Technically this photo was taken from Piazza di San Giovanni (Saint John Square), which is adjacent to Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square)...but let's just view the whole Duomo complex as belonging to Piazza del Duomo. In front, on the left, is the Baptistery. In the early centuries of Christian history, when most new Christians were adults who were converted from Judaism or from some pagan belief, baptisms were performed just a few times each year, with large numbers of new followers being baptized at once.
From here you can see the River Arno through Florence. The river starts in the mountains to the east, flows through Florence, on towards Pisa, and into the Mediterranean. Florence has a historic rivalry with Pisa, and right up until the 20th century Florentines gleefully dumped garbage and sewage into the river, knowing that it would eventually end up in Pisa.
From this vantage point it's easy to make out a 'secret' passageway, hidden in plain sight. It juts out from the Uffizi, crosses the street, then turns and follows the line of the river, forming an arcaded passage below. When the elevated walkway reaches the Ponte Vecchio, it turns and also crosses the bridge. You can recognize it by the evenly spaced series of porthole-like windows on the second story. On the other side of the bridge the walkway continues on for another 900 feet – the length of three football fields – passing right through houses and a church en route to the Pitti Palace. Known as the Vasari Corridor (after designer Giorgio Vasari, who also designed the Uffizi), this enclosed walkway was built in 1565 to connect the main residence of the Medici Grand Dukes with their offices in the Uffizi. It provided a convenient way to commute from home to work without getting cold, rained on, or assassinated. On their daily commute to work the Medici could enjoy the great works of art which lined the interior walls of the walkway. Power has its privileges.
The appropriately named Ponte Vecchio is the oldest bridge in Florence and the only one with buildings on it. Throughout most of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance the bridge housed a meat market and a tannery. That is, until the Corridor was built. You can imagine what the smell must have been like, wafting up into the passage on a warm summer afternoon. Realizing that jewelry stores tend to smell much better than slaughter houses, the Medici kicked out the meat mongers and brought in goldsmiths.
In the closing months of World War II, as the Allies were advancing up the peninsula, the German commander in charge of Florence was given orders to blow all of the bridges on the Arno to slow the Allied advance. The only exception was the Ponte Vecchio, allegedly under direct orders from Hitler, who had taken a fancy to the bridge when he visited Mussolini in Florence. Hitler was not exactly known for his sentimentality, so I don’t give a lot of credence to the story myself. Whatever the reason, the buildings on both sides of the river were blown, blocking the road, but leaving the bridge intact.
On the longest day of the year (June 21), the sun shines through a hole in a small metal disc – called a gnomon – mounted more than 275 feet up in the dome of Florence's cathedral. The sunlight passing through the gnomon creates a cricle of light, which lands on a metal meridian embedded in the cathedral floor. First installed in 1475, the gnomon helped to calculate dates, including the correct date for Easter each year. It was also used by a Jesuit priest in the 18th century to calculate that the axis of the earth's rotation was shifting.
If you happen to be in Florence in June, you can get a guided introduction to the gnomon by reserving a spot through the cathedral's website. If you're not lucky enough to be in Florence at this time, check out the video below.
The church of San Lorenzo in Florence was the 'home church' of the powerful Medici family. Located just across the square from their palace, the family lavished huge amounts of money on the church (though it's hard to tell from the plain stone and brick exterior), creating the Medici Chapel, an elaborately decorated space covered in marbles and semi-precious stones. Off to one side of the chapel is the New Sacristy, final resting place of some of the family's most illustrious members.
A favorite of Lorenzo de Medici, Michelangelo spent a good part of his youth living in the Medici family palace, and created four statues for the New Sacristy known as Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk. The Medici Chapel and New Sacristy opened to the public as a museum more than 100 years ago, but it wasn't until the 1970's that the director of the museum discovered a trap door that had been covered by a large cabinet. Beneath the trap door was a bare, small room. The walls were covered with charcoal drawings, almost certainly made by Michelangelo.
The room has remained off limits to the public since then, but finally plans are afoot to allow limited access to the site. Don't hold your breath – the planned opening isn't until 2020 – but something to look forward to for fans of Michelangelo's work.
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