Florence is one of the most well known and well loved cities in the world. Famed for being the home of Italian Renaissance art, adored for its picturesque medieval historic center, coveted for its mastery of Italian leatherwork.
Florence is also a city that in the last few years has suffered from massive tourist overcrowding. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the busloads of tourists, unless of course you know where to go to avoid them. I’ll give you a heads up – there is an entirely different experience awaiting you just a few meters away from the crowds!
During my years of leading private tours through Florence I’ve learned about really amazing places to visit and things to see and do in the renaissance city that are only a stone’s throw away from the crowds yet feel like you’re in a different world.
I was so lucky to be invited onto the Untold Italy podcast to talk about my secret Florence. In the podcast we talk about everything from the Medici to the best places to try artisan gelato, where to go for an aperitivo, churches you had no idea you wanted to see, and some of my best tips for experiencing the real Florence, the Florence you will fall madly in love with.
If like me you are aching for Italy but stuck at home because of the pandemic, Untold Italy has a member site called Untold Italy Insiders where every month you have a cooking lesson with one of Italy’s most famous chefs, a wine class with a sommelier who will make your heart flutter, lessons from private tour guides, live question and answer sessions, and help planning your dream trip for once we can fly the friendly skies again. There is much more available too. You can find out more about Untold Italy Insiders here.
If you want more insider secrets to help you explore the magic of Florence and discover roughly 100 incredible things to see and do that the bus tours don’t know about, almost all of which are hiding in plain sight, right under your nose, check out my best selling book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Florence. Available world wide on Amazon.
One of my all-time favorite piazzas in Florence is a mere 500 meters from the madness of Piazza del Duomo. Just 2 short blocks from the cathedral all the tourist hustle and bustle is left behind you as Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici welcomes you into Piazza SS Annunciata from his bronze horse.
SS Annunciata is the perfect renaissance piazza. Three sides are lined with loggia in calming creamy tones, surrounding a wide open space. You can catch your breath here – very few tourists seem to know about it. And yet it is full of fascinating things to see and do.
Looking at this perfect creamy harmony you would think it all happened at once, but it took more than 200 years to come together. With the cathedral behind you, facing Ferdinando on his horse, look to the right and you will see the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the Foundling hospital or orphanage.
This was Brunelleschi’s first architectural commission, built in 1419. His second commission was the dome of the Duomo, 500 meters away! The loggia was considered new and fantastic at the time and was the beginning of the use of balance and harmony that became synonymous with Renaissance architecture.
Opposite the Foundling Hospital is the monastery of the Servi, the religious order who started the church here in the piazza. It wasn’t until 100 years later that architect Antonio da Sangallo created it’s loggia, designed to match Brunelleschi’s across the way. Where the Foundling hospital has tondi with blue backgrounds and white putti between the arches, Sangallo gave the Servites tondi with a scrolling S in the middle.
Almost hundred years passed before the front of the church got a facelift via its own set of archway loggia. Architect Giovanni Battista Caccini had to do a little stretching to make his loggia match Brunelleschi’s, giving the piazza three sides of portico archways.
As you enter the piazza the church of SS Annunciata is directly in front of you. This is one of my favorite churches in Florence. In the mid 1200’s a group of 7 men started up a religious order called the Servite (Order of the Servants of Mary) In 1250 they built this church, and in 1252 they commissioned Fra Bartolomeo to paint them the Annunciation. Everything was going well until it came time to paint the face. Fra Bartolomeo was worried he couldn’t paint one beautiful enough. He fell asleep and when he woke saw that an angel had painted an exquisitely beautiful face for him.
Pilgrims and miracles go together like peas and carrots, so when word got out about the miracle pilgrims came from all over. They left votives in the church and sculptures made of wax, plaster and wood, even a life sized wax sculpture of a nobleman and his horse.
The Cloister of the Voti
The pilgrims’ candles and wax statues needed to be put somewhere, so a couple of hundred years later Cosimo de’ Medici’s favorite architect Michelozzo was commissioned to create a cloister in front of the church to house them. The Cloister of the Voti is actually the entrance to the church, and it is magnificent. If this was the only thing you saw it would be worth it!
The Cloister is decorated with marble reliefs and frescoes painted by major Florentine artists. Recently the cloister underwent major renovations and now has a glass atrium roof to protect the frescoes.
As you enter the church be prepared to be completely wowed by the ceiling. To this day, every time I walk inside the basilica my eyes are automatically drawn upward.
The church may seem a little off kilter to you. This is due to the chapel of SS Annunciata which is on the left as you enter. Back in 1447 Piero de’ Medici funded the creation a ‘temple’ for the painting of the Miraculous Annunciation. Michelozzo designed it, rich with bronze designs, marble from Carrara, ceramics and intricate artwork, it shows just how important this painting was and is.
The church is full of incredible artwork but before you explore it all take a moment to step back and soak in this church. It is spectacularly beautiful!
This one will blow your mind! Not only is it an amazing museum but no one seems to know about it, so when you visit there will be very few other people here.
