Renaissance Dissident

The Medieval Districts of Florence

The Medieval Quartieri and Sestieri

The Heraldry of Florence 2

This is the second in a short series of articles about the heraldry of Florence. The articles are intended to serve as a quick guide to curious travellers who may find themselves staring at a coat of arms and wondering just what it is that they are looking at. For clarity, I describe the various coats of arms as they appear, rather than using technical heraldic terms, although there is a brief note on colours at the end of the articles. In this second article I deal with the arms of the different districts of Florence, examples of which are preserved in the central courtyard of the first purpose-built Medieval government building in the city, known as the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, the Palace of the Captain of the People, its construction beginning in 1255. Today it’s the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, and can be found in Via del Proconsolo, in the historic city centre.

This is not a simple explanation of the coats of arms of districts that remained fixed. Their names, number, boundaries and even administrative powers all changed over time.

All maps in this article OpenStreetMap/Orionist (CC-BY-2.0), adapted by and © Chris Dobson.

The First Quartieri

The Early medieval city was first divided in quartieri: quarters (further subdivided into twenty-four parishes). Each quartiere extended inwards from one of the four major gates in the walls, and they were named for those gates: the Porta Domus to the north; the Porta San Pietro to the east; the Porta Santa Maria to the south; and finally the Porta San Pancrazio to the west. It is worth mentioning that the quartieri departed from the original division of the Roman city by its major streets, the cardo (now the Via Calimala) and decumanus (now Via degli Strozzi, Via degli Speziali and Via del Corso), which had a north-south and east-west axis (Fig 1), instead being rotated by 45 degrees (Fig 2).

The Roman city of Fiorentia
The First Quartieri of Florence
Maps above, from left to right/top to bottom: Fig 1. Roman Florence in 124 AD with the second (stone) bridge over the Arno; Fig 2. Florence within the circuit of walls built in 1078, divided into quartieri, which are given their official Latin names (to the south is the Carolingian bridge and the gardingo, the watchtower that guarded the approach to the city). Maps: OpenStreetMap/Orionist (CC-BY-2.0), adapted by and © Chris Dobson.

From their origins as simple administrative divisions of the city, the quartieri became complete entities, encompassing the administrative, judicial, military and religious aspects of the lives of the population, both within the walls, and in the contado: the countryside around the city. Each quartiere was represented by a Consul in government, and the citizens of each quartiere had more rights and responsibilities within their own district, than in other quartieri. But before long there were moves towards the real political unity of the city, driven by the interests of both nobles and commoners, which were at odds with the growing power of the Guilds, the trade corporations dominated by the wealthy merchant middle class. Eventually the Guilds prevailed, their organization being enshrined at the heart of a new constitution, and the quartieri returned to a simple administrative role. We have no record of the sybols used for the quartieri at this early stage, but going from their names, and from the symbols used for later quartieri and sestieri (sixths), we can be fairly certain what they were.

1. Porta Domus.
This was the Porta del Duomo, the Quartiere of the Cathedral Gate. The Baptistry of San Giovanni was the Duomo (cathedral) of Florence until 1128, and from which the nearby gate took its name, so the symbol for this quartiere was almost certainly the same as the later sesto of the Porta del Duomo, an image of the baptistry (Fig 3). The baptistry was probably rendered in white, on a red (or possibly blue) field.

2. Porta Sancti Petri.
The Porta San Pietro, the Quartiere of the Gate of Saint Peter. The gate took its name from the nearby Church of Saint Peter in the Golden Heavens (Sancti Pectri in Coelo Aureo), founded on the 20th of July 996AD. The symbol for this quartiere was probably the same as the later sesto of San Piero Maggiore (see below), the keys of Saint Peter (Fig 4). The keys would have been rendered in white and yellow, on a field of a contrasting colour (probably red).

3. Porta Sanctae Mariae.
The Porta Santa Maria, the Quartiere of the Saint Mary Gate. The symbol for this quartiere would have been an image of the Virgin and Child, similar to the sculpture in the centre of this photo, also in the Bargello courtyard (Fig 5). The colours used in these arms are uncertain, but the Virgin Mary would have been depicted in a blue robe.

4. Porta Sancti Pancratii.
The Porta San Pancrazio, the Quartiere of the Saint Pancras Gate. The image for this quartiere is open to debate. It may have been an image of the saint himself (a figure - possibly in Roman armour - bearing the attributes of a book, quill or sword), or possibly a lion’s claw (Fig 6), as used for the later sestiere, for which see below (Fig 11). If this symbol was used, the colours were probably the same as here: a red lion’s claw on a white field.

