Why Renaissance Studies will always need Florence

Smells, bells and balls

Kate Mani
February 1, 2017 - 15:33

In Italian, storia, history, also means story and in Florence, the streets tell an historical story.



I am reading Florence’s Renaissance storia in a digitalised era, with everything from Machiavelli’s writings to the 1427 tax records just a click away. Brunelleschi’s Cupola is an Instagram sensation, rivalled only by #pontevecchio, bringing the city’s most prized monuments into the palm of any smartphone holder. Before arriving in the Arno city, I Google-mapped my way under the Vasari corridor, giving the lungarno a sense of familiarity.



This view from our Google window, illuminated and deepened by online primary and secondary historical sources, poses the question of what being on-site in Florence still offers to a budding Renaissance student. The answer? Sensory appreciation of the space itself.



For students and visitors to Florence, the city’s spatial characteristics are priceless primary sources that bear clues to fifteenth-century daily life. Staring up at the imposing facades of the city’s grand palazzi will make textbook accounts of the wealth of Florence’s most successful bankers and merchants come to life. Walking from the separate ecclesiastical centre of the Duomo to the civic hub of the Palazzo Vecchio makes historical commentary about the competing political and religious motivations of Renaissance Florentines hit home. Be inspired by the al fresco history lessons below and you will see that the best way to appreciate the Renaissance in Florence involves a good pair of walking shoes and a critical eye.




Preaching to the masses



Piazza Santa Maria Novella, whose construction began in 1287, once housed the lodgings of Dominican monks who attracted large crowds to the square with their outdoor preaching. The piazza was widened repeatedly during the Renaissance as popularity for open-air religious sermons grew, accommodating the increasing demands of the congregation. While you can read about the importance of religion in the everyday lives of Renaissance Florentines, the magnitude of the crowds touched by preaching resonates through the expansion of the square to its current overwhelming size. Gaze up at the marble obelisks that rise above each end of the piazza—they provide clues to the piazza’s other function. Hosting festivals and tournaments, these were goal posts in the Palio dei Cocchi, a chariot race that begun in 1563 under Cosimo I de Medici.




Moving with the Medici  



Historians relate that the Medici family was one of Europe’s wealthiest, controlling all of Florence and beyond. Play “follow the Medici crest” and see the endless palle (balls!) plastered on the churches, palazzos and monuments that benefitted from the family’s patronage. It is a trail that will lead you not only around the city, to the Medici’s original home turf of San Lorenzo, the Palazzo Vecchio and Santa Croce, but also to the piazzas of Pisa, Pistoia and Prato. Despite the distance between these outlying towns and Florence’s hustle and bustle, the city walls proved no barrier to the expansiveness of Medici power.




Renaissance encroaching over medieval Florence


Along the Oltrarno’s borgo San Jacopo you can still see the medieval towers of the Barbadori and Marsili families, wedged among the street’s typically Renaissance additions: the statue of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, the twirling Corinthian columns on the portico of the San Jacopo church and family coat of arms plastered along palazzo facades, identifying them as Renaissance commissions.


The medieval towers would have given their wealthy owners a vantage point from which to throw rocks and missiles at enemy families and defend themselves from attacks. Today you will notice their relatively unimpressive height, a clue to understanding city politics. In 1250, laws restricted the height of towers across Florence to less than 26 metres, as no privately owned tower could rise above the people’s palace (the Bargello). The architecture of borgo San Jacopo physically reflects Renaissance republican values, which saw the creation of a communal palace and the control of the populist faction, the Guelphs, rather than the noble, elite faction, the Ghibellines.




Smells and bells



Absorbing Florence’s streets will not only give your sight a sensory workout. The aroma of parmignano and prosciutto that wafts through the Sant’Ambrogio market will take you back to 1873 when the market started (admittedly long after the Renaissance). Florentine artisans and labourers, whose many families would have lived in the workers’ area of Sant’Ambrogio during the Renaissance, frequented its abundant stalls.


Approach the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio’s glittering jewellery shops and your nose will thank you that in 1593 Grand Duke Ferdinando de Medici removed the butchers and fishmongers whose shops occupied the bridge, replacing the stench of meat and fish with less offensive gold merchants. As the bells of Giotto’s campanile add a soundtrack to your street-side Renaissance, imagine how their chiming would have indicated liturgical feast days and alerted Renaissance Florentines to religious processions that were about to begin.  


These are just some of the lessons that can arise from curiosity, keen observation and letting yourself feel Florence. Google Maps has not replaced craning your neck to try and take in the size of the Duomo and Campanile, while the thousands of internet results from a search of “Medici crest” cannot replicate the fascination of finding yet another street-side Medici palle. It’s seeing Florence as a whole panorama, rather than in isolated images, which makes the grandeur and overwhelming presence of its Renaissance past sink in. Until the city’s smells, bells and sense of space are available online, we’ll always need Florence.


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