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Travels for Engineers to Florence

By David H. Allen


Over the course of the preceding half century, I’ve traveled to Florence (Firenze in Italian) more than twenty times. In addition, I have taken more than two hundred engineering students to Florence on study abroad programs. Suffice it to say that my focus in these visits has been on the sites in Florence that I believe are best suited for engineers. Thus, in this blog I will provide a short introduction to the most interesting sites I have discovered in what is for me one of the most amazing cities on Earth.

Historic Sites for Engineers

Florence is located in the middle of Tuscany, which is in turn smack in the center of Italy. Thus, it should not be surprising to the traveler that Florence was at the crossroads of civilization for much of recorded history. The city grew rapidly once the Romans built the Via Cassia through the local Etruscan village in the second century BCE. The roadway crossed the Arno River on a bridge that has been replaced several times since ancient times, but is nonetheless today called The Ponte Vecchio (the old bridge). This bridge is in itself a treat for engineers, having now stood in its current form for perhaps five hundred years.

During the Renaissance Florence became perhaps the most important city in the world, as most of Western Europe adopted the Florentine monetary device called the florin. This led to great wealth for the Florentine city state, to the point that the Holy Roman See in Rome became quite jealous.

With that brief introduction, here then is a listing of my favorite historic sites for engineers (in no particular order) in Florence: the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiori; the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore; the Baptistry of Santa Maria del Fiore; the Campanile of Sant Maria del Fiori; the Cathedral of Santa Croce; the Pitti Palace; the Palazzo Vecchio; the Bargello Museum; the Sagreda Familia; L’Accademia; the Galileo Museum; Galileo’s houses; the Piazza della Signoria; the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo; and the Piazza Michelangelo. I will now provide some details about a few of these below.

The Santa Maria del Fiori

This cathedral is one of the great medieval structures on Earth (Fig. 1). Having been begun in 1296, it was supposed to have an enormous dome crowning the transept. Unfortunately, no one in that period of time knew how to construct one (despite the fact that the Pantheon in Rome had previously been built by the Romans in the Second Century AD and was still completely intact). Thus, the cathedral stood for more than a century with a gaping hole in the middle. It is nonetheless a fabulous cathedral, so much so that it eventually caused the Pope to tear down Constantine’s Cathedral in Rome and replace it with St. Peter’s Basilica in the sixteenth century (See my textbook How Mechanics Shaped the Modern World.).

Fig. 1 The Santa Maria del Fiore

The Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore

Early in the fifteenth century, the Signoria of Florence set a competition to build the dome, and the contract was eventually awarded to Filippo Brunelleschi, a little-known jeweler in Florence. Brunelleschi was awarded the contract on the basis of his claim that he could build the dome without scaffolding (he had been to Rome and studied the Pantheon). Begun in 1420 and completed in 1436, the dome has been called the most important structure of the Renaissance.

You simply must climb the Dome (Fig. 2) at least once in your lifetime (I’ve done it more than a dozen times). Unfortunately, you will have to plan well in advance, because these days a whole lot of tourists want to do so, and there simply isn’t sufficient capacity for many people to accomplish this feat. Plan well in advance, and be patient as you wait in line, because this will be one of the single most inspiring accomplishments of your entire life. Within the dome you will discover how Brunelleschi accomplished this monumental task – with the construction of a double-herringbone structure, resulting in a dome within a dome. And for this feat, Brunelleschi has been called the Father of the Renaissance, and as a result he is buried within the Crypt of the Santa Maria del Fiori (which you should also see!).

Fig. 2 Brunelleschi's Dome

Santa Croce

A few blocks south of the city center you will find the Basilica of Santa Croce (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 The Santa Croce

Therein, you will find the tomb of Galileo Galilei (Fig. 4), one the six most important scientists of all time (See my novel Galileo’s Prophesy.). You will also find the tombs of quite a few other Florentine luminaries, including Michelangelo and Dante Alleghieri (he’s not in it, he’s buried in Ravenna- see my blog on Ravenna).

Fig. 4 The Tomb of Galileo

The Galileo Museum

Formerly called the Science Museum, this museum was renamed The Galileo Museum in 2010, and about time! These days you will find a steady stream of visitors touring this absolutely fabulous museum detailing a myriad of discoveries by Florentine scientists during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Most importantly, spend time in the Galileo Room, where you will find his very own falling body experiments (Fig. 5), his telescopes, his microscope, his depiction of the pendulum clock, his Archimedean balancietta (balance), not to mention his finger!

