Roman Baths at Gaujac, France

Roman Baths at Gaujac, France

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Top 10 Fun Facts About the Roman Baths

One of Italy’s most appealing attractions are the so-called Roman baths. The Roman baths have attracted millions of visitors throughout the years, and despite their tremendous public appeal, they hide multiple secrets behind them.

Here is a summary of the top 10 fun facts associated with the unique historical baths of Rome.

1 . The Romans used the baths in a unique manner.

The bath water still flows into the Roman drain and into the local River Avon. Multiple statues of goddesses rise above the water, giving the baths a mysterious feel. Occasionally, you will see birds flowing through the bath windows.

The Roman baths are not just a water tank they are a whole pool concept in the midst of a wood. The roof of the spring was constructed much later. The spring water can only flow into the baths or in a big spring into the river.

2 . The Romans conversed with the Goddess of the Baths, Minerva.

Goddess Minerva, Image by England

The Goddess Minerva was an integral element of the Roman Baths. People would visit the baths regularly to beg for justice from the famous Goddess Minerva. They would go as far as to bring her precious gifts such as jewels, and would also throw coins into the sink to ask for her blessing. The visitors would also ask the goddess to take care of their family and themselves. For those who have lost an item or have an item stolen, the Goddess Minerva was the ultimate destination. They would go and ask the Goddess to cause a miracle so that their item could be found. Moreover, the meeting with Minerva would guarantee that the thief would be punished!

3. The Roman Baths are a source of precious items.

Multiple things have been found in the Spring: brooches, rings, bracelets, vases, and more than 12,000 coins! They were all thrown in by Romans as gifts to honor the Goddess Minerva.

4. The presence of Gordon is an important bath element.

The face of Gordon is what the front of the temple resembles. The face of Gordon is the horror face of the god of the waters. A legend says that Gordon had numerous snakes instead of hairs, and the people who looked at those snakes transformed into stones.

5. The Roman baths featured a few hot rooms.

One of them was called caldarium, which is a room that was very, very hot because it was heated by an underground heating system. That was the perfect location to sweat a lot if you needed a sauna-style ambiance. The floor is still overheated so make sure you wear wooden shoes to overcome the challenge. Also, there is another room called tepidarium that is located inside the baths. It features warm water in the pools and adults are happy to soak inside. In this room, you can also rub some olive oil against your body for extra relaxation.

6. Romans enjoyed a few additional extra activities in the room. They didn’t only clean – they engaged in a few extra-curricular activities.

The Roman baths have plenty of culinary options to pick from, from fruit and juices to oysters and chops. You can play tabula game there, or trigon. You can also share in the laughter with friends and get a massage to relax from the festivities with!

Trigon is a game which involves three balls and three friends – it is really fun and dynamic!

7. The ancient roman baths were excavated in the late 18 th century and then rediscovered.

The spring evolves around 18 th century buildings which have been set up by architects the Elder, the Yiunif, John Wood, father and son.

Besides a major archaeological discovery, the ancient roman baths are also a big city attraction, attracting crowds from all over the globe.

8. The Roman Baths are not safe for showers or baths nowadays.

The water in the baths passes through still-functioning lead pipes that have been set up by the Romans. So the quality of the available water is not ideal. For those who would like to enjoy the ambiance of the Roman Baths, there is a luxurious thermal spa that opened its door in September 2004. This is a perfect escape for modern bathers who wants a flavor the Roman bath experience in a historical set-up. This famous spa water containing 43 minerals.

9. The iconic Roman baths also feature a charming museum that displays numerous works of art that have been discovered on site.

Examples of those include the masterfully carved Gorgon’s Head, the gilded bronzed head of Minerva, as well as the 12,000 Roman coins thrown into the bath to honor the Goddess.

Like we already mentioned, people with various needs would come to the Goddess and provide various kinds of offerings to gain her trust. The Baths are a major tourist attraction and, together with the Grand Pump Room, receive more than one million visitors a year. The attraction was first featured on the 2005 TV program Seven Natural Wonders as one of the charming wonders of the European continent.

