Located in the central, western part of Italy, Tuscany is renowned for its artistic heritage and for its incredible beauty. Ruled by Rome for centuries, the region is actually named for its original inhabitants, the Etruscans. Though the Middle Ages brought upheaval and many invasions, Tuscany rose during the Renaissance period, establishing its role in the restoration of European civilization. Joining the Italian Republic in the 19th century, the region has continued to flourish and today is a draw for millions of tourists. Surrounded by the Apennine Mountains, the Apuan Alps and the Tyrrhenian Sea, the region is divided into 10 provinces: Arezzo, Florence, Grosseto, Province of Livorno, Lucca, Massa-Carrara, Pisa, Pistoia, Prato and Siena.
While its wealth of art treasures is legendary, Tuscany is also known for its vineyards and landscapes. With 120 protected nature preserves and six UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) protected sites (the historical centers of Florence Siena, Pienza and San Gimignano, the square of the Cathedral of Pisa, and the Val d’Orcia, there is much to see and experience throughout the region.
Originally established by Julius Caesar in 59 BC as Florentia (Flourishing), Florence was aptly named: despite a turbulent history with many ups and downs, the city always managed to flourish. Now the most populous city in Tuscany, the early city’s population fell to as few as 1,000 persons during various periods of rule from other countries and factions. Florence regained its economic footing and autonomy and, by the 13th century, became one of many free cities in Italy. Though internal personal and political struggles lead to civil wars that tore the city apart, Florence grew and prospered. The city suffered the loss of nearly 60% of its population to the plague, or “Black Death”, in 1348 but Tuscany rose under the rule of Cosimo de’Medici. Thus began a period of intense artistic and intellectual pursuit, led by such artists as Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael. Joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1859, the city became increasingly industrialized, doubling its population in the 19th century and tripling it by the 20th. Florence is now the capital of Tuscany and is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world: 600 years of artistic contribution can be seen in its architecture, and in its many galleries and museums. According to statistics, 60% of the world’s most important art works are in Italy and, of those, approximately half are located in Florence.
This exceptional artistic heritage can be seen in the Palatina galleries, the architecture of the Duomo and the Santo Spirito Church, the sculptures at the Bargello Tower and the works by Michelangelo, Brunellschi, Botticello and many, many others. Millions of tourists come to Florence each year to experience the cultural, artistic and architectural contributions of this remarkable city. While it would be impossible to include all of the city’s museums, galleries and monuments, there are several that warrant specific mention. The Uffizi Museum contains collections by Botticelli, Masaccio, and Piero della Francesca. The Academy, the archeological museum and the gallery in the Bargello palace are also important and stunning art museums. The terraces of the Boboli Gardens, located behind the Pitti Palace, demonstrate Italian landscape architecture. The Churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce have remarkable frescoes, art works, cloisters and facades while the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine contains significant frescoes by Masolino, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi. The Church of San Lorenzo houses the tombs of the Medici by Michelangelo, the Laurentian Library and works by Donatello.
Named for Senius, son of Remus whose twin brother Romulus is the namesake of Rome, Siena is a beautiful and remarkably well-preserved, medieval city. Located in the heart of Tuscany, the city was largely untouched by the Renaissance movement and remains a wonderful example of a city from the Middle Ages. Though the city’s location meant it lacked opportunity for trade, rerouted roads as a result of the invasion by the Lombards created the opportunity for growth. By the 12th century, Siena was self-governing but newfound prosperity brought conflict with Florence, as the cities fought over territory and politics. Siena soon entered into a period of downward mobility that lasted until through the 14th century. Eventually, after political upheaval and instability, the city joined the Kingdom of Italy with the rest of Tuscany in 1861 and
Despite its turbulent history, Siena’s churches, monuments and buildings remain remarkably well preserved. The cultural significance of this city can be clearly seen in its distinctive landscape and architecture. The Duomo, a Gothic cathedral, and the adjacent Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana house many important frescoes, paintings, sculptures and facades by such artists as Giovanni Pisano, Duccio di Buoninsegna, Vecchietta and many others. The town square, the Piazzo del Campo, is a major attraction, with 11 streets leading to its center. The Palio di Siena, a medieval horse race that takes place twice yearly, is run around the Piazzo. The Museo Civico (the Civic Museum) is contained in Il Campo and houses one of Italy’s most important works of art, the painting “Allegories of Good and Bad Government” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The Chiesa di San Domenico church, built in 1225, is another remarkable landmark and the Spedale Santa Maria della Scala, considered to be one of the city’s artistic poles, has a public palace, cathedral and the Museo Archeologico. While there are many magnificent landmarks, the alleys, squares and small streets scattered throughout the city are equally enchanting. For a window into a past world, Siena is well worth exploring.
