Piazza della Signoria is an L-shaped square in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence’s town hall) which is located near Ponte Vecchio and Piazza del Duomo. It is the focal point of the origin of the Florentine Republic. The Signoria was the government of medieval and Renaissance Florence which consisted of nine members, the Priori, who were chosen from the ranks of the guilds of the city. The piazza was already a central square in the original Roman town Florentia, surrounded by a theatre, public baths and a workshop for dyeing textiles. The Piazza has been painted on numerous occasions. Canaletto’s and Bernardo Belotto’s depictions are among the most famous ones.
Art historians have associated cultural splendour with economic prosperity. Athens in its golden age from about 500 BC promoted architecture and art, and witnessed the birth of theatre, politics, and philosophy. What was the catalyst of such an explosion of creative energy? Athens was a cosmopolitan city, open to various outside influences. Military dominance enabled it to exact tributes from its colonies that funded programs of public art. Democracy gave the pride of freedom to its citizens.
By 1460 Antwerp was one of the largest cities in Europe with a total population of some 100,000 citizens. Of all those inhabitants, just twenty were accounted for as professional painters. A century later, as many as 300 master painters in the city were registered as official members of the Guild of St Luke who were running their independent work-shops and instructing apprentices.
What was the driving force behind this cultural eruption? In the course of the fourteenth century Antwerp had grown into Western Europe’s dominant trade and financial centre. In parallel to economic prosperity, an explosive cultural activity developed within the walls of the city. By the sixteenth century art, weaving and printing had reached unparalleled levels of perfection. Enlightened humanism created a mental atmosphere that proved conducive to the pursuit of art and science. Antwerp became the most vibrant cultural city in Europe. If the arts were initially stimulated by commissions from the Church and gentry, increasingly works of art were created on spec, in other words, they were produced for the open market rather than on order or commission. The Guild of St Luke took a pragmatic approach to this commercialization of art, which itself was a direct result of the ever increasing demand for luxury goods.
Artistic innovation has always been propelled by urban energies. Athens promoted intellectual endeavour, Antwerp stimulated printing and tapestry-weaving, Florence revitalized the fine arts, and London flowered from Elizabethan times through drama and theatre. During the seventeenth century freethinking Amsterdam dominated all other cities in banking, industry and science, supporting (and exporting) a density of artists who were painting for wealthy burgher clients.
After 1800, Vienna came to the fore in musical renewal first, and subsequently witnessed an outburst of energy in avant-garde painting. Later, Paris ruled the arts. In the early twentieth century, Weimar Berlin led the way in cinema. What makes a particular city innovative in a specific field? And why does that creativity blaze for a short period and then die down? If such ‘golden’ ages are rare, by what alchemy do they occur? All cities mentioned above flourished economically which led historians like Robert Vaughan in The Age of Great Cities (1843) to conclude that ‘society becomes possessed of the beautiful in art, only as cities become prosperous and great’.
John Maynard Keynes, in A Treatise on Money, boldly remarked that, as a nation, England was in an economic position ‘to afford Shakespeare at the moment when he presented himself’. Great artists flourish in an urban atmosphere of buoyancy and freedom from economic restraints. They tend to work in cities that are cosmopolitan, outward looking, and in the throes of social change. The theory has been repeated time and again. It would be naïve, however, to link artistic innovation exclusively to prosperity. Wealth in our age is everywhere, but creative talent is hard to find. Financial reward has little to do with artistic achievement – ‘Muse and Mammon cannot be worshipped at the same altar’, as Martin Archer Shee observed in his Elements of Art (1808). What makes an innovative milieu is not affluence itself, but the concentration of talent that it may engender. A culture benefits from the presence of ambitious artists scrambling to eke out a living in a competitive environment. It is a principle the Medicis fully understood when they assembled an array of competing talent to embellish the old city.
Florence prospered through its booming textile industry, trade and banking. The Florentine gold florin was the standard coinage throughout Europe and Tuscan bankers established branches in such important cities as London, Geneva en Bruges. Florence was central to the Renaissance thanks to the funding provided by the Medici dynasty who wanted their city-state to be an awe-inspiring urban centre. Art was an expression of civic pride. Around a hundred palaces were built in Florence in the fifteenth century alone. In a city with a population of some 60,000 that is a staggering number. Talented artists and architects, painters and sculptors, were attracted to Florence and rewarded handsomely for their work. These individuals included geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi, making Florence the centre of gravity in the Italian Renaissance. Its military power boosted the image of being heir to the Roman Republic. Its cultural pride attracted intellectuals and artists from all over the peninsula and from abroad. Florence was a cosmopolitan place where foreigners shared in the pride of the city.
One of those immigrants was Bruges-born painter Jan van der Straet, better known as Stradanus, who spent most of his career in Italy. Having joined Antwerp’s Guild of St Luke around 1545, he left for Italy via Lyons. After six months in Venice, Stradanus settled in Florence, designing tapestry-cartoons for Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici. From 1550 to 1553, he was probably in Rome, first collaborating on the Belvedere gallery in the Vatican and later assisting Francesco Salviati, whose style influenced him greatly. Back in Florence, Stradanus worked under Giorgio Vasari on frescoes and tapestry cartoons for the Palazzo Vecchio, an activity he continued as an independent artist in the 1570s.
