San Miniato al Monte, Florence
The Republic of Florence was forged in warfare and in crisis.
Pisa was the dominant power in Tuscany in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was a major maritime power competing with (and frequently at war with) Venice and Genoa for domination of the Mediterranean.
As impressive as is Florence’s first major church, San Miniato, it is modest compared to the cathedral complex Pisa built at the same time.
The art of the Renaissance is frequently more religious than most people assume. So also, medieval art is usually more secular than most people imagine. Imperial ambition, civic pride, and patriotism built the great Cathedral complex at Pisa (and all other medieval cathedrals) as well as faith and piety. The Cathedral of Pisa was built to the glory of God and to the glory of the Pisan Republic. It proclaims the wealth and power of Pisa’s maritime empire to the world and to history.
Pisa Cathedral, begun 1063, built almost entirely from marble quarried in nearby Carrara.
Pisa Cathedral, interior
Pisa Cathedral, apse mosaic, 13th century. This is possibly the work of an imported Byzantine artist together with some of the local artists. Many scholars believe that the figure of St. John on the right could be the work of Cimabue.
Lorenzo Ghiberti was hardly the first artist in Tuscany to make bronze doors. An artist known as Bonanus made 2 sets of bronze doors for Pisa's Cathedral around about 1180. Only one of those sets survives. It was the original inspiration for bronze doors on the Florentine Baptistery. These doors were, in turn, inspired by Roman bronze doors, of which about 2 or 3 sets survive.
The Nativity, detail from Bonanus' bronze doors for Pisa Cathedral.
The Baptistery of the Pisa Cathedral complex, built 1153 -1265. It is much larger than Florence's Baptistery, which served as a cathedral church at the time this was built.
The Campanile or Bell Tower of Pisa's Cathedral, the famous "Leaning Tower," 1174 - 1271. The tower began to lean as it was being built on the city's marshy ground. If you look carefully, you can see the builders trying to compensate for the lean as the tower went up. Pisa's tower is not the only one in Italy that leans. There is a tower in Bologna that leans at an even more alarming angle, but it is an old feudal tower, not a magnificent marble monument like this.
Lucca also was a major city, though not as large and powerful as Pisa. It was the historic seat of the Dukes of Tuscany. It too built a major cathedral in the 11th century.
Florence in the 11th and 12th centuries was a backwater, a small town built on top of the ruins of Roman Florentia. It was over-awed by, and dependent upon, its larger and more powerful neighbors.
That changed dramatically in the 13th century with Florence’s economic boom. The city suddenly expanded into one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Europe. Neighboring cities watched this sudden growth with alarm. Florence began to have its own imperial ambitions, challenging the ambitions of its neighbors.
The expansion of Florence exacerbated the fight between Guelphs and Ghibbelines, between the partisans of the Pope and of the Emperor in the medieval struggle over who held final authority in the project to rebuild the Roman Empire. This fight evolved into a battle between emerging bourgeois in the Guelph party and threatened nobility fighting for the Ghibbelines. This conflict affected Florence’s relations with other Italian cities. Florence’s neighbors, fearing its growing power, rallied around the Ghibbeline cause and the city of Siena to check Florentine ambition. The Guelph ascendancy in Florence drove out many of the old noble families and their Ghibbeline sympathizers. Many were driven to acts of treason.
The most spectacular such treason was that of the Uberti family and Farinata degli Uberti. Not only were they leaders in the Ghibbeline cause, they turned to Florence’s enemies. The Florentines exiled Farinata who went to Siena to build a coalition against Florence.
A Ghibbeline alliance lead by Siena and commanded by Farinata degli Uberti declared war on Florence. The Florentines faced the Sienese and their allies at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260 with a huge army of citizen militias and mercenary soldiers.
The Battle of Montaperti between Florence and Siena. The Sienese still yell "Montaperti!" at football (soccer) games with the Florentines.
Monument commemorating the battle built on the remains of Montaperti Castle.
Site of the Battle of Montaperti near Siena
The Sienese were outnumbered. They augmented their own forces with German mercenaries provided by the Hohenstaufen King Manfred of Sicily. Though the Florentine forces were superior in number, they exhausted themselves on determined Sienese defenses. In the end, the Florentines were defeated by factional treachery. According to some sources, a secret Ghibbeline sympathizer in the Florentine ranks (Bocca degli Abbati memorialized in Dante’s Inferno), at a pre-arranged signal from the Sienese, cut off the hand of the ensign carrying the Florentine battle flag, causing it to fall. The sight of the falling flag panicked the Florentines who turned and ran. The battle was a total rout for the Florentines. The Sienese defeated them utterly, chasing them back to Florence and seizing the city with little trouble. Perhaps as many as 12,000 men died in the battle with an estimated 20,000 Florentines captured and held in the dungeons and cellars of Siena.
The victorious Ghibbelines made Farinata ruler of Florence. The German Emperor Frederick II, and his ally, King Manfred of Sicily made Count Guido Novello viceroy.
The Florentines resisted, protesting publicly the presence of German mercenaries billeted in their homes. Supported by the French Pope Clement VI, the Florentine Guelphs began to rally, and by 1267, succeeded in driving the Ghibbelines, Sienese, and German mercenaries from the city. The Florentines formed the Parte Guelfa, and defeated the Sienese and their Ghibbeline allies at Colle di Val d’Esta in 1270. Siena and Pisa were forced to accept Guelph heads of state.
