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Controversy continues over who founded Florence. The most commonly accepted story tells us that Emperor Julius Caesar founded Florentia around 59 BC, making it a strategic garrison on the narrowest crossing of the Arno river and thus controlling the Via Flaminia linking Rome to northern Italy and Gaul (France). Archaeological evidence suggests the presence of an earlier village founded by the Etruscans of Fiesole around 200 BC.

In the 12th century Florence became a free comune (town council), ruled by 12 priori (consuls) assisted by the Consiglio di Cento (Council of One Hundred), drawn mainly from the merchant class. Agitation among differing factions led to the appointment of a foreign head of state (podestà) in 1207.

The first conflicts between two of the factions, the pro-papal Guelphs (Guelfi) and the pro-imperial Ghibellines (Ghibellini), started in the mid-13th century, with power passing from one to the other for almost a century.

In the 1290s the Guelphs split into two: the Neri (Blacks) and Bianchi (Whites). When the Bianchi were defeated, Dante was among those driven into exile in 1302. As the nobility lost ground the Guelph merchant class took control, but trouble was never far away. The plague of 1348 halved the city’s population and the government was rocked by agitation from the lower classes.

In the 14th century Florence was ruled by a caucus of Guelphs under the leadership of the Albizi family. Among the families opposing them were the Medici, who substantially increased their clout when they became the papal bankers.

Cosimo il Vecchio (the Elder, also known simply as Cosimo de’Medici) emerged as head of the opposition to the Albizi in the 15th century and became Florence’s ruler. His eye for talent saw a whole constellation of artists such as Alberti, Brunelleschi, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi flourish.

The rule of Lorenzo il Magnifico (1469–92), Cosimo’s grandson, ushered in the most glorious period of Florentine civilisation and of the Italian Renaissance. His court fostered a flowering of art, music and poetry, turning Florence into Italy’s cultural capital. Not long before Lorenzo’s death, the Medici bank failed and the family was driven out of Florence. The city fell under the control of Savonarola, a Dominican monk who led a puritanical republic, burning the city’s wealth on his ‘bonfire of vanities’. But his lure was short-lived and after falling from favour he was tried as a heretic and executed in 1498.

After the Spanish defeated Florence in 1512, Emperor Charles V married his daughter to Lorenzo’s great-grandson Alessandro de’Medici, whom he made duke of Florence in 1530. Seven years later Cosimo I, one of the last truly capable Medici rulers, took charge, becoming grand duke of Tuscany after Siena fell to Florence in 1569 and ushering in more than 150 years of Medici domination of Tuscany.

In 1737 the grand duchy of Tuscany passed to the French House of Lorraine, which retained control, apart from a brief interruption under Napoleon, until it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Florence briefly became the national capital but Rome assumed the mantle permanently in 1870.

Florence was severely damaged during WWII by the retreating Germans, who blew up all its bridges except the Ponte Vecchio. Floods ravaged the city in 1966; in 1993 the Mafia exploded a massive car bomb, killing five, injuring 37 and destroying a part of Uffizi Gallery. A decade later, the gallery is undergoing its biggest-ever expansion.

From a garrison town built for Roman war veterans, Florence rose to become the hotbed of Renaissance creativity and one of the nerve centres from which modern Western Europe transformed itself after the Middle Ages. The city’s visual splendour stands as testimony to its momentous and colourful past. Since then it has largely languished as a second-tier regional capital – with the exception of a brief stint as Italy’s national capital – living it large on the wealth of its historic and artistic heritage.

The recent past

There are times when, in terms of elections, there just doesn’t seem to be any choice. When Sindaco (Mayor) Leonardo Domenici stood for a second five-year term in 2004 he managed to get in, but only in the second round of voting. A local chieftain of the Democratici di Sinistra (DS) party – the former Communist Party of Italy – and protégé of DS national party boss Massimo d’Alema, Domenici encountered only half-hearted opposition from within the left-wing coalition he heads, and the right-wing opposition has rarely taken power in Florence since free elections were first held in post-WWII Italy. Tuscany, as they say, has always been red.

Politics aside, a national report in 2003 showed that Italy’s main crime organisations, the Sicilian Mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra and ’ndrangheta from Calabria, are increasing their presence in Tuscany. They dedicate themselves to drugs and arms trafficking, extortion, protection rackets and gaining control of construction contracts. That said, criminal activity in Florence seems limited to laundering ill-gotten gains. Other reports suggest dirty cash from the Russian and Chinese mafias is also filtering in to the city.

