Any time I travel I like to get some basic information on my chosen destination. Florence’s history is so rich it can sometimes seem daunting to even begin learning the ins and outs of its past. Here is a simple fact sheet and some really basic historical info that will help you feel a bit more oriented when you arrive.
Current population over 365,000
The city gained wealth and notoriety due to the fact that it was the center of finance and trade in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.
From 1865-1870, it was the capital of Italy. This had an affect on many later additions and changes made to the city’s appearance, most notably in Piazza della Repubblica.
Florence, or Florentia (the flourishing) was established as an army camp in 59 BC by Julius Caesar. Its original layout is according to standard army camp design in ancient Rome. At the center of these camps are two main roads, running perpendicular to each other. The forum could be found at the point where these two streets crossed along with the major religious facilities of the city. Florence’s old forum is now the piazza known as Piazza della Reppulica. Because this camp was on a main route to Rome, it soon became a major commercial center.
In the 13th century there was a battle between two major groups in the medieval city: the nobles (who had moved from the countryside to the prosperous city for the benefit of increased protection) and the merchant class. These two groups split and each picked different backing parties. The Guelfs, or the merchant class, had the pope on their side, while the nobles, called Ghibillines, had the Holy Roman Emperor behind them. Eventually, the Guelfs won and so began the first Florentine republic, which eventually became into a guild-driven system of government.
It was during this time, the early 1290’s, that we find the next era of building taking place in Florence. Buildings built or begun at this time include the Palazzo Vecchio, the Duomo, Santa Croce, and Santa Maria Novella.
In 1348 the Black Death cut the city’s population in half.
From start to finish, the history of the Florentine republic is continuously interrupted by the famous Florentine banking family of the Medici. The father of the whole family was Cosimo il Vecchio, who took over in 1434 from his father Giovanni di Bicci dei Medici. The next significant Medici was his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent, who came into power in 1469 and before his death in 1492, created a kind of golden age of Renaissance art and patronage in Florence.
While ruling more or less from behind the scenes, the Medici finally took full control of the city as Dukes in 1531. The first Duke, Alessandro, was assassinated in 1537 and the Medici were forced to turn to an alternate branch of the family to continue. The man who took over, Duke Cosimo I, came to power at the age of 18 and ruled until he was 55. By the time he was done the Dukes of Florence were now Grand Dukes of Tusancy and the family continued to rule for another two centuries.
The family died out in the 18th century. The most significant detail of the end of the Medici dynasty was a document known as the Patto di Famiglia, which willed all the personal property of the Medici to the Tuscan state, with the stipulation that nothing was ever to be removed from the city. It is thanks to this document, signed by Ann Maria Luisa, the last of the line, that brings so many tourists to Florence each year to see so many treasure confined to one magnificent city.