Medieval quartiere of the Porta del Duomo, Florence
Medieval quartiere of the Porta San Pietro, Florence
The first quartieri, from left to right/top to bottom: Fig 3. Porta del Duomo; Fig 4. Porta San Pietro. Photos © Chris Dobson.
Medieval quartiere of the Porta Santa Maria, Florence
Medieval quartiere of the Porta San Pancrazio, Florence
The first quartieri, from left to right/top to bottom: Fig 5. Porta Santa Maria; Fig 6. Porta San Pancrazio. Photos © Chris Dobson.

The Sesti or Sestieri

Florance’s population grew steadily in the High Middle Ages, and towards the end of the 12th century is believed to have reached around 30,000, so a new circuit of walls was planned to enclose all the habitation that had spilled out beyond the circuit of walls built in 1078, particularly in Oltrarno, the area ‘beyond the Arno’ to the south. The new walls were deliberated by the government in 1172, and then built in the space of only two years, between 1173-75. The increased size of the city led the government to also increase the administrative districts from four to six, the number of Consuls rising to match. The new districts were known as sesti or sestieri: ‘sixths’. These divisions returned to a more North-South/East-West alignment (Fig 7). The contado beyond the walls also underwent a reorganization into six administrative units. The citizens of each sestiere were responsible for defending their own stretches of city walls, should Florence be attacked. The sestieri were further subdivided into twenty Gonfaloni, or Standards, which would have been represented by twenty Gonfalonieri: Standard-Bearers, another reminder of the military service due from citizens.

Chief amongst these sestieri, the Sesto di Oltrarno - now large enough to be classed as a district in its own right - was represented by a bridge (Fig 8). On the north bank of the Arno were the other five of these districts: the Sesto di San Piero Scheraggio, represented by a marble wheel (Fig 9); Borgo, also known as the Sesto di Santa Trinita, represented by a ram (Fig 10); the Sesto di San Brancrazio, represented by a lion’s claw (Fig 11); the Sesto di Porta del Duomo, represented by the Baptistry of San Giovanni (Fig 12); and finally the Sesto di San Piero Maggiore, represented by the keys of Saint Peter (Fig 13).

The Medieval Sestieri of Florence.
Fig 7. Medieval Florence after the construction of the new walls of 1173-75 (the 5th circuit). The city was now divided into sesti or sestieri: ‘sixths’. At this stage there was still only one bridge spanning the Arno. Maps: OpenStreetMap/Orionist (CC-BY-2.0), adapted by and © Chris Dobson.

1. Oltrarno.
This symbol is a stylized version of the bridge over the Arno at this date (red on a white field), but the fortifications along the parapets will be a realistic reference to the defensive structure of the bridge.

2. San Piero Scheraggio.
This sestiere took its name from the church of San Pier Scheraggio, which in turn derived its name from the Schiaraggio, the stream that ran along the ditch in front of the west wall of the city, visible in Figs 1 and 2. The church, founded on the 19th of December 1066, was swallowed up by the construction of the Uffizi in January 1563 (1562 by the Florentine calendar of the time, when New Year's Day fell on the 25th of March), although columns and arches from the north side of the nave are visible today in Via della Ninna. The wheel was the symbol of the Florentine Carroccio, a sacred cart used in battle, painted red, and drawn by two white oxen also draped in red. By extension the symbol acquired the same name. The standards of the city were carried on the Caroccio, together with a cross and an altar where mass could be celebrated before battle. It served as a rallying-point in battle and was defended by picked troops. Its loss (as at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260) was considered a great disgrace. When not in use, the Caroccio was originally stored at a location now occupied by the loggia of the Mercato Nuovo (constructed 1547-51), not far from the church, and the loggia still has a marble version of this symbol set into its pavement. Writing in the early 14th century, Villani describes the symbol of the carroccio as being made “of marbles brought from Fiesole, and is [set] in the front of the said church of San Piero...” [San Pier Scheraggio]. Here the symbol is rendered as a dark grey (black) wheel with yellow detail, on a red field.

3. Borgo, or Santa Trinita.
The symbol of this sestiere is a ram in the act of mating (a becco), the symbol used by the Guild of Butchers, the Arte dei Beccai. The ram is black, on a white field. The explanation for this given by the Florentine chronicler Villani is that the butchers were all to be found within this sestiere (this guild also included fismongers and landlords of inns and taverns). Santa Trinita (The Holy Trinity) is a reference to the important basilica of that name in the same district.

4. San Brancrazio.
To understand this symbol, you need to know that in the Medieval Tuscan dialect ‘Pancrazio’ (as per the quartiere above) could be written or spoken as ‘Brancrazio’, with a ‘B’, and the word branca means the clawed paw of an animal like a bear or tiger, or - as here - a lion. So this symbol is a play on the name of the saint and the word branca. The lion’s paw is rendered as red on a white field.