The Sicilians have been around for a while. In 1993 a massive car bomb exploded in Via de’ Georgofili, killing five people and injuring 37. The blast hit the Uffizi (where the city’s most important gallery is housed), destroying several works. A mere seven years later, the renowned Mafia boss Totò Riina, long in prison for other crimes, was sentenced to still more time for his involvement. Only in 2005 did relatives of the victims finally get civil proceedings against Riina under way.

The Mafia have not been the only bombers in Florence. Terrorists of the left-wing Red Brigades, infamous for the 1978 assassination of the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, brought misery to Florence when they killed Lando Conti, the city’s then mayor, in 1986.

Less dramatic than acts of terror, but with an infinitely greater influence on the city’s life, was a party political decision taken in 1989. After a decade of debate on what direction the city needed to take, the Communist-led government approved an ambitious plan to create a new urban centre, with trade centres, thousands of houses and vast amounts of office space, in empty land in the northwest Castello part of town, owned by the Fondiaria-SAI insurance giant. It was reasoned that a new economic pole would be created close to the airport.

At the same time, plans were also in motion to transform the former FIAT works, closer to the city centre, into another key district of the modern city, destined to house a new university campus (the Nuovo Polo Universitario), Palazzo di Giustizia (courts), housing, offices and parkland.

The Castello project provoked fierce opposition from environmentalists, who soon found allies within the Communist Party. As the debate heated up, stresses on the party grew. Just three days before a definitive vote on the project was due to go before a full session of the municipality, in a move reminiscent of the Cold War days in the Eastern Bloc, national party secretary Achille Ochetto called the Florentine branch and ordered the vote be called off and the project shelved. Only since 2004 has life again been breathed into development ideas for Castello.

On to a darker subject altogether, Florentine tongues still wag about the Monster of Florence. Between 1968 and 1985 six related murders took place in the city, terrifying citizens and baffling the police. A prime suspect, Pietro Pacciani, got a life sentence on flimsy evidence in 1996 and died before his appeal could get under way in 1998. Even today, the police consider Pacciani’s death may itself have been murder, to stop him raising the veil on the real answer to the killings. Some believe these were carried out by a group or sect that used Pacciani as a pawn.

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From the beginning

Neolithic tribes of Liguri from northern Italy are thought to have inhabited the Arno valley where Florence would later be founded. This narrow but navigable stretch of the river was a busy crossing point, although the Etruscans preferred the heights to the valley and established a settlement at Fiesole (Faesulae to the Romans), possibly as early as the 9th century BC. The origins of the Etruscans remain mysterious but by the 6th century BC a dozen or so Etruscan towns had formed a powerful league in central Italy. The small Latin town of Rome was under Etruscan domination for a while, but its people turfed out their Etruscan kings in 509 BC. In the following decades this initially nondescript place began to bring neighbouring settlements under its control and soon felt the need to move against the Etruscans. They started with Veio, which fell in 392 BC. By 265 BC all of Etruria was firmly locked into Rome’s system of conquest and alliance. At that point the peninsula south from modern Tuscany and Umbria was united under Rome.

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By the time Julius Caesar was made a consul in 59 BC, much had changed. By force of arms and diplomacy, Rome had passed from being the head of a federation of two thirds of the Italian peninsula, to master of the greatest empire ever seen, stretching from Spain to the Middle East.

In 88 BC, civil war had induced the Empire to grant full Roman citizenship – and hence substantial equality of rights – to its federated Italian allies, including the Etruscan cities. The flip side was that, henceforth, Roman public and private law, along with the Latin language, came to dominate the peninsula and indigenous cultures were eased out of existence.

In the year he became consul, Caesar established a garrison town for army veterans on the Arno, naming it Florentia (‘the flourishing one’). The project was part of his lex Iulia (which allotted farm plots to veterans) and construction probably began around 30 BC. Whether or not Florentia was built on the site of a pre-existing village remains a matter of learned dispute.

Florentia lay on a strategic river crossing and was laid out in classic Roman form, with the main east–west street, the decumanus, intersected from north to south by the cardo. The first corresponds to Via del Corso and Via degli Strozzi, the latter Via Roma and Via Calimala. Piazza della Repubblica marks the site of the forum. The town walls followed Via del Proconsolo, Via de’ Cerretani, Via de’ Tornabuoni and, to the south, a rough line from Piazza Santa Trinita to the Palazzo Vecchio.

