Short, sweet, and to the point – the recipe for the perfect Valentine and, it turns out, for a Valentine’s Day walk! It’s no secret that Florence is famous for attracting lovers, so we decided to follow in the footsteps of some of the city’s most renowned couples. Worried that it might be too saccharine? Read on, friend! We’ve got murders, deception and unrequited love in addition to some sappy, mushy stuff. So grab a fling or a friend for a romantic-ish stroll straight through the heart of Florence (see what we did there?).
Distance: 1.2 km / .75 m
Time: roughly one hour
Casa Guidi: Robert & Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Let’s start in the Oltrarno, where Via Maggio meets Via Romana just past Palazzo Pitti. There stands Casa Guidi, home to popular English poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning from 1847-1861. The palace was a haven for the couple, who had kept their relationship a secret at the start for fear of disapproval from Elizabeth’s family. It turns out, they had reason to worry. Once they learned of her lover, Elizabeth’s father and brother refused to receive Robert, who they found to be socially inferior and therefore repulsive.
To complicate things, Elizabeth suffered from poor health, while Robert was younger and livelier. Many believed he pursued her only for her money. But following their marriage (and Mr. Barrett’s subsequent disowning of his daugther), Robert remained steadfast in his dedication to Elizabeth. To support her health and their union, Robert moved his family to an apartment on the piano nobile of Casa Guidi in 1847.
For 15 years the couple lived happily in this gorgeous space, where they wrote, received famous friends, and welcomed a son. Upon Elizabeth’s death in 1861, a heartbroken Robert moved his son back to England and would never return to Italy again, but Casa Guidi still memorializes the height of their love.
You can visit the Barrett Browning apartment in Casa Guidi free of charge from April through November, 3:00 until 6:00 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Palazzo Pitti: Cosimo de’ Medici & Eleonora di Toledo
Head up Via Romana to a place we’ve visited many times before – Palazzo Pitti! Time to take a moment to reflect on one of the most powerful, lasting, and loving relationships in Florentine history – Cosimo & Eleonora!
As we know, Eleonora was fed up with city-living in Palazzo Vecchio. Never a woman to sit back and wait, she instead went house-hunting and used her own dowry to purchase and rehab Palazzo Pitti. In 1549, many husbands would have been embarrassed by such a pushy wife, but Cosimo dutifully followed Eleonora across the Arno. It must have been true love.
How did they become so close? Here’s a little insight on their relationship from Terrific Lady Day from Eleonora di Toledo:
Eleonora was raised a Spanish princess and in 1539, at the age of 17, wed Duke Cosimo de Medici (spitting image of Justin Timberlake, right?), in what both Florence and Spain hoped would be the perfect political match.
Twenty-three years, eleven children, and perhaps most impressively, zero mistresses later, Cosimo and Eleonora proved that their marriage was more than political. It was love – an emotion hard to come by in the politics of Renaissance Italy.
Eleonora wasn’t just a baby-making trophy wife. Oh no. This Spanish broad quickly proved to the skeptical Florentines that if they wanted change in the city, they first had to get through her. Frequently considered the first First Lady, Eleonora had a very active hand in the politics of Florence. She was a patron of the arts, encouraged agriculture, took up the interests of the poor, brought the Jesuit Order to Florence encouraging intellectual growth, and supported her husband without waiver. How much influence she had over Cosimo’s decisions is up for debate, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find her personal touch in his policies. I mean would you really want to butt heads with a Spanish woman? As a testament to her political capability, Cosimo made Eleonora regent to rule in his absence.
Ponte Vecchio: Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti & His Ladies
Let’s continue straight up Via Guicciardini until we reach the Ponte Vecchio. Here, love quickly turns to war (as is known to happen). In this case, love (and lack of love) sparked a legendary rift that would last for centuries. In Florence, this is the famous origin story for much of the conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.
From The Ponte Vecchio:
[In 1215] Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti slighted the wrong noble family when he snubbed an Amidei daughter and proposed to a Donati woman instead. The move was particularly spiteful, because the Amidei were allied with the Ghibellines while the Donati were known Guelphs.
So, as Buondelmonti crossed the Ponte Vecchio on his wedding day to take his Donati bride, the Amidei took his life at the foot of the bridge. A plaque quoting Dante now memorializes Buondelmonte’s fall.
Piazza Signoria: Francesco de’ Medici, Joanna of Austria & Bianca Cappello
Continue on to Piazza Signoria for one of history’s most intriguing love triangles. It starts with Francesco de’ Medici, the son of Cosimo and Eleonora. Unfortunately, he did not follow his parents’ example in spousal devotion. From The Medici Walk:
Cosimo orchestrated a dream of a political marriage between Francesco and the Hapsburg princess, Joanna of Austria. Much to Cosimo’s disappointment, and Francesco’s delight, Joanna died after only thirteen years of marriage. Francesco then married his long-time mistress, Bianca Cappello. Mysteriously (or not so mysteriously), the two both died on October 17, 1587. Legend has it that Francesco’s brother, Ferdinando, poisoned them. Others say it was malaria. But we’re always inclined to go with the more exciting story, so we say poison.
So why are we here in Piazza Signoria? First, the Fountain of Neptune was commissioned by Cosimo as a wedding gift for Francesco and Joanna in 1565. Thus, the sadly ill-matched marriage is forever remembered by one of the most recognizable works of art in the city.
Adding insult to injury, it was just next store in Palazzo Vecchio where Bianca Cappello was crowned Grand Duchess of Tuscany a little over a year after Joanna’s death in 1578. Was her life cut short by a broken heart and a reckless husband? We’re not sure, but we think karma might have had a bit to do with the tragic end to Francesco and Bianca’s love affair…
Santa Margherita dei Cerchi: Dante & Beatrice
Time to head north on Via dei Magazzini towards Dante’s neighborhood. Just as Dante was haunted by Beatrice, wandering these streets your heart might start to feel a bit heavier. Don’t worry, we’ll end this walk with an opportunity to relieve it of its deepest wishes.
Santa Margherita dei Cerchi. The old, intimate church on Via Santa Margherita dates as far back as 1032, and legend has it it’s here where Dante first spied his true love, Beatrice. Of course, Dante suffered for the rest of his life from a case of unrequited love, only exasperated by the fact that, thanks to exile, he was buried in Ravenna instead of Florence at the end of his life. But Beatrice was (supposedly) buried at her home church of Santa Margherita, and today her tomb attracts lovers from all over the globe; they leave hand-written notes of love lost and won in a basket by her grave. Entrance to the church is free, so be sure to pen your heart’s deepest wishes here before racing on.
So there you have it! Our Valentine’s Day quickie. So many tales of true (and no-so-true) love in so little time. If you have any other Florentine couples you’d like to add to the list – including your own love stories! – let us know in the comments below.
Buon San Valentino!