The Mona Lisa, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Birth of Venus, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. All these great works of art and architecture remind us of the Renaissance. Their forms and beauty speak of an older age when tradition was shaken off and ancient ideas were being reborn to form new thoughts. Surprisingly, these pieces all have one thing in common, which is Florence, Italy. Whether a native artist or architect, or a structure that still graces the city, Florence has left its mark on the Renaissance. Why Florence? What forces of nature or chance or Providence selected this city in the heart of Tuscany to be where greatness occurred?
|The Gates of Paradise|
Florence, like many of the other Italian city-states, benefited from the struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. Neither faction could bear to see northern Italy in the other’s control, so the cities in Tuscany and the Po River Valley were able to develop independently. They formed city-state republics not unlike the ancient Greek polis. Florence was, like the other cities, a textile and trade center. Raw materials came in from the east or north and then were processed by the skilled artisans and craftsmen into fashionable cloth, tools, etc. This economic climate fostered a banking industry that was controlled by a few powerful families. The wealthiest of these families, the Medici, was headed by one of the central political figures of the early Renaissance, Lorenzo deMedici. Lorenzo, in addition to having an interest in politics and finance, had an eye for the fine arts. He built an art studio in one of his palace and patronized some of the leading names of the age, such as da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. It was to the patronage of Lorenzo and others like him that such great artists owed their gratitude.
The crowning splendor of Florence is the orange dome that tops the Cathedral. At the time of its design, the dome was considered a mathematical impossibility, but its secret was mastered by the architect Brunelleschi. Compelled by the city authorities to solve the problem of the dome, Brunelleschi traveled south to study one of the Caesars’ lasting legacies, the Pantheon of Rome. Wrapped in mystery, the Pantheon taunted Brunelleschi to discover the secret of its design. Eventually, Brunelleschi determined that in order to construct a dome of this size, each layer had to be artificially propped up by wooden scaffolds until a keystone ring could be placed at the top to assume the stress. Once this was done, the stress of each layer could be handed down to the next and finally to the base. Although his competitors mocked his efforts, Brunelleschi’s solution was ingenious.
While the focus of the Renaissance eventually shifted to Rome, Florence remained proud of its achievements and its sons. The way that Michelangelo and da’Vinci changed art from two dimensional to three dimensional in both painting and sculpting broke the Medieval patterns and started a new path for future artists. Today, thousands flock to see the marvelous works that still grace the city, and Florence remains one of Italy’s most treasured centers of attraction.