History of Florence

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Small archaeological finds from the prehistoric era bear witness to the presence of a human civilisation during the Neolithic period. It is possible to state with some certainty that during the eighth century B.C., a primitive settlement lived in the valley, at the point where the Arno is most easily crossed. The settlement was sheltered behind the hills, and it was on one of these hills that the ancient Etruscan city of Fiesole rose up in the fifth century B.C. Testimonies of contemporary inhabitants during the Etruscan period provide further evidence of this, supported by the fact that the settlement was built in a strategic position with respect to the traffic migrating towards the Appenines and towards the river valley.

'Florentia' officially became a Roman colony in 59 B.C. and was designed in accordance with the typical Roman 'castro' road scheme, with a 'cardo' and a decumanus which are still distinguishable in the structure of the town today: the 'cardo' runs along the axis which descends to Via Roma from the Baptistery and then continues to Via Calimala, while the 'decumano' extends in a perpendicular direction from Via del Corso to Via degli Speziali until it reaches Via degli Strozzi. The Forum was built at the point where the two meet, on what is now the Piazza della Reppubblica. Florence then became the most important city in Roman Tuscany.

At the time of the Barbarians, Florence was first besieged by the Goths, and then defeated by the 'Silicone',  the point at which many historians believe that Christianity was adopted in the area. The first churches appeared outside the Roman walls of 'Florentia'; San Lorenzo and Santa Felicita were built during the fourth century A.D. In the fifth century A.D., the city was conquered by the Ostrogoths, from whom it was liberated by the Byzantine army. In the following century, it became part of the Longobardic kingdom.

The Carolingian epoch, during which one hears of the existence of the 'Battistero di San Giovanni', signalled the halt of the territorial expansion. Between the ninth and tenth centuries, the economic and cultural life of the city began to prosper, with the construction of numerous religious buildings such as the 'Badia Fiorentina' which was inaugurated by the Marquise Matilda, as well as many public works such as the city walls which were built in 1078 act as a testimony to the major urban development that was taking place.

Florence's autonomy and wealth developed at such a pace that a second set of city walls had to be built between 1173 and 1175. For the first time, the limits of the city walls included the 'Oltrarno' while inside the city itself, buildings were in a Romanesque style, particularly the church of San Miniato and the Santi Apostoli church, amongst others. Florentine craftsmen became involved in the textile trade (beginning with the trading of wool and silk) which lead to a gradual urbanisation.

This urbanisation is considered to be one of the causes for political tension between two anatagonistic political factions in the thirteenth century: the Guelphs (heirs of the feudal culture and followers of the Pope) and the Ghibellines (often members of a Florentine 'Corporation of Arts and Crafts' who supported the Emperor). Dante was a Ghibelline who then took the side of the white Guelphs and became hostile to the black Guelphs, when, after a first heavy defeat, followed by the expulsion of the Ghibellines, there was a split and the 'whites' began supporting the Emperor and the 'blacks' supported the Pope.

At the end of the thirteenth century, despite the continuing political battles within the Florentine Commune, territorial supremacy was grabbed from neighbouring cities (Pisa, Arezzo, Siena, Volterra) and, from an architectural point of view, several milestones were achieved in the civil and religious life of the city. A major player in this cultural revolution was the architect Arnolfo di Cambio who designed the Palazzo dei Priori (which became the Palazzo della Signoria a century later) and also began working on the reconstruction of the Cathedrale Santa Maria del Fiore, which was completed in successive centuries. Arnolfo also continued with the construction of the third and last set of city walls (1284-1333).

After the famous plague, which decimated the population in 1348, social and political conflicts continued to manifest themselves ' even more violently than before, culminating in the 'Ciompi Riot'. This involved the poorest stratum of Florentine society vindicating the rule of the city's governor. Meanwhile, the families of the powerful oligarchy (consisting of Florentine merchants and bankers) were already working hard to amass their wealth in order to achive supremacy within the nobility. The Abizi family in particular, attempted to halt the rising political influence of Cosimo il Vecchio de' Medici, who, in the first half of the fifteenth century managed to transform the Republic into a sovereignty, while formally maintaing a republican structure.

A worthy successor to his grandfather, Lorenzo the Magnificent helped to further the political interests of the nobility, while at the same time dedicating himself to his vocation for the arts and philosophy. He had strong links with with powerful allies both at home and abroad, pulling in favours and surrounding herself with important people who became the principle protagonists in a cultural renaissance which became known as Humanism. After the death of Lorenzo in 1492, the city came under the harsh, puritanical leadership of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who was elected to the leadership of the Republic. In 1498 however, he was burned alive on the Piazza delle Signoria by a furious populace.

After several turbulent years of instability, the Florentine Republic formally ceased to exist in 1530. It came under the power of the first Duke of Florence - Alessandro de' Medici. This coup was orchestrated by Pope Clemente VII, son of Giuliano de' Medici and brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent (who was wounded during the Pazzi conspiracy in 1478) and of the Emperor Carlo V.

Cosimo de' Medici, who represented the younger generation of his family, was initially made the second Duke of Florence, and later, pursuing expansionist ambitions aimed at bringing Florence and the glorious House of the Medici to the front of the international political stage, became the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. The territory of Tuscany included the cities of Pisa and Sienna ' whose defeats are recorded for posterity on the walls of the 'Salone de' Cinquecento', in the Palazzo della Signoria which became the Palazzo Vecchio, or 'old palace'. This happened when Cosimo decided to transfer the whole of his family and his retinue to a more spacious residence in the Palazzo Pitti.

The succession of the Grand Dukes of the Medici family continued until the end of the eighteenth century, while Florence was gradually losing the central role it had occupied in preceding centuries and other foreign powers were becoming more and more influential. Finally, the last heir of the Medici family handed over power and all the Medici riches to the House of Lorena, which was linked to the imperial family.

The liberal rule of the House of Lorena meant that Florence regained the respect it had lost in the eyes of foreign powers. Aside from the intervention of the Neapolitan government (1799-1814), the Lorena rule continued until 1859 when Florence was united with the rest of Italy (which became the Kingdom of Italy). Florence was only the capital of this kingdom for a few years (between 1865 and 1871) and the court transferred its official residence to the Palazzo Pitti.

It was during the nineteenth century that a lot or urban design and restructuring was carried out. Amongst these was the construction of embankments along the Arno and of the piazzas in the centre of the new residential districts of Barbano and Mattonaia ( which are now Piazza dell'Indipendenza and Piazza D'Azeglio). These constructions were carried out in the spirit of the times. Amongst the projects carried out at the end of the nineteenth century which were to modify the previous structure of the city was the demolition of the 'arnolfiane' wall and of the Jewish Ghetto, to make way for the construction of a series of ring roads which were to lead to the Piazzale Michelangelo, and the Piazza della Repubblica.

Aside from the importance of the various events and individuals in the culture of the avant-garde, the biggest landmark in the more recent history of Florence was the Second World War. Since then, a lot of reconstruction work has been carried out in the historic city cente which sustained the most damage to its bridges, and to the area inside the 'Ponte Vecchio'. The flood of 1966 further hindered the preservation of valuable Florentine treasures.

Florence's history today is perhaps too strongly linked to that of preceding centuries, and therefore, despite the city's enormous potential it seems to be destined to live in the shadow of its past.