The first significant urban revolution came in the 2nd century AD under Hadrian, who graced the city with baths and an amphitheatre (which occupied most of the site of the Palazzo Vecchio, Via de’ Gondi and part of Palazzo Gondi). Florentia had prospered on the back of brisk maritime trade along the Arno.

Under Diocletian in the late 3rd century, Florentia became the capital of the Regio Tuscia et Umbria (the name Etruria was banned), remaining so until the end of the Empire. The first Christian churches were raised in the following century, although Greco-Syriac merchants had brought the religion to pagan Florentia as early as AD 250, when St Minias (San Miniato) was martyred here.

By now Italy and the Western Roman Empire were in deep trouble. Barbarian invasions came in swift succession in the 5th century and culminated in Theodoric the Ostrogoth’s coronation as king in 493. After a Byzantine interlude under Emperor Justinian, the Lombards came to control much of the northern half of Italy, including the region around Florentia.

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Middle ages

After a period under Lombard rule, the duchy of Tuscia, which covered Tuscany, Umbria, much of Lazio and Corsica, fell under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, created in 800 when Charlemagne was crowned by the pope in Rome. By the end of the 11th century, particularly under the administration of Countess Matilda Canossa, the duchy had achieved considerable independence. Florence, with a population of 20, 000, was a robust regional capital.

The death of Matilda spelled the end of Tuscia as a political unit. In the wake of its disintegration, more-or-less independent and frequently quarrelling city-states emerged in Tuscany. Florence quickly reduced Fiesole to submission in 1123. Fifty years later a new set of defensive walls was built and Florentine troops were battling Sienese soldiers in the Chianti area over boundary disputes.

Emperor Frederick Barbarossa then waltzed into the Italian labyrinth, determined to reestablish imperial control. In Florence in 1173 he decreed the city’s jurisdiction limited to the city intra muros and installed governors in most Tuscan cities. The latter, however, took little notice and pursued their own interests.

By now a system of corporatist government, the comune, was developing, a kind of oligarchy in which the top families (increasingly a mix of landed nobility and the burgeoning merchant class) shared out the leading positions in government, or signoria. Powerful guilds, or arti, had also emerged and would long play a key role in the distribution of power.

Florentine family feuding as early as the 11th century crystallised as two main factions emerged, the pro-imperial Ghibellines (Ghibellini) and the pro-papal Guelphs (Guelfi). Traditionally the spark that set off this powder keg is identified as the murder of Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti, a Guelph, on the south side of the Ponte Vecchio in 1216.

The Guelphs, generally wealthy merchants, sought greater independence than the Holy Roman emperor wished to countenance. The Ghibellines tended to be noble families whose sense of power rested in part on the notion of being part of the imperial order. By 1250 the Guelphs were in the ascendant in Florence and 20 years later had succeeded in having Guelph governors imposed on Siena, Pisa and other Tuscan cities.

Members of the seven senior arti by now furnished the city’s governors, or priori, elected on a two-monthly rotational basis. From their ranks the gonfaloniere (standard-bearer) was selected as a kind of president. Together they formed the signoria and resided in the Palazzo della Signoria (today known as the Palazzo Vecchio) for the duration of their mandate. Representatives of the 14 lesser guilds had no political representation and still less the remaining three-quarters of the population, most of them wage slaves in the most unpleasant of wool industry jobs, like dyeing.

Renewed factional strife saw the reformist Bianchi (Whites) and conservative Neri (Blacks) in conflict over law proposals to block nobles’ access to power in Florence. With French and Papal aid the latter prevailed and the Bianchi (including Dante Alighieri) were exiled.

At around this time, one of the great social-scientific revolutions was quietly taking place: towards the end of the 13th century reading glasses appear to have been invented in Tuscany.

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A plague on Florence & the people revolt

In 1333 Giovanni Villani, the city’s medieval chronicler, reports that a devastating flood ripped through the city, killing many and washing away the Ponte Vecchio. Around the same time the city’s poorest were hard hit by a bout of plague. The city’s response was, first and foremost, to authorise the importation of slaves to fill the shortage of servants in noble households caused by these disasters. These were mostly Turks, Greeks, Tartars and Circassians, bought at the markets of Venice and Genoa, Italy’s major sea ports.

