Shockingly, Florence existed before the Renaissance. There was a city here before the art and culture that would come out of Florence would change the world. There were buildings; there were people. And while little of that is a draw for tourists, it is important to talk about what Florence was prior to the official start of the Renaissance, here in 1434.
I am in Florence primarily to talk about the city as the birthplace of the Renaissance. And over the course of my time here, I will be writing about the city and the two hundred or so years of the Renaissance, through the eyes of some of the city’s most famous citizens: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, and the entire Medici family. We will explore art, architecture, science, politics, and more as the world changed, moving outward from this little city in Tuscany.
But to truly understand the Renaissance, we must also understand the world – and Florence – on its cusp. And what can we, as travelers, still see and experience of this era of Florentine life?
The Renaissance marks a change in viewpoint, more than a change in any particular style. Prior to this period, art still existed. So did architecture – beautiful architecture – and science. But all of these things were done with two specific purposes: uplifting and legitimizing a political regime (mainly in the form of monarchic dynasties), and for propagating religious dogma. For example, art prior to the Renaissance primarily took the shape of either biblical scenes or portraiture of the nobility. Science was sponsored by the church or the royalty for either a) financial gain or b) reinforcing a church-sanctioned view of the world. Architectural beauty was reserved for churches and palaces. You get the idea.
The Renaissance, literally rebirth or revival, changed all of that. For perhaps the first time since the Roman Empire, cities enjoyed publicly funded art that was not entirely religious in nature. Beautiful public buildings were constructed with a focus on geometry or nature, rather than only religious or royal imagery. Science was pursued for its own sake, rather than the ability to turn a profit for dynastic families. And it all began here in Florence.
So what did Florence look like prior to the Renaissance? Politically, the city was a republic in name, with a council of semi-elected members of elite families making major decisions by consensus, though proceedings were dominated by factions. Two of these elite families, the Guelphs and Ghibellines, fought repeatedly for control over the 13th and early 14th centuries, leading to both large building projects and the destruction of them, as the factions raced to outdo each other and to undo what the other did while in power. By the fifteenth century, two main factions existed in the city, which had emerged from the plague years as a banking center: the Medici and the Pazzi. We will discuss them more in a later article.
As with many Italian city-states, pre-Renaissance Florence was heavily religious. Today’s basilicas of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce were both constructed prior to the Renaissance, although each was given a facelift later. Even the mighty Duomo was begun in this period, although as we will discuss when we see the city through the eyes of Brunelleschi, today’s cathedral is definitely a Renaissance product.
Visiting Santa Croce, we can see the pre-Renaissance style. Exposed wooden beams and frescos adorn fairly simple walls. Although much of what is now inside honors the later period, the basic style is medieval at its peak.
The city at this period was almost entirely walled, with most of the elite families residing in palaces within the walls. Some of those still exist, and today many are either private buildings or museums. In addition, while the walls of Florence are long gone, several of the original city gates remain.
Perhaps the most famous sight of pre-Renaissance Florence is the Ponte Vecchio, literally the old bridge. Constructed in 1345 over the Arno, what stands today is actually a reconstruction of earlier bridges that have stood in this spot since at least the year 996. The only Florentine bridge to survive World War Two, it is unique in that shops line both sides all along its roughly 300 foot length that is divided into three arches. Once a common practice for roads and bridges leading into cities, which after all were perfectly situated to sell things to travelers entering and exiting, this makes for an interesting experience for visitors, although today’s shops are pretty much exclusively high end jewelry.
And so the centuries in Florence passed, until we arrive at the fifteenth century and the dawn of the Renaissance. The city and the world was about to change, and nearly everything that we now associate with Florence would emerge. Let’s take a journey through the city via some of its most incredible citizens, people who would change every aspect of life in Europe and in the world.
This is Florence on the cusp of the Renaissance.
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