Explore Dan Brown's (and Dante's) Florence

Dan Brown's mystery thriller 'Inferno' was turned into a feature film starring Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones last year. Set in the enchanting Italian city of Florence, Brown's novel and the subsequent movie both see symbology expert, Professor Robert Langdon, attempting to solve Dante-related puzzles around the city of Florence. Follow in his footsteps with this blog...
The Palazzo Vecchio and the city of Florence at night
The Palazzo Vecchio and the city of Florence at night. Photo: Shutterstock

Characterised by the huge domed cupola of the cathedral rising out of the dense, rustic-coloured city, Florence is overflowing with history, culture and artistic patrimony. If you fancy following in the footsteps of Professor Langdon and discovering Dante's legacy in the city, head for the following sights. All have been the site of real-life intrigue and scandal over the centuries... 


1. Palazzo Vecchio

The fortress-like Palazzo Vecchio, which dominates Piazza della Signoria, is the modern-day home of Florence's town hall. The palazzo was completely remodelled when Cosimo moved into it in 1540, having quashed republicanism in Florence and established himself as hereditary duke. 

It is not all bad, of course; the cortile (courtyard), designed by Michelozzo Michelozzi in 1453 as the main entrance, is delightful. The stucco and frescos are Vasari’s work added in 1565. On the walls are views of Austrian cities, painted to make Joanna of Austria feel at home when she married Francesco de’ Medici (Cosimo’s son) in 1565. The ceiling is covered in “grotesque” figures – that is, in imitation of the ancient Roman paintings in the grotto of Nero’s garden in Rome.

This courtyard leads through to the main ticket office, where you might like to sign up for one of the “Secret Routes of the Palace” tours (Percorsi Segreti), which take in secret passages and odd corners made for the rulers, such as the Treasury of Cosimo I and the staircase of the Duke of Athens. Also inside the Palazzo Vecchio is the Museo dei Ragazzi (Children’s Museum), which puts on a host of well-­organised activities and events for children. There’s a Renaissance-themed playroom for children aged 3 to 7, and actor-led workshops and tours for older children. 

Find all of the secret routes with an expert guide on Insight Guides' Florence: A Trip Back in Time holiday.


2. The Duomo

The Duomo is a symbol of Florentine det­ermination always to have the biggest and the best. Being a state church, it was funded by a property tax on all citizens, and is a continuing financial burden on the city and state, requiring constant repair. It took almost 150 years to complete, from 1294 to 1436, though it was not until the late 19th century that the cathedral got its flamboyant neo-Gothic west facade. 

The addition makes you appreciate Brunelleschi’s genius all the more – his dome draws the eye upwards from the jumble below to admire the clean profile of the cathedral’s crowning glory, 107 metres (351ft) above the ground. As a tribute to the greatest architect and engineer of his day, no other building in Florence has been built as tall as the dome since its completion in 1436, when the cathedral was consecrated by Pope Eugenius IV.

The highlight is the fresco on the underside of the dome, high above the altar, which depicts The Last Judgement, was begun by Giorgio Vasari and finished by his student Federico ­Zucc­ari. It was intended as the ­Florentine equivalent to the scenes Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, and is a truly spectacular sight. Brunelleschi’s aesthetic achievement is known to the whole world through countless travel posters. The dome has come to symbolise the city of Florence, an instantly recognisable landmark, rising above a sea of red terracotta roof tiles and seeming to soar as high as the surrounding mountains. To appreciate his engin­eering achievement it is necessary to climb up to the dome.

Scarcely less tall, at 85 metres (278ft), is the campanile alongside the Campanile di Giotto, begun by Giotto in 1334, and finished off after his death in 1337 by Andrea Pisano and Andrea Talenti. Work was eventually completed in 1359. The climb to the top offers intimate views of the upper ­levels of the cathedral and a panorama of the city below. 

Talk to Insight Guides' local experts to see this centuries-old cityscape on your Florence holiday.

