Assassin’s Creed celebrates its 15th birthday! And I could not have a more ambiguous history with this franchise. While I did play the games chronologically, I admit that Assassin’s Creed II remains my alltime favorite. Having the advantage of living in Europe and – at that – very close to Italy, I actually took a trip throughout said country to trace the steps of the one and only Ezio Auditore da Firenze.
I used to be a big fan of Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II in particular. Why? The answer is quite simple: First, the story around hero Ezio Auditore da Firenze is thrilling and exciting, and Second, the game is pure sightseeing thanks to the great graphics. Because Ezio travels across Italy: from Florence to Montereggioni, San Gimignano and Forlí to Venice and, at the very end, to Rome. These, I decided, would also be my destinations for my solo tour of Italy. For starters, however, I limited myself to Tuscany and Venice.
Let’s get to it.
Act I: Florence (Firenze)
Ezio hails from a rich family. His father is a banker, and those who, like me, are familiar with the work of Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay and know “A Song for Arbonne”, know that as a spoiled banker’s son in Renaissance Italy one was apparently predestined to become an assassin. Although, I admit it, there is a big difference between Ezio and the said banker’s son from “A Song for Arbonne”: For Rudel Correze (also a great character) it is just a pastime, for Ezio a very serious matter of life and death. Literally.
Florence, then, and not Florence at any time, but Florence at the end of the 15th century, the renaissance, is the place. My own memories of this city already date far back (not that far, of course!). I remember the green hills surrounding the city, the courtyard of San Lorenzo with its orange trees, the statue of David and the fact that I already loved the city as a child. Funnily enough, it was Assassin’s Creed II that made me want to visit it again. Because, of course, all the sights, at least those that were already built at the time, show up in the game.
Ezio, the hero of the game, likes to move in parkour style over the rooftops of the city. I myself took the bus from my hotel in nearby Impruneta and started my tour at the Porta Romana in the Oltrarno district. From here, I headed toward the Arno River, past Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens.
Assassin’s Creed II begins its tour of the city with a brawl on the Ponte Vecchio, so I crossed it with a small, knowing smile on my lips and remembered my first lesson in game controls. Because I first had to learn how to kick or headbutt the enemy, of course. Which was hard in that I wanted to take a break the whole time and just look at Florence in the evening.
I had the opportunity to do that right now. From Ponte Vecchio I passed the Uffizi and headed towards Santa Croce, the scene of Ezio’s first assassination of the man who betrayed his father and brothers and sentenced them to death. Interestingly, this assassination happened during an exhibition of the famous sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio. I have to say, I love the attention to detail in this game. Sightseeing and culture all in one! Delightful!
In the here and now, I spared a glance at the facade and headed to the Piazza della Signoria. The building is just as impressive as I remembered, but the piazza is much smaller. On this day, a stage was being set up for a festival or event. In its raw state, it could also be a scaffold.
I really like the famous Loggia dei Lanzi, a copy of which is in Munich at Odeonsplatz, as well as the replica of Palazzo Pitti aka the Residenz in the same place.
Nevertheless, I could not get the images out of my head as reckless Ezio climbed the top of the tower of the Signoria and threw himself down to land in a hay cart. In general, I noticed that the sightseeing in Assassin’s Creed II is mainly done from the rooftops, which allows for some very exciting perspectives in the game, but a few new ones in reality.
The beautiful, bright white Duomo of Florence is the setting for some key scenes from the game. First, there is an attempted assassination of Lorenzo de Medici, which our hero has to prevent, and second, there is a climbing sequence inside the Duomo, which is much less opulently furnished and smaller in the game than in real life. So it’s worth waiting in line. Definitely!
After the cathedral, I visited San Lorenzo and was pleased to see that the orange trees in the courtyard are still standing. On the way back to the bus stop, I followed the tip from my guidebook, falling completely out of the assassin role, and made a detour to Campo Santo Spirito in the Oltrarno district. Instead of drinking a spritz on one of the small terraces, I opted to sit with the people on the steps in front of the church and watch the hustle and bustle in the square from there.
While Siena is not directly a setting from Assassin’s Creed II (but mentioned in the novel by Oliver Bowden, which I bought in Florence), I also wanted to use my Tuscany trip to expand my knowledge of the sights beyond the game. There are endless monuments and museums in Siena. However, I prefer to take in a city while walking around. So I skipped the museums.
