Back in the time of the Etruscans, there was already a settlement on the banks of the Arno, and it was here that the Romans established a veterans' colony for former legionnaires in 59 B.C.; in other words, at the time of Caesar. The colony was named Colonia Florentia, the "blossoming colony": perhaps because the fertile Arno Valley has such an abundance of flowers. There are a number of theories about the true origins of the name, but none of them is really convincing.
Because of its exposed location on the river in the midst of the hilly Tuscan landscape, the settlement was hardly suitable as a military base, so we can assume that right from the start it had primarily an agricultural function. Its defense was secured by the hilltop town of Resole, just a few miles away, an old stronghold of the Etruscans, in whose shadow the Colonia Florentia had a fairly insignificant existence for quite some time.
The earliest ground plan of the city on the right bank of the Arno formed an almost perfect rectangle, the outlines of which still largely correspond to the heart of the Old Town today. Because of its favorable location on the Via Cassia, which ran from Rome through Florence and went on to Lucca, and because of the connecting roads to the other most important cities of what was then the province of Etruria, Florence rapidly developed into an important trade center in the first two hundred years after its foundation. A harbor on the Arno River meant that goods could be transported down to the Mediterranean; and the traders from the East who started settling here brought with them Christianity, which began its steady progress after A.D. 300. The 4th century saw the construction of the first two Christian churches: San Lorenzo, which at that time was located outside the city walls, and Santa Felicita, on the opposite bank of the Arno. As early as the year 313, the first bishop was appointed under Emperor Constantine.
Under the Romans, marble palaces and temples dominated the cityscape, while an aqueduct brought water down from Monte Morelli to supply the city's residents with drinking water and till the public baths. A huge amphitheater was built during the 2nd century A.D.; you can still detect its outlines in the curving facades of the houses on the Via de' Bentaccordi and the Via Torta.
Florence in the Middle Ages
This first flowering, which may have seen the city's population swell to almost 10,000, came to an end in the confusion of the great barbarian migrations. Florence was attacked and devastated by the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines and the Lombards in turn. After the tall of the Roman Empire, traders and merchants stayed away, as the new power constellation meant that trade routes had shifted west and east of the Arno Valley. When the Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, the inhabited part of Florence had shrunk to a small area around the old Roman forum, which lives on today, in shape and size, in the form of the current Piazza della Repubblica.
The only event of importance for the art historian during this period was the first phase of construction of the Santa Reparata, the church which preceded the Cathedral. Work may well also have started on a forerunner of the present Baptistery.
Not until the Franks under Charlemagne conquered large parts of Italy and proclaimed Tuscany a margravate did the economy begin to take off again. In 854, Lothar I combined the two duchies of Florence and Resole and established Florence as the seat of government, which brought with it numerous privileges for the city. Prosperity increased; Florence's population rose to 20,000; and soon the city had spread to take over the left bank of the Arno, as well. The churches of San Lorenzo and Santa Reparata were expanded, and with the construction of the monastery and the basilica of San Miniato, as well as the Baptistery, we have the first manifestations of the Florence Romanesque style. In 978, Willa, the widow of the margrave Umberto, founded the Badia fiorenta and thereby the first monastery in the city.
The clergy, already endowed with large estates, now began to strive for more and more political power, and ecclesiastical offices were sold off to the highest bidder. A monk named Giovanni Gualberto protested against the increasing immorality of the Church, but found little response from the Florentines. He left the city to live as a hermit in the Vallombrosa forest, where he founded the order of the Vallombrosans.
The 11th century was a period marked by the increasing self-confidence of the middle class. Craftsmen, artisans and merchants were gaining in influence. Their struggle for autonomy was, moreover, supported by the margravine Matilda of Canossa, who to protect the Church from secular intervention took the Pope's side in the struggle between the Pope and the Emperor. After her death in 1115, Florence proclaimed a government of its own, which was officially recognized by the Emperor in 1183.
The Period of Communal Constitution
When the empire temporarily lost its grip on Italy after the death of Henry V (1125), nothing more stood in the way of Florence's rise to independence. The conquest and destruction of Resole marked the start of Florence domination of the surrounding territories, a domination which continued to expand. Commerce and trade were growing inexorably, and the city spread rapidly. Contacts with Pisa facilitated sea trade with countries in the eastern Mediterranean.
In the 12th century, Florence proclaimed a communal constitution in which the power of government lay with the aristocracy and leading members of the merchant classes. The social pre-eminence of the nobility was expressed in unmistakable terms by the dynastic residential towers which once dominated the city's skyline. During the savage feuds that raged in the 12th century between various aristocratic families, these towers turned into regular fortresses.
Outside the city, too, there were bloody conflicts with the feudal lords, who were gradually subjugated and stripped of their autonomy.
Disputes between the noble families led to a change in the communal constitution. The business of governing was taken over by a podestd, a professional politician who regulated public affairs on the basis of newly-developed legal standards.
A typical feature of public life in Florence at that time was the formation of various associations, which then proceeded to develop active, and often bitter, rivalries between one another. This resulted in a state of political instability which, however, proved greatly beneficial to the city's cultural development. Since each party was attempting to outdo the next, they all commissioned new buildings which were intended to demonstrate the status and greatness of the group in question. This was the heyday of the Romanesque style in Florence; a style characterized by clear lines, balanced proportions, a restrained use of color and materials (mainly white and green marble), and geometric patterns.