Stradanus’s themes and manner of representation became an inherent part of the decorative tradition of the Medici court. In Florence, he developed a descriptive style for the iconography of nobility connected to his Flemish roots in depicting animals, nature, and scenes of every day life. Central to his activity as designer was his fine draughtsmanship. Cosimo I employed Stradanus to design tapestries with hunting scenes which turned out to be popular and inspired him to start producing prints of a similar nature. In collaboration with the renowned Antwerp printmakers, Hieronymus Cock and the Galle family, he produced a vast number of prints using the buyant Antwerp art market as a base for the distribution of his work. He also contributed two paintings to Francesco I de Medici’s famous ‘Studiolo’ in the Palazzo Vecchio (which includes ‘The alchemist’s studio’), a small private room in which the eccentric Duke kept his private museum of paintings and a collection of precious objects. It was also a place where this strange man would find seclusion from his wife, family, and court. Not long after Francesco’s death, the Studiolo was dismantled (only to be partially reconstructed in the twentieth century as a Medici-oddity).
Stradanus created some stunning views of Florence in the 1550s, images of the Via Larga, Ponte a Sante Trinita, Piazza del Mercato, Piazza de Duomo, or Piazza San Giovanni that reflect the tremendous pride Florentines took in the splendour of their city. Highlight is his 1598 fresco of ‘Firework at the Piazza della Signoria’. In their quest to stay close to the public, Renaissance rulers adopted the old trick of entertaining the masses. Impressive displays were part of various festivities. Even though the Chinese had invented fireworks, Europe surpassed them in pyrotechnic development in the fourteenth century, which coincides with the time the gun was invented. Shot and gunpowder for military use was made by skilled tradesmen who also produced fireworks for peace or victory celebrations. During the Renaissance, these became a true art form, when sculptors, craftsmen, and pyrotechnicists worked together to create miniature castles adorned with fountains and wheels that would spray brilliant orange sparks, or spin so quickly that the viewer witnessed a spectacular ‘ring of fire’ during a nighttime display. Italians in particular were known for their elaborate exhibits. The link between the military and pyrotechnics was maintained for some considerable time. By the mid-seventeenth century fireworks were used for entertainment on an unprecedented scale in Europe, being popular at pleasure resorts and public gardens.
In his Pyrotechnia, or a Discourse of Artificiall Fire-Works for Pleasure (1635), the first treatise in English to deal exclusively with the subject of display fireworks, John Babington, Master of his Majesties Ordnance for Charles I, provided directions for making rockets, stars, wheels, and ground-wheels that were more explicit than any offered by previous writers. He was at his best when describing the complex devices and intricate displays in which his age delighted.
When beauty becomes dislodged from functionality, when urban splendour is celebrated for its own sake without consideration of purpose, when wealth and material interests overshadow spritual concerns, then preachers of doom never fail to turn up, pointing out that every metropolis is destined to become a necropolis.
In Florence it was Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola who raised his voice and finger to warn his fellow citizens of imminent ruin. Having ousted the Medicis from the city, he installed a reign of religious tyranny. He packed out Brunelleschi‘s Santa Maria del Fiore, famous for its massive dome, where he delivered rousing sermons against the extravagance of Florentines. He protested against the wealth of the church and preached against the accumulation of worldly possessions. Savonarola declared that the syphilis epidemic sweeping Italy was God’s punishment upon transgressors. He decreed that obesity was a sign of the deadly sin of gluttony. Obese people were set upon by his supporters with sticks and whips. Savonarola called for a ‘bonfire of vanities’ in which people were to burn ‘sinful’ paintings and luxuries (mirrors, cosmetics, musical instruments, manuscripts of secular songs, playing cards, books by Ovid, Petrarch, Boccaccio and others). A huge pyramid of ‘vanities’ was built in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria. The bonfire was lit on Shrove Tuesday (7 February). As the entire Signoria assembled from the balcony of the Palazzo Veccio, flames reached over sixty feet high with the crowds singing a Te Deum.
After a while Florentines began to ridicule his puritanical edicts. His crusade against the abuses of the church would lead to his downfall. Pope Alexander VI restricted Savonarola from preaching and when he refused to do so, he was excommunicated. His reign would not come to an end until 1498 when he was accused of sedition and uttering false prophesies. He was jailed in the Bargello and tortured for several days, but never recanted his words. On 23 May 1498, in front of the fountain of Neptune, he was hanged together with two of his loyal disciples, Silvestro Maruffi and Domenico de Pescia, from a huge cross and burned until nothing but ashes remained. After Savonarola’s execution Florence rapidly recovered from the trauma and continued to thrive. Only a month after his death, on the festival of San Giovanni, the Florentines were entertained by the spectacular sight of a set piece of fireworks representing a giant, a pig, and some dogs. These were allegorical figures of the giant Francesco Valori (Gonfaloniere = leader of the Signoria under Savonarola), the pig Savonarola, and the dogs were the followers of the preacher. It must have been some party.