Renaissance Dissident
Art History from a Different Perspective

The Art and History of Florence

A night view of the cathedral of Florence and Brunelleschi’s great dome
The cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, crowned by Brunelleschi’s great dome. Photo: Petar Milosovich.

The story of Florence did not start with the founding of the Roman city of Florentia in 59 BC. Already, some 4,000 years ago, in the late Neolithic period and early Bronze Age, on the marshy floor of the valley, there was already a settlement on the high ground on the north bank of the Arno, where the river narrowed as it flowed past a hill on the south bank. Today, that hill is the location for the Boboli Gardens, and the place where the river narrows is where you will find the Ponte Vecchio. The settlement was sited beneath what is now the heart of the historic centre of Florence. Around the beginning of the 10th century BC a people who brought iron-working to Italy were living here, a people which we know today as the Villanovan Culture. In time the Etruscans supplanted the Villanovans, and by c.500 BC there was a thriving Etruscan settlement here, at the confluence of three major Etruscan roads. The Etruscans also constructed the first regular means of crossing the Arno here: a ferry. They even had wharves on the north bank of the river to load and unload the barges that carried goods to and from the coast, where Pisa now stands. So by the time Julius Caesar founded Florentia (and yes, it was him), people had already been living on this site for around 2,000 years. Rather than build an entirely new settlement though, the Romans just did what they did best: they recognised an important strategic site, fortified it and made use of it, laying the regular streets of their new city down over the old Etruscan settlment.

Bronze figurine of an Etruscan warrior.
Roman legionaries building a bridge - plaster cast of a relief from Trajan’s Column.
Photos left to right/top to bottom: an Etruscan figure of a warrior, photo Los Angeles County Museum of Art (PD-old, PD-US-unpublished); Roman legionaries building a wooden bridge across a river outside a fortification, cast from Trajan’s Column, photo Public Domain (CC-PD-MARK, PD-old-80-1923).

Roman Florentia saw the building of the first two bridges over the Arno here - the first of wood - and as the Roman Empire was replaced by the Byzantine Empire in the East, the city first survived an attack by the Gothic King Radagaisus in 405 AD (but only just, and at the cost of great damage), but was ultimately taken by trickery and burned to the ground by the Ostrogothic King Totila in 542 AD. The city’s first stone bridge, built during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, was also destroyed. It took centuries for the city to recover from this devastation, falling under the control of the Lombards, and later the Franks of Charlemagne. Under Charlemagne, its bridge was rebuilt in the 9th century, and as the city grew it acquired new walls to protect the growing population. In the following centuries the city continued to flourish. There had always been some habitation on the south bank of the river, but by the 12th century the fortifications of the city properly included this growing district, called Oltrarno, the area ‘beyong the Arno’. By the time we reach the 13th century, and the city that Dante immortalised, Florence had grown still further, becoming a city studded with more than a hundred and fifty massive towers. These were privately-owned fortifications within the city’s walls, from which powerful families pursued their vendettas against each other and the government, plunging the city into a bitter civil war that lasted for generations. In time, the two major power-blocs involved in the conflict became known as the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, allied to competing candidates for the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, and then the Emperor and the Pope.

The baptistry of San Giovanni in the historic centre of Florence.
The Palazzo Spini Feroni in Florence.
Photos left to right/top to bottom: The Baptistry of San Giovanni, the oldest standing building in Florence; the Palazzo Spini Feroni is the best-preserved Medieval palazzo in Florence.

Florence continued to be plagued by violence into the 14th century, with the Ciompi Revolt and the rule of the Duke of Athens, and it is finally in the latter part of that century that arguably the first stirrings of what we now call the Renaissance began. The city had been growing steadily richer from trade, but also from its banking activities (the odd banking crash aside), and it was principally this vast wealth which drove artistic innovation. That, and a couple of other factors. The ‘hothouse’ studio system for artists in Florence allowed those wealthy merchant families to compete both socially and politically with their patronage of particular artists, sculptors and architects. They did this through the the building and decoration of their own homes, and more publicly by sponsoring works in their parish churches, and also through grand civic projects. Even smaller towns in Tuscany could find their churches benefitting from the work of famous Masters employed by wealthy Florentines. This wasn’t just a matter of competition with their rivals though. These oligarchs also saw endowing churches as a way of mitigating the mortal sin of usury: charging interest on the loans they made to build their vast fortunes. They were trying to buy their way into heaven, or at least out of hell.

The left-hand panel of the Rout of the Tower at San Romano, by Paolo Uccello.
The statue of Saint Louis of Toulouse, by Donatello.
Photos left to right/top to bottom: Paolo Uccello, the left-hand panel of The Rout of the Tower at San Romano, photo The Yorck Project Gesellschaft für Bildarchivierung GmbH (GNU Free Documentation Licence); Donatello Saint Louis of Toulouse, c. 1422-25, photo: Sailko (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

The great flowering of art that took place during the 15th century was based on new technological developments in optics, with the discovery of ‘scientific perspective’ by Filippo Brunelleschi, which found application in the visual arts, sculpture and architecture, but it also consciously reached back to the Classical World for inspiration. The result was an elegant blending of the pagan world and Christianity, which has left us with some of the greatest expressions of Western culture, and Florence is full of these masterpieces. Despite more political stability in the 15th Florence, the wealthy merchant families still sometimes resorted to overtly violent methods to seize power, and in this period the Medici family suffered two direct challenges to their pre-eminent position, once by the Albizzi family during the Luccan War that culminated in the Battle of San Romano, and the second during the infamous Pazzi Conspiracy. The Medici survived, and despite suffering expulsion from the city a couple of times around the end of the century, they returned with the help of foreign troops, to consolidate their rule as tyrants in the 16th century. They remained as rulers of the city - Grand Dukes - until the death of Gian Gastone de’ Medici in 1737.

Of course, the rich art and history of the city continued beyond this one famous family, and part of the charm of Florence is its vibrant modern culture, in such an ancient setting. I invite you to come and experience this beautiful city, the ‘cradle of the Renaissance’.

January 1st 2024 update: this part of the website is in the course of construction. The links below will be active very shortly.

A portrait of the poet Dante in the cathedral of Santa Maria Fiore, Florence.
The Primavera, by the Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli
A portrait of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, by Agnolo Bronzino.
© Chris Dobson 2024 | All rights reserved