View of the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as the Duomo. Photo: Shutterstock


3. The Baptistery

After visiting the Duomo, the next port of call is the battistero ­(bapt­istery). Flor­entines have always exaggerated its antiquity, but all the evidence suggests that it was, in fact, built over the ruins of a Roman temple. From the 12th century it was taken under the wing of the wool importers’ guild, which itself claimed to be the first and most ancient trade association in the city.

The year 1401 was a watershed date. In the winter of that year the wool importers’ guild announced a competition to select a designer for the remaining doors, with the result that some of the greatest sculptors of the age competed against each other, having been invited to submit sample panels on the theme of the sacrifice of Isaac. Only those designs by Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi have survived, and they are now on display in the Bargello. Ghiberti (c.1378–1455) was judged the winner in 1403 and he finished the north doors, illustrating the life of Christ, in 1424. 

Ghiberti later went on to make the east doors, hailed by Michelangelo as worthy of being the “Gates of Paradise'', which took almost the rest of his life to complete. In their original state, with their 10 large panels illustrating the Old Testament, gilded and burnished to a resplendent gold, they must have fully justified Michelangelo’s description. The original panels (replaced by resin reproductions) were removed for restoration after being damaged in the 1966 flood and can now be admired in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. 

4. Giardino di Boboli (Boboli Gardens)

This vast landscaped park provides the perfect antidote to city sightseeing. The gardens span four centuries and as many styles, from the Renaissance to Mannerism, Baroque and neoclassicism. At every turn, classical and Renaissance statues give way to whimsical Mannerist grottoes dotted with grotesque sculptures. The gardens were commissioned by Cosimo I and created by prolific figures of the day.

The enchant­ing Giardino del Cavaliere rose garden, next to the Porcelain Museum, is set on bastions des­igned by Michelangelo. The garden overlooks one of the loveliest rural views imaginable: beyond stretches a truly Tuscan scene of churches, cypresses, olive groves, ochre-coloured villas and grey-green hills. 

Even if closed, the Grotticina di Madama, the oldest architectural feature in the gardens, can be admired through its gates. You can also see the pot-bellied Bacco, representing Cosimo I’s favourite dwarf sitting astride a giant turtle. Follow the steep cypress avenue known as Il Viottolone, lined by Roman studies of Greek statues, which leads downhill to the most romantic part of the ­gardens. At the end lies the Vasca dell’Isola (Island Pool), conceived as a citrus grove and flower garden. There are carp and turtles in the pool, and an allegorical Ocean Fountain sculpted in granite by Giam­bologna. 

Ponte Vecchio and Vasari Corridor in Florence. Photo: ShutterstockPonte Vecchio and Vasari Corridor in Florence. Photo: Shutterstock


5. The Vasari Corridor

This formerly private Renaissance corridor opened to the public after only being used as a passageway for at least 200 years. The corridor is closed to the general public but small groups can organise a special visit through guided tours organised by travel agencies. Take this exclusive tour on our Insight Guides' Florence: A Trip Back in Time trip. 

Hailed as the first city walkway, a veritable Renaissance rooftop passage, the corridor runs from the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi gallery to the Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Garden on the far side of the Arno. The corridor was built during the reign of Cosimo de’ Medici (1519–74) to connect the seat of government, the Palazzo Vecchio, with the court and residence at the Pitti Palace. The aim was to enable the de facto city rulers to cross the city in safety, away from the prying eyes of lesser citizens, and to allow safe passage in times of flood or siege. 

In 1565, Giorgio Vasari, court architect and master of public works for the Medici, was summoned to build the new walkway from the Uffizi, or public offices, along the quayside to the Ponte Vecchio, and from there over the medieval bridge and gold workshops to the Pitti Palace.

A walk along the passage affords glimpses of the Duomo, tiled rooftops and medieval alleys. The first stretch is lined by 16th- and 17th-century works, while the walkway over the bridge has a great collection of self-portraits, which is still being added to by contemporary artists.

Taking a holiday to Florence: how to get started

Insight Guides can help you with planning, organising and booking your trip to Florence. Simply, get in touch and share your budget, interests and travel style. Our local experts will create an itinerary exclusive to you and your requirements, which you can amend until it's just right. Alternatively, browse and modify ready-made holidays to create your dream trip today. 

This blog was originally published on May 24, 2013 

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