The Italian Villa: from ancient Rome to the modern era

Over the last ten years I’ve met more and more people making a ‘tree change’, swapping the stress of the concrete jungle for the tranquillity of the country. They plan a garden to please the eye and stock the table, and a comfortable house with space for pursuits they’ve neglected for years – sewing or painting, sculpture in wood and stone, deep reading – and of course entertaining areas to welcome family and friends.

This kind of a ‘tree change’ is such a common retirement goal that it’s not remarkable, and yet I’m always struck by how closely it conforms to a long-cherished Italian way of life. Millennia ago, ancient Romans acknowledged the importance of finding a balance between the necessary negotium of life – the business, transactions, negotiations that sustain us, economically – and the life of sweet ease, or otium, that feeds our mind, body and soul.

For wealthy Romans, the pleasant life of dolce far niente could be enshrined in architectural terms. The simple farm-building (villa rustica) outside the city walls, where slaves toiled to ensure the patrician family’s income, could be converted into a sprawling manor house or villa suburbana. The owner was still close enough to town to come and go if business demanded it, but thanks to open-air dining rooms, mythological wall paintings, cooling fountains and perfumed courtyard gardens, he and his circle could also make mental and physical space to contemplate life’s higher things. Pompeii’s celebrated Villa of the Mysteries is an excellent example of this kind of farmhouse-to-manor house conversion.

The Villa of the Mysteries on the outskirts of Pompeii, southern Italy, famous for the series of exquisite frescos

In time, villas began to be purpose built to foster this kind of enjoyment and philosophical contemplation. Thanks to the pax romana, danger no longer threatened those wishing to spend time in the countryside – and with wealth concentrated in the hands of the upper classes, these villas reached staggering proportions. Pliny the Younger owned numerous villas (more than one on Lake Como, for example) and spent extensive time moving among them when he wasn’t acting as lawyer or magistrate. He famously advised that the gravel paths of gardens be finely raked so that an owner could walk barefoot among the perfumed plants, his reverie undisturbed by sharp objects.

Thanks to modern archaeology we know a great deal about ancient Roman villa culture: Livia’s wonderful ‘garden room’ frescoes from the Prima Porta villa (one of the highlights of a visit to Rome’s Palazzo Massimo) even provide us with detailed information about the kinds of birds and plants we would have expected to find.

The Garden Room Fresco in the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta

But with the breakdown of the Roman Empire and successive waves of invasion, wealthy medieval Italians were less willing to risk spending time in the country. Bandits roamed and wild animals prowled, roads fell into disrepair and the safety of living within a town’s walls looked more and more inviting. Lorenzetti’s frescoes of Good and Bad Government (ca 1338), in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, clearly demonstrate the benefits and protection of urban life in the Middle Ages, as well as the risks of the countryside for anyone foolish enough to consider spending a holiday there!

The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. Pictured is the effects of a city governed well
The other city facing it is ruled by a tyrant; soldiers wander the streets and the law of might seems to be in effect

But the dawn of the Renaissance in the early 15th century changed Italian villa history, as well as art, architecture and intellectual life. Merchants and bankers relied on good roads, so these were repaired. Great dynasties began to expand their sphere of influence beyond cities and into their subject territory (contado), making the countryside safe and attractive again. And a humanistic education encouraged a closer examination of texts describing the ethos, aesthetic and even architecture of ancient Roman villa life. Wealthy humanists who desired to live like the ancients now had all the necessary tools to recreate that lifestyle – and they did. Just think of the extraordinary statement of power, knowledge, wealth and even licentiousness embodied in a place like Mantua’s Palazzo Te, a surburban villa built on the edges of the city to allow a Gonzaga duke to entertain Holy Roman Emperors and his mistress alike.

