Thursday, January 5, 2012

Was There a Florence Before the Renaissance?

Florence. Could this iconic picture be anywhere else? This is how people think of Florence, the dazzling city of the Renaissance: its cathedral crowned with Brunelleschi's dome, the militant-looking Palazzo Vecchio, the shop-laden Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno, museums full of glorious art, and magnificent churches and palazzi of gleaming marble facing spacious piazze.

But what if you're writing of an earlier Florence? What if you want your readers to erase from their mental picture that vast dome, the ornate marble facades, and those open spaces and replace them with smaller medieval churches, rusticated stone, houses in wood and brick, and tight urban spaces with everything crammed together and little space to get around? What if you want them to replace those dignified palazzi in their minds' eyes with buildings crowded together and bristling with jetties and balconies that jut out over the street, blocking out the light?

What if you want them to see the city not as the postcards show it, but as Dante would have seen it?

Here's a little exercise: Look at the following pictures of Florence, and try to guess how many of these sights Dante would have seen. Ready? Here goes.

The Duomo

Palazzo Vecchio

Giotto's Campanile

Ponte Vecchio

Loggia dei Lanzi

Michelangelo's David

Schlock shopping

All but that last one look pretty old, don't they? So how many of them would Dante have seen, before his exile in January 1302?

None. In fact, a market stall full of *stuff* might well have been the image that would have been most immediately recognizable to the poet. To be fair, he would have seen earlier versions of some of those structures. He probably saw the earliest beginnings of the Palazzo Vecchio (started in 1299) and of the cathedral (built, beginning in 1296, around the much smaller existing cathedral of Santa Reparata), and he certainly walked across an earlier version of the Ponte Vecchio. But to show you an example of how different Florence was then, here's a schematic comparing Dante's cathedral (Santa Reparata) with Arnolfo di Cambio's plan and with the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore as it is today.

Santa Reparata (red), compared to planned Cathedral (orange)
and actual Cathedral (yellow)

As for the others, he missed the campanile by 32-35 years, the current version of the Ponte Vecchio by 43 years, the Loggia dei Lanzi by 74-80 years, and The David (which, by the way, is nothing at all like The Donald) by 200 years. And that dome atop the Cathedral wasn't finished until 1436, or 134 years after Dante's exile.

So Dante's Florence wouldn't have looked like the picture at the top of this post. What would it have looked like? Here's an earlier picture:

Madonna del Bigallo (ca. 1342)

But even that is too modern. The cathedral is in place (though not the dome). Perhaps these earlier illustrations from Villani's Cronica capture the mood, if not an accurate representation:

And finally, we can gaze upon a building that was in place in Dante's day, and well before: the Baptistery, his "bel San Giovanni." (You can see it in the first Villani illustration above, as well as in the Madonna del Bigallo.) Here it is as it appears today:

Baptistery (San Giovanni)

Dante's Baptistery was surrounded by a graveyard, including many recycled Roman sarcophagi, and of course the buildings nearby were very different, most especially the neighboring cathedral. But this last image is one he would have recognized.

But how do you get readers to shake loose those firmly-ingrained images of Florence in the Renaissance? Put the Author's Note first and hope they read it? Preface all with a banner reading "Abandon all preconceptions, ye who enter here"? If anybody has any ideas on this, please share them. Are you writing about a place people know better from a different time? If you are, how did you deal with that?

Images in this post: Madonna del Bigallo, photo by Sailko, is US-Public Domain because it represents a two-dimensional image whose copyright has expired; Villani illustrations are US-PD (expired copyright); the schematic of the cathedral(s), also by Sailko, is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported; all other photos are by Tim Heath.


M.M. Bennetts said...

I think historians and historical fiction writers of a more serious bent all face this problem to a greater or lesser extent. The London I write about had none of the Victorian buildings, there was no Nelson's column, no National Gallery, no Big Ben...And Paris in 1812 was a wreck in a lot of ways--the Paris we think we know dates from the mid to late 19th century. So I think you just have to write it as if you're standing there, looking at the place through your character's eyes and telling the reader what you see, what's there, what's a building site...I use a lot of old maps in my mental reconstruction, and a lot of engravings of places...But yes, it is difficult.

Though maybe not so difficult as describing a place people think they know as if it's being seen for the first time. That I find is the hardest.

Tinney Heath said...

True. I like the idea of telling the reader when there's a building site - I'll have quite a lot of those in my WIP, as it was a time of rapid expansion. I do feel as if many people think they know a Florence that postdates my work, but of course place is not the only perception problem. Sometimes people have spot-on information for my time period, but for England. Which is not the same as Florence. (Mediterranean climate, different political structure, different resources, different everything.) Still, it all makes for an interesting challenge.