10. The heart of the Roman Bath complex is the Great Bath, a lead-lined pool filled with steaming, geothermally heated water that wells from the Sacred Spring to a depth of 1.6 meters 5.2 feet.

Though now open-air, the bath would originally have been covered by a 40-meter (130-foot) high, barrel-vaulted roof.

The Roman baths are a unique destination for the seekers of historical vibe and fancy ambiance. They are a fascinating symbol of the Eternal City and are associated with numerous exciting experiences up to date.


Petia is a freelance writer and a graphic designer from Rome. She holds a Masters Degree in Mass Media and Communication. Her hobbies include reading, graphic design and writing short fiction stories.
She falls in love with the Eternal City every day and in her free time she is immersed in exploring its numerous secrets. You can find her strolling down the streets around Piazza Navona with a cup of cappuccino or just reading a book in one of Rome's numerous cafeterias.

Vomitoriums: Fact or Fiction?

It’s been reported as true by legends, textbooks and history teachers who just want to get kids interested in Tacitus. In fact, it might be the only thing you know about eating habits in ancient Rome. But did the average John Doeus actually throw up in a vomitorium during feast times just so he could return to the dinner table for seconds of the roast mutton? The answer is no.

Vomitoriums (technically vomitoria) did indeed exist, but the word had an entirely different sense. It didn’t appear until the end of the fourth century A.D., when the scientifically named Macrobius referred to amphitheater passageways that 𠇍isgorged” patrons to their seats. The vomitoria at the Colosseum in Rome were so efficiently designed, with 76 spectator entrances at ground level, that the entire venue could fill with 50,000 people in just 15 minutes.

So when did the term’s more widely known meaning arise? The Oxford English Dictionary points to an unlikely source: English writer Aldous Huxley in his 1923 comic novel 𠇊ntic Hay.” That book may have been the first to bring the word to the attention of a large audience, but it was Lewis Mumford’s 1961 tome “The City in History” that gave us the first in-depth—though incorrect�inition. According to Mumford, the term first referred to a room adjacent to the dining chamber where gluttonous eaters could “throw up the contents of their stomach in order to return to their couches.” Only later, Mumford wrote, did the word come to be associated with stadium entrances.

Though Romans didn’t purge, some of their food choices might make unadventurous modern diners gag. A staple at meals for both the poor and wealthy was a condiment called garum. Similar to fish sauce in Southeast Asian cooking, garum was produced by fermenting the intestines of small fishes like sardines and mackerel. All these spoiled fish intestines created quite a stench, so much that garum production was forbidden within city limits to protect delicate noses. The resulting product was a salty liquid that could be diluted with wine or vinegar to sauce a dish, or even mixed with water and used as a remedy for bowel ailments.

The myth of the vomitorium captures the decadence, debauchery and excess of many Romans’ eating habits. Feasting was an important part of a wealthy Roman’s social life, and perhaps no culture since has dedicated itself to the task quite as wholeheartedly. Roman banquets featured delicacies such as wild boar, mussels, oysters, pheasant and deer. At the fanciest feasts, guests would eat while reclining, and slaves would sweep away discarded bones and olive pits. Luckily for these hapless attendants, they didn’t have to mop out vomitoriums as well.

Conservation and restoration

The Northern thermae of Lutetia were never completely ruined. Despite the troubles at the end of the Antiquity, a time when the elements were likely to have caused the most damage to the decor, the architectural spaces were conserved as they were occupied as of the early Middle Ages. Following that, the integration of the remains into the museum from the time of its creation and their listing as a Historic Monument in 1862 meant the monument was from then on protected as part of the nation’s heritage. In 2009, another important moment in its conservation was the restoration of the foundations and facings of the interior of the frigidarium, which gave the walls back their original rose colour, in true harmony with the intimate and grandiose space that was the Roman public bath.


The arcades are what come to mind as one of the signatures of the Roman Empire. Why did the Romans seem to have a love affair with arcades?

The aqueducts were largely a gravity system. They had to keep the water at a certain level because if they lost that level, it was hard to get it back up again. So to maintain a slope towards the city and to bring it in at a high enough level, you had to keep the channel at a certain height. So when that channel came to a dip in the landscape they built an arcade or a bridge to take the water over it.