Palazzo Te: Inside the Pleasure Palace of Mantua, in the Chamber of the Giants, the ceiling and walls of them room portray the Fall of the Giants from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

One of the most well-known Renaissance villa designers was Andrea Palladio. Born in humble circumstances in 1508, he trained as a stonemason but had the great fortune of finding an early sympathetic patron: Gian Giorgio Trissino, a humanist poet and scholar from Vicenza, identified the young Andrea’s potential and encouraged him to focus on design and the study of ancient architecture. (He also graced Andrea with his nickname, Palladio, a nod to Pallas Athene.) With Trissino and other noble patrons from Venice’s mainland territory, Palladio travelled extensively and examined great monuments, such as those in Rome. He was particularly inspired by the literary studies of Vitruvius, the Roman theorist whose ten books on architecture had come to light again thanks to Renaissance manuscript hunters. Thanks to his investigations, Palladio developed a sophisticated architectural theory that advocated for utilitas, firmitas and venustas: utility, strength and beauty. Thanks to numerous commissions for country villas in north-east Italy, Palladio found ingenious ways to ensure that his designs incorporated all three principles.

In the 15th century Venice had embarked on the aggressive acquisition of mainland territory (terraferma), to demonstrate its might over a stato di terra as well as the stato di mar that constituted the traditional powerbase of a maritime republic. Politicians also knew that Venice’s growing population needed bread, and land to grow grain was in short supply in the lagoon city. The terraferma offered the possibility of an agricultural base, and Venetian aristocrats were granted oversight of the production of crops and foodstuffs in the area we now call the Veneto.

Villas in the Veneto: at the top of a hill in northern Italy, stands one of the most recognizable buildings of the Renaissance designed by Palladio – the Villa Capra, commonly known as La Rotonda

Naturally these newly-minted Venetian agricultural officials needed patrician residences on the land they now owned, supervised and regularly visited. Like the ancient Romans in their manor houses, Palladio’s patrons only needed to visit their farms at certain times of the year: at harvest, for example. While the owner was in residence, he might wish to invite friends out from Venice for a party, and he would certainly want to enjoy the bucolic vista from his villa’s windows and long carriageways. But when the patron returned to his palace on the Grand Canal, the farm manager and labourers still demanded practical considerations from Palladio’s buildings and outhouses: storage for equipment and places for animals, for example.

The diverse nature of these architectural design briefs demanded all the ingenuity of Palladio’s three tenets – and as his patrons were frequently short on ready cash, costs had to be kept low. At Villa Barbaro in Maser, for example, Palladio’s design incorporates a central section based on a proud Roman temple, long side wings (barchesse) and two dovecotes at each end of the wings. The temple corresponds to the aristocratic quarters, the barchesse were traditional outbuildings for equipment or stables – and the dovecotes were actually used by the birds flying back and forth with messages for the family’s palace in Venice! From a distance the villa looks like it’s built from expensive stone, but its bricks covered with plaster cost much less. Inside, Veronese’s trompe l’oeil wall paintings create a charming domestic mood – and as the patron was unlikely to visit his farm in winter, frescoes were more cost-effective than expensive tapestries. Palladio’s utilitas, firmitas and venustas in action!

Villa Barbaro, also known as the Villa di Maser, is a large villa at Maser in the Veneto region of northern Italy

Palladio’s Villa Emo in Fanzolo employs these same architectural components – temple front, barchesse, dovecotes – and demonstrates how the modular element of Palladio’s plans allowed him to work quickly and prolifically. At Villa Emo, the visitor approaches the majestic temple front by way of a raised platform of steps, accentuating the grandness of the central section – but at certain times of the year, that same aristocratic staircase was used to thresh grain. Leonardo Emo, the villa’s patron, had special responsibility for guaranteeing the Venetian republic’s food supplies and he experimented on the farm with newly-introduced cereals: Palladio’s design allowed Emo to oversee work in his ‘temple’ while broadcasting his patrician status. When you enter the villa, you begin to understand something else Palladio was coveted for: the dimensions and volumes of each room remain comfortably human in scale and are underpinned by a modulating rhythm that one scholar likens to a classical fugue.

