This is the best I can do with a picture. It shows a view to the South/Southeast from the top of the Campanile. The two structures of most interest in this picture (you just have to visit them, of course, in order to understand them) are the Palazzo Vecchio and the Santa Croce Church. The former is the Civic center of medieval Florence; the latter is the largest Franciscan Church in the world. One author has described the sharp tower of the former, in the right center of the picture, as a sort of "hypodermic needle" splitting the sky. On the piazza of the PV are various statues and imitations of statutes, among them Michelangelo's David, the original of which is in the Galleria d'Accademia, which we didn't have time to visit. One of the other statues in the PV is Perseus displaying the head of Medusa (recall in Greek mythology he had sliced off her head by looking backwards in a mirror?).
It is interesting the way that art was used in the service of politics in Florence of the 15th and later centuries, for the Perseus piece was beloved by the Medici while, apparently, an alternative picture of someone cutting off the head of a tyrant (Judith and Holofernes, from the apocryphal book Judith) was set up in the square when the Medici were expelled from power in the 1490s. The image of slicing off heads therefore bulked large in the religious and secular imagination of Florentines from medieval times. We ought to have been convinced of this reality from reading that most Italian (and universal) of books: Dante's Inferno. Though he may have been trying to draw a chilling picture of the hell, derived from the Scriptures and theological reflection on the subject, much of his great work consists of descriptions of fellow Italians that you find littered throughout the various levels of hell.
Speaking of heads being sliced off, though, I can't resist mention of one church in Florence which you can barely see in the background, on the hill....right THERE. It is the Church of San Miniato al Monte. Though I don't know much of the story of San Miniato, he was an early medieval guy who was supposed to have been decapitated (there is that theme again), and then, with superhuman strength, he carried his own head across the bridge, walked up the hill and expired on the place where the church now stands. This puts new meaning into my father's early warning to me that if I kept up my childish activities he would "hand my head to me." If I had had in 1960 the knowledge of San Miniato that I now have, I could have resonded to my father, "Go ahead, hand me my head; I might just become a Saint."
One Other Church--Santa Croce
As mentioned, the other large building we see in this picture, at the Southeast of town just a short distance from the Arno River--which flooded periodically until the 1960s to such an extent that several of the famed Ghiberti bronzes on the East door of the Baptistery washed away in a flood less than 50 years ago, only to be recovered and, finally, put safely away in a museum--is the Church of Santa Croce (no relation to Jim Croce, I think). I mentioned above that it was a Franciscan Church, and they began to build it in 1294 on the foundation of another Franciscan church which had been built a generation previously. This is quite amazing, since Francis himself had only died 70 years before, and already the strength of his name and fame had spread so wide that people were constructing immense Churches in his honor. Just think of it. So radical is the message of peace in a society which constantly wars with each other (an accurate characterization of Italy in the 10th - 15th centuries); so unusual is the proclamation of harmony between man and nature and appreciation of all creatures of the world as beloved by God, that the man who preached such a message was quickly sanctified by the Roman Catholic Church and became beloved for all ages to come.
It makes you think of what it might take today to become a Saint in America. Which values would you affirm, and which would you question, of the dominant culture?
Though the sanctuary of Santa Croce is the most alluring thing for most visitors--because of the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and many other significant Florentines, I found the simple Pazzi Chapel, designed by Brunnelleschi, to hold my interest the longest. As one web site says, the leading characteristic of the Pazzi Chapel is the "rationality of space" designed by Brunelleschi. The space is "clarified" by the use of stone moldings, so called "pietra serene" (serene stone), which stand out against the white stucco background. With its barrel vaults over sections of the chapel, medallions and roundels on the walls, the chapel is both a simple, functional and very symmetric space.
Though there is much more to say about Florence, I will conclude with an essay on one of the most famous of the "sights" there--the Ghiberti bronzes on the door of the Baptistry. Everyone should have the opportunity to see or think about these bronzes at least once in life....