Notes from an Ever-Present Past, Part 3
From a distance, when it’s hard to make out the cars, one can almost imagine that Florence looks exactly as it did 150 years ago. The yellow stucco walls and terracotta tiled roofs produce such a warm light that it almost always looks as if it’s the golden hour. The Italian cypress trees dot the surrounding hills, needling straight up from the landscape in a race to the sky. And of course, at the heart of it all is Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome, the duomo.
To describe the duomo as unique would be something of an understatement. For four-hundred years after its completion in the mid-15th century, it was the largest dome in the world. It remains one of the largest.1 It’s octagonal. It’s made with brick and mortar. The entire exterior of the base (not just the façade) is made of patterned marble a la tricolore. Above all, the duomo is the pistil of Florence’s eponymous flower, the medieval streets forming irregularly shaped petals around the city’s iconic landmark.
Such a building, of course, requires tremendous wealth to produce. And wealth Florence once had in abundance. The Medici family’s shrewd/nefarious mix of money, realpolitik, and violence, in addition to forming both the text and subtext of Machiavelli’s political writings, made Florence one of the wealthiest cities in the world at the time (15th and 16th centuries).
Florence’s status as a city of some stature significantly pre-dates the Medici, however. As an independent city-state in the late Middle Ages, Florence was a hub of banking and textile innovation. The surpluses of these mercantile ventures got pumped back into the city in the form of culture, making Florence an obvious centerpiece for the early Renaissance.
So it was that leading lights in literature (Dante, Bocaccio, and to a somewhat lesser extent Petrarch); the visual arts (Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, Perugino, Lippi, Botticelli); architecture and engineering (Brunelleschi, Da Vinci); and music (the Florentine Camerata) all emerged from or spent considerable time in Florence.
As a concept, the Renaissance is, naturally, challenging to pin down. It was a movement whose earliest figures are from the 13th century and whose latest are from the 17th. By many historians it’s considered a break with the Middle Ages, but it also emerged from the Middle Ages. It’s both a time of wistful gazing at the past and tremendous progress. It’s Italian in origin, Greek in aesthetic, and very quickly continental in scope.
Absent these contradictions, of course, the Renaissance wouldn’t have been what it became, the approximate beginning of modernity. A movement that was a total break with the culture of its day wouldn’t have taken hold. Nor would a movement that didn’t offer a better way. But what makes the Renaissance truly unusual, and, perhaps, paradoxical, is the third component. Not only was it rooted in its day and (to anachronize) progressive, it was also conservative.
The principal message of the Renaissance was, after all, that ancient wisdom had been partially lost (to Europeans, that is – it was still well-known among scholars in the Arabic-speaking world), and that simply returning to ancient knowledge of humans was a kind of advancement on the understanding - present in the late Middle Ages - of the physical world, humans themselves, and forms of organizing society.
The power of these three temporal aspects to cohabitate the same movement is, I should think, the exception rather than the rule. It’s unusual that we should, at most moments in history, find greater learning in the past than the present. Human history is not an inexorable march of progress but, by and large, we (collectively) learn more and retain that knowledge.
This is (part of) what makes conservatism such a fool’s errand. It is exceptionally rare that so much knowledge could have been lost to so many people for so long. And it is even rarer that said knowledge would subsequently serve to advance our understanding of the world upon its rediscovery. The Renaissance is, at least for now, a once-in-human-history style event.
Florence and the Anglophones
The Greek cultural seeds that sprouted in Florence after a millennium of hibernation quickly made their way across the continent, borne by intellectuals from the rest of Europe peregrinating to (and then home from) the cultural mecca of Florence to learn its literary styles, painting techniques, or architectural innovations.
Given this historical status and robust cultural output, it’s no surprise that Florence, the epicenter of this movement, became something of a destination for foreign visitors. Chaucer was among the first of the luminaries from abroad to make his way to Florence, perhaps having been in the city for Bocaccio’s lectures on Dante.
But Chaucer wasn’t alone among pillars of English literati. Three of the most important figures in the history of English literature all were heavily influenced by the Italian renaissance. While Chaucer stole directly from Petrarch, Shakespeare and Milton were slightly more subtle. Shakespeare set many of his plays in Italy, and the sonnet – a form used and innovated upon by the great bard – came from Italy. And Milton was heavily influenced by the Divine Comedy. It’s not a ridiculous exaggeration to suggest that the foundation of English literature emerged from 13th-16th-century Florence.2
The Italian (and, above all, Tuscan/Florentine) influence on English literature carried through to English high culture. And with technological advancements that eased the burdens of travel, by the 18th century, Italy became a common destination for the English aristocracy on their grand tours of Europe. By the early 19th century, drawn both by cultural appeal and the more affordable environment, Florence had become home to a “colony” (in the figurative, not literal sense) of cash-strapped Anglophone aristocracy.
Florence at Arms’ Length Then…
Many of these affluent Brits (and, in smaller numbers, Irish and Americans) congregated in the surrounding hills. In the hills, it was, it seems, reasonably easy to find a medieval villa or palazzo (and, given the class of “colonists” in question, a full staff of servants as well) for a price significantly less than a comparable country estate in, say, County Kent.