In Rome, the long dramatic arcades occur in the five or six miles right outside of town. They built them there because the land dips down before rising again to the hills in Rome.

If they had to build an aqueduct only five feet high, they would build a wall. But above that, they used the archway. This saved material. And again, arcades are not as disruptive to the landscape. A wall five miles long does damage to the transportation on the surface and creates a water barrier.

Also—and I think this is important—the arch and the arcade, which is a series of arches, is beautiful. I think the Romans were as struck as we are by the beauty of the arcades curving over the landscape. In fact, some of the best villas were built to look out over the aqueducts. That was no accident. It's like landscape art.

The arcades make up only a small percentage of the Roman aqueducts, but they are among its most memorable components. Pictured is an aqueduct in the city of Segovia, near Madrid, Spain.

They obviously were beautiful things. But how good were they at delivering drinkable water? Did they import water that you or I would want to drink?

On that score, Iɽ follow the ancient sources. They praise some water sources others they really panned. Focusing on Rome, which I know best, there were some real stinkers.

Just like Romans today, they were connoisseurs. They actually ranked them. At the top of their list was the Aqua Marcia, one of the long aqueducts that came from the springs in the mountains and traveled 60 miles. In fact, a newer aqueduct of the same name delivers Rome's most prized water today from springs in that same area. Spring water was generally cooler than stream or lake water, and cleaner, too.

Another source that was highly prized was an underground aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo, which is delivered to the Trevi fountain today. Today these waters would be undrinkable if they weren't treated because the city has spread out to include Virgo's springs. Water from other aqueducts would come in muddy. Frontinus tells us of an aqueduct that tapped a lake north of Rome. He says it was a real stinker.

Now we use chemicals and water treatment plants to clean our waters. Did the Romans have any mechanisms for cleaning their water?

They didn't use chemicals, but they had other ways. First, they used settling basins. It was like a pool. The basins would slow the water down. As it slowed, the impurities or the load, as it's called, dropped out of it. That would remove some of the sand and other impurities.

We also purify water by aerating it. The water in the aqueducts was exposed to air throughout its journey, although I don't know if the Romans knew this improved the quality of their water.

Instead of a settling basin, one of the aqueducts had zigzags built into it. We figure that these zigzags caused the water to slow down, which would unload impurities. Occasionally the Romans would have to shut the water off. Someone would climb into a tunnel from the surface through a well hole. There would be little hand- and footholds carved into the walls of these shafts. Sometimes theyɽ go down 30, 50 feet. Slaves would shovel out impurities that would be hauled to the top in buckets.

Thermes de Cluny

The Thermes de Cluny are the ruins of Gallo-Roman thermal baths lying in the heart of Paris" 5th arrondissement. The present bath ruins constitute about one-third of a massive bath complex that is believed to have been constructed around the beginning of the 3rd century. The best preserved room is the frigidarium, with intact architectural elements such as Gallo-Roman vaults, ribs and consoles, and fragments of original decorative wall painting and mosaics.

It is believed that the bath complex was built by the influential guild of boatmen of 3rd-century Roman Paris or Lutetia, as evidenced by the fact that the consoles on which the barrel ribs rest are carved in the shape of ships" prows. Like all Roman Baths, these baths were freely open to the public, and were meant to be, at least partially, a means of romanizing the ancient Gauls. As the baths lay across the Seine river on the left bank and were unprotected by defensive fortifications, they were easy prey to roving barbarian groups who apparently destroyed the bath complex sometime at the end of the 3rd century.

The bath complex is now partly an archeological site, and partly incorporated into the Musée national du Moyen Age, and as such is the occasional repository for historic stonework or masonry found from time to time in Paris. The spectacular frigidarium is entirely incorporated within the museum and houses the Pilier des Nautes. Although somewhat obscured by renovations and reuse over the past two thousand years, several other rooms from the bath complex are also incorporated into the museum, notably the gymnasium which now forms part of gallery 9 (Gallery of French Kings and sculptures from Notre Dame). The caldarium (hot water room) and the tepidarium (warm water room) are both still present as ruins outside the Musée itself and on the museum"s grounds.

