Situated on the banks of the Arno river and set among low hills covered with olive groves and vineyards, Firenze (Florence) is immediately captivating. Cradle of the Renaissance and home of Dante, Machiavelli, Michelangelo and the Medici, the city is almost overwhelming in its wealth of art, culture and history.

Firenze was founded as a colony of the Etruscan city of Fiesole in about 200BC. In the early 12th century the city became a free comune and by 1138 it was ruled by 12 consuls who were assisted by the Council of One Hundred, drawn mainly from the proserous merchant class.

The great plague of 1348 cut the city's population by almost half. Subsequent financial problems caused great discontent among workers, who were eventually granted representation in the city's government. However, their representation was short-lived; from 1382 an alliance between the Guelphs (a pro-papal group) and the city's wealthiest merchants seized power for the next 40-odd years.

During the latter part of the 14th century, the Medici family consolidated their influence and eventually became the papal bankers, with branches in 16 cities. When Lorenzo Il Magnifico (of the Medici family) came to power in 1469, he ushered in the most glorious period of Florentine civilization and of the Italian Renaissance. His court fostered a great flowering of art, music, and poetry, and Firenze became the cultural capital of Italy. Lorenzo favored philosophers, but he maintained family tradition by sponsoring artists such as Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio; he also encouraged da Vinci and the young Michelangelo, who was working under Giovanni di Bertoldo, Donatello's pupil.

In 1737, the Grand Duchy of Toscana passed to the House of Lorraine, which retained control (apart from a brief interruption by the French under Napoleon from 1799 to 1814) until it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Firenze became the national capital a year later, but Rome assumed the mantle in 1875.

Firenze was badly damaged during World War II by the retreating Germans, who bombed all its bridges except the Ponte Vecchio. Devastating floods ravaged the city in 1966, causing inestimable damage to its buildings and artworks, some of which are still being restored. Italy-Lonely Planet

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