Count Guido Novello took refuge in Arezzo, a Ghibbeline stronghold, to plan his return to Florence. The Florentines raided Aretine fortifications finally provoking the Count to face the Florentines in the Battle of Campaldino in 1289. Campaldino was an unqualified Florentine and Guelph victory.
Monument at Campaldino commemorating the Florentine victory.
The 24-year-old Dante Alighieri fought in the battle as a young cavalry officer. The victory guaranteed Guelph dominion in Florence and Florentine hegemony in Tuscany.
The Florentine Commune pioneered a new kind of civil architecture. Its first major structure, and one of the first of its kind in Italy was the Bargello built around 1255. It incorporated a feudal tower and was the first meeting hall of the Commune. After 1300, it became the residence of the Capitano del Popolo and a kind of police headquarters and city jail. Today, it houses the sculpture collection of the Uffizi museum.
The Bargello, Florence
The former Grand Council Chamber in the Bargello. Where visitors now admire the works of Donatello and Luca della Robbia was once the central criminal court of the city of Florence.
High-born prisoners convicted of treason and other capital crimes were beheaded here in the Bargello courtyard.
In the wake of the victory at Campaldino, the Florentines destroyed the palazzo of the Uberti family and the homes of all of their exiled followers in the surrounding neighborhood. The site of the leveled homes of those Ghibbeline supporters is now the Piazza Signoria.
The Piazza Signoria, Florence
On the site of the Uberti palazzo, the Florentines built their immense new city hall. Since the 16th century, this building has been known as the Palazzo Vecchio (the Old Palace) because it became the first residence of the Medici Grand Dukes after the final destruction of the Republic. It was originally known as the Palazzo del Popolo (the Palace of the People), then later as the Palazzo della Signoria. Tradition says that Arnolfo di Cambio and Francesco Talenti designed the building.
The Palazzo Vecchio, formerly known as the Palazzo della Signoria, formerly known as the Palazzo del Popolo, 1299 - 1310, built on the site of the Uberti family palazzo.
The Palazzo della Signoria is a vast brutal block of a building, built to withstand assaults both foreign and domestic. It is built out of tightly fitted rusticated stone. The top is fortified with battlements and machicolations
The ground floor is fortified against any kind of mob assault. The tower looms above the rooftops, once the tallest building in the city. Local tradition says that it incorporates the feudal tower of an Uberti ally. At the top is a large bell used to sound the alarm and to summon electors and office holders to meetings.
Palazzo Vecchio fortifications and machicolation; the stemmi (coats of arms) are 16th century replacements for the stemmi of the guilds that made up the Commune.
Tower of the Palazzo Vecchio; it contains a small prison cell known as the "alberghetto," or the "little hotel"; among its more famous occupants were Cosimo de Medici and Savonarola.
There is very little left of the original interior of the Palazzo. The first Medici Grand Dukes rebuilt the Palazzo’s interior extensively as their first residence after the destruction of the Republic in 1530. One of the few surviving republican rooms is the Sala d’Armi on the ground floor whose clarity and proportional grace might well justify the traditional claim that the building was designed by the great sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio.
Palazzo Vecchio, the Sala d'Armi
The Palazzo della Signoria was designed to intimidate and to reassure. Its tall tower and great solid bulk loom over the city, overawing all the old feudal towers. It proclaims the power and legitimacy of the Commune over all other competing claims to rule. Its fortified bulk of rusticated stone reassures citizens of the Commune’s durability and its willingness to resist all enemies.
The Palazzo Vecchio from the Florentine rooftops.
Since the 18th century, the Loggia dei Lanzi functioned as an outdoor sculpture gallery housing Cellini’s Perseus and famous works by Giambologna.
The Loggia dei Lanzi, formerly the Loggia della Signoria, with Cellini's Perseus on the left and Giambologa's Rape of the Sabines on the right.
Vaults of the Loggia dei Lanzi
It was originally known as the Loggia della Signoria. The architects Benci di Cione and Simone Talenti designed it for state occasions, as a great ceremonial canopy for the Gonfaloniere and the Signoria. It deliberately recalls a great Roman arch. In the spandrels are ceramic sculptures of the Virtues designed by Agnolo Gaddi. It proclaims the Roman origins of Florence and the Commune’s continuity with the city’s history and republican traditions.
The Commune took responsibility for the defenses of Florence, and built a new set of walls, watchtowers, and gates around the newly expanded city. Most of the city wall was torn down in the 19th century. Today, the old gates remain as isolated traffic islands in the boulevard loop around the city center that follows the contours of the city’s walls. One portion of the city’s old wall still stands on the hillside between the Fortezza Belvedere and San Miniato.
The surviving portion of Florence's city walls
The Porta San Niccolo stands next to the Arno below San Miniato, once a main gate to the east.
The Porta San Niccolo, the side facing out into the countryside
The Porta San Niccolo, the side facing into the city
On the inside of the gate facing into the city, and on every city gate, was a religious icon intended to bless travelers as they left the relative security of the city. Travel through the countryside remained very hazardous. The only true safety for anything like civilized life was within the city's walls.
Florence viewed from San Miniato showing the remains of the city wall in the middle distance.