Saturday, April 10, 2010

Florence, The First Modern City: Prologue

Florence viewed through the door of San Miniato al Monte

I remember hearing on the radio not too long ago an interview with a behavioral scientist. She said that it is remarkable that a plane crowded with people packed in like sardines can fly from New York to Los Angeles, and everyone arrives alive and intact. She said that a plane packed with chimpanzees would be a bloodbath. They would all kill each other, and only a few badly mauled survivors would stumble off the plane when it landed. She argued that human beings, otherwise very puny creatures, have a great evolutionary advantage in their social and ethical structures, an advantage that has lead them to dominate most of the planet.

It seems to me that so much political conversation these days is so abstract, a shouting match or a contest of syllogisms between competing abstract visions of society called ideologies. I’m beginning to see the point of anti-ideologue philosophers like Avishai Margalit who argue that what we should try to create is a decent society, and not a perfect one. Instead of one form or another of the “withering away of the state” (either the Marxist or the Randian version), we should be governing ourselves so that people can make a decent life for themselves and make their own happiness without having to fear harm and humiliation from the state, their neighbors, from crime, from foreign aggression, or from injustice. Such a state will always blunder, sometimes very badly, but it should have the ability to right itself.
I note the way Americans talk about European welfare states with disdain, as if they are all products of misguided utopianism. In fact, those states were the creation of hard bitter experience. The huge dislocations created by the boom and bust cycles of capitalism impoverished millions of formerly self-reliant people, and drove much of the political violence and the totalitarian movements of the early 20th century. After the experience of 2 world wars, European governments concluded that protecting their populations from the worst effects of such cycles might be good for peace and security. After 65 years of peace, and the possibility of another major European war becoming ever more remote, that calculation seems to have been correct.

We may talk and dream in ideologies, but we live in history.

I may well have Florence on the brain these days, but the city fascinates me, and its history takes me right back to the present day. Florence in so many ways was history’s first modern city.


So why am I illustrating a post on Florence with a picture of Chicago? I do so because Chicago and Florence have similar histories.
Chicago experienced probably the fastest and most dramatic urban expansion in history. In 1840, it was just a handful of wooden buildings clustered around Fort Dearborn on the shores of Lake Michigan. By 1900, it was a city of more than a million people and the largest port city on earth.
Florence, likewise, at the beginning of the 13th century was a small quiet backwater on the Arno dwarfed by its powerful neighbors, Pisa and Lucca. By the end of the 13th century, it was a city of almost 250,000 people and one of the largest cities in Europe, bigger than Paris at one point. So far as I know, Florence was the first city to experience this kind of rapid expansion.
Florence and Chicago grew so large so quickly for the same reason, business. Some people in both cities got very rich, and a lot of others found gainful employment through manufacturing and commerce. Both cities experienced the stresses of rapid expansion and increasing vulnerability to disaster (fire in Chicago, and flood and plague in Florence). Rapidly expanding populations and rising expectations created great social and political conflicts in both cities. Both cities had to deal with the effects of overcrowding, and with the boom and bust cycles of capitalist economies, with the political effects of crowds of the newly rich and bigger crowds of the newly poor.

Here, the similarities end. Chicago grew up out of almost nothing in the wilderness. Florence was an ancient city founded as a small garrison town by Julius Caesar in the first century BC. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, Florence experienced statelessness as did all other northern Italian cities. For almost 4 centuries, there was no real government or law in Florence, or in any other north Italian city. What makes Florence so interesting is the long hard struggle to build something like a civil society and the rule of law out of chaos. Medieval civilization didn’t really die off or decline with advent of modern commercial Florence. Medieval culture was very much alive and even thriving throughout the Renaissance in Florence, especially in the hearts and minds of the broad mass of the city’s population. Frequently, this medieval culture clashed with the emerging capitalist economy of the city.

Any history of Florence must begin with the Baptistery.

