Florence was founded in 59 (BC) as a settlement for former soldiers and was named 'Florentia' by Julius Caesar. The city was built in the style of a military camp with a grid pattern and it served as the main route between Rome and the North, which enabled it to rapidly expand as a commercial center.
Florence owes much of her wealth to the Middle Ages when banking boomed on the back of the city's profitable wool trade. In 1235, Florence minted the florin, the first gold coin to become standard currency across Europe.
Between 1328 until 1434, Florence was a city republic governed by a broad swathe of citizens from elite merchant and banking families. However, popular revolts led to periods when public office was also shared among citizens from the middle and lower artisan class.
These bankers commissioned some of the finest art and architecture in the city. The names Strozzi, Rucellai and Pitti can be found all over Florence, but it was the Medici family (who led the city for over 300 years, off and on) that nurtured the greatest flowering of Renaissance art, including the paintings of Botticelli, the sculptures of Michelangelo and the palaces of Michelozzo.
Then, as now, most of the action in Florence took place between Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Signoria, the city's civic heart. Here, in the historic centre, Dante (acknowledged father of the Italian language) first glimpsed his muse, Beatrice, and Savonarola's Bonfire of the Vanities blazed.
The extinction of the Medicis led to the accession in 1737 of Francis Stephen, duke of Lorraine and husband of Maria Theresa of Austria. This resulted in Tuscany's inclusion in the territories of the Austrian crown. Austrian rule was to end in defeat at the hands of France and the kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont in 1859, and Tuscany became a province of the united kingdom of Italy in 1861.
Florence replaced Turin as Italy's capital in 1865 and, in an effort to modernise the city, the old market in the Piazza del Mercato Vecchio and many medieval houses were destroyed and replaced with newer properties. The Piazza della Repubblica was significantly widened and a large triumphal arch was constructed at the west end, although this was criticised by many. The country's first capital city was superseded by Rome six years later.
In the 19th century the population of Florence doubled and then it tripled in the 20th century with the growth of tourism, trade, financial services and the industry. During WWII, in 1944, all her bridges, save the Ponte Vecchio which was considered to be too beautiful to bombed by Hitler himself, were destroyed by the Nazis, in an attempt to stall the Allied advance.
In 1966, the banks of the River Arno burst, devastating homes and artworks. There was no warning from the authorities despite the fact they knew the flood was coming, except a phone call to the jewellers on the Ponte Vecchio. Volunteers from around the world came to help rescue the books and art but more than 40 years later, there are still works awaiting restoration.