Monday, January 26, 2009
More Americans live in Florence than any other Italian city including Rome and Milan. This has been true for a long time. There is a long list of American writers going back to the early 19th century who resided for some time in the city. Henry James lived in the Minerva Hotel pictured above. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived just 2 doors down.
Barbara Crafton, Q, and Gian Luigi often speculated about the special attraction this city has for Americans.
I think it's because Americans find so much in this city's history that is familiar to them. Florence, unique among European cities in the late Middle Ages, was a boom town. At the beginning of the 13th century, people discovered that the waters of the Arno at the little town of Florence were perfect for washing and bleaching wool. In addition, there was an endless supply of skilled and non-skilled labor in the area for a huge textile industry. Florence's rapidly expanding textile industry, like all large scale manufacturing, depended heavily on credit, thus the rise of Florentine banking. By the end of the 13th century, the little backwater town of Florence was one of the largest cities in Europe.
The history of late Medieval and Early Renaissance Florence reads like the history of 19th century Chicago; sudden wealth, rapid expansion, and all the stresses that come with them. Everything is there including crime and labor uprisings. The rise of the great banking families, the Peruzzi, the Bardi, the Strozzi, the Albizzi, the Ruccelai, the Portinari (whose palazzo now houses a major bank), their stories would be familiar to Americans. And American history is full of political bosses and fixers controlling power from behind the scenes just like Cosimo de Medici and his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent. Certainly religious demagogues like Savonarola and Bernardin of Siena are familiar types to Yanks. The dark pragmatism of Macchiavelli is definitely familiar to Americans ascending and descending corporate hierarchies. The idea of Florence as a divinely chosen champion of civic liberty (created by Coluccio Salutati, Lionardo Bruni, and other early leaders of the republic) resonates still with a lot of Americans (the Florentine Republic may have seen itself as little David, but America is definitely Goliath these days).
Florence in many ways was the first modern city.
And yet, I don't want to make too much of this comparison. There certainly are major differences. Florence was in no way ever a frontier town, unlike Chicago (or even New York for that matter). At the same time that modernity emerged in Florence, the culture of the Middle Ages was quite strong and vigorous. It is the clash between the two cultures, old and emerging, that makes the city so fascinating.
It is that conflict that may explain the disproportionate influence of this city upon the rest of the world. Within a period of about 250 years, the city produced so much that is of lasting influence in science, technology, commerce, art, literature, and politics.
And that legacy continues to draw lots of Americans.
Posted by Counterlight at Monday, January 26, 2009