Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Medieval Italian City

Herewith I want to start a new thrust to this blog.  For a long time I've described myself as interested in Italy in the middle ages, as Dantecentric, as someone who wants to understand what came before the Renaissance.  All of that is still true, but when I think about the settings I choose when I write, I've realized that they all have one thing in common.

All my work takes place in medieval cities.

True, they were crowded, dirty, noisy, chaotic, malodorous, pestilential, dangerous, and politically volatile.  But they were where the action was. They were teeming with life and color and creativity and passion and ambition – in short, with all things human.  When Florence's population quadrupled over the course of the thirteenth century, it wasn't the birthrate that did it – it was immigration from the hinterlands.  There were reasons all those people wanted to try their luck in the city.

I've read  some wonderful medieval stories set in rural areas, in villages (one that comes to mind is Ann Baer's Down the Commons: A Year in the Life of a Medieval Woman, which is somewhere between a rural setting and a village), in some noble guy's castle, on the road (a wonderful new “on the road” book is Lucy Pick's Pilgrimage, much of which unfolds along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela).  There's nothing wrong with any of that, much that's right, and much that I need to know and understand about those settings to be able to make sense of urban life.  But for me, it's all about the cities.

When we go to Italy you'll never find us in some agriturismo place, some picturesque villa out among the cypress trees.  Not that it wouldn't be fun to be there, but knowing me, I'd just keep heading into the nearest city anyway, so we might as well stay there.  And not just in the city, but smack dab in the middle of the historic center, as medieval and as urban as we can get.  And in an ancient and historic building, if at all possible (and if they can get internet signal through those thick walls...).

Sometimes at night, or in the rain or snow, or at sunrise, it's possible to glimpse the city as it was, if only briefly.  And for me, those moments are worth traveling for. 

Of course, once in a while things go awry.  This, for example, was supposed to be the most beautiful piazza in Italy:

Obviously our timing was a little off.

My first novel, A Thing Done, takes place in Florence in the early 13th century.  It unfolds in the palazzos, the towers, the churches, the narrow and winding streets of the middle ages.  The story it tells is drawn from the ancient chronicles (and fleshed out a bit), and it traces the development of a pivotal incident in the history of this extraordinary city.  Today's Florence is at once modern, baroque, and Renaissance; if you want to find the middle ages, they're still there, but you have to work at it.  And I have. 

Here is a tower that was the scene of a major event in my novel. 

Today it houses a jewelry store, and it's a fraction of its former height – the government of Florence, during the brief period when it was controlled by neither the Guelfs nor the Ghibellines but by the popolo, required the nobles to reduce the height of their formidable defensive towers, in an effort to contain the lawlessness and the sheer military might of those powerful families.  Thus, the vertiginously scary balcony which so terrified my protagonist is long gone, but the base of the tower remains.  (See here for more on medieval towers.)

And here is a church where another major scene takes place.  It's now a library.

Here are a few links to earlier blog posts in which I've discussed some aspects of medieval Florence:
Was There a Florence Before the Renaissance?

Exercising Your Imagination, Part 1 and Part 2

So - What's It About?

What Building Most Defines Medieval Florence?

My work in progress alternates between two cities, Assisi and Rome, in the same time period.  Assisi is still very medieval in its aspect, and it's easy to walk down those ancient streets and let your imagination wander.  You don't have to work very hard at all, in Assisi, to go medieval.  (See here, here, and here for a few pictures of this lovely city.)

Rome, on the other hand, presents some challenges.  It is now a big, noisy, aggressive, modern city.  I wouldn't even bother with it, except – well, it's Rome.  What can you say?  Stuff happened there.

Rome presents the tourist/researcher with some truly bizarre contradictions.  Like this one:

The traffic is fierce.  You take your life in your hands crossing a street.  It's not quite the worst I've seen.  (That would be Naples, where the traffic is so gonzo it's almost fun, in a suicidal sort of way.)  But it's plenty bad enough. In Rome, we discovered that the only way you can cross a street in relative safety is to attach yourself firmly to one of the following:

  • a nun
  • an old woman
  • someone pushing a baby carriage

In fact, I'd only feel really safe in the company of an elderly nun pushing a baby carriage. 

Romans, thinking about crossing the street

And Rome keeps changing.  Giacoma, the main character in my WIP, lived in a fortified palace that incorporated the ancient ruin of the Septizonium.  Here's what would have been left for me to see if I had been in Rome in the 16th century:

And here's what's there now:

Despite the difficulties and frustrations, I do love learning about medieval Italian cities.  In my next post, I will be discussing population – specifically, the population of Florence.  This may, in fact, turn into two posts, one on how the population figures are derived (it's not as simple as glancing at a census), and a second on the actual figures, put into context, and on how they shifted over the medieval time period.  Hope you'll join me for this excursion into medieval demographics.

Images in this post are our own, or in the public domain.

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