Florence Baptistery

This is the oldest and most important religious building in the city. Local legend once claimed that it was originally a Roman temple to Mars, or built on the site of a temple. Archaeological excavations in the floor revealed Roman remains, not of a temple, but of a bakery. More local lore says that Charlemagne built the present Baptistery to replace one destroyed by the German leader Totila in his campaign to drive the Byzantine armies out of Italy. The present structure was built in the 11th century 2 centuries after Charlemagne’s death. It may incorporate parts from an earlier 6th century structure. For 300 years, the Baptistery served as Florence’s cathedral church.

Florence Baptistery interior

Inside, the Baptistery incorporates great Corinthian columns from ancient Roman Florentia. Florentia was never a large town, but it had a large temple to Jupiter, another to the deified Augustus, and even one to the Egyptian goddess Isis.
Apart from the columns inside the Baptistery, there are no Roman remains to be seen above ground in Florence. However, a satellite photo shows us the original street grid of the old Roman garrison town in the present city center. The present day Piazza Republica occupies the site of the forum of ancient Florentia

Satellite photo of the city center of Florence showing the street grid of ancient Roman Florentia.

The Piazza Republica, site of the ancient forum.

I will do a scattered occasional series of posts on the history of the Florentine Republic ending with its destruction in 1530. I will use art and architecture to tell the story, but I want this to be more than an art history survey, or even a history lesson. I want to look at how this city very creatively met the challenges of its history and blazed a trail for later generations to follow, including the Founding Fathers of the United States. I approach this subject with great humility since far greater minds than mine, from Francesco Guicciardini to Hans Baron, have dealt with this story.


Leonard said...

It´s not just breathtaking in´s a huge experience of the most deeply ¨seeing, feeling, tasting and imagining¨ kind...I´ve visted Florence many times...I´ve walked and walked it day and night...I´ve explored every moment of it, I´ve hob-nobbed anonymously in it and as far as I could find my way into it I´ve plunged in´s the most dazzeling of places I´ve ever known...I´ve not visited for years but my experience seeing through your eyes is completely captivating, again...thanks

it's margaret said...

"what we should try to create is a decent society, and not a perfect one." OMG!!! Thank you. Needed this.

I rode a dragon all over and above Florence late one night.... at least, that is what I thought had happened.... but I missed the old Roman street grid. Dragons make one miss much, me thinks....

....looking forward to the essay. Blessings Doug.

Unknown said...

Italy, and Florence in particular has been a place I've longed to visit. Thank you for the descriptions, and the pictures. (Love that place!)

June Butler said...

Doug, you couldn't have picked another city that would attract me more. Florence is probably my favorite city in the world.

JCF said...

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!

JCF, third generation Firenzephile (though unlike my mother and grandmother, sadly I've never been there :-/)

rick allen said...

I look forward to hearing more from you on this.

If I had any quibble, it would be with the characterization of Florence as the first "modern city." In the sense that it was a model of rising capitalism--trade, banking and industry--I would wholly agree with you.

But in its form it was a polis, a city-state, and in that sense I would say that it was more the last ancient city than the first modern one. The modern world is composed of nation-states, and though Germany and Italy were late-comers to the party, the typical great modern city is one that is subordinate to the nation, either as a capital, like Paris, or as a great commercial center, like New York.

Florence, to me, kindles more memories of ancient Athens, Greek in the absence of any "Greece," eternally struggling with sister city-states (Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Genoa, Venice, Pisa) and eternally threatened by emerging larger entities (Persia, the Macedonian monarchy, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, the French monarchy).

Seems to me that the very tenuousness of that kind of polity entails great creativity out of great freedom. Our modern political consciousness more craves, I think, the stability of the large empire than the chance for greatness and fame so dear to the Renaissance heart.

But there are obviously gross generalities.

Counterlight said...

Florence was indeed a city state, and it was overwhelmed by the very modern forces that it helped create. But, the modern nation-state was still in its infancy at this point. There were similar independent city states all over Europe. Certain ideas like constitutional liberty were first tried out and experimented in Florence, unlike any other city state. It was Florence trying to adapt to the new experience of the capitalist economy, the first political entity of any kind to go through this, that will show the way for later larger nation states. It will be in Florence, and from the pen of Machiavelli, that Italian nationalism begins.

In 1400, Florence was a pioneering constitutional state. By 1500, it was a throwback in a world of large rising nation-states and international power politics.

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