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Florence is famous amongst tourists for her glorious artwork and her cultural heritage; she is celebrated for the Humanist movement and aestheticism by scholars and lovers of Classicism alike (classicism is a movement which Florentine artists have always regarded highly and plays a large part in their work). All these things combine to make the city what it is today. Although she is a small city, and, in some aspects rather provincial, she is at the same time a meeting place for visitors and ex-pats of all ages and nationalities.

The historic city centre is most representative of Florence today. This area is inhabited less and less by Florentines, while the number of students living here is gradually increasing. Some of these are Italian, but most are American. The city centre is developed according to an urban plan which is based upon the 'cardo' and 'decumano' road system implemented by the Romans.

Here you will see the enormous, imposing structure of the Duomo, with its Brunelleschian cupola which is a distinguishing feature in any panoramic view of this city full of historic monuments. The city has also preserved its Medieval network of streets, along which are situated the regular, geometric Renaissance palaces such as Palazzo Strozzi and Palazzo Medici-Riccardi which once belonged to Florence's powerful, oligarchical families.

Florence is divided into five districts, out of which the historic city centre is of the greatest interest to tourists. It is itself divided into four sections, corresponding to the Medieval layout of the city. These are: San Giovanni, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella and Santo Spirito Oltrarno.

The Historic city centre
San Giovanni

This is named after the Patron of Florence, St John the Baptist, in whose honour the Baptistery was built. This area covers most of the historic city centre and is now - in line with the new commercial boom - full of exclusive boutiques which are concentrated in a few of the most well-known streets, such as Via Calzaiuoli which links the 'Duomo' to the Piazza della Signoria. The university and the Tribunale di Firenze (which is housed in the Complesso di San Filippo Neri) are also in this district.

Santa Maria Novella
This district is named after the Santa Maria Novella church ' a Dominican basilica and important cultural centre during the Middle Ages. The train station of the same name ' designed in the 1930s by the young architect Michelucci ' is also situated nearby. Not far from the station is the Basso Fortress, which is now used as an important centre for conferences, conventions and exhibitions (such as, amongst others, the one by the fashion company 'Pitti Moda'). Along the western slope of the river Arno, stretches the delle Cascine Park, one of the city's green oases. In this area lies a street which is famous for being home to some of Italy's most prestigious designer labels, Via Tornabuoni, where amongst others, you will find Gucci, Versace and the Florentine Ferragamo.

Santa Croce
The Santa Croce church gives its name to the eastern part of the historic city centre. The church itself is a Medieval Franciscan basilica. It is bounded by the National Central Library which was built in the tenth century.

Santo Spirito Oltrarno
This district runs from San Frediano to San Niccolò Oltrarno, but its heart is probably the Piazza Santo Spirito, - which has retained much of its historic charm. It is full of artist's workshops which appeared immediately after the war. This piazza is also characterised by parties on summer evenings, which bring together young Florentines and foreigners, many of whom live in this area. The Pitti Palace with its old Medicean garden and the Boboli Garden which extends all the way to the Belvedere Fort at the top of a hill, are both in Oltrarno. Atop the other hill in this district, is the famous piazza with the panoramic view - Piazzale Michelangelo. From here, it is possible to see one of the few remaining stretches of Medieval wall around the Belvedere Fort which was spared from demolition in the nineteenth century, as is the stretch which is still visible near the Roman Gate.

Beyond the final ring of city walls, stands 'the city outside the walls'. If few Florentines live in the historic city centre, there are many more who live in this district and in the rest of the 'city outside the walls', which was replaced by a network of ring roads during the nineteenth century:

Campo di Marte
The Campo di Marte district lies on the north-eastern side, and is home to many historical buildings dating back to the turn of the century, as well as to many modern blocks of flats in cement and stone which were built from the fifties onwards. There are also numerous sports venues: several swimming pools and the Franchi Stadium. In Campo di Marte, you will also find both the 'delle Cure' area from where you can get to Fiesole, and the Bellariva area which once made up the Piagentina countryside ' which always induced feelings of nostalgia in Tuscan painters.

This district lies south of the Arno where it meets the southern hills just before the Chiantigiana road which leads to the Chianti wine region. On the south-western side, the district takes in the urban agglomeration of Galluzo, which is famous for its Carthusian monastery.

Isolotto e Legnaia
This district unites 'l'Isoloto' and 'Legnaia' as well as other parts of the city which were developed during the sixties and seventies and are still expanding westwards. The 'Isoletto' district in particular was once the scene of various clashes and social unrest during the sixties. Even now, the problem (typical of over-crowded suburbs everywhere) has not completely gone away, despite a seemingly widespread air of contentment.

Rifredi is in the north-western part of the city, where, from the fifteenth century onwards, the Medici family had built their country villas, such as Villa di Careggi, Villa di Castello and the La Petraia Villa in the Castello region. In this district you will also find the industrialised residential areas of Novoli, Firenze Nova, Brozzi, Le Piagge and l'Olmatello ' these last ones having such poor infrastructures that they have almost been relegated to the status of commuter towns. Brozzi has a high number of Chinese immigrants and is therefore representative of the new multi-ethnic towns, as are several parts of the city centre such as Piazza Santa Maria Novella where you will often see many Somalian and Eritrean immigrants.
The ever-increasing number of immigrants coming from all over the world and their sometimes enforced co-habitation with local residents, represents one of the key elements of the major changes which are taking place ' changes that are not without social tensions. This is a portent of the multi-cultural society of the future, possible even in a city like Florence which is so over-shadowed by its historical identity and wary of change.

History of Florence

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.

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