The drive over from Impruneta across green hills and vineyards is indescribably beautiful and the first impression of the skyline of Siena, if I may call it that, very impressive. Unlike Florence’s old town, the city is uphill and downhill, uphill in the case of the cathedral, which sprawls on its hill like a masterpiece of the confectioner’s art.
On the way there, however, I gained some more very beautiful impressions. Siena is well known for the Palio, a horse race around the Piazza del Campo, which is really one of the most beautiful places in Italy that I know. And I know a few.
The Signoria courtyard just off the piazza is also worth a detour, as is that of the Academy of Music. I think I’ll go to Siena a second time. Someday.
Act II: Monteriggioni and San Gimignano
Back to Assassin’s Creed II and Ezio Auditore. After the murder in Florence, Ezio is forced to leave the city with his mother and sister. They find refuge in the fortified town of Monteriggioni, with a rogue named Mario, who turns out to be his uncle. Monteriggioni, compared to the other towns I visited and that you will visit in game, is tiny. However, the town boasts a completely preserved city wall with a total of 14 defense towers, which is beautifully shown off in the fantastic, graphic remodeling of the town in the world of Assassin’s Creed II.
From Monteriggioni, we continue to San Gimignano, where Ezio’s enemies have found refuge. This, regarding travel time, takes two minutes in game, but proved a test of patience for me. Because the road to San Gimignano leads over a lot of green hills. So many, in fact, that I wondered if I’d ever reach my destination at one point. The sight of the medieval skyline was much-needed compensation! It is quite breathtaking to see the city so suddenly appear in the distance!
The towers for which the city is famous, along with its wine, naturally play a big role in Assassin’s Creed II and, looking back, the little town is about as crowded in the game as it is today. However, what is called an NPC (non-playable character) in the world of video games generally stands for “tourist” in reality. As such, I wandered curiously through the drizzle-soaked alleyways and marveled at the well-preserved towers.
As mentioned, Ezio travels to San Gimignano and the surrounding area mainly to eliminate the conspirators. I did, however, take the time to simply ride over the green hills and let the landscape take its effect on me. Unfortunately, both the horse and the sun were missing on this day. Nevertheless: I’ll definitely return to San Gimignano once more. At least once.
Act III: Venice (Venezia)
After Ezio has successfully defeated the conspirators in Tuscany and been made an honorary citizen of Florence by Lorenzo de Medici, his search for the conspirators leads him to faraway Venice. To get there, however, he must first reach Forlí and cross the Appenines. And that takes an incredibly long time in game! Unfortunately, that is also true when traveling by car in real time. However, I skipped Forlí on this trip (went there later, was unimpressed) and headed straight for the lagoon city.
I had even fewer memories of Venice than I did of Florence, but in the game the magnificent city is so beautiful that I was very curious to see whether reality could keep up. And yes, of course it could!
Ezio’s visit in Venice begins at the Rialto Bridge, but it is – unsurprisingly – far less crowded in the 15th century than it is today. I myself took a vaporetto (a boat that basically serves as a bus) at the Piazzale Roma and cruised leisurely down the Grand Canal. To the right and left there are beautiful palazzi and churches to admire and I enjoyed the ride very much. In the game, Ezio is able to board a gondola and steer it through the canals. However, it is much faster to use the actual labyrinthine alleys and bridges, or, in true Assassin style, the rooftops.
Next to Florence, Venice is the second main setting in the story of Assassin’s Creed II and accordingly the missions that take Ezio across the city’s quarters are elaborate. One of these missions is to prevent an assassination attempt on the Doge, in his palace. This fails, another Doge, who is – of course – part of the conspiracy, gains power and Ezio is forced to draw his assassin blade to restore order.
Both men really existed, and if you are an Assassin connoisseur and walk the palace and look at the portraits of all the Doges, you will discover them. Incidentally, the mission described is the only way to visit the palace courtyard in the game. Because despite Ezio’s excellent climbing skills, this structure is off limits. Which was yet another reason for me to explore the Doge’s Palace most extensively and to delve a bit more into the history of the city.
In the game, Venice, even more so than Florence and San Gimignano, invites you to climb its many buildings and enjoy the view from lofty heights. In the here and now, there are three places I can recommend for chilling out: the Dorsoduro waterfront, Zattere, where, far from the tourist crowds, you can rleax sitting in the sun and read or listening to music; the steps of the church of Santa Maria della Salute, opposite St. Mark’s Square, which didn’t exist at the time Assassin’s Creed II was set in; and Campo San Polo, in the neighborhood of the same name.
Here’s to all the things I loved about Assassin’s Creed!