Villa Emo – the residential complex of the Emo family in Fanzolo

Palladio’s designs – for country villas, urban palaces, town halls, churches and even a theatre – have become an inescapable part of modern Western architecture, thanks to the Four Books on Architecture he published (with floorplans) in his own lifetime. In England they made an indelible impression on Inigo Jones, and in America on Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. But with the rising popularity of the ornate baroque style, Palladio’s graceful modular aesthetic required revisiting. Site, aspect and landscape – all of which had been important to Italian villas since ancient times – came increasingly into play, used by architects and designers to amplify the overall sense of drama and theatricality. An obvious example of this is the staggering villa-islands of Milan’s Borromeo family.

Monticello in Charlottesville USA, was the primary plantation of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States

Isola Bella rises out of the waters of Lake Maggiore like a cross between a tiered wedding cake and a triumphant war galley: behind the house, the garden is built up on a series of terraces.

Isola Bella is the most southerly of the Borromean Islands, the group of islands in Lake Maggiore near the town of Stresa

A large theatre, made out of precious rocaille – an ornate but fragile medium that mixes shells, sculpture and plaster and may have given us our word ‘rococo’ – is crowned with one of the family’s emblems, a giant unicorn, and white peacocks still strut and call on the manicured green lawns. There’s not much of Palladio’s utilitas here but that’s beside the point, as Isola Bella proclaims the family’s status and taste to anyone who so much as glances at it. You could think of it as the 17th century in a nutshell!

The “Theatre” constructed at the end of the superimposed terraces, dominated by a statue of a Unicorn and the heraldic emblem of the Borromeos

This potential to broadcast a personal message in one’s villa complex – loudly or subtly, depending on the patron – takes on interesting inflections over time. Near Isola Bella, another of the Borromean Islands, Isola Madre, was developed in the 19th century into a botanical garden in the English landscape style.

Isola Madre is the largest and most northern of the Borromean Islands in Lake Maggiore

In a taxonomic garden such as this, exotic plants – like nandina, common to so many Australian gardens – announce the intellect, refinement and innovation of the patron.

Isola Madre is home to an elegant villa surrounded by extensive botanic gardens

Villa Carlotta, on sublime Lake Como, allowed Georg of Saxe-Meiningen, husband of Princess Charlotte of Prussia, to indulge his own botanical green thumb: its extensive grounds are covered in a riot of azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias that thrive in the pre-alpine microclimate of the lake.

Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo on Lake Como

The original owner of Villa Carlotta, Gianbattista Sommariva, constructed this magnificent residence across the lake from the house of his great rival, Francesco Melzi d’Eril. Melzi rode the turbulent waves of Italian politics post-Napoleon and pre-Unification and, like Sommariva, was an admirer of Antonio Canova, whose neo-classical sculptures are featured in both these villas on Lake Como. Here the beauty of this extraordinary landscape sets off the neo-classical buildings and artworks, and it’s said that Liszt was inspired to write his Dante Symphony while spending time at Villa Melzi.

Villa Melzi fronts on Lake Como, situated in the town of Bellagio. It is famous for its surrounding gardens, including Japanese maples, American redwoods, rhododendrons and azaleas

Lake Como has long drawn adventurers like Melzi d’Eril. In the 20th century, for example, the 18th-century Villa Balbianello – one of the most beautifully situated of all Como’s villas – became the cherished residence of supermarket mogul and explorer Guido Monzino, the first Italian to lead an expedition up Everest.

The glorious position of Villa del Balbianello, situated on the tip of the small wooded peninsula of Dosso d’Avedo, on the western shore of the south-west branch of Lake Como

Perhaps the combination of soft lake views and the sublime mountains beyond simultaneously soothes and stirs charismatic people – like George Clooney, whose lakeside villa is always pointed out to visitors.

The view over Lake Como from Villa del Balbianello

Naturally our own ‘tree changes’ are unlikely to resemble those of George Clooney… or Caroline of Brunswick, estranged wife of George IV, at Lake Como’s Villa d’Este… or Queen Caterina Cornaro of Cyprus in her gilded Renaissance cage at Asolo. And yet the principle remains the same: we are embarking on the ancient Roman search for otium that embodies the Italian dream of villa life, still so resplendent in the beautiful villas and gardens of northern Italy.

