groves, vineyards, and gardens.
A number of years ago, I had the opportunity of studying music at Villa Schifanoia, the Pius XII Graduate School of Fine Arts located on a road between Florence proper and Fiesole. This villa, with its beautifully manicured gardens, was purchased by Myron Taylor, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal envoy to the Vatican during the pontificate of Pius XII. A visit to Florence, especially in the springtime, can satisfy cultural and religious interests. A rewarding experience for mind and spirit.