5. Porta del Duomo.
This sestiere had the symbol of the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the Duomo of Florence until 1128. It is depicted in white on a red field. The quartiere of the Porta del Duomo above probably used the same symbol.

6. San Piero Maggiore.
Like the Quartiere of the Porta Sancti Petri above, the name of this sestiere is related to the Saint Peter Gate, but this time it was the one in the new circuit of walls, just inside which was the Church of Saint Peter the Great, San Piero Maggiore, founded on the 8th of July 969AD. Piero is a variant of Pietro common in Tuscany in the Middle Ages. The symbol is the Keys of Saint Peter rendered in white and yellow on a red field.

The Medieval sestiere of Oltrarno, Florence
The Medieval sestiere of San Pier Scheraggio, Florence
The Medieval sestiere of Santa Trinita, Florence
The Medieval sestiere of San Brancrazio, Florence
The Medieval sestiere of Porta del Duomo, Florence
The Medieval sestiere of San Piero Maggiore, Florence
The sestieri, from left to right/top to bottom: Oltrarno (Fig 8); San Piero Scheraggio (Fig 9); Borgo or Santa Trinita (Fig 10); San Brancrazio (Fig 11); Porta del Duomo (Fig 12); San Piero Maggiore (Fig 13). All photos ©Chris Dobson.

The Later Quartieri

In 1343, after the expulsion of the Duke of Athens from the city, Florence returned to an administrative/military system based upon four quartieri, albeit now much large than the original ones, after further expansion of the city between 1299 and 1333. The population in 1333 is estimated at almost 90,000. Each quartiere was sub-divided into four Gonfaloni. This system survived more or less unchanged throughout the following centuries. The releifs that depict the symbols for these quartieri are rendered in a limited colour-palette of mostly blue, white and yellow, but I have noted below where the actual arms could depart from this limited colours elsewhere.

Rather than being named for city gates (of which there were now thirteen), the new quartieri had names corresponding to the most important churches within them: Santo Spirito in Oltrarno; Santa Maria Novella in the east of the city; San Giovanni (for the Baptistry) in the north; Santa Croce in the west. Whilst the church of Santa Reparata had by now succeeded the Baptistry as the Duomo (Cathedral) of Florence, the Baptistry itself retained great importance for the Florentines (as indeed it does today).

The later Medieval Quartieri of Florence.
Fig 14. Florence at the height of its Medieval expansion, in 1333, once again divided into quartieri. Maps: OpenStreetMap/Orionist (CC-BY-2.0), adapted by and © Chris Dobson.

1. Santo Spirito.
This was the name of the principle church in Oltrarno, founded by the Augustinians around 1250, Santo Spirito (the church of the Holy Spirit). The symbol is of the descent of the Holy Spirit, represented by a white dove with a yellow halo and rays of yellow light on a blue field (Fig 15).

2. Santa Maria Novella.
This quartiere took its name from the Dominican basilica of Santa Maria Novella (New Saint Mary’s), the current church being constructed c. 1246-1360. Its symbol is a yellow sun in splendour on a blue field (Fig 16).

3. San Giovanni.
This is a combination of the first quartieri the Porta del Duomo and the Porta San Pietro, as the church of San Pier Maggiore (giving its name to the previous sestiere) was now a part of the quartiere of Santa Croce (see below). It combines the sybols of the Baptistry of San Giovanni in yellow, and the keys of Saint Peter in white and yellow, bound with a crimson chord, all on a blue field (Fig 17). In other contexts the baptistry could be rendered in white.

4. Santa Croce.
This quartiere took its name from the great Franciscan basilica on the other side of the city, Santa Croce (the Holy Cross). Construction of the present church began on 3rd May 1294. Its symbol is a simple yellow cross on a blue field (Fig 18). In other contexts this symbol could be rendered as a red cross on a white field.

Medieval quartiere Santo Spirito, Florence
Medieval quartiere of Santa Maria Novella, Florence
The second quartieri, from left to right/top to bottom: Fig 15. Santo Spirito; Fig 16. Santa Maria Novella. Photos © Chris Dobson.
Medieval quartiere of San Giovanni, Florence
Medieval quartiere of Santa Croce, Florence
The second quartieri, from left to right/top to bottom: Fig 17. San Giovanni; Fig 18. Santa Croce. Photos © Chris Dobson.

A Note on Heraldic Colours.
Strictly speaking the colours white and yellow do not exist in heraldry, and instead these are the ‘metals’ silver (argent) and gold (or), and they were applied as precious metal leaf to some of these reliefs. The chronicler Giovanni Villani describes the red used in the arms as “vermiglio”: vermillion.

Chris Dobson

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