Best known for its famous leaning marble bell tower, Pisa is a charming and distinctly beautiful city with a rich cultural heritage. Colonized by Rome, Pisa flourished; the city’s location at the junction of the Arno and Serchio rivers, and the fact that it was one of few ports along the coast, established the town early as an important seaside settlement. However, it is the city’s cultural significance that best defines it. Nicola Pisano started a school of sculpture in Pisa, which produced some of Italy’s great works of arts: Galileo both studied and taught there. His experiments involving gravitational force at the leaning tower created an ongoing fascination with the structure. Started in 1173, the freestanding tower was built to stand vertically but a poorly constructed foundation on equally poor soil caused the structure to bend. As the tower’s lean grew more severe through the 18th and 19th centuries, efforts were made to mitigate the tilt. Now stabilized, this unintentional construction flaw has helped to fuel Pisa’s economy as a main attraction for tourists from all over the globe.
However, Pisa is more than just the leaning tower; there are many stunning examples of Renaissance art and architecture throughout the city. Along with the leaning tower, located behind the cathedral in the ‘Square of Miracles’, or Piazza dei Miracoli, are the Duomo, the Camposanto (a burial ground for the city’s nobility), and the Baptistry. It is an amazing experience to stand in the simple square of grass and look at these medieval architectural masterpieces. Near the Piazzo, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo houses a significant collection of artwork while the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo provides a fascinating look at the influence of Christianity on medieval painting and sculpture. Galileo’s compass can be viewed at the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti per il Calcolo. The historical center of Pisa, the Piazza dei Cavalieri, contains remarkable buildings including the Palazzo dell’Orologio (the clock building) and the church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri. Pisa also has the oldest botanical garden in Europe, the Orto botanico di Pisa, and wonderful shops and cafes can be found along the lovely and elegant Borgo Stretto. The university, founded in 1343, has an excellent pedigree and is considered one of Italy’s top schools. While the famous leaning tower draws tourists to Pisa, the history, charm and serenely beautiful art and architecture entice visitors to stay and explore this unique city.
Located on a hill in the Elsa Valley, the walled city of San Gimignano is a beautifully preserved medieval town renowned for its towers, which were built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Visible from a good distance from the town, the view of the towers is a stunning sight. San Gimignano’s history began in the 10th century but it was the Middle Ages that brought prosperity and growth to the small town; the “Via Francigena”, an ancient road used by Catholic pilgrims that ran from Canterbury to Rome that crossed through San Gimignano, brought increased trade and prosperity. By the 1300’s, the town was becoming popular as a tourist destination and artistic haven. And while many other cities and towns suffered substantial damage during World War II, San Gimignano was spared, preserving its original architecture, including the 13th century walls surrounding the town and its fourteen remarkable towers.
San Gimignano has a deep artistic background and the museums throughout the town demonstrate this history. The Church of Sant’Agostino has beautiful frescoes dating back to the 14th century as well as paintings from the Italian Renaissance. The Collegiate Church of San Gimignano has another impressive collection and the Communal Palace contains paintings and frescoes as well as access to the Great Tower, “Torre Grossa” (also referred to as “Torre del Podesta”). After taking in the remarkable artwork, a gelato and a coffee can be found at Piazza della Cisterna, one of four squares that make up the town center, including Piazza Duomo, Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza Pecori. The Piazza Duomo is home to the Collegiate Church, or Duomo, and has incredible sculptures, frescoes and statues. However, San Gimignano’s best artwork is the view of the town itself from one of the towers, the quaint staircases leading to houses along the streets and the local gardens and small shops that make this a town well worth visiting.
The wine of Montepulciano is called “Vino Nobile” as its quality is so exemplary that it was chosen by nobles and gentleman to be served at lavish dinners and banquets. This would be reason enough to visit the hillside town; however, Montepulciano is more than just wine. Nestled on a ridge on Monte Poliziano, the town is considered to be one of the most scenic in Tuscany. Settled originally in the 4th century BC, the town struggled throughout the 12th and 14th centuries, suffering under attacks from Siena and besieged by internal conflicts. The town recovered to become a significant agricultural contributor and has made a name for itself within the world of wine. Built on a limestone ridge, Montepulciano is designed to be walked, not driven; the long main street, the Porta al Prato, winds its way up the hillside to the center of town, the Piazza Grande, and is 1.5 kilometers (>1 mile) long. The town hall is located in the piazza and has a large tower that affords tremendous views of the surrounding countryside, to include the village of Sant’Albino, home to the Thermal Spas of Montepulciano, renowned for their healing waters and mud baths.
The architecture of the town matches the beauty and charm of the landscape. The Duomo of Montepulciano is a gorgeous cathedral built in the late 1500’s; it has a stunning triptych on the high altar painted by the famed artist Taddeo di Bartolo. The Palazzo Tarugi, built exclusively of travertine, is a remarkable work of architecture. The Church of San Biagio, located just outside the town, is another travertine masterpiece. Also outside the walls of the town is the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Biagio, a stunning example of 16th century work that includes two travertine bell towers. Remarkable Tuscan paintings can be found at the Civic Museum of Montepulciano, located in the 14th century palace, the Palazzo Neri-Orselli. There are, as expected, many venues for wine tasting, most in wine cellars locate throughout town. Many offer other local products to sample, such as Pecorino cheese, salami and olive oil, and some allow tasters to explore the underground mazes and tunnels that were once linked to the palaces in the area. For a slightly different wine experience, witness the “Bravio”, or wine barrel race, that runs through the town every August. So while the wine may draw visitors to Montepulciano, it is the beauty of the town and the charm of the environment that will keep them returning.
