LEARN TO LOVE FLORENCE AND ITS SURROUNDINGS
The history of the Florence region as a whole is barely distinguishable from that of Florence itself, which was founded in 59 B.C. before it was actually built some twenty years later, or from that of the even more ancient city of Fiesole.
Although this city was originally a major Etruscan township which the Romans had colonised in 80 B.C., a wealth of ancient finds from the 15th and 14th centuries B.C. (Middle Bronze Age) exhibited in the Archaeological Museum bear testimony to an even more distant past. Considerable parts of the 3rd century B.C. city walls are still largely intact, as is the large Roman theatre which was probably completed just before the middle of the 1st century A.D. Fiesole also pre-dates Florence as a seat of bishops. Its early 11th-century cathedral and 13th-century bell tower overlook the large square named after the famous Renaissance sculptor Mino da Fiesole.
The Bishop’s Palace (Palazzo Vescovile) situated right opposite the cathedral dates back to the same period, but was rebuilt in the 17th century. The nearby Seminario building was constructed at the close of the same century, as was the road which climbs up as far as the seat of the ancient Etruscan acropolis, San Francesco. It was there that Franciscan friars built a convent in the 14th century and began to put together what today is one of the most important collections of Chinese bronzes extant in Italy (Museo Missionario). On the opposite side of the square, facing the Seminario, are the Town Hall (Palazzo Comunale) and a church (chiesa di Santa Maria Primerana). The Museo Bandini houses a valuable collection of paintings and sculptures (10th-18th centuries), while 19th century documents and works of art are preserved on the premises of the Fondazione Primo Conti.
Among the countless prestigious ancient residences belonging to the main Florence noble families which are dotted around the outskirts of the city, particular mention should be made of the Villa Medici, which was built by Michelozzo at the instigation of Cosimo the Elder in 1458. Halfway along the road from Fiesole to Florence is the 15th century monastery of San Domenico, where Friar Beato Angelico lived and worked. The magnificent altar piece inside the church illustrates scenes from his life. The abbey named Badia Fiesolana stands just below.
Leaving the city of Fiesole and proceeding eastward in the direction of Settignano we reach an impressive 13th century castle, the Castel di Poggio. On a lower level not far from the castle, at Vincigliata, is a church consecrated to Saint. Lawrence (chiesa di San Lorenzo), whose apse is entirely decorated with one of the largest terracotta reliefs in the world, which was carried out by Amalia Dupré.
On the opposite bank of the river Arno stands San Pietro, the earliest Romanesque parish church (pieve) in Bagno a Ripoli. Other parish churches in the same style in the area are San Donnino at Villamagna and Santa Maria dell’Antella. Nearby, at Rimezzano, a noteworthy oratory (Oratorio di Santa Caterina delle Ruote or Oratorio di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria) is entirely frescoed with ‘stories’ of this saint painted in part by Spinello Aretino.
The area boasts numerous castles, among which Belforte, Monte Acuto and Quarate, in addition to many villas once owned by the Medici family (Lappeggi and Mondeggi). On the banks of the Arno the towered 14th century Gualchiere di Remole is the site where cloth was fulled before being taken to Florence for further processing. The Castello di Montauto towering above Grassina belongs to the municipality of Impruneta, which is world-famous for manufacturing terracotta.
The Torre Civica, the municipal tower with its impressive clock, is incorporated in the façade of a church, the Basilica di Santa Maria. Next to the latter is a museum (Museo del Tesoro).
Numerous villas are also found at Impruneta, and the villa di Mezzomonte, on the road towards Florence, has particularly interesting frescoes by Giovanni da San Giovanni, Passignano and Albani.
Past the Ema valley, the municipality of Scandicci extends as far as the banks of the Arno with its numerous mansions and churches. Among the latter, San Martino alla Palma has a beautiful 14th century panel painting of the Holy Virgin with the Infant Jesus. Very old parish churches are those of San Giuliano a Settimo, Sant’Alessandro a Giogoli and San Vincenzo a Torri. Among the villas there, the one known as Collazzi is among the best-known since it is traditionally thought to have been designed by Michelangelo. The Cluniacensian Benedictine monastery (San Salvatore a Settimo), founded in 1004, is among the most important religious complexes in Tuscany.
The Arno river marks the boundary of the municipality of Campi Bisenzio. Its mid-14th century city walls have partly stood the test of time, while next to the ancient bridge on the Bisenzio a beautiful fortified castle forms a magnificent landmark, besides being one of the best-preserved specimens of medieval military architecture in Tuscany. Of the many villas owned by ancient Florence families, that of the Montalvo family is nearest to the town. The nearby village of San Donnino boasts an impressive 15th century church, Sant’Andrea a Brozzi.
In the area which is reached leaving the Autostrada del Sole motorway at the Firenze Nord exit stands the church dedicated to St John the Baptist (chiesa di San Giovanni Battista), which is the work of the architect Michelucci and contains many paintings by major contemporary Italian artists.
The ancient town centre of Calenzano lies right on top of a hill dominated by the Castle. The city walls and two towered city gates which were re-built at the time of the Florence Republic in the mid-14th century bear testimony to the past of this ancient borough, and nearby stands the San Donato hill (named after its ancient parish church). The Museo del Soldatino, a museum exhibiting toy soldiers, along with other historical figurines, is among the few institutions of this kind in Italy. The village of Legri is well-known for its centuries-old Romanesque church.
In the adjoining area of the municipality of Sesto Fiorentino the impressive Etruscan tholos tombs (tomba della Montagnola, tomba della Mula) are evidence that the area was already inhabited between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C.
From among the numerous suburban residences both in the hills and in the plains, the most interesting is perhaps Villa Guicciardini Corsi Salviati, whose design and beautiful garden date back to the 18th century.
The Doccia porcelain museum at Sesto Fiorentino exhibits objects manufactured by the ancient Ginori porcelain factory. In the parish church (pieve di San Martino) situated not far from the massive structures of the town-hall named Palazzetto Pretorio (whose façade is decorated with the coats of arms of the ‘podestas’ who managed the city from the 15th century onward), visitors can admire a beautiful 14th century panel painting with the ‘Crucifix’ which is probably the work of the artist Agnolo Gaddi.