Florence, between Middle Ages and Renaissance
T The whole city, but also a district,
as well as a street, a coffe-house or restaurant, or a hotel, are scenes revealing,
to the historian as to the attentive walker, the ancient modes to be together.
The city always keeps traces of the social relationships woven to create it
and keep it one.
In fact, we can perceive the town of Florence in various ways, and on various scales.
We can in the first place analyse Florence as an urban system, functional and symbolic at the same time, deliberately wanted and built by Florentines architects. This system shows in considering each single building, in its location, in its staging of itself and the stage it offers to the differents city’s actors. But it also shows trough the connections (functions, routes, perspectives…) existing between the different buildings. To the purely material and plastic considerations are to be added the civic considerations, which the buildings symbolize, in obedience to the city power as well as to the architect’s desires. They are the pride of Florentine citizens of Trecento, and also a very strong symbolic value system, an easily accessible and readable message for everybody at that time. The "cycle" that those monuments compose reflects various aspects of a very unifying civic ideology, as a result of a globally calculated coordination.
The urban system thus determined imposes a specific
spatial perception for these architectural emblems: the squares, open for practical
reasons and/or to emphasize buildings, offer very carefully calculated points
of view. Elsewhere, constructions are coordinated by two, or around a central
place (Siena), or along a particular perspective (Perugia). In Florence, the
whole city appears as a result of a precise will.
We also can, secondly, "read" the city with its functions’ meter,
study the distribution of its markets, its accesses, and the activities of
its various districts. With the Rinascimento, new urbanistic requirements became
imperative. Inhabitants feel the need for broader and cleaner streets, and
want to regulate, as in European trade circuits, the shared life in the city,
the districts, the palaces, and also to improve the resources’ use,
water in the very first place. Gradually, they go towards more regularity
perceiving the need for open spaces to allow to admire and penetrate the
city frame. The Rinascimento is easily accepted by the monumental and civic
and then, only gradually, by the most medieval and tortuous lanes, transforming
the city in its depths.
A third way to study Florence is to see it as a clenched superimposition of private and public spaces. Types are rich and varied: loggias and porches, various ground and traffic obstructions. The first floor is often not only projected one meter out of the building but also rests on pillars along the street. The “sporti”, closed corbels over part of superior floors, protect the walls from rain and feed the central gutter of the streets, but also darken them. From sporti to sporti the visual promiscuity becomes a real problem. The passages between buildings span vaults over the streets, obscuring them even more. For lack of clear rules, waste and dejections accumulate in the streets, from butchers stalls, dyeing workshops, tanners’ activities. The streets, dusty by normal weather, become insuperable rivers in case of rain.
All these plights of the florentine everyday life, due to the proximity and the confusion between private and public spaces, are the privileged targets in the communal legislation, working to separate more clearly private from public spaces. Private buildings in public buildings’ shape, powerful families’ or guilds’ towers, by their height, put in the shade the towers pertaining to the city. Which commands their reduction, and sometimes destruction. Families and groups of "common state" had set up strategies for social and estate’s control during the Middle Ages. But that propitious - for them - period having ended, the Rinascimento bore the necessity of other urban policy’s solutions, which exceed the immediate needs of leaders’ or groups’ interests, to modify the urban framework according to the whole population’s needs.
The city imposes itself on its inhabitants, in their everyday life, certainly, but also in the great civic, or less civic, events. The city is the scene for power’s ceremonies, as for the more or less open combats from the internal and external opposition. Aim and protagonist at the same time, first director of all rituals of political communication, the city compels and guides material matters. It decides the ceremonies’ courses and developemnts, determining which monuments can or cannot be visited and in which order. The former, or new, or renewed practices to cross the city, change their significances. Thus, the sites opened to the public take their "lettres de noblesse", and become discussion and decisions spaces, scenes to the public matters’ ruling.
The Florentines are cunning in toying with those places and spaces, either by prescribing them, as for instance the Medici used to do, or simply by obeying, as did the lower rank’s citizens, to the duty of understanding the imposed modifications’ meaning.
Changing of district, for example, is an important gesture, implying the displacement of whole parts of the city, which means to reorganize the urban geography of the Medici’s clients and relatives. Crossing the Arno to build, starting from 1550 (purchase date) a brand new district, around the urban Pitti palace (built in the 1440 years by the Pitti family), transformed in a structure very near to a fortress, had been a strong sign, given just at the moment, for Cosimo, to drive at the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany.
By emphasizing the sites’ solemnity one also unpoliticizes them, and stop their public use. Crystallized in a given moment of history and time, a site used for political sessions is filled with statues, frescoes and monuments, gradually becoming a dynastic celebration place, by a “soft” inversion strategy of signs. Good examples of such conversion are the loggia dei Lanzi, till today encumbered with sculptures, and the internal court of the Palazzo della Signoria, both durably transformed from political areas into art’s and patrons worship sites. The opposite route is also possible, but in our contemporary patrimonial pattern, the will to preserve sites "as it is" largely inhibits this movement. The city stiffens with age, and the sites "resemantized" in public spaces are rare: the museum-city gets the better of the living city.