Most cities have three main centers—political, religious, and commercial. Columbia, S.C.’s capital city founded as the U.S.’s first planned city in 1790, had places designated for these major functions of urban life. Government and politics centered at the junction of Senate and Assembly Streets, now the location of the State Capitol and other government buildings. Churches lined up along Sumter Street, and Main Street housed the businesses. Later, warehouses and mills settled in what is now called the Vista, and City Hall was moved from the political center to Laurel Street.
In Florence, Italy, I discovered the separate functions were built around piazzas (public squares) connected by main streets. They are all within a 10–minute stroll from the River Arno. Compared to Columbia, all of central Florence would fit in the triangle formed by the State House, City Hall, and State Museum.
A great difference is that Europeans build pedestrian plazas, Americans build skyscapers; Europeans walk, Americans ride. That was definitely true of all the cities we visited in Italy.
The religious piazza of Florence contains the Cathedral (il Duomo or officially Santa Maria del Fiore), the Baptistry (Battistero), the bell tower (Campanile), and the Cathedral Museum (Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo). The Duomo is so large it dominates the piazza and the skyline of Florence.
The Duomo was constructed, mostly with Medici money, between 1296 and 1436 when Brunelleschi’s magnificent Renaissance dome was finally completed. The double–layered brick dome spans 126 feet. It was built without scaffolding or safety nets. It is not known how many workers made the ultimate sacrifice.
The current façade was built in the late 19th century. Over 20,000 people can worship inside the building at any given time.
The Baptistry is much smaller and much older than the Duomo. It began as a second century Roman temple, was converted to the city’s first Christian church in the seventh century, rebuilt in the 11th, and served as the main cathedral until the Duomo was built. Dante, author of The Divine Comedy, was baptized in the building as were many famous Florentines (including USC professor Jerel Rosati’s mother).
The three huge sets of doors of the Baptistry are historic artworks. One set has 14 bronze panels depicting the story of John the Baptist; the second set, which took 20 years to complete, depicts the life of Christ; and the third, which took 27 years, has 10 panels of gold depicting paradise. These gold doors are now in the Cathedral Museum, having been replaced by bronze copies.
The Gothic bell tower (Campanile) designed by Giotto (1266-1337) is a soaring structure of multicolored marble originally decorated with reliefs that are now in the Cathedral Museum. On our last day in Florence, I climbed the 414 steps to the top while Linda ate gelato in the piazza.
The view was spectacular! Florence was a carpet of terra cotta rooftops, narrow streets filled with people, and majestic domes and towers. In all directions dark forested hills filled the horizon. Crossing the Arno River just eight blocks to the south was Italy’s most famous bridge, the Ponte Vecchio.