Guardians of The Medieval Past: Nine Hill Towns of Central Italy

Perched precariously on rugged hilltops and cliff faces, Italy’s remote medieval towns often sit in splendid isolation, boasting extraordinary views of the pristine surrounding landscape. Generally built for defensive purposes, the stone and masonry walls, sturdy gates and watch towers which typify these towns have survived virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages. The narrow streetscapes mean car access is limited or forbidden, and many villages can still only be visited on foot. Atmospheric, soulful and beautifully preserved, these are historic moments captured in time. Dr Jeni Ryde, with over fifteen years’ experience leading tours to Italy, explores nine of Central Italy’s hill towns, including those off the usual tourist track.

1. Vigoleno: a tiny medieval fortress town

The fortified village of Vigoleno (pictured above and below) with its unusual elliptical layout is just one of many unique medieval borghi to be discovered in the region of Emilia Romagna. Built as a defensive outpost, its massive, undamaged walls are positioned on a strategic ridge with breathtaking views of the valley below. The tiny village within the walls hosts a beautiful 12th-century Romanesque church with outstanding frescoes of St George and the Dragon.

The fortified village of Vigoleno, one of the most important historical monuments near Piacenza in Emilia Romagna

2. Bagno Vignoni: a pedestrian-only medieval spa town

Towns like Bagno Vignoni, in southern Tuscany, are often forsaken by the average tourist, who prefers to tread the well beaten routes of the classic itineraries. Here, tour buses are rare. Under the radar, glossed over in travel guides (or not even mentioned) as well as being difficult to reach, the more curious and adventurous travellers will, most likely, have towns like Bagno Vignoni to themselves.

Here you’ll find, for example, the therapeutic hot springs used since Roman times to cure skin ailments – Lorenzo the Magnificent de’ Medici and St Catherine of Siena both enjoyed the waters here. You’re almost guaranteed to have the tiny village to yourself: one bar and one small hotel set around the hot pool, which here replaces the usual medieval piazza.

Bagno Vignoni, located in the heart of Tuscany, in the famous Val d’Orcia. At the centre of the village is the “Square of sources”.

3. Fontanellato and the hidden gems of Italian art

Not only scenically gorgeous and free of tourists, these towns also hold marvellous secrets, little gems that delight and surprise. Take for example the small town of Fontanellato. Bang in the centre of the town sits a petite fortress-palace. Its broad water-filled moat is still supplied by the fontana lata, the medieval water source that gives its name to the town.

Called the Rocca Sanvitale after the Sanvitale family who lived there, the palace gave birth to a town in the 15th century, right on the border with the Duchy of Parma. The jewel in the crown is an exceptional series of frescoes in the fortress-palace, the Diana and Actaeon cycle painted by Parmigianino – he of the elongated figures before El Greco – and one of the early masterpieces of the artist.

And there is more! A visit to the palace is not complete without seeking out another hidden gem, the quirky camera oscura (hidden room), which the Duke built so he could spy on the passing parade: an early voyeur!

The small town of Fontanellato is dominated by the extraordinary Rocca di Sanvitale, the looming – and moated! – castle of a provincial dynasty

4. Monteriggioni: a trip back in time

Designed with security in mind, many of Italy’s medieval hill towns have fortified walls, towers and cobbled streets, giving visitors a real sense of what life must have been like in the medieval world. Monteriggioni, a minute hillside town built in the 13th century and once strategically important in defending Siena, still has its entire circuit of medieval walls intact. Dante was so impressed by its crown of massive walls that he mentioned it in his Divine Comedy, using the towers to evoke the sight of the ring of giants encircling the infernal abyss.

The town’s position was not an accident, however. The fortress was built by Siena as a first line of defence in its continuous battles with its rival Florence, and later sheltered pilgrims making their way to Siena along the Via Francigena.

