A pretend letter; I am a male Roman in Florence Italy (1436, on pilgrimage) to my wife.
The air in Rome and Florence may be Italian, but the nature of the republic of Florence flows like the harmonious course of the Arno River, leading me to the artistic splendor bursting in the city life. On my first day of pilgrimage, I headed into the city from the north east and near the Ponte Vecchio, I stumbled upon Fillippo Brunelleschi, the most famous architect of Florence Italy, discussing patron divisions of the future church of Santo Spirito. The man’s intricate architectural plans are ingenious, and the cities greatest networks of familiae are eager for promotion. Painters, sculptors, and architects passed me as I made my way across the Ponte Vecchio; recently restored by Taddeo Gaddeo in 1345 (the shops flanking the bridge with butchered meat caused my mouth to salivate). Heading into the city, I was drawn into Florence by the mendicant churches that divide the city into four quarters: San Giovanni, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novello, and Santo Spirito. In each quarter, the gonfaloni form boundaries between the neighborhoods, organized to designate social class by the placement of piazzas, churches, and street corners. I didn’t really notice any differences in class; the courtly air and magnificent architectural structures consumed my thoughts.
Despite the divisions of the city, my next stop was the political and public center of Florence: the Piazza Della Signoria. The piazza was alive with festivity after the Signoria council announced on the steps of the town hall a tax cut for entire city. Engaged in the celebration, I overheard a peasant worker slandering the upper gilds of Florence. The man said, “Their patrician guilds rule our city, yet they have never bore the labor of crafting their work like the members of our confraternities.” His words bore no meaning, for the artistic achievements fostered by the rise of the richest families were beneficial to the cities growing wealth. Now that the Medici returned in 1434, leadership controlled in the Signoria by the Medici can be restored. I thought to myself, “The families that rule your city pay for your salary by giving you work.” The self-governing republic of Florence seems to be working, even if power is bestowed upon the wealthiest guild and merchant families.
The rise of Florence out the Black Plague seems to be evident in the growing population and revival of classical ideals. As wealth accumulates, the commissions by rich families and competing guilds for superior churches to the Medieval Gothic style grow. I heard people call Florence the center of the Renaissance, and after my second day of visiting, I am convinced that cultural rebirth defines this city. My next stop was the Santa Croce, a Franciscan church started in 1294 by Arnolfo di Cambio; however, the frescos by Giotto, commissioned by the Florentine banking families Strozzi and Bardi, are a more recent innovation. Many tombstones line the spacious nave of the church, such as the poet Dante’s. It appears that this church is not only a common place of burial for famous artists and poets, but also for the promotion of rich banking families. More notably, I am amazed by its sheer size and awe inspiring frescos. A group of nuns inform me that my next stop should be the Santa Maria del Fiore, where Fillippo Brunelleschi just finished building the Duomo.
I have never been so amazed by the achievements of one man. As I made my way to the Santa Maria del Fiore, I saw the height of the Duomo from a distance. The Gothic style cathedral was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1296 and the bell tower by the painter Giotto in 1334, but the greatest artistic masterpiece was by Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi first started to prepare a design for the dome in 1415 and from 1420 to 1436, the two-layered dome was constructed. When I walked inside the cathedral, I stared up at the inner octagonal dome. The grandeur of the dome is translated in the intricately designed ribs which support the base of the dome, adding to its sheer size (350 feet high!). I wondered how Brunelleschi could have lost to Lorenzo Ghiberti 35 years ago in the competition for designing the Baptistery doors. Instead, I decided to visit the Baptistery myself because it wasn’t a very far walk.
The Baptistery was a common octagonal basilica construction, originally built for Saint John the Baptist, patron and guard of Florence in the 8th and 9th centuries. The church was later renovated into a cathedral by wool merchants gild in 1200. In the early 1400’s, the Signoria sponsored a competition for the design of the baptistery doors. The two finalists were Lorenzo Ghiberti and Fillipo Brunelleschi, both of which had designed a French Gothic quatrefoil frame of the Sacrifice of Issac. If I had been around, I would have voted for Fillipo Brunelleschi; nonetheless, as I walked to the steps of the east side of the Baptistery, I saw Ghiberti laying out plans for the doors. “I want gilded bronze reliefs, illusionary perspective, and classical rendering on these panels!” he exclaimed. Although the man was not an architectural genius, he was a sculptor dedicated to the finest details. I wondered to myself, “How is it that I can come to Florence and stand amongst the greatest artists of the Quattrocentro?”
My last stop was the Church of San Lorenzo, another architectural masterpiece by Brunelleschi. Commissioned by the Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici in 1418, the Romanesque church was completely remodeled in 1421. As I walked in the nave of the Latin cross church, I noticed the contrast of grey stone and white plaster on the walls, Corinthian columns, painted stuccoes, roundels depicting the Evangelist, and rounded arches. The slender rendering of the architectural forms by Brunelleschi are magnificent, and the color contrasts add to these elements. As I glided through the room, pretending that the marble floors were painted glass, I ran into Cosmo de’ Medici. The man’s stern gaze frightened me, and I have to admit that I am most embarrassed by my encounter. While I pranced around like a foolish child, the greatest political figure in Florence admired the architectural features of his commission. Only in Florence Italy can two people from completely different social classes interact in such close proximity.
The Renaissance in Florence Italy is defined by its unique territory, fascinating art commissions, and independent government system. Although much of Italy has been able to establish itself as an independent commune from the Holy Roman Empire by the investiture struggle, Florence has emerged as a republican city defined by the wealth of rich merchants, guilds, clergymen, and families seeking to utilize their wealth for patronage in the arts. After visiting these architectural masterpieces, I am convinced that Florence is much better than Rome. Although I would not like to leave, I will return to you in a few days.