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Florence: Birthplace of the Renaissance

An Insight into Florentine Buildings

sunny 34 °C

Florence is a city full of amazing History. It is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, a period stretching from 1300-1600 where the arts were developed further than ever before and Roman ideals represented to society. This was particularly evident in the buildings, portraiture and sculpture commissioned.

The 14th Century threat to Florentine Independence by the Visconti duke left an impression on the people of Florence; the city began to stand for something. Liberty was seen as a quality of a republic and the civic pride extended to the urban fabric. Florentines began to go public with their private wealth, and men were given respect and authority by their visual expression of wealth. Humanists at the time believed that those who were well educated and wealthy should promote learning to others. This is why there was such a large patronage network in the city, particularly in the 15th and 16th Century, and in Florence this was mostly led by the Medici family who employed the best artists. These creations whilst serving to educate also were made very extravagant and beautiful, the more money one had, the better the quality and the size and everyone could see the extent of one's wealth.
Below is an excerpt from my university dissertation, describing in detail the use of art in Renaissance Florentine culture:

"Conspicuous consumption was essential to the elites as a means of differentiation, either from ‘equals (therefore rivals), or social inferiors’. The competition that existed in the upper hierarchy for one to be associated with magnificence and grandeur was extraordinary. Vasari ‘recalled a ruthlessly competitive atmosphere fuelled by constant criticism, a high regard for quality, a limited marketplace, and personal ambition’ . In a city where social mobility was fluid, the display of wealth was seen to aid the advance of social status."

Conspicuous consumption was basically the spending of large amounts of money on luxury goods e.g., fine clothes, jewellery, great houses, decoration etc, in order to publicly display one's wealth and power status in the hope to either advance or maintain someone's social status. One area this was very evident was in the buildings and palaces of Florence.


The buildings of Florence are fascinating, beautiful and functional. Many buildings and interiors follow Renaissance architectural concepts of balance, proportion, geometry, and symmetry. The Renaissance saw the rebirth of Roman and Greek architectural styles with the use of columns, pilasters, lintels and open style loggias, mixed with more medieval designs such as arches, niches and aedicules.
In Florence palaces opened up a world of private space as an appropriate theatre to display one's wealth and families often had their crest displayed on their palace and also on other work they commissioned. The Medici family were bankers and gained their power and social status through networking. They commanded a lot of power and had great influence throughout the city. They showed this in the building of the Medici Palace right in the centre of the city where land was coveted. The Pitti family, in an attempt to match this statement of the Medici built their own large Palace. However due to land restrictions they built it on the other side of the river, and the building was sold in 1549 and bought by Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo I de'Medici. The Palazzo Pitti was then extended and the famously beautiful Boboli Gardens added. The gardens themselves are beautiful! There are green gardens, pathways, fountains, statues, all very varied and there is a wonderful view from the top stretch of grass and the entrance fee is only a few euros.


The Medici Palace follows the Renaissance ideal of the harmony of three-> three tiers to the building. Likewise the Pitti Palace located across the Arno River on the other side of the city also has three tiers in its design.


When you walk round the city and pass by these palaces it is strange to imagine them being lived in. It is easy to transport yourself back into that time as the buildings are still so full of life. I found them so awe inspiring, and never got bored at looking round each one as each held a story.

Medici Palace

With this culture of conspicuous consumption there was a boom in church building as families wanted their own chapels to display their wealth. Therefore in the 13th Century additions were added to existing churches and in the 15th Century many churches were built or remodelled to accommodate the demand. The chapels in the churches belonged to private persons and were often the resting place of a family member, usually within a church they had commissioned. The chapels themselves were very intricate, expensive, and well decorated, often seen as a sort of family investment for future generations. They usually contained statues or paintings commissioned by the greatest artists of the time. If you ever get the chance to visit Florence, these chapels are worth seeking out. The paintings are sometimes quite famous pieces and you get the chance to see them in their original setting rather than in a museum or art gallery, which nowadays is rare. My favourite is Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation located in the church of San Lorenzo. Its quite strange to see it just hanging there on the wall of the church.

The Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore is the great cathedral of Florence. The Duomo was begun in 1296 but the dome was not complete until 1436 by Filippo Brunelleschi and exterior until 1887. The byzantine and gothic influences are very evident here, parts looking very similar to Notre Dame in Paris. It is an amazingly big building, and it is surrounded by street artists and people selling artwork which are great to have a nosey round. The interior contains very Gothic but also signs of Renaissance style architecture through the arches, columns and ceiling patterns. However compared to most Florentine churches this one is quite bare; there are few paintings and religious imagery which are in abundance in churches such as the Santa Maria Novella. The Santa Maria Novella and San Lorenzo are two churches that are the epitome of the Renaissance architecture. Full of paintings, statues, arches, and roman facades they are truly pieces of renaissance mastery and amazing churches to walk around.

Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore


Santa Maria Novella

Florence Sightseeing

To really appreciate this city do your homework! Read up on the city's history so you understand the basics of what happened. A lot of the sightseeing is museums, art galleries, or buildings so you want to actually know what you're seeing.
OR read Dan Brown's 'Inferno'. Its a great book and will strike your interest immediately and you can then search the city for the real sights mentioned in the book! :)
There is a tasty gelato shop in the Piazza Signoria directly opposite the Loggia Dei Lanzi- best in the city we found!
Be prepared to buy lots of water in the summer. The city can get really humid (35C when we were there!) water fountains are few and bottles cost €1-2 each.

I know I haven't come close to giving these buildings the justice they deserve in this post, but I hope I have given a small insight into the magnificence of these buildings and of the importance they held to people at the time.

Jen x

'The Preservation of an Ideal', The University of Sheffield, Alman, Jenniffer (2012).
Patricia Lee Rubin, Images and Identity in Fifteenth-century Florence, (Singapore, 2007), p.xii.

Posted by Jen_Ingrid 13:08 Archived in Italy Tagged church italy florence portrait painting renaissance

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