The massive bout of bubonic plague that then swept across Europe in 1348 no doubt further encouraged the practice of slave-ownership – disease halved Florence’s population. Medieval Europeans seem to have had an unlimited capacity for absorbing punishment and over the next 17 years Florence went on the warpath, bringing San Gimignano, Volterra, Pistoia, Prato and Pisa to heel. War and peace were regular as clockwork and by 1430 Florence controlled much of Tuscany.

Quiet times were rare and fleeting. In 1375 a rather nasty band of unemployed mercenaries, led by Essex man Sir John Hawkwood, descended on Florence. In the end, Hawkwood, or Giovanni Acuto as the locals knew him, entered the pay of Florence and remained one of its more capable soldiers.

All the blood-letting, instability, tax rises and food shortages became increasingly hard to bear and a mob revolt in 1378 left city government in the hands, briefly, of the ciompi, as a militant section of the proletariat was known.

To pay more effectively for all its territorial expansion, the Florentines introduced the catasto, the world’s first graduated income-tax system, in the early 15th century. Tax was assessed in proportion to wealth as measured in fixed goods and income-producing potential. Thus, tax avoidance and evasion in the modern sense were also born with the catasto!

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The rise of the Medici

In these first decades of the 15th century, the Albizi family called most of the shots in Florence. It was by now a given that the real power lay with people behind the scenes, not directly in the hands of any one gonfaloniere.

Another family, however, was growing in influence. Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici had steered his bank to becoming one of the most successful investment houses in Europe. His eldest son Cosimo became paterfamilias in 1429, by which time the increasing power of his family so upset the Albizi that they contrived to have him sent into exile in 1433.

The Albizi, however, had miscalculated. Not only were several powerful families allied to Cosimo, but he had enormous international support through his banking network. Within a year Cosimo was back and the Albizi expelled.

The Medici family crest was made up of six palle (balls), which must have been cause for some mirth through the years as Medici supporters would clatter down the street on horseback crying out: ‘Balls! Balls! Balls!’ The word has the same less-than-decorous meaning in Italian as it does in English.

For 30 years Cosimo de’ Medici steered Florence on a course that served to increase the power and prosperity of the city. Although he chose to remain in the background he kept the government stacked with his own people. In the 1450s, Pope Pius II commented that Cosimo was ‘master of all Italy’. Up until Cosimo’s death in 1464, Florence enjoyed a rare and much appreciated period of peace. The population reached about 70, 000, taxes fell and trade blossomed.

Even before Cosimo’s rise to power, the artistic world had been in ferment. By the time he returned from exile in 1434, the Renaissance style had largely dislodged the Gothic. Two years later Brunelleschi completed the extraordinary dome that still graces the Duomo (Cathedral) and from this time on Cosimo employed artists such as Donatello, Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi on various projects.

Cosimo was one of the few Florentine chiefs to be genuinely mourned by his people on his death. The signoria even went so far as to award Cosimo the posthumous title of pater patriae – Father of the Fatherland.

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Piero de’ Medici & Lorenzo the Magnificent

Within two years of succeeding his father as head of the family, Piero de’ Medici put down a revolt and altered electoral laws, putting control of the elections of priori and gonfalonieri in the hands of selected people. Piero’s successor in 1469, his 20-year-old son Lorenzo, attached the same importance to Florence’s appearance as a democratic republic, but no-one was in doubt as to who was in charge.

The Pazzi family, rivals of the Medici and backed by the papacy, plotted to murder Lorenzo and take over the city on 26 April 1478. Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano was viciously torn to shreds in the assassination attempt during Mass in the Duomo, but Lorenzo escaped wounded and rallied his followers, who soon gave the Pazzi troops short shrift in the Palazzo della Signoria.

No sooner had he solved the Pazzi problem than Lorenzo found himself facing an allied Papal-Neapolitan army. Lorenzo chose to negotiate in Naples and spared Florence what looked like certain defeat. He then focused on home affairs, creating a Consiglio dei Settanta (Council of Seventy) with powers overriding those of the signoria. Lorenzo il Magnifico (the Magnificent), as he was now dubbed, had the reins of power in his hands.

