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This short history of Florence is designed to give you an overview of the city in 5-10 minutes. We hope you enjoy it!
Early History Of Florence
Florence was founded in 59 BC by none other than Julius Caesar. Initially known as Florentia, the city was originally a settlement for retired military veterans. Because of its location on one of the main trading routes between Rome and the cities further north, it began to grow and prosper as a commercial town over the next few centuries.
Throughout its early history, there was a lot of fighting over the territory of Florence. The city changed hands various times between the Byzantine Empire and the Ostrogoths (an offshoot of the Goths, who were a Germanic people). In 774 it was conquered by Charlemagne as he conquered Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Florence and the Florin
In the early middle ages, Florence rose to become one of the most powerful and influential cities in all of Europe, thanks largely to the creation and distribution of its own currency, the Florin. The Florin was a gold coin, and it quickly became the dominant form of currency for trade in Western Europe. Florentine banks appeared at various cities all over the continent. The banks were in large part run by the famous Medici family, who would come to hugely influence the city over the coming centuries.
The Plague In Florence
The 14th century for Florence was a turbulent one to say the least. The Black Death of 1348 devastated the city, with huge number of the population perishing. For those that are really interested, Boccaccio (an influential writer at the time) wrote an account of what it was like in Florence when the plague hit.
A Mini Revolution: The Ciompi Revolt
There were huge losses of the working class population due to the plague. In order to maintain the city, the already high taxes were again increased by those in power. This, combined with a growing discontent with the rich and powerful in Florence (remember it was now a major centre for banking and economics), led to the Ciompi Revolt of 1378.
The Ciompi Revolt was a working class revolt against the rich and powerful. The Ciompi (the working class) rose up and overthrew the elites of the city, in what was one of the first recorded working class revolutions anywhere in the world. They then set up a provisional government and attempted to rule themselves.
Unfortunately, the Ciompi weren’t as effective at governing as they were at overthrowing. Although they made some significant reforms (such as increasing taxes on the rich and land owners), by 1382, less than four years later, the revolt collapsed due to infighting and a lack of clear direction.
Although it ultimately collapsed, The Ciompi revolt had a lasting impact not only in Florence, but also further abroad as one of the first successful working class revolutions.
History Of Florence: The Renaissance
Florence is most famous for its history throughout the late middle ages, when it became the birthplace of the Renaissance.
Florence was hugely successful economically, thanks to being a major banking centre and being the home of the influential Medici family. Because of this, by the 15th century some of the most influential artists of the time had started coming to the city for work. Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli and Dante are just a few of the artists and thinkers that lived and worked in Florence. The Renaissance was a time of unprecedented growth, with an incredible amount of art commissioned and completed. Starting in Florence, the renaissance would eventually spread to the rest of Italy and Europe as these artists moved away and influenced others.
You can see many of the most famous renaissance artist works in the Uffizi Gallery. Although if you want to see David (which you probably should), you’ll need to take a trip to the Galleria dell’Accademia. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the renaissance, this 17 minute video gives a great overview.
The Beginning Of Italy
The Medici family’s reign in Florence came to an end in 1737. Florence and Tuscany then became a part of territory of the Kingdom of Austria. Austrian Rule lasted just over 100 years, before finally in 1861 Tuscany became a part of the Kingdom of Italy. Between 1865 and 1870, Florence was for a brief period the Capital of the Kingdom of Italy, before the capital moved back to Rome in 1871.
The Modern History Of Florence
Throughout the 20th century Florence, like many European cities, endured through two world wars. Italy fought on the side of the Allies during World War One, but was one of the three Axis powers (along with Germany and Japan) during World War Two. Throughout the Second World War, Florence was occupied by the Nazis for one year between 1943 and 1944.
The war saw the city suffer substantial damage. In 1944, during their retreat, the Nazis blew up all of the bridges that crossed the Arno river, bar one, the Ponte Vecchio. According to popular rumour, they spared the Ponte Vecchio because they thought that it was too beautiful to be destroyed.
Modern Day Florence
Fast forward to the 21st century, and Florence has become a thriving city, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Millions of people visit the city each year to see its incredible renaissance architecture and visit its museums, which house one of the greatest collections of renaissance art anywhere in the world.
More reading on the history of Florence
- Florence in the renaissance (Khan Academy article)
- Florence in the renaissance (School Of Life youtube video)
- The plague in Florence (primary account)
More reading on Journey Seals Blog