This was an orphanage so portions of the museum are dedicated to the story of the orphans. Parents would have to leave their babies here due to extreme economic suffering. They would leave their baby with a “mark’, half of a charm or pendant that the parent would keep the other half of in the hope that they could be reunited. The hospital kept excellent records of the children and were able to reunite many of them. There is a room here with records of them and heartbreakingly drawers of marks from the children who were never claimed.
The museum and its 600 years of history recently underwent a 3 year renovation and is beautifully laid out and well lit – it’s fabulous. It covers 600 years of history
The art gallery is on the second floor in the areas where the children and wet nurses lived. It has works by Botticelli, Luca della Robbia and Ghirlandaio amongst others. The most important works in the collection are a Madonna and Child by Botticelli and the Adoration of the Magi by Ghirlandaio
On the top floor there is a terrace called the Verone that used to be a place to hang the washed clothes out to dry and for workers and children to socialize. The Verone is now a café where you can enjoy a break with a fabulous view of the Duomo.
Ferdinando on his Horse
The fellow who greets you from his horse as you enter the piazza is one of the Medici Grand Dukes, Ferdinando I. Ferdinando was a really interesting character. He murdered his brother (who was a murderous jerk anyway) then became a very effective and well liked ruler of Florence and Tuscany.
The statue was created by Giambologna in 1608 using bronze melted down from cannons on captured Turkish galleys. If you look at the inscription on the horse’s girth it says De’ metallic rapiti al fero Trace, which means metal taken from the savage Thracians. (A traditional enemy of the ancient Romans, who came from the area that now makes up Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria)
Secrets In The Piazza
Piazza SS Annunciata has all kinds of intriguing history and some fabulous secrets.
The Open Window at Palazzo Grifoni
Who doesn’t enjoy a good ghost story? This one applies to Palazzo Grifoni, the reddish palazzo at your left shoulder when you enter the piazza.
The last window on the top floor on the right hand side has stayed open for centuries. Near the end of the 1500s one of the Grifoni sons was called away to war, leaving his young bride behind. Her last view of him was from this window as he rode away. She waited for him at this window for decades, sure that one day he would ride back into the piazza. She loved him so much that she never gave up hope, waiting each day at the window until she too eventually died.
Upon her death, once her body had been carried away, the family tried to close the window. Legend has it that when they tried to close it all hell broke loose. The furniture started shaking, books flew off the shelves, paintings fell off the walls – basically she went all poltergeist on them. Since then the window has remained open, at this point for more than 400 years, just in case her husband ever rides back into the piazza to come for her.
There’s another point of interest with Ferdinando’s statue. Walk around the back and you will see a bronze relief on the pedestal of a swarm of 91 bees circling the queen bee. Supposedly this is to signify his magnificence and superlative leadership skills, with him being the queen bee and the 91 others being the people of Florence and Tuscany. Except I don’t really think that equating yourself with a queen bee is particularly masculine, do you? It seems awfully girlie to me. But apparently his motto was Maiestate Tantum which means Great Majesty.
The Sealed Window
I absolutely love random things like this! Unless you know to look for it you will walk right past a walled in window on the corner of via dei Servi and via del Pucci, midway between the Duomo and Piazza della SS Annunziata, on the northeast corner. This is the Palazzo Pucci, former home of the Pucci family and the site of a Renaissance tale of conspiracy and revenge.
In 1559 Pandolfo Pucci got kicked out of the court of Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici either for accusations of immorality, or, supposedly for wanting to restore the Republic of Florence. Who knows which it really was? Regardless Pandolfo fell from grace.
He then conspired with some other noble families to kill Cosimo. The plan was to shoot him with an arquebus as he and his entourage walked past the corner of via del Pucci and via dei Servi on his way to mass at SS Annunziata. The plan got cancelled but nonetheless Cosimo got wind of it and had to make an example of him. Pandolfo was hung from a window in the Bargello and the Pucci properties were seized. Whether it was superstition or whether it was to remind everyone never to plot against the Medici, Grand Duke Cosimo I ordered the window on the corner from where the attack was to have occurred be bricked up. To this very day it has remained sealed.
The Pucci made good with the Medici and 3 years later not only got the palace back but also got the title of Marchese di Barsento, a noble title that has been handed down the family ever since.
If you have your back to the Duomo the sealed window is one block up via dei Servi on your left as you walk the 2 blocks to piazza della SS Annunziata. I still get a kick out of it every time I see it.
Are you planning a trip to Florence? My free Secret Florence pdf has a list of my favorite restaurants, bars and shops in the Renaissance City, guaranteed to make you trip even more fantastic! Get your copy HERE
For more than 300 years the Medici family ruled or ran the city of Florence.
They were bankers, politicians and the world’s most prolific patrons of the arts. From the architecture of Florence to the art that fills the city everywhere you turn, the Medici’s impact on the city and on the world of art will last for centuries after you and I are gone.
The Medici had numerous cardinals in the family as well as two popes. In 1513 Giovanni de’ Medici became Pope Leo X and in 1523 his cousin Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici became Pope Clement VII. The family came from modest means but elevated themselves to becoming the hereditary Dukes of Florence then in 1569 Pope Pius V made Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany.