Royal Amusements Broke the Bank

May Ball at Versailles during the Carnival of 1763.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

From the start, everything was over the top at Versailles. The elaborate dress required for the court nearly broke many noble families, while they were also expected to buy large quantities of French goods to support various industries. Amusements� they concerts, multi-course banquets, balls or parades—packed the calendar. Plays and pageants were favorites of the royal household, and an enormous amount of money was spent on everything from the costumes to the set.

“Who would have thought, Monsieur, that a stage dຜor that shone with so much order, industry and innovation could have been created in less than a fortnight, in order to stand for perhaps a day?” the Abbe de Montigny wrote.

Gambling was also a favorite pastime during the reign of all three kings to rule over Versailles. According to Payne, “Sometimes the losses of the players at the tables were enormous again, nobles counted their gains by the hundred thousands.” Payne recalls one game where the granddaughter of the King, the Duchess of Bourgogne, lost a sum equaling 600,000 francs, which her doting grandfather paid.

While most of France lived in poverty, fortunes were made and lost at Versailles on a nightly basis. Bribery was common, as were graft and embezzlement. The royal stables were often the target of corruption, Spawforth writes. In 1775 one noble was accused of taking 120 of the king’s horses for his own personal use.

By the time the sun king’s grandson, Louis XV, took the throne in 1715, public sentiment was beginning to turn against the crown𠅊nd Versailles. By the time his grandson Louis XVI was crowned in 1774, Versailles had acquired a sordid reputation that was further degraded by Louis XV’s love affairs and mistresses.

Ancient Paris: Looking for Lutetia

Had Georges Eugène Haussmann not undertaken to tear up chunks of old Paris, much of the city’s very early history would have remained hermetically sealed beneath its medieval layer, forever lost. Only the odd clue or snippet of information about Roman-era Paris had trickled down prior to the 19th century—in Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars (52 BC) for a start, where the oppidum of the Parisii—a tribe of Celtic Gauls—on an island of the river Seine (Sequana) is first mentioned. Their settlement was known as Lutetia, or as the French now call it, Lutèce the name Paris appears for the first time only in the 3rd century AD.

Another half a millennium elapsed before the famous chronicler of the History of the Franks, Gregory of Tours (circa 538-594), reported the discovery, in a Paris gutter, of an ancient bronze serpent and badger, which his contemporaries interpreted as a premonitory sign that the city would be destroyed by fire—an interesting sidelight but revealing little about Lutetia.

The first reference to an urban Roman monument was discovered only in the 12th century: an unsigned document mentions the “great circus” and “immense ruins” of the “arena”, with specific reference to their location “by the church of Saint Victor”. The famous medieval abbey of Saint Victor, a place of great erudition and beauty complete with cascading rivulets and fragrant orchards, was situated around the present Place Jussieu, now home to the ugly asbestos-ridden sprawl of the University of Paris VII. A section of the Roman aqueduct was unearthed in the Latin Quarter in the 16th century, and two ancient cemeteries, in the rues du Faubourg Saint Jacques and Faubourg Saint Marcel, were located in the 17th.

More important was the discovery of the Pillar of the Nautes in 1710, during the construction of a burial vault for the archbishops of Paris beneath the chancel of Notre Dame, on the Ile de la Cité. Made of four superimposed square blocks of stone, the monument measures 5.24m (17 ft) in height and is carved with figures representing both Roman and Celtic deities. The inscription of a double dedication to Emperor Tiberius and Jupiter dates the pillar to between 14 and 37 AD, making it the oldest sculpture dated by an inscription ever found in France. The inscription specifies that the monument was financed by the Nautes, the powerful corporation of boatmen, confirming their leading position in the city’s hierarchy. The dedication to Jupiter led to the conjecture that an earlier pagan temple once stood on the site of Notre Dame. It is now more commonly believed that the pillar was initially erected on the Left Bank and was recycled on the island in the 3rd century, when the city’s center of gravity shifted there in the wake of barbarian assaults. That theory is supported by the fact that other recycled stone from the left bank of Lutetia was found in several places on the island, including the new ramparts, the royal palace (now the site of the Palais de Justice), and the basilica (on the site of today’s Marché aux Fleurs), an administrative and commercial tribunal. (Early Christians later borrowed the term basilica for their churches, which used a similar architectural plan.) The recycling of stone has always been common practice, as exemplified closer to our time by the Pont de la Concorde, a bridge built entirely from the stones of the demolished Bastille fortress-prison.