Monteriggioni, a walled town in Tuscany. The castle walls offer views of the surrounding Chianti region

5. Castell’Arquato and regional Italian gastronomy

Hill towns like Castell’Arquato are small, manageable, discrete communities. This means that town centres are compact and easy to visit in a short time, enabling a complete overview in one visit. It’s so easy to combine a visit to extraordinary churches with a wander along beautiful laneways lined with medieval buildings.

And don’t forget lunch in a typical trattoria to taste the local produce! I love to take groups to a simple country restaurant just below Castell’Arquato. It’s surrounded by vineyards and rich farmland, and specialises in making homemade pasta fresca, a specialty of the Emilia Romagna region. And the view of the rolling Colli Piacentini (hills of Piacenza) from the bathroom window needs to be seen to be believed!

Castell’Arquato is located on the foothills of Val D’Arda in the province of Piacenza

6. The charterhouse of Pavia

It’s easy to forget how much significant architecture can still be found in Italy’s regional towns: often when we think of Italy’s contribution to architectural history, we immediately think of Rome’s Colosseum, Florence cathedral or Venice’s Ducal Palace. Yet in regional towns the urban mosaic is often little changed over centuries, and early medieval Italy was a rich intermingling of different cultures and empires.

These included the Frankish Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and even Muslim conquerors, and traces of these cultural epochs can still be found in unexpected places. The charterhouse, or certosa, of Pavia, for example, was an elite monastic institution sponsored by the dukes of Milan as their final resting place. Inside, it boasts frescoes and tomb sculptures in a style to rival the work of the best-known artists of the Italian Renaissance, but the façade is unique. A rich work in multi-coloured marble and precious stones, it reveals a staggering range of artistic influences.

The Certosa di Pavia, a monastery and complex in Lombardy, northern Italy

7. Gothic Siena

Because modern development passed by many of Italy’s regional centres, it is also still possible to see the beauty of medieval town planning. Villages frequently grew up in a radial development around two main nuclei: the spiritual centre, and secular areas dedicated to government and trade. Close-knit communities flourished under the shadow of the church and the watchful eye of a feudal aristocracy.

Siena is the quintessential example of a perfectly structured medieval town. Its urban design, suite of outstanding medieval buildings, and ensemble of major artworks has earned it a place on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. But while today Siena has a more relaxed feel than its larger neighbour (and rival) Florence, in the Middle Ages it exerted a truly international influence, inspiring artists as far afield as Avignon and handling the majority of the papal banking business in Rome.

This earlier history, which played a significant part in the development of the Italian Renaissance, is well-preserved in Siena precisely because it did not become a significant political or manufacturing centre in the modern era.

Piazza del Campo and the Torre del Mangia in the Old Town of Siena

8. The Castelli del Ducato

The so-called “Castelli del Ducato” were part of a defensive network built in the Middle Ages and Renaissance by the dukes and aristocrats of Parma and Piacenza. There are 22 just in the area around Parma, for example, and they were used as bulwarks of protection during conflicts between communities.

So if medieval castles are your thing, the number and variety of well-preserved, impressive medieval castles that can be visited in central Italy is astounding. And the stories that are told about them are sometimes the stuff of fairytale. Take Torrechiara, for example: it was built in the 15th century by a military captain in the service of the dukes of Parma. Pier Maria II de’ Rossi wanted a bolthole for his beloved mistress, Bianca Pellegrini. He had the rooms frescoed with great mythological love stories, and even the doors of the castle’s chapel are decorated with the lovers’ interlocking crests. Two hearts are inscribed Digne et in aeternum (worthily and forever) and Nunc et semper (now and forever).

Set on rolling hills adorned with vineyards, the Torrechiara castle is one of the best preserved in Emilia Romagna

9. San Gimignano

In medieval Europe, towns were often situated either directly on or close to the great superhighways: medieval pilgrim routes leading to religious shrines, such as Rome, that would subsequently become important trade routes. One example is the Via Francigena, documented by Sigerico, Archbishop of Canterbury, during 990 and 994 CE.

The importance of the road for spiritual tourism led to the construction of a wealth of early churches with outstanding paintings: a sensory overload of stark Romanesque beauties, known as pievi, such as those to be found in Lucca and San Gimignano, for example. Some towns, such as Siena, developed into important centres of banking.