Another major influence on the city's art and culture was exerted by the monastic orders, which had been settling in Florence since the beginning of the 13th century. The Franciscans built a small church on the site of what was later to be the basilica of Santa Croce; the Dominicans established themselves on the western outskirts of the city, where Santa Maria Novella was built towards the end of the century. Both of these churches functioned as schools which soon came to enjoy an international reputation; Dante, in fact, was a pupil here. The squares in front of the churches were arenas for festive celebrations or the competitions that were so popular with the Florentines.
In addition to these two mendicant orders, numerous other religious communities settled in Florence and built their monasteries there. One rather unusual order was the Humiliates, who had immigrated from northern Italy and were later to prove of great economic importance for Florence, turning their hands to the cloth weaving and dyeing trades and maintaining their own workshops.
By far and away the most important of all the associations and organizations which formed in the 13th century were the guilds (arti), associations of merchants and craftsmen. Not only did these guilds control trade and commerce, but they also wielded considerable political power. In addition, they put up money for major artistic projects. The oldest and most influential guild was the Guild of the Calimala, whose trade connections extended from northern Europe to the Near East. Its members were cloth traders, but they were also active as money changers right from the start, and were soon handling not only the banking business of their trade partners but also of entire aristocratic families. This close affiliation between manufacturing, trade and financial matters was a trademark of Florence's economy and the secret of its tremendous success. The concrete symbol of this ascent to financial power was the florin, a gold coin which was first minted in 1252.
The power struggle between the Guelphs, the followers of the Pope, and the Ghibellines, who were loyal to the Emperor, continued to divide the city until the Guelphs finally got the upper hand after the death of Emperor Frederick II in 1250. One of the victims of this feud was Italy's greatest poet, Dante Alighieri, a Ghibelline who was banished from his home town in 1302, and who died in exile in Ravenna 19 years later, a bitter and lonely man.
The prosperity and growing self-confidence of Florence's middle class during the 13th century was expressed in a new need to beautify the city. Numerous squares were enlarged and new streets laid out, which, according to the government's plan, were to be attractive, broad and straight. The Santa Trinita bridge was built at this time. In 1296, work was started on the Duomo, or Cathedral, and the Palazzo Vecchio was begun three years later.
The 14th century, by contrast, was characterized by internal and external conflicts, natural catastrophes and economic collapse. In 1333, a huge flood devastated the city; in 1348, more than a third of the population died after an outbreak of the plague; in 1378, the city's poor rebelled in the so-called Uprising of the Ciompi (wool-carders), who stormed the Palazzo Vecchio and forced the election of Salvestro de' Medici as gonfaloniere (chief magistrate).
After this "proletarian revolution," the city was governed for a short period by the lower classes, but they soon had to relinquish their power to the great families, who Were continuing to become more and more influential, until finally the Medici family took over the reigns of power.
Despite the external difficulties and political instability, the middle class in Florence did still manage, even in this turbulent period, to maintain -and indeed improve - its standard of living, and to continue the beautification of the city.
When the Medicis, a successful family of bankers and merchants, came to power in the city in the year 1434, with Cosimo il Vecchio (the Elder), there began a period of cultural flowering which reached its zenith under Cosimo's grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent, in an era known as the Florence Renaissance.
Names such as Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti come to mind when one thinks of this epoch, which was also the acme of Florence's political power in Italy.
Rivalry among other patrician families came to a head with the Pazzi Conspiracy in the Cathedral on April 26, 1475, in the course of which Lorenzo's brother Giuliano was killed. Even though this attempt to overthrow Medici rule failed, Florence ultimately relinquished its leading position in the arts to Rome.
The inflammatory machinations of the puritanical monk Girolamo Savonarola, who condemned the immoral ways of the Renaissance aristocrats, ultimately led to the Medicis' expulsion from Florence. Savonarola prepared a new republican constitution which remained in effect until 1512. But his sermons against the increasing secularization of the Church attracted the wrath of Pope Alexander VI, and he was burned at the stake in 1498 on the Piazza della Signoria.
The Medicis returned to power in 1512, and several members of the family became popes during the course of the century. Wealth, power and education were at this time in the hands of the aristocracy, who built majestic palaces for themselves and commissioned great works of art. Many other Renaissance masterpieces were also commissioned by the guilds, including Brunelleschi's dome atop the Cathedral.
In 1530, Alessandro de' Medici was appointed Grand Duke of Tuscany by Emperor Charles V, and Florence and Tuscany were to remain under the absolutist control of the Medicis until 1743. When the last member of the dynasty, Gian Gastone, died, the duchy was transferred to Francis I of Lorraine, the husband of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. The Habsburg-Lorraines governed Tuscany until 1859 - with a fifteenyear interruption between 1799 and 1814, when the French, Napoleon's sister Elisa among them, ruled Florence and held court in the city.
In 1859, Grand Duke Leopold II was expelled from Florence, and in 1860 Tuscany relinquished its century-old independence in favor of a unified Italy. Florence was the capital of the Kingdom of Italy from 1865 to 1870, until Victor Emmanuel II moved to Rome.