An even more significant breakthrough in tracing the history of Roman Paris was made in the 19th century by Théodore Vacquer, after Baron Haussmann had torn up the medieval streets for his grand redesign of the city. Vacquer’s studies revealed that Lutetia did not evolve as an extension of the earlier Gallic oppidum but was a carefully planned new town built on the left bank, in the position best suited for the crossing of the Seine via its main island. The choice of a small hill—known as the Montagne Sainte Geneviève since the Middle Ages—spared the inhabitants the capricious floodings of the Seine. As in all Roman towns, the streets of Lutetia were laid out in a grid, with a central north-south axis, the cardo maximus, a street that is still in place today, known as the rue Saint Jacques since the Middle Ages, when it was the route for pilgrims going to St. Jacques de Compostelle (Santiago de Compostela). The cardo spanned the river over a bridge (now le Petit Pont), crossed the island along the present rue de la Cité and joined the trading and communication routes toward the north via the present rue Saint Martin.

To the west, the Boulevard Saint Michel and, further north, the rue de la Harpe have replaced a secondary cardo which continued on the right bank along the rue Saint-Denis. Today’s rue de la Sorbonne was also part of the Roman grid, connecting the north gate of the Forum and the public baths that are now part of the Cluny Museum—the national museum of the Middle Ages, which is housed in a superb 15th-century mansion built atop the baths. East of the rue Saint Jacques, today’s rue Valette is crossed at right angles by the rue des Ecoles and rue Cujas, two of Lutetia’s rare surviving east-west decumani, running parallel to the Seine. Not unlike modern cities, Lutetia also had a diagonal artery, the transversus, an important road that led to Italy via Lyon. You can follow a section of its route along the present rue des Fossés Saint Jacques and rue Lhomond.

The Forum, the civic, economic and religious center of Gallo-Roman life, constituted a vast rectangle built on top of the hill, corresponding roughly to the present rue Soufflot and bounded by the Place Edmond Rostand, rue Saint-Jacques, rue Cujas and the quaint rue Malebranche. The basilica occupied the eastern side of the Forum, and facing it on the western side stood the Temple, surrounded by galleries that sheltered a variety of upmarket shops, with many more lining the neighboring arteries—some 60 in all. No doubt they would have put to shame today’s McDonald’s and its French equivalent, Quick, and the rest of the jumble of junk that now graces the Boulevard Saint Michel.

The Forum’s hill was higher at the time, and much steeper. Taking advantage of this topography, Lutetia’s monuments were positioned mainly on the northern slope that rolled down towards the Seine Valley, displaying their magnificence for all to see and admire from a distance. Surmounting them against the skyline was the red-tiled roof of the Forum—now replaced by the dome of the 18th-century Panthéon.

Lutetia’s aqueduct supplied three public baths. The Forum baths on the site of today’s rue Gay Lussac and those of the Collège de France, across rue Saint Jacques from the Observatory tower of the Sorbonne, were entirely demolished, but the ruins of the Thermes de Cluny still stand at the corner of Boulevards Saint Michel and Saint Germain, now part of the wonderful Cluny Museum, where the Pillar of the Nautes is also on view.

As many as fifteen shops lined the decumanus of the rue des Ecoles, providing the privileged Naute clientele of the Cluny baths with scents and other such upscale spa products. The theatre was situated on rue Racine, right next to today’s Théâtre de l’Odéon. The Roman “arena” was in fact a multi-purpose amphitheatre offering a mix of pantomime and musical performances, as well as bloody animal and gladiator fights, which possibly accounts for its location in what was then the suburban outskirts of Lutetia. In fact, most of the amphitheater known today as the arènes de Lutèce is a replica that dates to 1915-1916: unbelievable as it may be, most of the original Roman amphitheater that was unearthed in 1867-68, during Haussmann’s renovation, was demolished in 1870 to make room for a city bus depot—although Victor Hugo spared no effort to salvage what he could from the wreckage. The arena is now part of a lovely, hilly little garden that can be entered from the rue de Navarre, although those seeking the magical thrill of leaping back and forth in time should access it through a regular doorway situated at 49 rue Monge.