Trade along these pilgrim routes and the prosperity that travellers brought meant that the towns became commercial hubs and, ultimately, cradles of the Italian Renaissance. Prized also for their defensive hilltop locations, towns like San Gimignano – known as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages for its many medieval towers – also attracted significant artists, commissioned to decorate the ever-increasing number of buildings in these expanding towns. San Gimignano alone boasts significant works by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Benozzo Gozzoli and Domenico Ghirlandaio!

San Gimignano, known as the Town of Fine Towers, is a small walled medieval hill town in the province of Siena, Tuscany

Local pride in central Italy

Finally, a trademark of these medieval towns is how they have retained their charm and authenticity, each of them with distinctive personalities. Each town has its own legends, stories and related festivals, and these are a real source of pride to local communities. It’s easy to get a feel for the colour of life in these towns, as you learn about and experience centuries’ old traditions, savour local culinary specialities and taste the local wines.

This medieval feel is most pronounced during the distinctive festivals (or sagre) specific to each town. Pisa celebrates local saint Ranieri in June by placing 70,000 wax candles along the Arno river, for example, while Lucca celebrates its precious volto santo – a crucifix thought to show Christ’s true face – with a historical procession. Pienza boasts the Fiera del Cacio, a celebration of its prestigious pecorino that sees children rolling huge wheels of the cheese down the main street of town in a hilarious race … and Siena naturally has its Palio, the famous horse race run twice a year at breakneck speed around the historic Campo, still fiercely contested by neighbourhood districts. These communities are truly the guardians of the medieval heritage!

Horses turn into the Campo’s most dangerous corner during the Palio held in Siena, Italy. Credit: Mike Hewitt /Allsport

Ten cultural experiences in Florence not to miss!

You’ve waited in line to see Michelangelo’s David and you’ve sighed over Botticelli’s Birth of Venus – so what else shouldn’t you miss in Florence, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance? Tour leader Dr Kathleen Olive, who lived and studied in this beautiful city, has some suggestions.

“As long as you avoid the major tourist sites, you can very much have Florence to yourself,” says Kathleen. “You just need to watch your program on Mondays, when most of the state-owned museums are closed, and plan to do most of your touring in the morning, as a number of the minor museums close at lunch and don’t re-open.”


1. Florence’s neglected history

The Museo Archeologico is a great place to appreciate Tuscany’s earliest history: don’t miss the wonderful Etruscan chimera, dug up in the sixteenth century in Arezzo, or the early Roman statuary. The garden, particularly lovely in spring, has reconstructions of Etruscan tombs.

Outside the museum, in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, the Museo degli Innocenti recently re-opened inside the Foundling Hospital designed by Brunelleschi in the fifteenth century. It’s a fascinating insight into the organisation of Florence’s long-running orphanage, and also contains some stand-out artworks by Domenico Ghirlandaio and Piero di Cosimo.

The rooftop café – which you can enter without visiting the museum, if you prefer – has wonderful views over the cathedral and out to Fiesole.


2. Medici Magic

The Museo di San Marco, not far from Piazza Santissima Annunziata, was once a Dominican convent which architect Michelozzo redesigned at the Medici family’s expense. It is now a museum dedicated to the art of Fra Angelico, the “angelic friar” who lived here and frescoed the monks’ cells with his quietly beautiful masterpieces.

A few hundred metres down the road is the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, once the family home and now used as state offices. A ticket gains you entry to the palace’s glittering jewel, the Cappella dei Magi, entirely frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli with the procession of the Wise Men.


3. Something completely different: Museo “La Specola”

Just beyond Palazzo Pitti is the Museum of Natural History, known as “La Specola” for the observation room that housed Galileo’s instruments.

It has a dusty collection of flora and fauna (the butterflies are wonderful), but the real highlight is the collection of wax anatomical models. They offer a fascinating insight into medical history of the Enlightenment, so I’d recommend it for anyone with this interest.


