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Work of art


Florence: The City and its Architecture By Richard Goy. Phaidon, 2002. 320pp. £45

Florence is a miracle. Seen on a fine day from the Boboli Gardens or San Miniato al Monte, the historic core remains the panorama of 'domes and towers, and palaces, rising from the rich country in a glittering heap, and shining in the sun like gold' that Charles Dickens described in the 1840s.

Modern Florence is a large city (370,000 inhabitants) but not a metropolis like Rome or Milan. Industry is safely tucked away far from the city centre. No tall buildings intrude into the skyline. Through traffic has been successfully excluded from the central streets and piazzas.

But Florence is no historic stage-set: craft industries still cling on within yards of the Duomo and Uffizi. The Palazzo Vecchio is still the seat of local government and the thousands of Florentines employed by municipal and regional government help to maintain an element of 'real' life in the city centre to balance the ever-growing tide of tourists - Florence shows no signs of going the way of Venice, a city whose future seems to depend almost entirely on tourism. You can still eat well (and cheaply) within a short walk of the principal sights.

No city in the world has such a concentration of outstanding works of art and architecture - Florence is a work of art in its own right. The British (and latterly the Americans) have been visiting and writing about it for centuries. A whole generation of cultural tourists had its vision of the city formed by Eve Borsook's outstanding Companion Guide (first published in 1966, it remains a classic) though the most studious have always had to resort to the red-bound TCI guide (available only in Italian) for the fine detail.

Richard Goy's book, weighty in all senses, is hardly one you would want to carry around Florence, but it can be strongly recommended as preparatory reading for a visit.

Goy's aim is to fuse together an urban history of the city with an account of its architecture up to the present day, pointing out that few studies of this kind exist, even in Italian.

His text is long and well informed - if a little lifeless. Unlike John Ruskin, Eve Borsook or Mary McCarthy, Goy is not good at conjuring up the spirit of a place, but he is sound on the facts. (One of the few slips I found was the description of Robert Stephenson, consultant for the FlorenceLivorno rail line, as 'Scottish'. ) Phaidon, as usual, has packaged his words beautifully, with hundreds of well-chosen illustrations, beautifully reproduced, including a good number of plans and sections.

Even those who think they know Florence well may find new sights to discover - 17thand 18th-century churches such as San Giovannino degli Scolopi and San Giorgio alla Costa (a Rococo gem), for example, barely mentioned in most guidebooks, or the striking 1730s staircase hall of the Ospedale de San Giovanni di Dio. The 19th and 20th centuries are given disappointingly summary treatment, though the dramatic effect of Florence's brief starring role as the capital of Italy (1865-70) is well underlined - many medieval buildings were demolished for grand new streets and squares.

Among 20th-century architects, Giovanni Michelucci emerges most vividly, with the Chiesa dell' Autostrada, rightly compared to Ronchamp as one of the great modern churches. Another Modern masterpiece, Nervi's Stadio Comunale, apparently suffered insensitive alterations when adapted for the 1990 World Cup.

Goy rightly points out that the greatest achievements of recent years have been less about architecture than the creation of a planning and infrastructural framework to protect the historic environment, curb the car and reanimate the historic core. The problems, particularly of mass tourism, remain but the city seems in good shape and good heart. This book made me want to visit it again soon.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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