The other day I was looking through the illustrated Cronica Nuova by Giovanni Villani, a medieval chronicler who lived from ca. 1276 until he died of plague in 1348. This lavishly-illustrated manuscript dates from the early 14th century, about the time Villani wrote his history of Florence and of other parts of Italy and the world.
The illustrations depict many cities, both close to Florence and far away. Cities in this time period are shown with towers and other tall buildings, typically sticking up inside a circle of protective walls with formidable gates. Pretty much every city shown has these characteristics. And yet, every picture of Florence is unmistakably, distinctively Florence.
What makes it so obvious? How did people of Dante's time (1265-1321) choose to portray their city? And what was it that, to the medieval viewer, signaled "Florence" at first glance?
|Santa Maria del Fiore|
Not the cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, with its famous dome by Brunelleschi. That wasn't built yet. At the turn of the 14th century, the cathedral was Santa Reparata, a smaller church on the site where the duomo now stands.
Not the famous bridge over the Arno, now known as the Ponte Vecchio. Yes, there was a bridge in that spot, and it did have shops lining both sides, but that bridge washed away in the great flood of 1333 and was replaced in 1345 by the bridge you see above.
Both of those pictures are unmistakably Florence, but they are from a period well after Dante. Neither the cathedral nor the Ponte Vecchio (or, for that matter, the Palazzo della Signoria) is the iconic feature that defined the city in the beginning of the 14th century.
So what was it that defined Florence, for Dante and his contemporaries? One building: the Baptistery.
In Dante's day, Florentines believed that the Baptistery had originally been a Roman temple dedicated to the god Mars. Actually, this version of the Baptistery was built somewhere around the middle of the 11th century, though it was raised on the foundations of an earlier building or buildings. An earlier baptistery stood on this space, dating from the 5th or 6th century, and it in turn may have been constructed over a Roman structure of some sort.
|Illustration from Villani: Building the Baptistery|
The sides of this iconic building are clad in contrasting white and green marble in geometric patterns. It is distinctive, and as you will see, it's easy to spot in the illustrations to Villani's history.
The Baptistery, Dante's "bel San Giovanni," is, of course, dedicated to Florence's patron saint, John the Baptist. Until the end of the nineteenth century, huge mass baptisms were held in this building on Easter Saturday every year.
Villani's Cronica summarizes Florence's early history, as it was understood at the time. Here's his illustration of Florence being destroyed by Totila:
The walls are down, other buildings are toppled, the defenders of the walls are headless, but there stands the Baptistery, intact and instantly recognizable.
Florentine legend dictates that the city was rebuilt by command of the great Charlemagne:
Note the banners with SPQR, indicating the involvement of Rome (hence, the empire), and the anachronistic fleur-de-lys to suggest Charlemagne.
The iconic building appears again in depictions of a much later time - the late 12th century, during the intercity struggles between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines:
The walls are higher, the angle is different, but there's the Baptistery, leaving no doubt about what city is being shown here.
The Guelf-Ghibelline wars take up a lot of space in Villani's work, since he lived through a lot of them. Here's Emperor Frederick II and the Ghibellines, chasing the Guelfs out of Florence:
And to give equal time to the woes of the Ghibellines, here's Ghibelline commander Guido Novello and his men, locked out of his city (as described in an earlier blog post here):
In this next picture, the exiled White Guelfs and their Ghibelline allies were more successful than Guido (above) at breaking into the city when it was their turn to try:
And in this last example, when the city was threatened by Henry VII and the new set of walls was not yet finished, you can see the city's militia forming a wall of shields to augment the unfinished stone wall:
Take a look back through these illustrations, which are only a few of those in the manuscript. In every one, the Baptistry shows prominently, making an instantaneous identification of the city possible.
You might be wondering - I was, anyway - if the illustrators had an equivalent for other cities. I chose to make a comparison using three cities that were close enough to Florence that they would likely have been familiar to the artists (assuming that Bruges and cities in Sicily, for example, might not have been known to them). I picked Pisa, Arezzo, and Pistoia, which are, respectively, 53.2 miles, 50.4 miles, and 23.4 miles from Florence.
Here's an example of how the illustrators chose to depict Pisa:
I don't know about you, but I can't find much that's instantly recognizable in these pictures, or even anything that convinces me they are all the same city, though the wall and the gates do look similar. I see two squarish green buildings with yellow roofs, but otherwise - no, not much to link them.
The same applies with Pistoia and with Arezzo. Here, pictures of each city are shown in a column:
I do think I see a little continuity in Pistoia, namely a squarish green tower with crenellations, but the windows (and its neighbors) are different in each iteration. Two pictures have a slender pink tower with a yellow pointy roof, but again, the windows are different.
And in Arezzo the buildings seem quite fanciful, but I don't see much similarity. Just for comparison, here's a Giotto painting of Arezzo, one of the fresco cycle in the Upper Church of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi:
There's a tall pink tower with a bulging top bit that might possibly also be in the middle picture above, but it's hard to tell. By the way, Villani's Florentine illustrator has drawn square crenellations on the walls, like the ones he would have seen in Guelf Florence, but Giotto - perhaps more observant, perhaps more politically aware - has depicted the swallowtail crenellations that tell us Arezzo was a Ghibelline city.
So I think we can conclude that it was Florence's Baptistery that visually defined the city in Dante's day, and it is our very great good fortune that it still stands today, little different from the way the great poet saw it, even though everything around it has changed.
Photographs in this post and the photo montage at the top are by Timothy Heath, who holds copyright. Other images are in the public domain, by virtue of being faithful two-dimensional representations of ancient art.