One of my favorite times to explore a city is at sunrise, when the streets are empty and normally bustling squares are silent save the errant garbage truck collecting its daily haul or the shuffling footsteps of a resident on their way to work. On a trip to Italy last spring, knowing that it was only a matter of hours before the narrow alleyways would be thronged with tourists and school groups, I set out to photograph the early morning light as it hit the iconic structures of Florence.
I began at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as Il Duomo di Firenze, whose basilica exterior of pink, green and white marble panels was softly lit aglow. I first laid eyes on the Duomo when I was 16-years-old. I loved the building then, and I love it now, arguably with greater fervor after a couple of visits and having read books detailing the construction of Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome (the largest brick dome ever constructed) and the marvels of the Italian Renaissance. To stand beneath it in silence and solitude, head cast skyward to appreciate its enormity, is a gift only the earliest of morning hours can impart.
From there I ambled to the Piazza della Signoria upon which history has bestowed the title “political hub of the city.” Restaurant owners threw water across the stones that lay in front of their property, and the Palazzo Vecchio’s crenellated tower stood sentry over lingering shadows as I walked across the open piazza.
Whenever I visit this central square, I think of Girolamo Savonarola’s infamous Bonfire of the Vanities, where he and his overzealous followers burned books, gaming tables and fine dresses to protest secular art and culture—mental regurgitations of excessive AP European History studying in high school, no doubt. Today a plaque in front of the Statue of Neptune marks the spot where Savonarola was hanged and burned alive in 1498. Different times, same square.
The Uffizi Gallery is located adjacent to Piazza della Signoria—initially built in 1560 for Cosimo de’Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, to accommodate the offices of the Florentine magistrates. Over the years sections of the palace were recruited to exhibit paintings and sculpture collected or commissioned by the Medici, and in 1765 the building was officially opened to the public as one of the world’s first modern museums.
I walked through the Uffizi’s internal courtyard to its far end where an archway opens onto the River Arno. The Ponte Vecchio, famous for its jewelry merchants hawking their wares, was eerily quiet, and the only movement on the river was that of a couple of oars hitting the water in stride as a boat glided past.
After an hour of walking the deserted streets of Florence, I parked myself on the St. Trinity Bridge to watch the sun officially rise. Although pulling yourself out of bed at 5:30 in the morning while on vacation isn’t exactly everyone’s idea of a good time, those few moments of delusion where you convince yourself that you have one of Europe’s most popular cities all to yourself—and you’re actually right—are well worth it.