Fig. 5 Galileo's Experiments

Galileo’s Houses

Galileo lived much of his life in Florence, including the last nine years, when he was imprisoned in his villa called Il Gioiello (The Little Jewel) (Fig. 6). This was actually a villa that he rented to be closer to his daughters, who were confined to an abbey in Arcetri, on the hillside overlooking Florence. He actually owned a house within the city, and you can visit both of these houses today (although both are privately owned, so you cannot go inside them). Still, both houses are a must-see for engineers.

Fig. 6 Il Gioiello, the Villa where Galileo Died

The Medici Tombs

I am a great fan of Michelangelo. He was a fabulous painter, but from the standpoint of engineering, I believe his sculpting talents to be unmatched in history. He is of course most famous for The Pieta (in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome) and the David (in L’Accademia - described below), but there is a tomb in Florence that you can visit, normally without even having to stand in line, wherein you can see no less than nine sculptures by Michelangelo. And although they are not quite as impressive as the aforementioned two, they are nonetheless incredible, and they are the only place I know of that you can walk right up to ten sculptures by perhaps the greatest artist of all time. You will find the Medici Tombs just behind the Basilica of San Lorenzo.

The Bargello Museum

The Bargello Museum is the oldest public building in Florence, having been constructed in the thirteenth century. During Galileo’s lifetime it was used as a prison, and it is today believed by some that the bell tower may have been the site where Galileo actually performed his falling body experiments (instead of in the Leaning Tower of Pisa). But the Bargello is in my view most impressive today for its broad array of sculptures by quite a few well-known Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo himself. My favorite in the Bargello is the David by Donatello, a predecessor of Michelangelo. But the best treat of all in the Bargello is that you will not have to wait in line, and you can wander aimlessly about without having to fight the tourists perennially overcrowding the Uffizi Gallery and L’Accademia.

The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

This museum is located directly behind the Brunelleschi Dome, and it is a treasure trove for engineers. Not only are there several important sculptures, including a lesser-known Pieta by Michelangelo (Fig. 7) and the magnificent wooden sculpture of Mary Magdalene by Donatello (Fig. 8), but you will also find much of the architectural and structural models for the Santa Maria del Fiore within.

Fig. 7 One of Michelangelo's Pietas

Fig. 8 Donatello's Mary Magdalene

Galleria dell'Accademia

Michelangelo’s David stood in the Piazza della Signoria for three hundred and fifty years before it was moved to an indoor site. L’Accademia is today the museum that houses Michelangelo’s statue of the David, which is in my view the greatest sculpture in history (See why in my textbook How Mechanics Shaped the Modern World.). Unfortunately, that is the only really noteworthy artwork within, but it is nonetheless worth the extended wait to get in. This is therefore another of the Florentine sites that you should plan for well in advance.

The Palazzo Vecchio

The Palazzo Vecchio (Fig. 9) is the austere fortress located in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria, the very center of Florence. I confess that I skipped this ugly building my first few visits to Florence, but in recent times I have discovered that it is well worth a visit. At least in part due to Dan Brown’s novels, I became fascinated with the architecture of the old downtown area of Florence, and I found that there are quite a few things to see within the Palazzo. Not the least of these is the great room on the second floor, where it is said the Signoria of Florence met on important occasions. It was also in this room that Leonardo da Vinci painted an enormous mural that was later transcended by a more recent mural. Interestingly, recent microscopy has suggested that the Da Vinci mural still exists, so stay tuned for further developments regarding the possible restoration of perhaps the largest painting ever undertaken by (arguably) the greatest painter in history. Also, see if you can locate the death mask of Dante Alleghieri, which until recently was considered to be genuine.

Fig. 9 The Palazzo Vecchio

It will take you three to four days to see all of the above important sites, depending on your organizational skills and the enormity of the crowds during your visit. In any case, be prepared for perhaps the most crowded tourist destination I have ever encountered.

I hope these tidbits of are of use to you in your trip planning for your once-in-a-lifetime visit to Florence, the only place on Earth that was at the center of the Earth in two vastly different periods of history (the Roman Empire and the Renaissance). In future blogs I will give more detailed reviews of some of the other cities mentioned in my previous blogs. Until then, please feel free to contact me if you have questions (

Note: All photos included in this blog were taken by me.

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