Located on the Tyrrhenian Sea, the city of Livorno is as unique as it’s name. ‘Livorno’ translates to ‘leghorn’, a breed of chicken for which the city is named, which is also shared with the Warner Brothers cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn. Now the third largest port in Italy, Livorno began as Liburna, a small Roman village in the 15th century. However, when the ruling power was transferred to Florence, the small town entered a period of expansion that lasted three centuries, thereby transforming the small town into a major city and powerful port in the Mediterranean. One significant set of laws were passed that both aided the booming trade in Livorno but also helped to create the cultural melting pot that characterizes the city today. The “Leggi Livornine” guaranteed merchants, among other privileges, the ability to worship freely as well as amnesty. Livorno was already a free port, which meant the goods traded in the city were duty free, and with the advent of the new laws, the city grew and prospered. Merchants from around the globe moved to Livorno, enriching the city with a sensibility of cross-cultural and religious tolerance. However, the city suffered from the loss of trade during the Napoleonic Wars as well as the “Porto Franco” (free port) status that had aided the economy. Perhaps more devastating was the damage Livorno sustained during World War II. Despite these setbacks, the spirit of the city remains in the undeniable beauty of small bridges over crisscrossing canals, the stunning seaside promenade, the varied neighborhoods and markets throughout this unique destination.
With all of Livorno’s history, it is the sea that perhaps has had the most impact on the character of the city. The 9-kilometer long (5.5 miles) seaside promenade, the Viale Italia, stretches from Livorno to the neighboring town of Antignano and is famous for its stunning views of the shoreline, including the islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. Another lovely promenade is the Terrazza Mascagni, which leads to the beautifully rebuilt Gazebo and refurbished 19th century Grand Hotel Palazzo. For a glimpse into 17th century Livorno, explore the lovely Venezia Nuova, or Venice district, that contains the original homes and apartments among islands, canals and bridges that permitted easy transfer of goods during this period of high trade. In August, the festival Effetto Venezia takes place in the Venezia Nuova, featuring boat rides through the canals, street performers and many exhibits. The Mercato delle Vettovaglie, a large and ornate covered market built in the 19th century, is another fascinating destination. Livorno’s beaches are stunning and renowned for their cleanliness and maintenance: there are several beach resorts along the coast that provide access to not only the beaches but to the lovely woods and cliffs surrounding them as well. There are several wildlife refuges, parks and reserves in the area that have helped maintain the natural surroundings, allowing many species to prosper and flourish. Livorno is a unique seaside destination that demonstrates the depth of Italy’s cultural history and the beauty of its coastline.
For those who have read “Under the Tuscan Sun” by Frances Mayes or watched the film based on the novel, the beauty and charm of Cortona may feel familiar. The film was shot in Cortona itself but the lush hillsides of vibrant flowers dotted with Etruscan tombs and the winding streets of the town can only truly be appreciated in living color. Settled by the Etruscans, as evidenced by the aforementioned tombstones, Cortona’s history is somewhat steeped in mystery. Two opposing legends tell different tales of the town’s antiquity: the Florentine class supposed that Tuscany belonged to ancient Etruria, placing Cortona under the rule of Florence, while the Cortonese ruling class argued that the town was the oldest in the region and had an autonomous political structure, thus allowing Cortona the right to their own governance. These legends were retold and retooled over time, clouding the truth of the town’s past. Despite these blurry beginnings, Cortona has become an agricultural and tourist center of the Tuscan region with remarkable Renaissance architecture, narrow medieval streets and a diverse and welcoming expatriate community.
Harkening back to Cortona’s origins, the historic center of town, with narrow, winding streets, is surrounded by a combination of early Etruscan and medieval walls. The town was built on the crest of Monte Sant-Egidio, affording views of mountains and Lake Trasimeno in the distance and the lush and fertile valley below. Two of the town’s churches, Santa Maria Nuova built in 1554 and Santa Maria delle Grazie built between 1484-1515, are extraordinary examples of Renaissance architecture and construction. There is also a Renaissance cathedral, the Duomo, not to be missed that houses 16th and 17th century artwork. One of the main squares in Cortona is the Piazza della Republica where a coffee or espresso can be enjoyed at one of the cafes while taking in the 13th century town hall and clock tower. The Piazza Signorelli holds one of the town’s oldest buildings, the Palazzo Casali, which is home to the Museo dell’Academia Etrusca (Estruscan Museum of Cortona), a museum of Etruscan artifacts and Renaissance and Baroque artwork. The public gardens are definitely to be explored as well as the nearby San Domenico church. If a unique and distinctly local experience is craved, the Sagra della Bistecca festival in August is the place to be. Held outdoors on the Parterre, a pedestrian-only avenue, the festival celebrates the famous Valdichiana veal. The event draws larger crowds every year to taste the renowned “bistecca”, charcoal-broiled veal steak on the bone. For a taste of Tuscany, Cortona is perhaps the ultimate destination.