Veni, Vidi, Vici Firenze! Although Meg and my hearts beat for the Renaissance, they race for those Romans! I mean what’s not to love about gladiator fights, vomitoriums, and togas? Although today tourists flock to Florence to see where the Renaissance kicked off, the true foundation of the city is entirely Roman. Unlike Rome’s majestic stretches of crumbled pillars and shells of temples, the ruins in Florence are a bit more discreet, posing an exciting challenge for the determined history buff to sniff out.
**Caveat, this is not your excuse to skip Rome on your Italy itinerary…seriously, we’re not friends if you don’t go to Rome.
In a city known for the Renaissance, a period which strove to reconnect with the ancients, it is only right that we do the same. After all, Florence never could have spawned such geniuses as Michelangelo and Leonardo if there wasn’t a city to start with – and that is thanks to the Romans. So today take off those rose-colored Renaissance glasses as we take you on a walk around the ancient Roman city of Florentia.
Distance: 1.5 km
Time: at your leisure
Everyone’s favorite Roman, Julius Caesar himself, founded Florentia in 59 BCE as a military camp. Situated along the Arno (at the easiest point to cross the river), the town became an important pit stop on the trade route to the sea. At the heart of the city was the Roman forum, on which today lies Piazza della Repubblica, where our walk begins.
Ironically Piazza della Repubblica is one of the more modern piazzas in the city center (I know, I know, you were hoping that the carousel was a 1st-century original, sorry). So although it may take some imagination, try to remove the 19th-century palazzi and glitzy cafes and replace them with ancient Roman temples, markets, and courts. As one may surmise, the forum was situated at the central axis of the city (where Via Roma meets Via del Corso) that was based on the Roman’s OCD city planning grid system. Check out this map that outlines the original Roman walls as well as Via Roma and Via del Corso to see how Florentia, approximately 3 meters below the modern Florence street level, continues to shape the fabric of the city to this day.
Several street names even give homage to the Roman city, reminding passersby of the more ancient Florence that has been both literally and figuratively buried by history. For example, Via delle Terme (road of the baths) logically notes where the Roman bath house was located.
After a spin on the carousel go to Via Roma (the street that forms the east side of the piazza) and turn right (south) towards the Arno. Walk for a couple of blocks, passing not one but two Zaras (both of which I would make you stop at if I were with you). After you pass the Mercato Nuovo and the original ancient Roman H&M (kidding, kidding) you will see a sudden bend to the right in the otherwise perfectly straight road. This bend marks the point where the southern city wall was situated. After it was torn down the road bent (something that would have made those OCD Romans’ skin crawl) to extend to the river. Because this walk is strictly Roman don’t pass that imaginary wall and turn to your left to enter Piazza della Signoria.
Last time we were here we ooo’ed and aww’ed over the Piazza’s fine gallery of Renaissance art and architecture. Today however, we are digging deeper. While millions of Florentines and tourists trod through Piazza della Signoria every year, they have most likely been unaware of the extensive archaeological excavations taking place beneath their feet. And what exactly are they digging up? They discovered an extensive ancient Roman textile center under the piazza making Florentia an early hot spot for the clothing trade in the Roman Empire. Can we chalk up Florence’s Fashion capital status to this? Who knows, but I’m sayin’ why not!
While in the piazza it would be a shame not to note a few other ancient Roman treasures. As mentioned in piazza della signoria part 2: the loggia dei lanzi, there are a few demure Roman works among the Renaissance heavy hitters. This lovely Roman lady bringing the toga party to the piazza is one such example.
Exit the piazza by walking along the north side of the Palazzo Vecchio on Via dei Gondi. Do you feel the street sloping down? This is because you are walking down into the ancient Roman theater. So much history has been built atop the theater that the steep steps are now nothing more than a slight slope. If this subtle slope was enough to pique your inner archaeologist, go to the Palazzo Vecchio ticket office and treat yourself to an 8 euro ticket to explore the excavation site below the Palazzo. Because 8 euro isn’t free we’ll leave you there and head onward!
Continue straight on Via dei Gondi, which will turn into Borgo dei Greci. In a couple of blocks you will arrive at Via Torta (Cake Street!). I always look for the Pinocchio store that marks where Via Torta intersects Borgo dei Greci to make sure that I don’t overshoot. So why is this little Italian alleyway relevant to today’s walk? Take either a right or a left and quickly find out as you feel the road curving in a perfect circle. No, you don’t have two left feet, you are merely walking around the foundation of the ancient colosseum Although the actual structure didn’t fair as well as its esteemed big brother in Rome, it provided a good foundation for medieval building projects and makes itself known, albeit subtly, by shaping this road.
By the way, Cake St. – everybody get it?
Sidenote – Knowing that one of Florence’s secret bakeries is located off of the round Via Torta will make your 3 AM expedition for a 1 euro ciambella much easier (more on secret bakeries later)!
Head back in the direction of the Palazzo Vecchio and take a right on the street just before the Palazzo, Via Proconsolo. As you walk by the Bargello keep one eye peeled for the outline of a large metal circle in the middle of the street. This circle marks the spot of the watch tower along the ancient wall which enclosed the city.
By now you are probably wondering if I dreamed up an ancient Roman city far beneath the modern Florence all on my own. So it’s about time I prove it! Keep heading north of Via Proconsolo until you reach Via Dante Alighieri. On the left corner just before Via Dante Alighieri, peek into the window of the high end fashion store and then look down. Below the racks of fur vests and snake skin stilettos the glass floors reveal the ancient city underneath our feet.
Continue on Via Proconsolo to the oh-so-familiar Piazza del Duomo. While 99% of the traffic in this piazza is made up of tourists reading Meg’s post about the little known facts of Piazza del Duomo, you’ll be taking a step back about 1,000 years before all of that!
Most would assume that this part of town became the religious center of the city during the Middle Ages when Florentines undertook the construction of the cathedral that we see today. However, the piazza served as a religious center for the Roman Pagans as well. As Meg mentioned in piazza del duomo, the Baptistery was built over the sight of a Pagan temple. As Rome switched teams from Pagan to Christian in the early 4th century, so did Florentia. Therefore, deep down beneath the behemoth Duomo one will find the ancient Roman Christian church of Santa Reparata that was constructed in the year 406 BCE. To see the ruins of the church and an ancient Roman home that preceded the church, you will have to enter the Duomo and descend the stairs that lead to the gift shop. Among the Dome umbrellas (yes I do have one) and Duomo snow globes (have that too) you’ll find the entrance to an archaeological site that lets you explore the ruins. Unfortunately there is a sticker price of 3 euro to poke around, but you can take a free of charge peek around the security guard at the site.
Although Piazza del Duomo brings us to the end of our Ancient Roman walk in Florence proper, you can extend your ancient adventure if you wish by coughing up a euro and catching bus #7 to the hilltop town of Fiesole to check out the fantastically preserved Roman amphitheater. Unlike Florence, these ruins are not hidden underground. Tickets to explore the ruins are a bit pricey, so for a free sneak peek head up the steep Via San Francesco out of the northwest corner of the main piazza. In about 3 minutes you will reach a staircase to your right that leads you up to a park. Walk along the fence on your right until you come to an opening. From this vantage point you can steal a great view of the ruins below.
So there it is, a break from the Renaissance and trip back to the Roman roots of Florence. Hopefully, this walk only wet your palette for the ultimate toga party in Rome itself. Until then, as you walk through the streets of Florence looking in shop windows at Florentine designer clothes and up at Renaissance architecture, know that it is the Romans who will forever be beneath our feet shaping the very fabric of the city that we love.