Lorenzo continued the promotion of the arts (the young Michelangelo came to live in the Medici household for a time) but there were worrying signs on the horizon. Since the days of Cosimo, the Medici bank had declined. Branches across Europe continued to close through mismanagement and the family fortunes dwindled.

In the momentous year of 1492 Lorenzo expired, aged 43, to be succeeded by his nasty and incompetent son Piero, who ushered in a long period of mayhem.

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A whiff of hellfire

Within two years Piero was out on his ear and the Medici family in disgrace after his abject submission to the invading French army of Charles VIII. The republic was restored and the constitution again remodelled in 1494. The flavour this time was altogether novel. A city of commercial families and luxury-lovers seemed to have lost its collective nerve as it meekly submitted to the fiery theocracy of Girolamo Savonarola. The republic was organised along the lines of the Venetian model and a Consiglio dei Cinquecento (Council of 500) set up as a parliament.

Savonarola, the Dominican friar with the staring eyes, big nose and fat lips, had arrived in Florence in 1481 to preach repentance in the Chiesa di San Marco. He found a susceptible audience that, over the years, filled the church to bursting to hear his bloodcurdling warnings of horrors to come if Florentines did not renounce their evil ways. He called on the government to act on the basis of his divine inspiration. Drinking, whoring, partying, gambling, wearing flashy clothes and other signs of wrongdoing were pushed well underground. Books, clothes, jewellery, fancy furnishings and art were burned on ‘bonfires of the vanities’, and bands of children marched around the city ferreting out adults still attached to their old habits and possessions.

No doubt feeling the sting of Savonarola’s accusations of corruption and debauchery in the Church, Pope Alexander VI (the Borgia Pope was possibly the least religiously inclined pope of all time) was losing his cool. He demanded Savonarola be sent to Rome, and the signoria started to worry. Bad harvests were hurting the people, business was stagnant, and Savonarola seemed increasingly out to lunch with his claims of being God’s special emissary.

The Franciscans, rivals of the Dominicans, had especially had enough. As 1498 wore on, street violence between the friar’s supporters and opponents spread. The Franciscans challenged Savonarola to an ordeal by fire, an invitation he declined, although he had no problem with sending a deputy in his stead. The trial was washed out by rain but in the ensuing riots the signoria finally decided to arrest Savonarola. After weeks at the hands of the city’s rack-master he was hanged and burned at the stake as a heretic. He died along with two supporters in Piazza della Signoria on 22 May. The spot is marked in the square today.

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The Medici strike back

It took some time and a good deal of bloodshed, but Giovanni de’ Medici returned home in 1512 backed by a Spanish-led army. He set about restoring the position of his family in Florence, which should have been further strengthened when Giovanni was elected Pope Leo X one year later. You can see the Pope’s rooms in the Palazzo Vecchio today.

But the Medici line seemed to have lost much of its lustre. Florence was not the same city as that of Cosimo’s day. Most of its banks had failed and business was bad. A series of Medici lads, culminating in the utterly useless bastards Ippolito and Alessandro, managed to so alienate Florentines that when Pope Clement VII (another Medici) was cornered in Rome by an uncompromising imperial army, the people rejoiced and threw the Medici family out. Alessandro soon returned as duke, but was assassinated by a jealous cousin, Lorenzino, in 1537.

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A Grand Duchy

The Medici party activists decided on Cosimo (a descendant of the first Cosimo’s brother Lorenzo) as successor, hoping he would prove easy to manipulate. They got that wrong. Cosimo, who in 1569 was declared grand duke of Tuscany after the definitive fall of Siena to Florence, brooked no opposition. In his long reign from 1537 to 1574 he was a despot, but a comparatively enlightened one. He sorted out the city’s finances and promoted economic growth across Tuscany, with irrigation programmes for agriculture and mining.

Cosimo I reestablished his family’s role as patron of the arts and sciences, and he also reformed the civil service, building the Uffizi to house all government departments.

His immediate successors, Francesco and Ferdinando I, between them managed to go some way to stimulating the local economy and promoting agriculture, building hospitals and bringing some relief to the poor. Cosimo II invited Galileo Galilei to Florence, where the scientist could continue his research under Tuscan protection and undisturbed by the bellyaching of the Church.

Ferdinando II was ineffectual if well meaning – during the three terrible years of plague that scourged Florence from 1630, he stayed behind while anyone else could was hotfooting it to the countryside.

