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The History of Florence in Painting
Excerpt from The History of Florence in Painting Excerpt from Introduction Rejoice, Florence, For Thou Art So Great This book recounts the most important events in Florentine history, which have been depicted in the brushstrokes of some of the greatest artists of the Western World. Their works tell the tale of Florentine life over an expanse of five centuries. These paintings are commentaries on and interpretations of the city''s history; at the same time they are an integral part of the story themselves. From this artistic legacy, the Tuscan capital derived the grandeur and renown it still enjoys today. In our contemporary imagination, Florence is almost synonymous with the Renaissance. Writers including Jules Michelet and Jacob Burckhardt associated the city with this unique interlude in Western civilization. In the twilight of the Middle Ages, the earliest Florentine humanists, Boccaccio and Petrarch, with the first to realize that their proud and industrious city was the stage for a rinascita (literally, "rebirth") unprecedented and arts and letters. However, the peak of the city''s glory did not actually coincide with the period of cultural renewal and economic prosperity that occurred during the two centuries we associate with the Renaissance.
Located at the geographic and intellectual heart of the Italian Peninsula, Florence had long served as the cradle and crossroads of its history and artistic and literary culture. The city was a laboratory that contributed to forging and Italian identity through a shared language. Florence was also the prototype of the modern state. From the earliest days of its ascent, and through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the city was the primary Italian destination for merchants and artists from all over Europe. Later it was an essential staging point on the grand tour, the pilgrimage undertaken by intellectuals, art collectors, and the aristocratic and cultivated youth who explored the European continent, particularly its southern reaches. All of these enlightened travelers gathered on the banks of the Arno. They sought out the distinctively Florentine spirit of excellence that had endured through centuries. The readers of this book--who will also be time travelers--are invited to follow in their footsteps.
You will undertake a double journey, both historic and artistic, tracing the records of a past where the foundations of contemporary Western culture were formed. Artists have transmitted this history to us through visual records of extraordinary power. A POLITICAL LABORATORY Florence was undeniably an epicenter of the arts, but its contributions in the political sphere are less well recognized. Florence had Roman roots. It was established by Caesar, who marked out the sacred perimeter of the colony in 59 BC. Another theory holds that the Triumvirate established a castrum in the location a few years later. Whatever the case, Florentia--the city''s original name--was built at the convergence of two rivers, the Arno and the Mugnone, a site chosen to make the town of key destination on principal trading routes. Taking advantage of the agrarian laws voted into effect by the Roman senate, many army veterans settled in the colony.
It was thus inevitable that the city, as a community of former fighting men, would choose the war god Mars as its patron. A sculpted image of that divinity, described in Dante''s Paradisio ("that crumbling stone that guards the bridge"), was erected at the city''s southernmost extremity by the Ponte Vecchio, the first bridge over the Arno, but the river''s swollen floodwaters carried it away in 1333. It might have been dedicated to the god of war, but Roman Florentia became a flourishing center of commerce. It was also the seat of the corrector Italiae, the governor of the tax districts of Umbria and Tuscia, the name the Romans gave to the conquered territory once ruled by the Etruscans. This Roman incubation period was a promising start to the city''s development, but its fortunes faltered and deteriorated in the mid-sixth century. After a brief interlude by Byzantine occupation and the destruction of the fortifications by the Ostrogoth Totila, the Lombards, a Germanic tribe, conquered Florence. Its status was reduced to that of a secondary town, subordinate to Lucca and Pisa, which were respectively the capital and port of Lombard Tuscany. Florence was far more subdued, however.
It''s medieval rebirth was closely associated with the name of Charlemagne, who visited on several occasions. Well aware of the Germans'' aggressive ambitions against Rome, the emperor came to Italy, offered military support to the pope, and ultimately defeated the Lombard monarchy in 774. This conquest allowed Florence to enter into a new period of vigorous economic, commercial, and political growth that would transform the feudal world. As the region''s capital, Florence experience great prosperity, a success evidenced in its palaces and religious structures, the growth of its population, and the strategic role that it played on Italy''s political chessboard around the year 1000. Closely allied with the papacy, Guelph-dominated Florence could boast a privileged relationship with Rome. But Florence''s first loyalty was to its own independence, its libertas. The city developed a distinctive political structure, first with the reign of the consuls, backed by a council of one hundred elected representatives from the artisan class, and by a parlamento. Subsequently a podesta (chief magistrate) was chosen from the nobility of an allied city; his role was to guarantee civil order and assure a balance between the rival parties.
The concept of libertas was profoundly complex, and emanated from memories of this glorious era of the commune. Much later, in the sixteenth century, the Florentine state would endeavour to revive these values. Theirs was a purely fictive version of liberty, but its idealization became a potent tool for legitimizing political authority. In the face of perpetual tensions between the pro-papal Guelph and pro-imperial Ghibelline parties, between the magnati (the nobility), the popolo grasso (the commercial middle class), and the popolo minuto (the artisan class), there gradually developed the seminal form of republican regime. This regime was dominated by the middle-class tradesmen to the guilds, or arti. Trade, industry, and financial activities combined to render this class increasingly prosperous and influential. Occupying a dominant role in the city''s cultural, political, and economic life beginning in the Quattrocento, the Medici left a lasting mark on Florentine institutions in the sixteenth century. Originally established by the pope as a ducal dynasty in 1532, they obtained the grand ducal crown and 1569, and subsequently the title of Royal Highness and 1699.
In the three centuries following, the history of Florence became the story of a regime that was headed by the Hapsburgs and the house of Lorraine, following the extinction of the Medici line. In its final moment of glory and power, the city on the Arno was briefly able to boast of being the capital of a newly unified Italy. WEALTH AND BEAUTY The flowering and fame of the city''s arts would never have been possible without the staggering wealth accumulated by astute Florentine businessmen and financiers. The paintings, sculptures, and palaces they commissioned, as well as the antiquities, precious objects, and manuscripts that enriched their collections, were all symbols of political legitimacy and marks of social prestige. And this opulence was indeed based on a golden coin. In 1252 Florence began to mint its own currency, the gold florin, the "dollar of the Middle Ages." It quickly became the most commonly accepted international currency and a recognized unit of value in the financial marketplaces, not only in Italy but throughout Europe. The Arno''s banks became a departure point for shipments of both merchandise and men.
By the Middle Ages, Florentines had become expatriates promoting the city''s economic interests in Lyon, Flanders, Spain, and Germany. At the same time, foreigners were establishing themselves in Florence, partially for economic motives, but above all because of its artistic and intellectual attractions. This ceaseless flow of energy and wealth continued into the early twentieth century. In a Europe that had become increasingly cosmopolitan beginning in the eighteenth century, Florence began to experience a slow decline. This decline was primarily political, due to the extinction of the Medici dynasty and its troubled successors, but it was also attributable--at least in part--to a cultural malaise. The city''s prestige did not fade, but its prominence diminished as other cities on the Italian Peninsula and Europe, including Venice and Paris, learn how to preserve and promote their own artistic vitality. Writers, artists, and musicians still found Florence a stimulating place for thought and creativity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the appeal owed more to its glorious past then to the liveliness of the local cultural life. Chateaubriand, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Thomas Patch, John Ruskin, and Johann Zoffany--to mention just a few of the city''s International visitors, who included French, English, and Germans--resided in the city of the red fleur-de-lis.
One of the most famous, Stendhal, left reminiscences that are perhaps superficial; nevertheless, they are a lasting record of the fascination that Florence exerted on travelers embarked on the Grand Tour. This condition was later referred to as Stendhal syndrome. A crossroads of ideas, where numerous cultivated trave.
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