Tuscany, the cradle of modern European culture, contains treasures of every age and style, from the Etruscan theater and Roman baths at Fiesole, to the majestic Gothic buildings in the medieval town of Siena, to the exceptional art and architecture of Florence. The cities of Tuscany have produced writers, scientists, architects, musicians and artists whose works have literally changed the world. The immense dome of Florence’s Duomo, designed by Brunelleschi, inspired Michelangelo’s design for the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, and influenced architecture in towns throughout Italy. Modern science and technology have their roots in the experiments of Galileo and other researchers. Puccini was born in Lucca. Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio broke with traditional Latin and wrote in the Italian language, establishing the Tuscan dialect as Italy’s literary language and things Tuscan as the measure of culture and refinement.
Under the patronage of the Medici dynasty, Florence became the center of the artistic explosion of the Renaissance. One of the most important collections of paintings in the world is in the Uffizi Gallery, and in the austere Bargello you can view the exceptional collection of sculpture by Donatello and Luca della Robbia. Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus should not be missed, nor should a stroll through the outdoor markets of San Lorenzo. Cross the ancient Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace to enjoy the exquisite works of Raphael and Titian, and then visit the Boboli Gardens for a marvelous view of Florence.
The peaceful Tuscan landscape is primarily rolling hills, with vineyards, olive groves, cypress trees and hilltop villages all bathed in a soft, amber light. To many it seems familiar, and rightly so: during the Renaissance it was often used as the backdrop for the paintings of the masters. The rustic Tuscan farmhouse, made of local stone and set atop a hill flanked by lines of cypress trees, is a sight unique to Tuscany. Silent medieval hilltowns, with their fortified castle walls and church steeples visible in the distance, are a part of the landscape: San Gimignano, Volterra, Montepulciano, Cortona. Tuscany’s olive groves yield some of Italy’s finest extra virgin olive oil, but the heart of the region is in its vineyards, particularly the Chianti Classico, where you can visit fattorie (wine estates), to sample and purchase their wines.
In Tuscany the esteem for bread is elevated to reverence. Most Tuscan meals begin with crostini, slices of bread that are lightly toasted and topped with anything from chicken liver to myrtle to olive paste; acquacotta, a thin vegetable soup, and panzanella, a soup made from leftover bread soaked in vinegar and vegetables are among the many bread-based soups. Simplicity and flavor are the guiding principles of Tuscan cooking: pasta, served with a sauce of vegetables or meat; salviata, an omelet with fresh sage; or lesso rifatto con le cipolle, a flavorful stew of leftover boiled beef smothered in long-simmered onions, are classic embodiments of this philosophy. There is arista, a succulent roasted pork loin, and bistecca alla fiorentina, grilled steak made with the prized Val di Chiana beef. Beans are used in many dishes: soups, salads, pasta, or just sprinkled with olive oil, and spinach is the favorite vegetable. Florence’s sweet bread, schiacciata con l’uva, has been baked since Etruscan times and zuccotto, an elegant dome shaped cake filled with a ricotta cream, is traditional. Vin Santo is one of the region’s renowned sweet wines, often served with cantuccini di Prato, dry almond cookies, for dipping. Among the other great wines of Tuscany are Tignanello, Sassacaia, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and the famous Brunello di Montalcino.