Next in line was Cosimo III, a dour, depressing individual. Perhaps he had over-read his Savonarola, but in any event, this ill-educated bigot was not a fun date. Persecution of Jews was one of his contributions to Florentine society, and he also backed the Inquisition in its opposition to virtually any kind of scientific learning. A little stretch on the rack was the prescribed tonic for extramarital sex.

Before the drunkard grand duke, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, had died, the European powers had decided the issue of the ‘Tuscan succession’ and appointed Francis, duke of Lorraine and husband of the Austrian empress Maria Theresa, as grand duke of Tuscany. The last significant act of the Medicis came six years after the death of Gian Gastone. His sister Anna Maria, who died in 1743, bequeathed all the Medici property and art collections to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, on condition that they never leave Florence.

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Austrians & Napoleon

The imperial Austrian couple visited for a three-month sojourn and liked Florence well enough, but from then until 1765 the city and Grand Duchy were ruled by regents.

They brought a feeling of (mostly) quiet discontent to their subjects. It is true that much-needed reforms swept away inequities in taxation, somewhat streamlined civil administration and curbed the powers of the Inquisition, but the regents’ main task seemed to be the systematic plunder of Tuscany’s resources in the service of the Austrian empire.

Matters improved in 1765, when Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo arrived. He abolished torture and the death penalty, suppressed the Inquisition, embarked on a schools building programme for the poor, busied himself with agricultural matters and prodded Florence’s comune to clean up the city, improve lighting and introduce street names. He also made sure that some of the art and furnishings that had been removed to Austria under Grand Duke Francis were returned.

Pietro Leopoldo, as heir to the Austrian throne, had to leave Tuscany in 1790 upon the death of his brother, Emperor Josef II. His son and successor, Grand Duke Ferdinando III, was faced with Europe’s new master of blitzkrieg, Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1800 Napoleon created the Kingdom of Etruria and then in 1809, by now Emperor of France, made his sister, Elisa Baciocchi, Grand Duchess of Tuscany: she remained so until Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.

This whirlwind past, Ferdinando III returned from Vienna to take up where he had left off. He pushed through a raft of reforms at every level of city and grand ducal administration, and by every account was an all-round good fellow. His death in 1824 was greeted with dismay, not least because no-one knew what to expect from his gloomy son Leopoldo.

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Italian unity

Grand Duke Leopoldo II proved more able than anticipated, but as the years wore on his task grew more onerous. The independence of the Grand Duchy was menaced not only by more direct interference from Vienna, but also by the growing calls for a united Italian state.

Leopoldo took a lenient line in Florence, allowing dissent and so attracting to the city intellectuals from around the country, including writers such as Ugo Foscolo, Alessandro Manzoni and Giacomo Leopardi. And they weren’t the only ones; a whole raft of foreign writers, musicians and artists descended on Florence, some for a few days, others for years.

The Grand Duke encouraged urban development and a series of improvements, including the introduction of gas street lighting, the widening of roads, and housing programmes for the poor.

The torment of the 1848 revolts across Europe convinced Leopoldo to repair to Vienna. He returned some months later but by then the writing was on the wall. In 1859 a combined French and Piedmontese army defeated the Austrians in two bloody battles at Magenta and Solferino, and the unification of Italy was set in motion. On 15 March 1860 the provisional government in Florence announced the adhesion of the Grand Duchy to the Kingdom of Piedmont. As other parts of Italy also joined, so in 1861 a united Italy under a constitutional monarch was born.

In February 1865 King Vittorio Emanuele and the national government arrived in Florence. Turin had been the first seat of the national parliament, but was deemed too far north to remain capital, and Rome, the natural choice, was yet to be wrenched from papal hands. So an ‘army’ of 30, 000, including bureaucrats and their families, descended on Florence, a city of around 115, 000, creating a sudden housing shortage and spurring an explosion of urban change.

In five brief years of ‘occupation’ (Rome was finally made the capital of a united Italy in 1870) the city was given much of its present appearance. Ring roads (the broad viali) that follow the line of the former city walls were paved. Large new squares appeared, including Piazzale Michelangelo, and the growth of whole new suburbs to the north and northwest of the centre got under way. In short, a modern middle-class Florence was born. By 1888 the first electric street lighting was going up.