With centuries of drama, intrigue, assassinations and slick political maneuvering, this is one fascinating family.
One way to avoid the crowds in Florence is to take yourself on a walking tour of the Medici Palaces. I have found that my Glam Italia tour groups who have watched The Medici on Netflix get a huge thrill out of doing this. The palace we stay in in Florence is opposite the Medici-Riccardi palace, built by Cosimo the Elder and home to all our favorite Medici (Cosimo, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo I). At night we look across into the Medici palace and see all the frescoes on the ceilings lit up, invisible during the day.
Our story starts with Cosimo de’ Medici, known as Cosimo the Elder. He married the daughter of a noble family, Contessina de’ Bardi. They lived in the Bardi palace across town but when Cosimo came back to Florence from exile in 1444, newly empowered he decided to build his own palace.
At that time you just built onto existing medieval buildings, but Cosimo had a different idea. He acquired the property diagonally opposite the Basilica San Lorenzo and razed the existing building to the ground. His Michelozzo designed Medici Palace was the first true Renaissance building.
The fortress like exterior with its rough hewn blocks on the first level, evolving into smoother stone on the second and third level was considered grand and quite ostentatious at the time but became the prototype for all the Renaissance palaces in Florence from then forward.
The lovely courtyard with its beautiful garden was the original home of Donatello’s controversial statue of David (now in the Bargello). As you walk through the garden to the inner courtyard, imagine more than a hundred years of Popes, foreign dignitaries, important political figures along with the greatest artist and philosophers of the time all walking these same steps as you!
The palace was home to the Medici until Cosimo I moved to the Palazzo Vecchio. Minor members of the Medici family lived there from then until 1659 when Ferdinando II de’ Medici sold it to the Marquis Gabriello Riccardi.
It is now a museum. Highlights include the Riccardi family collection of marble, the Magi Chapel and the Giordano Gallery.
Also of interest, Lorenzo the Magnificent moved the young Michelangelo into the Medici Palace and raised him as his own. For 3 years Michelangelo lived as a brother to the 2 Medici popes, was educated with them, ate meals not only with the family but also the greatest minds of the time. Lorenzo created a world for Michelangelo where he not only benefitted from life at the Medici court but also had freedom and opportunity to rise to his full potential as an artist.
Address: The Medici Palace is on the corner of via dei Ginori and via Cavour, diagonally opposite Basilica San Lorenzo
In 1540 Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici moved his family from the Medici Palace into the Palazzo della Signoria, now called the Palazzo Vecchio. This is the castle-like building in the Piazza della Signoria with the replica statue of David outside.
He hired Giorgio Vasari to decorate the inner courtyard and the sumptuous Salon of 500. Cosimo I centralized all the government offices into a new building next door named the Uffizi, or offices. He had Vasari build a passageway that he could walk through from his next home, the Pitti Palace to the Palazzo Vecchio. This is now called the Vasari Corridor.
The palace is still Florence’s City Hall but is also a museum. I recommend taking a tour of Palazzo Vecchio, my favorite being the Secret Passages Tour which combines seeing the secret rooms and yes, the secret passages, with a visit to the Salon of 500, the rafters above the Salon of 500 and ends at the Medici apartments. The tour is tremendous and gives fascinating insight into the lives of the Medici.
Cosimo I was very happily married to a Spanish blue-blood, Eleanora of Toledo. To Eleanora the palace seemed small and provincial, nowhere near grand enough for someone of her stature to be raising her family, so she bought the biggest private palace, the Pitti Palace, and moved the family in there.
The story of the Pitti Palace actually starts with the Medici Palace. Luca Pitti was a wealthy Florentine banker who loathed the Medici. When Cosimo (the Elder) built the Medici Palace Luca Pitti decided to outdo him and in 1458 built a bigger palace on the south side of the river. He wanted his windows to be larger than the doorway of the Medici Palace, and he wanted his courtyard to be so big you could fit the entire Medici Palace inside it. That courtyard is now the Piazza Pitti, in front of the palace.
At the time the Pitti Palace was only the center section of the current structure. Luca Pitti ran out of money and died in 1472 before construction was finished. In 1459 Eleanora bought the Pitti Palace and expanded it to its current size. The gardens behind the palace, the Boboli Gardens, were the inspiration for the gardens at Versailles.
The Pitti Palace became the Medici family home until the dynasty ran out of heirs. It was then the home of the new rulers of Florence, the Lorraine-Habsburgs.
The Pitti Palace is now Florence’s largest museum. It is actually a series of museums, with the Medici private art collection, the History of Costume Museum, Porcelain Museum and Silver Museum. Unlike the Uffizi across the river which is perpetually packed with tourists the Pitti gets vastly fewer and is wonderful to explore.
Are you planing a trip to Florence? My free Secret Florence PDF tells you my favorite restaurants, bars, shops and under the radar secrets of fabulous things to do in the Renaissance city, Download your copy HERE