4. Beyond church fatigue

Not everyone has my tolerance for popping into every church I pass, looking for new treasures! But some of Florence’s churches offer just as much insight into the masterpieces of the past as museums like the Uffizi or Accademia do, and they’re rarely crowded.

I particularly recommend Santa Trinita (the Sassetti Chapel is a real highlight), Santa Maria Novella (now entirely a museum, and with wonderful works by Masaccio, Filippino Lippi and Paolo Uccello) and Orsanmichele (for early masterpieces by Ghiberti, Donatello and Giambologna).


5. Find the green spaces

Head up to the hillside above Florence, at Piazzale Michelangelo, not just for the stunning views over the city, but also for some of the best springtime gardens. The Iris Garden, where competition-winning blooms carpet an olive grove, is open in April and May only.

The Rose Garden, on the other side of the square, is open year-round but its blooms are best in May and June. It’s a lovely place for a picnic lunch, has a wonderful view, and is dotted with quirky sculptures donated to the city by Folon.


6. Take an artisan walking tour

Florence’s fortunes were based on the expertise of its craftsmen, and you can still visit many artisan workshops today. A lot of the leather you see in Florence now is imported, but if you go to the official Scuola del Cuoio (Tuscan Leather School) behind Santa Croce, you can see where the region is still training leatherworkers.

For paper, Il Torchio on Via dei Bardi makes paper and leather-bound books on the premises, and is a short walk from Alessandro Dari’s workshop – he’s a self-described “alchemical jeweller” whose amazing creations are displayed like fantastical artworks inside vitrines.

And for perfumes and toiletries, don’t miss the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella (which now has a sweet tea room inside), Aqua Flor on Borgo Santa Croce, or Monastica (a monastery shop inside the Florentine Badia).


7. Shop with the locals

Florence’s Mercato Centrale recently underwent a facelift, and now boasts a chi-chi gourmet foodhall on its upper floor. But for a more authentic experience, head near Santa Croce to the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio and spend a morning browsing with the locals.

Once you’ve had your fill of checking out the produce, you can have an inexpensive lunch inside at Trattoria da Rocco, which is a train-like compartment selling classic Tuscan fare based on the market produce outside. You’ll be seated alongside locals – lots of professors and students from the nearby university – and it’s a great experience.


8. Quirky museums

Very few people visit the Museo Stefano Bardini – he was an antiquarian (and, just quietly, a bit of a shyster) whose taste for displaying ancient artworks and modern recreations inspired Isabella Stewart Gardner back in Boston. His house museum in Florence has some wonderful pieces and is an interesting place to ponder the “rediscovery” of the Renaissance.

There’s a very inexpensive and sweet Shoe Museum under the Ferragamo shop on Via Tornabuoni, which tracks the company’s history making pieces for the great and the good, but which also hosts thoughtful contemporary art exhibitions.

And if you’ve never been to the Bargello museum, a treasure trove of sculpture (both large scale and small decorative objects) awaits you!


9. Get a different perspective

Queues to climb the cathedral’s dome are now very long and require advance bookings. Fewer people climb Giotto’s belltower, which enjoys the same view (and has less steps), and fewer again know that you can climb to the top of Orsanmichele in central Florence, free of charge, on Mondays.

To get a good view with even less exertion, head to the rooftop café on top of the Rinascente department store in Piazza della Repubblica.


10. Enjoy yourself!

I love a special glass of wine and nibbles at Volpi e l’Uva, just alongside the church of Santa Felicita, or at Cantinetta dei Verrazzano on Via dei Tavolini (right in the centre of town).

It’s a bit further out – near Santa Croce – but the young guys who run Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo have real verve and the food is a fantastic interpretation of classic Italian cuisine. Olio et Convivium is an intimate restaurant that specialises in Tuscan products – you’ll never look at bruschetta in the same way again!

And for a sweet treat, I head to Robiglio (tucked away near the cathedral on Via dei Tosinghi, or over near Santissima Annunziata) or Caffé Pazkowski in Piazza della Repubblica, where they still make their own pastries and cakes on the premises.