Florentines continued in large measure to live poorly. Accounts suggest that in the 1860s and ’70s delinquency was rife, with poverty and begging widespread. The economic crisis of the late 1890s pushed up the price of staples and led to bread riots. An 1892 report suggested that, of a total population of 180, 000, 72, 000 were officially considered poor.

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The two World Wars

Italy’s decision to enter WWI on 24 May 1915 had little initial impact on Florence, tucked far away from the front lines in the north, but by the end of the struggle some 11, 000 young men from the city and its province had died in the field. By 1917 the situation on the home front had become grim too. All basic products were strictly rationed and that winter, a harsh one, heating fuel was virtually unavailable.

In Florence, postwar urban plans included creating a factory zone, to encompass the gasworks and the Pignone smelters, in the Rifredi area northwest of the centre. This in turn aided the growth of workers’ groups and support for left-wing parties and action, creating the scene for clashes between right and left.

By 1920 Benito Mussolini’s Fascists had established branches in Florence and in less than two years it would become one of their biggest strongholds. On 28 October 1922 Mussolini rolled the dice and marched on Rome. In Florence, 2000 Fascists took control of strategic buildings, the railway station and telecommunications posts. The Florentine version of Fascism was particularly virulent and Blackshirt violence became so bad that Mussolini had to shake out local organisations.

In the following years, the opposition went underground or was suppressed altogether. For its loyalty the city got a new stadium at Campo di Marte (1932) and the train station at Santa Maria Novella (1933–35). Then in 1938 the Florentines received another gift, a joint visit in all possible pomp and circumstance by Mussolini and his new buddy with the toothbrush moustache, Adolf Hitler. The multitude duly cheered and waved Florentine lilies with Nazi swastikas. They had no idea what they were heading for.

For Italy, the tragedy began in June 1940 when Mussolini decided to join Hitler’s European tour. Things went Germany’s way for a while, but for the Italians the difficulties began almost from the outset. Florence’s war clothes included asbestos blocks and sandbags, placed to protect the city’s monuments. In 1943 thousands of artworks, statues and other precious items were transported out of Florence as Allied bombing intensified. Michelangelo’s David was encased in a brick shelter and a temporary bunker was built around the Cappella Brancacci. About 500 people died in seven serious air raids between September 1943 and July 1944.

By 8 September 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies, the latter’s troops were about to land at Salerno, south of Naples – a long way from Florence.

Italy surrendered, but not the Germans. They established their local military HQ in Piazza San Marco, while the SS (Schutzstaffel; Hitler’s paramilitary forces) found a nice quiet place to carry out torture on Via Bolognese in the north of the city.

When Allied forces approached the German lines near Florence in July 1944, the German high command decided to blow up the city’s bridges. They spared the Ponte Vecchio, blocking it at either end and mining its shops instead. Early in the morning of 4 August, the other bridges went up in smoke. Italian Resistance fighters harassed the Germans and later that day Allied scouts entered the city, but it would be two weeks before Florence was cleared. The last German forces finally fell back from Fiesole on 7 September. The war ended in May 1945.

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Aftermath & the floods of 1966

Within three months of the German exit from Florence, work began on restoration. Rebuilding bridges was paramount, and by August 1946 Ponte alla Vittoria was up. Ponte San Niccolò was finished in 1949 and Ponte alla Carraia two years later. Ponte Santa Trinita took another seven years, painstakingly reconstructed using copies of 16th-century tools.

Florentine postwar politics were dominated by the colourful Sicilian-born mayor, Giorgio La Pira, a centre-right politician with a strong religious inspiration who vowed to govern for the poor. His first electoral victory came in 1951, after a period in which the Communists and other left-wing forces had together dominated the city.

La Pira, who had been on the committee that wrote the new national constitution promulgated in 1948, was nothing if not controversial. He requisitioned empty buildings to house the homeless, distributed bread to the poor (a stunt in questionable taste) and, oddly enough for a Christian Democrat, sided with factory workers in their struggles with employers. He also indulged in international grand-standing, organising conferences with Third World leaders in favour of world peace.

Disaster struck in 1966. Torrential rain (the city absorbed 190mm in just 24 hours) turned the Arno into a raging torrent that, in the early hours of 4 November, crashed into Florence. When the floodwaters subsided, the city was left covered in a mantle of mud, oil and slime. Sixty-six people died, 14,000 families were left homeless and the impact on the city’s art treasures was incalculable.

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