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The Renaissance in Florence

Renaissance, a word first used by Vasari in his work "Vite" (1550), encompasses a period in history between the end of the 14th century and the first half of the 16th century, marked by a "rebirth" (revitalization) of cultural and artistic life.

The phenomenon involves the entirety of Europe, but is undisputably rooted in early Florentine Humanism.

Rediscovering the study of antiquity from a secular, individualistic viewpoint, analyzing one's age critically, along guidelines set by ancient masters, turns the focus to man and his autonomous potential of thought and action, to individual freedom in all practical and intellectual fields, without the bonds and fetters of rigid, dogmatic Medieval theology.

At philosophical level, Renaissance essentially means naturalism, i.e. studying man and the cosmos without ressorting to metaphysics. Man becomes the nuclear cell of existence, the measure of all things, the maker by election, incorporating deep harmony between macrocosmos and microcosmos.

Niccoló Cusano, Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Giordano Bruno, derive from the study of Plato, each in his own way, impulses to confront man with his knowledge capacities (Newplatonism). Alberti, Salutati, and Vergerio, rediscover values of human independence and dignity in Stoic philosophy. Lorenzo Valla, on Epicurus' track, claims an end to the authority principle (ipse dixit).

Pietro Pomponazzi's reinterpretation of Aristoteles, of whom he was a follower, is secular to the extent of denying immortality of the soul, and suggests a morality independent from religious considerations. Machiavelli furthers separation between politics and ethics. Bernardino Telesio removes metaphysics from natural sciences. Tommaso Campanella dares proposing a "natural religion" and a protocommunist uthopy.

Renaissance art, after the fracture represented by the Middle Ages, is a revival of classical ideals and forms, in cultural continuity with the antiquity. In Florence, in the space of a few years, an architect (Brunelleschi), a sculptor (Donatello), and a painter (Masaccio) introduce a revolutionary conceptual and functional change in the field of creative activities.

Art rises from a "mechanical" activity (manual craftsmanship) into a "liberalis", i.e. intellectual, activity.

This transformation becomes official with the publication of Leon Battista Alberti's theoretical works:: "De pictura" (1436) entitled to Filippo Brunelleschi, "De re aedificatoria" (1452), and "De statua" (1464).

Art turns into an instrument of knowledge and investigation of reality, into a properly called science relying on rational theoretical foundations, such as perspective standards.

The key concept, "imitation of the natural" is based upon classical versus Bizantyne tradition, but should be further understood as a mathematic-geometrical organization of visual data (the subject of painting) within a space (panel or wall to be frescoed).

Italian rulers sponsored this artistic refoundation, which extended and developed until it achieved its summits with Bramante, Raffaello, Michelangelo, and Leonardo, in the form of "classicism". Later, the followers of Raffaello and Michelangelo (who, as a boy, had lived in the home of Lorenzo il Magnifico, in close contact with Poliziano and other humanists of the Medici Court who used to meet at the "Orti" (gardens) of the San Marco Monastery) developed mannerism as a non-conformistic research of originality "per se", a reaction to anxieties only partly hidden by the screen of classicism.

The protagonists

Santa Maria Novella

Piazza Santa Maria Novella
Open 9-17
Closed Fridays and Sundays, New Year's Day, Easter, May 1, August 15, December 25


Santa Maria Novella is the first great Florentine basilica in order of time. The church bears the attribute "Novella" (new) having replaced, in the same square, a previously existing 9th century oratory, enlarged in 1094, called Santa Maria delle Vigne.

In the year 1221 the building and surrounding area were assigned to dominican friars who immediately started their transformation.


Two architect friars, frà Sisto Fiorentino and frà Ristoro da Campi, start constructing the future sumptuous headquarters of the powerful Dominican Order in the year 1246. Works will be completed in 1360 under the leadership of frà Iacopo Talenti, author also of the Cappellone degli Spagnoli (1350-55), of the monastery Refectory (1353), and of the tall bell tower with pointed roof in romanic-gotic style (1330). The rich facade in black-white marble inlay is a masterpiece: its construction, started in 1300, will be completed by Leon Battista Alberti in 1470. The interior of the basilica hosts a series of works by Giotto, Andrea Orcagna, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Benedetto da Maiano, Masaccio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Filippino Lippi.

13th-15th century frescoes by Paolo Uccello and the Florentine School embellish the Cloisters