Being up in the hills also afforded many of these foreigners the half-experience they wanted. Ostensibly in Italy, many never learned Italian or adopted local customs; rather, they lived among themselves, interacting with each other and the Anglophone Italians of a similar social class. A store along the Via Tornabuoni even carried imported English products.
The hills also offered a reprieve from the malarial riverbanks below. Tuscany, (and inland Florence in particular) were hotspots of malaria. Not until the early 20th century did Italian policies effectively and significantly reduce its presence. While malaria is no longer a concern (though the mosquitos remain), another reason for the “colonists’” withdrawal to the hills remains: Florence is simply prettier from a distance.
… And Now
Florence, the epicenter of the Renaissance, has seemingly missed half its lesson. While it remains a haven for those inspired by the culture of the ancients, it has forgotten that the Renaissance was all about adapting that knowledge to improve the present.
Like all things past, Florence suffers when we zoom in. It is a city of historical renown seemingly still stuck in the past. For those wishing to indulge their nostalgia for the spark of the early renaissance, I imagine few places would be better. But when they leave the Duomo or the Uffizi, the lack of modernity is inescapable.
Florence’s streets are famously narrow. In the centro storico, the largest have one parking lane and one driving lane. Many more have only one lane, with sidewalks large enough for a solitary pedestrian. With the density of people, the effect is a mass of pedestrians, bicyclists, scooterers, and motorists all trying to occupy the same 6 feet. Some people claim to find this prototypical Italian chaos endearing. I posit that they have never tried to roll a suitcase or wheelchair in such an environment.
The center of Florence was also surprisingly devoid of trees, grass, flowers, shrubbery – really vegetation of any kind. The piazze were made of the same flagstones or cobbles as the streets. Only some had benches.3 Even in reasonably temperate early-May whether, this lack of vegetation made the city substantially hotter. While the narrowness of the streets offers decent shade, the lack of plants to absorb any of the heat remains a real issue.
The lack of parks and vegetation had a knock-on effect of compelling dog-walkers to allow their pets to relieve themselves simply in the middle of the street. (We had the misfortune of witnessing this sight on more than one occasion.) This, in turn, made the streets smell of urine, and prompted this observer to wonder how many centuries of canine discharge had accumulated on these historic streets.
Nor, it should be noted, does a closer distance do many favors to the beautiful buildings of the city. Most suffer from a positively alarming state of disrepair. While some large fissures (like those of the duomo) remain because of the logistical difficulties of attempting to fix them, others seem to simply not be priorities for repair.
Unlike some other cities of historical importance, Florence seems to have undertaken no effort to modernize at all. The area on the banks of the Arno remains principally vehicular, including one area where the city’s best real estate was reserved for surface parking. Far too many of the urban core’s streets are open to cars. And, again, the lack of public spaces is a major oversight. None of these lacking “modernizations,” if addressed, would disrupt the city’s historic-ness; they would likely actually enhance it.
Part of this lack of modernization is actually due to the Anglophone colonists who, unsurprisingly, wished to preserve a historical Florence rather than a modern one. In the early 20th century, attempts to modernize the centro storico were met with fierce resistance from the Anglophones who gathered a petition against it that included many of the notable cultural figures who had spent time in Florence in the late 19th century, and even some who hadn’t. Signatories included a diffuse variety of Anglophone notables from George Bernard Shaw to Teddy Roosevelt.4
The result is that today, at ground level, the roofs are hard to see, it’s difficult to walk (or drive or bike or scooter), the streets smell of dog piss, there are no plants, and the piazze have few places to sit. It is a city which has misunderstood its own past. In an effort to let visitors nostalgize Florence’s glory years, the city has forgotten that this focus on the past is not, as with the Renaissance, paired with progress. Brunelleschi engineered an amazing dome. But he didn’t know things we don’t know today. We can’t, as Florence has, let our efforts to preserve the past prevent us from building a future. When such a trade-off is made for so long, the result is a city painfully lacking in the present.
Domes can be measured lots of different ways, making ordinal ranking a challenge.
Chaucer and Milton both traveled to Florence, and the city’s intellectuals clearly influenced their work. Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale is, evidently, a near-translation of Petrarch’s Griselda. The preface to said tale even suggests that Chaucer met Petrarch (though it’s not possible to say for certain). Several centuries later, Florence’s cultural output remained robust enough to attract Milton, who describes a “Tuscan artist” looking through “optic glass” at an orb atop Fiesole (a hilltop just to the north of Florence), an unmistakable reference to Galileo. For more on the specific literary influences of Tuscany on Anglophones, I suggest the “intermezzo” of Ben Downing’s Queen Bee of Tuscany, from which the above anecdotes are pulled.
I must confess that at this, I was genuinely surprised. The public spaces were few, and of a significantly lower quality than those we encountered in Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna. Even Bratislava had nicer outdoor public space than Florence.
This detail also comes from Queen Bee of Tuscany by Ben Downing.