Last Saturday: Civic Pride in Florence

Last Saturday, we visited Florence via bus for the day. As we make our transition from feudal agrarian society at Castello di Spannocchia, we transition to the city of Florence to study the Medieval and Renaissance society. Our transition simulates the move of manpower from the countryside during the thirteenth century into cities like Florence. The groups organized themselves and became the “popolo” or populace. This was just one of the many groups that came into power in Florence with the Medici family as the most famous ruling class.

In the exhibition, “Dal Giglio al David: Civic Art in Florence from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance” at the Accademia in Florence, the image as a symbol was often used to reinforce, question, or disrupt. Throughout the history of Florence, the symbols shift through religious, mythological and heraldic imagery with the shift largely dependent on the current possession of power.

The very first examples of secular architecture for civic meetings in Florence were tower houses such as the Torre della Castagno which is similar to where I am staying now at Castello di Spannocchia just outside of Sienna. Heraldic emblems and saints were the oldest group of symbols used throughout Florence to demonstrate civic pride as related to the Holy Roman Empire. The first civic building, the Baptistery, was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. June 24 is the feast of St. John and feast days for St. John and other saints marked important political and military events for Florence.

Coats of arms, still seen throughout the city today on the Duomo, major landmarks or on the sides of non-landmark buildings, confirmed loyalty to city as did works of art. Walking around Florence, you can still see much of the heraldry, even on non-landmark buildings if you just look up to the area between the first and second levels. During the 13th century, Guelphs utilized heraldic imagery of the eagle clutching the dragon to show their alignment with the Pope and the House of Anjou and the Ghibelline utilized the mythological imagery of Hercules killing the lion to show their loyalty to the Holy Roman Empire. Each of their symbols showed victory as a way to reinforce their power.

In 1299, construction began on the headquarters for a new government, Palazzo de Priori and the Arti, or guilds, at what is now known as Palazzo Vecchio. The items used for the rituals and historical relics were safeguarded in this building as a measure of civic-pride. The Priori would live in this building while they were in office but their terms were short, rotating and drawn by lottery. Relics and ritual objects from other cities were also kept in the Palazzo de Priori as the spoils of war as a means to disrupt the civic pride in conquered cities.

After a series of violent conflicts in Florence, Cosimo Medici returns to the republic of Florence and this marks the dominating reign of the Medici family. Cosimo renamed the Priori, Liberty or of the arti (guilds) to advance themselves a “guarantors of Florentina libertas” or patrons of the arts. This shift in power leads   to the most powerful patronage the world has even known. The Medici adapt Hercules, previously used by the Ghibelline and David as a “metphor for Florence’s struggle against tyrants.” Michelangelo’s David remains one of the most iconic symbols of Renaissance sculpture and David, in his original location the Piazza della Signoria, was meant to intimidate enemies of Florence, almost as a talisman. The use of the hero as symbols, depicted in both painting and sculpture and their placement emulated the republican model. The Medici used the power of the image, a threatening power Plato was aware of, to secure their power. We know that Cosimo Medici collected ancient Greek literature, including that of Plato. Just as heraldry showed loyalty to the city, so did the patronage of art. At the inception of their patronage, the Medici also removed art to disrupt and reinforce their power.

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus reinforced the Medici family’s own personal mythology and creating one of the most iconic paintings of the Renaissance.  Other iconic paintings created during the Renaissance include Titian’s Venus of Urbino.  In contrast to many of the public works commissioned by the Medici, this painting was a private commission. The Duke of Urbino commissioned Titian to paint Venus of Urbino solely to serve as a teaching tool to his new bride on how to be a good wife.

Unlike Plato’s republic and the expulsion of the artists, artists during the Renaissance through public and private patronage, utilized their skills to reinforce, question, or disrupt the relationship between political power, civic engagement, and the personal mythology of the ruling class.

On Sunday, we will travel to Venice and transition into the Baroque with a focus on Venice as a powerful city-state through commerce, the use of spectacle and eccentricity. Our exploration of the Venice Biennale for several days is just one enduring example of this spectacle.

Heraldry on the Duomo.

Heraldry on the Duomo.

The lion, the lily (and reproduction of David on the left - not shown) as enduring symbols of Florence.

The lion, the lily (and reproduction of David on the left – not shown) as enduring symbols of Florence.

Cosimo Medici

Cosimo Medici

Another example of loyalty to the city expressed in heraldry.

Another example of loyalty to the city expressed in heraldry.



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