Monday, January 26, 2009

Florence, USA

The Grand Minerva Hotel with Santa Maria Novella, Florence

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.


Counterlight said...

The first European to visit what would become New York was a Florentine, Giovanni da Verrazzano.

It was a Florentine explorer from the prominent Vespucci family named Amerigo who would give his name to the major land masses of the New World and to all who inhabit them.

Anonymous said...

And that legacy continues to draw lots of Americans.

It certainly drew my late mother (from the 1950s to 2000s, 4 or 5 times, I'd guess?). With the possible exceptions of London and San Fran ("The City" of her Bay Area youth), it was her favorite place, I'd say.

I'm sorry that I've never been there.

June Butler said...

And in the 16th Catherine de' Medici married Henry II of France, took her Florentine cook with her, and taught the French how to cook - or so the story goes out of Florence.

In addition to being the wife of a king, Catherine was the mother of three kings of France. There you have my bit of arcana. I've been waiting for years to slip that in somewhere.

After my friend and I left Florence, we went to France and visited the Chateau de Chenonceau and saw this portrait of Catherine. She was a fascinating woman.