The Rue St. Nicolas du Chardonnet, one of the narrow Medieval streets near the Pantheon on the Left Bank, in the 1850s. State Library of Victoria

Further vestiges of Lutetia were uncovered in the 1960s when, once more, bits of Paris were stripped open, this time to create parking space for the ever-growing number of cars. A section of one of the Forum walls can be seen in the staircase of the rue Soufflot underground parking lot (entrance near 61 blvd Saint Michel). The 1965 parking lot excavations under the parvis of Notre Dame led to the creation of the Archeological Crypt, where the archeological findings have been preserved and turned into a museum. The Crypt is under the authority of the Carnavalet Museum, the museum of Paris history, which has its own excellent Gallo-Roman collection. Besides information about the construction of the city and its habitat, the exhibits also shed light on its inhabitants’ way of life, their trades and the decoration of the more prosperous homes, samples of which were found notably on rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée.

Gallo-Roman Lutetia was an average-size provincial town in Gaul, stretching over some 115 hectares (284 acres) on its main left bank section, with a population of some 5,000 inhabitants. For the sake of comparison, Reims and Amiens boasted an area of 250 hectares (618 acres) each, and big Roman cities like Lyon (Lugdunum) or Narbonne (Narbo Martius) had populations of more than 50,000. What’s left of Lutetia can easily be covered on foot in an hour or so. As you walk towards the Cluny Museum, heading for the baths like the Gallo-Romans did, take time to enter the little square Paul Painlevé on the corner of rue des Ecoles, where you’ll find a statue of the she-wolf suckling the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. It’s a replica of the one in Rome’s Capitol, a gift from modern-day Rome to Paris in homage to Gallo-Roman Lutetia.

Thirza Vallois is the author of Around and About Paris, Romantic Paris and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia.

From the Medici to unification

Cosimo de’ Medici (Cosimo the Elder) became the leading citizen in Florence after his return in 1434 from a year of exile. He achieved this position by virtue of his great wealth (the result of the largest banking network in Europe) and an extensive network of patronage obligations. While he never accepted public office, his faction dominated the city. He lived an increasingly opulent life, as is apparent in the ostentation of the Medici Palace and the patronage of churches such as San Lorenzo and the monastery of St. Mark, with its frescoes by Fra Angelico. Investment in culture, including the patronage of artists and architects and the purchase of books and manuscripts, became a fundamental expression of the Medici’s aristocratic way of life it was continued by Cosimo’s son, Piero, and his grandson, Lorenzo (dubbed “the Magnificent”). In all but name, Florence was now ruled by a Medici prince, whose position resembled that of the tyrants in other Italian cities such as Milan, Ferrara, Mantua, and Urbino.

Stability was briefly threatened in 1478 by the brutal but abortive Pazzi conspiracy seeking to end the Medici rule. In 1494, shortly after the death of Lorenzo, French armies under King Charles VIII invaded Italy. They were backed against the Medici by the popular party in Florence, which (with French help) succeeded in exiling the Medici and declaring Florence a republic. The consequence, however, was the loss of political autonomy to the larger conflicts of Italian peninsular struggles. Republican Florence was led briefly by a fiery Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola, who boldly condemned the luxury and urbane culture of his predecessors. His strict rule came to an end in 1498, but with it closed a phase of Florentine greatness.

