Florence (Firenze) - the capital of the Italian province of Tuscany - lies at the Arno River, halfway the northern industrial centres and Rome. The city houses some 400,000 inhabitants, suburbia included, 600,000.
Founded in BC 59 as a colony for retired Roman military, Florence quickly expands into a formidable trading town. Invasions during periods of mass migration disrupt its growth, but peace and prosperity return when Charlemagne draws the area into his Frankish empire in the 9th century. The city's bigwigs become the big bosses of the Church.
With the city's economic development the influence of its craftsmen and traders increases. In 1183 Florence gets its own government. As a result the city's power extends to the surrounding area until one day Florence becomes an independent city state.
The 13th century marks the beginning of the desire to flaunt prosperity, hence the construction of the dome and the Palazzo Vecchio. Churches too are richly furnished.
After a turbulent period, the De' Medici family gradually begins to usurp power at the end of the 14th century. The family owe their fortune to successful national and international trade and to banking, being the private banker to the Pope. This was a time when the interest in the classics grew. Lorenzo il Magnifico de' Medici took the Florentine renaissance to the summit, being responsible for consignments to such artists as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Da Vinci.
Not everyone felt comfortable with all the pomp and circumstance and its whiff of decay. On instigation of a Puritan monk, the De' Medici family were banished from the town at the end of the 15th century. In 1512 they were allowed back, to reign until the 18th century. Again the arts flourished in Florence, although by now Rome was more important. In 1597 Florence saw the premiere of the first opera ever.
In 1860 the city relinquished its independence to join a new, united Italy for which it was the capital for several years.
Well - where to begin? The French author Stendhal suffered an anxiety attack on visiting Florence, completely overwhelmed as he was by the abundance of things to see. This type of anxiety has been known as Stendhal Syndrome ever since. Until this day several people a year are admitted to hospital with the same symptoms. Be warned!
So much for our small selection of Florence's art treasures. In the vicinity there is even more art and culture to enjoy. Just outside of Florence lies the town of Fiesole - up in the hills and therefore at one time more powerful than Florence. At less than an hour's drive you'll discover beautiful Siena where the Maesta by Duccio is kept. All of Tuscany, in short, is well worth a visit.