The Medici returned to Florence in triumph in 1512 behind the papal and Spanish armies, reasserting power in a clear and ruthless manner. (Such an unambiguous pursuit of power by leaders at this time was given codification in 1513 by Niccolò Machiavelli in his treatise The Prince.) In addition, the younger son of Lorenzo was elected Pope Leo X his pontificate (1513–21) was noteworthy for its cultivation of the arts, especially his employment of Raphael. Leo was shortly followed by another Medici pope, Clement VII (1523–34). However, in 1527 the riotous Spanish army of Emperor Charles V overran Rome, and, during this moment of weakness, republicans again expelled the Medici from Florence, only to be punished in 1530 when pope and emperor were reconciled. Then in 1536 the statesman and historian Francesco Guicciardini began to compose his History of Italy, with its ideal vision of the era of Lorenzo the Magnificent and its pessimism concerning more recent events. In 1537 Charles V installed Cosimo de’ Medici ( Cosimo I) as official duke of Florence (grand duke of Tuscany after 1569). Cosimo and his wife, Eleonora of Toledo, patronized the arts and undertook vast building programs, such as the construction of the Uffizi, the renovation of the Palazzo Vecchio, and the reconstruction of the Pitti Palace.

With the rise of Cosimo I to titled nobility and to absolute rule in Florence, the political and cultural vitality of the city had all but ebbed, prompting a modern scholar to refer to the succeeding era as the “forgotten centuries.” Florence’s dukes had become minor players in the broader European balance of great powers, and they linked themselves chiefly with the noble houses of France. Marital alliances of Medici family members with members of the French nobility include those of Catherine de’ Médici, queen of Henry II and later regent of France Grand Duke Ferdinand I, who married Christine of Lorraine and Marie de Médicis, who married King Henry IV of France. The city generally declined under prolonged Medici rule, a process that was marked only by the extended reign of Cosimo III (1670–1723) and the end of the family with the death of his son, Gian Gastone.

After the rule of the Medici, Florence was governed from outside, as Francis Stephen of Lorraine, the husband of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, became the grand duke of Tuscany. Following a Napoleonic interlude, Leopold II of Habsburg was the last outside ruler (1824–59). He eventually abdicated in favour of the new Italian king, Victor Emmanuel. Soon after, Florence annexed itself to the new Kingdom of Italy, serving as its capital during the period 1865–70.

From the late 18th to the mid-20th century, a large Anglo-American colony was an integral part of the Florentine scene. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who is buried in Piazzale Donatello, the small English cemetery, noted that the city was “cheap, tranquil, cheerful and beautiful.” The Horne Museum, near Santa Croce, and the Stibbert Museum, in the north, are examples of houses and collections left by foreigners to their adopted city.

Other hills

Behind the Piazza del Popolo is the Pincio (Pincian Hill). During the Roman Empire the Pincio was covered with villas and gardens, but it was made into a public park only in the 19th century. Toward sunset many Romans arrive to stroll along the Pincio promenade.

On the hill is the Villa Borghese, which the Italian government purchased, along with its contents and grounds, at the turn of the 20th century. The grounds are now an extensive park containing numerous museums, academies, monuments, natural features, and other attractions. In the villa itself, the Galleria Borghese’s collection features several Caravaggios, Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, and Antonio Canova’s Neoclassical nude statue of Pauline Bonaparte, for a time a Borghese princess, as Venus Victrix.

The 1544 Villa Medici was bought by Napoleon in 1801 to house the Accademia di Francia ( French Academy), which is still in occupation. This academy, founded in 1666, is the oldest of many national academies established from the 17th to the 19th century to give architects, artists, writers, and musicians the opportunity to study the vast textbook that is the city itself and to use its museums and libraries. The Villa Giulia was a typical mid-16th-century Roman suburban villa, conceived not as a dwelling but as a place for repose and entertainment during the afternoon and early evening. It houses the Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia (Villa Giulia National Museum), which has a collection of Etruscan art and artifacts of singular beauty and historical value. Other attractions of the Borghese grounds include the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (National Gallery of Modern Art), founded in 1883, with an important collection of 19th- and 20th-century Italian art, and the Bioparco–Giardino Zoologico (Biopark–Zoological Garden), established in 1911.

Across the river, behind the river plain of Trastevere, is the Gianicolo ( Janiculum Hill). The Janiculum crest was made into a park in 1870 to honour Giuseppe Garibaldi for his heroic but unsuccessful defense of the short-lived Roman Republic of 1849.

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